Remembering Mahatma Gandhi on Martyr’s Day: Gandhiji’s understanding of the man, nature and God triad

Gandhi was ahead of his time in championing a different paradigm of science and technology for building a non-violent world, free of exploitation, but also free of disharmony between man and nature

Remembering Mahatma Gandhi on Martyr’s Day: Gandhiji’s understanding of the man, nature and God triad
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Sudheendra Kulkarni

I jog my memory to recall a special event in my life in 1969, which marked Mahatma Gandhi’s birth centenary. I was in the seventh standard. In my hometown Athani, a small place in northern Karnataka where I had a part of my school and college education, the government had organised a taluka-level elocution competition for students on what Gandhi meant to them.

I told my aunt, who was helping me prepare for the event that I would speak on Gandhi as a scientist. She was utterly surprised. “He was a great man, but how can you call him a scientist?” she asked. With a twelve-year-old’s rudimentary understanding of a big concept like science, I replied in my mother tongue, Kannada: “Scientists search for truth. So did Gandhiji. Scientists conduct experiments. So did Gandhiji, as the title of his autobiography My Experiments With Truth tells us. Scientific experiments influence society. Gandhiji’s experiments with truth also influenced India and the world.”

I won the second prize.

My aunt’s question was one of the triggers for me to write, five years ago, a book Music of the Spinning Wheel–Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age, which explored his much-misunderstood thoughts on science and technology. In that book, I attempted to highlight that, far from being opposed to modern industrialisation, he was far ahead of his time in championing a different paradigm of science and technology for building a non-violent world of tomorrow, free of exploitation of man by man, but also free of disharmony between man and nature.

Why do many people still think that the Mahatma was anti-science and anti-modernity? Why does the Mahatma remain a deeply enigmatic figure in India and the world?

He is easy to admire, difficult to understand in his totality, and almost impossible to follow, even in parts. There is very little about his outward personality – his attire, his extremely frugal food habits, his observance of a ‘day of silence’ once a week, and his unconventional views on sex – that can conceivably endear him to the modern man living in the most consumerist and hedonistic era in human history.

Yet, Gandhi has become the most popular and venerated Indian around the globe. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, who in recent years is being projected by some people in India as a personality greater than Gandhi, comes nowhere close to him in recognition or respect globally. There is something about the inner truth of his life, the glow of which remains undiminished with the passage of time. We may call it Gandhi’s Truth, which not only sheds light on the failures and falsities, injustices and inadequacies, of the world we live in, but also shows the way forward.

Gandhi is easy to admire, difficult to understand in his totality, and almost impossible to follow, even in parts. There is very little about his outward personality – his attire, his extremely frugal food habits, his observance of a ‘day of silence’ once a week, and his unconventional views on sex – that can conceivably endear him to the modern man living in the most consumerist and hedonistic era in human history

What is curious about Gandhi’s Truth is that it is neither easy to grasp, nor easy to reject. His admirers appreciate some aspects of his life and message, but find it difficult to comprehend or agree with other aspects. Similarly, his critics may scoff at some of his actions and teachings, but usually, they too express varying degrees of appreciation for what he set out to achieve and, especially, for the sincerity and single-minded focus he brought to bear to his mission.

Thus, it is easy to find critics among his admirers, and admirers among his critics. The reasons for admiration are obvious. At a time when India has been witnessing rapid erosion in ethics in politics, economics and public life in general, Gandhi is admired for practising the moral principles that he preached. As India and much of the rest of the world continue to grapple with the challenge of religious disharmony, his lifelong mission of trying to create harmony across various social barriers continues to evoke widespread adoration for him.

Indeed, his mission culminated in his martyrdom, at the hands of a Hindu extremist, for the cause of amity between Hindus and Muslims, and also between India and Pakistan. This fact of history makes his message especially relevant, both for India and the world, considering that the cause for which he sacrificed his life is as salient today as it was in his own lifetime.

Admiration for him stems also from his uncompromising advocacy of nonviolence, which was the defining element of Gandhi’s Truth. It is not that most people who admire him for this reason truly believe that the ideal of a nonviolent world is ever realisable. Nevertheless, they see in him the source of their own hope in a just and peaceful tomorrow. It is a hope Man cannot live without. He nurtures that hope both at local and global levels.

For example, the United Nations (UN), which is the closest the international community has come to establishing something akin to a world government, may not have made much headway in de-militarising international relations and creating a new world order based on peace, justice and universal brotherhood. Yet, when it declared, in 2005, that Gandhi’s birthday on 2 October would be observed each year as the Day of Nonviolence, it acknowledged him as a modern-day prophet of peace.

It is easy to find critics among Gandhi’s admirers, and admirers among his critics. The reasons for admiration are obvious. At a time when India has been witnessing rapid erosion in ethics in politics, economics and public life in general, Gandhi is admired for practising the moral principles that he preached.

The one aspect of Gandhi’s Truth that is most enigmatic is his outlook—or perceived outlook—towards science and technology. We are currently in the most technologically advanced era in history. Science and technology have transformed the world in unimaginable ways. They are also the principal factors behind the unprecedented material prosperity that some sections of the global community have been enjoying and others are eagerly hoping to be a part of.

This has persuaded many people in India and the world to believe that Gandhi, with his insistence on khadi, village industries and maximum local self-sufficiency, sought to stop the onrush of development aided by modern science and technology. Therefore, on the yardstick of technology-driven progress, many of Gandhi’s admirers and critics alike consider him irrelevant to our times. But was Gandhi really opposed to industrialisation and to modern science and technology? Did he seek to take India back in time – to the ‘dark medieval age’, as some of his critics claim? Or was he a visionary who not only foretold moral degradation and the looming crisis in sustainable development that both India and the world are currently experiencing, but also showed an alternative path of development that is pro-people, protective of the environment and also promotive of human evolution to a higher level?

Was he utopian in his insistence that science, economics and ethics must go together, or was his insistence a warning that the world has ignored at its peril? Would he have shunned the Internet, arguably the greatest technological invention of mankind, or embraced it? What would he have said about nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence and other breath-taking promises of science and technology in the twenty-first century?

Ever since my interest in Gandhi developed from the superficial to the serious, the question that began to agitate me with the force of an intellectual storm was this: How can Gandhi be relevant to our times in terms of his spirited advocacy and scrupulous practice of nonviolence and universal brotherhood, and yet be irrelevant on a parameter – the impact of science and technology – that uniquely defines the modern world?

Gandhi used the moral symbolism of khadi and the charkha (spinning wheel) to convey his new practice-based philosophy

After all, Gandhi’s Truth cannot be considered holistic enough, or even true enough, if it really was disdainful of the truth represented by modern scientific knowledge and its myriad beneficial applications. Therefore, I felt it necessary to resolve this contradiction by delving deep into Gandhi’s ideas on science and technology. The lack of comprehension of his scientific approach is due to the fact that Gandhi, contrary to the current paradigm of science, took a holistic view of the relationship between the triad of Man, Nature and God – and hence between science, economics and ethics.

He used the moral symbolism of khadi and the charkha (spinning wheel) to convey his new practice-based philosophy. My study also led me to discover that the Internet – and all other digital-era technologies supported by it – have the potential to realise the kernel of what Gandhi had been envisioning to achieve through the spinning wheel: a new, nonviolent, inter-dependent, cooperative, sustainable and morally guided world order.

Many people may sneer at the idea of the “Internet as an Avatar of the Spinning Wheel”. But I was myself amazed at knowing how Gandhian ideals have been echoed by many pioneering thinkers and innovators in the world of digital technologies – Norbert Wiener, Alan Turing, Vannever Bush, JCR Licklider, Jon Postel, Doug Engelbart, Tim Berners-Lee, Richard Stallman, K Eric Drexler, Lawrence Lessig, Bill Joy, Jaron Lanier, Michio Kaku, and others. Another legendary and universally admired name from the digital world – Apple cofounder Steve Jobs – regarded Gandhi as one of his personal heroes.

I must emphasise here that potential does not mean a proven fact. Of course, the Internet and digital technologies, also the society in which they operate, have to undergo a radical change before they can fulfil the intent and ideals of the spinning wheel. And the most fundamental change that our age of technology needs is in the psychological space ─ in man’s inner world of thoughts, emotions and aspirations, which define man’s relationship with other human beings and also with Nature. After all, whether a particular technology is used for violent or nonviolent purposes is decided by the man using it, and not by the technology. Therefore, Gandhi was convinced that the future evolution of the human species would not be in the outer world, but in the inner world.

This is what Gandhi wrote in his journal Young India on 5 February 1925: “Whoever thought it possible before Edison to speak to people hundreds of miles away from us? Marconi went a step further and made wireless communication possible. We are daily witnessing the phenomenon of the impossible of yesterday becoming the possible of today. As in physical science, so in psychological.” (Emphasis added)

So, the best way to remember the Mahatma would be to inwardly reorient every aspect of our individual and collective lives to align them with the eternally valid principles of truth and nonviolence.

The writer is the author of Music of the Spinning Wheel – Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age, and was an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee


This article first appeared in National Herald on Sunday, September 30, 2018

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Published: 01 Oct 2018, 12:00 PM