06/02/2015 8:24 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Life And Death Of Gandhiji Hold Lessons For A World In Conflict

Pigeons fly behind a silhouetted statue of Mahatma Gandhi adorned with garlands on Gandhi's birth anniversary in Amritsar, India Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Sanjeev Syal)
Pigeons fly behind a silhouetted statue of Mahatma Gandhi adorned with garlands on Gandhi's birth anniversary in Amritsar, India Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Sanjeev Syal)

As the dust settles over the ISIS battlefields in Syria and the smoke clears from the burning offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, amid the cries of the injured and maimed children in Peshawar, I can faintly hear footsteps. Footsteps accompanied by the rhythmic tap-tapping of a wooden stick. I peer into the gloom and see a surreal image. The image is of a frail old man, bespectacled, in just a simple white dhoti. Oddly enough the man does not seem out of place in the strife-torn fields of human conflict. The man seems to belong to the scene as much as the fire, the smoke, the ruins and the cries.

Was the scene an antithesis or a synthesis? Was the scene a question or an answer? These were the questions in my mind when I got up from my dream. Gandhiji on a battlefield? Was the dream suggestive? These questions led me to question a basic dilemma: are violence and non-violence conflicting, or complimentary? Or to look at it from a practical perspective, can non-violent methods be used to fight violent extremism?

As India remembers Bapu, the name by which billions of Indians fondly remember Gandhiji, on the 67th anniversary of his death, the answers to the questions above can be found in both the Mahatma's life as well as his death.

Gandhiji's life gave us the path of "Satyagraha" and "Satyagraha" gave freedom to millions of Indians against the most powerful empire the world has ever seen, without a single bullet being fired. To understand this truly remarkable non-violent expression of human will we need to understand the origin of the word as well as the meaning of the underlying philosophy that may hold the key to resolving many present-day conflicts without unnecessary bloodshed and destruction.

"Satyagraha" is a compound of the Sanskrit words satya (meaning "truth") and agraha ("polite insistence", or "holding firmly to"). Satyagraha loosely translates to "insistence on truth" or "holding on to truth" or the "force of truth". Satya is derived from the word "sat", which means "being". Nothing is or exists in reality except Truth. In the context of Satyagraha, Truth therefore includes (a) truth in speech, as opposed to falsehood (b) what is real, as opposed to nonexistent (asatya) and (c) good as opposed to evil, or bad. This was critical to Gandhiji's understanding of and faith in non-violence. The world rests upon the bedrock of satya or truth. Asatya, meaning untruth, also means nonexistent, and satya or truth also means that which is. If untruth does not so much as exist, its victory is out of the question. And truth being that which is, can never be destroyed. This is the doctrine of Satyagraha in a nutshell.

Many intellectuals today equate Satyagraha with passive resistance. For Gandhiji, Satyagraha went far beyond mere "passive resistance". In his words:"Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence, and gave up the use of the phrase passive resistance."

In today's strife-torn world divided along race, religion, region, class and creed, the practice of Satyagraha becomes even more relevant. A peaceful struggle based on the principles of truth, non-violence and fierce belief in the righteousness of one's cause appeals to the moral conscience of the adversary, builds popular support without the threat of violence, and thus creates an atmosphere of dialogue and resolution for even the thorniest issues. This has been proven again and again since the time of Gandhiji by the legacies of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and currently Aung San Suu Kyi.

However, the path of Satyagraha is much tougher than that of violence. It is for the strong and not the weak. It involves the will to suffer for one's cause, and if need be then even a willingness to die for the same without sacrificing the ideals of truth and non-violence. This has again been exemplified in the case of Gandhiji and Dr King. Their death served as their final sacrifice at the altar of their causes and gave them a new lease of life. In his article in Harijan of 23 November 1947 Gandhiji reflected on an appropriate end to a life lived according to certain principles: "Life becomes livable only to the extent that death is treated as a friend, never as an enemy." He had begun, like Socrates, to argue that life was worth living only on certain conditions, not under all circumstances. He insisted he would rather die than be a mute and helpless witness to the fires of hatred and destruction raging all about him. On 30 January 1948, his assassination doused the fires of communal hatred that were raging across India and set the country on a path for development by reuniting two of the tallest leaders of the Indian Independence movement, Nehru and Patel.

As an Indian, I realise that I owe much of the India of today to Mahatma Gandhi. And as global citizens we owe much of our world to men like Gandhiji, Mandela and Martin Luther King. Thus I believe that to solve the problems of today, we need more Gandhijis, more Mandelas and more Dr Kings.