At a gathering of volunteers, who work on diverse aspects of inclusion, many lamented that attitudes are changing far too slowly. In this context, asked the volunteers, what can we learn from Gandhi?
This article is a part of Swarajya’s support to the India Inclusion Summit 2018
Trivakra was a hunchbacked woman whom Lord Krishna met on the streets of Mathura. In one version of the legend, Lord Krishna called out to the woman and spoke of her beauty. Trivakra, whose body was bent in three places, was only accustomed to taunts so she perceived Krishna to be mocking her. Then Krishna assured her that he was truly admiring her inner beauty.
In the Bhagavata Purana, this story appears as an example of liberation through devotion – for Krishna’s touch frees Trivakra of her bodily affliction and makes her beautiful outside as well.
Her longing for a body that works smoothly and without pain was made more acute in a culture that tended to equate disfigurement with evil intent. In the two most widely known epics of the Indian sub-continent, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the pivotal role of ‘mischief maker’ is played by a person with a physical handicap. Manthara, in Ramayana, is a hunchbacked woman. Shakuni, in Mahabharata, is depicted as being lame.
At the root of these narratives is the belief that the fortunes and misfortunes of this life are a consequence of our past thoughts and actions, our karma.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi made two epochal contributions in this cultural context.
Firstly, he put compassion at the heart of defining what is good or right karma – not just in everyday life, which countless others had done before, but at the centre of public life and politics.
Secondly, he rooted himself deeply in the tradition and then challenged it from within. In doing this, he restored for millions the concept of karma as a doctrine of taking complete responsibility for our actions – not as a form of fatalism.
What light do Gandhi’s struggles throw on contemporary efforts to change social attitudes towards those who are differently abled?
Sevagram Ashram, near Wardha in central India, was the last home of Gandhi. It was from the famous mud hut, Bapu Kuti, at Sevagram that Gandhi launched the campaigns that contributed to ending colonial rule in India and consequently the collapse of the British empire globally.
About 50 feet from Bapu Kuti is Parchure Kuti, another small hut, which is as well preserved as is the rest of the ashram. It was here that Gandhi made a home and place of healing for Parchure Shastri, a Sanskrit scholar and rural social worker, who was severely afflicted by leprosy.
At the time when Parchure sought asylum at Sevagram Ashram, there was still no cure for this infectious, often fatal, disease. So Gandhi took personal responsibility for cleaning and dressing the ulcers on Parchure’s body and created a controlled diet that would help him recover. Above all, Gandhi persuaded the ashram community to welcome, to include, Parchure as a new member – even though many would have feared contracting the disease.
As a sign board at Parchure Kuti now tells visitors to the ashram – these actions helped to change people’s attitude towards leprosy patients with volunteers coming forward to serve such patients. Manoharji Diwan, one of the volunteers, went on to establish an entire colony and hospital for leprosy patients nearby at Dattapur. A teenager, Murlidhar Devidas Amte, was so inspired by Gandhi’s compassion that he went on to do seminal work nursing and rehabilitating leprosy patients – becoming world famous as ‘Baba Amte’.
The impetus for nursing the ill, including those cast aside by society, seems to have come from Gandhi’s innate sense of compassion and his need to live by the ideal of brotherhood. But his engagement went way beyond the domain of his own ashrams. It was not enough that the ashram community included people belonging to castes that tradition deemed to be untouchable. The very basis of such discrimination had to be addressed at a theological level.
Writing in Young India in 1921, Gandhi said that for him ‘Vedas are divine and unwritten’ and ‘…the spirit of the Vedas is purity, truth, innocence, chastity, humility, simplicity, forgiveness, godliness, and all that makes a man or woman noble and brave.’
But, he added a few months later, he did not believe in the exclusive divinity of the vedas: ‘I believe the Bible, Koran and the Zend Avesta, to be as much divinely inspired.’
Even more importantly, Gandhi clarified:
‘I am not a literalist. Therefore, I try to understand the spirit of the various scriptures of the world. I apply the test of Truth and ahimsa laid down by these very scriptures for interpretation. I reject what is inconsistent with that test, and appropriate all that is consistent with it.’
For instance, there is a verse in the Bhakti poet Tulsidas’ Ramayana which brackets together ‘drums, shudras, fools and women’ declaring them as fit to be beaten. Responding to this, Gandhi wrote:
‘A man who cites that verse to beat his wife is doomed to perdition. Rama did not only not beat his wife, but never even sought to displease her. Tulsidas simply inserted in his poem a proverb current in his days, little dreaming that there would be brutes justifying beating of their wives on the authority of the verse.’
Gandhi gave primacy to truth and non-violence over scriptures. For instance, ritual animal sacrifice was not uncommon in Gandhi’s time, and those who favoured the practice claimed to have sanction for it in the vedas. So what, asked Gandhi:
‘I readily admit my incompetence in Vedic scholarship. But the incompetence, so far as this subject is concerned, does not worry me, because even if the practise of animal sacrifice be proved to have been a feature of Vedic society, it can form no precedent for a votary of ahimsa.’
Even more importantly, Gandhi insisted ‘it is not a yajna to sacrifice lower animals even with a view to the service of humanity’. For a true yajna means ‘an act directed to the welfare of others, done without desiring any return for it, whether of a temporal or spiritual nature’. That is why, Gandhi argues, ‘the Gita teaches, and experience testifies, that all action that cannot come under the category of yajna promotes bondage.’
By this definition all efforts towards inclusion are a yajna expanding the universe of the possible for all – not just those who are differently abled.
But how does this awareness help us in the day-to-day task of grappling with seemingly unchanging prejudices or negative attitudes? How do we bolster energy for the long term process of working for a social and cultural transformation?
We could proceed along this path by reflecting on the perennial dynamic between people who are ‘evolvers’ and those who are ‘adapters’. The veteran Gandhian, Devendra Kumar, who was the founder of Centre of Science for Villages in Wardha, had a brilliant way of likening the process of social transformation to making yoghurt.
The process has five requirements.
One, you need curd itself as a starter, to act as the agent of transformation. You cannot use cream or condensed milk. In the mission of inclusion, this condition is already fulfilled – there are determined ‘evolvers’ who are both inspiring the ‘adaptors’ and also defying current notions of what is possible for ‘normal’ people and what is possible for the differently abled.
Two, the milk and the starter must be suitably proportionate. Just one or two isolated evolvers, among millions of reluctant or would-be adaptors, are unlikely to succeed. Therefore, the Inclusion Summit is crucial as one of many means by which the number of evolvers is sought to be increased.
Three, the milk must be at just the right temperature or it will not set into yoghurt. Similarly, the social climate, the general level of awareness, must be created for the ideas and actions of the evolvers to prove effective – which is happening with every additional company that adapts the ideas of the evolvers and alters its recruitment policies to include the differently abled.
Four, having added the starter it won’t do to just leave it at that. The milk must be stirred, agitated. So also in the social realm, awareness without action and agitation will not transform. Evolvers working for inclusion may have to sometimes combine gentle persuasion with active assertion to bring a change at the level of households, private sector companies and government departments.
Finally, and most importantly, you have to leave the mixture of milk and curd starter undisturbed to let it set. So also the long drawn process of social transformation demands patience, perseverance and waiting power.
This last step is the hardest because it requires the evolvers to have confidence in their own dedication and staying power – only then can we persevere, being neither complacent about successes nor disheartened by disappointments.
“A life of sacrifice is the pinnacle of art, and is full of true joy. Yajna is not yajna if one feels it to be burdensome or annoying. Self-indulgence leads to destruction, and renunciation to immortality. Joy has no independent existence. It depends upon our attitude to life.”
– M K Gandhi