A few weeks before India celebrated its 60th year of Independence, the front page of the Times of India claimed that “According to youngsters, Gandhi today might have been denounced as ‘mad.’” As evidence of Gandhiji’s irrelevance, the article quoted a Delhi University student: “He was a person who used to fast unto-death to get his work done. Today, if someone fasts, then people will label him a mad man and will simply let him die.”
Indeed, 60 years ago this month, Mohandas K. Gandhi did die. A senseless assassination took away not only the father of modern India, but also the man whose ideas gave birth to many independence movements across the world. But 60 years is a long time in a world where nanoseconds matter. Most of us were born after 1948. Indeed, how many of us can remember much from 60 months ago? 60 weeks? 60 days? 60 hours? Yes, we humans are a forgetful lot. In our haste to get on with the future, we tend to forget our past.
Gandhiji nourished us with much more than the noble political thoughts of satyagraha, swaraj, sarvodaya, and ahimsa. These thoughts were most probably the reason why Time Magazine considered him the second most important person of the 20th century (Einstein, who was in large part responsible for the physics of nanoseconds, was first). Of course, the fact that so many world leaders have traced their activist peace lineage back to Gandhiji must have affected the thinking of Time’s senior editors. This is a long list of prominent preachers and prime ministers, activists and actors, scientists and sinners. But suffice to say that these apostles of peace -- as disparate as America’s Martin Luther King Jr., South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, and Tibet’s Dalai Lama – have all been influenced by Gandhiji’s nonviolent resistance. No doubt the list of those impacted by the Mahatma runs much longer than the few-hundred-words constraint of this article. It is likely that the list runs long, like the river of blood of all those who have died from violent acts since Gandhiji began marching for peace. Imagine how different the world would be – at least the private worlds of those who died at Jallianwala Bagh or in the bombing of Hiroshima or from the suicide attacks of 9/11 – if world leaders had decided to embrace Gandhiji’s message.
To be sure, with the President of the United States casually suggesting the possibility of World War III, Gandhian thought is just as vital in 21st century political science as it was in the past century. But Gandhiji was also a man who walked the same earth we now occupy; he was not just a movement. He taught us how to live ethically every day.
If one patiently peruses shelf after shelf of Gandhi’s words, it is not difficult to find a quote for all types of quandaries of everyday life. If you began alphabetically, you will find guidance for abstinence, administration, anger, art, and much more. He even had a well-considered philosophical rationale for something as simple as what he ate (and, in the case of his famous fasts, why he didn’t eat). He truly possessed an encyclopedic philosophy of great pragmatic value. Even if you don’t accept all elements of his philosophy, why throw it all away through the careless act of forgetfulness? I suspect that if he were alive today, he would be open to changing his mind, because that was the hallmark of his open-mindedness. Perhaps he would have even had a chuckle or two watching Sanjay Dutt practicing a little Gandhi-giri in “Lage Raho Munna Bhai.”
While Gandhiji is a much-celebrated part of India’s past, it seems that he is not considered relevant to the modern world except for cinematic moments when Bollywood or Hollywood choose to celebrate the great man. For many years I’ve been confused by the odd conflation of hero-worship of the Mahatma and dustbin-relegation of his message. I’ve read many books by and about Gandhiji to try to understand this odd phenomenon of casting aside the philosophy of the 20th century’s most influential social and political leader. While I accept that today’s world moves a bit too fast for careful reflection that extends beyond Googling Gandhi for a quick quote, I am not prepared to reconcile myself to the tragic possibility that the man who was able to stir a nation to march against colonialism, now walks alone, largely abandoned by Indians in India and of the diaspora.
By Rajesh C. Oza
(Dr. Rajesh C. Oza, president of the OrganiZationAlignment Consulting Group, serves as a consultant to organizations requiring change leadership and is a trusted advisor to individuals going through transitions. We invite responses to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org or at email@example.com.)
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