The Spirit of India: And the Abiding Influence of Gandhi

by NAYANTARA SAHGAL

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WHEN I was a child I often asked my parents, “When will India be free?” It was a question which worried me a great deal, for until my country was free, my parents, who were participants in Mahatma Gandhi’s passive resistance movement against the British Government, would have to keep going to jail as frequently as Gandhi called upon them to do so. I was always given the cheerful and noncommittal reply that India would be free when those who fought for her freedom were worthy of it. My parents did not appear to be unduly concerned with the fruits of the struggle to which they had dedicated their lives.

As I grew up, the belief came more and more naturally to me that while the independence of India was the ultimate goal, it was infinitely more important in the immediate present that the men and women who strove for it should conduct themselves honorably, courteously, and with dignity. Unless the struggle itself was an honorable one, free from the poison of bitterness and hatred toward the opponent, independence, when it came, would be a mockery. Gandhi called his movement “satyagraha,” the fight for truth. Its very name implied its moral character, and a high moral caliber was expected of those who chose to participate in it. They may often have fallen short of the standard expected of them, but before them there always lay Gandhi’s own unwavering example.

Gandhi believed that violence, falsehood, and fear were enemies of the truth. Satyagraha required different weapons, those of nonviolence, calm thinking, and quiet courage. It required another essential weapon, a word which Gandhi used unashamedly. Jesus Christ had used it freely long before him, but not many men had used it since Christ. It was love. Love when applied to politics had a strangely incongruous sound, but “Love thine enemy ” was as vital a command of Gandhi’s as it had been of Christ’s.

I watched my parents and thousands of others like them voluntarily risk arrest and endure long prison sentences over and over again in the cause of Gandhi’s peaceful revolution. Theirs was the spirit of willing self-sacrifice and self-imposed discipline which pervaded the India of my childhood. It became a part of my life and my outlook since my family was so closely associated with Gandhi, but it also influenced the lives of many million other Indians. It is necessary to understand that spirit to understand India, for it is not just a recent or a passing phase in her make-up. It is the connecting thread through all her history, and the foundation of all her religions and philosophies. It is the key to Indian character, just as one might say that a respect for parliamentary institutions is the key to British character, and the belief in individuality the key to American. It is important to remember that spirit in order, also, to understand the India which joined the ranks of the independent nations in August, 1947, to appreciate her outlook since that time, and to realize why she repeats with a passionate, almost monotonous insistence that she stands for a peaceful and ethical approach to the world’s problems.

The conception of achievement through renunciation is an ancient one, and not confined to Indian thought, but it was in India and through Gandhi that its efficacy in politics was demonstrated. It was Gandhi who showed that in an age of atom bombs, and wars to end wars, an age when violence was on the march on a scale unprecedented in human history, nonviolence could still solve a country’s problems. More than this, he showed that it was the only ethical way of solving them, for no other approach could yield worthwhile results. How else but through nonviolence could such a firm bond of co-operation have sprung into existence between imperial Britain and an India newly emerged from two hundred years of slavery? Independent India seems almost to have forgotten that Britain ever ruled her. She chose to retain a British Governor-General during her first year of freedom, and to remain within the British Commonwealth of Nations. This would never have been possible if her freedom had been founded on violent warfare.

In an era of democracy and growing individualism Gandhi gave a new meaning to individualism. To him politics was a meaningless word. It was the individuals in politics who mattered. Independence was similarly meaningless. It was those who sought it who counted. India was for him every individual Indian, and therefore the country was no better and no worse than its citizens. Guided by him, politics in India became inseparable from ethics, and for him, the destiny of the nation itself came to depend upon the conduct of each person in it. One cannot find a parallel to this conception in the sphere of politics, because politics the world over tends to be interpreted in Machiavellian terms, and has come to be synonymous with expediency and diplomatic strategy. But one can, I think, find parallels in all great art, in every work of genius which interprets the larger realities in terms of the simple, everyday, seemingly trivial things. Gandhi understood politics in the same way that Rembrandt understood painting, and Tolstoy the art of writing. For him the individual was a microcosm of the nation, and all the nation’s strength and weakness, hope and despair were concentrated in him, just as every compassionately conceived portrait of Rembrandt and character of Tolstoy is a microcosm of all humanity, reflecting within itself a wealth of human emotion and experience.

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IF A country’s past gives any indication of her future tendencies, then India’s past can only indicate that her particular contribution to the world will lie in her meditative approach. It is a talent handed down to her through the centuries, for many of her outstanding heroes have been men of peace. Not every celebrated Indian has been a philosopher, any more than every great German has been a composer, or every great Italian an artist. But Indians have always admired the quality of meditation and the ability to hold oneself aloof from material bonds, and have considered great those who possessed these faculties.

Some of India’s most illustrious sons were men who, though born to great power and authority, remained unimpressed by it, and turned to philosophical matters. The Ramayana, an epic of ancient India, has for its hero Rama, the young prince who at his mother’s bidding unhesitatingly gave up the throne to which he was rightful heir in favor of his younger brother, and spent fourteen years of difficult exile in the jungle. The Mahabharata, another ancient epic, presents the remarkable scene on the eve of a great battle, when the warrior Arjuna, troubled by the thought of the coming destruction, engages in a metaphysical discussion with Krishna on the purpose of war and the meaning of life. The Bhagavad Gita, as this famous dialogue is entitled, forms the basis of a great deal of Indian thought. Siddhartha, a prince of the fifth century B.C., like Rama, gave up his throne to lead a life of renunciation in quest of a solution to human suffering, and in so doing to become the Buddha. Asoka, a military-minded monarch, became suddenly aware of the horror and cruelty of war and remorseful of his own share in its ugliness. At the peak of his glory as a conqueror, he turned away from bloodshed, and becoming a Buddhist, pledged himself to the cause of peace. In the sixteenth century the emperor Akbar ignored the affairs of his empire to build a city, Fatehpur Sikri, where men of all religions could meet and discuss their faiths, so that he might listen and benefit by their wisdom. Gandhi was the most recent of the great, and like his predecessors he renounced all worldly possessions to live like the lowliest Indian in his search for the right path to independence.

This was the broad general outlook which colored India’s view of the world on the achievement of her independence. She could be sure of her values because she had tested them over and over again at various stages of her development. Time and trial had matured them. But seen from another angle, I think her outlook on the world was still young and unformed. Up to 1947 she had actually had no “world outlook” at all. The history of her political relations with other countries was practically nonexistent. Through all the centuries of her life, she had usually lived at peace with her neighbors, and her only relationship with them had been one involving an exchange of culture through pilgrims and peaceful delegations. It is true that invaders had come to India and effected conquests, but they had been absorbed by her and had become Indians.

In modern times India’s policies toward other countries had been dictated by Britain, so they were not her own. For all practical purposes India came face to face with the community of nations for the first time in 1947. The Indian outlook was, therefore, a curious blend of old and young: old because of the oft-tried values which were to direct her, and young because she was unhampered by any background of conflict or any inherited legacy of behavior. Hers was the unique and happy position of launching into international affairs with a blank slate, of regarding the whole world with friendship, and announcing that her own moral sense and no other consideration would be her future guide in matters of policy.

I do not know how such an announcement affects a world grown old in sophistication and political experience. Does it sound pretentious or appallingly naïve? If so, it can only mean that the world, though wise and aged, has forgotten the art of simple, clear thinking. Accustomed to cleverness, it is baffled by plain speaking. To an Indian, brought up as I have been in the shadow of India’s national movement, yet educated in British and American schools — with a view, so to speak, of both worlds — it sounds like the most natural and logical position. As long as moral and ethical values are of significance in the life of an individual, they must surely be of even greater significance in the life of a nation, for so much more is at stake. It is as simple as that. There is no sphere of man’s activity where ethics should not be his guide.

I do not believe that this declaration of India’s is backed by any portentous sense of mission. In a world of conflicting ideologies and proselytizing faiths she is content to pursue her path of tolerance. Her soil has given sanctuary to many religions and ideologies, and a habit of such long standing is not easily broken. Rather, I feel that she, like every country, has her own distinct contribution to make to the family of nations. In her case that contribution is the contemplative spirit which is her heritage. It can be found in her refusal to be hustled into making decisions, and her faith in the efficacy and rightness of peaceful methods to achieve ends. Blending with this spirit and giving it vigor and clarity in the modern context is her unbiased view of a world with which she has hitherto had little direct contact. Then in addition, placed as she is on the map, she is equipped geographically, if for no other reason, to serve as a bridge between East and West. And bridges of any sort are indispensable links in these times when peace depends on mutual understanding.

Understanding is often difficult, even among friends, when they hail from vastly different backgrounds, and have been bred in different environments. This is true of Asia and the West. Apart from the fundamental difference in their approach to living — that is, the contemplative as opposed to the practical — even their everyday problems have little in common. Asia, recently awakened to a highly industrialized world climate, finds herself far behind her Western neighbors in many important respects. Her immediate and urgent problems are of survival. She is concerned with food, housing, health, and education for her people. Any other goal she may entertain is incidental. She has come of age, but it is a solemn coming of age, heavy with the burden of pressing responsibilities. And that is not all. While coping with these trials, she must also pull her weight along with the politically mature and highly industrialized nations, and adjust herself to the international scene.

The Western world, on the other hand, has long since learned to cope with the basic problems of survival, and has turned its attention to other matters. Accustomed to a state of affairs when power was neatly apportioned among the countries of its hemisphere, and effectively controlled by them, it must now witness the stirring of a sleeping giant, and the resulting disturbance in that carefully contrived, centuries-old balance of power. It is natural for the West to be disquieted by the sudden change. It is inevitable that it should demand where the countries of Asia stand in the scheme of things, and what shape their policies will take. But it is just as natural for Asia to be unable to give a cut-and-dried reply—partly because she is, first and foremost, engaged in improving the lot of her own people, and partly because, as in the case of India, she can guarantee only her own ethical conduct and nothing else. Can one control the actions of other countries, or foretell what will be one’s exact position in the face of some unknown contingency surrounded by a series of unpredictable circumstances? At best one can only give the assurance that whatever may happen, one’s own attitude will always be based upon moral dictates, and each issue judged only by this yardstick.

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WHEN a European or an American friend asks me, “Where does your country stand?” I can only reply, “Just where your country stood at the dawn of her nationhood, with perhaps many similar problems.” I would say to America, for example, “In 1776 you became a sovereign, independent nation. Yet it was 1917, and three-quarters of a war involving the entire world was over, before you allowed yourself to be drawn into it. Up to that time you were occupied in consolidating your frontiers and your independence. Are you not better equipped than any country to understand India’s position?

India, with her reverence for her own traditions and culture, has at the same time a tremendous admiration for the scientific acumen of the Western nations. She sends her young people abroad to study medicine, science, and technology. She employs foreign experts and seeks foreign advice for her irrigation and other large-scale projects. She invites foreign investment and welcomes foreign aid. The self-sufficient attitude is not hers. She is an active member of the United Nations, and her helping hand has been outstretched wherever it could be of service. Her “good neighbor” policy extends around the globe, for in this atomic age every country is a neighbor.

But the spirit of satyagraha which accomplished a unique revolution is a justly proud spirit. It seeks friendship rather than favor, it wishes to learn but not to imitate; it will take advice but not dictation. It will continue to work out its salvation in its own serene way, and by its example, perhaps, accomplish an even greater revolution - that of making nonviolence as real and workable a creed on the international plane as it has proved in India’s national life. Only if this comes to pass, will the world have taken its first step toward making peace an abiding reality.