Historian Judith M Brown explains the contemporary relevance of the Mahatma through answers to questions Gandhi searched for all his life.
150 years after Gandhi’s birth there are many Gandhis, in India and worldwide. Diverse people and groups have valued and used some of his ideas and practices, or used his name to grace their own projects. Sometimes he has been deployed in support of causes which he would not have recognised. In a real sense, he has become “global property”. If we turn to the historical Gandhi, to a man living in a particular time and place, working in a specific social and political context, I would argue that his real relevance in India and in the wider world today is that he had the depth of character and vision to pose fundamental questions for modern men and women: questions about the value of the human person, the proper nature of public identity, and the right ways to live in community and to deal with inevitable disagreements and conflict. This is in contrast to those “Gandhians” who would argue that he provided “answers” relevant in any situation. Let me suggest just four of these major questions which Gandhi in his own time in South Africa and India was to ask — of himself and of those around him
1. What is religion?
This may seem a strange question to start with. But Gandhi’s answer to this question was very different from the answers which would have been given by many of his contemporaries in India and beyond. Moreover, it had fundamental implications for his understanding of the significance of all human persons, and for his commitment to enter public life to serve others, and to work in such a way as to preserve their dignity and autonomy. For Gandhi, religion was not a clearly packaged and labelled set of beliefs and practices; neither was it a communal or semi-tribal identity. It was a pilgrimage in search of truth, a lifelong searching for God as truth rather than for a divinity which could be described in any simpler way. It is significant that he subtitled his partial autobiography, written in the mid1920s, as “The Story Of My Experiments With Truth.” This understanding of religion set him at odds with contemporaries for whom religion was a particular orthodoxy of belief and practice, or the cement of specific socio-political identities. He believed that Truth resided at some deep level in every individual, and that consequently he was called to serve humanity, particularly those who were weak and disadvantaged in ordinary human terms. Other fundamental questions flowed from these assumptions
2. What is the nature of political identity, particularly the ‘nation’?
This was an urgent question in the context of late colonial India. The nature of the family, of caste, region, community and nation were all under scrutiny in the final years of the empire as Indians contemplated the shape of their country and society after independence. Gandhi’s answer to these sorts of questions was rooted in his belief in the primacy of a common humanity which should override all other social and political connections. Consequently, he favoured small-scale communities where people knew each other face to face, and where it was more difficult to categorise people as ‘other’. As far as the Indian nation was concerned, he envisaged it as being made up of many of these small-scale communities. India was not to be defined by language or creed or even place of birth and heritage. What mattered in making “an Indian” was living in the subcontinent, making it one’s home, and valuing its ancient and complex civilization. The identity of the nation was urgent in his time because of the imminent departure of the British rulers, and increasingly violent controversies over the relationship between national and religious identity. The question is as significant as ever — in contemporary India, and in a global context marked by the rise of exclusive right-wing nationalisms, which would discriminate against minorities, particularly those created by immigration
3. How should one conduct oneself in the practice of politics?
Gandhi recognised that disagreement and conflict are inevitable in human society and interaction between individuals and groups. If all people shared a common humanity then a crucial question for him was how to manage conflict, and particularly how to conduct oneself in the political arena when addressing differences and controversies. His answer to this question, forged over many years in public life in South Africa and India, was the multi-dimensional practice of non-violence or satyagraha. Conversion rather than coercion was his remedy for conflict. Non-violent resistance to what wasperceived as wrong was most likely to create long-term change in all the parties to a conflict, and would protect the integrity of all those concerned. In many ways non-violence was his most creative and long-lasting idea; though his life showed that in practice it was not the universal panacea for peaceful change which he had envisaged. Even though non-violent modes of public and political action often seem to have failed in his lifetime and beyond, his life and teaching raise the perennial question of the right ways to behave in the public arena.
4. The final question Gandhi raised was the broad one: how should one live?
This really coupled together several issues relating to the obvious inequalities between individuals and groups within India and also globally. It has taken on new urgency as we are increasingly aware of the impact of humankind on the environment as people and groups strive for ever-greater patterns of consumption. Gandhi is said to have uttered the powerful aphorism that “there is enough in the world for every man’s need but not for every man’s greed”. He also drew on his lawyer’s training in London to deploy the idea of “trusteeship” to denote how those who have more resources should consider and use them for the wider good. His own lifestyle in the last 25 years of his life back in India is well known — and Gandhi was well aware of the publicity effect of his freely chosen poverty and simplicity in food, clothing and possessions. In his own lifetime, people commented on the effort and expense it took other people to “keep Gandhi poor”; and certainly an ashram life is not one to which most people are called. But the question he posed remains — how should we live? Our answers are critical for the future of our world — for the relationships between privileged and underprivileged within nations, for relationships between richer and poorer parts of the world, and for the very existence of our planet as a place fit for human habitation.
SOURCE: Written by Judith M Brown | The Times Of India| 24 Sep 2019