Why the Youth Should Engage with Gandhi

In a world where violence is sanctified and normalised, anyone striving for collective redemption should look to Gandhi.

There are moments when I feel that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was remarkable not because he was ‘successful’. Instead, his beauty was that he strove for the ‘impossible’ – ahimsa in an age of violence; self-reliance in an epoch that sanctified the ‘iron cage’ of bureaucracy and dehumanisation of technocracy; self-reflection at a time when modernity sought to conquer only the ‘outer’ realm.

No wonder, as it is often said, he ‘failed’. And possibly, Nathuram Godse conveyed a message on January 30, 1948 that Gandhi’s ‘failures’ were unpardonable, and that he ought to be killed rather than understood.

Is it that a fragment of Godse lies in many of us who otherwise have no affinity with Godse’s politics? Think of our indulgence with what I would regard as the act of ‘Gandhi bashing’. Yes, modernists (believe me, I include even Jawaharlal Nehru – supposedly Gandhi’s closest disciple – in that group) have a sense of discomfort with the guidelines of decolonisation the Mahatma articulated in his remarkably ‘simple’, yet revealing text Hind Swaraj.

Ambedkarites would refuse to believe that Gandhi played any meaningful role in eradicating the seeds of caste consciousness. Reductionist Marxists would often laugh at his vision of ‘nonviolent socialism’ or satyagraha.

Medieval, soft Hindu, casteist, patriarchal Gandhi – responsible for everything that was unpleasant in our history: how often does this imagery of ‘condemned’ Gandhi invade our consciousness?

Godse killed him physically, but many of us sought to kill his spirit by a non-empathetic act of constant stigmatisation.

Also read: Dublin to Srinagar, Gandhi Steps on Barbed Wire at 150

No wonder, it is not easy to find youth – otherwise politically radical – who are enthusiastic about Gandhi, and eager to engage with him deeply and meaningfully. This, I feel, must change.

In this article, I would argue why it is important – particularly, for the youth – to engage with Gandhi with some amount of seriousness.

Our times and three pertinent questions

To begin with, let me raise three questions that the very act of living in our times leads to. First, think of the market-driven discourse of neoliberal global capitalism – its implicit social Darwinism with its reckless competition, and its self-possessive individual as a restless consumer dissociated from the ethics of love, care and justice.

Second, see the emergent discourse of religious nationalism that transforms religion into an ideology of group narcissism, and creates a centralised/monolithic/homogenised idea of nation-making with utter insensitivity to the plurality of faiths, lifestyles and cultural practices.

Third, there is the glorification of what I would regard as the militarisation of the consciousness. Qualities like empathy, art of listening and patience are seen as ‘weakness’; instead, ‘hard’ decisions with hyper-masculine aggression are celebrated. The metaphor of war or ‘surgical strike’ has entered our consciousness.

It, therefore, makes sense if I say that anyone striving for collective redemption or a praxis of emancipation in our times must be asking the following three questions:

  1. Is it possible to reimagine a new being who has the courage not to cooperate with the cult of psychologically/environmentally destructive consumerism, and move towards the centre of peace and austerity with a life-affirming and harmonic engagement with nature, environment and community?
  2. Is it possible not to see religion as an ideology of militant nationalism, and experience religiosity as a rhythmic bridge between the self and the world, the secular and the ethico-moral, and above all, an experience of love and fusion of horizons?
  3. Is it possible not to fall into the immediate temptations of brute power, and redefine courage as the moral power of ahimsa – a mode of resistance that elevates the rebel to a higher stage of consciousness, and thereby seeks to touch the soul of the oppressor? In other words, is it possible to be a satyagrahi rather than a a ‘revolutionary’ trained  in the strategy of guerrilla warfare?   

A meaningful engagement with Gandhi, I believe, would enable the youth to respond to these three questions.

The beginning of a meaningful engagement

Before I come specifically to these three questions, I must say that engagement with Gandhi would require an understanding that no thinker is perfect, and that contradictions and follies are humane. Gandhi knew and confessed his blunders and mistakes with absolute transparency. Furthermore, you can always walk with Gandhi even if you love, say, B.R. Ambedkar and Karl Marx.

For instance, unlike Ambedkar, Gandhi’s approach to the caste question might look somewhat mild or ‘reformist’ rather than ‘radical’. While in the Annihilation of Caste and the Philosophy of Hinduism, Ambedkar evolved a sharp critique of Hinduism, its brahminical scriptures, and the principle of hierarchy and exclusion (or the negation of liberty, equality and fraternity) implicit in this religion, Gandhi’s approach was different, yet immensely emancipatory – a constant process of evolution from the day he experienced the meaning of being condemned as ‘outcast’ for his decision to go to England for higher studies to the remarkable moment in South Africa when the ‘magic spell of a book’ led him closer to John Ruskin’s doctrine of the dignity of labour, and from his sincere realisation in the early 1920s that untouchability was a serious ethico-spiritual problem that Hinduism had to rid itself of, or his plea for nai talim that questioned the ‘purity’ vs. ‘pollution’, and ‘intellect’ vs. ‘labour’ dichotomy to his experiments in his ashrams leading to community living, inter- caste dinning and even his strong plea for inter-caste marriage.

Also read: What Gandhi Believed Is the Purpose of a Corporation

Possibly, youth with an open mind need to see beyond the ‘Ambedkar vs. Gandhi’ duality – a product of some sort of non-dialogic identity politics, and appreciate diverse and multiple ways of coping with the caste question.

Likewise, it is also important to remember that Bhagat Singh, despite his spirited radicalism, didn’t find much time to evolve, and possibly realise that a mass movement for freedom and decolonisation in a country with such mind boggling heterogeneity could not sustain itself without collective participation of men and women, peasants and bourgeoisie, Hindus and Muslims, and a largely peaceful mode of resistance.

Also read: How the RSS Detested Gandhi

Hence, appreciating and saluting Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom need not necessarily mean devaluing what Gandhi did for three decades by existing as a banyan tree incorporating everybody – indigo farmers and textile workers, Harijans and women, and the likes of Rabindranath Tagore as well as well as G.D. Birla.

Similarly, there are multiple critiques of modern industrial capitalism. While Marx was truly amazing for the methodology of dialectical materialism through which he looked at the contradictions in history, and saw the moral crisis of capitalism – from estranged labour or alienation to commodity fetishism – Gandhi could see the brute force of modernity, the cultural/environmental cost of the intensification of greed and desire, and the decline in the moral power of the community amid ‘machineries, doctors, lawyers and courts’.

Hence, I feel, a young man with a sincere urge to understand the discontents of modern capitalism ought to converse with both Gandhi and Marx.

Can the youth experiment with Gandhi?

It is at this juncture that I can come back to the three questions that I raised. Yes, we live in an age in which consumerism is the new mantra, and the market-induced false needs – glamourised by the all-pervading culture industry – seem to have colonised the lifeworld.

This consumption-oriented hyper modernity, as it is argued by a sociologist like Ulrich Beck, has generated a ‘risk society’ filled with the fear of climate change, environmental disaster and technological violence and for the ‘new left’ thinkers like Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, this ‘having mode of existence’ has caused a new form of social control.

Gandhi, as I would urge the youth to think, could feel the possibility of this danger. No wonder, he could attach great importance to self-restraint, austerity and the art of living in harmony with nature. There seems to be no other way out. Gandhi was not medieval. Instead, he could inspire us to celebrate an alternative/eco-sensitive/peaceful/communitarian mode of living. Only a being of this kind could resist the politics of seduction through which techno-capitalism enslaves us in the name of ‘good living’.   

Likewise, Gandhi was not content with despiritualised secularism. But his religiosity, far from promoting the orthodoxy of the priestcraft or the militancy of fundamentalism, gave a new meaning to the active realm of politics. Gandhi saw it as his field of sadhana, and with a constant engagement with the Bhagavadgita’s ‘niskam karma’, and the potency of love as reflected in the Sermon on the Mount, he sought to give a higher meaning to the everydayness of the phenomenal world.

No wonder, cross-religious conversation, and religiosity as love and fusion of horizons  gave him the moral/political/psychic strength to resist divisive communalism and the ideology of hatred in the name of organised religions.

Also read: Who Wrote Gandhi’s Autobiography of Errors?

Ambedkar also spoke of Buddhism. While his Buddhism was an angry response to oppressive/brahminical Hinduism, Gandhi’s religiosity was more of love rather than anger; and unlike Ambedkar, he could still remain a ‘Hindu’, yet transcend its limits.

While reductionist Marxists refuse to see beyond the hallucinating character of organised religions, Gandhi could transform religiosity as a philosophy and practice of prayer and resistance. Gandhi’s quest for truth gave him the spiritual strength to resist the kind of politics that divides people in the name of faith.  Neither Savarkar nor Jinnah could understand it.

Finally, Gandhi with his engaged religiosity could give a positive and life-affirming meaning to non-violence or ahimsa. It is neither an escape from the struggle for justice, nor an act of cowardice. Instead, as he demonstrated, it is the highest form of courage emanating from the inner churning of the self or ‘soul force’.

Hence, satyagraha as a mode of resistance would demand constant reflexivity, a rigorous work on one’s inner world, and the sincerity of prayer. While it is easy to internalise the ‘brute force’ of the oppressor, and try to defeat him at his own game, Gandhi, to use Ashis Nandy’s phrase, refused to follow the path of the ‘intimate enemy’; instead, he sought to replace brute force by soul force; hyper-masculine aggression by the ethics of love, care and resistance; and the cult of killing the enemy by the profound art of dying.

Also read: Modi’s ‘Moral’ Response to Godse Comment is Designed to Hide His Own Politics

Today, we find ourselves in a world characterised by heightened militarism, surveillance machinery and the inevitable alliance of state-centric violence and all sorts of ‘terrorist’ or counter-violence for ‘redemption’.

As violence is sanctified and normalised in the world of nuclear weapons and ‘suicide bombers’, we realise that we are caught in the cycle of violence.

Is it ever possible to break this vicious cycle? Is it possible to find an exit route from this technocratic and ecologically destructive risk society?

I have no easy answer to this question.

However, one thing I know with absolute certainty. If you – and I mean the youth – ever make an attempt to respond to this question, you have to engage with Gandhi.

Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at JNU.