Who does not know Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi'slife?born on October 2, 1869 at Porbander; had an orthodox upbringing; went to Inner Temple in London and called to the Bar in 1891; unsuccessful as a lawyer in India; goes to South Africa and faces racism in full force and where his experiment serves as a model for his mass movement in India.
Before his emergence on the political scene of India, Gandhi had already brought out a booklet entitled Hind Swaraj to present his world-view. He himself saw the text as representing ?the views?held by many Indians not touched by what is known as civilisation.? He said his motive ?was to serve my country, to find out the Truth and to follow it.?
The book under review is a compilation of some of the essential writings of Gandhi who was one of the greatest statesmen and morally influential figures of the 20th century and whose message and relevance transcends national boundaries even to this day. The select writings culled from Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi focus on themes which were central to his philosophy.
The book is divided into eight sections in which the first section discusses the modern civilisation, the civil society and its various institutions. The intellectual development associated with modern civilisation?reason, science, history?the dominant themes of post-enlightenment thought met with rejection by him. Gandhi'scritique offers the alternative to modern civilisation as being located outside the domain of civil society and post-enlightenment thought. Thus the alternative to modern civilisation is outside the civil society. And Gandhi felt that India was ideally placed to provide this attention to millions of Indians living in villages who were not attracted by the trappings of modern civilisation.
The traditional village is opposite of the individualistic world of civil society. Life is governed by a communal morality where each member performs his duty. It is the ?common people? living ?independently? that Gandhi turns and says that India ?to me means its teeming millions on whom depends the existence of its princes and our own.? India'shopes lie in the peasantry.
Gandhi'ssays that challenge to the presence of modern civilisation in India, i.e. British rule, would come from the peasantry since it is untouched by modern civilisation. And this means that the challenge would have to be non-violent since the Indian peasantry has never been violent.
Further Gandhi felt that an armed resistance to British rule would Europeanise India whereas Gandhi'saim had been exactly the opposite. He called this mode of resistance as satyagraha. Complete non-cooperation would lead to the collapse of any government.
Since passive resistance, the only road to swaraj, was also liable through personal suffering, it followed that swaraj could only be ?experienced by each one for himself.? Every individual who chose the path of satyagraha would learn to regulate his own life by observing perfect chastity, adopting poverty, following truth and cultivating fearlessness. A moral life on the part of every individual was the necessary precondition for swaraj. Gandhi said, ?In my opinion, swaraj and Ramarajya are one and the same thing?We call a state Ramarajya when both the ruler and his subjects are straightforward, when both are pure in heart, when both are inclined towards self-sacrifice, when both exercise restraint and self-control while enjoying worldly pleasures, and, when the relationship between the two is as good as that between a father and a son.?
In his articles, Gandhi says that the Indian civilisation has as its foundation on the system of Ramarajya and that is why it is more long-lasting than and superior to modern / Western civilisation. ?Indian civilisation,? he reiterates, ?is the best while the European is a nine days? wonder.?
Talking of swaraj and swadeshi, Gandhi says that perfect morality is an essential prerequisite of all passive resistance if swaraj is to be achieved. He wanted the use of swadeshi goods because his vision of an alternative society meant use of everything Indian and meant more for him than mere independence from the British.
Gandhi'sideas by their very nature could be used in many different directions. He himself would go on to show the power of political movement whose mass base was the peasantry, whose principal modality was non-violence and whose direction from its inception was sought to be regulated. It would lead to other nationalist leaders discovering the peasantry and also becoming aware of their ?responsibility? towards them. Non-violence was the center-piece of his political theory.
During the three great mass upsurges associated with the name of Gandhi?the Non-cooperation Movement (1920-1922), the Civil Disobedience Movement 1930-1933) and the Quit India Movement (1942)?the common people responded to Gandhi'scall. Gandhi'sprincipled insistence on non-violence occasioned the withdrawal of a mass movement; the same principle however, also ensured that a political struggle against the British would not snowball into a radical social revolution seeking to turn the world upside down. This basic guarantee made Gandhian mobilisation attractive not only to the rich and dominant peasants but also to Indian business groups.
The other sections include his views on women and sex; his arguments against caste and untouchability; his thoughts on capitalism and socialism; his commitment to a united India; his firm belief in religious tolerance and his lifelong struggle towards the self-rule.
In brief, the author, who is editor of The Telegraph, tries to cover the richness and the ambiguity of Gandhi'sideas, leaving it to the reader to understand and interpret Gandhi in his or her own way.
(Penguin Books India (P) Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)