What can we learn from Mahatma Gandhi

India

Clemens Jürgenmeyer

Born in 1952, is a political scientist and indologist as well as an associate member of the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute for cultural studies research at the University of Freiburg. He is primarily concerned with the politics and society of India.

Mahatma Gandhi's teaching on nonviolent living

Mahatma Gandhi is generally regarded as the fearless fighter who achieved India's independence from the overwhelming British colonial power in August 1947 using the means of non-violent resistance. Gandhi was undoubtedly an outstanding political figure, but the reduction of his work to the practice of nonviolent resistance withholds the truly revolutionary content of his thoughts and actions and thus robs him of explosiveness and topicality.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was one of the political and ideological leaders of India during the independence movement against British colonial rule. (& copy picture-alliance, picture alliance / CPA Media)

Gandhi, this skinny little man with a swaddle, wire glasses and walking stick, is generally regarded as the fearless fighter who, using the means of non-violent resistance, achieved India's independence from the overwhelming British colonial power in August 1947. He is in the highest esteem worldwide. Official India celebrates his birthday every year on October 2nd, a national holiday, and pays homage to him as "Father of the Nation". India practically elevated Gandhi to a saint - and in this way elegantly disposed of him.

Gandhi was undoubtedly an outstanding political figure, but the reduction of his work to the practice of heroic, non-violent resistance deliberately conceals the truly revolutionary content of his thoughts and actions and thus robs him of his explosiveness and topicality. Gandhi himself assessed his role as a politician as unimportant, for him the constant search for the truth in practical everyday life was the essential part of himself. It is important to present Gandhian thinking and acting in its complexity, its revolutionary content and its religious foundation.

Stations of his life

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, his real name, was born on October 2nd, 1869 in Porbandar in what is now the West Indian state of Gujarat. He came from a well-to-do family who was in the political service of the local prince. His mother was deeply religious and was a powerful influence on him from an early age. After completing his not very successful school days, he went to London to study law in 1888. His sometimes comical efforts to adapt his lifestyle to the usual conventions of the British upper class, however, failed miserably. After graduating, Gandhi immediately returned to India in July 1891, where he tried in vain to establish his own existence as a lawyer in Bombay: his shyness and nervousness did not allow him to become a rhetorical master.

The young Mahatma Gandhi worked as a lawyer in South Africa in 1905. (& copy picture alliance / Photo12 / Ann Ronan Picture Library)
Two years later, his brother gave him the job of handling a legal case in South Africa. In view of the massive discrimination his compatriots were exposed to there, he was supposed to spend 21 years there. He came into contact with the writings of Thoreau, Ruskin and Tolstoy and gradually developed the theory and practice of a way of life committed to truth and nonviolence. In 1904 he founded the Phoenix settlement near Durban, which six years later became part of the larger Tolstoy farm. In these communitarian communities, the members led a simple, self-sufficient life: everyone had to make a living through their own work. His actions against the government's discriminatory laws were successful and improved the situation of the Indian minority in South Africa. Above all, this includes the abolition of poll tax.

After his return to India in early 1915, Gandhi soon became the defining figure in the Indian independence movement; only through him did it become a real mass movement. Under dramatic circumstances, India gained independence on August 15, 1947, which sealed the division of the country into the states of Pakistan and India. Almost six months later, on January 30, 1948, Gandhi was shot by the Hindu fanatic Godse.

Search for God, nonviolence and self-control

Gandhi's thinking is deeply rooted in the Hindu tradition, but also has strong European influences, probably more than he was aware of himself. Christian and liberal ideas in particular have found their way into his thinking. Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin as well as the Sermon on the Mount, which "was right in my heart", should be mentioned by name. Whereas with Thoreau it was the individual's right to civil disobedience to the state, with Tolstoy the ideal of a nonviolent society based on universal love and with Ruskin the ideal of fraternal economic activity, in the Sermon on the Mount it was the call to love one's enemies and "to offer to the one who hits you on the cheek also to the other". However, Gandhi only adopted those elements that he considered useful. He saw nothing offensive in it, he did not claim to have produced anything originally new. All in all, a syncretic building of thought was created, which derives its originality from the idiosyncratic and undogmatic selection and interpretation of different thought traditions from East and West.

Truth (satya) is the eternal basic principle of all life. It is God as the only real being. "The word satya (truth) is derived from sat, i.e. to be. Nothing is in reality except truth. That is why sat or truth is probably the most important name of God. ... Devotion to this truth is the only justification of our existence." God creates and permeates all life, consequently the whole world represents a divine unity. Nature and man, matter and spirit are not separate, but form a unity. All life is divine life that people cannot dispose of according to their will.

Satyagraha as a holistic life practice. (& copy Clemens Jürgenmeyer)



This unity of life and the fallibility of man are inseparable from the pursuit of truth and nonviolence (ahimsa). Truth and non-violence are two sides of the same coin. Ahimsa does not mean passive non-violence but active charity that does not exclude the enemy and consciously takes on one's own suffering.

To be able to meet these high demands on the individual depends directly on the ability to comprehensively control body and mind (brahmacarya), which goes far beyond the common notion of chastity and includes complete lack of passion in thoughts, words and deeds.

The search for God, nonviolence and self-control are inseparable for Gandhi and form a holistic way of life, which he called satyagraha, i.e. clinging to the truth. In it religion and everyday life, thinking and acting, goal and means are not separated. The ultimate goal of human pursuit of truth is to find God and thereby achieve one's own salvation.

Gandhi saw clearly that the question of what is truth is difficult to answer. "The question is difficult, but I have solved it for myself by saying: It is what the voice inside says ... Everyone should therefore recognize their limitations before speaking of the 'inner voice'". Your own conscience, subject to constant, strict self-examination, thus becomes the decision-making body for true thought and action. However, individual consciences are not always the same. In everyday life, "mutual tolerance is the golden rule of conduct", the "beauty of compromise" is an essential part of satyagraha.

Religion and politics

Gandhi's thoughts and actions are not simply to be equated with non-violent resistance or civil disobedience in the sense of a political means of end. Satyagraha as a pure political strategy is powerless and ineffective. Gandhi had once rendered satyagraha with soulforce. He meant the power of (neighbor) love, a power that wants to win the opponent for itself by appealing to the humanity that dwells in him so that he can abandon his plans. The seeker of truth faces evil with courage, fearlessness and steadfastness and is ready to take on suffering, in the extreme case even death. His weapon is not coercion or violence, but the power of love, which is supposed to overcome hatred.

Likewise, the pursuit of truth is by no means to be understood as just a personal, unworldly search for God in a cave in the Himalayas. God, says Gandhi, cannot be found apart from others. Service to one's neighbor, i.e. non-violent action in the world, and the individual's search for God are identical. This also applies to the area of ​​politics. "My devotion to the truth drove me into the field of politics. Without the slightest hesitation I can say that whoever claims that religion has nothing to do with politics does not know what religion means."

Mahatma Gandhi at the spinning wheel (& copy picture-alliance / akg, picture alliance / akg-images | akg-images)
In political practice, Gandhi tried to implement the commandment of truthfulness with "legitimate and peaceful" means of graduated intensity. They ranged from petitions and campaigns to hunger strikes. Some of them were successful, others were not. His campaign against the salt monopoly and the salt tax of the colonial government became famous in the spring of 1930. This so-called salt march took him and his colleagues from his ashram near Ahmedabad across Gujarat to Dandi on the Arabian Sea. In a gesture full of symbolic power, Gandhi picked up a handful of salt and thereby deliberately violated existing laws in public. The government had him arrested, and with him many Indians who did the same. The prisons overflowed and put the colonial government under pressure. Although Gandhi's action was unsuccessful - the salt tax was not abolished - it did lead to a mobilization of the Indian peasantry, suffering from the burden of high property taxes To achieve independence of India.

The village as a place of true life

However, Gandhi did not see his actual field of activity so much in big politics, but in village social work, which focuses on serving fellow human beings. For this purpose, Gandhi coined the term sarvodaya, which means "the welfare of all". The well-being of all living beings is deliberately placed at the center of human activity and is in complete contrast to the utilitarian maxim of the greatest benefit for the greatest number. For Gandhi, human happiness and maximizing economic benefits are not identical. Selfless service to the poor is the only foundation on which a truly free India can thrive. He turned sharply against untouchability and gave the untouchable the name "Harijans" (children of God).

The self-sufficient village, which regulates its affairs autonomously, offers the only guarantee that even the last will have what they need for a simple life in the service of the search for truth. Everyone should make a living by their own work. Bread labor renounces the exploitation of others, it is a form of non-violent economic activity and is in harmony with svadeshi, ie "that spirit in us which limits us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings". It is supposed to prevent exploiting or hurting others in order to satisfy one's own needs. Therefore the village contrasts with the city as a place of an externally determined industrial system based on exploitation and the destruction of nature. It is detrimental to the search for truth. Accordingly, Gandhi took industrial society to court. He characterized the industrialization of the world, and especially India, as a curse and a threat to humanity. "Non-violence cannot be based on an industrial civilization, but it can be based on self-sufficient villages," says Gandhi, and that is why the spinning wheel is so important for a non-violent life. It was not only a symbol of political, but above all of personal freedom and self-determination.

For Gandhi, India's political freedom was the result of the personal freedom of the individual, which is tied into the constant pursuit of truth. "India's independence must start from scratch. So every village will be a republic or a panchayat (village assembly) with full powers. It follows that every village must be independent and able to deal with its own affairs, even itself to defend against the whole world. Ultimately, therefore, the individual is the unity ... In this structure of countless villages there will only be ever expanding circles that never rise. Life will not be like a pyramid ... but it will be an ocean of equal circles, the center of which is the individual. " Gandhi's notions of political order clearly have anarchist traits. His pronounced individualism places the individual's conscience above the law of the state. Therefore he rejects a "strong state": "The state represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but the state is a soulless machine. You can never dissuade it from violence because it is its own Existence owes. " He contrasts this state violence with his ideal of a non-violent, decentralized society that forms a voluntary association of individuals. Everyone follows the truth according to their conscience. Gandhi therefore rejects a democracy based on majority decisions, as it always pursues its goals at the expense of the minority. The conscience of the individual is the decision-making body for a moral policy; it alone gives the individual the right to resist the immoral laws of the state.

India's independence

Mahatma Gandhi (right) and Jawaharlal Nehru at a meeting of the All-India Congress Bombay, India on July 6, 1946. (& copy picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | MAX DESFOR)
The day of Indian independence on August 15, 1947 was not a day of joy for Gandhi. Significantly, he did not take part in the official celebrations, but persisted in the focal points of the flare-up violence between Hindus and Muslims. In August 1934 he had resigned from the Indian National Congress (congress party). Shortly before his violent death, he pleaded for its dissolution, since he had achieved his real goal, the political independence of the country. The members of the party should unite in a "Union of People's Servants" to help the millions of poor build a life of dignity. The economic, social and moral independence of India has yet to be achieved, which is far more difficult to achieve than the political one, also because it is not so spectacular.

Gandhi wrote his "Constructive Program" first in 1941, then in a revised form in 1945, in which he laid down his concrete ideas of village development work: respect and tolerance towards fellow human beings, abolition of untouchability, development of village craftsmanship, education, building of sanitation, women's equality, economic equality. Gandhi sees his Constructive Program as the true and non-violent way to achieve complete independence.

India's independence went hand in hand with the division of the country into the Indian Union and Muslim Pakistan. Around 1 million people died in serious unrest, and over 15 million became refugees. Gandhi found all of this a personal tragedy. Although he tried with all his might to stop hatred and violence in the centers of the worst outbreaks of violence, notably in Calcutta, he could not stop the course of events. 32 years of work, he says, "have come to an inglorious end". However, Gandhi related this failure solely to his personal inadequacies and not to the eternal principles of truth and nonviolence. Because the truth always lasts and can never be destroyed.

From this deep conviction Gandhi drew all his strength and his historical optimism. History is not pointless to Gandhi. It has one ultimate goal towards which all historical events are directed. Gandhi describes this final state as ramarajya, the rule of the god Rama: the complete internal and external independence of the individual and his fellow men, that is, "the realization of the kingdom of God within you and on this earth".

Gandhi himself became a victim of the violence. His assassination on January 30, 1948 and the history of independent India show that his homeland ignored all its teachings - even his companion Nehru saw the future of India in steelworks and not in simple village life.Industrialization, mass consumption and a modern, centrally oriented state are the generally recognized goals of development today. However, after seventy years of development planning, it can be doubted whether they can keep their promise of material prosperity for everyone in view of the social conditions in India.

What is left of Gandhi?

In a department store in Kiev there are busts of Gandhi and Spiderman on a shelf. (& copy Clemens Jürgenmeyer)
So what is left of Gandhi today? One might be inclined to put it all too lightly in the files of history. But in view of the global incompatibility of the Western development model, it could also prove that its message is more topical than some apologists of the economic order based on self-interest, permanent innovation and expansion would like. It is a permanent challenge to the existing conditions in this world. It shows that violence, power and self-interest are not the iron law of history, but charity, non-violence and the search for truth. When asked what he sees as the essence of his thoughts and actions, Gandhi replied: "My life is my message." The world does not need new models of thought in order to become better, but rather the everywhere practiced charity of every single person who strives for the truth. Everyone start seriously with themselves to conduct their own experiments with the truth, here and now, everywhere and without ceasing.