The Relevance of Mahatma Gandhi to the World Today

By Urmila Das
For Mahatma Gandhi’s Jayanti

Opening Statement

When I was asked to speak on Gandhiji this evening, the first thought that came to my mind was: What can I say about Gandhiji that you do not already know; we also know the principles of life he lived and preached “are as old as the hills.”  As I began thinking, my subsequent thoughts were: “Yes, these principles are as old as the hills, but as human beings are we adhering to these principles?”  With these two provoking thoughts, I am going to look at how relevant are those old principles which he preached, and practiced are applicable in the world we live in today.

Short Biographical Sketch

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2nd October 1869 in Porbandar, in the State of Gujarat, India.  His father was Karamchand Gandhi and his mother Putlibai.  He was the youngest child of their family, and fondly remembered his mother as having saintly qualities and was deeply religious.  He married at the age of 13 to Kasturba who was 12 years old.  He had four sons.  He studied Law in London and returned to India in 1891 to practice Law.  Gandhiji was not considered an academic with distinction, and it is said that his failure in practicing Law in India lead him to do legal work in South Africa.  He stayed in South Africa for 21 years, and during those years Gandhiji developed into the person the world came to know later.  One can say that his foundation for the struggle in India was first laid in South Africa.  The seeds were planted and germinated on the African Continent, but that tree developed branches and leaves in India.  However, the fruits of that tree were and are for all of humanity.  According to one writer: “If Gandhi had lived in India thousands of years ago, his life would have been wrapped in myths and miracles.”  But Mahatma Gandhi is a man of our times, “which shows that his origin was ordinary, his childhood normal, his student days uneventful, and his early professional career unsuccessful.  Yet, he “was the spokesman for the conscience of mankind.”

Satyagraha

One of Gandhiji’s principles is Satyagraha.  Satya means Truth and agraha means firmness or force.  Racial discrimination in South Africa awakened Gandhiji’s social conscience (Beck p. 2) and  this lead him to coin this word. Satyagraha is also translated as Soul-Force. (Fischer p. 35)   He not only preached the tenets of Satyagraha, but also lived and acted them.  He showed by actual examples how these basic principles could be used to transform the world into a better place.  As Gandhiji wrote, “Satyagraha is the vindication of truth not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but on one’s self.”  This principle reverses the idea of an-eye-for-an-eye policy which, as he says ends in making everybody blind, or blind with fury.  Instead, it returns good for evil until the evildoer tires of evil. (Fischer).  Gandhiji preached this idea over a century ago, but this an-eye-for-an-eye vindication is everywhere in the world today.  Isn’t this policymaking all of us blind in the world today.  Furthermore, he calls it a force which can not only be used by individuals, but by communities – men women and children.  It is not a meeting of violence with violence.  Instead it is a struggle from within in the purest form (non-violence p.34).  When the spirit of Satyagraha becomes pure, then it will become universal, in revolutionizing social ideas, and do away with despotism and the ever growing militarism under which the nations of the west are groaning and are being crushed to death….(p.35-6).  By looking around us today, how applicable is this thought by Gandhiji?  Today we see men against men and nations against nations fighting with great military strength.  This is not the world Gandhiji envisaged.  Satyagraha is the noblest and best education.  This is the education we badly need today for humanity.

The sage Patanjali compiled the Yoga Sutras, a text which describes the inner workings of the mind, and also provides an eight-step (ashtanga) blueprint for controlling the restless mind, and enjoying lasting peace and happiness. The first among these is the Yamas which is divided into five sections, the first and the second being Ahimsa and Satya.  In bringing out his message for the people, Gandhiji constantly dwelt on these principles.  Writing in the Harijan, August 11, 1940, Gandhiji said the following about ahimsa: “If we turn our eyes to the time of which history has any record down to our own time, we shall find that man has been steadily progressing towards ahimsa.  Our remote ancestors were cannibals.  Then came a time when they were fed up with cannibalism and they began to live on chase (to hunt).  Next came a stage when man was ashamed of leading the life of a wandering hunter.  He therefore took to agriculture and depended principally on mother earth for his food.  Thus from being a nomad he settled down to civilized stable life, founded villages and towns, and from a member of a family he became a member of a community and a nation.  All these are signs of progressive ahimsa (non-violence) and diminishing himsa (violence).  Had it been otherwise, the human species should have been extinct by now, even as many of the lower species have disappeared.”  In bringing peace and happiness to man, he further states that “Man as animal is violent, but as Spirit is nonviolent.  The moment he awakes to the Spirit within, he cannot remain violent.  Either he progresses towards ahimsa or rushes to his doom.  That is why the lesson of truth, harmony, brotherhood, justice, etc. are taught – all attributes of ahimsa.” p. 78-79 (All Men are Brothers by Gandhi). As Albert Einstein said “I believe that Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all the political men in our time.  We should strive to do things in his spirit: not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in anything you believe is evil.”

Economic Independence

Gandhiji used clothing as a way to communicate with the Indian people, and also with the mighty British Empire.  Working towards India independence, he identified with 80% of the peasant and illiterate people.  He used clothing to express ideas of struggle.  From his early childhood, to London and to South Africa he wore the best of European clothing, and also dressed his family in the same way. As the struggle for his people increased, he changed his attire.  By the time Gandhiji returned to India in 1915, he knew that clothing could convey important messages, and he consciously chose to dress like an Indian peasant. The strong reactions his clothing elicited from the Indians who met him, further convinced him of the symbolic importance of clothing.  Though hesitant at first, Gandhiji saw the loincloth as a sign of India’s poverty, and the need to improve its wealth by producing things at home.  (Taro)

For Gandhiji, spinning their own cloth – khadhi – at home, was employment for entire villages.  This was not only a political decision, but also an economical one.  He wanted people to be self-sufficient and to take pride in recreating the industry that was once a cottage industry.  “Before the British advent, India spun and wove in millions of homes, but this industry was ruined by industrialization.  He was not against machinery, but against the use of machinery at the expense of millions of people.  As we all know, industrialization is wealth concentrated in the hands of a few at the expense of the many.

Beside the political and economic power, the wearing of khadi according to Gandhiji had a “transformative power” and that “through wearing it people could actually become more worthy.”  We may ask ourselves how can this be applicable to today’s society? Most things today are done by mass production and by advanced technology.  We live in the age of very sophisticated technology.  Of course, this is good.  But what has happened to us?  We have lost certain skills and, instead, allowed technology to take charge of our lives.  Gandhiji not only wanted us to be self-sufficient, but to take pride of our achievements. Gandhiji’s simple attire of loincloth, wooden sandals, a bowl and a walking stick were the possessions of this politician cum saint.  Once again I am reminded of another aspect of yoga – aparigraha (non-possession of material wealth) which inspired Gandjiji immensely. He kindled a re-awakening of the deeply rooted thoughts and ideas found in the ancient Indian system.  By his actions one cannot deny the fact that he was a Karma Yogi.

Superstition

Gandhi was a very practical person and deeply religious, hence there was no place for superstitious beliefs. Instead, he wanted people to walk in his footsteps, rather than kiss his feet. At the end of a day his feet were full of scratches, because people would grab his feet as he walked.  For them it was paying respects to him, to the point of seeing him as God.  But Gandhiji said, “I have expressed my horror and strongest disapproval of this type of idolatry.”  The illiterate behaved like this because they saw in Gandhiji the strength which will sustain them from the poverty of the world.  But there is one instance when a lawyer traveling in the same train with Gandhiji fell out, head first.  When he was picked up he was unhurt, the lawyer said that because he was in the train with Gandhiji he did not get hurt. Laughingly Gandhiji said, “Then you shouldn’t have fallen out at all.”  Though people are more technologically advanced today, superstitions still plays a part in people’s lives. Our contribution to Gandhiji is to reject superstitious beliefs and look at the practicality of life.  This will enrich our lives.

Summary

We have seen the strength of the frail Gandjiji in many different ways.  Just to mention a few – the Salt March, Champara village.  After the Jallianwalla Bagh incident in Panjab and the deposing of the Turkish Sultan (Khilafat Movement), he returned the medals which he had received in South Africa, to the British Viceroy and said:  “I can retain neither respect nor affection for a government which has been moving from wrong to wrong in order to defend its immortality.”  Fasting for Gandhiji is his way of going inward for solutions to solve the Indian problem.  How many of our leaders today would respond in this way to violence.  Instead, we meet in the battle field to settle our differences.  Of course, he was accused of using fasting as a political blackmail.  But for him he saw it as introspection to problem solving and gaining spiritual strength.

Those of us who were born prior to 30th January 1948, can say that we lived on the same earth where Gandhiji walked and also breathed the same air as him.  As Albert Einstein said,  “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth”. I know we are remembering his birth, but birth and death are on both sides of the spectrum of life, therefore I would like to quote what the British Delegate at the UN Security Meeting said, “that Gandhi was “the friend of the poorest, the loneliest, and the lost.”  Furthermore he stated that Gandhi’s “greatest achievements are still to come.”

The life of Mahatma Gandhi should serve as a beacon of light to guide humanity to a better world. He taught a lesson to all political leaders on how to work great social and political changes for the betterment of humanity in every walk of life. He said, “An India awakened and free has a message of peace and goodwill to give to a groaning world.” We can see his greatness expressed in his own words: “I have known no distinction between relatives and strangers, countrymen and foreigners, white and coloured, Hindus and Indians of other faiths, whether Musalmans, Parsis, Christians or Jews. I may say that my heart has been incapable of making any such distinctions.”

Urmila Das
Kabir Association of Canada
Email: udas@shaw.ca