Just a face on currency notes?

By Debraj Mookerjee

Gandhi on currency notes: Courtesy: Creative Commons

Twentieth century India could arguably be said to belong to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, or simply Mahatma (Great Soul), or even Bapu (father). In its political and moral imagination, India was enveloped by the enduring legacy of both the man himself, and his philosophy. So many things written into the Constitution were scripted by Gandhian belief, even quirks, for that matter. Cow Protection (“The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection”) was accommodated in the Constitution because Gandhi wanted it in. Nehruvian liberalism ensured its relegation to the Directive Principles of State Policy, which are not enforceable, but more recommendatory in nature, but Gandhian sentiment could not be unaccommodated.

The twentieth century was left behind not very long ago, but India seems to have leapt into another era in these two decades, shaken from the moral moorings anchored by Gandhi. The starkest recognition of this change has been the veiled attacks on Gandhi himself (though the valorised resurrection of his assassin, Nathuram Godse). The more direct attacks have been on the very nature of the Constitution. The key words in the Indian Constitution bear the mark of Gandhian beliefs, wedded top the standards of a modern Constitutional democracy.  These are Encoded in the preamble. In the 1950 version the words the words ‘Sovereign’, ‘Democratic’, ‘Republic’ are headlined (Secular and Socialist were added later via the 42nd Amendment). Below them are listed words like ‘Justice’, ‘Liberty’, ‘Equality’ and ‘Fraternity’. These hallowed principles are under threat in every day public life. Justice is colour blind, liberty not protected by justice, inequality threatened by unequal notions regarding liberty, and the sense of fraternity shredded by unchecked sectarianism.

The safeguarding of the idea of India is not merely an ideological battle; it is the fight for the soul of India. The soul that Gandhi’s deeper moral philosophy gave shape to. This soul was moulded through ideas both ancient (that once sprang in this land) and modern (drawn from the best philosophies from across the world). This endeavor was not easy. It was difficult in both conception and adoption. It was rendered possible because of Gandhi’s great moral force, and adopted because of the Freedom Movement’s largely liberal and inclusive character.

After Ashoka the Great and possibly Prophet Mohammad (PBUH[1]), Gandhi is singular in the modern era as someone who viewed politics and the engagement between political entities though the prism of morality. Before and after him politics has always been the ‘art of the possible’. Gandhi wished to go deeper, to find the idea of the nation, indeed the very idea of an independent India beyond merely the definition of nationhood. He wanted his India to have a soul, to emerge from its bondage purified by intent and moral leadership. This is what Gilbert Murray, the redoubtable classical scholar and public intellectual, once wrote about Gandhi: “When I met him in England in 1914, he ate, I believe, only rice, and drank only water, and slept on the floor; and his wife, who seemed to be his companion in everything, lived in the same way. His conversation was that of a cultivated and well-read man with a certain indefinable suggestion if saintliness. His patriotism, which is combined with an enthusiastic support of England against Germany, is interwoven with his religion, and aims at the moral regeneration of India on the lines of Indian thought, with no barriers between one Indian and another, and to the exclusion as far as possible of the influence of the West, money-worship, and its wars.”

Gandhi was never against the West; what he was against was what Western politics and society had become (recall his famous quip about ‘Western civilisation’ and that ‘it would be a good idea’). Gandhi was deeply impressed by Tolstoy’s ‘Letter to a Hindoo’ wherein he exhorted the Indian revolutionary, Taraknath Das, to adopt the path of non-violence. Tolstoy quotes widely from ancient texts. He was impressed by the fact that Tolstoy was quoting the ancient Tamil saint-philosopher while speaking of non-violence. The crucial wisdom that struck Gandhi deep (because it became his credo later) was this: “The punishment of evil doers consists in making them feel ashamed of themselves by doing them a great kindness.” This ancient wisdom reached the west via an eighteenth-century Latin translation. The journey of the idea of nonviolence and its acceptance by someone as revered by Tolstoy took Gandhi deeper into its exploration, since he was morally drawn to its spiritual embeddedness and its synergy with his own worldview. The concept of Ahimsa emerged from this distillation.

On the other side Gandhi was drawn to Henry David Thoreau’s ideas of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance against an unjust government. In his 1942 ‘Appeal to American Friends’, Gandhi says,“ [Y]ou have given me a teacher in Thoreau, who furnished me through his essay on the ‘Duty of Civil Disobedience’ scientific confirmation of what I was doing in South Africa’. This scientific confirmation was drawn by Thoreau and his guru Emerson from ancient Asian philosophy, both Buddhist and Hindu. They believed the path of righteousness can be charted by the individual, outside of prescribed religions. Transcendentalism, a dominating cultural and philosophical movement in nineteenth century America, emerged from the distillation of older moral philosophies of the East, and, the path to righteousness, embedded in civil disobedience against any entity that is not moral, howsoever powerful it might be, emerged from such thoughts with stark clarity in Gandhi’s chosen mode for resistance – Satyagraha.

Gandhi dissolved so many ideas in his thoughts that it is sometimes difficult to discern the origins of many of his ideas. This is also because his was a syncretic mind, blending, assessing, conjoining and ultimately putting all ideas to the test of a simple morality, expressed best in one of his last notes (1948) in words that are talismanic: “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melt away.”

The great beauty of Gandhi is that he is simple and complex at the same time. In the words of UR Anantha Murthy (author of Samskara, and a great literary voice), Gandhi was a ‘critical insider’, a phenomenon that India was lucky to experience, but a rare phenomenon. He was an insider in the sense that he identified with the lowest common denominator of what it meant to be an Indian, leading an abstemious life of frugal simplicity. But he was also critical of that which needed reform and transformation. He had the moral energy to envision a modern India, not based on modern technology, but based on a philosophy the world had abandoned. He envisioned a world of justice, where the downtrodden would determine the priorities of governance, where righteousness would set the terms for nations engaging with other nations, and where politics would not cast aside morality and ethics to foster its goals. In his lifetime he carried the moral force of a juggernaut, recognised by the world as one set apart. 

Today’s India is choosing to not only not heed the path offered by him, a path that held us together though times good and bad, but to actively discard acceptance, to choose violence over consensus, and to enforce the will of the majority over those who exist on the margins. Gandhi is fading away from the India’s conscience. Once his moral force has completely dissipated, he will remain only on the face of currency notes (a materiality he himself eschewed). And then, one day, when we are another nation, he’ll perhaps drop off even those currency notes.

[1] Peace Be Upon Him

Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.



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