India wakes up to Gandhi’s ethics

December 26, 2006 | By | 8 Replies More

“Name a person, living or dead, from the country India.”

If asked in the western world, the most common answer would be obvious: “Ghandi”.  It is another matter that his name is “Gandhi”, and not “Ghandi”, to which he is commonly referred in the west, but nevertheless, this individual seems to have wielded such influence that India almost seems to be known as “the land of Ghandi” in the west.  In India, he is also a well-known figure, often hailed as the “father of the nation.” It is unlikely that any individual living in India would not know of him. But whether most people from India know much beyond the name (for instance, that he was involved in India’s freedom struggle) is a matter of debate.  His brand of non-violence was unknown to most Indians until recently.

A few months ago, a Hindi movie titled “Lage Raho Munnabhai” (Carry on Munnabhai) was released in India. It went on to become   India’s biggest box office success in a long time. It tells the story of a gangster, named ‘Munnabhai’, who accidentally stumbles upon the work of Gandhi. Inspired by the writings, he begins practicing Gandhi’s tenets of non-violence and turns his life around.

When I first heard of the film’s plot, I winced. “Bollywood”, India’s equivalent of “Hollywood”, is obsessed with violence.  Surely, a Bollywood film about Gandhi, I imagined, would butcher his philosophy. Worse yet, the film is a sequel to a mediocre movie.  When I heard people saying that it changed their lives, I dismissed it as idiocy. After all, some people claim that the Matrix movies “changed their lives”.

Nevertheless, a few weeks ago, out of sheer morbid curiosity, I decided to check out the film. I was startled. The film is a typical ‘Bollywood’ film in that its plot is highly unrealistic. But the film presents Gandhi’s thoughts with such clarity and such passion that it is difficult not to be moved by it.

Gandhi is well-known for propagating the concept of non-violence. He believed that whenever one is being oppressed with violence, one must not use violence in return. Instead, he propagated the use of a unique concept known as ‘passive resistance’. “If someone slaps you on your cheek, show them the other cheek,” was his famous illustration of the concept.  He believed that acts of violence only beget more violence. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” is another of Gandhi’s famous quotes.

Gandhi saw it like this: If a person hits you, and you hit that person back, the same person would hit you back again, thus creating an endless chain of violence. By practicing non-violence, Gandhi believed that the hearts of even the cruelest and most violent individuals could be won. Even if the violent individuals could not be moved directly, it would move other parties, who would apply pressure on the violent individuals, and force them to eventually abandon their oppressive actions.

What I did not realize about Gandhi (until I watched this movie) was that his philosophy is much larger.  Non-violence constitutes only a small part of it. What Gandhi really propagated was a concept that is underappreciated today: integrity. Integrity does not mean merely living an “ethical” life, as in living a life without breaking the law. It means living a life without contradictions.

It does not take a lot of perspicacity to figure out that we live in an extremely schizophrenic world. Wars are fought in different parts of the world in the name of peace. Between their beauty regimens, pop stars travel in their limos and choppers to ‘Live 8’ concerts purporting to wipe out world hunger. The list goes on…

It seems to be acceptable today to a have one set of lifestyle standards for yourself and another set of standards for those for whom you show concern.  You may not be content unless you live in a luxury apartment, but it’s OK if someone you sponsor lives in a public shelter. Even the major “philanthropists” of today, be they Bill Gates or Bono, live decadent lifestyles, in sharp contrast to the people whose conditions they seek to alleviate. For that matter, don’t many of us well-meaning individuals who claim to care for the poor contradict ourselves by blowing money on holidays and restaurants?

It was these very contradictions of which Gandhi disapproved. To him, the lifestyle of a man of true integrity would be in complete sync with his beliefs. A man who stood on a his privileged pedestal and tried to help the less fortunate, in his view, was a ‘coward.’ Such a man, while possessed with good intentions, was afraid of giving up his privileged position in society, and essentially lived a hypocritical existence.

Gandhi often spoke of the “truth” and the true way of life, for which courage was required. Indeed he recognized that it is not easy to wholly accept the truth and also practice what you preach. It is all too easy to be confused, and to maintain the status quo lifestyle you are living. 

Gandhi believed that it takes courage to attain the necessary clarity of thought.  Once we attain that clarity of thought, we are forced to confront our own shortcomings and hypocrisies. Gandhi believed that we all understand the “truth” on some level or the other.  We intentionally keep our understanding of it foggy, however, for fear that it will hold a mirror to us.

Where the movie “Lage Raho Munnabhai” really succeeds is in showing how difficult it is to lead a life of Gandhian integrity. The protagonist, a gangster at first, finds it nearly impossible to live by Gandhi’s principles. Rather unsurprisingly, he has never been in prison thanks to the nexus of politicians and gangsters in India. However, when he adopts passive resistance, he is arrested almost every other day. Indeed, as the protagonist discovers in the movie, living a life of ‘Gandhian’ integrity requires enormous patience and sacrifice, something fast disappearing in today’s times.

In India, the release of “Lage Raho Munnabhai” has resulted in an increased consciousness of Gandhian values.   Questions are increasingly being asked about where the youth of today is headed. Is concern for the downtrodden going to become more and more passive in the future? Will charity become a completely commoditized affair? Will celebrity-studded events such as ‘Live 8’ concerts (as admirable as their causes are) be the only way by which the youth will take notice of problems elsewhere in the world?

Have we ended up becoming so selfish and self-obsessed that this schizophrenic balancing of a decadent lifestyle with a passive “concern for the poor” has already become all-too-normal to us?

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Category: Consumerism, Good and Evil, Meaning of Life

About the Author ()

I am Sujay Prabhu, 22, living in Mumbai (Bombay), India. Among other things, I enjoy reading non-fiction, listening to podcasts, watching world cinema, watching plays, and trekking. I believe skepticism is a most vital trait, needed not only to dodge schemes of charlatans, but also to lead a fulfilling life. I live in a country where superstitions and useless rituals reign supreme, and ‘miracle-men’ make a fast buck spouting irrational philosophy, backing it up with laughable magic tricks to fool the masses about their ‘powers’. The few people who study their surroundings, try to look beyond the obvious, and subject their own beliefs to scrutiny, are those that earn my admiration.

Comments (8)

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  1. Deb says:

    What is the possibility that movie will be released with english subtitles (or dubbed, for that matter)? It sounds fascinating.

    The single hardest thing to do is to live your life with no contradictions. I feel faced with them every day.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Sujay: I couldn't help but think of your post when I saw yet another article about the need to support merchants by buying yet more stuff we don't need in celebration of an allegedly religious holiday. See here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16356199/ "Integrity" (as used by Gandhi) is a great word for that to which we should all be striving.

  3. Dan says:

    This is a problem I face daily; I try to live a responsible, socially conscious lifestyle, but at the same time I like my "stuff".

  4. Jason Rayl says:

    It always struck me odd that a certain social activism casts as good the idea that those less fortunate ought to be "raised up" and given a chance to live a better life while at the same time condemning exactly that "better" life as it is being lived by those who are not poor. You do not start fixing inequities by telling the people best equipped to do so that they may not live the lives they wish to (just because they can) when the ultimate goal is to enable everyone (theoretically) to live the lives they wish.

    As a symbol, Gandhi is powerful, and certainly many of his philosophical concepts are wonderful. But Nehru, who had the problem of actually creating the country Gandhi worked to bring out, thought him a capricious and unrealistic leader. My own take is that Gandhi never minded applying non-violence, no matter how many people were killed in the process (and not all by the British). And his rejection of industrial technologies (the famous dictum that all Indian leaders should learn to work a hand loom being one of his symbolic lunacies) was utterly implausible in a nation with so much poverty that could only be alleviated by massive production and distribution programs…

    Most people know Gandhi the symbol. The man was a considerable mixed bag.

  5. Sujay says:

    Do allow me to disagree with you Jason. The points you have raised are the most common argument raised against Gandhian economics. Most hardcore capitalists in India state that Gandhi wanted all Indians to be "equally poor".That statement is true to some extent, as in he believed that if you are well-off, and the people around you are not, you must share all your wealth with them. If all human beings in the world were prosperous, I do not think he would have had any qualms with an individual living a comfortable, or luxurious life.You make a valid point. Indeed, why should I subject myself to the same standards as the poor whose conditions I seek to improve? That logic works, if you consider the "self" to be isolated from the rest of the world; if you believe that there is a "self", one which needs to be given primary importance, and the rest of the world, which you could care about, if you have the time and money to spare.

    But that is not the Gandhian perspective, which considers the rest of humanity, to be an extension of the self. See it like this : We all have feelings, thoughts and emotions that we value in ourselves. But it is not just us, but other human beings too, who possess these same qualities. Thus, it is possible to 'extend' ourselves, to care about someone else as much as we care about ourselves. We all do it with our families, and occassionally with close friends. Gandhi propagated extending it further to all humanity.When this happens, 'my' need becomes only a small part of my concern. Tending to 'my' need alone, feels like tending to only one body part when the whole body is in pain. And this is pretty much what Gandhi believed in. When he saw his fellow human beings (whom he cared or claimed to care for, as much as he cared for himself), in pain, he decided to do whatever he could to reduce their pain. In this case, it was to share all his wealth, and live a life no better or worse from his poor fellow beings. 

    I know what the next objection to this would be : Would such a philosophy not totally wipe out "individualism"? Well yes…. However, this would not create an Orwellian dystopia either.  Gandhi may have been a socialist of sorts, but he was not a communist. He did believe in equal distribution of wealth, but he believed that this should come from an individual level (yes, I know this sounds far-fetched in today's world), and not through authoritarian measures. Also, in a Gandhian world, human happiness and safety would not be secondary to an abstract "ideal". All actions would be carried out solely to increase human happiness and pleasure, much like the actions of capitalism purport, except that in this case, the goal of those actions would not be the happiness of the 'self' alone, but happiness other similar beings as well.Also, I must clear the misconception that Gandhi was opposed to industrial technologies. That is most definitely not the case. He himself has made this clear in much of his literature, in which he claims that he had no qualms in using technology which was mass-produced by Indians at that time , such as the type-writer and the telephone (both of which he used regularly). His call for rejection of mill-made British cloth, and hand-woven Indian cloth, was his prescribed way of "passive resistance". He rejected the attempts of the few Indians who tried to use violent means to rid the British off the country. He propagated what he believed to be a simpler rationale. If all Indians were to stop using British products, there would be no motivation for the British to stay in India, and they would leave on their own. It was not just cloth. He propagated boycott of all British products, irrespective of whether they were handmade or machine-made.

    If Indians at the time had the capital to invest in large mills and produce their own cloth, he would not objected to it one bit. His idea was that 'lack of capital' was no excuse to stop buying British products. Use whatever you have in your hand, even if it is the spinning loom (which every almost Indian house at that time had), and make your own products, was his rationale.

    As for the Nehru-Gandhi conflict, it is true that Nehru did not base any of India's economic policies on Gandhian lines. He created a 'mixed' economy, which was a mix of capitalism and communism, neither of which Gandhi approved. Gandhi believed in a "village development" model. Considering the fact that over 80% of India at that time lived in villages, he believed that all of India's wealth should be used to develop and modernize villages, and bring them (in terms of infrastructure) to the level of the cities. Nehru on the other hand believed in rapid industrial growth, mainly centred around the cities.

    In hindsight, Gandhi made a valid point. Some of the large cities in this country today have advanced infrastructure which is no different from that of metros in developed countries. But at the same time 40% of the people in this country (all in villages) have absolutely no access to water or electricity!

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Test Post.  We've had some technical glitches.  If anyone is having trouble submitting comments, please write me at erichvieth1956@yahoo.com.  Thanks

  7. Jason Rayl says:

    "Do allow me to disagree with you Jason. "

    By all means, do. That's what this forum is for. I do not claim to be any where near an expert on Gandhi. I have in the past noted a tendency on the part of his admirers to overlook the flaws and almost—ALMOST–make him into a kind of Jesus figure.

    The difficulties in India are difficulties all emerging First World states have had. India "came into" the 20th Century so quickly, plus with the added problems of partition, that I am occasionally amazed the country held together at all. But that speed–as well as other problems which you hint at–have contributed to something (he says with great understatement) of a mess.

  8. Anup says:

    It is unlikely that any individual living in India would not know of him. But whether most people from India know much beyond the name (for instance, that he was involved in India’s freedom struggle) is a matter of debate.

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    every INdian knows beyond the name !!!

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