'Cleanliness is next to Godliness' - M.K. Gandhi

- by Dr Savita Singh*

Mahatma Gandhi freed us not only from the British yoke but many of the bondages of our own making. Gandhian philosophy can be understood in-depth only in the context of certain basic spiritual premises of Indian history. Of all the revolutions the revolution against an unjust society is the most critical. If we can fight against injustice then humankind is on the right path and that our task of not only nation building but also making the world a better place becomes an easier one.

In social sphere as in politics the supreme test for Gandhi was not merely the material but also moral growth of humankind equally balanced one with the other. Gandhian approach to social reforms still remains much misunderstood and awaiting a fuller study than so far done.

Gandhi denounced the divorce between intelligence and labour. Manual work for him was a means of identifying not only with the lowliest of the lowly but with the working India as well as with the working world. “He warned that un-cleanliness of the mind is far more dangerous than that of the body. The latter, however, is an indication of the former".

For Gandhi “a meticulous sense of cleanliness, not only personal but also in regard to one’s surroundings, is the alpha and omega of corporate life."

And that, “he who is truly clean within, cannot remain unclean without, How wrong it is to ask others to be clean when we ourselves remain unclean!"

There have been great reformers before Gandhi, but he alone stands out as a person who practiced what he preached. Gandhi shook the very foundation of social reforms by questioning the caste requirement for personal behaviour. From the very beginning he revealed his resolve by “touching the untouchable the rest was verbiage for him". Even as a little boy he wondered why scavenging is not one’s own responsibility.

Gandhi says, “Scavenging is a fine art. Not only must the cleaning be perfect, but the manner of doing it and the instruments used, must be clean and not revolting to one’s sanitary sense, Scavenger who works in his service shares equal distinction with a king who uses his gifts in His name and as mere trustee."

And again “if you become your own Bhangis, not only will you insure perfect sanitation for yourself, but you will make your surroundings clean and relieve those whom you call Bhangis, of the weight of oppression which today crushes them," Gandhi adds, “To me, the test of people’s knowledge of sanitation is the condition of their latrines," Gandhi with his own example thus raised the issue of cleanliness to the sphere of spirituality.

From the very early stage in his life Gandhi learnt the importance of cleanliness from his mother. Gandhi’s resolve to make cleanliness a national issue was borne out of his own experience.

On 7 June 1893 the lawyer M. K. Gandhi was pushed out of the first class couch of the train at Peter Maritzberg railway station in South Africa. This incident was a turning point not only in the life of M. K. Gandhi but for the entire humanity. It was the incident which gave birth to a Satyagrahi who fought for social justice and human rights of the last man, woman and child. Ever after suffering a deep sense of humiliation at the hand of the co-passengers and the ticket collector there was no animosity in him for them. Though his mind was agitated and he decided to go into the roots of the cause of hatred for the people of Asiatic origin. He concluded that apart from the economic and other reasons one major cause was the filthy way the Asiatic people live. Gandhi has written in the Satyagraha in South Africa.

“Side by side with external agitation, the question of internal improvement was also taken up. The Europeans throughout South Africa had been agitating against Indians on the ground of their ways of life. They always argued that the Indians were very dirty and close-fisted. They lived in the same place where they traded. Their houses were mere shanties. They would not spend money even on their own comforts. How could cleanly open-handed Europeans with their multifarious wants compete in trade with such parsimonious and dirty people? Lectures were therefore delivered, debates held, and suggestions make at Congress meetings on subjects such as domestic sanitation, personal hygiene, the necessity of having separate buildings for houses and shops and for well-to-do traders of living in a style befitting their position. The proceedings were conducted in Gujarati."

Because of the unhygienic way of life, twice, there was an epidemic of cholera in the cluster where the Asiatic lived. Gandhi personally led the team of volunteers in cleaning the Lavatories and homes of his immigrant brethrens. In his Ashrams, as in South Africa and later in India, Gandhi expected everybody to meet certain rigid requirements of which absolute personal and civic cleanliness and manual labour occupied top priority.

Gandhi made sincere attempts to educate the masses on the importance of health and hygiene through his weekly columns and conversations with the people he worked with. He firmly held that “it is established beyond doubt that ignorance and neglect of the laws of health and hygiene are responsible for the majority of diseases to which mankind is heir. The very high death rate among us is no doubt due largely to our gnawing poverty, but it could be mitigated if the people were properly educated about their health and hygiene". For Gandhi ‘Cleanliness was next to godliness’. “We can no more gain God’s blessings, said Gandhi “with an unclean body than with an unclean mind. A clean body cannot reside in an unclean city".

“...Mens sana in corpore sano is perhaps the first law for humanity. A healthy mind in a healthy body is a self-evident truth. There is an inevitable connection between mind and body. If we were in possession of healthy minds, we would shed all violence and, naturally obeying the laws of health, we would have healthy bodies without an effort.

The fundamental laws of health and hygiene are simple and easily learnt. The difficulty is about their observance. Here are some.

Think the purest thoughts and banish all idle and impure thought.

Breathe the freshest air day and night.

Establish a balance between bodily labour and mental work."

Above all for Gandhi, “only when there is both inner and outer cleanliness, it becomes next to godliness,...Inward cleanliness is the first thing that should be taught, other things must follow after the first and most important lesson has gone home...Our personal cleanliness counts for little if our neighbours are not clean....Is only that unclean which appears to the eye as unclean? If there is even a little dirt on what is white, we feel annoyed; but the black may have any amount of dirt on it and we care not at all!"

But he regretted that “although we have the credit for being a personally clean people, we have little reason to be satisfied with that certificate. Our cleanliness, i.e., cleanliness compared to that of other nations, is based upon the almost universal habit of taking the daily bath and of keeping our cottages clean and tidy. But I fear that it ends there, we purchase that cleanliness at the expense of our neighbours."

Gandhi bemoaned our civic sense. He shows his displeasure when he says, “We do believe in removing dirt from our rooms, but we also believe in throwing it in the street without regard to the well-being of society. We are clean as individuals, but not as members of the society of the nation of which the individual is but a tiny part,"

“Corporate cleanliness can only be ensured if there is a corporate conscience and a corporate insistence on cleanliness in public places. What is true of outer cleanliness is true of the inner, too. If our neighbour is unclean inside, it will affect us also.

9 January 2015 will mark the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India after his twenty one years sojourn in South Africa.

Mahatma Gandhi’s arrival at this critical juncture, hundred years ago, proved to be a turning point in India’s struggle for Independence. Even before his return on 9 January 1915 his work in South Africa was widely known in India. Gandhi himself took pains in acquainting Indian leadership with the problems faced by the Indian indentured labourers and the peoples of the Asiatic origin in South Africa. He wrote pamphlets, columns in the newspapers and would be present in India during the annual meetings of the Indian National Congress. He would get special time to speak on South Africa question. But after a brief presentation Gandhi would spend a considerable time cleaning up the toilets put-up for the delegates.

The same drive for leadership and determination marked Gandhi’s steps in his work for the public cause. Informed by the conviction that the technique of struggle he had developed in South Africa would be equally applicable to India.

Leadership in a certain situation goes only to the person who meets the requirements of that situation. This is very well brought out by Hegel in his characterization of the attributes of great men: “ They are great men, because they willed and accomplished something great; not a mere fancy, a mere intention, but that which met the case and fell in with the needs of the age."

There was a vacuum in Indian politics. The country was waiting for a charismatic leader who world infuse new life in the freedom struggle.Aurobindo Ghosh, a great intellectual and one of the most prominent Extremist leaders, who inspired and maintained links also with some of the revolutionaries, had understood the nature of the crisis faced by the nationalist around that period in India:

"All great movements wait for their God-sent leader, the willing channel of force, and only when he comes, move forward triumphantly to their fulfillment. The men who have led hither to have been strong men of high gifts and commanding genius, great enough to be the protagonists of any other movement, but even they were not sufficient to fulfill one which is the chief current of a world-wide revolution. Therefore the nationalist party, custodians of the future, must wait for the man who is to come, calm in the midst of calamity, hopeful under defeat, sure of eventual emergence and triumph and always mindful of the responsibility which they owe not only to their Indian posterity but to the world."

It is not known whether Gandhi had read these lines written in 1909. What is pertinent is that he had all the qualities which Aurobindo had by implication mentioned as essential for the future leader of Indian nationalism and, besides, had already begun treading the path which led to that position. It was also the year 1909 when M.K. Gandhi wrote his seminal work ‘Hind Swaraj or Home Rule’. This book clearly gives an insight into Gandhi’s political thoughts. The book was proscribed by the government, as it was a severe condemnation of modern civilization.

Jawaharlal Nehru celebrates the coming of Gandhi thus:

“And then Gandhi came. He was like a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take deep breaths; like a beam of light that pierced the darkness and removed the scales from our eyes; like a whirlwind that upset may things, but most of all working of people’s minds. He did not descend from the top; he seemed to emerge from the millions of India, speaking their language, and incessantly drawing attention to them and their appalling condition. Get off the backs of these peasants and workers, he told us, all you who live by their exploitation; get rid of the system that produces this poverty and misery. Political freedom took new shape then and acquired a new content.

But the most prophetic thoughts so early in Gandhi’s tryst with India’s future were expressed by Rabindranath Tagore. Not surprising for soon after his arrival in India on 9 January 1915 Gandhi visited Shantiniketan to pay his respects to Tagore. Gandhi had heard about Tagore’s experiments in education. A group of young boys from Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement in South Africa had preceded his arrival on 9 January 1915 and were put-up at Shantiniketan under Tagore’s care. Gandhi met Tagore in February.

Tagore wondered, “Perhaps he will not succeed. Perhaps he will fail as Buddha failed and a Christ failed to wean men from their iniquities, but he will always be remembered as one who made his life a lesson for all ages to come".

While not joining any movement or agitation in which he would not have a decisive role, Gandhi was in his own way spreading his ideas and looking forward to opportunities for testing his method of struggle developed in South Africa. This was clear even from the choice of name - Satyagraha Ashram - which he gave to the place he selected in Ahmedabad in 1915 as the habitat for himself and some of his close companions and followers. As he himself puts it: “I wanted to acquaint India with the method I had tried in South Africa, and I desired to test in India the extent to which its application might be possible. So my companions and I selected the name ‘Satyagraha Ashram’,as conveying both our goal and our method of service".

May 25, 2015 will mark the centenary of the foundation of the Satyagrah Ashram rechristened as Harijan Ashram in 1932, by Gandhi.

The Constructive Programme, as conceived by Gandhi, was an integral part of the fight for freedom under his leadership. In 1940 he wrote a booklet named Constructive Programme: its place and meaning for his co-workers. In this booklet Gandhi has listed eighteen items essential for social regeneration. Sanitation and removal of the inhuman practice of Untouchability are two important components of this programme. This booklet published by the Navajivan Prakashan, Ahmedabad is a bible for anyone interested in social work. Gandhi did not believe that the imperial ambitions of Britain were alone responsible for our slavery. “We made East India Company - Company Bahadur". It was the neglect of national duty (dharma) that was primarily responsible for it. The constructive programme was devised to reform our national character. A reformed India would be a free India.

The first and foremost item of this reform was the removal of untouchability. Gandhi argues how we could talk about freedom when one fifth of our brethren are in bondage. This reform was not needed only in Hindu society; other religious communities were not altogether free from it. But even if the reform was needed by the Hindu community it has its national importance. Untouchability is a cruel and inhuman institution. It violates human dignity. It deadens the sensibility of both the oppressor and the oppressed. Untouchability is against the spirit of democracy which makes no distinction among citizens. It also raises economic problems. The untouchables were the poorest section of Indian society. Their avenues of employment were strictly limited. They lived apart; in unhygienic were Hindus and believed in and worshipped Hindu gods and goddesses, they were not allowed to enter Hindu temples. Public institutions like schools, hotels, hostels, etc., were closed to them. Gandhi also rightly felt that they who denied justice to those who suffered injustice at their hands had no right to demand justice for themselves from their oppressors.

Gandhi firmly believed that basic social changes leading to the establishment of a just society cannot be brought about merely by state action and that the people themselves will have to play the major role in this process. In Satyagraha Gandhi provided an ideal means to the people to perform such a role. If dictatorship by a party or a group, involving the suppression of all other parties or groups and the denial of certain vital human freedoms, like the freedom of speech or expression, has not to become an essential ingredient of an enlightened society, it is difficult to imagine a better means than Satyagraha for bringing it about.

In spite of his random speeches, however, Gandhi for the next two years remained only on the periphery of the political circle in India and continued to be known primarily as a hero of the Indian struggle in South Africa and was perceived as a person without much interest in Indian politics.

Gandhi visited Varanasi in February 1916 where he addressed several meetings.

In Varanasi Gandhi was shocked at the horrible, insanitary conditions in the holy city, particularly around the great Vishwanath Temple, and remarked “Is not this great temple a reflection of our own character?" Further, he referred to the contrast in India between “the richly bedecked nobleman" and millions of the poor agriculturists and firmly declared: “Our salvation can only come through the farmer. Neither the lawyers, nor the doctors, nor the rich landlords are going to secure it."

The last week of December 1916 saw the coming together of the Indian National Congress and the Indian Muslim League on the issue of self-government. And this was also the last time as they gradually moved away from each other which ultimately reached a point when India was partitioned. In this Conference, too, as was his practice Gandhi took to cleaning up the toilets left soiled by the delegates. There was an interesting exchange between Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhi when the latter asked. Gurudev, where could he find a broom and a bucket Gurudev was left perplexed as perhaps this was the first time he was ever asked for such ‘lofty’ objects.

Recalling his impressions of Gandhi after meeting him at the Lucknow Conference Nehru writes, “All of us admired him for his heroic fight in South Africa" “but he seemed very distant and different and apolitical to many of us young men. He refused to take part in Congress of national politics then and confined himself to the South African Indian question.

In contrast to the views held by the urban, western educated middle class which still had reservations about Gandhi’s leadership the poor and the deprived masses of people were convinced their Saviour and their Messiah has arrived.

For in the same Lucknow Congress where Gandhi seemed ‘distant’ to Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders belonging to his class, there was a poor peasant from Champaran named Raj Kumar Shukla. Sitting in a corner of the Pandal, he was oblivious of all that was transpiring in the Congress meet. His eyes were fixed on the lawyer M. K. Gandhi whom he had come to take to Champaran to fight for the rights of the poor peasants like him.

Gandhi always had in his heart the welfare of the farmers and nursed a desire to serve their cause. Fate appeared before him in the form of Rajkumar Shukla, a farmer from Champaran, who gave him an opportunity to fight for their cause in 1917.

Mahatma Gandhi writes, “The Champaran episode was a turning point in my life." “What I did", he explained, “Was a very ordinary thing. I declared that the British could not order me about in my own country". He attached so much importance to the Champaran struggle that he once said “those who would know my method of organising kisans may profitably study the movement in Champaran where satyagraha was tried for the first time in India with the result all India knows."

After the success of Champaran Satyagraha, Gandhi became conscious of the pitiable state of our villages. And the regeneration of the villages came to be accorded significant status in the Constructive Programme envisaged by Gandhi. He declared in unequivocal terms.

“If the village perishes, India will perish, too. It will be no more India. Her own mission in the world will get lost".

The year, 2017 marks the centenary of the Champaran Satyagraha, the first nonviolent movement under the leadership of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on the Indian soil, which drew the attention of an entire generation gone astray, towards the pitiable plight of our peasantry. Independence for India, Gandhi often said, meant primarily independence for the villager. Small wonder then, rural regeneration forms the core of the Swaraj of Gandhi’s dream.

“Gandhi counseled his countrymen and women “we must identify ourselves with the villagers who toil under the hot sun beating on their bent backs and see how we would like to drink water from the pool in which the villagers bathe, wash their clothes and pots, in which their cattle drink and roll. Then and not till then shall we truly represent the masses and they will, as surely as I am writing this, respond to every call."

“We have got to be ideal villagers, not the villagers with their queer ideas about sanitation and giving no thought to how they eat and what they eat. Let us not, like most of them, cook anyhow, eat anyhow, live anyhow. Let us show them the ideal diet. Let us not go by mere likes and dislikes, but get at the root of those likes and dislikes."

“The village movement is as much an education of the city people as of the villagers. Workers drawn from cities have to develop village mentality and learn the art of living after the manner of villagers. This does not mean that they have to starve like the villagers. But it does mean that there must be a radical change in the old style of life."

“The cities are capable of taking care of themselves. It is the village we have to turn to. We have to disabuse them of their prejudice, their superstitions, their narrow outlook and we can do so in no other manner than that of staying amongst them and sharing their joys and sorrows and spreading education and intelligent information among them."

“Members of family will keep their own home clean, but they will not be interested in the neighbour’s. They will keep their courtyard clean of dirt, insects and reptiles, but will not hesitate to shove all into the neighbour’s yard. As a result of this want of corporate responsibility, our villages are dung heaps."

Gandhi cautioned his co-workers that “the very first problem the village worker will solve is its sanitation. It is the most neglected of all the problems that baffle workers and that undermine physical wellbeing and breed disease. If the worker became a voluntary bhangi, he would begin by collecting night-soil and turning it into manure and sweeping village streets. He will tell people how and where they should perform daily functions and speak to them on the value of sanitation and the great injury caused by its neglect. The worker will continue to do the work whether the villagers listen to him or no."

Gandhi further says, “Poverty is no bar to perfect sanitation. The lavatories of even the poorest of the poor ought to be as clean and neat as a library or the kitchen. There should not be a trace of dirt or foul smell in it."

“My ideal village will contain intelligent human beings. They will not live in dirt and darkness as animals. Men and women will be free and able to hold their own against anyone in the world. There will be neither plague, nor cholera, nor smallpox; no one will be idle, no one will wallow in luxury. Everyone will have to contribute his quota of manual labour....It is possible to envisage railways, post and telegraph...and the like......"

“An ideal Indian village will be so constructed as to lend itself to perfect sanitation. It will have cottages with sufficient light and ventilation built of a material obtainable within a radius of five miles of it. The cottages will have courtyards enabling householders to plant vegetables for domestic use and to house their cattle. The village lances and streets will be free of all avoidable dust. It will have wells according to its needs and accessible to all. It will have houses of worship for all, also a common meeting place, a village common for grazing its cattle, a co-operative dairy, primary and secondary schools in which industrial education will be the central fact, and it will have Panchayats for settling disputes. It will produce its own grains, vegetables and fruit, and its own Khadi. This is roughly my idea of a model village. ...I am convinced that the villagers can, under intelligent guidance, double the village income. There are in our villages inexhaustible resources not for commercial purposed in every case. The greatest tragedy is the hopeless unwillingness of the villagers to better their lot."

“The only way is to sit down in their midst and work away in steadfast faith, as their scavengers, their nurses, their servants, not as their patrons, and to forget all our prejudices and prepossessions. Let us for a moment forget even Swaraj, and certainly forget the ‘haves’ whose presence oppresses us at every step. They are there. There are many who are dealing with these big problems. Let us tackle the humbler work of the village which is necessary now and would be even after we have reached our goal. Indeed, the village work when it becomes successful will itself bring us nearer the goal."

Gandhi always emphasized on the importance of teaching. “We have to teach them how to economize time, health and money. Lionel Curtis described our villages as dung-heaps. We have to turn them into model villages. Our village-folk do not get fresh air though they are surrounded by fresh air; they don’t get fresh food though they are surrounded by the freshest foods. I am talking like a missionary in this matter of food, because my mission is to make villages a thing of beauty."

Gandhi makes a significant point when he says, “It is profitless to find out whether the villages of India were always what they are today. If they were never better it is a reflection upon the ancient culture in which we take so much pride. But if they were never better, how is it that they have survived centuries of decay which we see going on around us. ...The task before every lover of the country is how to prevent this decay or, which is the same thing, how to reconstruct the villages of India so that it may be as easy for anyone to live in them as it is supposed to be in the cities. Indeed, it is the task before every patriot. It may be that the villagers are beyond redemption, that rural civilization has had its day and that the seven hundred thousand villages have to give place to seven hundred well-ordered cities supporting a population not of three hundred millions but thirty. If such is to be India’s fate, even that won’t come in a day. It must take time to wipe out a number of villages and villagers and transform the remainder into cities and citizens."

His advocacy of cottage and village industries did not mean that people should forever remain content with their present oppressive poverty. His advocacy of decentralised industry in preference to centralised, mechanical big industry had a special purpose under the circumstances prevailing in India. It was to provide work for the unemployed and underemployed starving masses. As in former days, people were not compelled to take to it for want of scientific and technical knowledge. Now it served a new national purpose, that of providing the unemployed a better substitute than the unemployment dole in the West. It cannot, therefore, be considered as a backward or revivalist movement.

Again, truth and non-violence to Gandhi were “as old as the hills". His application of these principles to politics is old; He only claims to use these on an extended canvas to enable him to offer a solution to the new problem, created by ever-increasing and more destructive weapons of violence invented by modern science and technology. The cottage and village industry programme is, of course, old, in spite of its new application and implications in an age of centralised and mechanised big industry. Basic education is at the root of all education. All knowledge, to begin with, was acquired by humanity through observation, activity and experiment.

Gandhi’s contribution to the great revolution for human dignity is universally acknowledged. In this struggle, to the candle lit by Gandhi in India has grown into a great light which is giving new confidence and strength to oppressed minorities all over the world. Gandhi clearly saw that an India divided by communal bitterness and prejudices could never achieve self-respect and independence. His efforts to provide the so-called untouchables whom he termed as Harijans’, with equal opportunity and a full measure of dignity, and to awaken the social conscience of all castes and religions are in large measure responsible for the present vitality of Indian democracy.

Gandhi claims, “I was wedded to the work for the extinction of ‘untouchability’ long before I was wedded to my wife. There were two occasions in our joint life when there was a choice between working for the untouchables and remaining with my wife and I would have preferred the first. But thanks to my good wife, the crisis was averted. In my Ashram, which is my family, I have several untouchables and a sweet but naughty girl living as my own daughter."

Here Gandhi is referring to his showdown with his wife Kasturba when she refused to clean the lavatory used by a guest in their house in South Africa.

“Love of the people brought the problems of untouchability early into my life. My mother said, ‘You must not touch this boy Oka, he is an untouchable.’ ‘Why not?’ I questioned back, and from that day my revolt began."

While in Delhi, Gandhi insisted on living in the ‘Bhangi colony’ now known as Balmiki Basti where all the dignitaries, British or Indian, had to go and meet him and where many momentous meetings of the Congress Working Committee were held.

Gandhi works in this spirit of the old masters. Removal of untouchability is a great revolution in Hindu society. But he advocates it in the name of the purity of the ancient faith. He boldly claims for its abolition on the authority of the most ancient traditions as well as he may. There is no mention of untouchability in the Vedas or the Upanishads. The institution did not exist in those days. Even the caste system that developed later knows nothing of the fifth caste of untouchable.

The campaign against untouchability may be said to have begun with the Buddha. Hindu reformers from time to time have denounced this inhuman custom and have allowed the untouchables to be members of their sects. Guru Nanak and his nine successors accepted the untouchables in the Sikh religion. Kabir and other religious sects of Sant Mat, throughout the Middle Ages, freely allowed the untouchables to join their brotherhood.

Gandhi argues, “Swaraj is a meaningless term, if we desire to keep a fifth of India under perpetual subjection, and deliberately deny to them the fruits of national culture. We are seeking the aid of God in this great purifying movement, but we deny to the most deserving among His creatures the rights of humanity. Inhuman ourselves, we may not plead before the Throne for deliverance from the inhumanity of others."

Again, “it is simply a fanatical obstinacy to persist in persecuting man in the sacred name of religion. For reforms of Hinduism and for its real protection, removal of untouchability is the greatest thing....Removal of untouchability is...a spiritual process. If untouchabitly lives, Hinduism must die. I would far rather that Hinduism died than that untouchability, lived."

“In battling against untouchability and in dedicating myself to that battle, I have no less an ambition than to see a complete regeneration of humanity. It may be a mere dream, as unreal as the silver in the sea-shell. It is not so to me while the dream lasts, and in the words of Romain Rolland, ‘Victory lies not in realization of the goal, but in a relentless pursuit after it."

Acharya J. B. Kripalani was closely associated with Gandhi in this mission. He writes, “In tackling the problem of untouchability Gandhi did not call upon the untouchables to join in the struggle for the assertion of their human rights. They were even incapable then of doing so. They took their lowly position as having been ordained by God. During the campaign against untouchability, we of the so-called higher castes often visited their lowly homes. If we asked for water from them, they would refuse to give it, saying that it would be ‘adharma’ for them to offer water to high-caste people. It was such a degradation to which we had reduced a large portion of our population! Gandhi, therefore, called upon the caste Hindus to make all the sacrifice necessary for the removal of untouchability. He said that they would thus be rendering only belated justice for the grievous injury inflicted by their ancestors on the untouchables through the centuries. The response of the caste Hindus to the call of Gandhi in this respect was adequate."

Further he says: “untouchability in its extreme form has always caused me so much pain, because I consider myself to be a Hindu of Hindus saturated with the spirit of Hinduism. I have failed to find a single warrant for the existence of untouchability as we believe and practise it today in all those books which we call Hindu Shastras. But as I have repeatedly said in other places, if I found that Hinduism really countenanced untouchability I should have no hesitation in renouncing Hinduism itself." He adds: “I have never been able to reconcile myself to untouchability. I have always regarded it an excrescence in Hinduism. It is true that it has been handed down to us from generations, but so are many evil practices even to this day."

“To remove untouchability," says Gandhi “is a penance and that caste Hindus owe to Hinduism and to themselves. The purification required is not of ‘untouchables’ but of the soc-called superior castes. There is no vice that is special to the ‘untouchables’, not even dirt and insanitation. It is our arrogance which blinds us, superior Hindus, to our own blemishes and which magnifies those of our downtrodden brethren whom we have suppressed and whom we keep under suppression. Religions like nations are being weighed in the balance. God’s grace and revelation are the monopoly of no race or nation. They descend equally upon all who wait upon God. That religion and that nation will be blotted out from the face of the earth which pins its faith to injustice, untruth or violence."

Gandhi’s movement after independence has the backing of a democratic government. If the Government is vigilant and prepared to enforce the law, it is hoped that this blot on Hindu society will soon disappear.

Gandhi’s reputation for originality is accepted by the learned at its face value. They think that he tries to foist on the people some outworn and discarded thought or institution. In the words of the so-called radicals, he tries to put back the hands of the clock of progress. The contention is that what he advocates has been tried in the past often enough and found wanting.

The criticism misses the revolutionary aim and spirit underlying Gandhi’s thought. The form may be old but the spirit, the intention and the application are new. It is not so much the particular activity undertaken that is revolutionary, as the urge behind it, the spirit that inspires it and the purpose in pursuance of which it is undertaken. His emphasis on sanitation both inner and in outer sharer, removal of untouchability, advocacy of cottage industry, prohibition and even non-co-operation were advocated by previous reformers in India.

Gandhi has however, made them dynamic and fitted them into a vast revolutionary movement for creating a more just and equitable social order. His insistence on clearing the lavatory oneself was to break the mind set and arrogance of the so-called upper caste. And that it is inhuman to look down upon those people who perform the most sacred task of cleaning.

The call for Swachchhata Abhiyan is informed by the same spirit.

The world does not revere Mahatma Gandhi because he led India to her freedom, for this freedom, anyway, does not measure up to his expectations. Gandhi is revered because he showed the path of freedom to the oppressed humanity.

If the Indian revolution, which was the first and greatest of the anticolonial movements, had been led by angry, embittered leaders in a bloody protest against British rule the history of the first-ten years after independence would have been disastrously different. In that event the frustrated peoples of Asia and Africa would almost certainly have embarked on a similar orgy of violence and mass destruction against the colonial regimes under which they lived.

Within a single generation, we have witnessed an unprecedented transition from a world of empires to a world of free nations and we have yet to see the end of the struggle. However, a thousand years from now history will record that it was the Indian Independence movement under the leadership of Mohandas K. Gandhi that set the standards by which both colonial powers and subject peoples were compelled to judge their actions.

Mahatma Gandhi sought to revolutionize not only the aims of development but equally the method of action which alone can lead to the achievement of the aims. He called his goal Sarvodaya or ‘welfare of all’ and his method Satyagraha. Sarvodaya is the total good of all the people without any distinction of high and low, strong and weak, rich and poor, educated and illiterate and even the good and the wicked. Sarvodaya is a fuller and richer concept of people’s democracy than any we have yet known. Satyagraha is the organised will of the people functioning through collective nonviolence. The time will come when these twin concepts and words will be reckoned as of greater significance than any other of their kind in the twentieth century.

Gandhi did prove up to a point in his own life time how Sarvodaya can be achieved through Satyagraha. Satyagraha includes education, legislation and nonviolent direct action. Satyagraha can paralyse every tyranny and make the violence of the tyrant inoperative. All the higher claims of culture, of music, poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture and philosophy are woven and interwoven into this integrated fabric of Sarvodaya and Satyagraha. Gandhi was devoted to every high claim of culture and civilisation but he laid down at the same time the inescapable condition that the whole of culture and civilisation must feed and swell the Ganga of a just, free, peaceful and equal human society. What the millions could not possess he turned away from with relentless logic and determination.

But he saw beyond mere changes and knew that no change could function and go forward self-evolvingly unless such change came from the power of love becoming nonviolent action. Like the scientists who discovered the mighty power of matter in every atom, he discovered the incalculable power of the spirit embedded in every human mind. Like the atomic scientists again, he released the power of love from every human mind and linked them in a vast chain reaction producing the ultimate power of the spirit.

The relevance of such a man and his message now and for all time is self-evident. It is a relevance which has become all the more imperative in this crucial epoch of human destiny.

The revolution for human dignity and the revolution for peace-none is complete and the road ahead is strewn with difficulties. Yet because Gandhi showed tens of millions of individual citizens how to speak out for freedom, for peace and for individual dignity, it can be safely said that humankind is on the right path. Gandhi’s thoughts and action can be understood only in the context of certain basic spiritual premises of Indian history.

The corollary of Gandhi’s critique of imperialism was a vision of a new India. Development to Gandhi was abolition of poverty, misery and fear. He said, “I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel it is their country, in whose working they have an effective voice, an India in which there is no high class or a low class of people, an India in which all communities will live in harmony. Women will enjoy the same rights as men. This is the India of my dreams."

Mahatma Gandhi had a dream. He wanted to build India in accordance with this dream and present this India to the world as a blue-print of development which would be just and sustainable. Realising the unfinished task of the Mahatma alone will be a befitting memorial to the one whom we revere as the Father of the Nation.

But translating this dream of the Mahatma is the biggest challenge before India today. More so in an era when the power of the modern state is being questioned and doubt is cast on its capacity to work real change. Gandhi’s critique and vision take on new meaning, so does his vision of passionate and self-regulating communities as the true foundation of the New World Order in the 21st Century.

Mahatma Gandhi may have run his cleanliness drives by wielding the broom himself to break the caste system ingrained in centuries of social life in India, but his successors must bring in the sweeping reform in order to promise every Indian a better life, regardless of caste and creed. Towards this, there is much to be done. Rivers must not be dirtied by using them as drains to carry waste. The air we breathe must be cleaner and devoid of organisms from stealthy dumping or burning of hospital waste. And such abominable practices as human beings going down drains to clean them and carrying night soil must stop. This is where technology can help most.

Several decades ago Gandhi had drawn our attention to the fast dying holy rivers. “We have more Gangas and Jamunas than the two. ...They remind us of the sacrifices we must make for the sake of the land we are living in. they remind us of the process of purification that we must continuously go through as the rivers themselves are going through from movement to movent....In the modern rush, the chief use we have for our rivers is to empty our gutters in them and to navigate our cargo vessels, and in the process make them dirtier still. We have no stroll down to these rivers, and in silent meditation listen to the message they murmur to us." These profound words seem so fresh.

The lethargy of government has for too long allowed us to be inured to unhygienic spaces outside our immediate homes, although every Indian must accept the blame for his own slovenliness in public spaces. The garbage bag, the dumpster trucks and landfills can be better monitored to ensure better results. To give the next generation a cleaner India is a task we cannot duck anymore. The time for action began the minute the photo opportunities with politicians and bureaucrats got over.

The harnessing of technology in sustaining cleanliness by taking care of solid waste management and upkeep of drains is a must. The work force handling street cleaning should be so well paid and equipped with protection like gloves and uniforms that old caste prejudices should disappear so that more of the so-called “higher castes" can enjoy the dignity of labour as it exists and as we have come to admire it in more advanced societies in parts of the First World.

A structured plan to sustain Swachchh Bharat from the block level to the metropolises alone can help remove the stench of garbage permeating places of habitation. Tax write-offs of two per cent for the corporate sector should be incentive enough for the creation of a more studied action plan to tackle the problem of garbage disposal in every major city in India.

It is not only the clutter of government offices, their accumulated waste and their far-from-aesthetic surroundings that have to be overturned for a smart new India to spring forth, leaving behind the “callous" attitude of generations. Human habitations throughout India have to be cleaned up to ensure healthier surroundings.

A Swachachh Bharat is the greatest gift we can give to Mahatma Gandhi.

But the greatest fear about the Swachchh Bharat events of October 2, Gandhi Jayanti, in which more than three million government employees are said have taken the “Swachchhta Shapath (cleanliness pledge)", is that the mass movement may lose momentum once the grand tokenism of leaders wielding brooms disappears.

An anecdote from the Gandhian era will be quite relevant here. In 1925 Mira Behn, the daughter of a British admiral Sir Edmunde Slade joined Mahatma Gandhi in his Satyagraha Ashram, on the banks of river Sabarmati. In 1936 Gandhi shifted to Segaon in Wardha where he set up another Ashram known as Sevagram. The Ashram was located in the midst of very backward villages. This was Gandhi’s way of drawing the attention of the people towards the pitiable state of our villages. He encouraged the inmates of the Sevagram Ashram to work in the surrounding villages to help mitigate the misery of the village folks. Teaching cleanliness was a top priority. Mira Behn, too, adopted a village close by and started work there. Few months passed by when she requested Gandhi to visit her village to see her work. One day Gandhi decided to go and see the village. But it so happened that Mira Behn was out of Wardha on some urgent mission. When Gandhi entered the village he was shocked to find the lanes and by - lanes littered with Garbage. He enquired from the villagers why the streets have not been cleaned-they replied, “Mira Behn has not come for the past couple of days." When Mira Behn returned Gandhi pulled her up and said “you have only been working for the villagers and not working with them".

his anecdote has a lesson for all of us.

A true transformation of society is possible if the government can put its ideas together and then rope in the private sector civil society, trusts, individuals and social activists to drive the campaign

A clean India is everyone’s sacred duty.

How clear then is the choice? We are convinced beyond a shadow of doubt that the genius of man which has helped the world to survive every catastrophe so far will continue to sustain humankind and that sooner than later we shall all follow the light that comes streaming down from Gandhi.

Gandhi’s influence on our times surpasses that of any other individual. We may start with the fact that his philosophy was based on the eternal aspirations of the entire humanity for a free and harmonious life. At a crucial moment in history Gandhi demonstrated the effectiveness of the nonviolent way of dealing with oppression and aggression.

Geoffrey Ash, a renowned Gandhian scholar, makes an interesting observation. He says in his studies of Gandhi he has been “often impressed by Gandhi’s power to surprise. His most characteristic ideas were unexpected, against the currents of thought around him. He has taught us never to be bulldozed by trends, never to worry much about what will appear logical or along approved lines. The most Gandhian way of debating an issue like this is to shed every inhibition and say whatever occurs to you, however absurd or wayward it sounds. If you do that, may be nine ideas out of ten will actually be absurd or wayward. But the tenth is the one to watch for. All Gandhi’s major ideas were ‘tenth ideas’. He is the apostle of the clean break and the fresh start. Given the will to make a fresh start, the revolution can begin here, now, today."

‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’ is the tenth revolutionary idea of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Father of our Nation and the Mahatma the world reveres.


  1. M.K. Gandhi: An Autobiography or the story of my experiments with truth
  2. M.K. Gandhi: Satyagraha in South Africa
  3. M.K. Gandhi : Village Swaraj
  4. Jawaharlal Nehru: Discovery of India
  5. R.K. Prabhu/ U. R. Rao ed: The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi
  6. G. Ramchandran/ T.K. Mahadevan ed: Quest for Gandhi
  7. J.B. Kriplani: Gandhi his life and thought
  8. Savita Singh: Satyagraha
  9. Savita Singh: Global Concern with Environmental Crisis and Gandhi's Vision
  10. Harijan: Aug. 11. 1946.
  11. Harijan: Aug. 11, 1946.
  12. Mahatma, Vol. II, P. 274.)
  13. Bapu-ke-Ashirvad: March 24, 1946.
  14. Young India: Nov. 19, 1925.
  15. Bapu-ke-Ashirvad: March 24, 1946
  16. -Bapu-ke-Ashirvad: April 5, 1946)
  17. From Yeravda Mandir : p. 37)
  18. From Yeravda Mandir: P. 37)
  19. Bapu ke Ashirvad: Apr. 26, 1945
  20. -Harijan: Aug. 11. 1946.
  21. Harijan: Aug. 11, 1946
  22. Young India: Nov. 19, 1925.)
  23. Harijan: JuneĀ  16, 1946
  24. Harijan: Aug. 29, 1936
  25. Harijan: Feb. 8, 1935

* Dr. Savita Singh, Former Director, Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, New Delhi. Email: