Monday, October 17, 2011

Is Fasting+WearingWhite = A Gandhian??

Tiger! Ashram! Elephant! Taj Mahal! Cow! IT! Slums! Yoga! Gandhi!
are the standard keywords used by a western tourist writing a book after one intense trip to India. Somehow the above words offer a catharsis from the riot of rawness experienced. I am neither a tourist nor an aspiring book writer. Just a blogger. Writing about Gandhi (which one you ask? the Mahatma, silly). 

 A picture I once picked up in a street fair
Fasting!  Dhoti! Ashram! Ahimsa! Fasting! Satyagraha! Salt March! Ben Kingsley! Quit India! 2 min silence on Jan 30th! Independence! Fasting! Hey Ram!
are the words an Indian associates with Gandhi. They are more or less on the mark except that they don't present the complete idea of the man that was the Mahatma. Yes, there is a preponderance with fasting, especially now. I am not into fasting, I will declare right away. I start feeling extra pangs of hunger within an hour after deciding, perchance, to skip a meal.

Here is what this post is about: Can enacting a layer or two of the Gandhian philosophy be called Gandhian? I'll say.....No.

Just fasting is not enough to call one a Gandhian. Fasting while wearing white is not enough. Fasting, wearing white and protesting do not automatically a Gandhian make. Especially if the protests are willingly violent. Another way to reiterate is – Does dribbling a basketball turn one into a Micheal Jordan? Wearing a white shirt and shouting STELLA! STELLA! near a flight of stairs make one into a Marlon Brando? Being neurotic and wispy while talking with a deliberate stutter into a Woody Allen? No, right?
Wearing a black turtle neck into Steve Jobs? Directing a Bengali movie into Satyajit Ra.......What?
I can stop now? Okay.
Then why call any Tom, Dubey and Humera who wears white, fasts and has an agenda as Gandhian? That is being Tomian, Dubeyian and Humerian. Nothing wrong with that, no?

So what makes one a Gandhian? My answer: If a person does not have mindful, meaningful, disinterested and useful hard work at the heart of her philosophy of life we cannot begin to call her a Gandhian. No, meetings, processions and speeches do not count. I hope to explain.

What was Gandhi's philosophy? Why is work at center stage?
A three-layer system is my best description:   Foundation, Methodology, Preferred Practices.
1. The Foundation, 2. Methodology, 3. Preferred Practices
1. At the core, The Foundation: Gandhi strove to being a stithapragna- one who is not swayed by the extremes in life-events, is not attached or averse, and can see the pair of opposites in all happenings. While having mindful, detached labor as the central grounding force. In his case it was the spinning wheel.
While he was deeply religious, as in praying and meditating for clarity, his religion was not of showy worship for personal gain. But at the core, work was his worship.

2. The Methodology: Gandhi steadfastly believed in a right way of living. For him it was a simple, sincere and self-sustainable lifestyle, befitting a poor country. He lived in a simple ashram where everyone contributed to the work of daily run and maintenance. He walked his talk, he wore homemade clothes spun by hand, nothing dissimilar to what the millions in poor villages wore. He ate simple meals. He followed the truth and ahimsa as he saw them. He lived in an exemplary way; using simple solutions to complex issues without getting lost in the symptoms. He was consistent to a fault- being a vegetarian, he forsake dairy, which was unheard of in his times1.

3. Preferred Practices: That he was disciplined is an understatement. He maintained a routine. Sensory pleasures were shunned to keep the even the temptations of distraction afar. Fasting as a self-purification technique was a part of life. He was very well aware and experienced in the science of fasting. He said2- unless the desire for food disappears completely, a fast will not endure. He regularly followed a maun vrat (fast of silence) to center his thoughts.

He developed this philosophy drawing from his experience, intuition, intellect and knowledge. He followed the philosophy with an unlikely combination of punishing dedication and dry wit. He put himself within the independence movement and touched the minds and hearts of people hungry for a genuine leader. The rest is history.

Sure, we can disagree with parts or all of Gandhi's philosophy. Argue about the effects of his methods on political and social events. That is something else, outside the scope of this post.

But respect and admiration are possible even if we disagree on aspects outside of the core context. I admit, I perhaps wouldn't have lasted very long in his ashram. For example, I would have found it difficult to wake up at 4.00 AM for a prayer meeting. Dudes, prayer and all is kinda okay, but why not switch to 4.00 PM, under the shade of the mulberry tree? I would have asked. And ayyo! chai is also not allowed?
Now, that does not disqualify me from ever becoming a Gandhian if I ever wished to, as much as being able to wake up at 4.00 AM (w/wo fasting) does not automatically make one a Gandhian.

More on the distinction between his philosophy and the effects. Gandhi was leading a nation- his core principles were iron clad, there was no gray area. His principled moral high ground sustained the movement. Compromise for convenience was not possible, even for family. He simply could not have filtered the philosophy for meeting specific agendas. With time as his popularity and influence grew, so did his detractors. There eventually came a time when the stakes and tensions rose higher than the sky. We all know the events that followed. 

Here is a footage of Gandhi. The real one, physically emaciated and weak. Notice how he keeps his focus and clarity by concentrating inwardly. He strikes such a contrast to our present where we learn to speak without feeling, sell without caring.

At the end of it all, a plain man, living simply and quietly, spinning his own clothes while earnestly doing his share of work of the living, stood up to an empire, changed his country and the world. His methods are even more relevant in the present state of consumerism where more&more is the flailing mantra. In the long run, I'll bet, less is more.

But we cannot not talk about the elephant in the room!

In India we elevate our legends to deities. In doing so we miss out on the person behind the fame. What made the person. His ideals, assumptions and mistakes. The man beyond the myth. Relevant viewpoints not immediately captured get lost over time.
The elephant here is Gandhi's alleged sex life. It is of  much interest to visiting writers.  In fact, it can be added to the visitor keyword list, because talking about Gandhi, just the Mahatma, is not enough anymore.

First, let us separate the fiction from hearsay.
Fiction: To presume from the tone of friendly banter in correspondence from another era that an A was having an affair with a B is not right. Even if within the same time period, an otherwise cool C can have a difficult time with lively banter of a D & E, especially when out of context. 
Then there is culture. Behavior of men with each other from some countries the East is different from the West, even now. Say for example, men holding hands in each place can mean different things.  Assumption, either way, can skew the picture.

Hearsay: There are some reports that Gandhi was traumatized because feelings of desire arose in his lonely, stressed out later years. He did not seem to keep this a secret. Apparently his letters chronicling his struggles were destroyed by some of the people around him. We are left with hushed hearsay. A revered, old man's efforts to conquer his body must have been a subject of much taboo in a conservative society.  
Again and again in history we see, any attempt to cover-up or mislead destroys credibility far more than any perceived moral failing of an eminent person.
Finally, it comes down to what we want to take from Gandhi's life. I believe, even if hypothetically speaking all the allegations are true, it still does not change the sum of what the Mahatma was about.

I'll digress for a bit here. Indian literature has many stories about men on a mission or in tapas, inward seeking, meditating in solitude and thus, feeling lonely. The stories continue how this weak state of mind was utilized by their enemies. Even  Gautama Buddha was not spared. First time around, the issue was about food3. In his second penance, Mara, the enemy, felt- Oh, this fella is into some scary Nirvana-weapon, gotta thwart him and sent his daughters to distract. The plan failed.
I wonder, is this for real or are we talking about struggles within a person's own self while on an extraordinary mission to conquer his mind?  Can anyone claim to fully know their own mind and be consistent in their all actions? Especially when one is pushing the boundaries through frontiers of thought and action and idealistically putting oneself first in line?

Here is Gandhi talking about the spinning wheel2-
.It is quite possible that in future people may see harm in the spinning wheel, may come to think of that no one should wear cotton clothes at all, because they do harm. They may, for instance, believe that clothes should be made from fibers extracted from banana leaves. If people should come to feel that way, anyone who still clings to the spinning wheel would be looked upon as a fool. A wise man, however, will mean by the spinning wheel not an article made of wood but any type of work which provides employment to all people....

So Gandhi had the spinning wheel. What have you got if you call yourself a Gandhian? You know, just fasting is not enough.  Fasting while wearing white is also not enough.

1. Gandhi regarded dairy as a luxury, a snighda food item which he can do without. But at a later point he accepted goat milk when he got very weak. Probably was a good decision since Vit b12 only comes from animal sources (dairy included). Goat milk is drier and has less of snigdha quality.
2. From The Bhagavad Gita, M. K. Gandhi, Orient Paperbacks, 1994, Pages 51 and 76-77.
3. Gautama Buddha experienced a return of past feelings of attachment after taking food following a long break. First puzzled, he later concluded that one should try to achieve to a higher state of mind even with food rather than get to an unstable state by deprivation. (Yeah!)

Note: October is the birth month of Gandhi.



  1. I am back again.And this time, I am far more impressed with this very nice piece of work here.I absolutely love it.I have seen many people , little known about mahatma, hating and giving harsh and ridiculous statements, focusing on just the negative and totally ignoring what is worth focusing.You are from those who can see things from a matured standpoint.Just on a person to person basis.I thoroughly enjoyed the post.


  2. Very nice post. Scholarly and a great viewpoint. I'm not sure how many can adopt the harsh asceticism of Gandhi but I do agree his name is casually bandied about as a punchline. "Gandhian" is a very convenient way of aligning oneself with a philosophy sans the human effort involved in pursuing it.

  3. Hey Shenoy, Thanks much!

    E- Indeed, I have been peeved by some of the articles that came out this year. So I had to write this post and make my peace. Thanks!

    D_San- Well said. Thanks for stopping by :)

  4. Enjoyed the post very much. It is also a subject that is close to my heart. Though I had not viewed work as the centrality of what made him great (no doubt - revealing my own dislike for work - or at least the word "work") I can see and appreciate your point. The thing that epitomizes Gandhi for me is the narrow gap between what he thought, what he said and what he did (manasa-vacha-karmana). Of course, what he thought was the long term view of a society that had the ideals of being simple, just and peaceful.


  5. S: The clarity in his thought and word was powered by action. Work was the fuel :)