Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn, in the late 1920s. Source: gandhiserve.org / wikipedia.org
Today on the great soul’s birth anniversary, I try to think about the exact moment I first learned about Mahatma Gandhi. Somehow, I think, it was one of the Soviet children’s books, or maybe even Pionerskaya Pravda, to which, as a normal Soviet school kid growing up in the 80s I was subscribed to and received weekly.
As I child, I was always into all kinds of do-gooders' stuff, thinking of a positive change, making world a better place. My favourite Soviet children's author was Vladislav Krapivin, if it rings any bells (his books back then were being extensively translated into many languages). His protagonists, Soviet children and teenagers, were always fighting against hypocrisy, bureaucracy, corruption and other evils, often represented by wicked grown-ups. They usually won, almost always.
I never formally studied Mahatma Gandhi's life and teachings, but his universal teachings in some way naturally came to me. Without making any efforts to learn I knew about ahimsa and that a similar set of values was also shared by the great Russian writer Lev Tolstoy. I knew about Satyagraha and Gandhi's effort to unite the people of India and get rid of the discrimination of the so-called untouchables. The vicious attack by a religious fanatic that resulted in his victorious death is also well documented in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic.
My connections to India go beyond the Mahatma. I read books written by Nicholas Roerich and Helena Blavatskaya and was into yoga for a while. I have also travelled to India and worked with kids at a charity. Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings and example, though, have had a profound impact on my life.
A few years ago, when Vladimir Putin's phrase “Since Gandhi died, I have no one to talk to” became somewhat of a meme, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, the fact that the Mahatma’s name was re-contextualized in popular Russian media, (probably for the first time since the 1980's) and could have possibly made some teenagers at least look him up on Google was definitely positive. On the other hand, it did seem a bit too frivolous to me, given the depth and strength of Gandhi's convictions and his commitments and challenging life. However, someone who once said “If I had no sense of humour, I would long ago have committed suicide” probably wouldn't have been upset at a friendly country's president, just making a pretty funny joke, especially given Vladimir Putin's controversial image in the world.
On a more serious note, though, I see how a bit more of Gandhi's philosophy employed on a daily basis could do a lot of good for Russia. More truth would be helpful in both, government-citizen relations and on a person-to-person level. Learning from one's own mistakes, never hurting anyone, whether a private individual or a governmental institution, and increasing the level of nonviolence would brings many benefits to the society. Imagine how much money could be saved if spending was cut on high-level training, anti-riot equipment and the whole penal correction system. Vegetarianism and even veganism are already growing more and more popular in Russia – it's good to remember though there is always a danger of getting too carried away with one's sense of own importance. Popularity of charity and volunteer work for the benefit of one's fellow-beings has been growing by leaps and bounds in Russia over last decade - decade and a half – obviously, there is still a huge demand, but people, as a rule, now do seem more responsive and willing to spend one's weekend looking for a stranger's child lost in the woods or helping out flood victims in a remote village. May be it’s nothing comparable to the Soviet times when everyone was loving and united, or at least was supposed to be – but I feel like the new Russia and its current generations might need to learn certain things anew.
Just last week, I was reminded of Mahatma Gandhi at Foodswings, a vegan restaurant in Brooklyn, which I go to every once in a while. Their sandwiches with various meat substitutes are delicious, and their non-dairy milk shakes are both, yummy and very filling. On the walls they have animal-related quotes of people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Einstein. Mahatma Gandhi's portrait and a quote take up a big part of the longest wall there, and you know what? He fits in perfectly well. To me, that is Mahatma Gandhi – A saint. A fighter. A person who changed the world for the better. Equally relevant in Moscow and in Brooklyn, in presidential speech and a hipster vegan cafe, in history books and punk rock lyrics!
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