The moment the mighty figure of Gandhi rises before us, the question presents itself: What is his relevance today and for the future? What
inspiration can we draw from his life? What light can his thought
and wisdom shed on our problems? How does his way of life affect
our course of action in private and public affairs? That Gandhi is
relevant today and for centuries to come is not in doubt at all.
The words which Jawaharlal Nehru uttered almost immediately after
Gandhi's sudden exit from this world are found to prove prophetic.
He said, The light is gone and yet it will shine for a thousand
years. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Nobel Peace Prize winner of
U.S.A., came to India as a pilgrim in 1959. After a month's sojourn
in the land of Gandhi, on the eve of his departure, he was asked a
cynical question at a press conference in Delhi. Where is Gandhi
today? He was asked: we see him nowhere. Dr. King's reply was that
Gandhi was inevitable. If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is
inescapable. He lived, thought and acted, inspired by the vision of
a humanity evolving towards a world of peace and harmony. We may
ignore him only at our own risk.
The relevance of a man or his message can be said to have many aspects. It can be immediate or remote; it can be local, regional or general; it can be personally relevant to some or universally for all. In the case of Gandhi all these aspects of his relevance can be studied with profit.
Man, in Gandhi's eyes, was the measure. Gandhi's approach to himself, and to life in general, was that of a seeker of truth and of a votary of nonviolence or love. His was a scientific mind and he sought for that law of life and being which would promote the common weal and help man to reach higher elevations of consciousness. He perceived that love, spelt as nonviolence in thought, word and deed, was the shortest cut to human progress and evolution, both individual and social. In his eyes, progressive nonviolence could express itself best through service, self-suffering and, if necessary, total sacrifice. His mind was always open, fresh and receptive to truth as he went on finding it from day to day by experience. For him, while his own consciousness was the laboratory for searching out the inner core of truth, human society was the field for social experiments which could lead to harmony and happiness. In whatever corner of the world he worked for the time being, the whole of humanity and its good were always present to him.
One very important aspect of his life adds measure significantly to what he thought and did. He lived day in and day out open to public view, as on a stage. He took the people and even his opponents into confidence not only in regard to his actions but even his motivations. The result is that none in history has left behind so much of documentation and direct evidence concerning everything he thought and did. Moreover, he himself has written so much and on every conceivable subject that his writings are likely to run into fifty to sixty sumptuous volumes of five hundred pages each. All this material is proving very helpful in assessing Gandhi's relevance both for the present and for the future.
It is impossible in a few brief pages to cover all the aspects of Gandhi's life and teaching which are of relevance to our own times and environment. Here I shall merely draw the attention of the reader to three aspects of his life which are of the utmost importance.
The life-story of Gandhi as a man is of the greatest relevance to every human being who aspires to rise above the average level and lead a meaningful life, with the watchword, "From good to better daily self-surpassed". Gandhi was not merely a moralist but one who believed that man has a great future and that he is evolving towards a higher and nobler destiny. He knew the power of the many vital and sensual urges of man. He has also confessed with remarkable frankness his own weaknesses in this matter. But what makes a study of his life most helpful is the unceasing attempt he makes to conquer these weaknesses and establish the superiority of moral and spiritual endeavour. Not one of us is free from the weaknesses our minds are subject to. At the same time, every one of us wishes to rise above the excessive demands of the flesh. This constant struggle goes on within us and we require not only inspiration and strength to win this inner battle but also some practical guidance to overcome our weaknesses. Gandhi is eminently fitted to be a good guide to us because he is extremely human and does not interpose any distance between himself and us by assuming an air of superiority or authority. He declared that what he had done, or was doing, every other human being was equally capable of doing. That self-control is the key to the higher and happier life was his constant refrain. His progress in this matter was not by a sudden conversion, or through the grace of some saint or seer or holy shrine. From and erring, faltering, stumbling and struggling youth, Gandhi rose to the eminence of being called "a moral genius" by no less a person than the celebrated British philosopher, C.E.M. Joad. This eminence he attained not be accident or luck or good fortune but by a determined and steady effort at self-discipline. His outer life and actions were but the reflection of his inner struggle to hold fast to truth, to truthful living, and to achiever good ends only through good, virtuous, nonviolent means. We can easily see what great importance he attached to self-control and personal virtue if we remember that he felt it necessary to take the vow of continence on the eve of launching the great campaign of satyagraha in South Africa. If one wishes to study a modern life, as in a film, a life which chastened itself from step to step and ultimately became the powerful force that raised a nation from utter slavery to dignified independence, one would have to go to Gandhi. There is something very intimate and personal, something very familiar and near in Gandhi's life because it is so open and sincere. Not only his celebrated autobiography, but his enormous and multitudinous correspondence and even the editorial columns of the journals which he edited for years and in which he always wrote in first person, all these reflect the process of his development from time to time. His every word, spoken or written, is like a link in the dialogue between his ego and his higher self. It exposes to view the springs of motivation and action and thus renders the greatest service to man evolving from the stage of animality to humanity, from untruth to truth, from darkness to light, from hatred to love, from selfishness to altruism, from man the beast to man the god, which is really what all men aspire to be.
What other life can be so relevant and helpful to all of us?
As one reads about the inner life of Gandhi one finds that his had been a heroic struggle against what he thought was mean, low and below the human level. His endeavour was to rise above the life of the senses and life the life of the spirit. That is why Tolstoy's The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You appealed to him so immensely. He laid the greatest store by self-purification. The evil outside was, in his eyes, the reflection of the evil and weakness inside oneself. The inner and the outer world were but the obverse and reverse of the same coin, namely, our existence, our being. If the evil inside was to be fought and conquered, it was equally necessary for man to fight all evil outside with as much determination and bravery. While he was a saint and a holy man aspiring to be clean and pure, above all the temptations of the flesh and beyond any selfish motivation, and a true devotee of God or Truth, he was nevertheless a saint in constant action, an activist of the highest order. He was not satisfied with his own individual salvation. Like the compassionate Buddha, he was inspired by the passion for relieving every kind of suffering and for wiping out the last tear from the eyes of the last man. That is why his most favourite song and refrain was, "He alone is a true devotee of God who understands the pain and suffering of others." His tireless striving to remove the sources of every kind of suffering arose out of this extreme sensitiveness to the pain of sentient beings, of course, including him.
The other equally important and powerful urge which hold of Gandhi's whole being early in life was "to return good for evil". He quotes in his autobiography a stray line from a Gujarati poet which he read in his boyhood. But to act according to this principle became a passion with him throughout his life.
Thus this triple passion - to search in a scientific spirit for the law of the individual and social well-being and progress, to establish the truth of that law through love and nonviolence, and always return good for evil - dominated his life from the beginning to end.
If Gandhi's life, thought and action are extremely relevant and useful for every human being who is self-conscious and who aspired after a higher, nobler and more exalted life than he may be living today, Gandhi's teaching as regards social life and its proper organization is equally positive, constructive and practical. In fact, he called himself a practical idealist. He did not even for a moment forget that man is essentially a social being. Man's relationship to sentient beings and man's relationship to material things may be said to be the subjects of his incessant research during a long, eventful and multifaceted life. While the fundamental lines of his research, namely, the truth about the law of being and its search through love alone, were once for all decided, his mind was always open like that of a scientist to new discoveries. That is why we find so much freshness in the way he deals with ever new situations. Going along the path he had chalked out for himself, he arrived at a social philosophy which could be characterized as a synthesis between the needs, urges and aspirations of the individual and of the society of which the individual is an inseparable and indivisible part. He called it sarvodaya - the rise and well-being of all. While it is the duty and responsibility of society to plan for the fullest possible development of the best in every individual, it is equally necessary that the individual render back unto society what he, in fact, owes to society. Thus there has to be a balancing of rights and obligations between the individuals and the society which they compose. A society will be but an abstract concept if we do not think in terms of the individuals who form it. An individual is equally an abstract entity without a society to live in. Gandhi therefore gave the greatest importance to the flowering of the individual in a properly ordered society, and not merely to organization and systems. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and a system is good and efficient only to the extent of the goodness and efficiency of the individuals working it. Gandhi applied these principles to all human organizations and systems, economic, political and social.
Man, the individual, is the centre of Gandhi's system of thought. The objective is the moral and spiritual development of man. Man is primarily his consciousness, his capacity to be self-conscious, and his built-in potentiality to judge between good and evil, between what will help him in his evolution to higher levels of being and what will obstruct his path. This gives him a leverage, not only to aspire after higher levels but to endeavour to attain the same. Gandhi believed in this self-effort and the path he outlined lay through ethical, moral and spiritual disciplines. The key-note of his ethics is love, which means near-identity of interest with every sentient being; this love has to be expressed in the form of service and sacrifice. His ethics in relation to material things and property consisted in his concept of trusteeship. Every human being is a trustee not only of his faculties and attainments but of everything he comes by. And trusteeship consists not only in using his powers and goods properly but in using them selflessly and for the well-being of all others.
As indicated above, his social philosophy boils down to sarvodaya, which precludes the suppression or elimination of any class. But the question is how to bring about this millennium? The satyagraha way of life is his reply. Insistence on the truth of one's own experience through nonviolence alone, even unto death, is the royal road he points out.
Gandhi saw that there was enough of truth, evil, injustice and exploitation in human relationships and public affairs. He was determined that all that must go. He wanted to devise ways and means which would be consistent with the principles he had laid down for himself as being the best. He was as heroic in fighting the evil and injustice in the world outside as in conquering the evil and weakness in his own mind. The means he adopted satisfied the double demand, namely, that they should be truthful and that they should be pure, moral and constructive. Thus, in a world where science and technology have put into the hand of those in possession of wealth, power and authority weapons of coercion and destruction beyond ordinary conception, Gandhi's weapon of satyagraha is a boon. It can be used even by a single individual who has developed sufficient moral power by his own purity of thought and conduct.
The relevance of satyagraha, both as a way of life and as a weapon for evolutionary social change, need not now be in doubt when it is being used successfully by the Negroes in U.S.A. under the able guidance of Dr. Martin Luther King. Thought its use in an international conflict has yet to be tried, one can hazard the statement that non-alignment, moral pressure by non-aligned powers, and the economic and other sanctions which the U.N.O. often thinks of are along the line of nonviolent resistance to evil and injustice. It may be said that Aldous Huxley, in his famous book Ends and Means, has made a very good case for nonviolent resistance by all those who suffer at the hands of modern governments which are armed to the teeth with the modern instruments of coercion, suppression and destruction. He says that it is the only remedy - and a very civilized moral remedy at that.
The third aspect of Gandhi's teachings which can be taken note of here is his insistence on the resolution of all conflicts by peaceful means. He declared that war and violence never solve any problems. They create new ones and sow the seeds of future wars and the continuance of hatred. The appearance of nuclear weapons, the use of which involves total destruction, has made Gandhi's plea doubly forceful and important if the future of humanity and its peaceful, orderly progress is out concern. The only way is to cease to war against each other and instead, use all our resources to war against the common enemies of man, namely, ignorance, poverty, disease and so on. We must devise means and provide ways to resolve conflicts through negotiation, mediation, arbitration and tribunals - in fact, by every other means than the use of weapons which necessarily involves the destruction of life and property. It does not need any argument to prove that this teaching of Gandhi is relevant so long as conflicts are sought to be resolved through the use of destructive weapons and missiles.
It is clear that Gandhi's life, thought, teaching and action are ever relevant for all aspirants of the ethical and spiritual life. His principles and technique of satyagraha are highly efficacious instruments of peaceful economic, social and political change whenever and wherever it is required. His gospel of peaceful means for resolving all conflicts is the only way to escape the disaster nuclear war. In its totality, Gandhi's teaching is a highly inspiring one and serves as a signpost to humanity marching towards a better, happier and more harmonious world.