What can we learn from Mahatma Gandhi today?

Suraj Kumar Thube
Suraj Kumar ThubeOct 02, 2016 | 18:50

What can we learn from Mahatma Gandhi today?

October 2, like all public holidays, is mostly a token appreciation for the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. Can we try and make a modest effort to move beyond ennui and arrogance and actually understand the Father of the Nation, the phenomenon?

What does Gandhi mean to us in the 21st century? By "us", I mean the entire swathe of population that is urbanising and westernising at a blistering pace. A generation that sees itself as part of a consumer democracy, one that has a fetish for commodities; can it still appreciate the Gandhian language of "moral development"?


The language of sarvodaya? Perhaps, at a time when external violence is seen as the numero uno enemy and "desire" as the ultimate breeding ground for efficiency, Gandhi's call for taming the inner violence of hatred, bigotry and contemptuousness is relevant more than ever before.

Yes, he can be questioned on a number of levels, with the possible accusation of not having a well-structured conception of social justice that transcends his largely traditional mindset. The word "tradition" here can be seen as a synonym for being "orthodox" and has to be separated from the word "past".

For Gandhi was no historian.  He did not believe in the supremacy of an inherently positive unfolding of the past. For him, truth transcended history. And that had to be achieved as a collective, and not as isolated individuals devoid of an innate sense of universal brotherhood.

Gandhi, with his insistence on village communities for instance, underscored the vitality of all of us being parts of a collective whole. Today's bruised and battered world, that tenuously manages to maintain the already fickle bonds of togetherness, can certainly learn from his prescience.

With his invocation of valorising the virtue of moral judgment, Gandhi almost walks the same path as that of Immanuel Kant. The latter's deontological perspective emphasises above all the significance of the "means" along with the "ends".


In fact, he goes one step further to say that the very motivation behind a particular act determines the ethicality of one's action. This can even be seen in his largely misunderstood notion of anarchism. Unlike its classical idea of a strong, brute sense of centralisation, laced with the tropes of violence and bloodshed, Gandhi advanced an idea that was bereft of all such superficialities.

The simplicity that an ideal village society possesses for him makes the largely repressive state a redundant institution. This gets brilliantly captured in what Ashish Nandy calls an "enlightened anarchy".

There is definitely an intuitively regressive element of discipline attached to it at first glance. However, as David Hardiman says: "Gandhi was concerned more with the state being an expression of the self than it getting castigated for its disciplinary nature from other fronts. Seen in this light, a repressive state of the modern context, keeps failing democracy as it renders invisible the agency of the 'self '."

His critique of modernity is another misunderstood facet of his political thought. He did not have a problem with western civilisation. The locus of the larger predicament was avarice and greed that came along with it. 


A modern life generated anxieties at a similar pace at which the tempo of life was increasing. Peacefulness of mind had benignly given way to toxic smoke-filled lungs surrounded by intimidating concrete jungles.

Gandhi, with his insistence on village communities, underscored the vitality of all of us being parts of a collective whole. (Photo credit: India Today) 

A materialist interpretation of history in this sense, which glamorises technology instead of science, made Gandhi cautious and wary about life being in a constant flux. He would have had a major problem with Rousseau's terse observation of "human beings desire to desire".

For Gandhi, desire was always the root cause of all evil. Today, when an iphone 6 gets junked by a more alluring looking 7.0, only to be at the pinnacle of greatness for a transient time, Gandhi would have voiced his concern over the debilitating reaction this kind of technological fundamentalism has on us.

It is perhaps for this reason that he dreaded the rapid continuity of change. The ideational bliss of retaining our cultural roots was valued more than finding oneself in a quagmire of uncertainties.

Gandhi still has plenty to offer in the way of guidance and motivation. As Akeel Bilgrami says: "Gandhi was a philosopher who with the help of his satyagrahis wanted to put forth a set of 'principles'. His style of communication was mostly dialogic, as can be seen in his perennial classic Hind Swaraj."

By placing a set of principles, Bilgrami goes on to say that these people act as "moral exemplars" who set  examples in front of people and not coerce them to a lifeless conformity.

By doing this, he opened up multiple avenues of dissent which were not couched in the harsh, stinging language of "criticism". Staying true to his belief in gradualism, Gandhi almost created his own version of the Bodhisattvas who, by not attaining Nirvana, looked to help out fellow people achieve the absolute truth.

In the process, he was willing to inflict pain and suffering on the satyagrahi himself, giving way to a complex reading for his "temptation for violence". All this, again in a Kantian lexicon, for a quest towards perpetual peace.

At a time of utter despair, these are a few from a gamut of Gandhian ideas that can be thought of as rays of hope, optimism and belief.

His political mobilisation called for compassion. Let us take a cue from it and try and realise the significance of the other in our highly degrading notion of the modern self.

Last updated: October 02, 2016 | 18:50
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