K. S. Parthsaarathy
Yet another Gandhi Jayanthi is being celebrated. “On Gandhi Jayanthi Day, let us say only Truth” is the first line of a poem by that ascetic Kannada poet Pu.Ti.Na. At least on this day! Let us try! We have to recognize our own human limitations, while evaluating the Greats amongst us. When we are critically evaluating the eminent, it is vainglorious to pointedly attack them for their imperfections. Such critics often do it from their own personal stand point of view or they mediate through a political language. When we are concerned with issues which are timeless, you cannot apply current, narrow and circumstantial standards and to do like that is being un-historic. However the moot point is are we capable of evaluating still persists. But then we are human only because of this infirmity to attempt often the impossible. Let us try.
All of Gandhiji’s life was ‘an experiment with Truth’ as he wanted us to believe. While he substantially broadened the basis for practicing Satya, one should add ‘as humanly as possible’, as the times and the circumstances he was placed in were not particularly conducive for quenching this eternal quest of humanity for Truth. The very struggle for existence would be interpreted by Gandhiji as the opportunity for seeking Truth and not construed as misery. May be thus seen they become tolerable. But Gandhiji declares war against social evils that heap indignities on human beings. When he rebels against the uncalled for, not inevitable hunger, poverty, ill health and ignorance, he refuses to put up with status quo and turns out to be advocating revolutionary social change but to be brought about through nonviolent movements. That may be his limitation when it comes to unwillingness to squarely charge anybody with deliberate exploitation. That accounts for many a leanings in him such as caste system, the God’s wrath expressed through earth quake etc, which we might call archaic. Was that a deliberate ploy from this western educated man on the plea he was in harmony with the masses on this ? But this however does not retract us from understanding him for his more seminal contributions. However the means is important to him because, as, otherwise, the very wrong means would distort the desired end and perpetuate that which one wants to eliminate. Thus seen, there is no contradiction between his spiritual positions and worldly activities. Thus he does not appear to be a mere Hindu religious teacher as some people try to cast him in to that mould.
Man is imperfect is an axiom. Another axiom is perfect cannot flow from imperfect. That can explain any shortcomings in Gandhiji the human being and, note, he never claimed godliness for himself. He did not relish for most of the time his epithet ‘Mahatma’, given to him by Tagore. He would say shortcomings are his own and not that of his Truth which is absolute and uncompromising. But the wonderful fact is he did scale and surpass such heights, which very few had done hitherto, in that adventure of human spirit. All that human effort is capable of is but to take a few steps at a time towards that perfection. Perfection is an ideal, which appears attainable and never attained. That is its attraction; some would say fatal, as it becomes an all-consuming passion for the practitioner of Truth. Many seekers have ended up paying a price with their life. Gandhiji himself has identified three concise principles as cardinal to all most all his various ideals viz: Satya, Ahimsa and Tyaga. In passing it may stated here that it is almost impossible to translate them into English with the same force as they are understood by an Indian, in any of their languages. It is also of interest that the words Ahimsa, Satya and Satyagraha have already found their way into English and other language dictionaries. It is however noted that these words are often translated as ‘Truth, Nonviolence and Sacrifice’ Let us examine them.
Tyaga is not sacrifice of the religious propitiation but one of ‘giving up’. It is not mere giving up material possessions. It is also to give up all that one lovingly wants to keep for himself, giving up all collectives of negative passions that a human being is capable of such as Kama, Krodha, Lobha, Moha, Mada, Matsarya etc. ‘Giving up them’, as they are obstacles in the way of the Seeker of Truth. This ‘giving up’ is a necessary purificatory preparation for the Seeker, in body and spirit, for pursuing such exalted value as Satya, which in its Sanskrit verbal root means ‘that which is’ The contextual Indian cultural roots of these values are so relevant for their appreciation in full measure. Also Gandhiji is very particular about their order, as their interrelationship is established in that order. He prefers to say Satya is God, better than God is Satya. That is why it becomes possible for a confessed atheist and rationalist like Gora to become a staunch Gandhian and for many other ardent followers of other religions and even scientific materialists to become his staunch supporters. The relation between the three value categories is very organic, Gandhiji would say. To wrench them apart is violence on the totality of Gandhian philosophy, if we may call it so. It is not possible for some one to follow only one of them to the exclusion of the other two. The lively relationship between them also flows from the first to second to third in that order, and also envelop them in an integral whole.
One who has an unshakeable confidence in his Satya, and is committed to it will be capable of supreme sacrifice, including ones own life, if called for, for the sake of defending Truth. It is not for him to take to the cowardly path of violence. Thus acting, he would be qualifying himself to be called Dheera… the brave, as propounded in Upanishads. Only such a person can take part in his Dandi yaatra and salt Satyagraha. In order to establish Satya, a person so prepared spiritually, would take recourse to nonviolent path and not the false way of violence. He would invite any suffering on himself but never inflict it on anybody else, in all the three planes of mind, body and spirit. The path of nonviolence is the path of Truth. The very nature of the ideal decides the form of the way also. Thus explained even when your cause is justified you cannot take recourse to violence, not even for achieving. Freedom, even if it is to defend the honor of woman for instance. Though somewhere in a reply to a questioner, he says it would be better to take course to violence to discharge his higher duty in such cases rather than exhibit abject cowardice in the face of injustice, he retracts from this position later and says it is a prescription only for the spiritually weak and those not well prepared to be qualified as a Satyagrahi. We witness the veracity of this position in the film shots of police action in Dandi Salt Satyagraha.
Commitment to Satya calls for shouldering of great social and personal responsibility and the capacity to shoulder it presumed to be infinite for the one who is Truthful in all three senses. What if some one questions the truth, which one firmly believes in? It poses two possibilities. It may help bring out deficiencies in our own position and help correct/improve it. We may acknowledge with humility and gratefulness and accept such corrections. Alternatively, we may argue, discuss and try in a civilized democratic way to convince and win over the questioner to our position. In both these cases, it will be to the glory of Satya. A third possibility is to eliminate our opponent by force and violence, with a view to silence opposition. Such a course is possible only by one who has not fully prepared himself spiritually for the cause through enough sacrifice and discipline and hence of a weak mettle. Such a measure would leave a permanent disconnect in the discourse for Satya and hence a failure and also failure of the individual as a Satyagrahi. In actuality it awards a victory to the Satan. This step would not result in the establishment of Satya by missing both the other two constructive possibilities explained just before, which is the only way Satya can grow and widen its base. Thus, Gandhiji, establishes the basis for practice of Nonviolence that is Ahimsa, in the pursuit of Truth as the only creative way. That is the way he would guarantee unarmed victory for Truth.
When an individual, fired by such lofty principles and personal preparation through discipline, launches his social movements as part of his eternal quest for Satya, he ceases to be an individual force and he envelops the social consciousness with ease, as if it is natural. Nobody who is near him can remain a bystander. He is sucked into this noble purpose. There is not an iota of selfish purpose any where in the activities of those who struggle for establishing Satya. His spiritual power at that level is much more than all the power of Atom Bomb. A society is rich to the extent there exists within that society such individuals who have attained such spiritual heights. Taittireeya Upanishad directs the student to look to them and look how they behave and not to Texts to understand what is right or wrong when in doubt. Thus it is difficult to characterize many such seemingly individual efforts of noble souls in the past purely as personal struggles. It is clear why their movements were in actuality mass movements. For Gandhiji the freedom movement was one such struggle for establishing Satya, against the falsehood of colonial enslavement. If it were not false, he would have been glad to serve His Majesty!, He declares at the beginning of his movement.
If, one were to say, spiritual preparation of individuals at such a high standard is difficult to achieve in practice at mass level, even if in theory it appears as possible, the answer is judge the mass Satyagraha movements not from their being not perfect but from the tremendous power they unleashed even in their partially successful forms, thus, validating the application of this morally superior method in the fight for freedom or any other social movement. Even while knowing the imperfections and failures of these novel methods of struggle, still the whole world applauded this. And in the periods of human history yet to come, the method would continue to play greater role. This is because all other methods of violence, including nuclear weapons have lost their sheen. The method of Satyagraha has been put to trial in a very limited way so far. The possibilities are great.
A few observations about sources of Gandhiji’s principles may be in place. It is generally agreed that, as essential sources, it is sufficient to count for the purpose Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Ishaavaasyopanishad and Vaishnavajanato amongst Indian sources. The western sources are from Tolstoy, Ruskin and Henry Thoreau. It is true he consulted other religious texts and folk lore also. But they could be seen as part of verification, for further confirmation of views gathered in the earlier listed texts and fresh ideas generated during his various experiments. It is easy to deride these texts and sources themselves as outdated, inconsistent and unsatisfactory. Whatever is the validity of such criticisms, the fact remains they have been influencing people through their mental and cultural plane for long and people know their terminologies and formulations and it is unrealistic to argue as though they do not exist. It was easy for Gandhiji to explain himself through the very same usages and reach out to an understanding and readily forthcoming public. It is as if he would say that what he is doing is nothing new and only serving the same whom they held in esteem. His acceptability was immediate. He appeared as ‘one of our own’. But the universality of his message brought spontaneous response from all over the world.
He was not satisfied by the meaning conveyed by the western pacifist terms ‘passive resistance’ and ‘civil disobedience’. They intoned as weak man’s defense against the mighty instead of vigorous response of a morally zestful individual. He consulted his readers and selected from their suggestions the word Satyagraha for his mode of resistance, meaning ‘to press and plead with morally strong forceful urges on behalf of what is Truth.’ Bhagavad Gita prescribes, on two occasions, Ahimsa to a Seeker as part of his discipline. The Seeker here seems to attempt becoming a superman. Ramayana seeks to establish standards, in a way setting the limits as it were, (Rama is called the Maryadapurusha) for a personality and character of a perfect human being here on earth and deals with trials and tribulations such a committed person undergoes in an imperfect world. What is the quality an structure of a State rule by such a person is outlined in Ramarajya. The Ishavasyopanishad delineates conditions for and the principles of balance in using natural resources, by living modestly without greed, which imply charity and sacrifice, and in harmony with nature. That some of these texts appear to contain things that are inconsistent with modern egalitarian concepts does not make them any more irrelevant in respect of the universal values contained therein applicable to all ages. There is no text, which is perfect for all time. We have to cull values from these sources and piece together to suit our requirement and build our own system for our time. As far as the western sources is concerned, the works he looks up to seem to accord well with his Indian sources. He is impressed by their egalitarianism at all levels. Together these texts provide Gandhiji the basis for his three principles of Satya, Ahimsa and Tyaga, that would help build the moral fibre and help construct the Satyagraha model for his method of struggle, of Satwika Prathirodha, which is to resist with all moral force at ones command for the sake of Truth.
Another issue is his remarkable work with the vast population of south Asia. He awakened the whole people like no body else had done before, extensively, powerfully and enmass. He extensively planted in them the thirst for freedom and a fire of nationalism, though the second one is not a priority for him and just incidental. He proceeded to fashion a unique weapon for them to employ in their struggle, the weapon of mass scale Satyagraha. He trained them, however imperfect their response was, but surely and effectively in the art of employing this weapon. All this he could achieve in hardly fifteen years! From 1930 onwards it was clear, with or without Gandhiji and his other colleagues, people will achieve their goal in the near future. When Gandhiji dissociated with congress in 1935, no body took this seriously for the same reason. When all the leaders were in prison, still people as a whole, carried on the struggle of 1942 that brought about the freedom ultimately. Can anybody grudge if the main credit is assigned to Gandhiji for this unique achievement of a people in human history? Let us tell the Truth Today, as, Today is Gandhi Jayanthi.