Category Archives: Gandhi

Melkote: again!

We had been to Melkote again, but on a different mission, to discuss ways and means to rejuvenate Hosa Jeevana Dhari. For a brief introduction of the place and its people, see here. HJD had been embroiled in some internal issues and had reduced its activities to a minimal level. Now, the Koulagi family is back at the helm, and hope to do interesting things here again.

The meet was attended by around 10 people, all very experienced and focused to make life more tolerable for those that society ignores or worse, no longer tolerates. The agenda was this: HJD, started in the ’70s with a firm commitment to Sarvodaya, is now facing far stronger historical and social forces that define development and progress today. What can be its role in such a situation ?

The opening statements by everyone were concerned with issues of quantitative vs. qualitative work. Should the scale of the solution be large, or is it important to do something small, but in a more focused way was an issue which was grappled with, and a consensus was reached on the latter, given both the dominance of the present mainstream thinking as well as logistical difficulties. Considering that there are crises in all aspects of society – education, healthcare, agriculture, governance, equity, so on – Hosa Jeevana Dhari should literally try and show a hosa jeevana dhari (new way of life).

Another issue that concerned most present was the lack of examples for the younger generation to follow. If anyone reading this points toward Mukesh Ambani or Ratan Tata, please kill him (on rare occasions, her) on my behalf. Lack of role models both at home and outside at school/anywhere is making the idiot box more influential than it should be. A lack of a world view in children seems to be resulting in adults who are taught to pander their own whims without viewing their behavior from a broader perspective. For example, a liberal society today essentially means one with an unfettered market, without any qualifications or justifications. It is, therefore it is good. The moral implications are largely ignored. This is usually the case with philosophies which are administered by a clique of ‘high priests’, with a great incentive to keep people uncritical and ignorant.

HJD has had a long association with (organic) farming, and the agrarian crisis, reasons and experiences on the ground were discussed. Since it is well known that ideas have a greater chance of percolating when there is great change in society,  the participants saw the present situation as a premonition to times where alternatives will be actively sought for. Therefore, exemplars in HJD for a way of life that rests on principles radically different from the present modernity will serve the society well. All agreed that at present, intervention at a large scale is not possible, but ‘keeping the flame alive’ is what is essential. If someone comes looking for solutions, how confidently can HJD propose alternatives ? The answer lies in conviction and commitment to do the necessary groundwork to be able to propose realisitic, replicable and extant solutions, rather than just normative proposals with no material existence. The Gandhian allusion to ‘oceanic circles’ was used here (who used it in a different way), to visualise an exemplary HJD influencing melkote, and so on like ripples in the water.

Active propagation of the message of a sustainable life – one that is equitable, gender sensitive, harmonious with nature – was another aspect of the discussion. Many suggestions, including weekend workshops for urbanites, especially children and youth, Audio/Video material, books were put forward. Ideas about awareness campaigns among farmers were also thrown about. Many related their own experiences in the field, relating the difficulties they faced, and the opinion of the farmer or the urbanite which makes the present situation both difficult to change and difficult to sustain. People change their ways if they see a need for it and it helps them better their life.

Summarizing, one cannot but admit there is a crisis: people have been reduced to ‘essentially greedy’ individuals by our present system of economic organization, nature has become ‘capital’, life has boiled down to a chase for satisfying wants without any other purpose. Like one of the participants mentioned, until the European enlightenment, all civilizations had some purpose to life. Afterward, Evolution tells us that we are the product of years of random mutations of genes with no actual purpose, Bertrand Russell calls us bunch of atoms. Neither has ever been able to explain humans in their entirety, and the ‘high priest’ syndrome makes the people accept doctrines such as these uncritically.

Undoubtedly, there is a better way of looking at life. To know who we are and where we should go, we should always know where we came from. One can do worse than look at the thoughts of Gandhi and Kumarappa towards this end. Western notions of progress has lead to the highest rates of divorce and suicide in the so-called developed nations, and probably the highest density of god(con?)-men. Somehow, satisfying material wants ad infinitum does not seem to work. People somehow seem to want meaning/purpose, which modernity is not gracious with. To understand and translate and preserve for posterity alternative visions of what a civilization should be like is what HJD aims to do. To essentially create mentors and be one to society in a time when it is needed most. One wishes good luck and godspeed.

The myth of the Self Made (Wo)man

A person who has risen from poverty or obscurity by means of her/his own talents or energies

This seems like a satisfactory definition of a self-made person. The most irritating proponent of this myth is of course Ayn Rand. But one must also understand the social and economic milieu that Rand wrote this stuff in (I had written about it in my review of ‘The Age of Capital’), which definitely shaped her attitudes towards certain behavioral traits.

Is one’s own talents or energies enough to rise from/above anything ? If you use your prodigious reading abilities to gain genius status, you still owe it to those who laid the foundation for your thought. Living in a civilization for the past 5000 years, human efforts are both cumulative and incremental. We would have to quite literally reinvent the wheel every generation if it were not cumulative and we would be having radically new kinds of wheels every generation if it were not incremental (as opposed to disruptive). Like any other organism on this earth, humans can flourish only given certain conditions. These are usually out of the powers of our talents or abilities to create (unless of course, one can prevent drought or volcanic eruptions or desertification). Thus, it has always been that we depend on innumerable things out of our control, like not getting murdered, to achieve what we want to. Thus, any application of talents and energies are contingent upon a large number of unconstrained variables.

Aynd Rand’s characters are also subject to the same rules (even after accounting for literary license), but they are never made explicit anywhere. Her protagonists are ultra-rich or noveau ultra-rich people with unending talents and energies who look to reach pinnacles of whatever they want without regard for others unless they served some purpose (she obviously was not familiar with Paris Hilton or her coterie), and the antagonists
are their dependents who look to waste all the money earned in doing stupid charity, and usually are lacking in talent like their husband/brother/contemporary (she probably ignored Gandhi). Like all bestsellers, things have to be in perfect black and white (no one has time for measured or qualified manifestoes) and appealing to the basest instincts of people, which in Rand’s case is greed.

A more sensible libertarian doctrine is J. S. Mill’s On Liberty. Mill says that men came together for the sole purpose of self-protection (and prostitution somehow insinuated in, I guess) and therefore men should be allowed to do things as they wish as long as they were not breaking the fundamental premise of protection for all. Although in Mill’s time colonizing others was not yet part of the definition of ‘protection for all’, this statement seems pretty ok (read the essay for issues that creep in). However, with the present day knowledge of ecology and earth sciences along with more detailed social analyses, it is hard to think of too many things that one can do without doing something wrong to someone, unless it is meditating under the Bodhi tree. We encourage sweatshops by buying branded clothes, trash the world by going about our normal routine lives (oil, plastic, cement, iron, coal …), there is practically nothing that we do that does not exploit someone and does not destroy the environment. Like I mentioned in my previous post, as long as the unit of analysis is an individual all the time, such matters dont matter. While the ‘rights of man‘ are important, the corresponding ‘duties of man’ has yet to be delineated (maybe because they are far too difficult to imagine!).

All this may seem anti-liberal and left-leaning, but is hardly so. It simply interpreting individualism in a different way. Karl Popper’s utopia consisted of highly individualistic people engaged in abstract transactions which would be studied by the discipline of economics. Unfortunately or otherwise, this has not turned out so be, and people are still inextricably linked by a social web and a food web. If individualism is a celebration of individual differences, they why are we so callous when interacting with others, especially if we consider them our inferiors. Putting the individual in the forefront refuses to recognize that people almost always do the opposite, putting their families, offices, nations, language ahead of themselves. The welfare of the individual must result in the welfare of all concerned, simply because of the conditions for an individual to flourish are not under her control.

Even worse is the confusion that most people seem to have between individualism and egotism. ‘This is a free country, I can do what I want‘ is an egotistic statement, not an individualistic one. ‘This is a free country, I can do what I want when I don’t infringe on another’s right to do the same‘ does not sound as catchy, but is more inline with liberal thinking. ‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you‘ is probably a better formulation of the above.

As if Ayn Rand was not bad enough, they came up with a fan club to promote her views. Atleast she was a good author, these people do bad philosophy in a bad way. Calling environmentalists ‘looters'(even the terminology is from the `30’s) because they do not allow resource exploitation is not going to win too many friends nowadays. Boys will be boys, to put it in a condescending way ;)

Melkote: Reflections – 1

The students of our course in ICT4D and others from the MSW(Master’s in Social Work) had been for a 1.5 day workshop on Development in Melkote, near Mysore. An extremely beautiful place, we were situated in a place called Hosa Jeevana Dhari, which is one of the last remaining places where the ‘Sarvodaya‘ principle of Gandhi is being kept alive. It was run by a Gandhian named Surendra Kaulagi, and now by his son Santhosh Kaulagi. Surendra was a close associate of Jayaprakash Narayan and one of few surviving people who has actually interacted with J. C. Kumarappa.

Surendra Kaulagi and Ashok Rao

Surendra Kaulagi and Ashok Rao

Ashok Rao (to the right) is the professor and head of the ICT4D program we study in. The program started with Ashok Rao introducing the issue, which is the need to deliberate on the much maligned word called ‘development’ which causes chills to run down the spines of tribals and the underprivileged classes, and discuss alternate sustainable paths. Unlike the IIM workshop, this one actually managed to answer some of the questions posed on the first day.

The starting talk, which Kaulagi delivered, talked about the two paradigms which are in front of us today: one is Manmohanomics and the other Kumarappa’s view of the same subject. No one disagrees with the fact that mainstream development which is represented by Manmohan Singh today is unsustainable, if nothing atleast because it is over-reliant on natural resources (there is also the issue of what individuals contribute to this, but that is for later). Nature is seen as something to be exploited for human welfare. Kumarappa proposed a radically different view, which placed nature at the centre of all development, and which allowed people who were closest to nature (agriculturists and the like) to live in dignity without having to bow down to the dictates of an insensitive market.

Kumarappa’s and Gandhi’s vision were ridiculed and eventually replaced by Western ideologies like socialism and liberalism, but Kaulagi mentioned that neither Gandhi nor Kumarappa were shakeable in their vision, and always maintained until the end that this was the correct way to get things done. The main take-away for me from this talk was the answer to the following question: why did Gandhi and Kumarappa hold so firm to what they believed in ? Did not J. S. Mill state that we don’t know the entire truth, and therefore should not impose our beliefs elsewhere? Kaulagi mentioned that this steadfastness comes from an intimate understanding of the empirical facts: Gandhi and Kumarappa had spent many a year roaming about India to understand it from a ‘earthworm view’, so to speak. Kaulagi is a living example of such a breed, and holds those views with clarity that a professor from Columbia had to make clear for the academic world, that too from India: Be an example while holding on steadfastly to your principles.

But if you notice, there is hardly any part of our academia or education which stresses the importance of this perspective. Professors of development would never have spent years understanding people by interacting with them, nor does our education make us understand things by making us do things with our hands. Development occurs with people stating facts and figures and surveys, not stating what the people who are the eventual ‘beneficiaries’ think or know or care about. In fact, there is an entire legion of academicians who think that they can athoritatively speak about subjects, especially those as sensitive as development without ever being close to their objects of study, and interacting with them only as statistics (Planning Commission and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, anyone ?).

This kind of ‘study’ can be justified when we look at people in terms of compartments: material and normative. The material well-being can hardly have much correlation with the normative space. However, if we are convinced that development in material well-being (however that may happen) is most important and forget that people also require a certain set of values (especially considering that we are social in nature) to live a good life, then we can do Manmohanomics without much ado. If we are to widen our epistemic scope, then things look different. If we say that human welfare is intimately related to money and more of it means better, then Bangalore is a shining example of perfect development. If we say that people need more than material well-being to lead a good life, then Timbaktu is a better example.

The values that economics holds is still the utilitarian type, which is extremely different from what other people hold. Therefore, when the fundamental reasons for material well-being ( fulfillment of higher needs) are different, it can hardly be the case that one can hold with conviction to his/her values when all initiatives seem to mysteriously not work as planned. It is like teaching programming to someone who wants to learn MS-Office because you are a passionate programmer. All your efforts at making your students excellent programmers will fail, and you begin to wonder whether programming is for everyone. If you had bothered to spend some time with your students, then you would have understood that they hold music and dance or something else more dear than learning C and C++.

People in academia shape policy by their grandiose pronouncements on society and individuals. Therefore, it is imperative that they spend enough time in the right places to gain the conviction that their approach and views are correct, rather than vacillating knowing that the only thing you know are numbers.

Gandhi Engineering?

Just as Japan popularized kanban (just in time) and kaizen (continuous improvement), so Tata may export to the world what may perhaps be called a ‘Gandhi Engineering’ – a mantra that combines irreverence to established ways with a scarcity mentality that spurns superfluities.

quote from the article on the Nano, which, given my bias towards the word ‘Gandhi’, caught the eye. This was quite an interesting thing for me to reflect and read upon, and see whether the statement holds water. The validity of the article by and large does not rest on this statement, but the validity of the statement is what interested me. There is a PhD. thesis by Dr. Shambu Prasad, which is probably one of the first few critical assessments of Gandhi’s view of science and technology. Quite an interesting read, and I went back to it to get justifications or rebuttals to the above statement.

Ratan Tata, when asked for the inspiration to make the Nano, referred to the unsafe modes of transport like the two wheeler carrying four people which is so common in India, and wanted to make something more safer. Whether the Nano is the answer (instead of, say, better public transport) is another thing, but the thought in itself seems to be quite in line with Gandhi’s view that technology and technologists must be sensitive to the problems of the people and try and solve them. It was also Gandhi’s view that scientists must immerse themselves in the actually prevailing living conditions of the people and see if they can do incremental changes using newly discovered techniques, which people can relate to, and actively participate in the development and use of. It was his opinion that there was plenty to be learned even from the unlearned villager which could lead to progress in science. In this view, the Nano can hardly measure up. It is a solution “given from above”, so to speak, and cars can hardly be called the daily staple of transport for the majority of the people. The public transport holds that place, and anyone who has travelled in a village bus or the passenger compartment of a train will know how ill-designed these modes of transportation actually are. The way to make public transport attractive is somehow thought to lie in introducing Volvos, which cater to the taste of the people who hardly use public transport (Bangalore, from experience, not included. Mysore is a nice glaring example of AC buses running with 2-3 people onboard, when I have seen women waiting for hours together to get a single bus upto their village, in the unsafe hours of the late evening).

About ‘irreverence to established ways’, lots has been written about Gandhi’s critiques of the Industrial Civilization and Western science. However, the reason behind this is not that he was against industries or science, but what they stood for, and what world-view they imposed. Natural sciences have looked at nature as a mass of atoms clumped together which fortuitously resulted in what we call today as life. Value, or meaning of life, is essentially zero, since we were after all composed by random coupling of matter. This was what irked Gandhi particularly and this facet of his attitude toward western science taken up to show his irrelevance in modern day life, branding him as anti-modernist and anti-progress. However, he was very much impressed by the method of science and the spirit of enquiry that western scientist were imbued with, and lamented at the lack of the same in practitioners of Indian systems like Ayurveda and Unani, whom he perceived to be resting on the laurels of past greatness and were too self-satisified to build upon the innovations of their forefathers. I had commented on what the Nano’s world view was in the previous post, and it is unlikely that Gandhi would endorse such a view by lending his name to what is being called ‘Gandhi Engineering’.

‘Scarcity Mentality that spurn superfluities’. Gandhi was of a scarcity mentality, having travelled across the country and realising that there was not much here in terms of material abundance. He enjoined scientists to voluntarily donate their talents for the upbringing of the masses, knowing that a poor people can offer very little in terms of material benefit but they are the ones who most need the effort of the scientists. Abstinence from superfluities are also something that comes naturally from this outlook. However, one should look at what is being called superfluities in the Nano. One read of the article would tell you that longevity is what is being considered ‘superfluous’, in the author’s terms. One can scarcely imagine how this can be reconciled with Gandhi’s view of cheap, reliable and user-friendly technology. ‘Innovation’ with pure cost cutting in mind, and then spending large amounts on advertising to generate a market is completely crazy to my mind. If a person is willing to endanger the life of his/her family by taking them on one two wheeler, then how spending a lakh on a car that will give half the mileage of his two wheeler and is not expected to last very long is not a superfluity in itself eludes me. The market for the Nano is more likely to be yuppie climbing-the-social-ladder types rather than the family that Ratan Tata so endearingly points to in his interview. If one reads a sampling of the interviews with people, asking them about the Nano, the ones most enthusiastic about the Nano comes from the former group, not the latter.

The Idea of India – review

Just finished watching a very cool movie called The Story of Stuff. It is a 20 minute documentary that I recommend watching to anyone who has 20 minutes to spare. You can download the movie on the downloads section of the website. It the most entertaining, funny piece of media that I have seen about, well, the story of stuff. Happy New Years and all that, you have one less year to live!

A book that I finished (mercifully) after sporadic reading bursts stretching almost to a month was Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India. One cannot truly write about all the various ideas of India in a book barely reaching 200 pages, and the author does not pretend to do so. He touches upon a few ideas of India – The British, Gandhian, Nehruvian, BJP being among the prominent ones, and how they interacted on subcontinental scale to produce some of the features of the Indian State, Constitution, Economy and culture. The book essentially tells us that there is no one true, perfect idea of India, and that one must always be able to compromise and adjust one’s beliefs in the face of realities. It is also concerned with the rise of Hindu Nationalism and critiques it on the basis of its origins, its beliefs and aims, and how these are counter-factual and ahistorical. Another book with similar critiques and pleas for cultural and religious pluralism that comes to mind is Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian. Infact, a visit to any book store that stocks decent non-fiction writing about India will show that there seem to be a lot of literature on this subject. An interesting historical parallel is the glut of books supporting democracy and liberalism that were published during the times of the World War, criticizing both Communism and Fascism. One wonders whether a similar albeit quieter revolution is taking place within our society right now.

The book is quite partial to the Nehruvian idea of India which he argues is not an ideological obstinacy to ‘go socialist’, instead, one that was quite contingent and prone to change. The one thing he was ideological about was the role that a strong State had in the stability of India, and seeing the situations in Pakistan, Myanmar, most Central Africa, this seems like a justified conviction. The book is filled with interesting analyses, about the nature of social power in India, which was destroyed by the British rule, the evolution and shaping of cities by the people in power, Chandigarh being a good example, how nationalist leaders like Nehru and Gandhi had to first ‘become Indian’ before taking the pivotal roles that they did play in our history, how Hindu Nationalism ironically has a European core around which all the necessary obfuscation has been done, and interesting tidbits like this. However sceptical one may be that Khilnani can do justice to the object of the essay, the book itself is worth reading just for the analyses like those mentioned above.

The book itself was quite difficult to find, and I finally found it in Blossoms second hand book store near M.G Road in Bangalore, if anyone is interested.

TGC: Reflections

There was a workshop in IIM-B on Technology, Governance and Citizenship whose description can be read from the former link, rather than reiterating it here. It was, upfront, one of the most varied spectrum of people I have ever come across, ranging from technocrats to art curators and everything in between. A most varied set of people, with a common agenda to understand the dialogues between science, technology and society, and their implications especially in government and governance. The group was very talkative and this resulted in very interesting discussions about how to make politics more scientific and science more political. Since the time I wanted to do interdisciplinary studies in and around science and technology, STS was pointed to as an alternative, and this was a golden opportunity for me to see the whole spectrum of personalities and find at which frequency I resonate. Call it an ethnographic study of sorts, if you like.

One of the main points which kept persistently creeping into discussions was about how STS was not being political enough and why was this and what could be done to resolve this issue. We never managed to find any satisfactory answer to this unfortunately, but I now wonder whether you can find one. One of the organisers lamented that people turn out in numbers to listen to technologists but not to social scientists. Well, people do listen to economists and psychologists, and put their money where their ear is. Sociology and humanities seem to be out of fashion, more likely. But this disconnect is pretty much present and something needs to be done to bridge the gap. It was not always the case that sociologists were apolitical, however. Durkheim, Weber, Russell and Marx are prime examples.( Russell could be called a mathematician, but he was a trenchant critic of society) As any line of thinking matures and becomes a ‘formal’ discipline, such behavior seems to curiously disappear.

One set of behavior patterns that seemed to emerge, however, was the insouciance of the technocrats in implementing technological solutions (“Science is obviously the answer to all problems”, to paraphrase one of them) and the deliberate, measured attempt at doing nothing by the academicians (“Academicians have never achieved anything”, “It is better to watch from the sidelines”) If there was a feeling that people are too ‘boxed-in’ to ever reach out to the other, it was probably because the fault lay on both sides of the divide. Technologists want to do something, and the academicians ostensibly hesitate to, and because of this hesitation technologists dismiss their work as impotent and irrelevant, which is obviously not the case. It is not that technologists slept through all the social scientists discussions. There was a (sociological) post-mortem of an Online Complaint Management System that made one of them request for details for help in implementation of future systems with similar function. Thus, there seems to be some areas of common interest and one must characterize them. At the opposite end, an activist, Leo Saldahna (do read their report on the home page about BMIC), was enthusiastic about implementing District level governance, and an academician commented that in theory, deliberative democracy has been discounted and wondered aloud whether it was just a lot of hype. Intrigued by this comment, I further enquired about this over lunch, and realised that they were talking about two very different things. But making such sweeping ‘theoretical’ statements would just increase the disconnect, since field workers won’t enthusiastically support things that don’t work, and Leo does not come across as a dumb bunny.

Another situation commonly encountered is that sociologists are hesitant to comment about ongoing situations, since they are unsure of what the effects will be. Highly justified. But for a fieldworker, this information is potentially very useful. This brings out a distinction between theories in natural and social sciences: Natural scientists make models to predict future behavior, and social scientists build models for reasons I’m not entirely sure about. In other words, I have no idea why they do it other than for analytical purposes, but they do not analyse rapidly changing situations and come to make decisions, for reasons given above. At the height of the Narmada agitation, I wonder how many people were analysing the situation in terms of post-colonialism or neo-imperialism or epistemic violence perpetrated on the displaced tribals, and how many were talking about future ecological damage and predicting future power generation capabilities and resettlement of displaced tribals. My feeling is the latter group was bigger.

About characterization of common areas of interest, they seem to be more the case-study kind of work rather than the theoretical ones. This reminds me of the only STS related book that I have read, by Bruno LaTour. It is about a method of doing sociological research called Actor-Network-Theory and the Online Complaint Management case seemed to me to be an example of a social situation described as an Actor-Network. The irony is that this methodology originated in STS, and there were very few papers which even mentioned it(One, if my memory serves me right). LaTour castigates sociology for using models which black-box potentially useful information, and for putting words into people’s (people/group under study) mouth, and this phrase (put words into my mouth) came up atleast twice during heated discussions. One wonders whether this inclination is endemic to sociologists. ANT seems like a very promising approach, but as LaTour tries to keep models and the attendant polysyllabic words out of an analysis, it might not help to publish too many papers.

A dissonant voice among ‘elegant’ theoretical discussions was that of Ashwin Mahesh, who consistently spoke of asking questions whose answers are self-evident, which clarifies discussions, and most of the questions being asked at the forum were ‘too large’. While I agree that solutions (what needs to be done) become self-evident, an argument must be made that implementation of solutions (how it needs to be done) may not be all that clear, and will require some ‘theory’ to back normative judgement. This is where, at last analysis, my opinion about the place of social sciences in the wider arena of developmental activity lies.

Lastly, the question of doing something. The answer may lie in two ethical theories: Mill’s argument that none know the whole truth and therefore must not impose one’s views onto others, and Gandhi’s argument that one must hold steadfast by one’s moral attitudes and be an example to others. An even more explicit, simpler statement was made by a person I know: “You have to do what will make you happy. If you can ensure that it is non-destructive, nothing like it. If you cannot, too bad, but do it anyways (since nature is a cycle of creation and destruction)”. Well, doing what makes one happy is a very difficult task indeed, if one thinks about it, but this statement explains both the attitudes of the technologist and the sociologist and does not place either on a pedestal.

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.