Sunday, July 6, 2008

A modern take on Gandhi....

"There are none so blind as those who will not see."

This summer, I've been trying to educate myself. It's something I like to do when I feel my intellect to be writhing under the weight of mathematical formulae and dates of historical power structures. Academia has the amazing ability of numbing your intellectual curiosity. So ya, my brain needs a little jump-start sometimes. I've been reading history books, classic literature and poetry, modern reflections, and counternarrative tales. I spend hours on Wikipedia reading about people, places, politics, and perceptions. I'm halfway through the Bhagawad Gita and I'm surprised that I called myself a Hindu without ever reading the text that virtually encapsulates its spirituality (BTW - it's an amazing and enlightening read. I would recommend it if you have about a year or so on your hands). Hopefully, this will all pay off and I will one day be able to legitimately call myself somewhat knowledgeable about the world - at least that will justify (or just solidify) all my opinions.

One book that has especially moved me is Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography, titled "My Experiments with Truth." Exploring the life of one of the most historic (and IMO, spiritually elite) men from his own perspective is a really unbelievable experience. Obviously, I was already familiar with Gandhi's interpretation of ahimsa, the principal of nonviolence that sets the tone of a lot of Hindu/Indian culture. And there was the idea of satyagraha, the "passive resistance" movements. But I picked up a lot more from Gandhi's narration; I'm going to share what I found relevant and inspiring because I believe that these principles applied to life and living are something worth taking note of. The quote at the top of the post, to me, sums up a lot about this philosophy: take a step back sometimes, and think. Don't get blind-sighted by your success or demoralized by your failures. Perspective.

Anyways, don't want to preach, so here: Gandhi, applied....

1. The truth. So this is one of Gandhi's favorites. This is what he lived his life by. Solely the truth. Now, I wish we could all do that - but when it comes to counting how may shots of tequila we took that one night or fluffing your resume up for that Deloitte internship, truth dissolves and fiction/lies/exaggeration take control. But we're all human, and to a certain extent, can't change that. IMO, perfectly adhering to the truth is impractical for most of us but Gandhi himself. My Interpretation: Be real. Be real about (and to) yourself, your friends, your activities, and your relationships. And the hardest part about that is knowing and understanding yourself and telling yourself the truth. I struggle with it all the time, but I think trying this is the biggest potential accomplishment. Approach everything you do with sincerity and legitimately try to put all you've got into it; it'll make you feel a lot better about the results. If you start telling yourself the truth about your intentions, capabilities, and goals, you'll be on the way to a less conflicted mentality and healthier relationships with people around you.

2. Lead by example. Gandhi's message rested upon him willing to act on all of his principles and rhetoric; he always meant exactly what he said and was willing to do what it took to prove that. When the lower castes of India were being denied the opportunity to vote alongside the rest of the Indian public even after massive political movements spearheaded by Indian leaders, Gandhi resorted to a 21-day fast that proved successful. The only reason his movements of simplicity and boycotts worked, was because he himself lived and acted upon these ideals to the fullest. My Interpretation: Being a leader means living by your philosophy. There's no room for screwing up or being a hypocrite. It's your responsibility to motivate and encourage the people who believe in you, and make sure that their faith in you is justifiable. If any of you have read Dale Carnegie, you know where this comes from: don't criticize or condemn; an effective leader motivates by being the person that everyone wants to be and living the ideals that they strive to have. I've been in EXTREMELY demanding leadership positions this past year itself, and I've learned how important it is to be an admirable leader. I've had a fair amount of success, but don't get me wrong - I've messed up a lot. A lot. And most of that stemmed from my cockiness and unwillingness to see my faults. But that's a whole different story.....

3. Grassroots movements. Gandhi originally was not known for his work on the national level (surprise, right?); rather, he started in South Africa, working for a rich merchant who had financial issues with his brother. From there, he became active within the Indian community because of the high level of segregation and discrimination prominent amongst South Africans at the time. He began organizing the Indians in South Africa (they had been there for generations, but hadn't taken agency) and created the first Indian orgnization in South Africa. Actually, even when he moved back to India, he started small too - he went to the tiny area of Champaran to work with peasants who were being overtaxed by their British landlords. My Interpretation: I want to do huge things in life; we all do. But don't forget that everything big starts with everything small. For real and well-earned success, you always have to start at the bottom, and that's an admirable thing to do. Don't get caught up with the big picture when there's a long ladder to climb. Find the communities, people, and ideas that mean the most to you, and do something for them. Do it because you believe that it's the right thing to do and because you have the ability to do it. It might be small and it might go unnoticed by the majority of people, but if you did something that you believe was good and right, you did the best thing that you might ever do in your life.

4. Discipline. Gandhi, although born a vegetarian, at one point started eating meat under the influence of his friends. He soon stopped again because of his religion and his parents, and eventually became a Fruitarian, eating only raw fruits an nuts. He did this in an effort to reduce sensory gratification and focus only on bodily need. He also took a vow of celibacy to effectively end what he called "carnal desire." He exercised daily and slept minimally. He was a reeealllyyy disciplined man. My Interpretation: You've all heard it before: we live in a consumptive society and we're voracious for everything and's true. I can't get enough of the mall, or Taco Bell, or my iPhone. But keeping control over your decisions and actions can mean a lot. Think about living without something that you are absolutely addicted to - and then do it. I'm a HUGE meat-eater - and so is my family and all ethnically Kashmiri people. After reading the book, I decided to go vegetarian. Just for the hell of it. And it's been really hard, but the concept of sticking to a decision for the sake of discipline is both rewarding and protein-deficient, I guess. Wake up an hour earlier every day to read or go to the gym, start making schedules, and prioritize your tasks. See your productivity boom. And you'll be a lot happier.

5. Make your voice heard. Gandhi always made sure that his opinion was heard. When he was disrespected at a train station in South Africa, he wrote to the manager expressing his dismay and call to action. When he was kicked off a horse carriage because he wasn't white, he sent a letter to the person in charge demanding reimbursement. He kept in touch with writers whom he admired and activists around the world. He even started his own newspapers when he was a mere attorney in South Africa, and later, in Gujurat (where he started voicing the national opinion). My Interpretation: We so often fall prey to notion that we are insignificant and can't create any substantial change. To a certain degree, that true. But being active and voicing your opinons/experiences is crucial to bringing social progress and real input to overwhelmingly mechanized systems. When you see something wrong, make that heard. Don't let laziness or fear or approbations deter your voice from being heard. It's the only we can hope for social awareness.

6. Nonviolence. We all know about Gandhi's passive resistance movements that led to Indian independence. Let's cut to My Interpretation: Ok, so clearly we can't passively resist facts of life. The other day, my roommate got an angry call from our landlord demanding a late fee for my late rent payment. Being in the middle of the book, I decided to passively resist this "clearly unjust" decision by simply not paying the fee. I think my landlord thinks I'm crazy and has stopped asking me for it. But really, I'm being incredibly stupid, and this is going to catch up with me sooner or later. How do I apply satyagraha to real life, then? First, having a fair and balanced (oh...I definitely just quoted Fox....) version of right from wrong. It may sound easy, but adequately developing your moral compass is one of the hardest things you'll do in your life and something you may die without accomplishing. But try. Once this is estimated, stick to what is right and don't get mad about what is wrong. Just try to fix it. Try and control your anger; it won't get you anywhere but further way from your friends and the people you love. Oh, and try going vegetarian. Some of those PETA ads are hot, and I'll take you shopping in Trader Joe's for veggie meat.

7. Humility. Gandhi never once forgot the people who helped him along the way. His brother, whose idea it was to send Gandhi to England to become a Barrister (because he had failed college entrance exams), received money from Gandhi for his family all along. Gandhi remained in touch which people from England and South Africa, and never forgot names. He even prefaced his book by saying:

If anything that I write in these pages should strike the reader as being touched with pride, then he must take it that there is something wrong with my quest, and that my glimpses are no more than a mirage. Let hundreds like me perish, but let truth prevail. Let us not reduce the standards of truth even by a hair's breadth for judging erring mortals like myself. (XII)

Unbelievable. My Interpretation: Don't get caught up in your success or cocky about your future. Remember that you are wherever you are only because of the dozens of people that helped you get there. I have lived this mistake most of life, and I'm trying to change myself. Be appreciative of everyone around you, your friends, your family, and the bitchy GSI that decides to give you an A. Smile at people you walk by. Be a pleasant person that listens to other people and engages in intelligent and thought-provoking conversations. Care about the people that love you and show that. Never forget that you are nothing without your friends and family. The mark you leave is only as good as those that helped you make it.

I posted these so that everyone who reads this could have an idea of what I strive to do and what is important to me and maybe, to you. Also, I felt that Gandhi’s philosophy has been highly watered down and degraded of its meaning - it deserved a revisiting.

So, all of this is highly loaded stuff. At the same time, I want to make my intentions clear: I believe that living strictly by Gandhi’s philosophy is neither practical nor desirable to people like me. That’s because Gandhi’s philosophy requires a total retreat from social constructs and disavowing of social practices and principles. Being a functional and active part of society (to a certain degree), makes us too easily co-opted to do Gandhi justice. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.

Another thing I learned from Gandhi’s history is to repel blind following - that’s just dogma, condensed. Following Gandhi blindly can’t do very much for us now, and if anything, could hurt us. Politically, Gandhi was not astute, and his belief in the truth made him overly trusting and thus, gullible.

And that’s another thing that is highly important and can’t be underestimated: being shrewd. Another thing I need to work on. Make you decisions according to the principles above, but never leave your business acumen behind or get overly caught up in ideals. We live in the real world, and the consequences are real. Unfortunately.

That's all. Till the next time I am bored of watching CNN's "best political team" cover no international or national politics but Obama and Mccain's salad preferences....
[Does no one care about the human rights crisis in Zimbabwe that the AU virtually condoned? South Korean rioting? Mongolia's state of emergency? Hezbollah? ]


darkchocolate said...


Monk said...

If you're serious about being vegetarian, the key to getting sufficient amounts of protein is: beans/lentils + chapathi/rice. That gives us our whole protein. My mom makes: chapathi + daal or rajma or channa. And typical south indian food is rasam (flavor and nutrients) and lentil rice (protein right). Dosas and idlis are whole proteins also because they are mixtures of rice and lentils.

Don't forget to eat tons of fruits and vegetables for fiber and other nutrients. Also, make sure your food has tons of spices (turmeric, cumin, ginger, cayenne powder). They serve as antibacterial agents and digestives. Indians were quiteeee smart! :)

- Suman

Arjun Banerjee said...

I was reading about the ethics of vegetarianism around this time last year, and I read Gandhi's book, The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism.

I was surprised to find that his reasons were utilitarian in nature - he claimed that killing fewer life forms is better than killing more life forms. Conceding that by breathing he regularly kills airborne microbes, and that he can't avoid that, he wrote that he was just trying his best to minimize the lives he killed.

I've tried to find a true moral basis for vegetarianism but have failed (as I wrote above, it seems Gandhi believes even killing vegetables is immoral, it's just less immoral than killing animals as well). As far as I'm concerned, plants are just as "alive" as animals and have an equal right to not be killed.

So then I thought a better reason to go veg was that it was less hypocritical on my part. My roommate last year was a seasoned deer and rabbit hunter. When I asked him how he could be so cruel as to kill "innocent deer and cute rabbits," he replied, "You eat chicken don't you? You'll eat it from the market but are too queasy to kill one for yourself?"

That struck now I don't eat animals that I couldn't imagine killing myself. I don't think I could kill a cow, lamb, or goat with my own hands, for example. Yikes, I'm still a sinner.

Arjun Banerjee said...

I should clarify, I haven't gone veg, I meant that that would be a better reason TO go veg than anything else.

Keep it up Mego!