Mahatma’s wisdom distilled for today’s world

Reading Gandhi in the Twenty-First Century

by Niranjan Ramakrishnan
Palgrave Pivot. Pages 142. $45

Reviewed by Roopinder Singh

Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi

MAHATMA GANDHI’S legacy transcends the mere political, which it is often unfortunately confined to. It spans the spectrum of human interaction. His life has continued to provide material for biographers who mine it and present it to an eager readership. As for his writings and philosophy, there is more than enough to keep scholars busy for generations.

Gandhi was a prolific writer. His collected works, published by the Government of India’s Publications Bureau, run into 100 volumes. Scholarship on Gandhi often verges on the hagiographic, which makes it difficult to relate his thoughts to the modern generation with its irreverent attitude. Ramakrishnan studied in India and the US, and lived in the US for most of his adult life. Through this book, he seeks to present Gandhi to an international audience.

He has chosen to concentrate on Hind Swaraj, a book that Gandhi wrote in 1909. Ramakrishnan has written a series of essays on Gandhi in which he looks at modern issues and the relevance of Gandhi’s thoughts to the world.

In What’s So Great About GandhiAnyway? He shows how non-violence is necessary since “a violent victory, even a just one, would prove only that violence had triumphed, not necessarily that justice had done so.”

Gandhi In The Time of Terrorism allows Ramakrishnan to list out various faces of terror, especially in the post-9/11 scenario. Gandhi, he says, stuck to the notion that from bad deeds (acts of violence) could come no good. He faced a severe test when Bhagat Singh was hanged for his anti-British activities. Gandhi was expected to use his moral stature to prevent the hanging, but did not. His popularity suffered, but he endured it. Ramakrishnan quotes a note in which Gandhi explains his stand: “These heroes had conquered the fear of death. Let us bow to them a thousand times for their heroism. But we should not imitate their act….Our dharma is to swallow our anger, abide by the discipline of non-violence and carry out our duty.”

In Privatization…Privation…Privacy, Ramakrishnan discusses Gandhi’s warnings about the worship of economic well-being divorced from other considerations and discusses the limitations of the “growth-above-all” mantra which has led to a terrifying concentration of economic wealth in the hands of a few. Globalisation…of What? is a persuasive critique of economic globalisation, which is contrasted with Gandhi’s notion of globalisation, in so far as he thought that “human beings everywhere were the same, in that they had a heart and a conscience.”

Reading Gandhi in the Twenty-First Century

Reading Gandhi in the Twenty-First Century

Gandhi’s notion of trusteeship provides the answer in The C(l)ash of Civilizations. Strife and bloodshed continue because of human greed which is the premise of the Western economic models. Gandhi, on the other hand, saw self-restraint as the core of the answer to the vicissitudes of humanity. His notion that “A man should consider himself not the owner of his property but as its trustee or custodian. He will use it for the service of society. He will accept only that much for himself as he has earned with his labour. If that happens, no one will be poor and no one rich.”

Utopian? Perhaps to a certain extent. But then Gandhi has more practical achievements, social and political to his credit than almost any other thinker. Leaders like Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama quote from his writings. By the way, Gandhi declared early in his life that he had not copyrighted his writing. He wrote for the world. The written manifestation of his intellect was for sharing, not to be seen as an intellectual property.

US Vice-President Joe Biden started his recent India trip with a visit to Mahatma Gandhi’s Samadhi. While writing in the visitors’ book, he called Gandhi “One man who changed the world.” Indeed, he did, and Ramakrishan has done a brilliant job of placing his writing in the contemporary context.

Reading Gandhi in the Twenty-First Century is a thin volume, and its blurb carries quotes from scholars like Rammohan Gandhi and Ramachandra Guha as well as notable US names. It provokes and prods the reader with its broad canvas, incisive comments and relevance. The book has been published in the US. An Indian edition, priced more affordably, would make the message of the Mahatma widely available to readers who live in the land of the Mahatma.

 This review by Roopinder Singh was published in The Tribune on August 4, 2013.

Please click here to read a review of Niranjan’s earlier book Bantaism: The Philosophy of Sardar Jokes.  Niranjan was also the subject of a recent popular middle titled Learning Punjabi in Delhi

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