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Mainstream, VOL L, No 6, January 28, 2012

A Radiant Figure

Tuesday 31 January 2012, by Jawaharlal Nehru


What gods there are, I know not; and I am not concerned about them. But there are certain rare qualities which raise a man above the common herd and make him appear as though he were of different clay. The long story of humanity can be considered from many points of view; it is a story of the advance and growth of man and the spirit of man; it is also a story full of agony and tragedy. It is a story of masses of men and women in ferment and in movement and it is also the story of great and outstanding personalities who have given content and shape to that movement of masses.

In that story Gandhi occupies and will occupy a pre-eminent place. We are too near him to judge him correctly. Some of us came in intimate contact with him and were influenced by that dominating and very lovable personality. We miss him profoundly, for he had become a part of our own lives. With us the personal factor is so strong that it comes in the way of a correct appraisal. Others who did not know him so intimately cannot, perhaps, have a full realisation of the living fire that was in this man of peace and humility. So, both these groups lack proper perspective or knowledge. Whether that perspective will come in later years when the problems and conflicts of today are matters for the historian, I do not know. But I have no doubt that in the distant as in the near future this towering personality will stand out and compel homage. It may be that the message which he embodied will be understood and acted upon more in later years than it is today. That message was not confined to a particular country or a community. Whatever truth there was in it was a truth applicable to all countries and to humanity as a whole. He may have stressed certain aspects of it in relation to the India of his day and those particular aspects may cease to have much significance as times and conditions change. The kernel of that message was, however, not confined to time or space. And if this is so, then it will endure and grow in the understanding of man.

He brought freedom to India and in that process taught us many things which were important for us at the time. He told us to shed fear and hatred; he told us of unity and equality and brotherhood, of raising those who had been suppressed, of the dignity of labour and of the supremacy of things of the spirit. Above all, he spoke and wrote unceasingly of truth in relation to all our activities. He repeated again and again that Truth was to him God and God was Truth. Scholars may raise their eyebrows and philoso-phers and cynics repeat the old question: what is Truth? Few of us dare to answer it with any assurance; it may be that the answer itself is many-sided and our limited intelligence cannot grasp the whole. But, however limited the func-tioning of our minds or our capacity for intuition may be, each one of us must, I suppose, have some limited idea of truth as he sees it. Will he act up to it, regardless of consequences and not compromise with what he himself considers an aberration from it? Will he, even in search of the right goal, compromise with the means of attaining it? Will he subordinate means to ends?

IT is easy to frame this question rather rhetorically, as if there was only one answer. But life is exceedingly complicated and the choice it offers is never simple. Perhaps, to some extent, an individual leading an isolated life may endeavour with some success to answer that question for himself. But where he is concerned not only with his own actions but with those of many others, when fate or circumstances have put him in a position where he moulds and directs others, what is he to do? How is a leader of men to function? If he is a leader, he must lead and not merely follow the dictates of the crowd, though some modern conceptions of the functioning of democracy would lead one to think that he must bow down to the largest number. If he does so, then he is no leader and he cannot take others far along the right path of human progress. If he acts singly, according to his own lights, he cuts himself off from the very persons whom he is trying to lead. If he brings himself down to the same level of understanding as others, then he has lowered himself, been untrue to his own ideal and compromised with Truth. And once such compromises begin, there is no end to them and the path is slippery. What then is he to do? It is not enough for him to perceive truth or some aspect of it. He must succeed in making others perceive it also.

The average leader of men, especially in a democratic society, has continually to adapt himself to his environment and to choose what he considers the lesser evil. Some adaptation is inevitable. But as this process goes on, occasions arise when that adaptation imperils the basic ideal and objective. I suppose there is no clear answer to this question and each individual and each generation will have to find its own answer.

The amazing thing about Gandhi was that he adhered, in the fullest sense, to his ideals and to his conception of truth; yet, he succeeded in moulding and moving enormous masses of human beings. He was not inflexible. He was very much alive to the necessities of the moment and he adapted himself to changing circums-tances. But all these adaptations were about secondary matters. In regard to the basic things, he was inflexible and firm as a rock. For him, there was no compromise with what he considered evil. He moulded a whole generation and more and raised them above themselves for the time being at least. That was a tremendous achievement.

Does that achievement endure? It brought results which will undoubtedly endure. It also brought in its train some reactions. For people, compelled by circumstances to raise themselves above their normal level, are apt to sink back to even lower levels than before. We see something like that happening today. We saw that reaction in the tragedy of Gandhi’s own assassination. What is worse is the general lowering of these standards for the raising of which Gandhi devoted his life. Perhaps, this is a temporary phase and people will recover from it and find themselves again. I have no doubt that deep in the consciousness of India, the basic teachings of Gandhi will endure and continue to affect our national life....
People will write the life of Gandhi and they will discuss and criticise him and his theories and activities. But to some of us, he will remain something apart from theory—a radiant and beloved figure who ennobled and gave signifi-cance to our petty lives and whose passing has left us with a feeling of emptiness and loneliness. Many pictures rise in my mind of this man, whose eyes were often full of laughter and yet were pools of infinite sadness. But the picture that is dominant and most significant is as I saw him marching, staff in hand, to Dandi on the Salt March in 1930. Here was the pilgrim on his quest of truth, quiet, peaceful, determined and fearless, who would continue that quiet pilgrimage, regardless of consequences.

[Excerpts from Foreword to D.G. Tendulkar’s Mahatma, Pahalgam, Kashmir, June 30, 1951]

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