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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C

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Selected Writings by Nadesan Satyendra
- நடேசன் சத்தியேந்திரா

Mahatma Gandhi & Salman Rushdie

13 April 1998 (from a contribution to the Tamil.net)


Salman Rushdie's article on Mahatma Gandhi appears to have been written (presumably for a fee), with a view to entertaining the readers of Time magazine. Rushdie declares somewhat patronisingly:

"These days, few people pause to consider the complex character of Gandhi's personality, the ambiguous nature of his achievement and legacy, or even the real causes of Indian independence. These are hurried, sloganize times, and we don't have the time or, worse, the inclination to assimilate many-sided truths."

But it seems that Rushdie himself falls too easily into the trap of these 'hurried sloganizing times' and his closing reference to Gandhi's 'passive' resistance serves to underline this propensity. On several occasions in his life, Gandhi took great pains to explain that to him, non violence was not 'passive' - it was a very 'active' form of resistance, no less 'active' than violent resistance. Rushdie may have found it useful to have read and understood the famous article titled the 'Doctrine of the Sword', that Gandhi wrote in 1920:

"I do believe that when there is only a choice between cowardice and violence.... I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should in a cowardly manner become or remain a helpless victim to her own dishonour. But I believe that non-violence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment.

Forgiveness adorns a soldier. But abstinence is forgiveness only when there is power to punish; it is meaningless when it proceeds from a helpless creature. A mouse hardly forgives a cat when it allows itself to be torn to pieces by her... But I do not believe India to be helpless, I do not believe myself to be a helpless creature...

Let me not be misunderstood. Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will...

I am not a visionary. I claim to be a practical idealist. The religion of non violence is not meant merely for rishis and saints. It is meant for the common people as well. Non violence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute, and he knows no law but that of physical might.

The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law - to the strength of the spirit.

I have therefore ventured to place before India the ancient law of self sacrifice. For satyagraha and its offshoots, non co-operation and civil resistance, are nothing but new names for the law of suffering.
The rishis who discovered the law of non violence in the midst of violence were greater geniuses than Newton. They were themselves greater warriors than Wellington.

Having themselves known the use of arms, they realised their uselessness and taught a weary world that its salvation lay not through violence but through non violence.

Non violence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering. It does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil doer, but it means the putting of one's whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honour, his religion, his soul, and lay the foundation for that empire's fall or regeneration.

And so I am not pleading for India to practise non violence because it is weak. I want her to practise non violence being conscious of her strength and power...

I want India to recognise that she has a soul that cannot perish, and that can rise triumphant above any physical weakness and defy the physical combination of a whole world.

I isolate this non co-operation from Sinn Feinism, for it is so conceived as to be incapable of being offered side by side with violence. But I invite even the school of violence to give this peaceful non co-operation a trial. It will not fail through its inherent weakness. It may fail because of poverty of response.

Then will be the time for real danger. The high souled men, who are unable to suffer national humiliation any longer, will want to vent their wrath. They will take to violence. So far as I know, they must perish without delivering themselves or their country from the wrong...."

A story is told of Gandhi and Bhagat Singh, a militant in the Indian freedom struggle. In the 1930s, Bhagat Singh was charged and convicted for dacoity and sentenced to death. In prison, awaiting death, Bhagat Singh said that, he regarded himself as a member of the Indian liberation army, and that he should not be hung but should be taken before a firing squad and shot. When asked by newspaper reporters for his response, Gandhi replied: ''His way is not my way. But I bow my head before one who is ready to give his life for the freedom of his people.''

Gandhi was sentenced to prison for his writings. But Gandhi did not seek to hide and avoid the sentence passed on him. He was not devious. He was ready to suffer for that which he believed and that which he said and therein lay his capacity to influence a people. Without being unkind to Salman Rushdie, he may want to ponder why it is that long after the likes of him have been forgotten, Mahatma Gandhi will continue to inspire all those concerned with political change - change for the better, change so that the essential goodness in each one of us may find settled expression. As Schumacher (the author of Small is Beautiful) remarks in his later book 'A Guide for the Perplexed':

"In modern times there is no lack of understanding of the fact man is a social being and that 'No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe' (John Dunne, 1571-1631). Hence there is no lack of exhortation that he should love his neighbour - or at least not to be nasty to him - and should treat him with tolerance, compassion and understanding. At the same time, however, the cultivation of self knowledge has fallen into virtually total neglect, except, that is, where it is the object of active suppression.

That you cannot love your neighbour, unless you love yourself; that you cannot understand your neighbour unless you understand yourself; that there can be no knowledge of the 'invisible person' who is your neighbour except on the basis of self knowledge - these fundamental truths have been forgotten even by many of the professionals in the established religions.

Exhortations, consequently, cannot possibly have any effect; genuine understanding of one's neighbour is replaced by sentimentality, which ofcourse crumbles into nothingness as soon as self interest is aroused...

Anyone who goes openly on a journey into the interior, who withdraws from the ceaseless agitation of everyday life and pursues the kind of training - satipatthana, yoga, Jesus Prayer, or something similar - without which genuine self knowledge cannot be obtained, is accused of selfishness and of turning his back on social duties.

Meanwhile, world crisis multiply and everybody deplores the shortage, or even total lack, of 'wise' men or women, unselfish leaders, trustworthy counselors etc. It is hardly rational to expect such high qualities from people who have never done any inner work and would not even understand what was meant by the words..."

Rushdie dismisses Richard Attenborough's 'much-Oscared movie Gandhi' as an example of 'unhistorical Western saintmaking' but fails to recognise that which led Attenborough to make the film and the influence that Louis Fischer's Biography of Gandhi had on Attenborough's own life. It seems that Rushdie is writing from the dark bottom of a bottomless pit into which he has dug himself. He may want to heed Gandhi's words, rather than dismiss them as 'homilies and nostrums':

"I claim to be no more than an average man with less than average ability. Nor can I claim any special merit for such non-violence or continence as I have been able to reach with laborious research. I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man or woman can achieve what I have, if he or she would make the same effort and cultivate the same hope and faith. Work without faith is like an attempt to reach the bottom of a bottomless pit."

Stephen Covey, the author of the best selling Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, often refers to a story from Gandhi's life. The parents had brought their young child to Gandhi. They wanted Gandhi to advise the child against eating sweets. Gandhi told the parents to bring the child to him the next week. Seven days later, Gandhi advised the child. The parents then inquired from Gandhi why it was that he had not advised the child on their first visit. Gandhi replied: "I myself was eating sweets then."

That Gandhi's words are increasingly quoted by today's management gurus is a reflection of the deep underlying truths that Gandhi had touched in his own life - deep underlying truths which have a broad relevance to all human endeavour. For Gandhi, life was a permanent experiment with truth. He walked his talk - and where his walk did not coincide with his talk, he changed either his walk or his talk. He once declared:

"I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough in me to confess my errors and to retrace my steps. I own that I have an immovable faith in God and His goodness and unconsumable passion for truth and love. But, is that not what every person has latent in him?"

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