Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Gandhi: The Rebel in the Name of Truth

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Matthew 10:34-36

“It is the stillest words that bring the storm. Thoughts that come on doves’ feet guide the world.” The Stillest Hour in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche.

For Gandhi, Truth was God and God was Truth. For this he would live and he would die – and die he did! Much inspired by the Bhagavad Gita, he considered that human life was worth only in Truth. He carried the book with him wherever he went and the following passage became a guiding principle of his life: “Among thousands of men hardly one strives after perfections; among those who strive hardly one knows Me in truth.” (Krishna; Chapter 7, verse 3; Mahatma Gandhi translation.)

   Gandhi was a deeply religious man who spent his life looking for God, in himself and in other people. The Indian greeting gesture namaste means ‘I bow to the divine in you’.


   “I am endeavoring to see God through service of humanity, for I know that God is neither in heaven, nor in down below, but in every one”, he wrote to a friend in 1927. His was the ‘God of the spheres’, a God of humanity. A passage from Immanuel Kant, that most moral of Western philosophers, comes to mind: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” (Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason.)

   Gandhi’s genius was the political and social application of that life-long pursuit of truth. He coined the term Satyagraha, which means ‘truth force’. It required from everyone who subscribed to it a tremendous personal courage and dedication. “Be fearless. So long as you live under various kinds of fears, you can never progress, you can never succeed. Never, never give up truth and love. Treat all enemies and friends with love.” (Gandhi speaking at a Hindu conference on March 30, 1918).

   Truth has an inherent force which eliminates the use of violence. Gandhi saw injustice and the corruption of values ‘when he saw it and as he saw it’ (as Nietzsche would have put it), never turning his head and pretending that he just didn’t see. “To tread the path of truth implies an active life in the world of men. In the absence of such activity, there is no occasion for either pursuing or swerving from truth. The Gita has made it clear that a man cannot remain inactive even for a single moment.” To be able to see and articulate the truth, one needs not the sword of steel, but a sword of intellect. Gandhi verbalised ideas that many were too feeble and too frightened to even imagine.

   For Gandhi, non-violence achieved a religious status. “Non-violence succeeds only when we have a living faith in God”, he wrote in January, 1939. It involves deeds was well as words. He was deeply influenced in this moral stance by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, as well as the Bhagavad Gita. Non-violence is not a position of passivity but the most active force in the world (see his Non-violence In Peace And War). It has no room for enemies and all men are brothers. It has no room for resentment and implies loving those who hate us (loving those who love us is easy!). “Evil is sustained through the cooperation, either willing or forced, of good people”, he wrote in 1938.

   Gandhi’s provocativeness knew no bounds. It is as if he lived by the dictum of the great American thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who stressed that what one soul can offer another is not instruction but provocation. Provocation stirs up inner resources in the other and offers an opportunity for change. During the Great Trial of 1922, Gandhi was charged with sedition and was allowed to make a statement in court before being sentenced. What he said was a masterstroke that electrified the nation: “Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good. But in the past, non-cooperation has been deliberately expressed in violence to the evil-doer. I am endeavoring to show to my countrymen that violent non-cooperation only multiples evil, and that as evil can only be sustained by violence, withdrawal of support of evil requires complete abstention from violence. Non-violence implies voluntary submission to the penalty for non-cooperation with evil. I am here, therefore, to invite and submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is deliberate crime, and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen. The only course open to you, the Judge and the assessors, is either to resign your posts and thus dissociate yourselves from evil, if you feel that the law you are called upon to administer is an evil, and that in reality I am innocent, or to inflict on me the severest penalty, if you believe that the system and the law you are assisting to administer are good for the people of this country, and that my activity is, therefore, injurious to the common weal.” Gandhi was sentenced to six years in prison but no British judge ever allowed him to make a statement in the court again! This sentence was later shortened. However, in total, Gandhi spent six years in various South African and Indian prisons and this he regarded as an opportunity to read, meditate and pray.

   Now a few words on the issue of India’s partition. Gandhi’s deep faith in the underlying ‘unity of all existence’ was at the heart of his non-sectarian stance and his strong opposition to the partition of India. It was not a political but a moral, philosophical and religious position. Sadly, people of small hearts and limited minds (which included some Hindus as well as Muslims) showed themselves to be bent on violence and separation rather than on love and unity of human existence.

   Gandhi was shot dead by a Hindu extremist on 30 January 1948, an end to life which he anticipated. These are his last steps to a meeting for prayer in Delhi, immortalised in stone.

                                                              Own photo, taken in Delhi in December 2017

Critical Postscript

Gandhi’s policy of Satyagraha, love, generosity and non-violence was based on the assumption that such values and emotions are already present in the Other, and they only need to be awakened. This worked well with the British, who are known for their deep respect for justice and fairness (a quality that empowered this nation to oppose the Nazis so successfully, when others did not!). It would have certainly not worked with any totalitarian regime; hence his pleading letter to Hitler remained unanswered and unheeded. Similarly, Gandhi’s stance would have made no difference to Stalinist or Maoist regimes. It may have even encouraged more violence and atrocities. After all, the heroic self-immolations of Buddhist monks in Tibet have made no impact on its unlawful, ruthless Chinese occupiers. From personal experience, I can also say that the generosity of spirit works well with those who, at heart, are also generous. Those who do not possess a generous heart will inevitably interpret it as a weakness and hence abuse the benefactor.