Why we need Gandhi


How relevant is Mahatma Gandhi today? He lived and died by some very strong beliefs and principles, which greatly influenced the way our freedom was won. Yet, are those beliefs relevant in today’s India and world? Tushar A. Gandhi introspects.

It’s become fashionable to ask, “Do we need Gandhi?” And it’s asked with the expectation of the answer being, “We don’t”. This is the age of Information Technology. Where is the relevance of the spinning wheel? It is the age of consumption. What is the use of restraint? It is the age of drone bombers, stealth ships and remote warfare. Nonviolence is a medicine past its use by date. It is the age of social media and instant gratification. There is no relevance of ethics, honesty, camaraderie, peace and nonviolent civil disobedience. Or is there? If these values mean anything to us, matter to our existence, have importance in our lives, then whether one likes it or not, Gandhi will remain relevant, important and inescapable forever. After all, he himself admitted that what he had to offer to the world was not invented by him; it was as ageless as the mountains and rivers and was immortal.

The eleven ideals of Gandhi
Bapu lived by 11 ideals or his ‘Ekadash Vratas’: 1. Ahimsa – Non Violence, 2. Satya – Truth, 3. Bramhacharya – Celibacy, 4. Asteya – No Stealing, 5. Aparigraha or Asangraha – Non possession or renunciation, 6. Sharira shrama – Physical labour, 7. Asvaada – Control of the palate, 8. Abhaya – Fearlessness, 9. Sarva dharma samanatva – Equal respect for all religious beliefs and practices, 10. Swadeshi – Priority to local produce and 11. Asprishyata nivaran – Doing away with untouchability and all prejudices. These were the eleven vows that everyone wanting to join and live in his ashrams had to observe. Now let us examine each of these principles and their relevance today.

Ahimsa or Nonviolence: Today the world is gripped by paranoia about terror. Our lives have been changed irrevocably. After 9/11, the world accepted the need for equally violent retribution. Since it was conducted by a nation, it was not considered to be an act of terror. But the victims of that act of retribution were no less terrorised than were the victims of 9/11. The objective of the war against terror was to make our lives more safe, more secure, but were these results achieved? I agree that the US has not had to suffer anymore attacks on its soil, but if Al Qaida or the IS (Islamic State) were based in Mexico or Canada, would they have been safe? Has the very severe military action in Afghanistan and Iraq made the world safer? No, and a resounding No is the answer. Violence only begets violence; it has failed to prevent violence. It is a different matter that we have not used nonviolence to deal with terror. But the fact is that nonviolence is not a headache pill or an instant cure medicine which can be popped at the time of a crisis. Nonviolence addresses the symptoms that will eventually cause an ailment, and we have to admit that terrorism is an ailment and like all ailments, prevention is the best cure.

Take the example of the infant Aylan Kurdi. The photograph of his body washed up on the beach of the Greek island of Kos made the world weep. It was a tragedy waiting to happen. Europe pretended that it wasn’t their issue. The allies pretended similarly while Hitler was butchering Jews during World War II. The image of Aylan made a lot of eyes shed tears, but it will have filled a lot of hearts with hatred too. Terror outfits will use that tragic photograph to recruit many into their fold and indoctrinate them into the ideology of violence. Just as the United States used the photographs of the ruins of the WTC Towers and the damaged Pentagon to justify their invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, terror and violence threaten our very existence and we must admit that violence has failed to curb terror. Nonviolence though untried, is our only hope. Nonviolence is untried in curing the current malady we are faced with, but let’s remember that the Irish conflict found a cure only after both parties accepted nonviolence. The world we live in will only become safe when we embrace nonviolence. We have reached a stage where escalating violence threatens our very existence.

Satya or Truth: Civilisation is based on the ideal of truth, the absolute truth. It is only humankind which has justified the existence of convenient versions of truth. Nature functions on one and absolute truth.

Look at our nation, so many states have disputes about sharing of natural resources. Are we one people or are we regional chauvinists? But, to name just one dispute, look at how dangerously volatile the issue of sharing the waters of the Cauvery between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu becomes every year. It is basically vitiated because it is devoid of truth. Karnataka holds the ability to control the flow of the Cauvery into Tamil Nadu and does not allow Tamil Nadu’s share according to the requirements of the people of Tamil Nadu. Where the waters of Cauvery are concerned, the two warring factions forget that they are both Indians, then their identities of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu become dominant. There are two convenient versions of truth on both sides of the dispute, but the one absolute truth that they are Indians fighting over the waters of an Indian river is inconvenient for them to accept, and so both sides ignore it. If civilisation is to survive truth must be practiced without selfish motivations, only then relationships and unity will survive. So can truth become irrelevant?

Bramhacharya or Celibacy: Today, celibacy sounds ridiculous. It would in a society in which the ‘Me’ has become much more important than the ‘Us’. In an age where physical intimacy with a stranger is fraught with danger, the only absolutely safe sex is monogamous. In other words, physical relationship with one partner excluding everyone else, a form of selective celibacy.

Asteya or No stealing: Imagine a society where we steal and snatch what is not ours. One does not have to give examples to stress the importance of honesty. No reason in the world can justify stealing what is not one’s own. Even when those starving steal food, it is considered a crime. Crime may be condoned but can never be justified.

Aparigraha or Asangraha or Non possession and renunciation: As materialism becomes an excuse for a selfish lifestyle, we put more and more pressure on nature and earth to provide for our insatiable greed. Bapu said, and which is the law of nature, “Nature provides for everyone’s need, but cannot provide for anyone’s greed”. The quest for a spiritual awakening begins with reducing one’s needs, moving away from a consumptive existence to a minimalistic existence. Today there is much talk about a sustainable existence. We have reached a critical stage in our exploitation and abuse of nature and our very existence has become a challenge. In such a state, one would have to embrace the ideals of non possession and renunciation.

Sharira shrama or physical labour: Today, life has become sedentary, we have gadgets and machines that replace all need for physical activity. Artificial Intelligence is progressing rapidly and will one day make intellectual activity redundant too. But the lack of physical activity has increased the potential of diseases and what is now known by the fancy term ‘Lifestyle Ailments’.

Today to be healthy, one is forced to resort to the selfish and collectively non-productive activity of exercising in gyms. Bapu believed that physical activity resulting in social good was the duty of every individual. He called it bread labour, where a person was beholden to perform selfless labour for the benefit of humankind, for the community one lived inside. Now just imagine a society where each individual performs a physical activity for the collective good as a natural part of her/his existence, on a daily basis. It would keep the individual healthy and it would contribute towards the health and well being of the community too.

Asvaada or control of the palate: One form of greed is gluttony. Gluttony is not only about the quantity consumed, but also becoming a slave of one’s taste buds. Unrestrained gluttony leads to complications as is very apparent by the increasing percentage of the obese. Detox may offer a relief, but cure can happen only when one becomes master of one’s senses and curbs one’s gluttony.

Abhaya or Fearlessness: A young teenager from our neighbouring country Pakistan, became a recipient of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. Malala Yusufzai was an ordinary young girl living in an intolerant society, which had allowed itself to be dictated to by zealots. The Taliban claim to be practitioners of a purist form of religion, but their practices are irreligious and unethical. They rule by fear and threat. They declared that girls would not be allowed to receive education in schools. Malala defied the ban and was prepared to face the consequences of her defiance. The Taliban made her pay a terrible price, she was shot as she emerged from school and left to die. The courageous soul fought what was considered to be a fatal injury. Today she has become a living icon of fearlessness and nonviolent defiance.

Sarva dharma samanatva or equal respect for all religions, beliefs and practices: Humankind is an amalgam of disparate and divergent beliefs and ideologies. Religion in its ritual practices divides us, whereas spirituality unites all of us. Bapu advocated an acceptance through understanding and respect of our differences, and thus he advocated a friendly study of all religions and their scriptures, and an acceptance of their rituals, out of a sense of respect. Society can only survive if all of us make it our holy duty to understand and accept our differences. This is not only restricted to religious practices, but also to our personal choices in matters of life style and sexuality.

Swadeshi or priority to local produce: We live in a global village. We can order anything from across the globe. It is wonderful to be one world united by greed, but it is unsustainable and immoral. The world over, a campaign to go local is gaining ground. It is being realised that local is more sustainable. Swadeshi was not only an instrument to economically cripple the British and break free of their enslavement, today it has become a symbol of sustainable existence.

Asprishyata Nivaran or doing away with untouchability and all prejudices: We may deny its existence, but inequality exists in all societies. In ours it is the practice of caste hierarchies, in the West it’s the stratification on economic or racial basis. Removing untouchability has become essential so that we learn to become human beings respecting and accommodating each other and living with our differences. Bapu considered untouchability a sin. It is prejudices and divisions that give birth to disputes, which lead to conflicts, social and territorial.

In a world which is more closely interlinked and where complete insulation is no longer possible, these are the 11 covenants of sustainable and ethical coexistence. Bapu made these his tenets of life, he lived by them and expected those associated with him to live by them. He hoped that the India of his dream would adopt these 11 virtues and forge an ideal life for the rest of the world to be inspired by. These 11 virtues are immortal, as they existed before Bapu’s time and they will live on for eternity. It is up to us how many we adopt and live by.

Bapu, as a human being may one day lose his relevance, but his legacy born out of the practice of these eleven tenets of life can never become irrelevant. When they do, life will cease to be worth living.n


Tushar A. Gandhi

The writer, a social activist, is the great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and the Managing Trustee of Mahatma Gandhi Foundation, Mumbai.