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Most Of The Tenets Of Gandhi's Philosophy Come From Adivasis

The Gandhian philosophy holds that morality is a holy divine system, which a person experiences naturally and internally on his own. This moral awakening arises from sensing divinity.

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Most Of The Tenets Of Gandhi's Philosophy Come From Adivasis
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“The purpose of creation is that divinity be awakened through it and bestiality be punished, that the auspicious wins and the ominous loses. In his eyes, anything that is inauspicious, not beautiful, unpleasant and untrue, is immoral. While the auspicious, true, pure is moral. And it is that which is true, godly and beautiful (Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram).” Gandhi considered it important to pay more attention to the means rather than the end. He said that if the end is pious and humane, the means should also be as pure, sacred and humane. This is the basis of the Gandhian philosophy, which is rooted in the Hindu Aryan philosophy.

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In his article, ‘Gandhian Thought vice-versa Indigenous Ideology’, Adivasi sociologist Joseph Marianus Kujur says, “His work needs to be analyzed through two aspects. Firstly, Gandhi had no direct link with Indian adivasis, and his writings do not include any specific ideas about Adivasi issues. The second aspect is that there does not appear to be any dialectical relationship between Gandhi’s philosophy and Adivasi philosophy.”

Kujur is more or less right, but the first point is not factually correct. The sociologist probably overlooked the reflections and writings on Indian Adivasis that have been included in the collected works of Gandhi. In fact, Gandhi was well aware of the Adivasi movements underway in India. While studying law, he knew of the Santhal hool and Birsa Munda’s ulgulan or rebellion, because his classmates and friends were British. A sizeable number of his friends included British governors, officers and businessmen. Before and after returning to India, he was in touch with people who had a deep knowledge of the British rulers’ policies, activities and anti-British developments in the country. C.F. Andrews, a prominent Englishman active in Bihar and Jharkhand, was among Gandhi’s closest friends. How is it possible then that Gandhi did not know about the famous Adivasi rebellions of Jharkhand?

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There have been attempts from as far back as the 1940s to understand Gandhi’s philosophy in the context of Dalits, the oppressed, women and the anti-imperialist and anti-racist struggles. In India, scholars have failed to find an Adivasi leader whose political thought could be used to contextualise Gandhi or carry out an independent analysis of his philosophy vis-à-vis Adivasis. Even though a prominent leader of Adivasis Jaipal Singh Munda, who is fondly referred to as ‘Marang Gomke’—the great leader—in Jharkhand, was contemporary to Gandhi and comparable in stature to B.R. Ambedkar, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad.

In his comparative study of Gandhian and Adivasi philosophy, Kujur begins by discussing Gandhi’s experiences of racism in South Africa and talks about the colonial oppression and exploitation of Zulus and other African indigenous communities. According to him, this was Gandhi’s first encounter with indigenous communities who had lost the right to self-determination. As far as Indian Adivasis are concerned, Gandhi hardly paid any attention to them even as their existence and rights were repeatedly being denied by the Indian ruling class, even while he continuously championed the cause of Dalits.

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Gandhi believed in the supremacy of religion above anything else and considered it a personal matter of an individual. However, the Adivasi worldview holds that the supreme Creator is present among them. It is Him who has taught them the way of life. This Creator is omnipresent in their myths, which are recited on important social occasions of life. In Gandhi’s theory of the universe, there is a hierarchy where divine purity is supreme and nature and its systems are secondary. The Adivasis also have a hierarchy, divided between a natural real world and the divine world. The natural real world is equitable, while the divine one is hierarchical. The Creator is supreme, while the soul, which is key to existence, is secondary.

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The Gandhian philosophy holds that morality is a holy divine system, which a person experiences naturally and internally on his own.

The Gandhian philosophy holds that morality is a holy divine system, which a person experiences naturally and internally on his own. This moral awakening arises from sensing divinity. Gandhi strongly believes that only morality can establish a collaborative relationship between persons. Such cooperation is not possible without true love. Non-violence is essentially based on love, which governs all activities and mutual relations of humans.

The Adivasis’ concept of morality resides in their social system. Their worldview arises and develops from the patterns of their life. If their way of life is religion, their morality is interwoven and guided by their social structure. All their activities are driven by the belief that the Creator is looking after the welfare of the entire humanity and nature.

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As Gandhi admits in his autobiography, his worldview developed into an organised structure through the influence of religion, various philosophers and his constant ‘experiments with truth’. He was influenced by Tolstoy’s works, like The Kingdom of God Within You and Christianity and Patriotism. Tolstoy celebrates physical labour and warns against religious dogmatism, twisted morality and the negative impact of industrialisation. He rejects the materialist, consumerist lifestyle and calls it criminal. Addressing Gandhi, Tolstoy wrote,
“As soon as power entered love, as a life principle love could not survive and can never do so. Now when the principle of love is no more, no principle survives, except violence and ‘might is right’.”

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Gandhi lists John Ruskin as the second philosopher who changed his life when he read his work, Unto This Last. Gandhi was so impressed with this book that he immediately translated it and named it Sarvodaya. Gandhi’s concepts of materialism, utilitarianism, mechanisation, equal value of and respect towards labour, individual good residing in common good and trusteeship have been derived from this book.

The four principles of nonviolence, satyagraha, swadeshi and world peace that Gandhi vouched for were originally established by the Adivasis.

Henry David Thoreau, American naturalist and philosopher, is poles apart from the two. Gandhi borrowed the idea of civil disobedience from him. Thoreau was an important anti-slavery and anti-war socio-political thinker and activist, who opposed state violence and said that a good state is that where individual liberties face the minimum interference and people are allowed to act according to their conscience. Thoreau propounded that citizens should follow only those orders of the state that align with their conscience.

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He was also influenced by the lives and teachings of Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammad, adopting their principles such as loving one’s enemy, tolerance and forgiving the criminal. However, the overall influence on his thoughts is mainly that of Hinduism, Vedic literature and the Indian philosophical traditions formulated in the Ramayana and the Bhagvad Gita. It is within the ambit of Hindu religious philosophy that Gandhi assimilated aspects borrowed from other religious, spiritual and political philosophies and formulated his thoughts and actions.

The four principles of nonviolence, satyagraha, swadeshi and world peace that Gandhi vouched for were originally established by the Adivasis. In fact, they have been living by them for over 5000 years. At each stage of history, the Adivasis and Dalits have been oppressed and marginalised, so have been women. Their labour, art, science and intellect have never been acknowledged.

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Historically, the Adivasis have been self-sufficient in the three basic necessities of life: food, clothes and house. They even made their own salt. Gandhi first saw it when he met them near Ranchi during his Champaran visit.

At the time, the Oraon Adivasis had launched a nonviolent civil disobedience movement, known as the ‘Tana movement’, in Ranchi. Other Adivasi communities such as Mundas and Kharias also participated in the movement. The Adivasis called themselves ‘Tana Bhagats’ and refused to pay taxes and peacefully defied other laws they considered unjust. Gandhi was very impressed with the Tana Bhagats’ lives and their movement: simplicity of life, minimal needs, collective lifestyle, cooperation, musical environment, self-sufficient and self-respecting practices, strong social organisation, respect and dedication towards labour, equal participation of women and their liberty. They even weaved the cloth for themselves.

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Thereafter, Gandhi visited Ranchi repeatedly between June and October 1917. The nonviolent movement of Tana Bhagats, driven by love, occupied his mind. The nonviolent spinning wheel also dominated his thoughts. At the time, cloth was largely produced in mechanised factories. However, a handful of ‘barbarians’ from Ranchi, considered the most backward link of civilisation, had no need of mill-produced cloth. This strengthened Gandhi’s beliefs. By 1909, he had conceptualised ‘Hind Swaraj’, which was already in practice among the Tana Bhagats. The entire conceptualisation of the spinning-wheel, khadi, the mutually cooperative labour and artisanal industries of the village, along with agriculture and rural enterprise, took a vivid shape in his mind. His satyagraha had so far remained on paper, but what he witnessed was a real satyagraha in action: a beautiful, lively and nonviolent constructive movement.

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However, five years later, when Gandhi decided to enter politics, with his civil disobedience movement, he added the Hindu religious element of Ram naam, or the name of Ram, to the elements of satyagraha he had borrowed from the Adivasi philosophy of life. He even changed his costume for his political innings and adopted a simple dress similar to the Adivasis, the famed dhoti or loin cloth.

As Kujur avers, “Despite Gandhi being unusually inattentive to Adivasi issues, if someone looks at Gandhian and Adivasi philosophy together, they would be surprised how similar the two traditions are in thought, action and spirit.” Gandhi, however, never acknowledged it.   

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(This appeared in the print edition as "The School The Mahatma Went")

(Translated from Hindi by Iqbal Abhimanyu. Views expressed are personal.)

Ashwini Kumar Pankaj Is a Jharkhand-based poet, author, journalist and cultural activist

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