The popular yet often misunderstood Mahatma needs an image makeover as India’s failure to keep him alive as a living philosophy is responsible for the loss of interest in him
On his visit to London for the Round Table Conference of 1931, Mahatma Gandhi was grossly under-clothed to face the British winter. Dressed in his trademark homespun loincloth, a sartorial choice picked to identify with India’s poorest, Gandhi went all the way to the Buckingham Palace to meet King George V. “The King was wearing enough for both of us”, he remarked later with characteristic humour when asked if his clothing felt appropriate for such a meeting. When then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill disparagingly referred to him as the “half-naked fakir”, he took it as a compliment!
Gandhi’s sense of humour was an inseparable part of his personality, as were his views on non-violence, sustainable living, economical use of resources, role of mass media in a nation’s development and humane treatment to animals. There were multiple dimensions to his personality, much beyond the saintliness we usually associate with him. Unfortunately, in the process of revering him as the Father of the Nation, we have unwittingly buried a series of interesting facets of his thought and philosophy, rendering him a uni-dimensional monotonous figure. This failure to keep Gandhi alive as a living philosophy is responsible for the young generation’s loss of interest in him.
Popular yet misunderstood: If you ask a young Indian about Mahatma Gandhi, chances are that he/she will fail to identify him as anything beyond a freedom fighter. Worrisomely, a number of youngsters bred on a constant diet of social media forwards even openly deride him, holding him responsible for a series of ills, including India’s Partition, failure to seek clemency for Bhagat Singh and for preferring Jawaharlal Nehru over Sardar Patel. The problem lies in the fact that the State has failed to make Brand Gandhi relevant to the people. The Father of our Nation was much more than a saint or a leader of a non-violent freedom movement. As a human being, he deeply understood this country and laid out a philosophy that covered all dimensions of our lives. Truth be told, never have Gandhi’s ideals been more relevant to the world and to our country than they are today. As we face unprecedented challenges of violence, hate, environmental degradation, depletion of resources and increasing chasm between the rich and the poor, we desperately need Gandhi’s philosophy as a guiding light.
There is also an urgent need to rebrand Gandhi to make him more palatable to the young Indians. This needs to be done by popularising the unknown facets of his personality.
Rebranding the Mahatma: In 2006, a Bollywood comedy called Lage Raho Munna Bhai did more to popularise Gandhi among the youth than State-led programmes could do in 60 years. It did so by simplifying his teachings and exhibiting how they can make a real difference in our daily lives. However, we need more than a film to realise this goal, we need to contemporise Gandhi for contemporary Indians and restore dignity to his brand.
Gandhi’s ideas on sagacious use of resources, blunting hatred with love and forgiveness, and investing in nature are key to this age of excesses. His unknown love for music, his absolute dedication towards fitness (who could have walked 284 km to Dandi at the age of 63?), his advocacy of eco-friendly practices and his emphasis on humility and non-violence need to be revived and adopted.
Environment and sustainability: Millions of young people took to the streets across the world last week demanding concrete action from the countries to curb and reverse climate change. The explosion of the youth movement ignited by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg reminded the world about how the human race has endangered itself through its unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. As we celebrate Gandhi’s150th birth anniversary, it is pertinent to revisit his ideals on environment and sustainability.
As an astute critic of greed-centric modernity, Gandhi was very concerned about the social order that exploited natural resources for short-term and short-sighted gains. He wrote extensively about our need to exercise collective restraint when it came to exploiting nature. What seemed like counter-factual thinking at the time has now become mainstream with climate change becoming the single-greatest threat to the future of human beings as a species.
Gandhi had astutely foreseen a world running rampant with unrestricted materialism and industrialism, a world where the natural resources would not be enough to sustain the burgeoning population and its needs. It is time we understand the value of his vision to the discourse on climate change, environmental conversation, and sustainability.
Gandhian philosophy: The central tenet of Gandhi’s philosophy was that man should be at the centre of any developmental roadmap. He believed that it was essential to take the long-term view of things into account to ensure our prosperity and wellbeing. He advocated using natural resources judiciously without disturbing the ecological balance of increasingly fragile ecosystems. He also talked about a developmental model where everyone could partake in the progress. In his translation of John Ruskin’s tract on political economy, Gandhi used the term sarvodaya, (welfare of all), which was to become the central basis of his beliefs and actions later in life. He was a strong proponent of a community-based approach towards environmental sustainability and believed that by keeping the welfare of all human beings at heart, we will be able to avoid exploitation of man and nature and uphold human dignity.
Although he did not present a structured model for the conservation of environment and sustainable development, we can form a picture of his vision by linking his thoughts together. He was strongly for dencentralisation of power at all levels of society. He visualised sarvodaya at the national level, Gram Sabha at the local level and Swaraj (economic freedom) at the individual level. He firmly believed that the power to change the world resided in the individual and that by mutually interdependent cooperation, we would be able to create a noble environment for all. Every individual is the trustee of the wealth generated by our collective efforts and we should always try to convert that into wealth of all for a better world instead of selfishly pursuing individual interests and personal gains. By achieving inward change, we can affect a shift from a consumer society to a conserver one.
Energy crisis and sustainable transport: During the historic Dandi march, a supporter on a bike offered oranges to Gandhi. He politely declined them and told him to walk and avoid using the bike. This in many ways formed the essence of his thought. Gandhi was an advocate of walking and cycling. In retrospect, his ideals seem far ahead of his times, but relevant nonetheless. Indiscriminate use of fossil fuels has led to global warming. Increasing use of ethanol and biodiesel from sugarcane and corn will result in food shortage and increased water consumption. We continue to mindlessly consume unsustainable resources. The solution lies in tempering our wants and turning to sustainable transport as much as possible. Simple changes to our lifestyle, such as walking and cycling, car pooling and the use of non-conventional energy sources when adopted on a large scale, can make a positive impact.
Water problems: When Kathiawar in Gujarat experienced drought during the Independence struggle, Gandhi urged the people to plant more trees, knowing very well that afforestation on a large scale can help curb water crisis. He also pushed for the practice of water harvesting for irrigation to avoid food shortages and famines, a suggestion that was well ahead of its time. As we witness a major impending water crisis and depletion of ground water resources, invoking Gandhi’s ideals seems to be the natural recourse. Gandhi famously said that “If you want to change the world, start with yourself.” If we had paid heed to his words earlier, we wouldn’t be in a world where future generations are blaming us, and rightly so, for the world we are leaving them with. Unless individuals rethink their consumer lifestyle and governments rethink development agenda to make them sustainable, there can be no lasting peace and happiness.
(The writer is Director and Creative Strategist at an advertising and consulting agency and Return of Million Smiles)
Tuesday, 01 October 2019 | Kewal Kapoor | in Analysis
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