No Indian name in the world today is more familiar than that of Gandhi, besides that of Mother Theresa (who probably owes her popularity to the beauty pageants.) Non-violence and peace are not new concepts in the Indian tradition. Entire creeds are built around these. Making them into the central axis of a political movement was a new phenomenon.
There are still undercurrents of dislike for the great man. And everyone has something or the other to testify against his goodness. Some common topics include his sleeping with naked girl attendents, his role in the partition, the Bhagat Singh affair, his kind gestures towards Pakistan at the time of partition, his drinking of fruit juice to break his fast during the partition violence, etc. This last one generated a lot of emotions in the play based on his assassin.
Is the dislike due to his ascetic and other-worldly personal ethic? Do we accuse him of hypocrisy? Or are we, the followers of the middle class pursuit of material wealth and comfort, looking for a few thorns to slay his moral fabric? In which case, how principled are we, and how much devoted to the common Indian ethic which formed the basis of Gandhi’s outlook?
It may not be possible today for a normal Indian to follow in his footsteps, renounce all pleasures, and live a simple life devoted to higher principles. Our malls, our media, our economy and our cities aren’t the type to promote any of this. In the 21st century, we have moved ahead enough to look back at Gandhi and see him as a relic of the past, who is too human and political to be raised to sainthood, and too saintly to be accepted in our everyday life.
I know this language sounds like those magazine or newspaper articles written by journalists. But writing this from a personal angle with insights will be difficult because it was a long time ago that I read his autobiography — that was in school. I will still try to be original, but rambling, as I really don’t remember his teachings exactly, nor did I go further than that one book or a few others, and I am far from taking any position on the issues. I will categorise these for the sake of readability.
Food and health
Gandhi connected vegetarianism with non-violence, like Mahavir. All of us do it today. His idea was – control the pleasure of the tongue, and you have controlled your sex drive. His morning walks was a fine idea, and I follow the walks, if not Gandhi. Lemon tea — I took his recipe and tried it when in school. But it wasn’t tea, so gave it up soon. The experiments with health and nature cure are all fine, and his advice on depending on doctors only for serious illnesses. I think we can see a belief in self-cure here — something that has gone out of currency with only headache pills that are OTC, but is of great importance.
The principle is popular and understood and also practised thanks to Ayurveda.
Being a married man, why did he have to become a total ascetic is not clear. But this will bring him in conflict with the youth especially. I guess this was fundamental to his entire status as a leader — he could not be in bed and a political leader. It separated the leader from the rest. Who could go sexless in India? Try telling him about Khajuraho as an integral part of Indian culture, as so many are wont to do in popular discussions. He was taken to prostitutes in S Africa by his friends, but refused involvement.
Did he fail the test when he found himself in bed with the girls? His secretary had resigned, I assume on this issue. He wrote to Vinoba Bhave seeking his views on this. I don’t think anyone could have laid his mind to peace. My first reaction to this is that great men cannot be judged by common standards. We need not think beyond this point on this issue.
The principle is well understood and prescribed to all bachelors, but only great souls will dare pursue it.
India’s freedom movement counts as the first and largest instance of a non-violent overthrow of a foreign occupation. The idea of peace is found in all great cultures. But this direction came from Gandhi, as most other rebellions before him had been violent. The congress, a league of suit wearing educated middle class gentlemen, was soon transformed into a representative of Indian culture. The methods of protest were unique and grounded in public sense.
Satyagraha – a new word in Hindi – had to be coined as well. Gandhigiri was coined recently. Would India be a different country today if it had achieved freedom through violence? I guess it would be stronger and more vibrant, but as divided as it is today, or even more so. After Amitabh Bachchan, violence now rules our lives.
The principle itself is not clearly understood, and lies in disrepute.
Wealth and lifestyle
Gandhi founded the Tolstoy farm, based on an ideal community model, where people were self-sufficient, worked in the day, and prayed together at night. A tolerant community based on brotherhood. We are today going in the opposite direction. The ‘model community’ doesn’t seem to have any precedence in India. And seemed to have died a natural death. Still, a simple man with few possessions at home arouses respect, and the principle is well known and understood, even in the movies.
The principle is understood, but the currents run heavily against it.
About the so-called conflict or tension between him and Nehru, this is what I believe happened: Nehru was in jail and spent time reading and completing his autobiography. When Gandhi learnt of his reading habits, he chided him for not devoting all of his time towards the freedom struggle. One can read Nehru’s reaction and his criticism of Gandhi in the book, with several pages devoted on this.
But Nehru was a staunch Gandhian, and says clearly that the direction to the struggle came from Gandhi. The non-violent methods were unknown. The struggle would have floundered. Gandhi made it possible.