By Arun Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of the ideal community worked on the principles of total acceptance of all faiths, and living together in harmony. Today, in a society that is growing farther apart, there might be a need to reconsider the Gandhian way of life, and develop a sense of belonging
As a budding teenager in the 1940s I was intrigued by my grandfather’s version of ‘family’, where the head was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and his family was the entire human race. In 1946 my father, Manilal, Gandhi’s second son, decided it was time to visit the family in India.
I was 12 years old then and we needed relief from the hate and prejudice of apartheid in South Africa. While I had visited India earlier, this was the first time I was old enough to experience the difference between a conventional family and a ‘Gandhi family’.
At that time there were close to 150 families living in Sevagram Ashram in Wardha, central India. This was, in a microcosm, Gandhi’s vision of the future of family. Inclusiveness, he was certain, was the only way to save humanity from self-destruction. Teaching tolerance was anathema to Gandhi.
People, he felt, should not tolerate each other and their differences, but learn to respect, understand, accept and appreciate each other. What we have today is a collection of people living in an area for convenience because circumstances have thrown them together.
Unless we stand to gain something, we prefer not to have anything to do with our neighbours. One day Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, was cooking in the ashram.
This was unusual, so Gandhi stopped to ask: ‘What are you cooking?’ ‘Ramdas,’ she explained, referring to their married son, ‘is going home to his family this afternoon and I thought I would make some sweets.’ ‘Do you make sweets for all those who visit the ashram and then leave?’ Gandhi asked.
Surprised and bewildered by the question, Kasturba turned to face Gandhi and said: ‘No.’ ‘Why not?’ Gandhi asked. ‘Are they not, like Ramdas, your children?’
Kasturba knew why Gandhi had created the ashram but this was a dimension she had not considered. She quickly saw the wisdom in what he said and decided to make amends by not giving Ramdas the sweets, but making more and distributing them to all the children in the ashram.
There must never be, Gandhi said, any double standards in our relationships and our attitude towards each other, our families and humanity in general. What applies to one, must apply to all, he said. I experienced Gandhi’s determination to treat everyone equally while I was with him.
To raise funds for the many programmes he had launched, he decided to sell his autographs for five rupees. Every day hundreds would attend his multi-faith prayers and later seek his autograph.
I was assigned the task of collecting autograph books and money for his signature. I felt that if so many people were willing to pay for his autograph it must be valuable. So, one day I made an autograph book and put it in the pile.
‘Why is there no money for this,’ he asked. ‘Because it is my book,’ I said sheepishly. ‘Ah ha! So you think you are going to get a free autograph?’ he laughed. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘After all I am your grandson.’ ‘So are all the people out there,’ he said. ‘They are all related to me. If I have a rule for them that rule must apply to you also.’
Life in the ashram was designed to be unique and simple. There were some family homes but they were used to store personal belongings, and sometimes couples slept there. All other activities were common.
Unless someone was ill, old or needed special diet, all meals were cooked in a common kitchen and consumed in a common dining room.
At the ashram everyone practised equality. There was no such thing as men’s work or women’s work. Any work that needed to be done was done by whoever was available. Batches of people were assigned duties, rotating every fortnight.
Perhaps the most onerous of all tasks at the ashram was cleaning of bucket toilets, used by everyone. Gandhi had deliberately not permitted toilets in private homes.
Everyone had to use the row of public toilets at one end of the ashram. Gandhi’s reasoning was that cleaning public toilets was the contentious issue on which the caste oppression was based. Millions in India are labeled untouchables because of their work.
Only low castes do lowly jobs such as street cleaning, garbage disposal and cleaning of public toilets. Because the jobs are menial, the pay is negligible, forcing the low caste to live in abject poverty and ignorance.
Everyone, without exception, was required to participate in cleaning the toilets. The first time I was assigned this duty, I found it revolting. But, when everyone, including grandfather, was doing it whom could you complain to? I performed the chore obediently and with time the work became less revolting. It helped us understand the value of work.
The ashram was open to people of all races, religions and beliefs. All ashram inmates were required to assemble everyday for morning and evening prayers. Everyone was required to sing hymns from all religions of the world.
A friendly study of all scriptures is the sacred duty of every individual,’ Gandhi said, and taught us the rudiments of all scriptures. When asked, he said: ‘I am a Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jew.’
In one of his sermons he said that religion is like a tree. The trunk represents spirituality, the branches are the various religions of the world. In its totality a tree looks beautiful. However, when the tree is dismembered, it leaves behind a stump.
This is what is happening with religion today. We have chopped a beautiful tree and now use the dead wood to build our separate centre of beliefs. Gandhi did not believe in the melting pot theory. He said that if we want respect for our right of worship we must extend the same respect to others.
Although life in Gandhi’s ashram was rigid, it did not mean that he expected every community to be built wholly on such rigid principles. His ashram was a training institution. Gandhi expected the workers to go out and mould future communities on the concept of oneness-the ability to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves.
An ideal community, according to Gandhi and Socrates, is one that resembles the human body. Different parts of the human body have different functions. Yet, in crises, the whole body galvanises to deal with an injury. An ideal community must emulate this response of the human body.
In the pioneering days individualism could survive because the objective was to build a homestead and acquire personal property. Now we are faced with the task of building a community and society, which means interdependence, interconnectedness and integration.
Exclusivity must give way to inclusivity, if living in peace and harmony are our objectives. The choice before humanity in the next millenium, therefore, is to learn to respect life or live to regret it.
Arun Gandhi, born in 1934 in South Africa, is Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, who runs the US-based M.K. Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence with his wife Sunanda. This institute works to promote the principles of nonviolence through research, education and programming.
Published with the permission of www.gandhiinstitute.org.
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