When Gandhi claimed “My life is my message” he was pointing to the synthesis in his life of various contrary themes and emphases in his message. This underlining the unity of ideas and action was for Gandhi the authentication of his life and legacy. This was precisely Gandhi’s praxis. Gandhi’s political discourse reconceptualises the moral ambiguities involved into a powerful synthesis.
Gandhi’s Peace Discourse
Gandhi’s ahimsa and satyagraha refine our understanding of peace and power. His swaraj and swadesh provide a trenchant critique of our globalised neo-conservative capitalist social order. These cannot any more be dismissed in coping with the violence we have perpetrated on ourselves, within and among ourselves, within and between societies nation-states.
For the Gandhian discourse and praxis has foundational implication for any understanding in the pursuit of peace as justice and freedom, of reconciliation and harmony. To begin with, one must affirm that Gandhi’s approach is always holistic, for him the personal is the political, and the political is inclusive of the other dimensions of personal and social life, religious or rather an ethical struggle, precisely because it is always a work in progress for a new and liberated society.
Thus Gandhi’s understanding of non-violence, ahimsa, is not a negative concept. He insists that it must be a positive understanding of compassion and love, of empathy with all humans, even our enemies, and indeed with the whole of the cosmos. In terms of such a positive understanding, Gandhi sees violence, even in the sense of ‘force’, however justified, as always a violation of this love, compassion, empathy; a violation not just of persons but of the very structure of reality itself. For Gandhi it is truth that is the ultimate reality, satya, and violence is asatya, always a violation of this truth. Ultimately such a violation cannot but betray the deepest truth of the violator himself. For Gandhi God is truth, and in the final analysis truth is God, satya the ultimate reality.
The “will to power” has been glorified and romanticised as an instinctual human drive. But to make power thus an end in itself unleashes its immense destructive potential all the more. Gandhi was acutely aware of this. The only force he accepts as ethical is truth force or satyagraha. And even at the personal level his life-long quest was against any kind of domination. The only domination that Gandhi would accept was self-control or domination over oneself, swaraj.
His satyagraha was essentially an appeal to truth, and to conscience. It did indeed have emotional and political implications, but if these were to be the determining characteristics of satyagraha then it would be manipulation and betrayal, one more manifestation of the perversion of power. For, satyagraha as an instrument for change in Gandhi’s own estimate had to be used with great caution and with much self-examination. What we have today is civil disobedience, duragraha, rather than satyagraha. Gandhi would never countenance its violent implications and fallout.
The Gandhian notion of swaraj or self-rule meant primarily rule over one’s self as the foundation for living with others, in justice, freedom and harmony, premised on forgiveness and reconciliation. This is the Gandhian understanding of peace. But with swadeshi, Gandhi goes a step further by indicating the contours of such a society of peace, the self-reliance and neighbourliness of a little community, which would inevitably be a counter-cultural one today. Thus for Gandhi, justice must be founded on equality and dharma, prioritising duties rather than rights; freedom on self-control and self-reliance, more than freedom from others; harmony on self-respect and self-realisation, not on power and dominance over others.
Gandhi’s emphasis on ahimsa (nonviolence) and satyagraha (truth-force), his swadeshi (one’s own neighbourhood, pays) and swaraj are foundational in his continuing quest for peace premised on justice, freedom, harmony, his Ramrajya, the homologue of the Christian Kingdom of God. Such a peace in our world is perhaps the most relevant and deepest human quest for a new age, “a new heaven and a new earth”, a quest that not only bonds each to the other, but embraces the whole of the cosmos too, in one inclusive ecological community, beginning with the local village and neighbourhood, in ever widening oceanic circles to include the whole world.
Nation-states are surely the greatest menace to international peace today, and as yet nationalism a most powerful mobilising ideology, we need more than ever the moral sanity of Gandhi. For him ‘ swaraj’ was never mere independence, ‘ swatantrata’. His ‘ purnaswaraj’ meant comprehensive freedom, ‘ azadi’, for all and especially the huddled masses and lasts and least among them. This was the India of his dreams. But today chauvinist nationalism and religious fundamentalism, caste patriotism and class interests have broken any tryst with such a destiny as we might have hoped for.
Modernity and Violence
If Gandhi’s ahimsa seems impractical, in the impasse we have trapped ourselves what are the alternatives? How would Gandhi, the apostle of ahimsa, respond to our claim to be a deterrent nuclear weapons state? Today a powerful aggressive Hindu Rashtra is an initiative being pushed by our cultural nationalists! What all this has to do with the quality of life of the impoverished masses remains a question that must haunt us. But then in a globalised world it is surely only the elite that will get to strut and fret upon this global stage, while the masses of our people are a passive and manipulated audience to this macabre theatre.
The whole effort of the modern world in dealing with violence has been to control the other. But mastery over others has not meant less violence for ourselves. Modern technology and industry has brought greater environmental degradation, only to precipitate an even greater ecological crisis. Our violence towards creation is but the extension of the violence among ourselves. We have become both the perpetrators and the sufferers of this violence. Gandhi’s attempt begins with controlling oneself, as the first source of violence one must master in order to fearlessly and non-violently win over the violent others. All wars begin in the hearts of men.
Thus the modern world emphasised rights and privileged freedom, Gandhi foregrounded duty and the primacy of conscience, to conscientise persons to listen their inner voice, not follow their compulsions. Gandhi has much relevance to our present need to once again bridge this dichotomy between rights and duties, and integrate both in a more comprehensive freedom of choice and the obligation of conscience, and build a humanist worldview and a more genuinely humane world-community. This is our only real chance for peace for the diverse communities of our society as also now for a multicultural, pluri-religion, globally inter-dependent world.
Ram Saumya and Oceanic Circles
We believe that Gandhi with his ahimsa and satyagraha, his swaraj and swadeshi, has much to teach us about this peace that more than ever we realise must be the foundational myth of our societies today, for a brave new world tomorrow.
Gandhi did try to express such an ideal of peace with his secularised myth of ‘Ramraj’. But this could not quite free itself from its religious context and so was not as universal in its appeal as Gandhi intended. Now it has been misappropriated to sanction the very opposite of what Gandhi stood for, Ram raudra, the warlike, not Ram saumya, the gentle maryada purush.
Gandhi’s vision of the oceanic circles, centring on little communities and neighbourhoods (swadesh), in ever widening and overlapping, reinforcing and inclusive circles, reverses the pyramidal image of a society, stratified by class or segmented by caste, divided by ethnicity or religion. It gives us a commanding image and symbol for peace on which we can hope to base our new foundational social myth, our deep collective dream of peace.
But for this dream to ever begin to become a reality, we must divest ourselves of a great deal of the cultural baggage we carry, the presumptions and pre-options we have been, and still are being socialised into. We must not allow our history to control our fate, but come to terms with our collective memories and allow our wounded psyche to heal, and re-engage with our tryst with destiny.
This would demand a social metanoia, a collective change of heart, as a pre-condition for a dialogue with the ‘other’, and more importantly for the dialogue between ourselves, but first within our ‘self’, where this myth of peace must first be rooted. Gandhi died a beaten, broken old man. It is not he who has failed us, it is we who failed to live his ideals, and so betray our deepest most enriching dreams. Gandhi’s synthesis still awaits India’s praxis.
(The writer works with Indian Social Institute. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Published on 01st October 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 40)