David Devadas, 2 October 2017.
Seventy years on, it seems hardly credible that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was so beloved, indeed venerated, across India that almost no political speech could neglect a reference to him even until the 1977 elections.
There are many 'national' leaders in the world, who are celebrated in their countries for having led their people to independence. But Gandhi's power over the hearts and minds of countless millions went beyond the fact that he led India's freedom movement.
In fact, the true measure of his power is that he was able to suspend the movement, despite great public enthusiasm for it, after the violence in which policemen were killed at Chauri Chaura.
Gandhi represented an ethic, a way of life, a set of values. That is what made people flock to him. And it is largely for those values that he is so reviled among so many today — those who celebrate aggression and worship authority.
Identifying with the marginal
Gandhi's name was already iconic among well-informed Indians while he was still in South Africa, but he became an unparalleled mass leader during the Champaran agitation, three years after he returned.
The key to his magnetism was his decision to identify with the poorest, the most exploited and marginal, in the most remote parts of the vast country. The clothes he chose-plain dhoti, rough chappals, and walking staff-made that identification ring true.
The flip side of that was that he did not bother in the slightest about grooming. He wore his broken front teeth, weathered skin, child-like smile, and spindly frame without a trace of self-consciousness. Nothing was put on. There was no persona beyond the person.
That was an aspect of the other characteristic that gave him such power over hearts and minds-his adherence to truth. He introspected publicly, and laid his life and his foibles bare before the world.
This fearlessness was manifest in other ways too-his insistent non-violence, acceptance of abuse and malice, and calmness in the face of life-threatening situations. And, he had overcome greed. He craved no worldly pleasures or positions of authority.
Inclusion, and resistance to hate and contempt, were key markers of Gandhi's life and message. To be sure, this inclusiveness developed gradually as Gandhi matured and responded to ideas. But, in his later years, he staked his life for inclusion across divisions of faith and caste.
He lived with scavenging communities during those later years, and particularly insisted that his followers clean their surroundings and their toilets.
Another facet of this asceticism was his care for nature, his nurture of all things living and non-living. He urged people to use only what was locally available, to conserve, to clean, and to labour.
One could well ask how the foremost ascetic conservationist of the twentieth century got reduced to a bank note-for that is probably the best light in which many young people know him.
Gandhi's asceticism did not demand that his followers punish themselves. Rather, compassion, inclusion, and forgiveness went hand in hand with his asceticism, renunciation, and conservation. Boiled down, all these traits have been described as spirituality.
Perhaps the key to understanding Gandhi's hold over hearts and minds is this ephemeral word, spirituality, to the extent that it expresses asceticism, renunciation, conservation, inclusion, non-violence, equanimity.
It was not the first time this sort of spirituality had won over the peoples of this vast and complex land. At least twice before in history, a similar sort of ascetic-inclusive-compassionate spirituality had sent ripples of admiration and inspiration across large parts of the subcontinent.
One period of this sort of spirituality was the age of the 'nastika' leaders, including Gautam Buddha and Mahavira. Another period was the age of Kabir, Nanak, and a host of other poet-teacher-seers who identified with the most oppressed, teaching frugality and inclusion.
Each such age of spiritual revitalisation led to social entropy and inclusion, and to trade and travel. Political consolidation and strength followed each time. Perhaps Gandhi's spirituality touched a chord among a people, echoing age-old memories to spark recognition of the sources of collective inspiration and united purpose — the sort that could revitalise men and women across this vast land with simple but robust messages embedded literally in the salt of the earth.
David Devadas is an Indian author, journalist, commentator and documentary film-maker. He is the author of In Search of a Future: The story of Kashmir, a book on the Kashmir dispute.
http://www.firstpost.com/india/gandhi-jayanti-mahatma-gandhis-power-stemmed-from-spirituality-and-inclusion-that-have-revitalised-india-through-history-4102069.html, 8 October 2017.