Gandhi: Imagining the unimaginable

L S Shashidhara
While Mahatma Gandhi did not use scientific jargons to explain his conclusions, he rightly pointed out intricate balance between nature and human. (Express archive photo)

I am not a scholar on Mahatma Gandhi. Neither am I a historian, or someone one who has systematically studied his life, work and message and his impact on contemporary India and beyond. And by no stretch of imagination, can I be called a follower of Gandhi. Then, why do I even think of writing about someone, understanding whom is beyond my capability and imagination?

As the day of his 150th anniversary was approaching, I started feeling restless. Although Gandhi Jayanti is an annual affair, in modern days we do give special importance to 50th, 100th, 150th, or 200th birth anniversaries. Perhaps, newspapers (the only thing I rely on for news) reminded us about Gandhi, his work and influence, much more than (although much less than expected) in earlier years (I was too young to recall what was it like around the days of his 100th birth anniversary).

I am a scientist. I research and teach in the area of Biology. In 2009, we all celebrated 200th birth anniversary of Charles Darwin and the 150th year of publication of his famous book ‘Origin of Species”, by organizing symposia, workshops, popular lectures etc. It was obvious for a biologist to celebrate Darwin, because, as Dobzhansky stated “nothing in biology makes sense except in the context of evolution”.

From my childhood memories of Gandhi Jayanti days in schools, from what I heard from my father and other elders in the family about how much they were influenced by Gandhi, my own little reading of Gandhi, the respect I get outside India because I am from the land of Gandhi (and everyone wants to say and ask something about Gandhi), makes me think, I can make sense of the complex society I live in only in the light of Gandhi! Gandhi’s name is deeply embedded in our psyche. His name, work and philosophy are complicatedly intertwined with post-Independent India’s history and future. It is like, you can change anything in the world, but can’t change your parentage. We can’t change the fact that Gandhi was and indeed is the father of the nation... more like a natural father than an adopted one.

Because he is more like a father than God or a Prophet or a “Avatara Purusha”, we take liberty in criticizing his actions and decisions, much the same way we would comment “what if my father had done this or that, which would have changed the way we live”. But, somewhere deep inside we all know intentions of fathers were beyond doubt and not questionable, and always for the our good. Criticism of Gandhi was largely in that category.

Like children, we expected more than what he gave. Much has written about how Gandhi’s philosophy guided framing our Constitution, various democratic institutions etc. Although we have failed the nation by allowing few incidents of genocides and several incidents of communal riots, and many incidents of mob lynching, much of our internal conflicts are settled by dharana, satyagraha, fasting, petitions etc -- all non-violent methods. The nation-wide support gained during recent movements (Anna Hazare or Nirbhaya) are attributable to strict adherence to Gandhian methods by the protesting by people.

When I was working for my lectures on history of modern education system/s in India or editing an anthology on the impact of scientific research carried out in India in transforming India since Independence, I came across again and again, the various ways in which Gandhi influenced our educational system, from schools to higher education. He was one of the early leaders of science and technology, motivating scientific community to work on providing food, nutrition and affordable healthcare to all, using modern science, although scientists were working under most constrained conditions, with very limited resources and poor peer-to-peer interactions, which is vital to pursue scientific methods.

Biographers of Gandhi have written that although he was admired by all scientists of the time, he was against modern science (I tend to believe it was more likely modern technology that he was against), at least, the science for the sake of science, which doesn’t care for humanity. His thoughts may have also been strengthened by the fact that modern technology dictated much of the Second World War, particularly the scale of casualties.

Perhaps, he did not spare much time for understanding what scientific pursuit actually entails. In reality, Gandhi was a true scientist. He experimented with truth. He pursued it by a series of validations, without claiming that his "hypothesis" was the ultimate truth. He changed his understanding of truth and he changed his opinions on many matters as he learnt from his experiments.

An important feature of science that he practised with much conviction was listening to his critics, and their arguments and counter arguments. He responded to these through argumentation and not by confrontation. The tolerance and non-violence that he strictly adhered to must have come naturally to him because he practised scientific methods with rigour and integrity, like a true scientist.

Gandhi was a keen observer. While he did not use scientific jargons to explain his conclusions, he rightly pointed out intricate balance between nature and human, which has to be carefully guarded for sustainability. That is why he was against centralised economy, industrialization, big dams etc. Environmental degradation, climate change, increased inequality in the society, gender gap – all of these could have been prevented or, at least, minimised if we had followed his philosophy in letter and spirit. If marginalized and oppressed people across the planet have some hopes for a better and dignified life and if Greta Thunberg has to have some confidence that there may be some people on the planet, who may not fail her, it is all because Gandhi is still somewhere within us and, in one form or the other, in public discourse.

I am hoping against hope that we Indians will not one day export Gandhi without keeping a bit of him, the way we have exported Buddha from this land. But even then, like Buddha, Gandhi is alive and provides some light to those who seek. Those who do not seek are the losers.

L S Shashidhara is a Professor of Biology at Ashoka University (currently on lien from IISER Pune) Opinion expressed here is personal.