Friday, September 04, 2015
About Gandhi and His Death
There are things that interest me, the stories of heroic and meaningful lives, the narratives of creative flowerings at certain points of time and in specific places, revolutionary ideas and why human beings, at certain points of time, degenerate into depravity and destroy their own achievements. These interests, as one could tell from my rather straight-jacket life as a business executive, lie outside my work, and only as a pastime. But, such interests are also the essence of my curiosity and creative pursuit, and define who I want to be.
There are times when I take these interests seriously and this is one such indulgent moment. My life is at a crossroad in many a sense, and a systematic enquiry is one way of uplifting myself from the compromises I have to make everyday to make a living and to be fully alive. Hence, the plan - to construct a series of essays on Gandhi - is more about my own life than about its subject.
However, the choice of the subject requires some justification. Gandhi is, in my mind, the epitome of human leadership, an imperfect man on a journey towards truth and perfection, a political philosopher of our time without equal and, at the same time, a man of action full of compromises and flaws. He, already a subject of many studies, is one of those fascinating individuals, whose story, in the end a failure, is both tragic and uplifting, both human and ethereal, both limiting and limitless.
However, there is another start point of my interest in Gandhi, and that lies outside his politics.
It is an Indian idea to treat ones whole life as a debt, to nature, to ones own forefathers, to all who nurtured and even to those who will come later and give meaning to ones own time-limited existence, a debt that gets paid only through ones death and return to the nature. One could say that it is a pessimistic view of existence, which brings the end of life to the fore and steal from us the agency to make life better. Indeed, this may not have any apparent common ground with the currently fashionable, mostly American, striving for a better future, a view informed by the poverty of the present and the meaninglessness of the past, and therefore, as Max Weber would say, it makes for an inactive and irrational world-view. One could, however, contend that this is only a limited understanding of the Indian life-ethic, and the context is subverted by an essential Western obsession, equating better life with more material possessions, even defining happiness with the acquisition of more.
The alternate world-view, where life's meaning is not defined by material possession and happiness is defined by harmony with nature and with others, is at the root of Indian life-ethic, which is neither inactive nor irrational. Inactive it is not, as one would strive to pay one's debt as a responsible man, and it is not irrational because this, contrary to Western beliefs, puts human responsibility at the core, making us more, rather than less, responsible. This conception, rather than putting man at the Center of the universe and constructing an ethics of human exceptionalism, trests man as a social and natural being, and celebrates the unique strength that made humans survive despite all odds and makes it the preeminent species on Earth. Indeed, it replaces the promise of the future with a reverence for the past, and accords greater priority to the known rather than the vast unknown, and therefore, may be accused with some justification, of stealing the agency that enlightenment and scientific revolution afford us. And, precisely this, at least this above all, calls for a re-imagination and a reconciliation with the reality of changing futures even before it arrives. However, the ever-changing future makes the present more, not less, important, impregnating the latter with more possibility than ever before and making us more responsible to those who will come after.
However, I believe this new imagination needs to go beyond the rational-scientific, individualistic conceptions of Weberian world-view. The one or the other, dialectical nature of the ideas and all development, which put the past and the future head to head, and make the present a momentary interlude, can not fully meet the demands of what one should be and how one should be, when the future becomes transient and any morality based on future a suspect. I see Gandhi's life and work as a manifestation of a different ethic of living, and interested particularly in his death, an event which turns the indignity of falling to a bullet into a great moment of clearing ones debt, fully and unequivocally. The allure of Christian imagery is all too tempting in the context, the fallen man redeeming the sins of partition and the violence, a blood-stained homage to those who will come later, us, and the ultimate triumph of the message, of non-violence and peace, that needed to be tested to the very end by the trial of an assassins gun. But, my approach is to steer clear of the idea of a Christian death and the ideal of sacrifice for the future, beautiful as it may be, and treat this end as very Indian, consistent with the setting of a prayer meeting and the last call of invoking a Hindu god, not for forgiveness - whether or not that was intended, we would never know - but of surrender, to the nature and God.
Also, my intent is not to explore Gandhi as some kind of role model to be followed, but an imperfect man searching for an ethic of living through an inflection point in history. My studies are not biographical, but intellectual, and less about Gandhi as the person, though it would seep into everything, but as the idea. As I mentioned, the point of my enquiry is the questions of my own life - is it possible to have a different life-ethic just as we arrive at another, no less pivotal, inflection point in history - and Gandhi, and his quest, presents a very compelling model. Answering some of the questions the way he did unlock a whole new possible life, or, should I say, a vast array of possible lives, outside the existence as a consuming man, which we all are.
Also, it must be said here, Gandhi was not an idealist, but a man of action, someone who got his hand dirty and operated very much within the messy realities of practise. Hence, there is nothing clean and sanitised about Gandhi, no perfect persona only to be known through the words. Rather, he as an imperfect man was always in full public view, going through the chores of life, appearing, from time to time, idiosyncratic, manipulative, attached to his favourites and unkind to some opponents, a fascinating stuff for biographers of all hues. While the temptation to extract the pure Gandhi of ideas is always too great, it is essential to remember that there is no such thing, and that is precisely the point of my endeavour. Gandhi as an idea is the summation of all the lofty aspirations in the muck of practise, the incessant search for truth through the imperfections of daily life, the quest for transcendence through vanities and failures - to climax in one perfect moment, of his death.
So, I shall perhaps start at his death, that essential moment of repayment and redemption, that brought the political and the spiritual (of which he was always accused of) together in perfect harmony. It was an end and the beginning - end of a life that bestowed an identity to a whole nation. It was a triumph, a heroic end that summarise the courage that informed the whole idea of non-violence, and a failure, as the message got lost in the iconography of the emergent state. This poetic but macabre end that set off the debates that still continues, in both poetic and macabre forms, is perhaps a fitting moment to trace the beginning of the Indian Republic, rather than the more officious moments of gaining independence or adopting the constitution, which we celebrate after the Western-style nations. This death was the beginning, and I seek to start my journey to study Gandhi at this point.
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How To Live
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Roosevelt
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T S Eliot
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