A Moment to Reflect on the Karma-yogi

Gandhi Jayanti

If 2nd October is an opportunity for reiterating commitment for social justice, it can only be meaningful if it applies at the individual level, not in a brief flash of good-intentionism, but as a patient process of daily renewal

The scholarly writings on Gandhi run into thousands of articles, books, exhibitions, and it is, inevitably, very difficult to say anything new either to support or to critique the man and his action.

It is only too tempting, in the post-deconstructionist intellectual context, to embark on debunking the myth that Gandhiji became. So many men and women, among them the most incisive minds of the 20th and 21st centuries, have attempted to find and express sound grounds for his immense universal stature, without falling into uncritical admiration, and others, equally brilliant, have found effective tools with which to chisel off the image and unveil stark weaknesses. The critics are many and the criticism at times effective. So one has to decide for oneself where one stands vis-a-vis this undeniably truly remarkable 20th century figure.

For me, it is the deep-running consistency of his thought and action which remains an amazing feat. In an age of contradictions and paradoxes, it is Gandhiji’s uncompromising consistency in thought and action which appears, not only as a marker of his uniqueness but also as the foundations of every other principle which guided his life’s work.

If Gandhiji was convinced of the universal validity of the goal of change without violence, to achieve it he needed to be convinced of his own personal validity as a mouthpiece for this cause, in terms of his personal integrity which alone could provide, in his own eyes, the legitimacy of his actions and his call for sacrifice.

He commanded respect because he was profoundly holistic in his speech and action. One might not agree with his objectives but his methods were inherently respectful of all protagonists in a credible way. In short his message did not sound hollow because there was no gap between his thought, his words and his actions. This deep consistency, logically tenable, has baffled many of his critics or escaped them.

One writer, Lawrence James in Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India, speaks of ‘the facade of the simple prophet-cum-savior’. The ‘facade of the simple prophet-cum-saviour’ is based on the fact that he was, by any measure, a shrewd politician, able to gauge the pulse of the masses, as he was able to manoeuvre through the structures of the Indian National Congress and those of the British Raj.

The notion of a spiritual foundation to political activism has appeared to many as almost a contradiction in terms. Yet to him, this spiritual foundation provided the building blocks, not for independence, which remained, in many ways, an intermediate objective, but for the ultimate goal of complete transformation of society, through challenges to established order, foreign-imposed or indigenously evolved over millennia, to monopolization of power, to entrenched and uncritical belief. Any hint of passivity in the face of social injustice, be it poverty or untouchability, was unacceptable.

Coupled with his sense of the oneness of the human spirit was another force, that of the oneness of humanity as a whole. Suffering of one was suffering of the many. Where change could bring greater justice, it would be folly to hang on to old beliefs. The notion of meek surrender to destiny would have been abhorrent to him. It is meaningful that for him the idea of karma determining destiny was untenable, and similarly the caste one was born into could not be accepted as a form of justice for past actions. He specifically combated untouchability as a social evil.

As another author has put it, ‘His profound spiritual vision of life as a pilgrimage generated in him a mental and emotional agility which responded to change as an opportunity to be welcomed rather than resisted with fear’.

Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, ‘Where the mind is without fear’, echoes this sentiment, although the poet was very critical of the regimented and paradoxically cloying style of life in Gandhiji’s ashrams. The poet and the philosopher had diverging conceptions of freedom and discipline. Is this to say that Gandhi was a despot? In many ways yes. His well-known unbendable ashram rule that all should do latrine duty, including his wife, illustrates the point. But the redeeming point is that he imposed first on himself and therefore could give legitimacy to what he expected of others, for he expected no less, and more, from himself.

The way he chose can best be caught in the term karma-yogi, a yogi in action. His was not the way of relinquishing worldly worries. Again, Tagore, in his Stray Verses, writes ‘Deliverance is not for me in renunciation’.

His was not a sequential living out of the stages of the Hindu way of life. His married life was marred by the life he imposed on his family because of the public cause he chose to espouse, he lived in celibacy while married to Kasturba, and he never retired. The time of retiring to isolated meditation was not to come in Gandhiji’s lifetime, and it is doubtful if he would at any time have considered such a course at all. His was a ‘pilgrim spirit’ and a life of renunciation in the midst of action.

Just as the train incident in Petermaritzburg was a personal wake up call, so he developed his methods on the conviction of direct, personal involvement, without distance between himself, the inspirer, and the masses on whose mobilization the success of his plans depended. The leader had to be part of the action, so prison, latrine duties, lathi charges were to be personally experienced and had to be fearlessly faced for him to lead by example. This was also inspired by his sense of inner consistency – if he could not do something, he had no moral right to ask it of any fellow human being.

This is perhaps the most noteworthy of his message which may still be meaningful in this day and age of disembodied virtuality, in which the concrete self becomes increasingly dissolved. The message may not reach leaders and politicians, who have their own agenda, but to each individual human being. Politics is shifty and sly – word given today broken tomorrow, opinion expressed today, denied the next, promises made today only to be broken tomorrow, friendships made and unmade…

If 2nd October is an opportunity for reiterating commitment for social justice, it can only be meaningful if it applies at the individual level, not in a brief flash of good-intentionism, but as a patient process of daily renewal. In the end, the man and his actions are but the objects of a momentary respectful remembrance. The real message, the hardest to embrace, is the path he chose – integrity and consistency based on an unshakable belief in the oneness of humanity.

Undivided I am, undivided my soul,

undivided my sight,

undivided my hearing,

undivided my breath,

undivided the whole of me.

– Atharva Veda XIX 51.1

Soorya Gayan

 

* Published in print edition on 3 October 2014

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