In search of Gandhi


back to issue

ON 12 March 1930 Gandhi started his march from the Satyagraha Ashram at Sabarmati to Dandi; he never returned. Ever since his self-imposed exile from ‘Hriday Kunj’, Gandhi’s presence in Gujarat has simultaneously been proximate and distant. Gandhi continued to care for and nurture the institutions he had created – the Ashram, the Vidyapeeth, the Navjivan Press. In his reflections and self-practices on the moral basis of life, society and polity, Gandhi engaged with the Jain philosophy and way of life. He drew sustenance from the memories of his dialogues with poet, philosopher and ascetic Srimad Rajchandra, a man who came closest to being a guru to Gandhi.

Close associates like Mahadev Desai, Kishorlal Mashruwala and Narhari Parikh engaged with Gandhi’s thought and self-practices, helping him to define and clarify them for himself and others. He had in Jugatram Dave, Ravishankar ‘Maharaj’, Babalbhai Mehta, Parikshitlal Majumdar, Mamasaheb Phadke and Amritlal Thakkar (Thakkar Bapa) committed co-workers who engaged with the poor and the downtrodden, thereby creating institutional structures for antyodaya and gramswaraj.

Gandhi and his methods continued to guide and inspire the satyagrahis and gramsevaks. Gandhi and his co-workers maintained close links with the Mahajan industrialists. Through organizing the labour force and initiating a wide-ranging dialogue, the industrial sector was helped to develop an abiding social conscience. The Gujarati mind sought to expand and nourish itself through Gandhi’s presence. This touched the core of Gujarati identity, its language, its literature and the manner in which it articulated both the self-sense and aspirations of society.

But, Gandhi’s presence was not all pervasive. The distance created by his absence allowed large cultural areas to disengage themselves from the space that he had created. A significant part of Saurashtra and Gujarat remained within the feudal political economy and way of life. Despite Gandhi’s concern for the tribal question and the work of individuals like Jugatram Dave, the presence of Gandhi or his co-workers was nominal in the eastern tribal belt of Gujarat.

Gandhi was born in a coastal town, and was an experienced sea traveller. He had thought and felt deeply about the product of the sea – salt – and perhaps his most moving journey was to the coastal town of Dandi. Despite the immediacy of the sea in his life and works, Gandhi remained a marginal presence in the lives of the seafaring communities along the coast of Gujarat. Gandhi and Sardar Patel had successfully organized the farmers. But as in Champaran, he was unable to transform the lives of agricultural labourers.




The recent violence in Gujarat has once again given us occasion to moan the loss of Gandhi’s legacy. Deep anguish and pain has been expressed at the transformation of Gujarat into a violent and intolerant society. It is worth asking: What legacy of Gandhi are we experiencing an erasure of?

There are at least four legacies of Gandhi that we are presented with. The first is represented by his great grandson, Tushar Gandhi and his attempt (however short-lived) to claim proprietary rights over the name and image of Gandhi through a contract with CMG Worldwide. This attempt is indicative of two trends. One, the inclusion of Gandhi in the global political economy of signs. A symbol that can be appropriated to sell a wide range of objects – from Dandi Namak, to Apple Macintosh computers (recall, their ‘think different’ campaign, Gandhi’s meditative face carrying the symbol of ‘apple’) and even a gymnasium in New York (Great mind in a weak body – went the byline). Here Gandhi becomes a brand name. Two, an attempt to convert legacy into a lineage, a currency that can possibly open up the world of Indian politics and provide legitimacy.

The institutions that Gandhi created represent the second aspect of his legacy. The various ashrams, the Vidyapeeth, the Navjivan Press. Despite the resonance of the ‘Bapu Kuti’ or Hriday Kunj that still move a visitor, these institutions, like similar institutions elsewhere in the country, have become places of pilgrimage or tourism. It is not possible to conceive an ashram without a community that inhabits it. For Gandhi, the ashrams were an experimental space. The community of the ashramites through their self-practices provided the base for Gandhi’s involvement with the self, society and polity.

The ashram was also a dialogical space. A community living and experimenting together was made possible by an abiding faith in the dialogue that they shared with each other and with Gandhi, both individually and as a community. It is difficult to imagine Gandhi’s self-practices without a community, which affirmed them through their own self experimentation.

It was also the ashram, both as a space and a community, that gave repose to Gandhi, nurtured him, cared for him and through its presence and faith helped him in his deepest spiritual or political crisis. Gandhi was aware of this, and this allowed him to call Maganlal the ‘soul’ of the ashram or describe the death of Mahadev as personal widowhood. The larger quest for self-realization and swaraj gave meaning and context to the ashram.



The Gujarat Vidyapeeth was also conceived and created in this frame. It was an extension of the ashram, an experiment to train satyagrahis. Since satyagraha was not a mere technique, its education had to be grounded in the moral realm. Questions of faith, of tradition and their dialogicity were central to the processes of learning and teaching at the Vidyapeeth; so were the self-practices that emanated from a desire to create an ethical base for intervention in the society and polity.

These institutions today are not only without the presence of Gandhi, a community that affirmed itself and through that Gandhi is also absent. So is the larger quest for creating a society where each one has the possibility of knowing the self.



It is, therefore, not surprising that the various ashrams have become either monuments or museums. They have lost their soul, along with the community which no longer inhabits them. As museums and monuments they try to tell a story, an increasingly incomprehensible story. They stand as a reminder of what is no longer available; they also force us to moan and feel the loss. The Vidyapeeth and similar institutions no longer train satyagrahis. They seek to provide ‘Gandhian education’ which is seen as a substitute for both training in satyagraha and in moral and ethical life. The community practices neither jnana nor bhakti, the two possible modes available to enter into and sustain a dialogue. Like the KVIC, these too are ‘subsidized’ institutions.

The third aspect of the legacy are the Gandhians, a term that invokes stylized caricatures. Not long ago a community, however prone to caricature, did exist. Ravishankar ‘Maharaj’, with his clear-sighted empathy for the ‘criminal castes’ of Gujarat, refusing to use any mode of transportation but walking, eating one self-cooked meal a day and using thirteen yards of self-spun khadi a year, was no caricature. Nor was the ‘dada’ of Vedchi, Jugatram Dave. Ravishankar ‘Maharaj’ managed to get the practice of hajari (reporting to a police station) abolished from the Gaikwadi state for the ‘criminal castes’. It was he who, during the 1940 riots of Ahmedabad, took upon himself the task of cremating the unclaimed, rotting dead bodies of victims. True, that some Gandhians became emblems of the state system, the sarkari sants. Nevertheless, through personal integrity, they managed to intervene in the affairs of the society.



But these Gandhians are not available to us even as caricatures. The people who inherited the institutions of the Gandhian variety – the ashram shalas, the many mandals and ashrams – lack both the empathy for the marginal and the will to confront the state and society which oppresses them. To a large extent, present day Gandhians prefer not to confront the state. They have abnegated the task of humanizing the state. They choose instead to be partners. As a result, they are largely absent from the small social movements. Having lost an organic relationship with the social sectors they hope to claim and serve, the state apparatus too has little use for them. This community has marginalized itself vis-a-vis both the state and the civil society. It has become a self-affirming community.

The fourth part of the Gandhi legacy is represented through social movements. For a Ashok Chaudhary in Vedchi, a Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, a Sundarlal Bahuguna of the Chipko movement or countless people rising against the authoritarian state, Gandhi remains an inspiration and a presence. It was Gandhi who taught us to confront, through self-suffering and ahimsa, the might of the modern, authoritarian, bureaucratic state.

Some seek to derive meaning for their struggle from his thought, some from his method. Various movements – for peace, nuclear disarmaments, against the human costs of development, against the hegemony of science, ecological movements and so on – have tried to align themselves with Gandhi’s thought. Often it is the Gandhi of mass mobilizations that appeals to these movements. Here Gandhi’s practice is sought to be imbibed as technique, as a method, often disregarding the deep personal, spiritual and philosophical basis of the practice.

To a great extent this attempt remains a derived method. Meanwhile, both the state and civil society have moved away; both have invented new, more effective techniques and technologies of terror, of inflicting pain, of surveillance, of dispensing justice and of being amnesiac towards the marginal. In the face of these, the derived method appears exhausted.



The iconic/mythic Gandhi, the Gandhi of institutions, of Gandhians and of social movements seems to have deserted us at the present moment.

What is it that we are to do? Remind ourselves of the historicity and materiality of Gandhi, so that we at least know that which is no longer available to us? Or should we reinvent Gandhi in the playfulness of an Ashis Nandy or a Shiv Visvanathan? Perhaps yes, perhaps not really. A reinvented Gandhi is a personal Gandhi – a scientist, an innovator, a cartoon character or even a grandfather. But this personal Gandhi with his capacity (and our own as well) to carry on ever-present conversation may not be the societal Gandhi that we mourn.

It is more the Gandhi of Noakhali and of Dandi that we seek. The Gandhi of the ashram made this Gandhi possible – tentative, prone to self-doubt, experimental and still assured of his faith. Both ‘Vaishnava jana to’ and the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ moved this Gandhi equally. He experimented with fasting and feasting, with walking, with prayer and silence.

The Gandhi of the ashram was fundamentally a dialogical being. This dialogue was manifold, with the self, with the traditions that he had inherited and invented, with the community of co-workers and coinhabitants and with those he opposed but wished to redeem.



This dialogue was sustained by an awareness of his own self. Knowing the self for him involved simultaneously knowing both the difference from one’s maker as also recognizing the possibility of goodness in all humanity. It is the latter which allowed Gandhi to propose, while denouncing modern law and lawyers that, ‘it will be found that good is due to them as men rather than as lawyers.’ The recognition of one’s self as different from the maker is posited on the understanding of one’s limits. It is only when we as humans recognize our limits that we do not usurp the function of the godhead, of knowing the one and absolute Truth.

Without recognizing the humanity of others, their capacity to comprehend and articulate truth, no dialogue is possible. Having recognized the humanity of the other, it is possible to be a satyagrahi. Satyagrah or dayabal (the force of truth or the force of love) is a dialogue humanizing those who engage in it. It rests on certain self-practices – of satya, abhaya, aaprigraha and brahmacharya. All these are paths to self-knowing. Only those who know themselves can be truthful and free from fear and want, only the self-knowing can have control over the mind and the body and have all the senses in harmony with each other. Swaraj is also located within self-knowing and self-control.

It is this dialogical Gandhi that we seek today, as we seem to have lost the capacity of recognizing the humanity of the other. But this will not come to us without the self-practices that allow us to know our self.