The Relevance of Gandhi Today
By Arun Gandhi
Sixty years after his death a portion of Gandhiji’s ashes, stashed away by Madalsa and Shriman Narayan, the daughter and son-in-law of Jamnalal Bajaj, will be immersed at Chowpati Beach in Mumbai. Although I will be thousands of miles away in the United States the memories of sixty years ago will be refreshed and the day will be as poignant as January 30, 1948. In 1969 when the world celebrated Gandhiji’s 100th birth anniversary many of us who had lived in Sewagram Ashram, Wardha, with Gandhiji were invited for a reunion.
The person who organized this event was Shriman Narayanji who was then the Governor of Gujarat. He shared with us a story of his experience with Gandhiji which emphasizes an aspect of Gandhiji’s philosophy that is all but forgotten today. Sometime in the early 1930’s when Shrimanji received his doctorate from the London School of Economics he returned to India full of enthusiasm to change and rebuild the economy of India according to western standards. When he told his parents how impatient he was to begin work his father said: “You cannot begin to do anything until you receive Gandhiji’s blessings. So, if you are in a hurry to begin working you had better go as quickly as possible to Sewagram Ashram and get Bapu’s blessings.”
This will be a piece of cake, Shrimanji thought, and still bubbling with enthusiasm Shrimanji arrived in Sewagram and relentlessly poured his enthusiasm into Bapu’s lap and said: Now give me your blessings so I can get to work.” “Not so fast,” Gandhiji said. “If you want my blessings you will have to earn them. Tomorrow morning you will join the group and clean the ashram toilets.”
These were not the modern water closets. The ashram toilets were primitive with buckets to collect urine and feces. The buckets had to be carried into the fields and emptied into holes, washed and replaced for use. It was the meanest kind of work that is responsible for untouchability in India. Gandhiji wanted to teach us the dignity of labour. Shrimanji was aghast but did not argue. He had no enthusiasm for this kind of work but to satisfy Gandhiji’s whim he had to do it. After the morning ordeal and a refreshing bath he rushed back to Gandhiji and said: “I’ve done what you asked me to do. Now give me your blessings.” “Not yet,” said Gandhiji. “You will get my blessings only when you satisfy me that you are capable of cleaning toilets with the same enthusiasm as changing the economy of the country.”
The moral of the story was that we must be willing to do any kind of work that is necessary and break the stranglehold of the master-servant relationship that persists in India even to this day. It is the feeling that those of us who are rich and educated are superior and those who are poor and uneducated are inferior that breeds arrogance in us, instead of the humility that Gandhiji sought to instill.
I am often asked in India and in the United States if Gandhiji’s philosophy can be relevant today. My answer is that a philosophy that is based on Respect, Understanding, Appreciation and Compassion has to be relevant at all times. If we conclude that nonviolence is not relevant today we are saying in effect that the positive attitudes of Respect, Understanding, Appreciation and Compassion are not relevant. If that be so then we cannot claim to be a civilized society. Over the years many have concluded that nonviolence is a “negative” philosophy because we insert a hyphen in the word and make it the opposite of violence. In reality it is the other way around. What we forget is that to practice violence we have to be arrogant, hateful, angry and capable of dehumanizing people so that we can hurt and even kill them. These and more are negative emotions and attitudes that dominate our psyche to such an extent that we have now become victims of a Culture of Violence that controls every aspect of human life.
On the other hand, to practice nonviolence one has to be dominated by positive emotions and attitudes like love, understanding, respect, compassion and so on. It is only when we learn to respect people as human beings that we will be able to truly practice nonviolence. We cannot and should not be selective in whom we respect, it has to be unconditional and all pervasive.
For centuries human beings have been working to create peace and we fail more often than we succeed. The reason is that peace is not the absence of physical violence. No country can claim that they are at peace because they are not at war with anyone. Human nature has learned to practice violence in many ways – both physical and passive, or non-physical. It is the non-physical violence that is more insidious because we commit it knowingly and unknowingly and it leads to anger in the victim and the anger results in physical violence. Gandhiji’s Talisman was: “Ask yourself if the action you contemplate will hurt or harm someone.”
The Culture of Violence has resulted in the erosion of relationships across the board. Everyone has become selfish and self-centered. If we have no relationships based on mutual respect, understanding and appreciation there will be no harmony. And, if there is no harmony in a home, office, neighborhood, society or a nation there cannot be peace. When Gandhiji said: Peace begins with you he did not mean the selfish peace that we seek through sadhana or meditation but the peace that we need to bring about through love and respect for all living creatures whatever their economic, social or political standing in life.
Can we become the change we wish to see? Of course, have we ever found anything to be impossible when we have the determination to get it?