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Gandhi - Call of the epoch

By Arun Bhatt

Translated from Gujarati by Alaka Sarma

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Friends,

At the onset, I wish to thank you all, for giving me an opportunity to go through reminiscences of Gandhi at the lecture series organized on 2nd October, by Baroda Municipal Corporation.

Mohandas was like us – an ordinary being, but by worshipping Truth since childhood he emerged as a giant human being. He became a Mahatma out of Mohandas Gandhi.

Islam preaches one fundamental truth; that there is only one God, the rest are all his disciples. A man can become a fakir, saint or an angle but can’t become a God. Gandhi was originally just like us – shaky, with a tendency to slip many times in his path. But with strong will power and devotion, he had risen above all of us. That is why when I mention ‘opportunity for remembrance’ of Gandhi, these words carry a lot of meaning for me. His remembrance makes us more pure. My special thanks to Baroda Municipal Corporation for initiating such a pious tradition.


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One must always question oneself about any system that one follows. When we sit down for a meal, do we sit because it is time to have a meal or because we are hungry. If we sit down for a meal just to maintain a ritual, even though we are not hungry we will not benefit much. But if we are really hungry for insight, this churning will benefit us a lot.

I am reminded of a funny incident that happened almost fifty years ago. I was visiting the villages of Bihar for ‘Bhoodan’. I was in a small town. The President & Secretary of the local club came to me. We didn’t know each other, but it was 2nd October. They wanted to celebrate Gandhi Jayanti. They had heard that someone involved with Bhoodan movement had come from Gujarat. They told me, “Our club has decided to celebrate Gandhi Jayanti, so we have come to invite you to deliver the first talk.” I gave my consent. They needed a speaker; I needed an audience. I reached on time, the club president began to introduce me, "We are lucky to have amongst us a great philosopher…scholar…highly knowledgeable person… a freedom fighter…Mr?”….well, he had many adjectives to describe me, but what is the use of adjectives without a name? The fact was that he did not even know my name. He was puzzled…he was unable to end the sentence. He hesitated, slowly, bent down & whispered in my ear, “what is your name?” It was only when I told him my name that he could finish the sentence, by telling Mr. Arunbhai Bhatt to address the gathering.

I began my speech in the same formal way… “Today, we have gathered here to observe the birth anniversary of a great man, who didn’t utter a single unnecessary word on his birthday, the gentleman who introduced me has heaped on me all sorts of adjectives. But not a word of it is appropriate. I am an ordinary man; lucky to benefit from experiences of great souls; that is all.”


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As such, ‘Gandhi’ is not a topic of discussion. Gandhi represents a philosophy that one must live. Gandhi’s greatness lies more in the implementation of his thoughts, much more than, in the quality of his thought. That is why when someone asked Gandhi to give a message for a function, Bapu said without dropping an eyelid, “My life is my message.”

Sri Narayanbhai Desai has written a detailed biography of Gandhi, published in four volumes, named, ‘My life is my message.’


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Manubhai Pancholi (Darshak) once narrated this. He said, “I am very fond of reading, that too, I like to read autobiographies of great men. When I am reading autobiographies of people, I get a feeling that most are indirectly aimed at glorifying the self (the writer). When I started reading ‘My Experiments with Truth’, I could not keep it aside. Each page was so engrossing! Here is a man who doesn’t claim to be ‘a man of all virtues,’ a person who has faced the kind of temptations that have come in my life also. There were both positive and negative phases in his life – oh, so much like my life. He went abroad, got attracted to the glamour world, joined a ball dance group, became obsessed with his body…But then, one finds that the man reorganized himself and reached the level of a superman.”

An ordinary man, who began the journey of his life in the most ordinary way – reached the pinnacle of height! So inspiring! As if he lived many lives in a single life. The pillar of this amazing life was that he lived his life based on his thoughts.


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I remember one more incident. The period is post independence; a few years after the death of Mahatma Gandhi Vinobaji was on his ‘Bhoodan Yatra’. His speeches covered many issues & touched many dimensions. One day, his managers thought that all his speeches be compiled, classified & published as separate volumes, so that scholars may benefit. So they prepared a note to that effect. When Acharya Vinoba was shown that, his response was far from warm. He said, “Ok, if you want you can do it, but the main thing is life.” This is not an issue of classical debate or an occasion to go verbose. But an issue of how to live one’s life. With this introduction, let me go to the topic of the day “Gandhi – Call of the epoch.”


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Gandhi – Call of the Epoch

Many times a question is raised “Is Gandhi relevant in modern times?” Lots of discussions, debates and differences of opinion take place over this issue. “Is Gandhi relevant in modern times?”


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I am reminded of a dialogue. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru has written a book, “Discovery of India”. The book deals with Indian history. One of its chapter’s deals with the era of Akbar. Once Panditji happened to meet Acharya Vinoba Bhave. Vinobaji asked, “You have mentioned in your book that in the era of Akbar, there was a saint called Tulsidas who had created Ramcharit manas which is a household book in North India. Now my question to you is did the era belonged to Akbar or to Tulsidas? ” Nehru understood the comment, but still defended his version. “You are right but history is written around kings, emperors & Badshahs, that is why it is projected in this manner.” Vinoba told him, “Once I was passing by a Muslim Village, about 15-20 miles away from Delhi. It was a Friday. Our meeting was held after the evening prayer (Namaz). The whole village was present. I asked, “Do you know Emperor Akbar?” There was no response. I asked again & yet they were quiet. One elderly man said, “We don’t know which Akbar you are referring to? When we offer prayer, we beckon him, “Allah, O Akbar…” We know only that Akbar”. This happened in a Muslim village close to Delhi. I asked them, “have you heard about Tulsidas?” “Yes, prompt came the reply, he was a great saint.” “Do you know Kabir?” “Yes, we know Kabir also.”

We try to write history around kings & emperors, but the public forgets them. Saints & Sufis remain evergreen in public memory.


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How to explain this? History is a witness to the fact that the span of the era of Kings & Emperors is restricted only to their life span, whereas the Rishis, Saints & Fakirs live for thousands of years. If we think in the Indian context, so many saints have enriched us, and continue to enrich us now & for all time to come.


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If Lord Buddha had not rejected a life full of riches to go deep into the secrets and essence of life & had not come out with the doctrine of the ‘middle path’, he couldn’t have survived in the public mind for nearly 2500 years. Since Vedic times, people who have survived in public memory are the ones who explained to the people the universal elements, which form the pillar of our society.


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Gandhiji was the representative of this tradition. Vinobaji had this to say about Bapu. “He was the fruit of the ancient tradition & a seed of the approaching epoch.” A fruit which gives rise to a seed – a continuous flow. It is in this context that we call him, “The demand of the epoch.” Even if we want to discard him by saying that “He is no longer alive”, he will not leave us. After India got independence, someone had advised Gandhi “Your work is done, now you can quietly spend the rest of your days in the Himalayas.” Bapu had said, “You are my Himalayas.” “I am there, where you are there.” The ‘I’ that he mentions represents the whole universe.


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I had read a song by Prof. Ramesh Parekh, many years ago, the title of the song was ‘The Lamp’.

A lamp enlightens all corners with pride, challenging the ego of darkness…

It grants everything its original shape, yet remains quiet, in spite of such grand action. No expectation for self, just devotion.

From where you get the strength

to fight darkness?

Who blessed you to make

this mission a success?

Oh, lamp, the moment you get lighted

is the eternal moment!

When I read this, I felt, the poem was written with Gandhi in mind. A lamp, just one lamp, enlightening the whole world. Friends, I request you with folded hands. “Let us not trivialize the eternal. Even if we make lots of effort, the eternal is not going to lose even a bit of its glory. The only outcome of this would be that the one who tries to do this will become irrelevant. I wish to humbly request you not to turn away from this all pervasive lamp. Let us not close our eyes. If we can set aside our prejudices & desires, and look at the lamp with a hopeful mind, we will get the light.”


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I don’t mean to indicate that we must blindly follow Gandhi, perspectives have changed  and keeping in mind the changing times we should follow Gandhi. Gandhi himself never advocated ‘packaged’ solutions and was always evolving. His teaching never ceased to grow, never restricted its flow. Rituals and external structures may change as per place / time, but basics should not be tampered with.

Gandhiji has said the following. “I wish to tell scholars & other friends who are interested in my writings that I do not care to appear consistent for all time to come. In search of truth, I have gotten rid of many of my beliefs and have learnt many new things. I may have aged but my internal growth has not ceased. And for that matter, I don’t think that the process will stop even after my physical body withers away. I am concerned about only one thing and that is to follow the truth at any moment. So, if anyone feels that there is contradiction in my writing, then take the later version as the authentic version, if the person concerned has faith in my wisdom.”

In short, his life was continuously in the growth mode. Learning to live and living to learn was his motto. As he himself has penned down, “I am only concerned about the fact that I speak the truth at any point of time. Not just speak the truth but follow it & be ever ready to follow truth.”


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Truth is God

Gandhiji worshipped truth. That doesn’t mean that he had made on idol of truth or made a temple where he performed Puja twice daily. On the contrary, he tried to live by truth each moment of his life. He raised his voice against the mighty British Empire, because that was his truth. History has no other record of such a long and so consistent a struggle based on truth & non-violence. People who were willing to make the supreme sacrifice of dying for the nation had no idea of the strength of the non-violent path to freedom. Acharya Kripalani, a professor, had said to Bapu, “History doesn’t record any incident of attaining freedom the way you describe it. I am telling this based on my experience.” Bapu had replied, “Prof. Kripalani, you teach history whereas I make history.” Such was the confidence of Gandhi. He had full faith that truth shall prevail. He laid so much emphasis on the principles of truth and non-violence that even the mission to achieve independence appeared insignificant compared to that. He used to proclaim that he would not opt for independence at the cost of truth & non-violence.

Initially he used to say that “God is truth” – but later he modified it as “Truth is God.”

He named his autobiography as “My Experiments with Truth”. In the autumn of his life someone asked him – “Have you realized the truth?” His answer was, “No, not fully. I have just had some glimpses of it. The glow of truth becomes brighter every passing day, but ‘The Truth’ has not fully emerged”. That is why Gandhiji used to say, “May many like me perish, but let truth triumph. The scale of truth should not be marginalized to accommodate pygmies”


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The foundation of Ashram life – Ekadash Vrat (एकादश व्रत)

Topping the list among the ekadash vrat [eleven religious disciplines] is ‘The Truth.’ Worship of ‘power’ (shakti) was not the goal, the focus was on purification. When life gets purified, ‘power’ is acquired. Power is the off-shoot of purification of life.

When Vinoba reached Kashi after leaving his home, he heard Gandhi’s historic lecture at Varanasi. Vinoba says that, “The main thing in that lecture was that unless one is fearless, one cannot practice ‘Non-violence’ (Ahimsa). Resorting to open violence is perhaps less damaging than harbouring the feeling of violence. The state of mind which reflects ‘Ahimsa’ is the basic ‘Ahimsa’ which cannot come without fearlessness.” Vinoba says that even after a month of delivering the speech, Gandhi’s words reverberated in the streets of Kashi.

After this, Vinoba wrote to Gandhi, seeking clarification for doubts in his mind. Bapu replied to each of the queries. They exchanged two letters. In the second letter, Gandhi wrote, “your curiosity about Ahimsa cannot be quenched by letters alone; it can be understood only in the context of life.” Vinoba wrote, “I liked the answer, the solution lies in life & not in talks.”

“With this reply, Gandhi sent a time table which was a matter of great attraction for me. Till then, I had not seen any such time table of any institution.” It was written, “The goal of this Ashram is service to the nation which doesn’t contradict with the well being of the world as a whole.” The list contained ‘Vrats’ (व्रत) that were essential for Ashram life. They included Truth, non-violence, celibacy, non-possession (Aparigraha), physical labour etc. “I was surprised” says Vinoba. “I had read a lot of history but had never seen such a clause, that following these ‘vrats’ was necessary for performing service to the nation. These topics come in theories of Yoga, in religious books, in books meant for devotees but the focus on these for giving service to the nation attracted me. I thought here is a man who gives equal emphasis on political freedom as well as spiritual development. I liked the approach. Bapu invited me & I became his disciple.”


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Prayer – Bapu’s strength

Prayer was Gandhi’s strength and his shelter. A friend had given me a picture of Bapu, that of Gandhi sitting in prayer. It looks as if prayer itself is sitting in the form of Gandhi. A one liner captions the picture, “I can live without food for many days but cannot survive a second without prayer.” His life itself was a prayer.

Once Nanabhai Bhatt of Gramdakshinamurti & Lok Bharati was narrating his experiences, “I wanted to understand Gandhi’s views on education. Bapu was in Sevagram. I went there. During our conversation, I realized that Gandhi used to quietly, utter each sentence & used to pause in between. I realized that he used to chant the name of God silently during the pause. His life was a prayer.”


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When India became independent, the whole country was rejoicing but Bapu was disturbed. During those troubled times when he was visiting the interior villages of Noakhali, he thought his duty was to douse the cauldron of violence. The, Government wanted to give him police protection. But Bapu refused. Gandhi’s faith in Ram (his God) and truth was unshakeable and hence he feared not for his life. I am reminded of a poem by Makrand Dave.

“We couldn’t see anyone around with us

and yet, someone was there with us.”


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Bapu’s dream – Non-violent Society

A society that cannot be controlled without violence should be called an uncultured society. Survival of the fittest is the rule of the Jungle. If we want to create a civilized human society, its base must be human values; truth, love, empathy. We have yet to evolve a society based on humanistic values.

What we call a ‘super power’ is hardly a ‘super power’. It is a myth to call a country with economic prosperity and atomic weapons that can destroy the world as a ‘super power’. If at all we have to put a label – we must call them ‘powerless state’. In fact, such societies cannot be called humanistic developed societies.

Real power lies in strengthening weak nations, in ensuring that all nations get equal opportunity to develop. This is embedded in selfless service. What is so great about pushing oneself at the cost of others? Today’s society is characterized by big industries, huge financial institutions & monstrous systems of administrations that can never guide mankind. Once Bapu was asked, “What is your definition of a civilized society?” Bapu said, “The society that has minimum needs is a civilized society.” Long term experience has made it clear that growing needs lead to exploitation, violence & suppression. As a result Mother Nature gets exploited. Water, soil, forests & sky gets contaminated.


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Gandhi stands tall amidst all this. He is not concerned as to how many & who all are opposing him. He is least bothered about that. He clearly visualises that the world will march on the path shown by him. He has full faith in his vision.

Friends, the epoch of Gandhi has begun & it is not going to end till the work is done.

Once a few friends came to Mohemmad Paigambar. They suggested that he should not torture himself by trying to advise others to walk on the path of religion because they are least likely to improve, instead he can just pray to the all mighty. To them Mohemmad Paigambar Saheb replied, “On the day of Qayamat when Allah asks me, so many were perishing, what did you do to help them? I can tell, I tried, and may be a few benefited.”

The main thing is that “Allah, I had tried.”

Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram,

Patit Pavan Sita Ram.

Ishwar Allah Tere Naam,

Sabko Sanmati de Bhagwan.

 

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Lecture given on 2/10/2011 on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti, organized by Baroda Municipal Corporation.