Sir Mark Tully had a very distinguished career as BBC Correspondent for South Asia for 25 years. He has a vast knowledge of and respect for Indian culture and has written a number of books on the subject. This is a summary of the Lecture delivered on 1 September 2005 in City Hall, London.
Was the Mahatma too Great a Soul? Pulling Gandhi off his Pedestal
It has been said that it is dangerous to be too good. To illustrate this by two stories: I once heard a sermon on the Bible story about selling everything and giving it to the poor, and this was being interpreted literally I was left with the feeling that this teaching was impossible and so irrelevant; the other is a cartoon of two Indian Congressmen leaving a cinema after seeing the film ‘Gandhi’ and one asks: “Did such a man ever exist?” In other words there is a danger when great people get put on pedestals that their lives and teaching seem so far from the reality of us ordinary people and our lives that we dismiss them as impractical.
If Gandhi is so impressive, for example in his austerity, one may say to oneself: “This is wonderful but I can’t be like that”. One effect of this is that Gandhi is not greatly followed in India today. Tagore thought that the West would support Gandhian ideas before the East because the East had not gone through a materialist phase and become disillusioned, but in the West also Gandhi is put on a pedestal. And the danger is that
he will lack influence because he is seen as too removed from the real world. In fact he always insisted that he was not a saint and he was sometimes justifiably criticised in his lifetime and has been since.
Even now he is questioned by some about his rejection of all sexual relationships, and also his sometimes harsh treatment of his family. Moreover, nonviolence and trusteeship of wealth are both often seen as unrealistic. If we put Gandhi on a pedestal it makes it difficult for us to question him when we should. Gandhi once said
“I do not believe industrialisation is needed in any country”,
but it could be argued that India was under-industrialised at independence. While aspects of industrialisation are to be criticised, complete rejection is unwise. Also the growth of cities is attacked by Gandhi, but not everything about cities is bad; nor in contrast are villages ideal: for example in India today the panchayat system being promoted is breeding corruption at the village level showing that villages are not ideal republics. Taking some of Gandhi’s sayings literally would mean rejecting sex, taking a luddite economic position, and being absolutely nonviolent.
But we should remember the humanity and humour of Gandhi and see him as belonging to the Indian tradition of dialogue, argument, discussion, as a means to the search for truth, which involves the courage to compromise. He saw himself as a pilgrim, journeying on the path of truth. He said:
“Insistence on truth has taught me to appreciate the beauty of compromise”.
Politics and the media need to learn from this today.
If we understand Gandhi’s meaning but do not take the message too literally we will find he is still highly relevant today. I would like to look at three fields in which that is true. They are nonviolence, the economy and religion.
War is no answer to anything as we can see from its use by the mightiest power of our time in Vietnam, and the first and second Iraq wars. The military might of the USA was unable to resolve the issues in these places to its satisfaction. Declaring a war on terrorism does not eliminate terrorism. It requires some understanding of the terrorists’ position, listening to them, without however supporting their violence. Essential also
is to look at ourselves to find where we have gone wrong and contributed to the creation of terrorists. One example of misunderstanding is with regard to women, where seen from a devout Muslim position, Western societies have an obscene culture. In contrast Western societies see conservative Muslim societies as oppressive to women. It is not easy to resolve these differences but attempts must be made.
Western culture can be felt as a threat to traditional cultures such as Indian and Muslim. While violence may be used in a good cause it must be the absolute minimum possible. A politician should always work to dampen the flames of conflict. From a Gandhian perspective our economy is violent. The basis of it is consumerism which in turn is based on greed and envy. Without greed the consumers won’t consume enough. Greed and envy, bad in themselves, may provoke violence. Is it moral to encourage debts? What about some of the signs of a healthy expanding economy which we hear about so much on radio and television are they really healthy in themselves? Should we want higher house prices? Who does it benefit? Not young couples trying to get a mortgage, not lower income people in rural areas. Is a healthy society one which keeps the tills ringing on the High Street? There is some virtue in free-trade but taken too far it exploits poorer workers in developing countries, and it does violence to nature through degradation of the environment. Gandhi’s belief in the local economy is very relevant we should support enterprises such as farmers’ markets and transport fewer goods around the globe. India’s development has been top-down, the opposite of what Gandhi advocated.
Religion can be a divisive factor in society but an aggressive secularism creates disrespect for religion which impoverishes society. Banning the wearing of headscarves by schoolgirls in France or directives not to celebrate Christmas in some hospitals in the UK, contrast with the tolerant approach of India where symbols of all are accepted and found side-by-side. Rowan Williams has called the former “the agenda of nervous secularists”. Importantly this increasing secularisation can produce fear in adherents of religion which may encourage development into a more fundamental form of their religion. Indeed Karen Armstrong has said that extreme secularisation is in symbiotic relationship with religious fundamentalism. This change in the West is also leading to a loss of the awareness of the transcendent.
If we are to respect Gandhi we should do so in the context of Indian thought. Gandhi was a Hindu and steeped in Indian culture. That is a culture which does not believe in absolutes and Gandhi certainly didn’t see himself as absolutely good or absolutely right. We shouldn’t see him in absolute terms either. Then maybe today’s India and the West will realise his relevance and the relevance of the Indian culture he stood for, a culture which would not take secularism, globalism, or any of the other isms of today too far but try to find a middle way between their advantages and their disadvantages.
Sadly even in India they are forgetting the great principle of the middle way. When I speak of Hinduism, secularists don’t see that I am advocating a middle way between religious and secular intolerance; to them the mention of Hinduism automatically implies fundamentalism. I came to India as a Christian, and I still am a Christian, but I came to believe with Gandhi that there is more than one way to God. It is possible to
live side-by-side with those of other faiths and not just tolerate them but appreciate them. This includes non-believers after all Hinduism has an atheistic school of thought too.
The poet Kathleen Raine was a great admirer of Indian culture and suggested that the West should learn from it. Living in India and seeing the spread of Western consumerism and materialism I begin to wonder whether we are not doing the opposite and undermining Indian culture. To respect Gandhi and make him relevant in the cultural crisis of today we should not go too far in our appreciation of him and place him on a pedestal but discuss his ideas among ourselves and sometimes argue with Gandhi himself. That I think is what he would want because, as I said, he did not regard himself as a saint.
We are delighted that Sir Mark Tully has kindly agreed to be a Patron of the Gandhi Foundation.