Gandhi's Vision Today

By: Carrie Trybulec, Director Gandhi Memorial Center
Presented at the Library of Congress

It is indeed an honor to be here in the Library of Congress to speak to you today.  How inspiring it is to be surrounded by collections of the vast knowledge, achievements, and discoveries of humanity. Certainly, this is an appropriate place to speak of Mahatma Gandhi’s idealism. Why? Of course we visualize Gandhi in his village setting, identifying him with the humble village life, working to uplift the poor and downtrodden. But we also recognize his firm steadfastness to seek Truth.  The presence of this wonderful Library reminds us of the seekers of Truth of all time. Pioneers of science, the creative genius of literature, the wonders of nature, the annals of history and all the remarkable contributions of the human mind are gathered here for our illumination and enlightenment.

It is no doubt that we live in a different world today than the world in which Gandhi led the call for Satyagraha and Ahimsa. Our world today is a global unit like it has never been before. Physical borders are no longer boundaries to confine political, economic, social and cultural transference. Even environmental concerns cannot be addressed on a singular basis. What happens in the Northern Hemisphere affects the Southern and vice versa. The stresses and strains of one economy affect another. It has become much more obvious to the casual observer that all life is connected.

If we look at Mahatma Gandhi’s life in relation to today we may wonder – what relevance, if any, is there between his greatest contributions and our burdensome questions? Certainly if one spends time reading Gandhi’s correspondence and publications, one would note a great many inconsistencies. He himself said that if a reader should notice such inconsistencies, he should take for value the more recent comments and disregard the earlier comments as he has since changed his mind. This notion is not always valued – especially in politics. The idea that “he was for it before he was against it” is not always an acceptable adjustment. And yet the simple measure with which Gandhi lived his life was just as he entitled his Autobiography – “My Experiments with Truth”.  The book describes his own experiments with how to best live Truth on a daily basis.

Truth, to Gandhi, was God. We might think in today’s society and particularly in the public debate and discussion over religion and its role – that this may be a challenging concept – for is my idea of Truth ever to be in common with your idea of Truth? And what if someone has negative thoughts toward another individual or community – we hesitate to think what he calls Truth should be just that. It is complicated. Coming to a simple principle – Truth – can create all kinds of confusion. Here is what Gandhi said in reference to this confusion:

“Performance of one’s duty should be independent of public opinion. I have all along held that one is bound to act according to what appears to oneself to be right, even though it may appear wrong to others; and experience has shown that this is the only correct course.

I admit that there is always a possibility of mistaking right for wrong and vice versa; but often one learns to recognize wrong only through unconscious error. On the other hand, if a man fails to follow the light within for fear of public opinion or any other similar reason, he would never be able to know right from wrong and, in the end, lose all sense of distinction between the two.”

The concept of Satyagraha – (Satya, meaning Truth, and Graha, meaning to hold firm) to hold firm to Truth, was Gandhi’s clarion call. He called on all to be Satyagrahi’s. Gandhi asked that we seek to know the Truth of our existence, the Truth of our very being, and then live our lives accordingly.

Gandhi viewed this Truth of existence as pointing to the idea of the oneness of life.  That you and I are one, that we are one with the stars and the planets.  That if I harm you or another, I harm myself.  Christ said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Gandhi said that “To slight a human being is to slight those divine powers and thus to harm not only that being but with him the whole world.”

He said he believed “in the oneness of God and therefore, of humanity. What though we have many bodies, we have but one soul. The rays of the sun are many through refraction. But they have the same source. I cannot, therefore, detach myself from the wickedest soul nor may I be denied the identity with the most virtuous.”

Mahatma Gandhi was influenced by the great thinkers of all times. He drew from the most sacred elements of not only Hinduism, but Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. He shaped his ashram communities around ideals, not just of his own fashion. He drew upon the likes of Leo Tolstoy of Russia, of John Ruskin of England, and Henry David Thoreau of America. The importance he placed on simplicity, selflessness, service, and respect shaped his life and those close to him. Failure sometimes loomed over his heart but he didn’t let it keep him down. He often admitted to having made “Himalayan blunders”. He knew that the ideals he shared with the world were not new lessons to be taught but wisdom “as old as the hills.”

Certainly his love for the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita – also played an important role in his life, forming one of the strongest foundations for his commitment to ahimsa – nonviolence or love. He felt that, “Renunciation of the fruits of action is the central tenet of the Gita.” He believed that the means must justify the ends and not that the ends could ever justify the means. This belief that one must not seek the fruits of his actions, revealed to Gandhi, that only peaceful, just and harmonious methods and means could ever truly achieve the peace, justice and harmony which he sought.

Gandhi gives his interpretation to the Gita’s description of the perfect devotee, the perfect renunciate:

“He is a devotee who is jealous of none, who is a fount of mercy, who is without egotism, who is selfless, who treats alike cold and heat, happiness and misery, who is ever forgiving, who is always contented, whose resolutions are firm, who has dedicated mind and soul to God, who causes no dread, who is not afraid of others, who is free from exultation, sorrow and fear, who is pure, who is versed in action and yet remains unaffected by it, who renounces all fruit, good or bad, who treats friend and foe alike, who is untouched by respect or disrespect, who is not puffed up by praise, who does not go under when people speak ill of him, who loves silence and solitude, who has a disciplined reason. Such devotion is inconsistent with the existence of strong attachments.”

Gandhi’s emphasis on selfless service was also a central pillar of his life. And this very ideal of selflessness is rooted in the concept of nonattachment. We may feel that selflessness is not the criterion of civilization today especially in terms of economic growth.  However, we often find our world turned upside down and struggle to achieve the balance which provides physical, emotional, and mental security. This question of security…one with which we daily concern ourselves whether we are a parent, a spouse, a business executive, or a government official, always comes back to the question of how do we insure that our security will never be breached?  Will we always be able to provide for ourselves, for our family, for our community, for our nation, for our world?  Will our investments be sound? Will our jobs be saved? Will there be enough resources?  We hear much about the scarcity of oil coupled with the increasing demand.  What about water?  With exponential growth of the human population, will there be enough fresh water for all of our need? Some say that the future conflicts of the world will not be over oil but over water.

One may find much in Gandhi’s service to shed light on today’s concerns.  He spoke of rights with responsibilities. He emphasized the need for the education of the “head, heart and hands”. He knew the value of labor, the strength and respect that a human being derives from the feeling of providing useful service. He emphasized that the work of the farmer and the street sweeper were of equal importance as the lawyer and the administrator. He dwelled on the importance of not just mutual tolerance of different religions but of true appreciation for one another’s faith.

Gandhi’s idealism is certainly a reaching and striving for the highest and best in human capacity to learn and grow, to share and understand. Gandhi said that “Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth. Life is an aspiration. Its mission is to strive after perfection which is self-realization. The ideal must not be lowered because of our weaknesses or imperfection.”