Gandhi in the 21st Century

Gandhi in the 21st Century

Picture of Venkatesh Rajan

Venkatesh Rajan

Picture of Venkatesh Rajan

Venkatesh Rajan

Gandhi in the 21st Century

I hope the fragrance of the non-violence of India would permeate the whole world. I often wonder if that hope will materialize.” Mohandas Gandhi

For all of us, there are times when events of the modern world can lead us to a state of deep despair. This is happening more often these days, with alarming reports of pollution, climate change, corruption, exploitation and violence; our collective consciousness seems to shudder and struggle, staring at a feeling of inevitability. It is at such times that the human spirit, made attentive by acute circumstance, looks around for help, for inspiration, for an answer.

And then one arrives at Gandhi…At least in India that has been the hope for many, including this writer, but that hasn’t quite happened in the last few decades. It would appear that the world has been looking everywhere else, but towards him.

The western mind, being outwardly vigorous and action-oriented, has been looking for an evil ‘other’ to attack and destroy (be it rogue profiteers, politicians, priests or polluters). Its world is the universe, and its imagination takes it to the future – to colonising Moon and Mars, to asserting the supremacy of the human race. Stephen Hawking and the dreamers of Hollywood, both subscribe to this view. Both scientist and entertainer are of the same mind, from the same source; the methods of the imperialist are embedded in their ideas.

The Indian mind, being tentative, introspective, looks the other way; it has a tendency to look at the past: to its saints, seers, gurus. Gautama Buddha, Adi Shankara, Ramanna Maharishi and J.Krishnamurthi are available for intellectuals, while Chaitanya, Mirabai, Tulsidas, Kabir, Namdev, Tukaram, Ramdas, etc. are still praised and prayed to in the homes of the masses. But over the last century or so, the inwardness of the eastern mind has given way to indolence – the masses are wallowing in apathy, their seers and saints are only names and sounds, and pictures on walls; no one is studying or following their ideals anymore. The elite meanwhile, while superficially debating philosophy, have surrendered their thought process to the outward ways of the west, and are trapped in an imitation of their coloniser.

Could Gandhi ever come into such a picture? That would not seem possible if the west and east are stuck in a permanent status quo. But what if things were to start moving? What if human conscience, nudged by dire circumstance, became stirred by an insight that the human being needs to change? to transform himself completely, because the status quo is actually a path to hell.

Part One

 Let me share a contemporary story:

One day, last summer, 20th of August 2018, a 15-year-old girl Greta Thunberg, skipped school and sat down outside the Swedish parliament – she called it a ‘school strike for climate’. Her parents tried to dissuade her. Classmates declined to join. Passers-by expressed pity and bemusement at the sight of the then unknown 15-year-old sitting on the cobblestones with a hand-painted banner. Within a year, more than 270 towns and cities in 71 countries had school children participating in the ‘school strike’, demanding action on climate change.  

In January, young Greta Thunberg arrived in Davos to continue her climate campaign at the World Economic Forum. She told a Davos panel: “Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.” Later in the week, when some global leaders tried to condescendingly allay her fears, she warned them that “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.. I want you to act as if the house was on fire—because it is.” She’s young, yes, and she is also mature in a way many adults aren’t.

Greta’s action has now intertwined with those of other environmental action groups, an example of which was the week-long protests on the streets of London in mid-April this year. Thousands of citizens gathered in response to a call for ‘civil disobedience’ – they occupied arterial roads, stopping traffic and explaining to the motorists as well policemen what was at stake, and why such action was necessary.

The whole movement has taken the form of a peaceful, non-violent protest to put moral pressure on powerful governments to declare a climate change emergency, and put an action plan in place. Significantly, those participating appear to be socially committed citizens, many of whom have vowed to practise environmentally responsible behaviour in their personal lives.

Sound a bit Gandhian?

British citizens resorting to ‘civil disobedience’ against their own British government! To many formerly colonised peoples, that would certainly feel like ‘comeuppance’, a just punishment of fate. To this writer, what is significant though, is that the western intellect seems to have run through its pocket of enlightenment ideas, and is groping desperately at the outer edges of its imagination.

Meanwhile, in the east, in India in particular, after a hundred years of looking westward for its food for thought, the nation finds itself saddled with deeply flawed systems of economics, governance and education. And this is no secret, everyone knows why they are flawed. These systems are not ours, they were set up by colonialists to plunder us. But the hold of inertia has been too great… so far. This too may be changing. The after-affects of being second-hand people imitating western ideas is beginning to be felt. Even as the nation is split between cosmopolitan India and traditional Bhārat– the division is more psychological than geographic, it is more real than merely politic – the question of the sorrow of the modern world is being felt by this tangled consciousness.

Hari Krishna Devarapalli, gave up his job in the Tech Industry in the US
to start an organic farm in South India.

When cosmopolitan dudes in India reawaken to yoga, meditation and traditional methods; when successful urbanistas line up their expensive cars outside Ayurveda hospitals; when fine young minds question whether they should send their toddlers to the present school system at all; when qualified urban men and women, in the thousands, voluntarily quit their city jobs and lifestyle to settle down in villages and small towns across the nation, getting reattached to land and community; one has that vibrant feeling that things are moving. 

If the resurgent western mind is riding on the shock of climate change, the resurgent eastern mind is brought awake by the futility of it all, but both appear to be drawn to the source, that is, of human consciousness, of human behaviour, in and for society. That is certainly the minimum that Gandhi demands.

Part Two

If the key question is whether Gandhi’s vision can help us now, then one can take Gandhi’s descriptions and predictions of and for the modern world, made 75 to 100 years ago, and revisit and measure them against what has actually transpired in our world.

The future of industrialism is dark.. It is, I am afraid, going to be a curse for mankind. Exploitation of one nation by another cannot go on for all time. Industrialism depends entirely on your capacity to exploit, on foreign markets being open to you, and on the absence of competitors…”(YI, 12-11-1931, p355).

Gandhi warned repeatedly against what the west considered the core of its civilization – unbridled industrialism and capitalism. Today, the truth of runaway neo-liberalism, exploitation and inequality is being felt deeply all over the world.

“God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts”. (YI, 20-12-1928, p422)

Now that the populations of India and China have started to imitate the west in consumption, the resulting environmental and climate crisis is getting so severe that one is fearful of imagining the ultimate consequences. Gandhi warned about centralization of industrial economy, and how it would destroy community, its local modes of production, and render millions unemployed. In India, after 75 years of imitating western industrialism and pumping money and subsidies into modern organised industry, this contributes to only 12 per cent of employment. Since traditional livelihoods were destroyed along the way, some 20 million are waiting for jobs today, while more than 1 million youth cross the age of 18 every month, adding to the immense pressure on society.

The psychological aspect of frenzied industrial, and now technological activity is a significant point facing humankind. Science and technology has become wholly subservient to commerce, drugged by the smell of profit. Even a hundred years ago, Gandhi saw this basic human weakness as a serious matter to be addressed – the ‘mad desire leading to chaos’ – was a central focus in his Truth & Ahimsa experiments.

Very few people among the intelligent, learned sections of society in the 1920s and 1930s subscribed to such views about what, at the time, was considered the ‘great industrial revolution’. Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo were of course of the same cultural cloth as Gandhi and had their own critique of the European way; interestingly, in the west too, a few scholars, for example, Romain Rolland and Will Durant, understood Gandhi’s message and took it to their countrymen. But largely, the influence and appeal of western technology and economic thought was so powerful, and the colonial footprint so wide, that ‘the modern way’ was thrust into almost every part of the globe.

Part Three

The most important thing for Gandhi is the human being, whose potential he saw in the soul that can achieve the highest state of wisdom and compassion. To realise that potential is to undergo a process of awareness and self-purification, to rise above the base tendencies of fear, greed, violence, etc – and Gandhi maintained throughout, that this is the primary function of the human being. 

Second in importance for him is the local community (the village) and the human being’s behaviour in his society – that of brotherhood and service. He felt that one should accept with gratitude whatever has been received from one’s ancestors; one ought to strengthen the positive aspects of that culture and work towards perfecting the weaker aspects of it – not to reject tradition in favour of nihilistic liberty.

Thirdly, he regarded livelihood of great importance. This should be an action involving what he called ‘bread labour’, free of exploitation of others, producing things useful for the community. Even for those in educational or artistic pursuits, or for the wealthy, he advocated setting aside an hour or two every day for physical work, in and for the community. For him, these three things – the self-spiritual, the social-cultural, and the social-economic – all moving in unison, constituted the path of Truth and Non-violence. It is in this that we could realise real freedom, as well as a peaceful society. 

“I do not believe that the spiritual law works on a field of its own.. on the contrary, it expresses itself only through the ordinary activities of life. It thus affects the economic, the social and the political fields,”(YI, 3-9-1925, p304).

In pursuing this path, which is synonymous with the path of morality and justice, one may encounter systemic obstacles, usually in the form of stubborn or repressive government. Gandhi prescribed methods of ‘non-cooperation’ and ‘civil disobedience’ as the righteous way to counter it, which he describes as “Satyagraha – the purest type of constitutional agitation.” (YI, 15-12-1921, p419). He explains:

“A Satyagrahi is nothing if not instinctively law-abiding, and it is his law-abiding nature which exacts from him implicit obedience to the highest law, that is the voice of conscience which overrides all other laws”.(SW, p465). “Satyagraha is essentially a weapon of the truthful. A Satyagrahi is pledged to non-violence and, unless people observe it in thought, word and deed, they cannot offer Satyagraha.” (A, p345).

To walk the path of Gandhi, the inward journey is the starting point, and that can be of interest to the eastern mind, culturally attuned, as it has been, to inward inquiry. The soul (or consciousness), morality, ethical behaviour, non-attachment to things, awareness, meditation and prayer; these have been part and parcel of our upbringing. But this has mostly been a personal quest. And so the resurgent Indian spirit one sees today is diffused across the nation, doing its thing individually, shaping its character, striving for excellence, exploring tradition and sustainable living, participating in local affairs, educating community, and grappling the modernity ‘monster’ through its natural traits of passive resistance, and voluntary suffering. This Indian spirit may or may not have been wholly ignited by the Gandhi flame, but the flame is there.

Jai Jagat 2020, global march for solutions on social justice/ climate change
based on Gandhian principles.

The resurgent western mind, meanwhile, appears eager to establish ethical behaviour in a spiritually vacuous society. In accordance with its own tendency, it is externally courageous, quick to form a community of opinion and action, and acts to fight, to put pressure on those in power. We don’t know for certain how deeply Gandhi’s Satyagraha, with its combination of grit and righteous morality, has influenced them, but nevertheless, a righteous intensity is very much there, especially in Europe.

When Europe begins to have an introspective look at its systems and technologies, and makes fundamental changes in its designs, it could have an impact all over the world. There is evidence of this happening, and it would be worthwhile to recognise it, for as Gandhi said: 

“..In these days of rapid intercommunication and growing consciousness of oneness of all mankind, we must recognize that our nationalism must not be isolation and unaffected by what is going on in other parts of the world. We should therefore range ourselves with the progressive forces of the world”.(ABP, I7-9-33).

Climate change is a subject which has stirred the European conscience like none other – to the extent that many say they are voluntarily willing to give up comforts and conveniences (an unheard of thing in the modern world); such is the determination there to save the environment. This is happening because people, ordinary citizens including a 15-year-old schoolgirl, are standing up and making demands in the name of society, of humanity; they are using the methods of strikes, non-cooperation, and civil disobedience, and so far this has been without violence, without seeking political gain. 

Dr. Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of
Extinction Rebellion

However, European efforts at dismantling gross systems are usually more an ‘undoing’ of wrong; they are a significant but small step. Where Europe will need help and guidance, is in what should replace these monolithic systems and processes. Their efforts cannot be complete perhaps, without touching the heart of Gandhi: gram swaraj.

The microcosm of Gandhi’s gram swaraj is the independent village republic, with industrious families involved in diverse livelihoods, together producing most of the needs of its residents; a village largely self-administered by its own volunteers doing service, including maintaining records and statistics, running its own schools, and with its own security arrangements. A truly independent village republic in harmony and cooperation with neighbouring village units, a strong and intelligent participant in the affairs of the larger state – that is Gandhi’s gram swaraj.

That such a society, comprising more than a hundred thousand reasonably well-managed and self-sufficient village units, has actually existed in this region is something of a surprise, even to today’s urban Indians, let alone Europeans who simply cannot comprehend it. Modernity has long ago wiped out the villages and small communities in Europe and the USA; the small farmer is a rarity, and the small artisan or craftsman is practically non-existent. But Indian villages, with their social and environmental ecosystems, do still exist, they are still functional – not as the ideal, but the minimum to build upon is what Gandhi felt. The significant thing about the Indian village, apart from its self-containing character, is that it is in continuity with tradition, however broken down that may be. It still holds the breath of this civilization – its religiosity, its core beliefs about human consciousness – the importance of striving for the summit of consciousness. The cultural content of Bhārat that this tradition brings still provides a fragrance for all.

The strengths of east and west seem complementary. Where one is lacking, the other seems to be well-endowed. Neither seems to be wholly ready to embrace Gandhi’s way yet; but together, it seems like the resurgent minds of east and west could make a good team, if they wished to do so. Gandhi once said of his work and the world: 

“I do want to think in terms of the whole world. My patriotism includes the good of mankind in general, my service of India includes the service of humanity… If I can say so without arrogance and with due humility, my message and methods are, indeed, in their essentials for the whole world.” (YI, 17-9-1925, p.329)

For all the predictions of east being east, and west being west, through Gandhi the twain shall meet, (sorry, Kipling, your time may have spent itself).

Source code of Gandhi’s quotes given in parentheses:

A: Autobiography

H: Harijan

YI: Young India

ABP: Amrita Bazar Patrika


‘Bharat’ is the original name of India

‘Ahimsa’ means non-violence in Hindi

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Picture of Venkatesh Rajan

Venkatesh Rajan

Picture of Venkatesh Rajan

Venkatesh Rajan

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