Bumper stickers, posters and T-shirts remind us everywhere to “be the change we wish to see in the world." Gandhiji, after all, said this. In school, I would have rolled my eyes. Gandhi hagiography was black-and-white and came with all the deadening force of state-led promotion. That Gandhi was a saintly bore.
The Gandhiji my family talked about was more real. My mother and her sisters, as very young Seva Dal volunteers, served during his Madras visit, fetching and carrying. We heard that thousands thronged every afternoon for his prayer meetings and the crowd stretched across what is an entire Chennai commercial district. What they could see or hear at the far reaches did not matter. His aura filled the space. He spoke with love but there was such discipline that teenage girls could walk in the crowd with collection boxes, unafraid, un-assaulted. He charged five annas for an autograph. This fast-walking, loving, laughing yet disciplinarian Gandhi seemed human. But still, he was not my icon.
When a peace activist uncle once shared his discovery of Gandhi’s writings, I was derisive. He responded with what I now want to call Gandhian humility, simply because that honesty and simplicity have disappeared from every other section of our public life: “I do not know enough to know where he is wrong." Nor did I, but I was young enough that ignorance was no constraint.
The one Gandhi idea I fell in love with and carried into adult life was the idea that a satyagrahi must first work on themselves. I encountered this in the second year of college in a political science class and it has stayed with me. This ideal that we must perfect ourselves before being worthy of changing the world haunts me. It recalls for me the old puranic stories of penance to conquer one’s senses, to forsake anger and to eliminate the ego. It calls to something in my heart. Who am I, before I sit in judgment on another, and insist that mine is the right way?
I take heart from the fact that Gandhiji embraced his own failings and failures. He saw them as honestly as he could, was open about his inner and outer journeys, worked on them in ways he thought were appropriate and in public. But he did not let his limitations and his ideal stop him from doing what he could. Both journeys continued simultaneously, sometimes speaking to each other. We now say, “Let the perfect not be the enemy of the good." My imperfect qualifications to be a satyagrahi need not stop me from doing the work I can do. Although I have barely read a small fraction of his prodigious writing, I learn this from what I have read about Gandhiji’s life, and he did say that his life was his message.
And how much he wrote! I envy that immensely. My life is barely as full and every modern convenience is available to me and yet, I complain about not having enough time to contemplate or write. Gandhi biographies reveal daily routines that are full of maintenance chores, prayer, exercise, spinning, healing others, political discussions, personal counsel, letter-writing and the production of many newspapers. I just marvel not just at the volume of the output but the qualities of honesty, reflection and fearlessness they embody. That we are privy now to his doubts, confessions, contradictions and inconsistency should inspire us as products of an age of brand-building fictions.
I founded and run an NGO that works in the area of changing mindsets about peace and gender equality. We struggle daily to gain access to spaces and audiences and we struggle for financial support. What would Gandhiji do? I want to know. I wish I could ask.
In Rajmohan Gandhi’s Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire, he evocatively describes a moment in Gandhiji’s life, just before independence, in which Gandhiji feels isolated. It does not matter whether you lead a subcontinent full of people or run a small NGO, the journey is solitary and at times, lonely. No one shares your lowest moments, your doubts and your sense of failure. As Gandhi’s favourite song by Tagore goes, you must walk alone. As Gandhiji’s life showed, you must keep walking anyway.
I have spent a good part of my life being sceptical about Gandhi, his politics and ideas. But the story of his life, read over and over, continues to teach me how to live. It teaches me the value of my own journey. It teaches me that my effort counts. It teaches me to focus on the quality of that effort. The quality of the outcome is important: is it fair, is it inclusive, is it sustainable? And it shows me how the personal and political, the inner and outer journeys are intertwined and symbiotic.
Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist, peace educator and the founder of The Prajnya Trust.
The views in the piece reflect those of the author.