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The Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi – Part 1

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 an increasingly remote history. Passions about appraising the extraordinary and particularly in the European eye, the controversial figure of the ”Rebellious Fakir”, as Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister and a vehement opponent of decolonisation, described him, have almost subsided. But there is a sustained interest in his ideological and political legacy, his role in Indian history and 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’s history, the era when modern India and the people who until recently, largely determined its image, were in the making. It is natural for all the political forces and all the schools of social-political thoughts to strive to formulate their attitude towards Gandhi. The interpretation of his legacy is one of the important hallmark 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, Jawharlal 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 feature many of the qualities typical of the age marked by the liberation of colonial and dependent countries from foreign oppression. “Gandhism” is a set of political, moral, ethical and philosophical concepts that were advanced by M.K. Gandhi. To the Indian people, its freedom struggle is a phenomena associated with the national consciousness and the many years of fighting for independence from the British imperialist rule. “Gandhism” is also a factor in today’s ideological, political and class struggles. This explains the importance of studying “Gandhism”, its actual content and historical role.

M.K.Gandhi’s distant ancestors were retail grocers. His grandfather and father however came to be the ministers in tiny Gujarat principalities and the family prospered. Porbander was a remote provincial town in the mid of 19th century, where life was governed by archaic traditions. “Jainism” was one of India’s most distinctly nonviolent religion and is still 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 adhered to all right and traditions. So, 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.

Like many of the young people of his time, Gandhi was sceptical about the traditional way of life in his youth. The desire to escape Hindu conservation prompted him to continue his education in England. The community took it as a defiance of tradition and the Bombay members of the Bania caste tried to hinder him. However, M.K.Gandhi lived in England from September 1889 to June 1891 to study law first with the inner Temple. Then he joined the University of London in 1891. Hereafter enjoying a brief period of the life of a metropolitan elite, he became nostalgic and drawn towards the Indian traditions – vegetarianism, religions of Islam, Christianity as well as 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 the Brahmo Samaj, through the teachings of Bramhananda Kesab Chandra Sen.

 Many of those who came to London from the colonies 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 way of life or the liberal bourgeois values of the ‘Victorian age’. London laid the foundation for his native attitude to European civilization. In 1893 he left for South Africa and became a legal advisor to a Gujarati trading company. As acts racial discrimination against the Indian émigrés grew M.K. Gandhi placed himself at the head of the anti-racial movement of the Indian community. He called on his compatriots to resort to civil disobedience. The long and bitter struggle led to a compromise with the British authorities in South Africa. As a result, the position of the Indian émigrés improved marginally. What was more important, this participation in the movement taught them dignity and determination to defend their civil rights.

M.K. Gandhi never intended to stay in South Africa for long. However, he spent 20 years there. This period was 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 here that he challenged the racial discrimination and inequality while his world outlook was shaped by his dedication to non-violence and moral principles. Although in his spiritual quest M.K.Gandhi followed the principles of both Hinduism and Jainism yet he also relied on what was consonant with them in the western culture that he had studied since his days in England. Particularly close to his heart were the ethical ideas of reformed Christianity, free of dogmas and rituals. His desire was to turn away from bourgeois values and urban civilization that isolate man from nature and seek moral self- improvement in a natural environment.  Hence his interest was in Thomas Carlyle, Henry Thoreau, and his great passion rested in 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 started in London among the members of an oppressed Indian community. He not only concentrated on personal spiritual development but also on 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 alien to his personality. 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 as a manifestation of fearlessness and commitment, in his personal quest he was inspired by the public stance of Lev Tolstoy. His European friends encouraged his interest in the writings of great humanist and he found the ethical and social views of Lev Tolstoy, strikingly in agreement with his own. He described himself as “A humble follower of that great teacher”. On October l, 1909, he requested Lev Tolstoy to express his solidarity with the Indian people who were oppressed by the British colonisers. He sent a letter describing the non-violent struggle of the Indians against racial discrimination in Transvaal to assert their dignity. 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 Gandhi every success and stressed the similarity of their principles. Lev Tolstoy had high esteem for Gandhi and V. Lenin had every reason to include the ‘Hindu Tolstoy Follower’ in his unfinished “Notes of a publicisist”. There is little 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 was non-violent resistance, as Tolstoy sought personal improvement. Gandhi added to his personal influence exerted on other people in the course of mass, group or individual resistance. Tolstoy focused on the general ideals of good and justice, while Gandhi stressed concrete political goals.

 Gandhi’s invincible mettle as a public figure was first manifested in South Africa. 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 it possible to tolerate evil, he considered it immoral and contrary to the sublime spiritual goal to resort to just any means to fight it. He found a way by introducing non-violence in politics through the elaboration of the theory and practice of non-violent resistance.

 “Satyagraha” – means persistent pursuing of 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 Indian’s true faith. What appears to suggest individualistic attitudes soon results in collectivism and involvement in a mass movement. M.K. Gandhi called not to take refuge in unrighteous, never to compromise against one’s conscience, never to participate in or subjugate to injustice and to be prepared to courageously face the consequences of one’s own righteous behaviour invariably met with enthusiastic response from the masses as they 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 it needed was determination and avoidance of any support to injustice. “Satyagraha” made it possible for everyone to immediately contribute to the common cause and was drawn into politics to become 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 effective methods of exerting pressure and mobilising the masses. It ensured mass participation in the resistance movement. Opposing the salt monopoly through civil disobedience (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.

One Comment

  1. Rahul Biswas Rahul Biswas August 19, 2021

    Beautiful writing sir.

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