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A Fresh Look at Gandhi – Part I

A chinese proverb says: "the last thing a fish notices is the water in which it swims". And indeed, we often find that we are immersed so deeply in our present context and its corresponding mindset that we fail to ask the most important questions simply because we cannot see them. This certainly is true for the physicists who worked on the "Manhattan Project" and built the atomic bomb, genuinely believing that the situation at the time required all their effort to prevent Nazi Germany from using nuclear weapons in the war. It took a major catastrophe – the nuclear attack on two Japanese cities – to make a number of scientists ask themselves the question they perhaps should have asked much earlier: Is it conceivable that, all things considered, our present perspective on the general situation might be dangerously inaccurate? The relevance of this question has not changed since.

Here, it is noteworthy that building a complex device such as a nuclear weapon poses a number of massive challenges, in engineering, chemistry, physics, computing, management, electronics, and a number of other fields. Some technical minds (and I should perhaps include myself here) are strongly attracted by such "formidable technical challenges". Quite often, even what was thought to be pretty much impossible eventually turns out to yield to our persistence and cleverness. Solving such a hard technical challenge pretty much feels like reaching the summit feels to a mountain climber. After a lot of frustration, numerous set-backs, and an insane amount of effort, finally, "I won". What we often forget, however, is that "success" does not offer us any guidance for the most important question: are we actually on the right track? However we decide to invest human effort and creativity, ignoring this question can be a fundamental problem.

So, if we could step outside our present cultural context for just one day, would this help us to improve our judgment on how we should proceed? Most likely, this would be a good idea. But, as we cannot really do this, a number of questions arise. One of them certainly is: is there anyone who can articulate an outside perspective on what we are doing that is accessible to us? Considering the present multi-faceted "mankind and nature" crisis, one of the names that might come to one’s mind here is the Japanese farmer-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka. Another name is Mohandas Gandhi, the "Mahatma".

Interestingly, people in western cultures know very little about Gandhi, and the little they think they know often misses the key point. To us, it certainly does not help that Gandhi is so easily associated with the image of "a half-naked fakir", as Churchill put it, but one has to keep in mind here that, for most of his life, Gandhi worked to improve the lives of people so poor that starvation was a common experience to them. He certainly would not have been anywhere as effective in his regional context if he lived his life in a way that is closer to the everyday experience of most members of western nations. While working as a barrister, he actually did, of course, dress in a suit. Much later, when in England representing India, he of course dressed as a representative of the poor of India.

Actually, only a small part of his work was related to what he is most famous for in the West – independence from the British for India – indeed, a number of his most important achievements are linked to the history of South Africa. We seem to have a tendency to regard Gandhi – and a very small number of others with similarly remarkable biographies – as "saints", which may in part serve as an excuse "for us mere mortals" to not even consider adopting parts of their philosophy in our own life. But precisely this – a fairly sophisticated yet at the same time embarrassingly simple philosophy that has a lot to say about our culture, in conjunction with our collective inability to take a closer introspective look – calls for a deeper investigation.

Gandhi was well aware of the problem associated with becoming an "idol": he realized that much of what Jesus had to say made a lot of sense to him, while much of Christianity essentially seemed to him a clever self-deception designed to avoid the core message through devoutly worshipping the messenger only. In this sense, the imperative is to focus on the structure of Gandhi’s reasoning, rather than on the person and his biography, whose only actual relevance may lie in demonstrating the practicality of these ideas.

In order to understand Gandhi, one has to realize that, growing up in Hindu society his cultural background is very different from that of members of western civilization in one quite fundamental aspect: the perception of the concept "religion". When we try to take a look at Hindu religion, what we see is "polytheism", which we try to comprehend in relation to our culturally dominating "monotheistic" perspective. Now, presuming that any higher powers that may exist perhaps would be quite bemused (if they had such feelings) about our feeble attempts to articulate their characteristics in terms accessible to us, "monotheism" perhaps should be regarded as a consequence of other cultural ideas rather than as a fundament.

My contention is that, quite likely, "monotheism" is a natural concept in a "manipulative" society: If it is implicitly understood and accepted that one interacts with other people by getting them to "do" something that is of advantage to one’s own objectives, then, naturally, the ability to make other people do things is a measure of "power" (or, synonymously, "leadership"), and, as a further natural consequence of this is a "power hierarchy", it is evident that in such thinking, there must be a "supreme power", and as a concept with almightiness can not exist without an almighty, we can pretty much expect monotheistic language to express concepts of "the other world" in a manipulation-minded society. (I first realized this years ago during a fairly technical talk by an Indian physicist on a model of the Universe that does not have a Big Bang. In some aspects, it did not at all seem convincing, but neither do some aspects of the established "Big Bang Theories". I wondered whether the fact that such a model was studied by an Indian physicist had any significance, and came to the conclusion that a "Big Bang" so nicely fits the concept of an act of creation that we may subconsciously favor it, given our cultural programming. While I still do not like this alternative, I now wonder to what extent this may be due to such cultural biases which are difficult for me to assess.)

It certainly would be completely wrong to claim that concepts such as power, manipulation, and hierarchies did not exist in Hindu society. Still, this concept does not seem to play as central a role in the Hindu concept of religion. Cosmology gives an interesting clue here: while we think in terms of an initial act of creation of the Universe by The Almighty, the Hindu sees the world as never-ending cycles within cycles. So, in a sense, where our thinking is mostly focused on power, their thinking is mostly focused on permanence. (One may speculate whether this is what one would naturally expect to see in a society that has been in contact with the soil that sustains it for a very long time, and hence depends on realizing the importance of functioning cycles.)

Why is this clash of perspectives, "manipulation" vs. "permanence", so important? Actually, a common pattern underlying promising approaches to sustainability is to regard it as a three-dimensional problem. In Permaculture, this is encoded in the core ethics which consists of an environmental, a social, and an economic statement (Earth Care, People Care, Redistribution of Surplus). The same idea lies at the heart of the "triple bottom line" approach, only it is expressed using different language ("People, Planet, Profit"). A similar core concept again is found in Holistic Management. The problem is that, in a manipulation-minded society, such an approach appears to be of unmanageable complexity, as the three parts of such an ethics are perceived as independent tools to be used ad libitum to argue in favour or against some new idea depending on whether or not we would like to see it implemented according to more egoistic (potentially subconsciously so) reasons. So, insights that show us how to safeguard against such abuse are extremely valuable, and relevant.

What is the core element of Gandhi’s approach to interacting with the world? Gandhi’s most famous sentence perhaps was: "God is Truth". The actual title of his autobiography is "The continued story of my experiments with Truth" (here, "continued story" refers to the way it was published in the newspaper "Indian Opinion"). So, given that "Truth" plays the key role, what is Gandhi’s concept of "Truth"? Interestingly, it is seen as elusive, impossible to grab with both hands, impossible to put into a flask, impossible to "possess". (There is a natural tendency of many members of western societies to react quite strongly whenever the term "Truth" gets mentioned, as many of us have great difficulties to either consider it as something that might be a valid concept at all, or cannot see it in a different context than that of someone claiming to be in possession of it.) The way Gandhi lived suggests he saw "Truth" as an imperative, something that requires all our effort to be unearthed, even as we know we might at best catch a glimpse of it. Why is it so difficult – actually impossible – to "attain Truth"? A key problem is that the conscious human mind stands in the way: consciousness works very hard to interpret the world in a way so that the human Ego can maintain a positive self-image. Individually, it is impossible to completely overcome this obstacle to finding "Truth". But we might nevertheless sometimes manage to pull back the curtain a bit. A very interesting passage from Gandhi’s autobiography is:

The instruments for the quest of Truth are as simple as they are difficult. They may appear quite impossible to an arrogant person, and quite possible to an innocent child.

The seeker after Truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after Truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of Truth.

Truth is like a vast tree, which yields more and more fruit the more you nurture it. The deeper the search in the mine of truth the richer the discovery of the gems buried there, in the shape of openings for an even greater variety of service.

In the march towards Truth, anger selfishness, hatred, etc., naturally give way, for otherwise Truth would be impossible to attain. A man who is swayed by passions may have good enough intentions, may be truthful in word, but he will never find the Truth. A successful search for Truth means complete deliverance from the dual throng such as of love and hate, happiness and misery. – Gandhi

It is intriguing that in our manipulative culture, the issue of Ego self-protection plays such an extremely dominant role. The concept of "saving face" is a widely known and accepted one. We accept that, at times, many lives get sacrificed for this. How strange then do words such as these sound to us:

The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after Truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of Truth. – Gandhi

Once one accepts – as Gandhi evidently did – that "Truth" has a transcendental reality, and any idea of "possessing" it would hence be as silly as the idea of "possessing God", a natural conclusion is to pursue aligning oneself with Truth. For, if we live in a way that is in conflict with some fundamental truth, we will experience this sooner or later. Naturally, this world is quite forgiving in the sense that, whenever we make major mistakes, we get feedback in numerous ways, at least for those who pay attention. If we grow grain on steep slopes, say, we easily lose so much topsoil that we notice we will not be able to do this for long. Quite obviously, once one realizes that to be in conflict with some fundamental truth, the best one can do is to correct this as soon as possible. Truth cannot be cheated, and cannot be negotiated. If we stay on the wrong path, we will just keep on getting ever stronger feedback that we have gone wrong. If we stubbornly persist, we may reach the point where external circumstances get so bad that we are deprived of all power.

This phenomenon of making things much worse by sticking to obsolete beliefs is often encountered quite visibly during the last days of a major war. At the end of World War II, some of the Third Reich’s soldiers risked their lives to prevent the destruction of vital bridges which might have delayed the inevitable by just a few days at most, yet would have made the recovery of society a much more difficult challenge. Hence, the aspect of Truth that – sadly – might be most accessible to a society shaped by power-dominated thinking is: "Truth is what will ultimately break your neck if you persist on being stubborn to the last moment". But, as everything works in both ways, there is a flip side of that coin as well, one that shows a positive way forward, a way out of major present-day dilemmas.

This will be the topic of Part II.

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