The Importance of Being Gandhi
No, he has been turned into a little tin god
Every year, on October 2nd, Mahatma Gandhi is trotted out, pious homilies are delivered, “Raghupathi Raghava Rajaram” is chanted desultorily by bored schoolchildren, and that’s that. For the other 364 days, Gandhi quietly gathers dust in a closet. It’s much like Mother’s Day, the one day of the year some people think of their mothers.
There is something about the fulsome adulation of Gandhi that is disturbing, and I think I have finally figured out the reason. It is cognitive dissonance: it is hard to reconcile the fact that those who praise Gandhi the loudest are often those who least practice his ideals—viz. politicians. The stench of hypocrisy surrounding the homily-deliverers is creating a miasma around Gandhi himself.
There is an entire industry growing up around the Gandhi name. For instance, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi (no relations), have landed at the United Nations this year, in the hope that some goodwill will rub off: fortunately for them, some ancestor of theirs was clever enough to change his name from Ghandi to Gandhi. Nice little bit of prestidigitation there.
Then there are all those people in blindingly white khadi kurtas, shirts, and dhotis. They wear this allegedly to benefit poor handloom weavers (whose cause Gandhi espoused). But white khadi has become such a symbol of venality and corruption that it is a good thing khadi marketers are now trying to make the fabric multi-colored and its wearers upscale fashionistas.
The fact of the matter is that Gandhi would have been an embarrassment if he had lived much past Independence. He would have been the garrulous old man, the uncultured poor relative, whom the Nehruvians would have had to explain away to their new friends the Soviets and the Chinese. They would have had to put up with the old man’s obstinacies.
Their entire world-view militated against his. Where Gandhi saw agriculture and small-scale village enterprise as the way to uplift the rural masses, Nehruvians were partial to Communist-style heavy industry and big dams (“the temples of modern India”). Where Gandhi praised the civilizational ideal of the righteous king, Rama, Nehruvians were impressed by an obscure imported god called dialectical materialism.
Today, the government of India declares Rama non-existent and its ally the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) calls him a drunkard. The gods of Indians are, in order: Cricket, the vengeful Semitic gods of West Asia, and, most seductive of the lot, Mammon.
In the age of mega-malls and Koffee with Karan, Mahatma Gandhi is no longer relevant. Future generations will question if he ever existed, not with the sense of wonder that Einstein intended, but brutally, with derision. To them, he will be another sanctimonious myth, an antediluvian shibboleth.
Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Mumbai, India.
Yes, Gandhiji’s ideals will always be relevant
As long as the perplexing dualities of life—truthfulness/duplicity, war/peace, home/away, and change/continuity—are part of the human condition, Gandhiji’s life remains a theoretically sound and real-world practical lesson for how to live, learn, and love. In Gandhiji’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, the lesson’s teacher uses experimentation to test his hypothesis and storytelling to bring the truth to life.
In dismissing Gandhiji as an irrelevant traditionalist, critics forget that we live in a postmodern world and Gandhian theory is fundamentally postmodern in privileging individual agency. Since theory is only relevant if it is practical, and practice is rigorous if it is grounded in theory, let’s consider life’s dualities through the bifocals of relevance and rigor.
Truthfulness/Duplicity relevance: from Mumbai, where Mammon is king, to Manhattan, where Mahatma is a rice brand, the world is full of white lies and red deceptions (non-existent weapons of mass destruction as justification for war fall at the bloody-red end of the spectrum). Postmodern rigor: Gandhiji practiced satyagraha to seize the truth in all aspects of life; in a world where individuals socially construct their own realities, satyagraha serves as a framework that encourages us to hold fast to our own truths without kneeling to some absolute truth.
War/Peace relevance: the cycles of conflict and calm are inevitable personally and globally. Postmodern rigor: with its double meaning, swaraj is one of the most sophisticated Gandhian concepts because the personal self-control which was Gandhiji’s prerequisite for independent India’s self-rule movement also serves as a moral governor for imperious hegemony. When mobs at malls, masjids, or mandirs are led into turmoil and terror by those with little self-control, nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience are actively required.
Home/Away relevance: at birth, humans experience the liberation and disorientation associated with being thrust into a foreign world—and then for the rest of our lives we move about searching for home. Postmodern rigor: Gandhiji conceived sarvodaya for socioeconomic uplift in and beyond one’s home. This well-traveled diasporic also recognized boundary-less globalization, insisting, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.”
Change/Continuity relevance: countries, companies, and kin embarking on national, organizational, and familial transformations inevitably confront resistance in endings, new beginnings, and the transitional states in between. Postmodern rigor: if we all followed Gandhiji’s nonviolent aphorism to “be the change you want to see in the world,” there would be more ahimsa in the world (and perhaps less need for change-management consultants).
Rajesh C. Oza is president of the OrganiZationAlignment Consulting Group.