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Gandhi: A Man Out of Time?

Jad Adams goes in search of the sometimes elusive legacy of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the 'Father of the Nation'.

The week before Indian independence, in August 1947, Gandhi wrote: ‘So long as my faith burns bright, as I hope it will even if I stand alone, I shall be alive in the grave and what is more speaking from it.’

Gandhi (1869-1948) was always proud of his achievements, but how many of his ideas have stood the test of time? His personal philosophy of resistance he called satyagraha – literally ‘soul-force’ or ‘firmness in the truth’. It was criticised at the time as meaning anything Gandhi wanted it to mean and it has not become common political currency in his absence. Even in the opening decades of the 20th century many of Gandhi’s ideas looked out of date, particularly to progressives such as Jawaharlal Nehru, who was to become India’s first prime minister (1947-64) and was committed to industrialisation. Nehru did not fret about sex, alcohol or diet as Gandhi did.

Yet the 21st century saw the advent of a world in which many of Gandhi’s ideas, once considered eccentric, became mainstream. Gandhi would today find common cause among many in the developed world with his intolerance of smoking, which he considered worse than drinking alcohol. Though his dietary experiments were considered odd at the time – he would decide to do without salt, or to consume no more than five different items a day, or to eat only raw food, a fussiness which seemed absurd when many of his countrymen could not afford to eat – millions of people in the West now pay minute attention to their diet.

Such qualities of Gandhi’s as thrift and self-reliance have also made a comeback as virtues and are now considered environmentally friendly. He was certainly ‘green’, in present-day parlance; he wished to economise on consumption and considered that taking more food or clothing than was necessary was tantamount to stealing from others.

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