Recovering Gandhi

Rajan Venkatesh

My friend’s mother recalls her college life of 1949-50. Such was the powerful inspiration of Gandhiji that she and her friends would happily boycott their English class, work enthusiastically on the charkha and tailor their own clothes made from Indian cotton. Today, nearing 85 years of age, she lives alone with a servant, has learnt to operate Skype, and speaks every day to her son, who lives a migrant’s life in the USA. Gandhiji remains as a pleasant memory, while the force of modernity has had its own gross influence in the way her family thinks, speaks, and behaves – it has progressed and it has disintegrated at the same time.

rajan This story can be my story too; it could be yours and everybody’s.

We must acknowledge the fact that Gandhiji and modernity point in two different directions. This has created an inner contradiction in us, and that is a fate that we Indians have to accept – a reverence for a great human being and a simultaneous dependence on a decadent society which he warns us about; the undoubted appeal of his spiritual guidance and the freedom it promises, and a simultaneous thrall for things modern and worldly, and the bondage that comes with it.

Every now and then, when the inevitable problems created by modern society reach an extreme, like with the swing of a pendulum, we gaze in the other direction, and wonder if Gandhiji’s wisdom and vision could help. But usually not for long, because – who has time? – the struggle of everyday existence quickly overwhelms the moment.

So while discontent is useful, for it makes us give a brief look elsewhere, perhaps what is needed is complete discontent. Not just with the curriculum, but with the structure and purpose of school itself; not just with the education system, but with the economic, political, governance, and justice systems too; not just with one nation, but with the whole of humanity. Perhaps this is what Gandhiji demands.

This relatedness of different dimensions of life comes out clearly and effortlessly in Gandhiji’s talks and writings. When speaking about education, he highlights economic freedom of villages; when speaking on economics, he highlights spiritual growth of the being; when speaking about the spiritual path, he highlights duty to family and society; and when speaking of mankind itself, he highlights the oneness of purpose of society, economy, education, and spirituality – that of perfecting the character and conduct of the human being, and elevating him to a higher consciousness.

This wholesome view can at once be fascinating as well as daunting. For the teacher, it means not just a reading of ‘nai talim’ but understanding the crux of modernity, of the colonial mind-set that pervades all systems today. It means making an effort to understand social economics, not just monetary economics. It means to understand the significance of right livelihood, not just jobs. It means the study of the gram vyavastha, of India’s traditional roots, its philosophical beliefs, its socio-cultural systems, its agriculture, architecture, its art, craft, science and aesthetics. And then, as Gandhiji repeatedly said, to work towards perfecting it. Not to reject all of it at the altar of colonial culture, as we are habituated to do.

The author ran the experimental school, Bodhshala, at the NGO Sidh in Tehri-Garhwal. He is a keen student of traditional Indian socio-economic systems and is currently researching at Sawantwadi, Maharashtra. He can be reached at

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