Updated: October 2, 2020 8:21:44 pm
Not until we have reduced ourselves to nothingness can we conquer the evil in us…. And when a man thus loses himself, he immediately finds himself in the service of all that lives. — M K Gandhi, Young India, December 12, 1928
Revered as the Mahatma (the great soul), Mahatma Gandhi has been held in veneration across time and space and appreciated both as “an image and a metaphor”. While India celebrates his birthday as a national holiday, in 2007, the United Nations General Assembly decreed that this day should be observed as the International Day of Nonviolence. As the Father of the Nation, Gandhi cuts across India’s social, political and economic spectrum. Likewise, outside India, he has been hailed as an “innovative ideologist” with an ever-lasting influence on social economic and political practices across geographic regions. A statue of Gandhi — the only statue of a person who never held any political office — now adorns the Parliament Square in London, just next to the statue of Winston Churchill, who had once described him as an “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir”.
Seventy-two years after his assassination, Gandhi still lives on — both ideationally as well as in practices with many of his followers across the globe using and adapting to his ideas and practices in resisting myriad forms of injustices. His life practices and ideas are now being used to underline a powerful exposition of a humanitarian and cosmopolitan world view.
Gandhi’s presence shouldn’t, however, be limited to statues, currency notes, or as names of streets. In an increasingly connected world, compliance with cosmopolitan values is a must for ensuring that connectedness is just and robust. Highlighting and reinforcing the cosmopolitan strains within the practices and principles of Gandhi and the ways in which they connect with cosmopolitan principles could be an effective way for generating support for domestic policy that is consistent with cosmopolitan values and duties. A meaningful appreciation and use of Gandhi’s ideas and teachings demands that he be cast as one of the most erudite and passionate ambassadors of cosmopolitan values. This, in turn, could help reinforce ways in which policy prescriptions to resolve globally-vexed challenges and issues can be made effective — by motivating both leaders and peoples across boundaries to make significant sacrifices.
While it is true that Gandhi did not set out or formulate any particular form of cosmopolitan theory, a coherent rooted cosmopolitanism is embedded in his moral and political principles and practices and can be best understood by drawing the linkages between his conception of Swaraj, Satya and Ahimsa.
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Swaraj, for Gandhi, was about understanding and realisation of one’s true self by a sustained adherence to the morally right path involving serious introspection and evaluation of conduct. A Swaraji, in that sense, is a karmayogi. Gandhi argued, “Swaraj [is] when we learn to rule ourselves. It is therefore, in the palm of our hands”. Exercising self-control and restraints on one hand enables a person to perform his/her duties in morally righteous, fair and unprejudiced ways, and on the other, establishes the attainment of moral autonomy of the self. Gandhi’s emphasis on the purity of means, actually implies that the karmayogi (duty bearer) is well aware of his/her responsibilities not just towards fellow beings but also remains guarded in terms of the consequences his/her action would have on nature and other beings. This feeling of companionship is the foundation on which Gandhian ethics stands and could provide the required motivational impetus to cosmopolitan principles. It dwells not just on restraints but focuses on the responsibility of bridging the moral distance between the “self” and the “other” — between a compatriot and a foreigner. An emphatic sense of global human community as such is evident in Gandhi’s thinking.
Gandhi believed that Truth is multifaceted, hence relative. Comprehending it as such required an understanding and realisation of one’s own self. This was a continuous process and required shedding of one’s ego, making a person not only genuinely aware of his/her own situation but also to a consequent attachment identification and solidarity with the “other” leading to a moral reciprocity of sorts in which harming others could be recognised as harming oneself. Gandhi’s understanding of Satya thus can plausibly account for ways in which individuals can be engaged in the processes of internal self-transformation, and for the development of capabilities and virtues for empathising and standing with the distant other.
Similarly, the adherence to nonviolence helps one to get rid of the false and socially constituted ego, replacing it with feelings of love and concern and allowing generous engagement with the “other”. Gandhi’s emphasis on nonviolence as a means actually conveys his convictions regarding the essential equality, unity and interdependence of the biotic community. Writing in Young India, Gandhi was unequivocal in arguing on the essential unity of man, and for that matter, of all lives. He wrote, “I believe that, if one man gains spiritually, the whole world gains with him, and if one man falls, the whole world falls to that extent”. In other words, the idea of nonviolence is based on the “universal ethic of equality of all people and the right of all living beings to live in peace”. Second, in establishing the utility of self-suffering as a principal mechanism of individual’s transformation, (of both the sufferer and the perpetrator), Gandhi’s thought on nonviolence opens up the possibility of social transformation both at national and global levels making him a votary of cosmopolitan ideals.
Gandhi’s emphasis on the moral unity of all persons, the moral essence they share and the moral goods they deserve, is clearly enumerated in an article he wrote for Young India in 1929. He wrote, “my mission is not merely brotherhood of Indian humanity. [it] is not merely freedom of India. [T]hrough realisation of freedom of India I hope to realise and carry on the mission of the brotherhood of man. My patriotism is not an exclusive thing. It is all-embracing and I should reject that patriotism which sought to mount upon the distress or the exploitation of other nationalities.”
In support of the claim that Gandhi indeed had a cosmopolitan vision, it is worth quoting from a lecture delivered by his grandson Gopal Krishna Gandhi at Cambridge in 2010: “In 1931, during his last visit to London, Gandhi was asked by journalist — How far would you cut India off from the British Empire? He was quick and emphatic in his reply — from the Empire entirely, from the British nation, not at all. India should love to be an equal partner with Britain sharing her joys and sorrows. To what extent, he was asked, would India be prepared to share the sorrows of England? His answer was swift, to the fullest extent”. Surprising as it may have appeared to journalists then, but analysed in the backdrop of his moral and ethical ideas, this only shows Gandhi’s concern for the other, including those across national boundaries.
The author teaches Political Science at Hindu College, University of Delhi. Views expressed are personal
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