October 2, 2013 marked the 144th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. This is an event that was commemorated the world over, though here in Guyana, apart from the annual event at the Promenade Gardens by the Indian High Commission, little is said or done. This however does not mean that Gandhi is not in the news, at least the sensational side of it.
In his own lifetime he was the centre of a great deal of controversies, and many of his views have been challenged by his own brilliant contemporaries, such as Rabindranath Tagore and Subhash Chandra Bose. What was outstanding about the discourse he and his contemporaries had was the utter and at times brutal sincerity. Yet he never crossed the boundary of respect and showed enormous compassion and regard for those with whom he had disagreement.
His life, as he himself claimed often, was an open book and unlike public leaders of our times there was no demarcation between the public and private. He even slept in the open along with his disciples and co-workers. I remember well the words of a prominent politician and activist who is now a member of parliament when some of his colleagues raised concerns about his conduct. He declared that no one was concerned about his life behind closed doors. Not so with Gandhi!
Yes, even now, we may disagree with Gandhi, but we cannot doubt the honesty and candour with which he discussed even the most intimate details of his personal life and struggles.
In reading about him, what strikes one almost like a bolt was the openness with which he talked and wrote about what he perceived as his weaknesses, particularly his sexual desires, with which he was engaged in an almost life-long struggle.
His controversial experiments to test the strength of his powers of self-control and celibacy, or brahmacharya in traditional terms, were all done in the open. His decision to end all sexual relationships with his wife was again discussed among his colleagues and, of course, with his wife.
In the realm of politics, Gandhi’s lasting and perpetually relevant contribution has to do with satyagraha, the pursuit of truth and the struggle against injustice. Anyone who reads his, ‘Duty of Disloyalty,’ cannot fail to be struck by its potency. More than eighty years on one experiences a sense of thrill and exhilaration. The opening salvo in this letter sets the tone for what is arguably one of the greatest documents on resistance to domination: “There is no half-way house between active loyalty and active disloyalty.” But unlike many crusaders for justice these days Gandhi was careful to make a distinction between persons and institutions. “You are therefore loyal or disloyal to institutions,” he wrote.
Considering the state in colonial India, Gandhi concluded that it could not evoke any loyalty. It was corrupt with inhuman laws. It was therefore the duty of those who realized the evil nature of the system to be not only disloyal to it, but “to actively and openly preach disloyalty.” He continued, “Loyalty to a State so corrupt is a sin, disloyalty a virtue.”
Further, regarding the corrupt system of government in India at the time, Gandhi stated that the, “purest man entering the system will be affected by it, and will be instrumental in propagating the evil.” Gandhi was absolutely clear that, “a good man will resist an evil system of administration with his whole soul.” And at the same time he continued, equally unequivocally clear and uncompromising, “Violent disobedience deals with men who can be replaced. It leaves the evil untouched and often accentuates it.”
Again, during the 1930-31 civil disobedience campaigns, Gandhi was hauled before the courts for “seditious writing,” but on this occasion his response to the judgment was singularly bold and revolutionary. Challenging the magistrate’s right to pass judgment, he stated that the people of India owed no more allegiance to the government of the day, “than does the man in the moon.” And, he added with his unique style of beauty and simplicity, “Where there is no ground for a bond of affection, it naturally follows that I cannot be guilty of spreading disaffection.”
Gandhi saw that the Government of India was a usurper of people’s rights and therefore its laws had “no power arising from the people in whom rests sovereignty.” He challenged the magistrate that he was an arm of the very same executive and hence had no jurisdiction over him, and added that it was not for him, “to participate in this farce of a judicial proceeding.”
The magistrate on this occasion was an Indian and so Gandhi concluded with a special appeal to him, “to resign the disreputable connection with a soulless machine that drinks deep of the blood of your people and descending from the throne of the usurper which you now occupy, come and stand by your own in the hour of their need.”
As he was about to embark on the historic Salt March, Gandhi stated that he was once upon a time a “believer in the politics of petitions, deputations, and friendly negotiations. But all these have gone to the dogs, Famously, he declared, “Sedition has become my religion.”
Unlike many of our activists known for their violent postures and hateful condemnations who are irrelevant if they do not direct their invectives against individuals, the righteousness of the cause of the Indian people and the purity of the means employed to bring about justice was of equal importance to Gandhi. He would tirelessly remind his fellow satyagrahis, “where the means are clean there God is undoubtedly present with His blessings.” In no situation were they to forsake truth and non-violence.
On another occasion during the same march, and drawing deeply from his spiritual heritage, especially the Bhagavad Gita, he
stated, “The plan of civil disobedience has been conceived to neutralize and ultimately displace violence, and enthrone non-violence in its stead, to replace hatred by love, to replace strife by concord.”
To fight with all his might against evil, with determination and enthusiasm, curbing the temptations of the ego, without hatred and rancour, with truth and non-violence as the weapons, and with a heart full of purity and compassion for all, including the opponent, this will always be Gandhi’s challenge to all who see themselves as struggling against injustice. For him the means was as important as the end.
There is another important component of Gandhi’s satyagraha that many, who invoke him, ignore. He was absolutely adamant that the person involved in action has to be morally equal to the challenge. In this regard he would ask of all to inquire into their motives. Prayer and fasting were always part of the method of the struggle. Purity of means implied the purity of the individual.
To demonstrate his commitment to this principle it is known that whenever violence broke out as a result of satyagraha, Gandhi would not only call off the movement but would invariably embark on a fast of atonement, and would urge other satyagrahis to do the same.
He was the most severe judge of himself and would take upon himself the full moral responsibility, and intensely search his own heart and reach for what he called his, “Inner Voice.” Prayer, meditation, chanting the name of Rama (ramanama), solitude, and fasting would follow in the wake of any violent response by any satyagrahi.
If Gandhi was relevant then he is much more relevant now. One of his greatest disciples and a satyaghrahi in another context, Martin Luther King, Jr, had this to say of Gandhi: “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social contract theory of Hobbes, the ‘back to nature’ theory of Rousseau, and the superman philosophy of Nietzsche, I found in the non-violent resistance philosophy of Gandhi. If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought and acted inspired by a vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk.”
For Romain Rolland, “Gandhi is not only for India a hero of national history, whose legendary memory will be enshrined in the millennial epoch. Gandhi has renewed for all peoples of the West, the message of their Christ, forgotten or betrayed. For many he was like a return of Christ…” And, the historian and philosopher, Will Durant echoing these words proclaimed that, “Not since St Francis of Assissi has any life known to history been so marked by gentleness, disinterestedness, simplicity of soul and forgiveness of enemies.”
George Bernard Shaw, known for his caustic iconoclasm, has this to say in his own inimitable and unique pithy literary style, “Impressions of Gandhi? You might as well ask of someone’s impression of the Himalayas.” And on Gandhi’s death Shaw remarked, “It shows how dangerous it is to be good.”
Another redoubtable “peacenik,” Albert Einstein, spoke of Gandhi as, “a man who confronted the brutality of Europe with the dignity of the simple human being, and thus at all times risen superior.” He added, “It was his unshakable belief that the use of force is an evil in itself, that therefore it must be avoided by those who are striving for supreme justice to his belief… He has demonstrated that a powerful human following can be assembled not only through the cunning game of the usual political manoeuvres and trickeries but through the cogent example of a morally superior conduct of life.”
And in what has become one of the most memorable tributes to Gandhi, Einstein concluded that, “Generations to come, it may be, will scarcely believe that such a one of this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”