I’m looking for a man at a poster sale. He’s bald, bespectacled, and possibly in black and white. I find three varieties of him—one less than last year—using his signature pick-up lines.
“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Gandhi the poster-boy, who’s like that person you meet at the Maddy on Thursday nights. You buy him a $6 drink and take him back to your room; you don’t really get each other, but you have a moderately interesting story in the morning.
Mahatma Gandhi, however, was far more complex than the man who was depicted on those posters one can see at Sidney Smith Hall.
He was a religious man killed by right-wing Hindus. He is the face of Eastern mysticism and his biggest intellectual influences included Tolstoy and Thoreau. He spoke of radical non-cooperation, but today those words mean passive resistance.
The Gandhi on the poster is sanitized, safe, and scrubbed clean of Mahatma Gandhi. It is this simplification that has made him an icon speaking recyclable words.
“International Gandhi,” Salman Rushdie calls him, meaning an idealized figure—who is just plain boring.
While poster-boy Gandhi grows bigger internationally, his homeland, India, is increasingly disenchanted with Gandhi. Domestically, Gandhi still holds sway over social norms. He is the unsexy father who dictates rules: no smoking, no drinking, no holding hands, and no meat.
While alienating the urban youth, his political vision of the village-centric, spiritual, yet non-sectarian homeland has also been rejected by India Shining.
With the current focus on the economy and development, Gandhi is now a distant figure in the Indian political landscape. In comparison to Gandhi’s methods of resistance, potent displays of violent Hindu-nationalism and talk of economic growth draw in the crowds.
But cherry-picking Gandhian ideology is still a popular Indian political strategy. Prime Ministerial candidate for the upcoming elections, Narendra Modi, can boast of coming from a dry state (where alcohol is prohibited), of championing development, and of reportedly backing pogroms against Muslims.
The world needs a more complex Gandhi. Simplifying him into categories of sinner or saint erases the complexity of his thought. The challenge for the modern reader of Gandhi is to look past the easy witticisms and engage with Gandhi as a philosopher.
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October 2, the day of Gandhi’s birth—and now the International Day of NonViolence—forget the posters and reassess your assumptions about the man. Spend an extra six dollars on Gandhi’s treatise Hind Swaraj and get to know him over coffee.