Truth and purity of purpose

Truth and purity of purpose

The need of the hour is not to revere the Mahatma out of habit, but to understand him and his vision for India.

Generations have grown up revering the Mahatma. We learned to cherish Gandhi above all other leaders known to us. A spiritual maverick to his contemporaries, an enduring enigma to political pundits and an eyesore to shallow communalists and political pragmatists, he remains unmatched  in the art of making the impossible possible.

Yet, revering a national and epochal icon does not mean that we understand him. And reverence sans understanding is like building mansions on a foundation of sand. If and when the winds shake it, it is likely to collapse. Such a prospect stares us in the face today as never before. Hence the need to re-visit Gandhi. The need of the hour is not to revere the Mahatma out of habit, but to understand him and his vision for India.

Icons like Gandhi are rare. You can count them on your fingertips: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela. Anyone else? Undoubtedly, even in that tiny group, Gandhi towers over the rest.

I remember one telling example of how the world views Gandhi. When I went to attend an international conference at the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg a few years ago, I saw posters lining the corridors with a picture of Gandhi on them. Curious, I scanned the posters and realized that they were announcing the launch of a book on Johannesburg titled The Birthplace of Satyagraha. They took pride in their association with Gandhi. The city of Pietermaritzburg, where Gandhi was thrown out of a train in 1893, hosts a commemorative statue of Gandhi.

Britain issued a series of stamps commemorating the birth centenary of Gandhi, and all over the UK, there are several prominent statues of him, most notably two in London -- one at Tavistock Square near University College London, where he studied law, and another in Parliament Square. January 30 is “National Gandhi Remembrance Day” in the UK. What a change of heart for a country that ruled us for more than a century and against whose rule Gandhi fought!

In the US, there are statues of Gandhi in New York, Washington DC, San Francisco and several other cities. Gandhi statues dot prominent locations in almost all the major countries of the world, an incredible honour.

There have been approximately 250 stamps issued bearing Gandhi’s image by 80 countries worldwide. There are at least a hundred monuments commemorating him around the world. Thus, Gandhi symbolises soul-force to the whole world even to this day. We in India, too, have an MG Road in almost every city/town and numerous Gandhi statues, too.

But do we still value the Mahatma?

This year marks his 150th birth anniversary. Apart from some formal mention here and there, it is obvious that the celebration is low-key. There appears to be a deliberate move to underplay the importance of the ‘Father of the Nation.’ If it is true, it is a grievous mistake. It is not only a disservice to the nation, but also the height of ungratefulness. No nation can forget the pangs of its birth, much less the ones who nursed it out of the deep recesses of slavery and poverty. Our attitude to Gandhi today is one of filial ingratitude, to say the least.

The fact of the matter is, we do not seek to understand the significance and uniqueness of this great soul. He was more than a freedom fighter. He was not even a revolutionary in the classical sense. He was not a  rabble-rouser nor even a great orator. In fact, he doesn’t fit into any of the familiar stereotypes.

He is Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela combined. He had the mass appeal of the American heroes and the long saga of suffering of the African icon.

Gandhi’s strength was in his absolute commitment to truth and purity of purpose. He understood truth as a divine force, a meeting point of the divine and the human. Non-violence was not just a creed or dogma for him, it was based on the belief that when truth is your armour, there is nothing to fear. Satyagraha literally means holding on to truth. The triumph of truth was his main article of faith, but he did not believe in the supernatural triumph of truth. He believed that truth triumphs through human action in which clarity, courage and accountability to God were essential ingredients. Such a course of action demanded extreme patience. At a time when truth is manufactured on the assembly lines of political expediency, it is difficult to believe that Gandhi is still the ‘Father of the Nation.’

Gandhi lived a selfless life on the sheer strength of character and soul-force. He was assassinated because he could not be tamed. His frail physique carried a tremendous will-power and moral conviction that stood up against the might of the British Empire.

His life remains his message, a life of simplicity, truth and non-violence. His life and testimony have become part of the history of our species and, as Nehru said in Bapuji’s funeral speech, this light will continue to illumine our lives till the end of history.

(The writer is Director, Little Rock Indian School, Udupi)