In the weeks since Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces, each of us has had to grapple with the question of the proper response to the death of an enemy. Is there, first of all, a “proper” response? An ethical, civil response? Images of certain flag-waving, cheering celebrants jarred many of us in the United States and around the world, and in the days after the death of America’s most wanted, the blogosphere lit up with words attributed to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., respectively: “an eye for an eye leaves the world blind;” “returning hate for hate multiplies hate.”
In 2011, the Mahatma’s legacy continues to inspire our practices of civility and politics. Interestingly, M.K. Gandhi was already on many minds in the days and weeks leading up to bin Laden’s death. In April, reviews of Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India filled the pages of newspapers and magazines. Cambridge University Press had just brought out a Companion to Gandhi. In the academy, numerous scholars were busy revisiting the writings and legacy of the Mahatma. Intellectual historian Faisal Devji was on the academic lecture circuit, presenting research from his forthcoming The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptations of Violence. Historian Ajay Skaria was on the circuit as well, giving talks on Gandhi’s nonviolence in relation to his (Gandhi’s) understanding of nonviolence in the Gita.
There is more to be said about each of these texts and scholars, and indeed others to mention (an Amazon search for books on Gandhi returns no less than 7,734 results). But what I’m interested in here is the fact that there has been a notable return to Gandhi in both popular and scholarly venues in the last few years.
Skaria, for one, has been writing on the Mahatma for over a decade, and will soon publish a book that rethinks the Mahatma’s politics through assessments of his self-translation of his work from Gujarati into English. India Currents’ own Rajesh C. Oza has been writing “Satyalogue,” an advice column from a PostModern Gandhiji in Khabar magazine since 2008.
Why Gandhiji, and why now? Of course, Gandhi’s experiments with the truth and self-inflicted challenges have long fascinated his readers and disciples. And detractors are always looking to poke holes in the Gandhian mystique; thus Lelyveld’s account of Gandhi’s friendship with the German architect Hermann Kallenbach was willfully misconstrued as an argument that the Mahatma—famed celibate—was bisexual.
More to the point, and as Pankaj Mishra suggests in his review of Lelyveld, the preoccupation with Gandhi persists because of the conjuncture of his spectacularly successful legacy of nonviolent action and his dramatic political failures. Gandhi’s philosophy has inspired leaders of nonviolent movements around the world for decades, from Martin Luther King, Jr., to the revolutionaries of this Arab Spring. Yet he was powerless to prevent the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. And today, his powerful critiques of industrialization, modernization, and Western imperial power are all too easily forgotten or ignored.
In Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule, Gandhi put forth a radical conception of “swaraj” premised on the total rejection of modern civilization. He argued that modern man is concerned only with bodily comforts, acquisition, and. consumption, and that civilized men and women—under the yoke of machinery, industry, an impoverished politics, and debased professionalism—have turned away from Truth. Importantly, Gandhi’s diagnosis was not only leveled against the English, but against Indians as well, who, susceptible to the temptations of modernity, “created the circumstances that gave [the East India Company] its control over India.”
Outmoded conservatism? Or revolutionary critique? For obvious reasons, this strand of Gandhian thought sits uneasily with many modern readers. The Gandhi of Hind Swaraj is unflinching in his assessments, unrelenting in his commitment to his ideals, and exercises what can only be described as “tough love” toward his fellow men. Consider his famous critique of the railways. Modern transportation apparatuses, he said, not only bring people into contact with those with whom they need not interact, but it also results in an undervaluation of the significance of distant journeys: “If we did not rush about from place to place by means of railways and such other maddening conveniences, much of the confusion that arises would be obviated.”
In a globalized world of Skype-users and frequent fliers, Gandhi’s anti-cosmopolitanism is almost laughable. And yet, who could argue that our modern minds are not occupied, distracted, and exhausted by inessential and destructive things? If anything, Gandhi’s caution reminds us how essential it is to practice civility in a world of boundless confusion and maddening convenience. A world in which it is all too easy to push a button here and effect chaos there, to fly a plane into a tower here and begin a war there.
Skaria specifically urges us to think with Gandhi in terms of our relationships to our neighbors; the historian interprets ahimsa, commonly translated as “nonviolence,” as a philosophy of neighborliness. How might the understanding of Gandhi’s legacy as one of neighborliness, and not simply one of nonviolence, change the way we think about the Mahatma? What would it mean, then, to try to live as Gandhi would have us live, to do as Gandhi would have us do, to serve as Gandhi would have us serve?
For starters, it would mean inhabiting a critical stance toward modern convenience and communication. It would mean seeking justice in relation to our neighbors, not just in campaigns against our far-flung enemies. And it would mean returning, at last, from the hunt to the hearth.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.