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Why originality of Gandhi's thoughts, example of his life still inspire people world over

By Moin Qazi* 
Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary reopens a familiar debate around his legacy every year. How could a frail man use his moral strength to galvanize 400 million Indians in their struggle for independence from the mighty British Empire? How did Gandhi inspire ordinary people to turn fear into fearlessness and anger into love? What were his tools for fighting colonialism? How could he inspire the world to embrace his philosophy of nonviolence? What can we learn from him today? And is he still relevant?
Gandhi's legacy has been challenged several times, but its influence continues to grow more relevant as so many of his assumptions come alive. The originality of Mahatma Gandhi's thoughts and the example of his life still inspire people around the world today. In recent years, many scholars have asserted that Gandhi had much to say about the issues that make our present times so volatile: inequality, resentment, the rise of demagoguery, and the breakdown of democratic governance.
In Gandhi, we have the best teacher to guide us even in the modern age, even when the world has undergone a massive political and social churn since Gandhi propounded and practiced his philosophy. Gandhi seemed almost lost to the new generation a few years back, but his life and mission are now being reignited and purveyed with fresh vigour and in a contemporary idiom. From uniting those who believe in humanity to furthering sustainable development and ensuring economic self-reliance, Gandhi offers solutions to every problem.

Meaningful lessons for the workplace

Gandhi's philosophy and social movement offer meaningful lessons to many micro-level interpersonal conflicts in the workplace. Gandhi unified a vast mass of humanity that drewn from diverse cultures into a common goal; this demonstrates that diversity need not impede solidarity. A workplace is replete with people from various backgrounds--be it educational, skill sets, or even cultural profiles. In a workplace, each employee brings with them their legacy of values and traits.
More importantly, every employee carries a distinct personality shaped by the environment in which they have been nurtured. This influences their attitude and approach to various societal challenges. Having a heterogeneous pool of employees can be very challenging. It can pose a severe threat to team morale and drain the employee's mental and physical stamina.
Trying to avoid confronting conflicts because it may require uncomfortable decision-making is the best example of myopic thinking. Unfortunately, in their attempts to keep peace at work, leaders often create artificial, untrustworthy environments or silos of employees, which others use as manipulative neutralisers. This is what happens when one is more concerned about being well-liked.
The best leadership aims to foster an environment where people feel empowered, appreciated, and genuinely happy to be part of the team. Unresolved conflicts often result in loss of productivity, stifling of creativity, and creation of barriers to cooperation and collaboration. The most constructive approach is to harmonize these diversities in a way that they nourish each other and generate powerful synergy.
The greatest gift bequeathed by Gandhi to his companions and followers was how to harness their hidden moral courage into emotional and physical resilience to overcome adversities and downturns. It helped the vast army of unarmed Indians to subjugate the vast army prowess of the British.
The Gandhian techniques of resilience are particularly relevant to the corporate world where executives groomed in business schools find their professional education and corporate wisdom inadequate to navigate uncertain and turbulent times. Gandhi's ideas were a blend of western education and eastern wisdom.

Resilience: a powerful vehicle for meaningful change

Resilience is an important tool in a crusader's toolbox; Gandhi perfected it and gave it a much wider dimension. It no longer remained a tool for individual self-discipline alone but became a powerful vehicle for meaningful change. Those who are actively engaged in building a healthy and just society face unique challenges that often take a deep personal toll.
If you lack resilience, you will be vulnerable to stressors like burnout, breakdowns in relationships; and you might feel victimized and harassed. Contrary to most beliefs, resilience is not a fixed trait. Gandhi demonstrated that it grows out of a set of "learnable" behaviors that interact to make you and your team less vulnerable to stress.
Building strong, positive relationships makes us stronger, happier, more confident -- and more resilient to challenge. At its core, this ability to be resilient is about adapting when everything around us is changing – like an aspen tree. Aspen forests can survive frequent avalanches that nearly flatten them.
The Gandhian methods of resistance and building resilience always ignited a spirit of hope for millions of oppressed people. Gandhi had the unique ability to become a bridge between some of the greatest contradictions in human society. The simple and enduring messages of peaceful co-existence, nonviolence, respect for all religions, care for the poor and disadvantaged, sustainable and modest living, and plain truthfulness are luminescent beacons for navigating our broken world.
Change is a dynamic and integrated process of our life. How a person perceives his surroundings and reacts depends entirely upon how well he can change or adapt to his environment. Gandhi's life was full of such extreme and demanding situations, but the way he effectively dealt with these situations was through his experiments which culminated in an elaborate mechanism for building resilience. It was his perseverance and dedication to an unrelenting pursuit of his goal that finally led to his transformation and perfection of his techniques.
Nelson Mandela referred to Gandhi as "the Sacred Warrior" and wrote: "His strategy of noncooperation, his assertion that we can be dominated only if we cooperate with our dominators, and his nonviolent resistance inspired ant colonial and antiracist movements internationally in our century."
On reaching India in 1959, Martin Luther King Jr remarked, "To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim." King adopted satyagraha as both precept and method. a. "Hate begets hate. Violence begets violence," he memorably declared. "We must meet the forces of hate with soul force."
Gandhi saw a deep link between political independence and personal empowerment. He envisioned a world where every citizen lived with dignity and prosperity. When the world spoke about rights, Gandhi emphasized duties. "The true source of rights is duty. If we all discharge our duties, rights will not be far to seek. Rights accrue automatically to him who duly performs his duties."
Gandhi's impact on social, cultural, and economic transformation has been indelible. He infused India with a revolutionary blend of politics and spirituality. He called his action-based philosophy Satyagraha or the truth force. Satyagraha aimed to arouse the conscience of oppressors and invigorate their victims with a sense of moral agency.
Gandhi's unique mode of defiance, Niebuhr observed as early as 1932, not only works to "rob the opponent of the moral conceit by which he identifies his interests with the peace and order of society." It also purges the victim's resentment of the "egoistic element," producing a purer "vehicle of justice".
The concept of Satyagraha was drawn from his extensive reading of the works of the British poet and social critic John Ruskin, the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau and the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. Gandhi melded their ideas into what he had learned from the ancient Jain faith about the concept of "ahimsa," which involves minimizing harm to all living beings.
The use of Satyagraha by Gandhi was both ethical and instrumental. The moral dimension sprang from Gandhi's convictions in the moral power of nonviolence. At the practical level, Gandhi believed that the use of violence against the mighty British could be counterproductive and may have negative implication.
To describe his method, Gandhi coined the expression Satyagraha—literally, "holding on to truth," or, as he coined diverse phrases to convey its broader meaning, truth-force, love force, or soul force. He disapproved of the English term "passive resistance," because Satyagraha required activism, not passivity. If you believed in truth and cared enough to obtain it, Gandhi felt you had to be prepared to suffer for truth.
By breaking the law nonviolently, Gandhi highlighted the injustice of the law. By renouncing violence, he wrested the moral advantage. By voluntarily subjecting himself to hunger strikes, he demonstrated the lengths to which he was prepared to go in defense of what he considered to be right. By accepting the punishments imposed on him, he forced his captors to confront their brutal behavior. Accepting punishment demonstrated the strength of one's convictions.

Refusal to recognize limits

Gandhi's critique of modern civilization hinged on what he saw as its refusal to recognize limits. To a civilization shaped by unappeasable human will and ambition, Gandhi counterposed a civilization organized around self-limitation and ethical conduct. "We shall cease to think of getting what we can, but we shall decline to receive what all cannot get," he wrote. "The only real, dignified, human doctrine is the greatest good of all, and this can only be achieved by uttermost self-sacrifice."
Gandhi would have been dismayed by the current disregard for environmental sustainability and the adoption of energy and resource-guzzling technologies rather than seeking more sustainable alternatives. The results are there for all to see. Many of our rivers are biologically dead. The chemical contamination of the soil is immense and possibly irreversible. Modern India is an environmental basket-case, with falling water tables, massive pollution (disappearing forests and toxic soils).
The economic universe that Gandhi visualized for India is now in total conflict with the technology-driven, production-based, market-oriented, and consumption-inducing economy. But the luminosity of Gandhi's wisdom is slowly redefining our thinking and approach. Gandhi's emphasis was on need-based simple living expressed through his oft-quoted statement, "The world has enough for everybody's need but not enough for everybody's greed."
In these perilous times when we are still to fully recover from the traumatic effects of Covid-19, it makes plenty of sense to return to the Gandhian path of resilience and nonviolence. Modern history has demonstrated time and again that we can ignore Gandhi's words of caution only at great risk.
*Development expert



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