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January 30th 1948.
An assassination stunned the world. Nathuram Godse shot three bullets into Mahatma Gandhi who was walking towards his prayer meeting in Delhi. While the crowd was stunned, a little-known fact is that the man who seized Godse was an American diplomat on his first posting outside the United States. Godse was apprehended by Herbert Tom Reiner, a US vice-consul, who had only just arrived in India. He was attending Gandhi’s prayer meeting out of curiosity, as most visitors to New Delhi did at least once, the New York Times reported. On the ollowing day, the newspaper reported, “As the gathered crowd was in shock, Mr. Reiner grasped the assailant who still had his pistol in his hand, by the shoulders and shoved him toward the police guards. Only then did the crowd begin to grasp what had happened.”
The mortal Gandhi died that day. His ideas continue to live on, inspiring world leaders and citizens like me. I spend my time talking about his ideas while conducting workshops and talks at schools and universities.
As my uncle was a freedom fighter, I was interested in Gandhi’s ideas since the time I was little. As a young school teacher, I was interested in ideas related to alternative education and that is when I began to read his writing seriously. I was inspired by the extraordinary courage he had to fight for the things he did apart from political freedom and the way he lived his life. His ideas may seem archaic to some now, but the world desperately needs to look at smaller things and nature friendly living today after it has polluted its oceans with plastic. His ideas were, in fact, far ahead of his time.
So who was M.K.Gandhi?
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2nd October 1869 in Gujarat, India. He studied law in London and returned to India in 1891 to practice law. It is said that his failure in having a successful law practice in India led him to accept work in South Africa. From an attorney, he turned into a social worker and fought for the rights of Indians in South Africa, voluntarily giving up his lucrative practice and lived on a community farm. He founded a new form of struggle called Satyagraha (Truth force). Returning to India in 1915 he led an extraordinary movement for the freedom of India. His creative ideas of struggle brought together the rich and millions of the poor. He fought against slavery of people whether it was held through political power or ownership as in indentured labor or in segregation as in untouchability. He sought to imagine a peaceful world, a stable society and a coherent, spiritual life. All the ideas that he used in mainstream public life were based on truth and non-violence.
For Gandhi, truth was God. And God, for Gandhi was the expression of the deep, internal principles that morally define and animate human beings. Each individual must follow his or her swadharma or the inner voice of truth, he said.
Gandhi assimilated ideas about “bread labor” or working for one’s food from Tolstoy’s 1898 book, The Kingdom of God Is Within You and found the same principle articulated in the third chapter of the Bagavad Gita. “If I can convince the people of the value and the necessity of bread labor, there never will be want of food and clothing,” he opined. According to him, if all worked for their food, distinctions of rank would be obliterated. The rich would only deem themselves as trustees of their property and would use it mainly for public interest.
Thinker Ahead of His Time
Gandhi’s view of the economy is the least talked about aspect of his thinking. He has often been seen as an archaic thinker who always talked about the rural world. But, in fact, he knew that the new economy was real, but envisioned another reality and insisted that any economy must be judged by ethical standards that focus on the least well off.
“Gandhi always carried a realistic edge in his economic writings,” writes Ronald J. Terchek, associate professor at the University of Maryland at College Park and the author of Gandhi Struggling for Autonomy. “His economic realism was not the one associated with garnering higher growth rates… his realism stems from his insistent reminders that what is neglected or discarded in the modern economy is real and remains important to the human condition.”
Gandhi articulated this view in the 1930s and 40s. Recently, Nandan Nilekani, the co-founder of Infosys agreed when he gave a talk in Chennai titled, “An alternative view of the future.”
Mahatma Gandhi never visited the United States, but his ideas had a lasting impact on American thought and social action, chief among them being Martin Luther King Jr. King’s 1963 march on Washington DC for equal opportunities was an idea that drew inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha March.
Gandhi amassed no wealth for himself or his children. His children did not take advantage of his name and seek an office of power. So all decisions taken by him, whether they were good or bad, were for the good of the general public.
In 2011, I toured the United States and gave twenty eight lectures on Gandhi in different universities. His ideas continue to engage young people even today because of his high ideals. At the College of Wooster inspite of a snowstorm, my lecture drew quite a large number of students. I demonstrated my little box spinning wheel charkha and several Indian Americans who had gathered said that they had never seen one.
The charkha, a small, portable, hand-cranked wheel for spinning cotton was both a tool and a symbol of the Indian Independence movement. The size varies, from that of a hardbound novel to the size of a briefcase, to a floor charkha. Gandhi wanted the British to leave India and he wanted Indians to realize the value of producing their own goods. He achieved both by using the charkha as a symbol of that resistance.
His ideas of decentralized economy, employment through nature friendly materials, using renewable energy are all topics for the citizens of the world to contemplate today. The choice between these two opposite and parallel strategies, epitomized by the atom bomb and Gandhian non-violence, which Einstein noted in 1949, has become even more critical today. One wonders whether the instinctive death-wish of our species (which Freud perceived) would triumph over the “soul-force,” which Gandhi sought to evoke in the human breast. Gandhi himself had no doubt that peace ‘’will not come out of a clash of arms, but out of justice lived and done by unarmed nations in the face of odds.’’
Dr. V. R. Devika, founder-trustee of The Aseema Trust, a nonprofit organization, conducts regular workshops on charkha-spinning, peace education and communication skills for students and teachers.