In a time ravaged by large scale violence and unending terror where nothing seems more promising and urgent than to be reminded of another possibility: the path of non-violent struggle for justice exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi continues to be the subject of enduring relevance and interest as it evident in the interest and passion generated by popular movie, Lage Raho Munnabhai. Gandhigiri is gradually entering into popular imagination and academic discourses. His writings, running into more than one hundred volumes contains wide range of views on different range of writings comparative, expository, biographical, hagiographical and dialogical has appeared on Gandhi.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, described variously as the 'father of the nation', 'Mahatma', apostle of non-violence", and then disparagingly by his detractors as 'the half-naked fakir', Mr. Gandhi as Jinnah insisted and later 'Maulana Gandhi' as the Hindu right sneeringly called him instead of Mahatma, was quite simply addressed as 'Bapu' by his followers. He devoted his life to truth, non-violence and the promotion of communal harmony. Ironically, he fell to the bullet of an assassin-a violent death at the hands of a Hindu Fundamentalist man who harboured hatred and malice.
The life of Mahatma Gandhi is abundantly documented; perhaps no life in any period has been more so. Certainly it was an extraordinary life, fusing, as it did ancient Hindu religion and culture and modern revolutionary ideas about politics and society. There are at present about four hundred biographies of Gandhi, yet, as Jawaharlal Nehru once observed "no man can write a real life of Gandhi, unless he is as big as Gandhi," In Nehru's view, the best that anyone could hope to do was to conjure up some pictures of that life: "Many pictures rise in my mind of this man, whose eyes were often full of laughter and yet were pools of infinite sadness. But the picture that is dominant and most significant is as I saw him marching, staff in hand, to Dandi on the salt march in 1930; here was the pilgrim on his quest of truth, quiet, peaceful, determined and fearless, who could continue the quest and pilgrimage, regardless of consequences." Leaving aside the riddle of who but Gandhi could write his "real life," the writer's task would have to be to discover and truthfully portray the heroic but human pilgrim amid the myths that began proliferating around him when he started his quest and that have inevitably become more numerous because the quest ended in martyrdom. In fact, the very core of Gandhi's thought, presented and developed in tens of thousand of his writings and speeches-his search for God through celibacy and cleanliness, through mastery of all human needs and functions, mental and bodily, and through insistence on personal hygiene and public sanitation-has been obscured by mythologies fearful of debasing and sensationalizing their martyred hero. Perhaps because Indians rely for information more on the spoken than on the written word, and because they still live close to the soil.
The leitmotif of the book promises and promotes a fruitful dialogue with a creative and original thinker whose ideas and practices deserve more than either adoration or dismissal.
The periodic reassessment and reappraisal of the value of what we have inherited from thinkers living and dead is always undertaken from the vantage-point of our own time and circumstance. We reappraise in the light of problems we encounter or choose to emphasize. And we do so with some sense of where we, as students of political theory, have been and hope to go.
To supply any sort of forecast for the future direction and condition of political theory is always dangerous, if only because predictions about changing human thoughts, actions, and practices are notoriously unreliable and almost always precarious. One need not be a Hegelian to appreciate the point of Hegel's warning about the dangers inherent in attempting to go beyond the world one knows and inhabits. Whatever happens, every individual is a child of his tome; so philosophy too is its own time apprehended in thought. It is just as absurd to fancy that a philosophy can transcend its contemporary world it is to fancy that an individual can overleap his own age, jump over Rhodes. If has theory really goes beyond the world as it is and he builds an ideal one as it ought to be, that world exists indeed, but only in his opinions, an unsubstantial element where anything may, in fancy, be built.
In this book I want to explore the contemporary meaning of Gandhi's life and work-both his stupendous contributions in terms of making and remaking the world he lived in and his own strong sense of tragedy and trauma where he found he had failed to live up to his own expectations on mattes that were close to his heart and to his sense of purpose and meaning in life. These are to be seen not merely as events or encounters during his own lifetime but also in the context of today's challenges and failures of the human enterprise, both building on what he has left behind and building a new edifice, struggling our way through the maze of ambivalences that seem to be out now and in the years and decades that lie ahead.
For we do face, as individuals and peoples and the world at large, as planet and a cosmos, now and in the years and decades to come beyond which it is difficult to prognosticate, a highly uncertain future, in many ways going downhill yet somehow trying to keep hope alive while knowing fully well the depth of the crisis facing humanity. For, it is only through a major act of imagination backed by sustained experimentation through which new stirrings of both conscience and consciousness take place that the proverbial candle of hope can be generated. As the French philosopher and ecologist, Jacques Ellul has said, it is only at a time of abandonment and anguish that the need for hope arises, indeed becomes imperative. In Gandhi's life there were many moments of abandonment, both by his colleagues and compatriots but more by the high expectations that he had set out for himself and for those who cared to journey with him in search for truth and steadfastness. But while at some points he was full of remorse and a deep sense of failure, at no point did he give up putting up a valiant struggle for the values he stood for.
It was through this combination of transparency about one's travails, trials and turbulations as well as of interventions through ceaseless "experiments" and by sharing them with one's fellow beings through a unique style of communication that Gandhi was able to relate to the world he lived in and in the process seek to remake it that his singular contribution lay, and it is precisely in this respect that the world we are contemporaneously placed in is found to be deeply lacking. Hence the crisis of accountability on the one hand and a deep sense of alienation and anomie on the other. The world we live in is one characterized by an all-round decline in the democratic spirit and its moral basis-even while so many nations adopt an apparently democratic form of government-and one in which national and international elites are increasingly living in fear and insecurity, surrounding themselves with a massive apparatus of security, separating them from their own peoples, sharply reducing a sense of identity and community with them, not to speak of love for one's fellow beings and service of them based on love on which Gandhi laid so much stress.
Gandhi was and remains a communicator par excellance, making his presence felt far and wise, in his own country and beyond, a kind of village bard writ large over the expanse of the whole of human civilization, utilizing an idiom and a language that he himself created, cutting across the divides of cultures, of tradition and modernity, reinterpreting both and producing a new cross-fertilization across them. And he has not ceased to do so almost half a century after he physically left us, and today also in a language and idiom that is unique and characteristically his own which many of us are still trying to decipher and deconstruct, especially of late when he seems to be looking once again at us with his uncanny, piercing eyes, from behind his daunting pair of spectacles.
Whereas Gandhi himself strove, both in his fundamental thinking and in his activist encounters with reality, to wrestle simultaneously with larger civilizational and cosmic challenges and the here-and-now issues that were crying out for response and resolution, I think it would be a mistake on our part to accept or dismiss him merely on the basis of the immediate issue he faced, sought his best to deal with and, as with many other great men and women, ultimately failed to resole. Perhaps the real task lies elsewhere: trying to grapple with the immediate both in the present and at same time by seeking to change the contours of the same at large, of the cultural and civilizational encounters engulfing its journey through time, through which alone, in the final analysis, the mundane and the immediate issues could be effectively dealt with. Without changing the former, the handling of the latter would remain too adhocism and unable to hold against the diverse currents sweeping humanity. Even if thee latter temporarily produce "solution," these cannot last for long and will recur once again, perhaps in more vicious forms. This was the import of Gandhi's holistic and unified approach. Towards the end, he felt he failed to carry through his mission in life.
But, then, that is the whole charm and meaning of the great moulders of the modern world-as indeed was in the ages gone by and especially of those who do not accept the world as it existed and were seeking ways of refashioning it after a new yearning for both comprehension and change and a new vision and idea of the world as it should be. If in the process they "fail" to solve problems of an immediate kind, it only underscores tenacity of certain kinds of problems, reflecting the persisting paradoxes and traumas that inform the human enterprise even while struggling to keep hope alive as was mentioned at the start of this essay and straining one's utmost to face up the many tests and trials that continue to beseech that enterprise-then, now, and in the times that lie ahead.
In the years to come, and may be right into the next millennium as it unfolds this state of affairs is likely to continue-a litany of unresolved problems because of the failure to deal with the deeper social and intellectual causes to many of which Gandhi tried to draw the attention of his fellowmen at home and in the world at large. His overall effort was at once as a thinker and as an activist and through that combination as one trying to change the world.
For me Gandhi-and what he thought and taught and debated with his contemporaries-were at bottom intellectual and philosophical matters. He dwelt deep into the human enterprise and on that basis transcended categories of time, space, and various other divided. It is for this reason that he today once again gaining in resonance after having been forgotten for so long. It is in the context of this timelessness of Gandhi that we have to understand his relevance for all times and ages. He himself suffered from a deep sense of guilt and anguish for having "failed" on matters he had identified himself with during his life's journey for "truth". While we too can and must pass judgements on this journey of his-which still continues in our own time and is still available like an open book to us all-and while we should chart our own path suited to the call of our own time, and the times that lie ahead, we could also, in so doing, benefit from the thoughts and lessons left behind from his journey in his own time. As in many ways those lessons have a bearing on the challenges emerging before us, we could think of joining him on his unfinished journey.
Perhaps, the best way of explaining what this book does is by explaining what it does not. It does not, like Erikson's celebrated psychological reconstruction of Mahatma Gandhi, explore the subconscious reservoirs from which his theory of militant non-violence sprung. It is not, like Louis Fischer's hugely popular account, a brisk and breezy overview of Gandhi's ideas and his impact on the world. It is, in comparison to Joseph Doke's deeply personal recollection, much more than a portrait of a specific period in the great man's life.
There are no grand theories here, no sweeping generalizations, no too-clever-by-half conjectures. By and large, I am content to stay out of sight, emerging here and there to make a cautious interjection or a circumspect explanation. One of the very few places I depart from this approach is when I passionately defend Gandhi's approach against the criticism that he used religion and religious metaphors in the struggle for freedom. Between a politics that squarely faced religion's hold," Gandhi's choice of the latter was the right one. The riots following the Partition, I argue, were not a result of religion being brought into politics; rather, I argue, they occurred despite Gandhi's efforts to persuade people that all religions "taught goodwill", because of the hate and fear many a Indians nursed and spread at the time.
The portrait of Gandhi painted here emerges slowly from the timid and somewhat cowardly Kathiawari childhood, the awkward years as a student in England, the growing confidence as a lawyer in South Africa, a self-assurance that ironically emerged from his humiliation, and his emergence as a leader in India.
Many books have been written at a time when the Mahatma has already been repeatedly put through the biographical wringer. His life has been scrutinized from every conceivable perspective. He has been praised and derided, his contradictions laid bare and reconciled, his ideas psychoanalysed, his motives demystified, his charisma deconstructed. In the face of such a daunting biographical history, it is something of a challenge to embark on another Gandhi project.
The library at Mani Bhavan already has 50,000 books on Gandhi that provide a measure of the man in every possible facet. Why would anyone wish to write the 50,001st Book? One may be asked that question frequently. Some of the best biographies on Gandhi-by B R Nanga, Louis Fischer, Geoffrey Ashe, Tendulkar, Pyarelal-were written immediately after the assassination and therefore do not have assess to many illuminating documents on his life that were discovered later.
Writing this book was a daunting task, and reading it may not be a very comfortable experience. After all Gandhi is our only serving national icon, even though our reverence for him in confined mainly to the ritualistic celebration of the birth and death anniversaries. Many idolize Gandhi even today and consider him as one of the tallest men to have visited this earth. But it is a historical necessity to reappraise, reinterpret and reevaluate once in a while every great movement, every great leader, to assess their contemporary relevance. And this book is a modest endeavor in that regard.
I hope that this portrayal of Gandhi's ideas will be useful for those who would like to explore his tactics, experiment with them, perhaps adopt them as their own. I hope it might also be valuable to those who want to compare Gandhi's ideas with other forms of conflict resolution and social action. Perhaps it will also be useful to those who are determined to rebuke Gandhi and prove him wrong.
I believe that Gandhi would have approved of all of these purposes, even the last. For if one follows Gandhi's own advice, nothing should go unchallenged-not even Gandhian concepts. In order to understand Gandhi's way of fighting, therefore, we will eventually have to fight a bit with him ourselves.
Gandhians, as well as non-Gandhians, are divided on what constitutes "the true Gandhi" and the true Gandhian approach to political reality. Both proponents and opponents often appeal to an essential decontextualized Gandhi, usually identified with a rather clear, static, and rigid political approach, and then disagree on whether this essential Gandhi is relevant or irrelevant to contemporary political development.
By contrast, I maintain that there is not one true, decontextualized political thought of Gandhi. Not only was Gandhi's political thinking flexible, eclectic, and at times contradictory, but our attempts at relating Gandhi's approach to contemporary political thinking always involve a dynamic process of contestation with the reinterpretation, reconstruction, and development of diverse Gandhians positions.
Was he a politician or a saint? Was he, as critics have alleged, someone who broke a pledge that he would rather die than accept Partition? Was he not an unfeeling husband and father? A man who did strange things is the name of chastity? Or emasculated India in the name of non-violence? Or patronized Dalits without empowering them?.
It is, therefore, quite easy to prove that there are many Gandhis by selecting a set of his quotes which best serve one's purpose. And this was the greatest challenge facing me in writing this book I have meticulously tried overcome this temptation by applying two tests to my selections: one, how aptly a particular quote or event faithfully reflects the mood of the moment and is true to its context; and two, to what extent it is in consonance with Gandhi's overall worldview.
I have examined major aspects of Gandhigiri in this book. In each case, I have tried to first state his own version of the matter, and in his own words to the extent possible. I have attempted a critical appraisal of that aspect supported by Gandhi's own observations as far as possible. This approach may, at times, appear to construct the narrative with too many quotations, yet I have taken this risk so as to lend greater credibility to the conclusions drawn. For the same reason, I have mostly relied on primary sources in presenting my case.
Looking to the nature and vastness of the Gandhian crusade, it may seem inappropriate to describe it as a 'failure' despite all its shortcomings. Rabindranath Tagore may have been right in his comments that Gandhi will not succeed. Perhaps he will fail as the Buddha failed and as Christ failed to wean men from their inequities but he will always be remembered as one who made his life lesson for all ages to come.
Gandhi is not a preacher, but a doer. He engaged in political activity with the objective of achieving specific goals. He believed that every age has its yugadharma, and the dharma of his age was politics. His singular aim in life was to attain moksha, and he firmly believed that his moksha lay in the practice of politics. He did not attach any importance to his speeches and sermons, and said, 'As a mater of fact my writings shall be cremated with my body. What I have done will endures, not what I have said or written.' Gandhi stands in a category very different from that of the Buddha and Christ, ad has to be appraised very differently. When he said, 'My life is my message,' he meant that he had delivered his message through his praxis.
The unexpected resurgence of interest in Gandhi in recent days thanks to the exposition of 'Gandhigiri" by Bollywood has seen a rise in the sales of books on the Mahatma. There has also been a renaissance of sorts over the last year of books of Gandhi which are not ephemeral, but contribute to modify and renew our knowledge of Gandhi and the forces that drove him.
The field of Gandhigiri is vast, and Gandhi's life and ideas explored so minutely that any new book needs to justify itself. I have taken Gandhi's insistence tht his life was his message by collapsing the divide between political and the religious. For this, I have Gandhi's own authority: "My struggle is not merely political. It is religious and therefore quite pure."
The appeal of writing about only a part of Gandhi's life and ideas is that it spares me from having to explore those aspects of Gandhi with which they feel uncomfortable, usually dismissed as his fads-vegetarianism, nature therapy, religions outlook, fasts, goat's milk-or that which they find embarrassing and unable to explicate-his comments one the Bihar earth-quake above all, his strange sexual experiments, which led even an admirer such as J.B. Kripalani to castigate him privately. In biographical writing, there is a thin line dividing hagiography and demonisation. The detachment that a biographer needs is difficult to achieve. Mine is critical, not hagiographical, but fair and balanced-and very readable.
The story in its outlines is a familiar one, but still with the capacity to surprise, not always pleasantly, I differ from the most Biographer by examining Gandhis' formative life in England, the shock of failure on his return home, and his phenomenal transformation in South Africa. Disinclined to take Gandhi at his word that when he dropped his western dress for that of an Indian peasant, he also served all ideational links with the West, show how deeply influenced he was by the theosophists, esoteric Christians, vegetarians, to name just a few and how he carried their imprint to the end. Recreate the manner in which Gandhi controlled the Congress and led the nationalist movement, achieved huge triumphs and made equally big blunders, such the alienation of M.A. Jinnah.
Every generation reexamines the past, trying to understand anew. It may be a difference in perspective, or the knowledge of new facts which alter the picture-sometimes superficially, sometimes totally. India today is clearly reassessing the legacy of Gandhi, and his continuing relevance. That is as it should be. My narrative is one of the markers in this undertaking, with both sunlight and shadow.
In a time ravaged by large scale violence and unending terror where nothing seems more promising and urgent than to be reminded of another possibility: the path of non-violent struggle for justice exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi continues to be subject of enduring relevance and interest as it is evident in the interest and passion generated by popular movie, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Gandhigiri is gradually entering into popular imagination and academic discourses. His writings, running into ore than one hundred volumes contains wide range of view on different issues. In the nearly six decades since his death, a large and diverse range of writings-comparative, expository, biographical, hagiographical and dialogical-has appeared on Gandhi.
This book focuses attention on issue of continuing relevance-Satyagraha thereby giving the book a contemporary flavour. The leitmotif of the book promises and promotes a fruitful dialogue with a creative and original thinker whose ideas and practices deserve for more than either adoration or dismissal.
This is a comprehensive book which examines different interpretations of Gandhi's view and ideas on conflict resolution and doing so, it moves beyond Gandhi providing a new reference for students and scholars of politics, history, philosophy as well as general readers, activists and admirers of Gandhi.
B.N. Roy is former Professors, Department of Politics and International Studies, Pondicherry Central University, India At present, he is the Vice Principal, Ramjas College, University of Delhi.
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