Mahatma Gandhi, our greatest contemporary

Gandhi’s relevance in globalised world. Source: EPA

Gandhi’s relevance in globalised world. Source: EPA

Famous Russian Indologist Felix Yurlov writes insightfully about the relevance of Mahatma Gandhi’s core ideas of non-violence and peaceful revolution in the 21st century globalizing world marked by shifts of power, violent conflicts and rising extremism.

Today, after almost 150 years since Mahatma Gandhi’s birth on October 2, 1869 we try to evaluate the importance of this giant public and political figure. Naturally a question arises – by what yardstick shall we measure him, his relevance in our globalised turbulent world, the world which is passing through a deep crisis, affecting billions of people around the world.

Obviously, we have to concentrate on major achievements and the problems encountered by Mahatma Gandhi during his eventful life, full of contradictions and challenges faced by India and the world at that time. Many of those challenges are still relevant today.

True, Gandhi faced some personal and other problems, which Gandhi himself wrote about, but some authors only stress that part of his life, while forgetting or discarding his main ideas and achievements. Some time ago, I came across an article entitled “The Gandhi Everyone Loves to Hate”. It reminded me of a story about an elephant – a big and noble creature, and a few blind men who touched certain parts of his body and described what they felt. Therefore, most probably, one of them touched the elephant’s tail and described his perceptions correspondingly…

Gandhi was much bigger than those who try to belittle him, using very narrow and dubious approach while trying to evaluate him. When Gandhi was alive, he was criticized by many. However, criticism or praise for him was a small matter, though he listened to them attentively. But he used to say that freedom must include the freedom to make mistakes. 

Actually, Gandhi himself suggested a proper yardstick to measure his complex and sometimes paradoxical experience, when he wrote, “My life is my message”. Having said this, I think we better concentrate on Gandhi’s main ideas and practical, political achievements known to the world.

Gandhi was not an ivory-tower  philosopher. Primarily, he was a practical public and political man. His ideas, and one of the most important and pronounced – the idea of non-violence – ahimsa, as well as civil disobedience -- were successfully applied during his struggle for India’s independence.

Naturally, Gandhi, being a very well- read person, borrowed some of these ideas  in a theoretical form from the holy books of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and such author-philosophers as Ralph Waldo  Emerson (1803–1882), Henry David Thoreau   (1817–1862), Leo Tolstoy and others. But Gandhi was the first one who applied these ideas on a mass scale among millions of people in the Indian national liberation movement. He was able to arouse the conscience of common people and unite them in the struggle for national liberation.

Gandhi’s life philosophy, his moral credo and methods of civil disobedience were for the first time tested in South Africa. There he started his first campaign against racial inequality and racial oppression. It was not a domestic problem of a single particular nation, but a problem of international significance, as it still remains today. In South Africa Gandhi used different forms of civil disobedience (satyagraha), such as peaceful demonstrations and hunger strikes as instruments of political protest against racial discrimination. Gandhi developed, elaborated and used these ideas of satyagraha in the struggle for the rights and security of Indians living there.

Gandhi explained satyagraha as a means of achieving truth, by inflicting suffering not upon the opponent, but upon yourself. Therefore, it was a weapon of the mightiest, which completely excluded violence in any form. It was a movement based on a quest of truth.

This theory and practice of ahimsa Gandhi used imaginatively and effectively in shepherding India’s freedom from the colonial yoke, spurring a great civilisational nation’s rebirth in modern times. Ahimsa was a very important part of Gandhi’s ideas and his political outlook. But he also attached great importance to such human qualities as courage and decisiveness. He used to stress that the word “fear” could not be a part of ahimsa. His aim was to eliminate fear from 400 million Indians. “We should get rid of fear from their hearts. The day they are free from any fear, the shackles will fall and India will become free,” he said. Gandhi himself was an absolutely fearless man. He considered independence as freedom from fear of death, and readiness to meet death for the sake of India’s freedom as the highest act of courage.

But it would be too simple to say that his political philosophy was determined only by non-violence. Gandhi was always ready for a compromise. Speaking of “the  beauty of compromise,” he said that its spirit represented a part of satyagraha. For Gandhi, satyagraha as an instrument of struggle was organically connected to his ideas of freedom, inequality and social justice. The needs of the common man - aam admi, as it is said today – formed the core of his moral credo and political activity.

Gandhi’s ideas are applicable in today’s globalised world. It was he who said: “I do not want to stay in a house with all its windows and doors shut. I want a house with all its windows and doors open where the cultural breezes of all lands and nations blow through my house. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any,” he wrote. Today these ideas are relevant not only to India, but to many other countries of the world, including Russia.

The end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century were marked by a large-scale spread of violence around the globe. These were regional and local wars, religious and ethnic conflicts and confrontations, local and international terrorism. Violence, including international terrorism, is a complex phenomenon, which has deep historical and socio-economic roots. The present globalisation has a positive influence on the development of ties and contacts between peoples and countries, on free flow of capitals. At the same time, the globalisation helped the growth of social inequality in many countries. Violence has not become a thing of the past.

Аfter the end of the cold war, the confrontation between the two superpowers was replaced by conflicts, which appear, at least on the surface, to be conflicts between different cultures. Hence, the emergence of theories like the so-called clash of civilizations. The bottom line of such theorising is this: the “clash of civilizations” will end with an ultimate victory of the Western civilization.

According to these theories the boundary lines between these civilizations and correspondingly the boundaries of possible conflicts, are defined by religions and national or ethnic factors. Thus it is religion, ethnos, the way of life, customs, traditions, moral values which are the main factors of the clashes on the “intercivilizational” level. But these theories of “clashes” contradict the following basic idea – all the major religions and cultures have the same humanitarian foundation, and not a single religion justifies the use of violence or the threat to use violence to achieve its ends. This is what Gandhi taught us.

The causes of violence, including terror, should be searched for not in the differences between religions, but in the socio-economic and political inequality, and in extremist religious forms and manifestations, many of which are the results of this inequality, and, in a way serve as an ideological justification of the struggle for elimination of this inequality.    The apocalyptic theory of the “clash of civilizations” does not solve the existing problem, but rather brings us to the ideological and political deadlock of a global scale.

The use of religion and religious beliefs in the struggle for “justice” in the present conditions of globalisation became much more sophisticated than it had been in the past.  Especially in the so-called “intercivilizational” conflicts, which touch the feelings and beliefs deeply rooted in national cultures.     Attempts to interfere in a national culture and to impose alien elements lead to counteraction, to the struggle against these external intrusions, including information violence.    And with more aggressive intrusions of this kind, resistance to them becomes tougher and often assumes radical and extremist forms.


Gandhi’s relevance in globalised world. Source: Getty Images / Fotobank

In the same context we may discuss the appearance of “the end of history” theory, which announced that “the ideal of liberal democracy cannot be improved”.  Actually this theory claims monopoly for truth, which is possessed by a certain group of people, or a country or a group of countries. In fact, it is nothing else but a sort of intellectual violence, sometimes disguised in the form of democracy. In such a situation, Gandhi said: “democracy is a great institution and, therefore, it is liable to be greatly abused”. In such cases the “promotion” of democracy serves as a kind of ideological umbrella for propaganda and promotion of such values, which allegedly are better and higher than the values, formed in the cultures of other peoples. That is why they are so forcefully rejected.

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless,” Gandhi wrote, “whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?” Those who think that all people in the world have to adhere to the same cultural and historical values and vision are deeply mistaken. The long experience of the humankind testifies to the contrary.  For example, heroic personalities of certain people and culture are not viewed as such by people of other cultures.

In this respect, it is interesting to recall the following historical episode. When Alexander the Great reached the northwestern India after conquering half of Asia, he met a group of Jain philosophers. He was greatly puzzled that they did not pay due attention to him. Therefore, he asked them why it was so. And he received the following reply: “King Alexander, every man can possess only so much of the earth’s surface as this we are standing on. You are but human like the rest of us, save that you are always busy and up to no good, travelling so many miles from your home, a nuisance to yourself and to others!... You will soon be dead, and then you will own just as much of the earth as will suffice to bury you.”

The present globalization has become one of the most important factors of development. Peoples and nations are coming closer to each other with unprecedented speed in different spheres of life – trade, economics, technology, culture. As a result, during the second part of the 20th century, the world GDP increased tenfold, and the average per capita GDP increased three times.    However, the impact of globalisation on socio-economic, political and cultural processes was very much different in different countries and regions. The average figures and indices hide the huge inequality among people. In many countries, globalization was followed by the growth of unemployment, and the deterioration of socio-economic conditions of the population.

Theoretically, globalisation should open possibilities of development to all countries of the world. In reality, the rich, developed countries have an edge over the others. They use liberalisation to expand their markets, to strengthen their influence, and to prosper at the expense of the poor countries and peoples.     The globalisation in its present form is expanding, giving birth to new conflicts and contradictions between the rich and the poor countries. These conflicts are accompanied by socio-political protests of different social groups.  Some of these protests are non-violent, but many are.

Non-violence, started by Gandhi, continues to be an important form and method of the struggle for social justice and settlement of conflicts in separate countries as well as internationally. The traditional forms of non-violent struggle like strikes and protest marches have specific features in different countries, like hartals, sitting strikes, hunger strikes and others.    

Non-violent methods do not always bring expected results. The target of activists, struggling for their demands, very often happen to be big monopolies, which have huge resources, and which are able to withstand non-violent pressure of the strikers and demonstrators.     Often it is said that the roots of terrorism are to be found in the religious fundamentalism and extremism of groups, which belong to certain shades or sects of Islam. However, this erroneous approach only camouflages the socio-economic substance of the problem. As a result, the true cause of terrorism is hidden under the disguise of ideology and politics. This is why it is necessary to uncover the real roots and causes of terrorism, remove them, and along with them terrorism itself as a social and political phenomenon.

Gandhi firmly stood for non-violent forms of struggle against any extremism. His life experience demonstrates that it is much more difficult to fight against social evil than political one. It requires more efforts and resources – social, economic, cultural and the like. But it brings more durable and long-term results. Violent conflicts in the contemporary world require deep study of their causes, removal of socio-economic and political injustice, expansion of the dialogue of cultures based on equality, tolerance in relations between people and nations, and among representatives of different religions.

All these may create conditions for a peaceful, non-violent solution of the difficult and acute problems we encounter today. The experience of the last few decades shows that the road to a non-violent world will be long and difficult.

Gandhi was an unordinary, unique personality. Indira Gandhi considered him as one of the greatest rebels India had produced. She also said that Gandhi had found the magic key to the masses, which in India had been long lost. Ultimately, it would be no exaggeration to say that Gandhi had performed a peaceful revolution in India. He used to say, “I am prepared to die, but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill.”

There is no doubt that MahatmaGandhi remains our greatest contemporary. There are arguments to prove it. One of them is his attitude towards what we call today nuclear proliferation or non-proliferation. After the Americans in Japan used two atom bombs in August 1945,Gandhi reacted to it by saying that the atom bomb killed the highest aspirations and feelings that helped humanity during many centuries. Before the atom bombs exploded, there were so called laws of war, which helped to perceive war as tolerable. After the use of this weapon, one thing became clear and obvious: wars know no other law than the law of force. The morality that follows this greatest tragedy is:  a bomb cannot be destroyed by counter-bomb, as violence cannot be destroyed by counter violence.

In today’s world, the ecology problem is looming large over the humanity. During the last few decades, the representatives of nearly all the nations have been trying to find ways to solve this huge problem. Nearly everywhere, in both the developed and the developing countries the ecological situation is fast deteriorating. Everywhere over consumption of the natural resources is threatening the people’s lives.

We cannot help remembering Gandhi’s warning about the pollution and destruction of the nature. He said, “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another”.

Now, we come to the most acute problem of consumption or rather over consumption in the developed countries, and a very painful problem of under consumption in many developing and least developed countries.  Today more than 1.5 billion people in the world live on less than 1.25 dollar a day – the miserable amount indicating to their destitution and hunger. Gandhi paid foremost attention to this problem. He said, “The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed”.  He personally followed the next motto in his life: “Live simply that others may simply live”.

There is also one more problem very dear to Gandhi: the position of women in the society. During all the years since his death this problem assumed great proportions in all the countries the world over. The gender question became a very acute social, economic and political problem across the board. Gandhi’s attitudeto this problem is well known. I will only mention his important argument in favour of women. “If by strength is meant moral power, than woman is immeasurably man’s superior”.

The fundamental issues, addressed by Mahatma Gandhi – poverty and hunger, violence and non-violence, war and peace – still remain on the agenda and are looming large upon humanity. It has no choice but to attend to them.    At the end, it is proper to remember what Jawaharlal Nehru said after the death of Mahatma Gandhi: “The light has gone out of our lives… Yet I am wrong, for the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light… and a thousand years later that light will still be seen in this country and the world will see it. For that light represented the living truth”.

This article has been written by a well-known Russian experts on India - Felix N. Yurlov


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