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Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute to Mahatma Gandhi at Raj Ghat in New Delhi on Oct. 2, 2020. (IANS photo)

This is what Gandhiji means to me in this day and age. I wish to draw from my extensive work on the practical application of the pedagogical method for education that Gandhi had formulated in his Nai Talim and its ramifications for building a character of peace-loving. It is often asked how, against the torrent of a mob, Gandhi was able to bring about an ocean of peace and calm?

In an angry crowd gathered to air some grievances and stage a protest against a cause, it is often all too easy for a few provocateurs to channel the anger in directions that can be volatile and violent. During one such volatile gathering, Gandhi appealed to the hearts of those gathered; he called for unity and discipline and urged the crowd to refrain from violence. Not only that, but he insisted that the gathering was as much for the purposes of making a protest as it was for deepening a personal experience of nonviolent resistance — i.e., of peace.

The protest might fail to achieve its intended (political) end, but that should not deter the satyagrahis from experiencing and sharing the deep sense of peace which such an action in its own accord should bring about. This latter goal is in a way distinct from the more immediate aim of changing the attitude, say, for example, of the government, or bringing about reforms in policies and so on. In other words, the gathering is to be seen, quite apart from all else, as an occasion for the continuing experiment in strengthening the sense of peace, individually and collectively.

This, then is its spiritual trajectory. It was through such an appeal that Gandhi was able to sway the intense ocean of anger away from a potentially volatile reaction towards an inner, more reflective experience of peace. The crowd later dispersed without any trace of violence. The regular prayer meetings that he held with gatherings of Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs in his ashrams and elsewhere became like workshops for intense praxis where the sense of peace was harnessed and felt more deeply before any practical activities or efforts were engaged in (CWMG 86:419; Prabhakar, 1968).

Gandhi, then, maintained his faith in nonviolence to the very end; while he intended it to be a means to truth, and nonviolent action as a morally exemplary form of political action, he elevated nonviolence as a virtue on par with truth, obscure as this notion might seem to be. Nonviolence is to be valued not simply as the prototype of what one ought to do, or not to do as in the case of Jaina ethical teachings, but as the cultivation of an inner disposition, or habit of the ego-mind-desire complex, that would ensue in a measured action appropriate to the circumstance at hand.

Time and again, Gandhi attributed the lack of this and such values to the absence of proper education; and he also complained that the environment was too artificial to instill deeper values and to challenge students to work through difficult and trying situations without resorting to violence or harm of any sort. But the kind of training he had in mind would foster universal ethics, unfettered by the bureaucratic, mechanistic and fanatical tendencies that appeared to be characteristic of the more orthodox educational systems.

Gandhi perceived a direct link between the nonviolent order which he wished to see established in India and his scheme of Nai Talim or Basic Education. Even the spinning wheel had a place in the elementary curriculum (1937b). Manual activity and craftwork, such as spinning, while they fulfill certain vocational needs, also provide the ambience for the development of specific traits within the individuals (Pillai:136), which in turn is necessary for transmission of values.

The values he considered fundamental pertain to mental self-reliance, material self‑sufficiency, physical well-being, social concerns, regard for nature, and fine arts, such as music (1937a:93). Gandhi gave prominence also to the questioning of experience, to the thirst to understand and know why one is doing such and such. And this enquiry, he insisted, must occur in the horizon of nonviolence. So Gandhi would reiterate, at a 1938 National Education Board meeting, that: “We shall have to concentrate on nonviolence. All our problems therefore have to be solved nonviolently. Our arithmetic, our science, our history will have a nonviolent approach and the problem in these subjects will be colored by nonviolence” (1938a; 1950:145).

In the same speech Gandhi proudly contrasted his unique “school of nonviolence experience” against the “school of violence” perpetrated by Hitler and Mussolini in Europe and claimed that his school and philosophy would outlast theirs (1937). History is perhaps a better witness to and judge of this claim.

(The writer is a professor at the Center for Dharma Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.)


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