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The Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi

By Prof. Santanu Sen

More than seventy years have elapsed since the assassination of the leader of the Indian anti-imperialist movement, Mohan Das Karam Chand Gandhi. The years of dramatic struggle to liberate the great nation from the colonial yoke are becoming part of increasingly remote history. The passions about the appraisal of the extraordinary particularly in the European eye and controversial figure of the ”Rebellious Fakir” as Winston Churchill the British Prime Minister a vehement opponent  of decolonisation described Gandhi almost subsided. But there is a sustained interest in his ideological and political legacy, his role in Indian history a view of India’s past and future.

For all the contradictions in his behaviour, he was a man of striking integrity, less fiery now a days the debate around him is sure to continue for a long time to come. M.K.Gandhi is associated with a whole era in his country history, the era when modern India and the people who until recently largely determined it’s image, were in the making. It is natural for all the political forces and all the schools of social-political thought to strive to formulate their attitude towards Gandhi. The interpretation of his legacy is one of the important hall mark of every political platform.

It has been recognised that history is made by the masses. However, it is the individual that becomes the historical symbol of the age. M. K. Gandhi, Jawhar lal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi have come to be part of historical symbolism inherent in the political consciousness of political life of the Indian people. The symbolism has spread beyond the boundaries of the country because Gandhiji and Nehru’s activities and legacy features many of the qualities typical of the age marked by the liberation of colonial and dependent countries from foreign oppression.

“Gandhism” a set of political, moral, ethical and philosophical concepts, advanced by M.K. Gandhi. In the course of Indian people national liberation struggle is a phenomena associated in national consciousness, with the many years of fighting for independence against British imperialist rule. “Gandhism” is also a factor in today’s ideological, political and class struggle. This explains the importance of studying “Gandhism”, its actual content and historical role.

M.K.Gandhi’s distant ancestors were retail grocers. His grand father and father however came to be minister in tiny Gujarat principalities and the famiily prospered. In the mid of 19thth century, Porbander was a remote provincial town whose life was governed by ancient traditions.

“Jainism” India’s most distinctly nonviolent religion was and still is predominant in Gujarat. Although Gandhi’s parent’s belonged to the Vaishnava sect of Hinduism, they too were strongly influenced by Jainism.

The family ardently observed all right and traditions. As a child, Mohandas was engaged to be married three times. His first two fiancés died and he was for the last time engaged at the age of seven. He was married at thirteen.

 Just as many other young people, in his youth Gandhi was sceptical about the traditional way of life. The desire to escape Hindu conservation prompted his decision to continue his education in England. The community saw it as a defiance of tradition and the Bombay members of the Bania caste obstructed him. From September 1889 to June 1891 M.K.Gandhi lived in England studying law first with the inner Temple and since 1891 at the university of London. Here after a brief period of absorption in the life of the metropolitan elite, he became a nostalgic and drawn to Indian national traditions, whatever reminded him about them in England attracted his attention — the vegetarian society, Islam, Christianity and the Theosophy of Elena Blavatskay and Annie Besant. Theosophy made him interested in the sacred scripts of his own country. He was also influenced by Brahmo Samaj, on behalf of Bramhananda Kesab Chandra Sen.

 Many of those from the colonies who came to London for an education embraced the metropolitan culture and lost touch with their native land and turned into foreigners in their own home countries. This was not the case with Mohan Das Karam Chand Gandhi.

He never adopted the British mode of life and the liberal bourgeois values and ways of the ‘victorion age’. In London, the foundation for his native attitude to European civilization was laid. In 1893 M.K. Gandhi left for South Africa. He became a legal advisor for a Gujarat Trade company. That year acts of race discrimination against the Indian émigrés became especially blatant. M.K. Gandhi placed himself at the head of the anti-raciest movement that emerged in the Indian community. He called on his compatriots to resort to civil disobedience. The long and bitter struggle led to a compromise with British authorities in South Africa. As a result, the position of the Indian émigrés somewhat improved more importantly participation in the movement taught them dignity and determination to defend their civil rights.

M.K. Gandhi never intended to stay in South Africa long. However, he spent 20 years of his life there. This period proved to be of decisive importance for the formulation of his character and views. It is while in South Africa that he fully appreciated his own countries humanitarian culture and traditions. It is there that he challenged race discrimination and inequality and his world outlook was shaped by his dedication to non-violence and his moral principles. Although in his spiritual quest M.K.Gandhi proceeds from the principles of Hinduism and Jainism, he also relied on what was consonant with them in western culture which he continuously studied since his days in England.

Particularly close to his heart were the ethical ideas of reformed Christianity free of dogmas and rites. His desire was to turn away from bourgeois values and urban civilization that isolates man from nature and seek moral self- improvement in a natural environment.  Hence his interest was in Thomas Carlyle, Henry Thoreau, the great passion Author Leo Tolstoy.

Gandhij’s years of South Africa were marked by an intensive search for an ethical ideal which in his view was to be associated with social and political activity. This was a continuation of the work he stated in London, but here among the members of an oppressed Indian community, M.K. Gandhi concentrated not only the issue of personal spiritual development but also on that of social injustice and ways to combat it. He was attracted by the struggle against oppression and despotism, no matter where and how it was waged. Because reconciling with injustice was originally alien to him. In his articles he wrote about the courage of Russian revolutionaries and their preparedness for resolute action. He was especially supportive of the general strike. “We too can resort to the Russian remedy against tyranny”, he commented.

 Although he was attracted by the revolutionary movement of the masses of a manifestation fearlessness and commitment, in his personal quest he was inspired by the public stance of Lev Tolstoy.

M.K.Gandhi’s European friend encouraged his interest in the writings of great humanist. He found Lev Tolstoy, view of ethical and social issues to be strikingly consonant with his own and ready described himself as “A humble follower of that great teacher”. Following the example of the Indian patriot who had asked Lev Tolstoy to express his solidarity with the Indian people oppressed by the British colonisers on October l, 1909.

He sent him a letter describing the struggle waged by the Indians hit by race discrimination in Transvaal to assert their dignity by non-violent methods. He asked for the writer’s permission to have his “Letter to a Hindu” translated and circulated among them. In his reply, Lev Tolstoy wished M.K.Gandhi every success and stressed the similarity of their principles. For M.K. Gandhi, Lev Tolstoy had high esteem and remained great to him. V. Lenin has every reason to maintain in his plan for the unfinished “Notes of a publicisist”, a “Hindu Tolstoy Follower “.

There can hardly be any doubt that he meant M.K.Gandhi. The activities of the latter attracted the attention of the founder of the world’s first working people’s state.

 It goes without saying that there was significant difference between Gandhi and Lev Tolstoy’s view. This is primarily accounted for by their different areas of activity. Lev Tolstoy was above all, an author and a moral philosopher while Gandhi did a lot to adjust Lev Tolstoy’s individualistic, purely and classically personal doctrine to a public movement. This called for a noticeable shift in emphasis and for an elaboration on Lev Tolstoy’s ideas. With Lev Tolstoy, it is non-violent resistance, Tolstoy seek personal improvement. Gandhi adds to his personal influence exerted on other people in the course of mass, group or individual resistance. Tolstoy focuses on the general ideals of good and justice, while Gandhi stresses concrete political goals.

It was in South Africa that Gandhi’s invincible mettle as a public figure first manifested itself. For him moral improvement and social commitment were inseparable, Isolation, retirement into oneself and eternal self contemplation were alien to him. Fighting against social and political injustice was part of his personal moral code. Combining ethics and politics was Gandhi’s lifelong pre-occupation. Although he did not deem & possible to tolerate evil, he thought it to be immoral and contrary to the sublime spiritual goal to resort to all available means in fighting it. He found a way out in introducing non-violence in politics through the elaboration of the theory and practice of non-violence resistance.

 “Satyagraha” – means persistence in pursuing the truth. This brings into sharp focus, its ethical and to an extent, individual oriented resource consonant with the traditional rules of ‘righteous behaviour” widespread among the Indian’s main, religion. What appears to suggest individualistic attitudes soon results in collectivism and involvement in a mass movement. M.K. Gandhi’s calls to refuge to be unrighteous, never to compromise against one’s conscience, never participate in or subjugate to injustice and be prepared to courageously face the consequences of your own righteous behaviour invariably met with enthusiastic response of the people who were inclined to take part in public actions and felt that they were getting moral and religious support. They felt that their moral standards, challenged by the unjust social order, demanded that “Truth seeker” should turn into political fighters. By bridging the gaps between the ethical and the political Gandhi, created an exceptional opportunity for the mobilization of the masses.

This opportunity was all the more practical because joining the ‘Satyagraha’ did not call for special preparation, training or engagement in a conspiracy. All the needed was determination and avoidance of any support even passive, to injustice. “Satyagraha” made it possible for everyone to immediately contribute to the common cause to be drawn into politics and became politically conscious.

“Satyagraha” proved invaluable in a country with a population inexperienced in political struggles and divided by commercial and caste barriers. It allowed for two forms of resistance, non-cooperation and civil disobedience. Non-cooperation involved refusing to work for the Govt., above in the army and the police, boycotting elections to the colonial representative bodies, boycott state schools, demonstratively refusing to accept state decorations and awards restoring to arbitration instead of turning to official judicial bodies, boycotting imported goods, halting business activities etc. Civil disobedience means a direct defiance of the authority and their law.

“Satyagraha” was preceded and accompanied by propaganda work. It envisaged increasingly aggressive activity and eventual involvement of all means of resistance. Those were applicable and effective methods of exerting pressure and stirring up and mobilising the masses. The right choice of the method of confrontation ensured mass participation in the resistance movement. Choosing the salt monopoly a target of civil disobedience action as a part of the (1930-1931) initiative was an appropriate move. The monopoly affected everyone and by breaking it every one could become a fighter for independence.

Similar methods are widely used in all democratic movements, especially in their initial stages. Further on, the logic of resistance usually leads to a transition to more resolute forms of struggles. M.K. Gandhi’s approach was different in that he ruled out this transition, made absolute of the nonviolence principle, elevated it to the status of a religious dogma and turned it into an obstacle in developing other methods of struggles.

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