Why middle-class loves its Gandhi mythology

Popular cinema neglects him, but he is modern India's most credit-worthy export

Mahatma Gandhi.

To many around the world, the most credit-worthy things about modern India relate to Gandhi’s life. Yet he does not have an iconic presence in mass culture, for instance, in popular film. A plausible reason is that Gandhi is a historical figure while the average Indian dotes on mythology. The epics and myths are taken to contain eternal values while history provides only ephemeral ones.

But Gandhi has made a much greater impression on middle-class culture.  The importance of Gandhi to the educated classes may be attributed to their implication in the idea of India’s nationhood. Benedict Anderson (‘Imagined Communities’) associated the sense of nationhood with the print medium, the novel and the newspaper.  Gandhi is a historical figure but his teachings are commonly held as ‘eternal’ to India on most public occasions. He is constantly eulogised and the moral ideals associated with him — such as the admission of outcasts into the mainstream, the brotherhood of people of all persuasions, honesty in public life, the rejection of ostentation, and shunning of all violence — are standards by which the nation is judged.

While Gandhian ethics have political value and will continue to do so, the world has moved some distance since his death, and other parameters are also pertinent, perhaps more so. That Gandhi chose not to impose his political and economic vision on the independent nation should also be factored into any enquiry into the durability of Gandhian values. Perhaps the Father of the Nation was admitting that while his professed beliefs were appropriate in an agitation, they might not be so when the agitators were placed in a position to govern. 

What India has become owes to impersonal forces that include not just the political and economic system chosen but also the developments in the world outside — over which the Indian nation has little control. The conspicuous consumption, ostentation and increase in corruption are the outcome of an economic path that could hardly have been escaped.

Rather than evaluate India in terms of Gandhian principles, it would be more pragmatic to evaluate Gandhian principles in terms of their relevance to India’s present. This is not a radical proposition but it is rarely considered. No other modern nation, in my recall, identified its own political ideals as closely and for as long with those of a founding father.


Films like ‘Lage Raho Munna Bhai’ connect Gandhi to the global audience.

There are perhaps two reasons why Gandhian ethics are cited as gospel in public life in India. The first is that Gandhi and Gandhian thought have been India’s most respected moral export in the 20th century and ‘Gandhi’ is the Indian subject most esteemed globally. The cult around Gandhi among the middle classes, as demonstrated by the euphoria generated by the film Lage Raho Munna Bhai, can be associated with global Indians needing a respectable icon to hold up alongside the nation. The less immediate reason has to do with the low premium placed on empirical knowledge; traditional knowledge dominates as the transcendental truth.

It has been noted (Louis Dumont: Homo Hierarchicus) that ‘for the traditional Hindu mind nothing changes as far as values are concerned’ and the Indian civilisation is marked by a ‘search for fundamental constants’. Gandhian values are a set of basic constants associated with independent India since they were enunciated by the Father of the Nation. Just as the actual world is understood traditionally in terms of its progressive degeneration from the ideal state in the four yugas, public evaluation of independent India also sees itself as measurement of degeneration – or its converse, which is how much of the envisaged ideal of 1947 still survives. Gandhi as a benchmark for the ideal of 1947 may not be contested, and this might also explain why, rather than evaluate his work, we evaluate everything against his ideas.

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