There was no as­pect of life Gand­hian thought didn’t touch. We should em­brace those that are most rel­e­vant to us


As we cel­e­brate the 150th birth an­niver­sary of Ma­hatma Gandhi, it is worth re­call­ing the fre­quently ig­nored scale of his achieve­ments. He was the first In­dian to put In­dia on a global map and the only one to be known through­out the world. He was the first In­dian to make his po­lit­i­cal mark out­side the coun­try be­fore do­ing so in In­dia. He has been the great­est mass mo­biliser in In­dian his­tory, hav­ing brought mil­lions of men, and espe­cially women, into pub­lic life. He so dom­i­nated In­dian pol­i­tics for a quar­ter of a cen­tury that any­one in­cur­ring his wrath in­vited po­lit­i­cal sui­cide. He is the only In­dian, in­deed world, leader to touch life at many dif­fer­ent lev­els and have some­thing to say about each of them, whether it was hy­giene, san­i­ta­tion, bring­ing up chil­dren, mo­ral­ity, sex­u­al­ity, re­li­gion, the econ­omy or high pol­i­tics.

At In­dia’s in­de­pen­dence, for which he had striven so hard, Gandhi felt so tor­mented by the per­va­sive vi­o­lence that he de­clined to un­furl the na­tional flag and even to send a mes­sage. He re­fused to ac­cept a po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion for him­self, and de­voted the fi­nal two years of his life to heal­ing the wounds of in­ter­com­mu­nal vi­o­lence. He un­der­took fasts even when his body could no longer tol­er­ate them, walked alone through the thorny streets of Noakhali vil­lages, and urged the vic­tims to show for­give­ness. Although re­peat­edly threat­ened with vi­o­lence, he dis­missed all of­fers of se­cu­rity, and dared, even in­vited, his de­trac­tors to do their worst, which one of them did.

Although Gandhi had his lim­i­ta­tions, there are sev­eral ar­eas where he is enor­mously in­struc­tive and which mark him out as one of the great­est men of the 20th cen­tury. Gandhi suf­fered from op­pres­sion and in­jus­tice most of his adult life. In South Africa, he was thrown out of a train on a cold night for dar­ing to travel first-class, was dragged down from a coach by a swear­ing con­duc­tor and only just saved by his fel­low pas­sen­gers, and kicked into the gut­ter by a sen­try for dar­ing to walk past Pres­i­dent Kruger’s house in Pre­to­ria. In Transvaal, he was ar­rested for protest­ing against the Reg­is­tra­tion Act of 1900 and kept in a cell with com­mon crim­i­nals who made sex­ual over­tures and car­ried on in­de­cent ac­tiv­i­ties in his pres­ence. He was stoned and kicked by a racist white mob in Dur­ban, and es­caped lynch­ing only be­cause of the sanc­tu­ary of a nearby po­lice sta­tion, which he was later able to leave dis­guised as a po­lice­man.

Gandhi re­flected deeply on these and other ex­pe­ri­ences and asked why op­pres­sion oc­curred, how, and what the role of the vic­tim was. He con­cluded that the vic­tims of op­pres­sion were never in­no­cent. In fact, they were com­plicit in their own op­pres­sion. The Bri­tish ruled In­dia with the help of In­di­ans. In the Jal­lian­wala Bagh mas­sacre, it was In­dian sol­diers who fired on their fel­low In­di­ans. Gandhi went fur­ther and ar­gued that all power ul­ti­mately came from the vic­tim’s co­op­er­a­tion without which it re­mains hol­low.

Since or­di­nary men and women en­joyed this kind of power, what they needed for their lib­er­a­tion was the courage to as­sert it and deny their mas­ters their co­op­er­a­tion. Most of them were too ner­vous or afraid to do this. Re­buk­ing In­di­ans in South Africa, Gandhi said that those who be­have like worms should not blame oth­ers for tram­pling on them. And again, in another con­text, he asked In­di­ans to learn to ‘rebel against them­selves’. Courage, for Gandhi, was bound up with self-re­spect and a great hu­man virtue. His con­cern all his life was to ap­peal to the self-re­spect of the vic­tims of in­jus­tice. As Nehru said, his great­est con­tri­bu­tion was to re­move the pall of fear that had gripped In­dia and em­power its fright­ened and dif­fi­dent peo­ple.

Another area where Gandhi had pro­found things to say re­lates to his prac­tice of ahimsa. For him, it was wrongly un­der­stood as not caus­ing harm. If an an­i­mal was dy­ing of an in­ter­minable dis­ease and had only a few hours left to live, it was an act of love to end its life with a fa­tal in­jec­tion. It in­volved vi­o­lence, but was not a vi­o­lent act. As Gandhi once said, not ‘non­vi­o­lence’ but ‘com­pas­sion’ or ‘love’ was the cor­rect English trans­la­tion of ahimsa.

There are also sev­eral other respects in which Gandhi stretched and deep­ened the con­cept of ahimsa. In the In­dian tra­di­tions, harm is de­fined widely to in­clude not only phys­i­cal but also psy­cho­log­i­cal, moral and other forms of pida or klesa (pain). Gandhi not only ac­cepted this broad def­i­ni­tion, but stretched it fur­ther. In his view, one might harm or


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