“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?