Gandhi vs. Coronavirus

From Gandhiserv. Gandhiji is fifth from left.

I have very little doubt that if I were alive during Gandhi’s time, I would have wanted to be like a Madeleine Slade (or a Herman Kallenbach or Mahadev Desai, or a Sonia Schlessen) and given over my life to be near him, work with him, and join his multifaceted experiments in nonviolence. His wisdom appeals to a severe, almost unquenchable strain of idealism within myself (and I imagine many others), one that is capable of great sacrifice and renunciation and sounds a call to a much higher vision of what the purpose of life is for. And while, to this day, his legacy is fraught and contested, misunderstood and misrepresented — with sifting and patience — there’s always something new and challenging to discover in what we have left of his life in words and actions. For that reason, among many others, I’ve dedicated myself for over a decade now to the work of promoting the power of nonviolence through the vehicle of a small (but mighty) organization, The Metta Center for Nonviolence.

In my work at Metta, I hear from people from around the world. A few days ago, an activist-teacher from Madrid wrote to tell me about a program that he is intending to roll-out online, where people explore how Gandhi might have responded to the Covid-19 political crisis.

Turning to Gandhi at this time is not superfluous. In my shelter-in-place, away from public libraries, I returned to my personal library, and began to re-read Gandhi’s autobiography, “The Story of My Experiments with Truth,” which he wrote in short chapter segments for Young India to be published in a collection in 1927. For those familiar with the book, I need not stress the point too much: Reading Gandhi always provides new insights. The experience is like meeting with a friend with whom one’s relationship continues to grow and deepen. He openly admits it is different from other kinds of autobiographies of his time. Instead of using it to concretize his life, to say “this is me,” he simply wanted to record the series of experiments in truth his life became. In other words, it’s a book of case-studies in personal, constructive, and resistant nonviolence that takes the observer’s self-confessed short-comings and limitations and strivings into account as much as what he observed.

Perhaps due to my own inexperience of the sort, I’m not surprised to find that I somehow overlooked in my previous readings of the book how much of a role plagues and illnesses played in his life as a developing activist, organizer, and self-proclaimed spiritual aspirant. I can’t help but echo the question of my friend in Madrid: Well, what would Gandhi have done during this moment of political opportunity for social transformation? Would he have pushed forward with satyagraha? Would he have defied shelter-in-place? Would he have fasted? (Indeed, yes, he says that during plagues, he felt it necessary to eat less food as a way of conserving his energy for his work.) 

I decided to seek out a few people who have been following Gandhi’s life much longer than I have, and who, as it turns out, have been asking themselves the same question: When it comes to Gandhi vs. the coronavirus, what would he have done? 

My guess, for whatever it is worth, is as follows: 1. He would think of the neediest and most vulnerable among us, including the front-line carers, and strive to assist them. 2. He would observe that, cleaning our spectacles and removing the mist from our eyes, the virus has restored the reality of death. It has enabled us to realize afresh the value of life — of loved ones, clean air, human life, non-human life. Helped us to not take our being alive, or our loved ones being alive, for granted. 3. He would underline the virus’s reminder of the equal vulnerability, and thus the equality, of all races and nations. 4. He would use the virus, and the solitude obliged by it, to identify our shortcomings as communities.

 Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of M.K. Gandhi, and author of Why Gandhi Still Matters: An Appraisal of the Mahatma’s Legacy

While I believe Gandhi would be right in the front lines risking his life to help the worst afflicted, I firmly believe in his vision (and many others) that there is a tremendous positive force within the human beings that the most degraded circumstances can never abolish: “The fact that [hu]mankind persists,” he once argued, “shows that the cohesive force is greater than the disruptive force.” No matter how much evil we see around us, how much lying, truth has an undying appeal with untapped power — including the truth that life is sacred and interconnected everywhere. Why else would three thousand students and young people volunteer to be infected with Covid-19 to test out an experimental vaccine?

 Michael Nagler, professor emeritus UC Berkeley, author of The Third Harmony: Nonviolence and the New Story of Human Nature

In the current dire situation, Gandhi would emphasize health, hygiene, and homegrown goods, as well as a concerted and compassionate response to the virus as he himself led during the spread of black plague in South Africa. He would call on us to return to the moral values of ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truth), and swadeshi (one’s own region; self-sufficiency). 

Coronavirus has revealed both the strengths and perils of our globalized world. Gandhi’s principles can help us confront the fear that can shut us into our silos: “I do not want my house to be walled in all sides, and my windows to be closed. Instead I want cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet.” We must realize the air is life giving, and is shared by all equally, irrespective of age, status, gender, religion, etc. The concept of sarvodaya (uplift of all) must be the guide: all beings are connected in both biological and spiritual ways. 

 Veena Howard, professor of philosophy at Cal State, Fresno, and author of Gandhi’s Ascetic Activism: Renunciation and Social Action 

At this time of the coronavirus pandemic, when health care practitioners are being celebrated the world over as “front line” workers who have put their lives at risk, it is worth recalling that Mohandas Gandhi was something of a trained nurse. It is commonly thought that he first started nursing the sick and the wounded when he set up an Indian Ambulance Corps, consisting of 1,100 volunteers, during the Boer War in South Africa in 1899. However, as his autobiography makes amply clear, it is on his visit to India from South Africa in the second half of 1896 that he was able to nurture his instinct for nursing which had first manifested itself when in his adolescence he looked after his ailing father. The Bombay to which Gandhi returned was being decimated by bubonic plague, and he found himself spending day and night by the bedside of his brother-in-law, who had taken seriously ill and whose wife, that is Gandhi’s sister, “was not equal to nursing him.” Gandhi could not save his life; however, as he was to write, “my aptitude for nursing gradually developed into a passion, so much so that it often led me to neglect my work, and on occasions I engaged not only my wife but the whole household in such service.”

So what might Gandhi have thought of the present pandemic, the jeopardy in which the livelihood of tens of millions of people around the world has been placed, the enormous toll it has taken of human lives, and even, considering his own stated “passion” for nursing, of the advice of scientists and doctors that each one of us should practice “social distancing?” Gandhi held to the view that there are laws of compensation at work in this universe, however opaque they may be to us, and I suspect that, to take one illustration, the comparatively clean air in the wake of the shuttering of the world economy would have been construed by him as a sign to human beings that we should be mindful of the devastation we have wrought upon the earth. But Gandhi was not one only to philosophize: It is impossible to imagine him not present on the scene, tending to the sick and comforting members of their families. Yet, though his compassion was boundless, Gandhi was also tough as nails, and I suspect that he would have punished himself to the hilt in working around the clock, organizing relief workers and cajoling people not to rely on government handouts but to make themselves useful and apply their ingenuity. His relentless critique of industrial modernity has led many people into believing that Gandhi was opposed to science, but that is far from being the case: He was a scientist in his own fashion, ceaselessly testing the truth of every proposition, but, more critically, he was opposed to scientism. While he would have respected scientific advice, I think it can safely be said that Gandhi would have also said that we cannot leave our understanding of the pandemic and its social, political, and philosophical implications to the scientists alone, because the pandemonium engendered by the pandemic is ultimately a reflection of the unrest within each of us and within homo sapiens as a whole.

 Vinay Lal, professor of History, UCLA, (see his webcast on the Moral and Political Thought of Mohandas Gandhi in its entirety here). 

And now, what about you? 

When we turn to Gandhi as any historical figure of nonviolence, it’s about turning back to ourselves: What we are willing to do, what kinds of renunciations we are willing to make, how do we define and expand our sense of community, and how we can move forward with the needed lessons of this chaotic time in a regenerative, life-affirming, and strategic manner?

I invite you to return to Gandhi with me, to re-read his writings, to ask questions and to take meaningful action. To support you, every Friday, the Metta Center is hosting a Hope Tank — an open, but focused, conversation about nonviolence — and you are most welcome to join us.


This was published first at Waging Nonviolence.