There is no shortage of sanctimony and piety in solemn ceremonies across the world this week, paying tribute to M.K. Gandhi, one of the 20th century’s foremost apostles of the culture of love, born 150 years ago on 2 October 1869.
In his native India, they have put his image on currency notes and coins, revered him as “the father of the nation,” and raised him to the pantheon without necessarily understanding – let alone following – what he taught.
Yet in our turbulent times, when China shows us the best face of authoritarian rule while the prevalent politics of Britain and the United States display the worst face of democracy, we might well benefit from the ideas and principles Gandhi forged into his moral weapons:
- satyagraha (the pursuit of imbuing truth with moral force to improve
one’s own soul and bring change in the larger world),
- sarvodaya (serving the well-being of all) and
- ahimsa (the absence of violence).
Gandhi was murdered in January 1948, and it is astonishing to think that his entire life’s work unfolded against a backdrop where the mighty trampled the weak with impunity.
This was long before the rise of human rights as a secular religion, with its own institutions and high priests and rituals. Even so, Gandhi’s work deeply informed the evolution of our societal thinking: it became a foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the newly-formed United Nations on the 10th of December 1948, and all that flowed therefrom.
Gandhi defined the seven public sins he believed must be overcome; to move the arc of civilisation towards justice. He named these in 1925:
- Wealth without Work
- Pleasure without Conscience
- Knowledge without Character
- Commerce without Morality
- Science without Humanity
- Worship without Sacrifice
- Politics without Principle
Each of us can look within our community, our polity, our nation, and our state to find examples of these sins at work. Entire cadres of leadership — in the public, private and even philanthropic spheres — who ardently embrace these sins as markers on the path to “success”, a necessary means to secure their own ambitions.
Gandhi’s diagnosis came at the height of the colonial era, when much of Europe and North America was prospering in the years that followed the
First World War.
It came only seven years after the Russian Revolution. It came only four years after the Shanghai meeting that established the Communist Party of China, when Mao Zedong was still an idealistic revolutionary in his twenties.
It came four years before the Great Depression, when the fruits of “commerce without morality” plunged the world economy into the abyss.
The “if only” of hindsight is all too tempting when one looks at the two decades that followed Gandhi’s assessment of what ails the world.
Consider the barbaric folly of the Georgian tyrant Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili (who took the nom de guerre Stalin); and the catastrophe he brought to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: twenty million citizens dead in the Second World War, millions more perishing in his famines and purges and labour-camp exile to the frozen barren lands of Siberia.
Consider the arc of the brooding Austrian painter Adolf Hitler, whose ideology of National Socialism and unleashed the industrial slaughter of 11 million humans in concentration camps, including the calculated and relentless genocide (by the historian Martin Gilbert’s reckoning) of at least 5,758,720 Jewish people.
It is all too easy now to look back at history and understand how these public sins unleashed a paroxysm of violence that engulfed the world.
But it is not just a question of history. As they did in Gandhi’s time, these public sins continue to afflict
humankind and the species with whom we share this biosphere.
For all that, Gandhi’s lessons offer a path forward for those of us who feel overwhelmed by the politics of division that threaten to consume the very lifeblood of our democracies.
Gandhi offered a solution that is brilliant in its simplicity. In Gandhi’s view, the glue of social cohesion is to be selfless.
Rather than the pursuit of individual liberty, he believed in the fulfilment of individual obligations. Our obligations to our family, our friends. The responsibility to care for one another, to believe in one another, to build the bonds of love and trust and fellowship and companionship.
Gandhi had no illusions about the chicanery of politics, about the societal destruction wrought by greed and inequality.
Giving of yourself, in the service of those in your family and your community, took precedence over the exclusive pursuit of your personal happiness.
This in itself is the polar opposite of transactional relationships.
Gandhi believed this willingness to serve and to sacrifice makes you fearless.
Poverty, in Gandhi’s view, was the worst and most pervasive form of violence. Thus he evoked a concept he called sarvodaya — a Sanskrit word roughly translating as the welfare of all. It can be more clearly expressed in English as a philosophy that nurtures the common good and enhances the common wealth.
Thus, the twin concepts of satyagraha and sarvodaya become the radiant principles of Gandhi’s goal of societal transformation.
In this time of immensely bitter political tribalism, with the aggrieved politics of fear sweeping like a plague through the world’s leading democracies, we can find a way forward by walking in Gandhi’s path.
We will know we are on that path when we demand nothing more or less of each other than honesty, integrity, transparency, accountability and wisdom.
Once that is reflected by us and within us, nearly everything else is detail. For this is how we take the honest
measure of our worth, and showcase the inherent value of these values. And in doing so, build community, to overcome the political stampeded towards the corrosive politics of tribalism.
Canadian writer Satya Brata Das’s new book, Us, explores a path from the politics of division to the dominion of love