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Relevance of Gandhi in modern times
By Rajen Baura*
Looking at the present state of affairs in India, the birthplace of Gandhi, one would probably surmise that Gandhism, whatever the term may mean, cannot have any relevance in this twenty-first century. Gandhi is rightly called the Father of the Nation because he single handedly stood up against the mighty British Empire, without any arms, and brought her independence. However, today, Gandhi is mostly forgotten and his relevance questioned even by his ardent devotees. Today Gandhi is remembered in India mostly on his birthday which is celebrated as a national holiday rather as a ritual.
As a matter of fact, India is not following any of Gandhi's teachings which are mostly confined to text books. In fact, since independence, the country has witnessed many violent communal riots in this multi communal country. Gandhi's message of ‘swabalambi’, self-sufficiency with home spun ‘khadi’ cloth is not used now a days even as a social slogan. Statistics show that the country is definitely not following ‘sarvodaya’, a broad Gandhian term meaning 'universal upliftment' or ‘progress of all’ reaching the masses and the downtrodden. On the contrary, India today has the unique distinction of being the only country in the world which has the richest man in the world while at the same time more than 30 per cent of its population lives in dire poverty.
The above shows that today, Gandhism is a very confused ‘ism’ in India. Today many politicians in India use the term merely as a slogan and the common man make Gandhi almost out of reach of the younger groups by making Gandhi an unwilling ‘avatara’. That may be one reason why the only photo we see of Gandhi in India is always that of an old man which brings the image of a very simple and pious man who was meek and mild like Jesus Christ. While Gandhi was not a simple man to say the least, the above does not gives the right image of Gandhi and does not bring any inspiration to the younger group, the group most relevant for Gandhi.
In real world, Gandhi was a politician, a shrewd politician, who was trying to bring peace and harmony to India on one hand while trying to bring her independence at the same time. For Gandhi, the process of change was very important which must be ethical, nonviolent and democratic giving rights to all minorities. In this respect, he resembles the Buddha for whom the noble eightfold path (of right wisdom, right conduct and right effort), itself is the goal and essence of life.
Once we realize this, we realize the essence of Gandhism and realize that it would be wrong to premise that Gandhism is dead in the world. Like Buddhism, which is mostly prevalent now-a-days outside India, the country of its birth, Gandhism today is alive and active outside India. In fact, today there is hardly any country in the world where some activities are not going on along Gandhian lines. There are very few countries in the world where something or the other is not being done, achieved or organized in the name of Gandhi. In short, there is a global non-violent awakening and awareness after Gandhi. The name of Mahatma Gandhi transcends the bounds of race, religion and nation-states, and has emerged as the prophetic voice of the twenty-first century. Today, Gandhi is remembered for his passionate adherence to the practice of non-violence and his supreme humanism, in every corner of the world.
One would wonder, what may be the relevance of Gandhi in this all-pervading materialistic, agnostic and consumerist culture? What is the significance of Gandhi to the modern world and what is the secret of his success? Gandhi has been a great light for the Tibetan leader Dalai Lama who puts Gandhi's success in right perspective. He said, “Many ancient Indian masters have preached ahimsa, non-violence as a philosophy. That was mere philosophical understanding. But Mahatma Gandhi, in this twentieth century, produced a very sophisticated approach because he implemented that very noble philosophy of ahimsa in modern politics, and he succeeded. That is a very great thing.”
And that is precisely the greatness of Gandhi and that is the message of Gandhi to the modern world. In the past century many places in the world have been drastically changed through the use of brute force, by the power of guns – the Soviet Union, China, Tibet, Burma, many communist countries in Africa and South America. But eventually the power of guns will have to be changed by the will of the ordinary people. As Dalai Lama said, “We have big war going on today between world peace and world war, between the force of mind and force of materialism, between democracy and totalitarism.” To fight these big wars the common ordinary people in this modern age need Gandhism.
If we try to analyze the secrets of Gandhi's success, we would probably find Faith and Action and Populism, the three most important aspects of his life. Gandhi's extra ordinary communion with the masses of ordinary people was another of his secrets. In contrast to many of our present day leaders of this highly democratic world, Gandhi was a true leader and friend of the people. Disaku Ikeda, the Japanese Buddhist leader who takes great inspiration from Gandhi has this to say about him. “His activism is not mere action but contains many aspects of a spiritual ‘practice’ that is inspired by the inner urging of the conscience”.
The phenomenal success Gandhi registered in far-away South Africa fighting for human rights and civil liberties has great significance when we find that later his teachings were adopted not only by Nelson Mandela, the South African freedom fighter, but it was also subsequently revealed that the former South African president De Klerk was greatly influenced by Gandhi's principles. In fact, from Dalai Lama to Desmond Tutu and from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela, many world leaders were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, all in their own different ways.
Dr. Martin Luther King was very much inspired by Gandhi. Like Gandhi, King liked Thoreau’s idea – ‘that men should not obey evil or unjust laws’; and he found that Gandhi had won freedom for his country from British rule acting on that very principle. Like Thoreau, Gandhi believed that men should gladly go to jail when they break such laws. He told the people of India to resist the British by peaceful means only. They would march, they would sit down or lie down in the streets, they would strike, they would boycott (refuse to buy) British goods, but they would not resort to violence. There is great resonance of the historic Salt March at Dandi with the courageous Montgomery Bus Boycott against racial segregation in United States. Dr. King said, “……..If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought, acted and inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony.”
Barack Obama, the present US President, sees Mahatma Gandhi as an inspiration and has a portrait of the apostle of peace in his office. He commented, “In my life, I have always looked to Mahatma Gandhi as an inspiration, because he embodies the kind of transformational change that can be made when ordinary people come together to do extraordinary things.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese leader who was under house arrest for many years, derived great deal of inspiration from Gandhi. From Gandhi she learnt that for a doctrine of peace and reconciliation to be translated into practice, one absolute condition needed is fearlessness. Aung San Suu Kyi knew this, and that was the secret of her success amid all the darkness and loneliness against a brutal and hostile regime. One of her essays opens with the statement that “it is not power that corrupts, but it is fear.” It is from Gandhi that Jawaharlal Nehru and all the Indian leaders for independence learnt how ‘not to fear’ the British gun. Nehru also described Gandhi “A powerful current of fresh air … like a beam of light.”
And so Gandhism is alive and active in the modern world. Gandhi has inspired and will continue to inspire many political, social and religious leaders all over the world. Whether is Joan Baez, the American folk singer and human rights activist, or Cesar Chavez, the American social activist, or Joanna Macy, the environmental activist, or Mubarak Awad, the non-violent Palestine leader and many others get different inspirations from Gandhi in their fight.
Thich Nhat Kanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist leader takes great inspiration from Gandhi's action which stresses on the process more than the end. Nhat said, “I think we may fail in our attempt to do things, yet we may succeed in correct action when the action is authentically non-violent, based on understanding, based on love.” And that is Gandhism.
Gandhi left many valuable sayings for the modern man to fight for goodness in society in a non-violent way. “Good” Gandhi said “travels at a snail’s pace.” “Non-violence” Gandhi said “is a tree of slow growth. It grows imperceptibly but surely.” And then “Mere goodness is not of much use.” Gandhi stated. “Goodness must be joined with knowledge, courage and conviction. One must cultivate the fine discriminating quality which goes with spiritual courage and character.” The modern man can also take great wisdom from what Gandhi said the seven social sins: Politics without principles; Wealth without work; Commerce without morality; Education without character; Pleasure without conscience; Science without humanity; Worship without sacrifice.
Was Gandhi a Saint? Gandhi objected when people called him “a saint trying to be a politician.” He said he would rather be “a politician trying to be a saint.” Gandhi was not a Saint. He was a common man, but a common man in modern world in the footsteps of Buddha and Jesus. He said, “I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and Non-violence are as old as the hills”. It may be said that, after the great Buddha and Jesus, Gandhi once again demonstrated that non-violence could also be an effective instrument of social change in modern times. Gandhi successfully demonstrated to a world, weary with wars and continuing destruction that adherence to Truth and Non-violence is not meant for individual behavior alone but can be applied in global affairs too.
If we say that the twenty-first century is the century of the common man, then we see that Gandhism has even more relevance in this age, and Gandhi will inspire generations of individuals fighting for goodness of the society. If today we find that Gandhism is in severe test in countries like India, it is not because there is certain inherent weakness in Gandhism, but it is because we have not seen in India strong leaders with the required courage and conviction to fight the evils in society. We may borrow Gandhi’s own words on Ahimsa, and say that Gandhism is only for the courageous people.
I would like to conclude with a tribute to Gandhi that Albert Einstein gave: “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth”.

*Rajen Barua, an engineer by profession, is a freelance writer by passion and lives in Houston, Texas.