On the 65th anniversary of Gandhiji's assassination, many thoughts come to my mind. Among them are the complex maze of his ideas, the interpretations of his life, philosophy and writings, and, of course, some issues that plague humankind today.
Despite the profound legacy of Swaraj, Satyagraha, Swadeshi and Sarvodaya, which has been continued through the lives of leaders such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, the world today is at a perilous edge.
For me, one of Gandhiji's key ideas that is of great relevance today is his holistic approach to life. His experiments with truth were not confined to individual realms of spirituality, politics, science, society and economy, but to all of them together in one interconnected theory and practice of life. My first lesson in life, learnt from my parents, was this aspect of interconnectedness.
At Phoenix Settlement (set up by Gandhi in Durban), where I grew up, this reality of the interconnectedness of life became very much a part of my life. And when in later life I began to view things in their isolated formations, an alien picture emerged. I learnt the difference between Gandhiji's worldview and the worldview I learnt in school and university.
Studying and analysing economics, history, geography, political science and so on in their neat boxes, isolated from each other, allowed me to see a clear picture of each discipline, but did not give me a knowledge of the nuances of their interconnectedness.
I realised that there was a gap in the formation of my worldview. That realisation made me value Gandhiji's holistic approach. According to his approach, life consists of the environment, of all the tasks that have to be performed to live, and the tailoring of our lives so that we can live in harmony with other beings and our environment.
Life at Phoenix comprised cleaning (including toilets), cooking, working in the vegetable garden, all the tasks in the production of a newspaper (Opinion) printed from there, and countless other routine things one had to do every day, especially when one did not have electricity, tap water, sewerage system and general municipal services.
I grew up respecting all the so-called menial tasks, which are essential for a clean environment. The fact that we should not expect others to perform such tasks for us when we were not prepared to do them was consistently impressed on me.
I also grew up learning that our lives were intertwined with nature; the little stream that passed through the farm, the earth, plants, animals and birds were integral parts of our lives. I was taught to conserve natural resources for future generations.
I appreciate these lessons even more today, as we witness massive ecological destruction because of planning that does not take into account the essential values of environment but goes with the values of greed.
Certainly, one realises the truth in Gandhiji's words: “The world has sufficient to meet the needs of all but not enough to meet the greed of anyone.”
The love and attention that I received from my parents and, though occasionally on our visits to India, from Gandhiji, have been invaluable. The meaning of love, of forgiveness, and of reconciliation were all lessons from them.
Gandhiji also aroused in me the patriotic spirit that raises not a blind arrogance of my own greatness as a citizen of a country, but a feeling of love for Mother Earth, which arouses a responsibility to ensure that my land rises up to the challenges of life. These challenges require us to help maintain the dignity of all people and constantly pursue truth.
However, Gandhiji's legacy of nonviolence to achieve contentment among all has been overshadowed by violence, viciousness, vengefulness, and unbridled exploitation of people and natural resources.
Yes, many leaders have valued his teachings. Yet, we see the continuing divisions among us, accompanied by the establishment of hierarchies and power bases. The key issues that plague humankind in the present epoch are related to power.
Power, today, is not at all as Gandhiji visualised it—as a form of trusteeship. Now it is self-centred; it exploits and annihilates. As a result of power bases, we see evils such as gender oppression, human trafficking, labour exploitation and caste-class divisions. Power equations have led to the creation of a huge chasm between those who have access to unlimited resources and those who are deprived of even the basic necessities of life. This chasm often leads to confrontations. It is incorrect to believe that the government, and the creation of laws alone, can stop violence.
I feel much can be learnt and taught at the civil society level. If we are able to promote respect and love among all, and break down the barriers that we have built over the years—based on religion, caste, class, gender and regional differences—violence will disappear.
Let us also etch in our minds Gandhiji's maxim: “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” Hence, the vociferous demand for the death penalty—as we see now in the case of rape—is certainly not the answer. It lies in making a concerted effort to educate and promote a culture of nonviolence.
Gandhiji maintained that, though the process would be slow, the purpose should be to transform people through love and persuasion, not revenge and punishment. He said our struggle should not be about vanquishing but arriving at a common understanding in the interest of all.
The mighty have been able to maintain their power by galvanising social, political and economic spheres. The civil society, on the other hand, is fragmented and weak.
Gandhiji urged us to realise our interconnectedness and begin to live a life of self-sufficiency, a life of principles, and conserve and respect all lives. Through this we shall gain strength.
We cannot allow the 1 per cent of the high and mighty to command to us. If we can build strong civil societies, we can bring about change.
Finally, Gandhiji's life taught me the importance of methodical living, discipline and time-management. I learnt that while being conscious of the calling that is imposed on a person through lineage, or through choice, there is much that brings us joy. The secret lies in finding these little things that raise one's spirit from drudgery to enjoyment tempered by responsibility.
Ela Gandhi is Mahatma Gandhi's granddaughter and a peace activist.
A plague once hit an Indian ghetto in Johannesburg. The sick and dying were quarantined in an abandoned building and were looked after by an English nurse. She recalled later that one evening, at the height of the epidemic, a frail figure appeared at the door. The nurse tried to drive him away but he insisted on helping. He stayed throughout the night and attended to the sick till relief arrived. No prizes for guessing who the man was.