“There can be no dispute that there is but one man who deserves the title of ‘man of the century,’ and that’s Mahatma Gandhi,” said someone to me recently. Though Gandhi passed on even before the middle of the 20th century, one can still see the benefits of his nonviolent ideas on India and other continents. Yet, so many of us Indians greet the subject of the great man with boredom, with the attitude of groupies seeking a more contemporary star. In our postmodern era, only half-a-century or so after Gandhi powerfully helped us reap the benefits of harmony in pluralism, we appear to have already forgotten it. However, we continue to have to cope repeatedly with the same traumas coming from an unwillingness of factions of people to accept the rightness of the creeds or ideologies of others.
The recent brutal devastation of innocent lives and the sorrow and suffering of the victims of the terrorist attack on America, amply demonstrate the point. In this fanatical war by some Islamic fundamentalists, they have shown their unwillingness to see the fairness of American ideologies, caught in the fever of demonstrating that their creed is the only one.
“Religion itself is outraged when outrage is committed in its name,” Mahatma Gandhi once said when facing such horrors. The only way to bring peace between living beings, he asserted, was to recognize the validity of all creeds, to see God in all faiths.
Perhaps to people with the mindset of Osama bin Laden, their solution would bring quick results. Simply crashing airplanes into state buildings would obliterate non-Islamic infidels. A Gandhian approach based on the world as a community, however, would work in a more satisfying and long-term manner, allowing all factions to live their lives rightfully.
Then again, is the case of India, the very land that gave birth to ahimsa. Even here, sadly, there is no remnant of Gandhi’s noble legacy in the acts of some of the factions of angry Hindu nationalists and contemptuous Muslims. Both groups antagonize against each other, for the same clichéd reason, one asserting that the only true Indian religion is its most ancient one, Hinduism. The other self-righteously hates polytheistic worshippers of idols. Couldn’t this, again, be averted using the Gandhian assertion of universal brotherhood, as he had done to good measure?
The issues are identical between the Israelis and Palestinians as well as in the religious squabbles in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Even in the face of all these difficulties, however, a Gandhian nonviolent conduct and humanitarianism may appear overpowering, outdated or even esoteric. It may perhaps, require too much discipline to resist one’s natural atavistic tendencies in the effort to revere one’s fellow human beings. However, if the world actually implemented a Gandhian attitude intelligently by example as Bapu once did, surely we too could continue to peacefully win many wars against injustice. Gandhi’s mode, though from a deeply spiritual base, was far from esoteric. His actions were as forceful and practical as his profound words: “There is an unalterable law in everything and every being governed by all that exists. I may not deny the law-giver because I know so little about it or Him. God to be God must rule the heart and transform it. It is proved in the transformed conduct and character of those who have felt the real presence of God within.”
Such a transformation of minds even worked with efficacy in other societies plagued by their own bigotries years after Gandhi’s demise. Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, though essentially a man of God, known to have justifiably expressed unfavorable statements about whites, was a changed man after immersing himself in the study of Gandhian satyagraha and ahimsa. Very soon after that, he was preaching in Montgomery, Alabama, “Hate begets hate, violence begets violence.” While striving to liberate African-Americans from their sufferings, he said, “Christ gave me the inspiration, Gandhi gave me the method.” His subsequent visit to India with his wife Coretta King, and his contacts with those acquainted with Gandhi in India strengthened the basis of his Gandhian ideas and gave lasting change to American culture. It is commendable that Gandhi’s methods bore positive fruit in the U.S., bringing about civil rights and affirmative action and helping establish equal opportunities. However, the notions of equality established as a result after this seem like a far cry from their Indian source.
Nelson Mandela also, though skeptical of the spiritual basis of Gandhi’s ideas, was impressed with their efficacy. He decided to implement them when dealing with the apartheid issue in South Africa. “I saw nonviolence in the Gandhian model not as an invisible principle but as a tactic to be used as the situation demanded. I called for nonviolence as long as it was effective.” He maintained that he always found Gandhi a great source of inspiration. Despite his caution about nonviolence as a moral basis, he has continued his crusade, becoming a champion of peace and equality throughout his long years in prison, winning as a result, the Nobel Peace Prize.
England too became aware of the ancient wisdom of India of which they had been oblivious prior to Gandhi. In the Mahatma’s ideas and actions, the citizens finally saw the stupendous moral power of a country they had once only treated with condescension. Surely, it is no coincidence that increasingly peaceful demonstrations have become important modus operandi in that country in the last decades, well after Gandhi’s assassination?
So, in the wake of the crises that severely threaten our lives, rather than persisting with the easy route and pursuing shortsighted and fanatical methods, shouldn’t we open our eyes to a legacy that offers us practical and long-lasting solutions?
Amita Raj obtained her Master’s degree in English Literature from Clark University, Massachusetts, and is published in magazines in India and the U.S.