India, it seems, has turned her back on Gandhi, and what his life and message have meant for people across the world. It is a hard thought to bear. Is it possible that the great heritage of India, encapsulated through Gandhi’s life, for India, and for the world, that this jewel of inestimable value is being discarded?
By Gandhi, is meant the principles the man lived and died for. To ignore Gandhi, is to ignore the very ideals that offer humanity hope, that make life worth living. To ignore Gandhi is to ignore our human potential for peace, justice, social security.
The natural admiration in the heart for the positive human potentials Gandhi held out have made him a hero to millions outside of India. Noted American author, the late Pearl S. Buck observed:
“The name of Gandhi, even in his lifetime, has passed beyond the meaning of an individual to the meaning of a way of living in our troubled modern world. In the midst of unrestrained and evil force, what for me has been of the greatest significance is the reaffirmation of this way of living. I am glad to be able to say here, upon this page, that Mr. Gandhi’s steady persistence in his chosen way has given me, among millions of others, courage to resist, by that greatest of all resistances, unconquerable, unwavering personal determination, the growth of tyranny in the world.”i
Because of the modes he adopted to stress the principles his actions were pointing to, like wearing a dhoti made of hand-spun, hand-woven cloth, and spinning for hours daily to popularize means to bring a small measure of economic uplift to India’s rural poor; living with minimal material goods and technology; his use of the Fast as his ultimate prayer for change – many have followed suit, and label themselves, or, are labeled as, Gandhian. However, Gandhi was very clear that he wanted to see the principles he stood for being passed on, not the relics of his personality:
“There is no such thing as `Gandhi-ism,’ and I do not want to leave any sect after me. I do not claim to have originated any new principle or doctrine. I have simply tried in my own way to apply the eternal truths to our daily life and problems. There is, therefore, no question of my leaving any code like the code of Manu. There can be no comparison between that great law-giver and me. The conclusions I have arrived at are not final; I may change them tomorrow. I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try experiments in both on as vast a scale as I could do. In doing so, I have sometimes erred and learnt by my errors. Life and its problems have thus become to me so many experiments in the practice of truth and nonviolence. By instinct, I have been truthful but not non-violent…In fact it was in the course of my pursuit of truth that I discovered nonviolence.”ii
For India’s presently educated elite, bringing India into ‘modernity’ is seen as being possible through the means their schooling has taught them – cooperation with corporate development, willful ecological destruction, farmland confiscation, ensuring cheap labor markets, nuclear power. Many educated people believe that massive environmental, even nuclear pollution is a necessary stage India must pass through in order to become `modernized’. Ironically, forest rangers are educated in the US where humans are considered separate from nature; returned to India, apply their education to areas where Adivasis live in at-one-ment with nature, confounding their theories, which are unfit for the reality of the Indian context.iii
All symptoms indicate that it is going to take much more than tens, or hundreds of thousands, to bring the principles of Gandhi back to the public mind and body politic, to pass them down and make them take on a new life and expression for India and the world today. For the majority of good and God-fearing peoples of the planet, now feeling powerless in the face of licensed greed as a form of business, its disheartening.
A dear friend of mine in the US, Jo Neff, who has been observing world affairs for years, expressed to me the unspoken expectation people share, that India’s role is to offer the world another way of being. She said:
“I don’t like the idea that India is racing towards the west. Why does the whole world want to race towards the west? This terrible culture where we work like slaves just to stay alive…businesses open on holidays, and later and later at night…so people can buy more and more of what they don’t need and no one can rest at all.”1
The idea of the conscience of a given nation that leads generations in the continued transmission, the passing down of its unique ethos, is an old one, known and felt throughout the Earth. All nations have blazing ideals in their formation. The collective ethical aspirations, dreams and beloved ideals of a people both form and stem from, the conscience or soul of a nation. The universally found principles and ideals Gandhi followed, came out of her own indigenous ethos. In his day, India’s ethos had become buried to her own mind after centuries of subjugation. The forgetfulness then was increased by a new vision of life’s purpose, for British interests, that was impressed upon young minds through education, and the power and privileges it gave to the elite.
Gandhi was keenly aware of India’s conscience:
“We know, too, that each nation has its own characteristics and individuality. India has her own, and if we are to find out a true solution for her many ills, we shall have to take all the idiosyncrasies of her constitution into account, and then prescribe a remedy. I claim that to industrialize India in the same sense as Europe is to attempt the impossible.”iv
In a lecture in the United States in 1902, Swami Rama Tirtha2 discussed the evolving nature of a nations conscience in a talk that today illustrates the discrepancy between how he saw the soul of India then, and the directions we all see India taking now:
“My own Self in the form of ladies and gentlemen, Rama [speaking of himself] does not blame European or Christian nations for their cohorts and armies to conquer other nations; that is also a stage in the spiritual development of a nation, which is at one time necessary. India had to pass through that stage; but India being a very old nation had weighed the riches of the world in the balance and found them wanting; and the same will be the experience of these nations that are in these days for accumulating worldly prosperity and riches.”v
Along with a soul or conscience, nations have minds as well. The 34th US President F.D. Roosevelt observed:
“A nation, like a person, has a mind—a mind that must be kept informed and alert, that must know itself, that understands the hopes and needs of its neighbours—all the other nations that live within the narrowing circle of the world.”vi
The mind of the nation must touch the hridaya, the place of the heart, the conscience within it, to be kept wise by its informing power of truth and love. The living conscience of a nation can best be manifested when the national mind is ethically healthy, true to its intrinsic ideals. As such, it becomes the duty of business to serve the beneficial moral nature of the nation, to foster it through government, civic bodies, religious and spiritual organs, educational institutions, community, and family life. Second to family and community, it is the strength and drive of the business classes that has the capacity to keep the mind of their respective nations healthy, clear and ethically-focused.
What does it mean to Pass Down Gandhi?
To accurately describe this transmission and passing down of a national conscience, the work and verses of India’s medieval-era linguistic philosopher Bhartrhari (estimates place him around 500–700 AD), in his treatise on speech, the Vakyapadya3 elucidates the core of this work. This text seeks to explain the nature of language and its relationship to universal principles and harmony.4 In the Vakyapadya, Bhartrhari demonstrates how this ancient learning system, passed the torch down, keeping students close to the realized genius of the masters of the sciences they studied:
“Linguistics is a discipline whose aim is knowledge, clarified from errors of mistaken use. It is recorded through an uncut continuity – of learning that is called to mind, by those who’ve learned it well and hand it down.
Passed down through a succession that remains unbroken, the intent remembered is reconstituted, over and over again.
Where a tradition of established common practice carries on without recording it in words, what gets to be remembered is no more than the unbroken practice of successful practitioners.”vii
Bhartrhari speaks of intention, and remembering, reformulating the original intention, refreshing it again in human experience. What was passed down, in days of yore, before age-segregation style education became the norm, was a shared experience of not only linguistics, but a world view. This experience enabled a certainty of knowing that could be translated through many means, to various recipients: as much as their personal cups of questing inquiry could hold. This passing down was literally, the process of giving our children the wealth of the world, the benefit of human experience, from the age of the oldest living member upon it, to whom, the passing down had conceivably gone on before. This made our elders important people, they were valuable.
Have we become so inured, so indifferent, that we can no longer tell the difference between a genuine transmission of our ideals and mere copies?
Political leaders in countries outside India increasingly erect statues of Gandhi in public places. However, youth is poorly informed about the living reality of his ideals, outside of a rudimentary biographical context. The Gandhi statues are for most, urban scenery.
They cannot bring the connection to living principles to life. Gandhi’s unique and tremendous manifestation of ideals – personal truthfulness, of keeping the eye on love and human connection, of trusteeship for one another, of simplicity, service to, and justice for India’s down trodden, are smiled at, and set aside.
Today, one of India’s premiere educational institutions5 is now teaching a course on how to spin khadi.
Artists are using khadi in their artwork, gaining international acclaim.
Around October second, Gandhi’s birth anniversary, children (little boys) in schools throughout the nation don eye-glass frames of a similar style that Gandhi wore, wear khadi dhotis, carry a danda (staff), and re-enact the Salt March. Is this passing down Gandhi?
These activities and events, have little to do with imparting the living force of Gandhi’s life message down to our children. They are exercises in costume and theatre, they do not ignite the thirst for social justice, equality and peace. Nor do our elite and educated youth rise, en masse, thirsting to help their suffering countrymen and women.
A long time ago in America, the passing down of how to live on Earth, faded away. By my time, the connection between generations was broken. Can we admit it? Too busy with the demands of modern education in the 60’s, we had no time or inclination to experience the knowledge of our parents generation, as they in turn, had little for their parent’s generation. Technology had already made them and their world view, seem obsolete. Instead of passing knowledge down, it became imperative to keep up with the tremendous rate of social change brought by media and technology. In industrialized nations, this has been going on for generations.
Gandhi knew the importance of passing down the knowledge, continuity, of remembering the intention. By creating, fostering, and living in communities, he initiated the spiritual, social, physical, psychological, emotional, roots for re-linking India’s youth vitally, to her inherent ethos, buried under centuries of subjugation. It was a break from the colonized mindset of their parents, and a reattachment to the soul of India. During one Fast, age 73, he said:
“If I die during this Fast, I shall leave my message incomplete. I have not been able to place the science of Satyagraha fully before the country. Who will carry my message after me—those who have never known me, who have never lived with me? Or will it be done by you people? It is not right for any of you to say, `What can I do?’ If you have faith in God, He will give you the strength to carry my message further and finish my unfinished work. I wish to tell you that you should learnfrom my life. The principles that I have placed before everyone and which I have tried to practise should be practiced by you in your lives. The way will then open before you of its own accord.”viii
Each passing generation now faces massive reconstruction of social norms, expectations, and language – communication styles. With lightening speed, communication through wireless internet, through gadgets held in their palms, each generation is literally speaking a different language. Our roots have flown out from under our feet. The situation appears complex, beyond our scope of action.
Now, in `first world’ nations, technology is against us. A `digital divide’ determines who can keep up a functioning pace. Meanwhile, constant mobility, seeking better opportunities, keeps people without a sense of rootedness or community. We speak of community, and skype across the seas, but have little connection to our immediate neighbors. We are economically tied up in a system of taxes, insurance, and cash demands, sans relation or reliance upon harmony with Nature. To live simply, really simply, is against many ordinances, almost, and often actually, against the law.
Business which controls and employs media to attain excessive profits, has been coupled for decades with education, training people to fit into the world that business requires. With the gun of technology, media’s messages are delivered continuously: distracting, devitalizing our youth, world wide.
American folk singer, anti-war activist and people’s philosopher, Pete Seegar, who sang“We Shall Overcome” to Dr. Martin Luther King (who, in turn, made it a banner song for the US Civil Rights Movement), posed a series of questions in an interview that demonstrates our predicament:
“Today I would ask, “How can one have a technological society without research? How can one have research without researching dangerous areas? How can one research dangerous areas without uncovering dangerous information? How can you uncover dangerous information without it falling into the hands of insane people who will sooner or later destroy the human race, if not the whole of life on earth?” Who knows? God only knows!”ix
It is our responsibilities to our interdependence that determine our capacities for maturing, our ability to take up our duties and discharge them well. Today’s young appear as uneducated, grossly immature, inheritors of the new Global Raj. There are still so many keys to be given, despite the breaking of generations, so much to understand, and think through. We haven’t been able to pass onto these young ones, the real secrets: how to face life with fearless righteousness, with honour; to find strength in oneself instead of a pill; to live together cooperatively and helpfully, to suffer in dignity to foster change, to keep the thirst for justice alive, while seeking to create harmony, peace, to face death with equanimity. Is it because we have lost those keys ourselves?
The challenge facing my generation, now grandparents, is how to pass on, how to communicate to the youth that inherit this Earth, for better or for worse, the vision of the ideals that we hope to see adopted on a mass scale for the betterment of human civilization.
What stops the immediate recognition and action on the principles Gandhi stands for in everyday life? Why hasn’t the vital message of Gandhi caught on more dynamically, and inspired our youth?
There are several ways that Gandhi’s life message can be transmitted. Formal education has yet to play its fitting role in society. P.V. Rajagopal explains why the younger generation has less interest in Gandhi:
“The younger generation of our society is never introduced to the radical Gandhi. You only see the old man walking with the stick. Do you know what he was doing when he was taken to the jail 17  times in his life? See, there are hundreds of incidents. Gandhi became Mahatma much later. But what was he doing? He was basically rebelling against a system which was exploitative and discriminatory in nature. Whether it was in South Africa or India.
But somehow…we didn’t tell our younger generation that sort of Gandhi. We’re always telling them that Gandhi was the apostle of peace, and peace is also defined by people according to how it suits them. That is my problem. Introducing the real Gandhi to people. As a young person what was he?
When Gandhi was 17… he was not Mahatma. He was in rebellion, fighting against injustices, exploitation and corruption in society….in every office we put up Gandhi’s photo. But we do exactly opposite of what he said. Why don’t you take the photograph away and say we have nothing to do with this guy? I think Gandhi is the most abused person in the world.”x
Another means of passing down Gandhi is through individuals struggling to apply the principles that Gandhi exemplified in their own lives. Among them, is India’s Irom Sharmilla Chanu, of the north-east states, formerly Assam.
Sharmila has been imprisoned for her Gandhi-inspired nonviolent protest in the country of his birth, receiving only jail sentences and condemnation from the government he liberated. Her crime? Daring to plead through a fourteen year6 prayerful fast, the only option open to her, for relief from corrupted, violent, and tyrannical military rule in India’s north-east and Kashmir, known as the Armed Forces Special Protection Act (AFSPA). 1n fair and gentle Sharmila’s suffering, we see the silencing one of India’s truest daughters; imprisoned again, and again, and again. Like Gandhi, who before independence, had become the face and conscience of a brave new India, Irom Sharmila today is the face and conscience of what independent India was supposed to mean: a democracy by the people and for the people.
Her prayer is pure, and she states, and the people of Manipur agree – she is following the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi. Just recently, she was released by court order on August 19, 2014, to be rearrested just two days later. An article in the US Boston Globe carried the news to the US public:
“Upon her release, amid tears, she feebly told a posse of journalists, “I want to tell the people of India that if Mahatma Gandhi would have been alive today, he would have launched a campaign against the AFSPA.”xi
Elsewhere in video interviews, Irom Sharmila has said:
“I am just a simple woman who wants to follow the non- violent principle of Gandhiji, the father of the nation. Just treat us also like him and do not discriminate. As a leadership, don’t be biased against a human being…
“I am doing this for the society and other AFSPA affected states but we are the citizens of a democratic country and so my demand is for rights of a democratic citizen who needs justice. We need peace, not violence. Our democratic leaders should hear my non-violent protest.”xii
It is when the principles of Gandhi are lived with intense passion, that they can touch the core of righteousness in others. When such a connection is established, the adherent becomes as leavening in society, an unstoppable yeast.
Although Irom Sharmila is met with silence, and every attempt is made to ignore her, it is a cautious silencing, a careful ignoring. The powers over her are aware that through the force of her penance, her adherence to the principle of nonviolent and open confrontation of wrongdoing, her total dedication and steadiness in her resolve, she has become a powerful icon. The people of the north-east are deeply touched by her. Her just means and cause, and the injustice being continually meted out to her, has been simmering in the public mind, about to boil.
The rest of India appears apathetic, but is listening more and more intently to the awful silence Sharmila is kept in.
In a different, but also personal way, Dr. Vandana Shiva stands as another internationally cherished icon, for the right to live, simply live, upon this earth, with all that nature intended for us: productive soils, skies, clean waters7, wholesome food, sustainable communities, and the economics and legislation that insures that.
She holds out women’s contribution to society through the means they employ to be on equal par with men. Dr. Shiva seeks international protections for indigenous people’s food systems, now in jeapordy by bio-technology that seeks to patent seeds, as well as genetically modify them. She has stood by local people, all over India, facing down multinational giants, unjustly exploiting local water supplies, like Coca-cola. Her voice is speaking the language of millions of deeply concerned people across the planet.
The massive group work of Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, has mobilized the displaced landless and communities threatened by industry grabs and dam development that does not consider ecological realities nor adequately weigh the risks involved in infrastructure projects.
Her work is coordinating the rural poor in central India and beyond. For those who suffer the lack of social justice, equality, and respect, her work brings empowerment and solace. Using the march, the Fast, and sit-ins, Patkar has inspired rural youth to organize themselves to protect their basic rights as citizens in a democracy.
P.V. Rajogopal of Janadesh, now over 200,000 strong, has utilized Gandhi’s means of the people’s march, to bring attention to the land rights of the Adivasi people throughout India. Calling for attention for social equality and humane justice, his group has brought marches of over 25,000 at a time, to the central government in Delhi. Janadesh has secured significant legislative reform for the rural poor and marginalized groups in India, and has brought their plight into the public mind.
In the US, America’s beloved folk singer, Pete Seegar was asked what could be done, in the last decade of his 94 year long life:
“We will never know everything. But I think if we can learn within the next few decades to face the danger we all are in, I believe there will be tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of human beings working wherever they are to do something good. I tell everybody a little parable about the `teaspoon brigades.’ Imagine a big seesaw. One end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a big basket half full of rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air because it’s got a basket one quarter full of sand. Some of us have teaspoons and we are trying to fill it up. Most people are scoffing at us. They say, “People like you have been trying for thousands of years, but it is leaking out of that basket as fast as you are putting it in.” Our answer is that we are getting more people with teaspoons every day. And we believe that one of these days or years — who knows — that basket of sand is going to be so full that you are going to see that whole seesaw going zoop! in the other direction. Then people are going to say, “How did it happen so suddenly?” And we answer, “Us and our little teaspoons over thousands of years.”
But I don’t think we have forever. I now believe that all technological societies tend to self-destruct. The reason is that the very things that make us a successful technological society, such as our curiosity, our ambition and determination, will also cause us to fall.”xiii
India’s P.V. Rajagopal, points to another concrete avenue. In an interview he said:
“These are the intellectuals of the city, asking me – “Rajagopal you have spoken about the poor people, tell us what can we do.” I said – “Hundreds of things. First of all can you sensitize yourself and your children?”xiv
Now is the time we must re-invent the intention of life lived for noble ideals. We are the grandparents, we were born before plastic. We are in unprecedented times, and must come up with apt responses. Imitation won’t do. Globally now, we need to pass on the living principles Gandhi employed, to ignite at least five billion Gandhi’s. The time for communication and dialogue with our youth, their parents, and each other, has come.
Gandhi Jayanthi, 2014
1Jo Neff, 2009.
2Swami Rama Tirtha (1874–1906) was one of the few genuine swamis that has ever gone from India to the US. In 1902, he delivered a series of lectures at the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco on the nature of the Self in relation to Truth. This is an excerpt from his lecture: Happiness Within, on December 17, 1902.
3Vakyapadya – can be translated as steps or verses to expression or speech.
4India’s science of grammar and linguistics has numerous scholars and adepts. We only know of those whose works were recorded. Of these, Panini, Patanjali and Bhartrhari are perhaps most famous.
5Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
6 As of this writing, in less than two months, on November 5, 2014, it will be a full fourteen years of unending effort, borne out of her simple love for human beings, her faith in the principles of democracy, for justice and humane responsibility for one another.
7As suggested by a Chipko song: “What do the forests bear? Soil, air, and clean water, the basis of all life.”
iRadhakrishnan, S. (2005). Mahatma Gandhi: Essays and Reflections. Jaico, Mumbai: pg. 53.
ii Tendulkar, D.G. (1920). Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi: Vol. 4:54–55
iiiAs commented on by P.V. Rajogopal. Interview with P.V. Rajogopal by India Together. (2001).
ivGandhi, M.K. (1925) Young India. August 6: Age 55.
viiExcerpts from Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadya. (pdf) Sanskrit translation. With translations from several other texts.
Sampurnanand. (1976).Vakyapadiyam}, 2nd ed. Sanskrit Vidyalaya, Varanasi.
viii Nayar, S. (1996). Mahatma Gandhi’s Last Imprisonment: the Inside Story. Har-Anand Publications, New Delhi.
ixWhitehead, J. (2006). When will they ever learn? An interview with Pete Seegar. The Rutherford Institute. As seen Sept 13, 2014 from: www.rutherford.org/publications_resources/oldspeak/when_will_they_ever_learn_an_interview_with_pete_seeger
xiBorpujari, P. (Sept 8, 2014) The Boston Globe: Suicide or Fast? Hunger Strike Rivets India. As seen Sept 8, 2014: http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2014/09/08/suicide-protest-hunger-strike-rivets-india
xiiInterview with Irom Sharmila. As seen Sept 13, 2014, from: ibnlive.in.com/news/i-am-following-gandhijis-principle-of-nonviolence-irom-sharmila
xiiiWhitehead, J. (2006). When will they ever learn? An interview with Pete Seegar. The Rutherford Institute. As seen Sept 13, 2014 from: www.rutherford.org/publications_resources/oldspeak/when_will_they_ever_learn_an_interview_with_pete_seeger