My words on October 2 – Gandhi Jayanti and International Nonviolence Day

Mahatma, the Naked Fakir

I hold Mahatma Gandhi, the so-called Naked Fakir, in great reverence. I count him to be one of those few 10-20 historical persons for whom I have a special sense of respect. These include, Buddha, Socrates, and Christ, etc. I do that not because they were perfect human beings, or superhumans, or God- incarnates. In my opinion, they were mortals like us, but with a distinctly different personality. They were people having determination, compassion, sensitive to the miseries and ills of life, and commitment to some cause. I believe that they had their own weaknesses and that they might have had committed trivial wrongs in their own times, yet they had strength of character that dwarfed their weaknesses. And these points made them nearly singular in the society.

Today is October 2, Gandhi Jayanti and International Nonviolence Day. Gandhi is remembered and respected almost exclusively for his commitment and advocacy to nonviolence. But my respect for him is based more on other aspects of his life. In Indian history Mahavir and Buddha were perhaps the greatest advocates of nonviolence and compassion not only for human beings but also for all living beings. Gandhi was not the first to advocate nonviolence. True that he was perhaps the first to advocate that in the wider political context.

Ahimsa, Nonviolence

I should point out here that ancient Indian pieces of literature talk about of Ahimsa – the opposite of Himsa. This is translated to nonviolence in English. But the two are not synonymous, because Ahimsa has much wider scope. It refers to abstaining from any ill towards others – all living beings, in fact!  It refers to avoidance of commitment of an ill in action (कर्मणा, Karmana), in speech (वाचा, Vacha), and in thought (मनसा, Manasa). I do not believe the term ‘nonviolence’ connotes that much.

We mostly relate violence to actions that physically harm a person, damage their property, etc. Physical damage of any kind is definitely so obvious that people will always criticize violence. Is uttering foul words to somebody not equally bad? It may have deep-rooted effect on one’s psyche. I do not know if violence also refers to speaking words that hurt others. But I emphasize that when we talk of Ahimsa we also mean that one should avoid harbouring ill thoughts about others. You may argue that that is immaterial simply because others cannot know about it unless it gets translated to a speech or to an action. That is true, but the person concerned knows what he thinks and thinks not. I can imagine some human actions the knowledge of which may remain secret to others except to the person herself/himself. One can well imagine such things as I do.

Well, that is how I define Ahimsa, somewhat different than nonviolence. Anyway my interest here lies not in defining this term. What I find strange is that people the world over know Gandhi only in the context of violence. Is that the most important aspect of Gandhi’s personality, his philosophy of earthly life? Perhaps not! We conveniently ignore many other things which he was committed to. But Ahimsa or nonviolence, whatever you call it, is most talked about because practically every human being fears violence and strives to evade that. Violence is something that can indiscriminately harm any human being; no one can be safe if violence spreads anywhere.

Gandhi: There’s more than Ahimsa 

But other positive aspects of Gandhi’s life are considered to be not as much important as Ahimsa. What are these? I am not one who has devotedly and in detail studied Gandhi. My knowledge and understanding of him are limited, but they suffice for me to present some comments. We must remember that Gandhi also advocated many things like:

  1. Respect for physical labour. He teaches us that one should not shirk physical labour oneself. One must also respect all fellow humans engaged in work demanding physical labour.
  2. Social and economic equality. It is true that all human beings are not born equal, their physical and mental abilities often differing remarkably. But Gandhi advocates that a civilized society should take steps to reduce economic disparity. People poorer in competence must be helped by those better-off. Likewise we must treat all human beings equal and extend respect to everyone. All this does not mean we ignore anybody’s wrongs.
  3. Avoiding exploitation of the weaker in the society. Exploitation is definitely the most damaging to the society. Most ills of the society originate from this instinct of humans. Not paying adequately for somebody’s service is a weakness of most of us. But we must remember that we also are bestowed with wisdom. If we decide we can become superior beings. How many value that?
  4. Compassion for fellow humans. Gandhi was of the opinion that people committed only to their self-interests cannot form a truly civilized society. He favoured that we must all take care of the larger good of the society. How many people feel compassionate towards others? How many are willing to extend helping hand to a needy person? Perhaps not even those who can afford that.
  5. Truth and honesty These were perhaps closest to Gandhi’s heart. But how many of us have in practice a reasonable appreciation for these virtues? No one can become a perfect human being, but one can still avoid becoming totally dishonest. The rampant corruption and dishonesty in our society shows we have no respect for these virtues. Where are we vis a vis Gandhi?
  1. Setting imitable examples. There is a saying “महाजनो येन गतः सः पन्था (महाभारत)” (follow the path set by the great – Mahabharat). Who is great? The term महाजन (Mahajan) or the great refers to one who has a distinct position in the society, is known for character and integrity, is respected for being helpful to others, etc.  Such people are followed by others, and therefore they have the sacred responsibility of setting examples before others. At present do we have people in our society who set imitable examples before others? The responsibility lies first on those who are higher in position in the society. Unfortunately, things are far from what Gandhi would have expected of us.

These are some points that come to my mind on this occasion of Gandhi Jayanti. One can present similar more points.

What I find discouraging is that while we emphasis Gandhi’s nonviolence, we almost ignore other things that Gandhi stands for. All these other things are not less important, remember!