Why the vandalising of a Gandhi statue feels like a personal attack: A Gandhian on internalising the Mahatma's lessons
'My engagement with Gandhiji is not purely intellectual, but deeply personal. Perhaps I was a Gandhian much before I knew it,' writes Madhav Nayar.
I write this article in light of the desecration of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Washington DC during a protest against India’s recently enacted farm laws.
I like writing about Gandhiji. I consider his life, writings and thoughts to be a rich source of exploration. I have written about his philosophy of walking, the importance of his silence in our times, and the relevance of his brand of liberal Hinduism. I write this piece as someone who has spent quite some time thinking about Gandhiji and his ideals, trying to implement them in my own life.
In my generation, Gandhiji is either ignored or mocked. He is viewed by young people today as either irrelevant or eccentric. His politics and methods are considered to be outmoded; his views on religion, race and caste controversial; while his experiments with brahmacharya have become the subject of vulgar memes and jokes.
My engagement with him is not purely intellectual, but deeply personal. Perhaps I was a Gandhian much before I knew it. In Class Three, when I was roughed up by a classmate and told my mother about this, she asked me, ‘Why didn’t you hit him back?’ My response as a nine-year-old was, ‘Are you trying to teach me violence?’
Throughout school, I was painfully shy and awkward. I first read Gandhiji’s autobiography as a 12-year-old when I had to participate in a quiz on him. I read and re-read his autobiography throughout my school and college life because it spoke to the self-conscious, awkward and under-confident me. I confess to not having read very widely but I have always found myself returning to texts like The Story of My Experiments with Truth. The Gandhian mode of reading meant that rather than reading 100 books, it was better to read the same book a hundred times.
My understanding of Gandhi’s life taught me that confidence wasn’t that important, what mattered was reflecting deeply on one’s own experience and tirelessly working on one’s self. Gandhiji taught me how to assert myself without being aggressive; that matbheda (difference of opinion) should not be conflated with manbheda (difference of hearts). That one could vigorously debate and contest in the domain of ideas without attacking the person propounding those ideas. That it was possible to disagree in a civil manner. That there was that fine distinction between reverence and respect. The former implied blind devotion, the latter was about the ability to question someone or criticise them while still respecting them. I add the suffix ji because I respect Gandhi, not because I revere him.
When in college my friends and peers were talking about Marx, Foucault and Derrida, discussing postmodernism and radical philosophy, I decided to enrol for charkha classes. It came from a deep conviction that in order to understand Gandhiji one had to appreciate his praxis. He taught me that one needn’t necessarily look towards thinkers in the West in order to understand one’s own self. All one had to do was look within, listen to the ‘feeble voice within’, the voice of our own conscience. Even when I had a vigorous debate or disagreement with my peers and either Gandhiji was laughed at or I was dismissed as too romantic or utopian, I would patiently try to engage them. For we often forget that the adversary in a debate can also be our friend. To be non-adversarial with the adversary and to nurture a dialogic imagination was also to be Gandhian.
During my undergraduate years in Delhi University, offering a silent prayer to the Gandhi statue in the VC Park was almost a ritual for me. Whenever I felt low or upset, I would visit that statue. Reading Gandhiji’s talisman inscribed on the pedestal of the statue would force me to think about the ‘poorest and the weakest man [woman]’. In an effort to connect with them, I would go to the Hanuman temple on campus and then distribute either food or prasad to the poor sitting outside the temple. It was a very small act which made me realise how petty my worries were and in a strange way lifted the burden of my heart.
I remember the night when as a college student I witnessed a cow injured grievously by a speeding car. That night I called a cow ambulance and ensured that the animal was treated and nursed. Gandhiji made me realise the difference between gau seva (serving the cow) and gau rakhsa (cow protection) and that a love for the cow needn’t translate into a hatred for minorities.
He also taught me how to be a self-confident yet non-chauvinistic Hindu. That one could be devout a Hindu and yet learn from other religions. While I read the Gita every day, reading Gandhiji’s views on religion prompted me to ask my Muslim friends about the Quran. Being a Gandhian Hindu meant learning from other faiths and forging friendships across religious boundaries.
Gandhiji’s favourite bhajan ‘Vaishnav Jan Toh’ almost became a code of ethics for me. Reciting, ‘Par dukhhey upkar karey toye, par abhiman na aane re’ (even if we help those in distress, we should never let pride enter our minds) became a way of checking my own pride and ego. The bhajan also encapsulated my approach to my own faith. For what was it without fellow-feeling, compassion and empathy?
As a Master’s student, I was new to London and found making friends a tall order. I would often go to Tavistock Square and sit right opposite the Gandhi statue. I have had many a lunch sitting in the shadow of that statue, quietly talking to the Mahatma in my silence.
But I guess I learnt most about Gandhiji by listening to ordinary people with extraordinary insights. What my charkha instructor and the remarkable Gandhian Sita Bhimbraw said once has always stayed with me: ‘Charkhe ka uddeshaye hamari drishti ko nirmal banana hai (The purpose of the spinning wheel is to make our vision pure)’. It was like an epiphany for me, for working on the charkha required a graceful and gentle use of one’s hands and a very fine eye, which metaphorically translated into an empathetic, kind, compassionate even innocent way of looking at the world. The nirmal drishti (empathetic vision) became an antidote to the alochanatmak drishti (critical vision) which believes in tearing apart and bringing down people, reputations and statues along with ideas.
It is through these small insights, acts and thoughts that Gandhiji lives inside me. Whenever a Gandhi statue is desecrated or attacked anywhere in the world, it feels like an attack on the Gandhi inside me.
The writer has completed his Masters in Modern South Asian History from SOAS. He can be reached at email@example.com
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