In Memoriam.

Another day to remind us of the Mahatma, though in Karnataka today is less of a day to pay homage to the Man and more of a day of expectation to see whether our Chief Minister stabs his Deputy in the back, or the other way round, tomorrow. The politics of expediency rarely gets more obvious and vulgar, and has a peculiar characteristic of abstracting away and de-linking what happens in Bangalore with the fate of millions of residents of this unfortunate State (unless, of course, they are residents of Bangalore). Let the game in Vidhana Soudha continue, and on with the post.

Thousand people have thousand opinions, and one can hardly say that these opinions are unequivocal. M. K. Gandhi occupies the whole spectrum of the moral rainbow, from saint to demon, depending on whose viewpoint you look at him from. Subjectivities aside, the main contribution of any person to the unidirectional flow of history has and always will be only ideas. Ideas in the form of doctrines, rituals, technology, music are the only lasting contributions that survive the temporal flux that one calls history. One of the best documented persons in the world is probably Gandhi, and his ideas are available for one and all to see in the Collected works of Gandhi.

With such a large body of data available, obviously every part of his life has been studied with a fine toothed comb. What interests us today is the question as to the relevance of what Gandhi wrote and thought about almost a century ago. Ideas usually survive the test of time when either of the following characteristics are true : The object of thought is something that is presumed to be unchanging, like gravity or the color of oranges, or the idea itself is so abstract as to apply in any situation one might find herself in. The second usually ends up being identified with the first, since abstraction tries to capture unchanging attributes of a continuously changing phenomena.

The natural next step is to ask whether Gandhi’s doctrines of non-violence and satyagraha have something like the second characteristic. One cannot seriously argue that his ideas deal with unchanging properties of the universe, and therefore we have to accept that his ideas are of the second kind.

However, abstractions about the nature of Man or Society are bound to end up like the blind men describing the Elephant, relying mainly on intuitive generalisations of one’s own experiences. Hence, they cannot claim to be of a lasting character. But the fact remains that people still read the Upanishads and Aristotle and the Bible. How is it, that these treasuries of human ideas claim relevance for themselves after thousands of years ? Could it really be possible that there is something unchanging in all humans from the time immemorial ? Or can it be explained away by understanding the fact that human personality is shaped by what it gleans from other’s opinions, speeches, writings and example ?

My opinion is partial towards the latter explanation. Ideas are propagated by translating them from their mental forms to more material forms. For example, temples, churches, governments, constitutions, penal codes, treatises on philosophy, cultures, all aim toward the propagation of certain ideas, certain world-views. Their relevance, of course, is contingent upon whether we consider ourselves to be the kind of person that they describe, or aim toward being such a person. And this is where Gandhi’s doctrine’s can be said to be highly relevant in today’s world.
Decades of Mega-, Ultra-, Global-, World-plans have not done as much good as they have managed to dismantle. Megalomanical schemes to redeem the world have forgotten the basic tenet of ‘Live and let live’.

As our civilization looks down the abyss of a major environmental disaster, for which we seem to be largely responsible, Gandhi’s views regarding Man as part of the environment – as opposed to most Western thinkers who placed Man in opposition with Nature – seem to be gaining relevance, even by scientific standards. Notwithstanding the many critiques that one hears about Gandhi, no one can sensibly deny that his sense of man’s place in Nature, and to do so would only highlight our mass suicidal tendencies.

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2 thoughts on “In Memoriam.”

  1. “Gandhi’s views regarding Man as part of the environment – as opposed to most Western thinkers who placed Man in opposition with Nature – seem to be gaining relevance, even by scientific standards.” In this statement although I believe in the first statement and I agree with that, I am not clear latter part of it i.e,most Western thinkers who placed Man in opposition with Nature. Also I would appreciate if you can tell the readers how gandhian ideas are gaining relevance by scientific standards also, as that would definitely add a lot of value to understand atleast a bit of the complexity of the “simplicity”.

  2. Consider the following imagery : “Man’s conquest of Nature”, “Man harnessing Nature’s power”, “Free gifts of Nature”. These are all examples of what I refer to. These have become so commonplace now, that one cannot get at their origins, but these were not Gandhian. Consider classical economics, sociology, which were supposed to be human sciences, but they altogether ignore the environment as an integral part of human activity, which is evidenced by the callousnes shown by early 20th century industries.

    Two movements that I’m sure echo Gandhian ideas (though they may not be directly inspired by it), are Ecological Economics, and the Appropriate Technology movement. Eco2 is a serious academic discipline, and AT has many techologists looking hard. Sure there are more.

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