Seven decades down the line after his merging with the sea of times, Mahatma Gandhi stands tall as an institution rather than an individual in the ethos of India. Gandhi was an inventor par excellence, but of a different kind. He was an inventor of a unique way of protest, of struggle, of emancipation and of empowerment. He was a general, a commander, a warrior, not in waging war but in making peace. He had a rich weaponry, not of arms and ammunition, but of truth, peace and "satyagraha" as he called it. Morality was his field of action. His battle was for exploring a whole new dimension of the human psyche, its capacity to willingly accept suffering, even unto death. He fought not for attaining the kingdom of heaven, but for a better world here by bringing about social and political change. That was Mahatma Gandhi.
When the young Indian barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was evicted from a train at Pietermaritzburg station for being a non-white on June 7, 1893, a spark was lit which was to change the course of world history.
On September 11, 1906, Gandhi launched the first satyagraha campaign from the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg. He issued a clarion call for non-violent resistance against racial discrimination, oppression and injustice. He described satyagraha as a force born of truth and the love of non-violence, a moral equivalent of war.
Gandhi’s 21 years in South Africa moulded his views and also put them into test and refinement. From South Africa he carried the torch of satyagraha to India. And the whole world saw with astonishment how this unique technique energized millions of men and women in India to bring a mighty empire to its knees.
The popular picture of Gandhi is that of a highly solemn and earnest person. His mission was indeed a lofty one but his personality was full of lightness and humour. Once, reacting to criticism that he was wearing merely his usual loin cloth, sandals and shawl when invited to tea by King George and Queen Mary, he said, "The King had enough on for both of us.Mahatma Gandhi was a multi-faceted personality to an unusual degree. He was a man of peace who did not hesitate to fight for what he believed to be right, a political strategist who shunned conventional politics and held no office, a thinker, a philosopher, a lover of peace, a man of action, a true revolutionary. He was extraordinarily pragmatic. He adapted himself to changing situations without compromising or abandoning his basic values. Mahatma Gandhi respected tradition. He was deeply religious. But his was a religion that drew from every faith, a religion that was all-inclusive.He embodied spirituality. But his was a spirituality rooted in an abiding concern for the poor and the deprived, of service to and empowerment of the disadvantaged and underprivileged.
Though Gandhi was impatient for cataclysmic change, he shunned violence in any form as an instrument to force the pace of change. In his own words “non violence is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction, devised by the ingenuity of man”.
In today’s world, there is a thinking or rather an argument that thoughGandhian thought, word and deed were extraordinarily effective in the times in which he lived, present times are dramatically different where,while Mahatma Gandhi is certainly worthy of continued admiration and awe,it would be naive and unrealistic to expect his methods to be effective. Though this has been a topic of deliberations, the fact remains that an increasing number of young people in India and elsewhere are today turning to Gandhian thoughts to seek solutions to contemporary concerns through individual and collective action.
There is no denying the fact that the world of today is vastly different from the times of Mahatma Gandhi. The fundamental issues which Gandhi was confronted with were colonial subjugation and racial discrimination. While the former has disappeared from the world, the latter too has been blunted significantly. At the same time, new threats to peace, harmony and stability have emerged in various forms, viz., ethnic nationalism, religious chauvinism, economic inequality, military might, terrorism, which are all powerful drivers of conflicts in today’s world. This has necessitated a new paradigm for solving conflicts. It is quite paradoxical that while the establishment of peace has become the world’s single greatest imperative in the 21st century, the traditional instruments of preserving peace have been found to be increasingly ineffective.
Rather than the question whether Mahatma Gandhi is relevant or not, the real issue is whether we are prepared to live our lives by what he preached and practised, whether we have the courage and strength of mind to follow in his footsteps.
The truth is that instead of diminishing in relevance, Mahatma Gandhi has actually become all the more pertinent in the 21st century. Irrespective of the challenge we confront, the Gandhian way is a real, result oriented, live, empowering, illuminating option.
It is very important that we interpret, in contemporary terms, what Gandhi spelt out in the context of his times, as otherwise we would really be doing injustice to him. He would have wanted us to experiment and find our own way without compromising our fundamental beliefs. This needs to be properly understood.
The three main guiding principles which Gandhi bequeathed to us are Ahimsa (or nonviolence), Satyagraha (or the force born of truth and non-violence) and Sarvodaya (or upliftment of all). What is important is our rediscovering the value of these principles if we want to deal effectively with today's challenges.
The essence of Mahatma Gandhi’s political philosophy was the empowerment of every individual, irrespective of class, caste, colour, creed or community. He believed that extreme poverty was itself a form of violence.
Gandhian perspective on economic growth is another significant aspect is today’s context. Gandhi advocated that wealth created and generated in the society must contribute, first and foremost, to a larger social purpose and cause. Stating this in today’s world does not negate the principles of profit and commerce, but only underlines the need to use a part of the wealth created, to better the quality of life of those whose voices remain unheard.
In response to the feverish proliferation of consumerism that is so evident today, Mahatma Gandhi would most likely have reminded us that a bit of austerity would not be out of place.
For many, Mahatma Gandhi was and continues to be the ultimate touchstone of moral authority. This means judging all our actions in word and deed, on the touchstone of public purpose. Public purpose itself has to be judged against the yardstick of the welfare and well-being of the poorest and most deprived in the land.
Gandhi fervently believed in the pivotal role of religion in every-day life. But his was a faith that drew the best from every religion, a faith that was all-inclusive. He saw it as an ethical and moral mooring to all our actions. When asked about his religious belief, he said, "yes I am a Hindu. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew".
Conflict and inequality cannot be totally isolated from the society. Gandhi’s greatest teaching to the world was that this need not be destructively so, that conflicts can be resolved and inequalities can be contained. He advocated that without worthy means, worthy ends can never be attained.
Mahatma Gandhi had a profound influence on Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, which made him a shining embodiment of Gandhi’s vision. There was a direct connection between Gandhi's campaign against discrimination in South Africa and the anti-apartheid movement there spearheaded by Mandela.
The term ‘Gandhism’ is used today for the body of ideas that describes the inspiration, vision and the life work of Mahatma Gandhi. The term also encompasses what Gandhi's ideas, words and actions mean to people around the world, and how they used them for guidance in building their own future.
Now the pertinent question is, to what extent the 21st century would fulfil Mahatma Gandhi's vision? The rewards would be boundless for our country if non violence is not viewed as outdated and utopian, if we realise that violent means do not bring about lasting change, that violence cannot bring about peace, that violence only begets violence and spirals on. Gandhi has ever increased relevance in today’s world.