Stories persuade. As Yuval Noah Harari wrote, the persuasive power of stories distinguished homo sapiens in the animal kingdom. “Much of history,” he said, “revolves around this question: How does one persuade millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work toward common goals.” Whether it was joining forces to fend off a predator or to sail across oceans, the early sapiens persuaded and flourished by telling stories. The most important things in the world exist only in our imagination. But, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting.
It is common to imagine that only oppressive societies benefit from cultivating public emotions. Yet orators like Gandhi understood the need to reach out and inspire strong emotions in people to inspire them to do the right thing. Kurt Vonnegut says about one woman, 'She was asked what she had learned from the Holocaust, and she said that 10 percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and that 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and that the remaining 80 percent could be moved in either direction.' Both Gandhi and Hitler seemed to pull similar strings but told stories that pulled their people in opposite directions. In John Dewey’s words,
“a renewal of faith in common human nature, in its potentialities in general, and in its power in particular to respond to reason and truth, is a surer bulwark against totalitarianism than a demonstration of material success or a devout worship of special legal and political forms.”
Many people in Gandhi's time and now (especially educated, city-dwelling folk) find his spartan requirements, his vegetarian diet, his preference for natural methods of healing, celibacy, etc.hard to understand. In the first half of the 20th century, communism had a lot of appeal among many educated people. These people saw Gandhi as an obscurantist because of his use of religious metaphors for communication rather than a secular-scientific one, because he preached a moderation of rather than giving-in to one's desires, and strict insistence on non-violence rather than on more manly (to them) violent revolutionary methods. Zygmunt Bauman writes in Globalization: The Human Consequences:
Not asking certain questions is pregnant with more dangers than failing to answer the questions already on the official agenda; while asking the wrong kind of questions all too often helps to avert eyes from the truly important issues.
The price of silence is paid in the hard currency of human suffering. . . Questioning the ostensibly unquestionable premises of our way of life is arguably the most urgent of the services we owe our fellow humans and ourselves.
Gandhi questioned what had been taken as settled. He had a positive view of human nature. He was fond of quoting the Mohammedan saying adam khuda nahin lekin khuda ka noor adam se juda nahin (Man is not God but neither is he different from the spark of God). He often said that human nature will find itself only when it fully realizes that to become human it had to cease to be bestial or brutal. He was convinced that without the attainment of the virtue of non-violence, we will share the qualities of ‘our remote reputed ancestor the orangutan’. He was of the view that human beings will stop growing when they cease distinguishing between virtue and vice.
An aspect of Gandhi’s thought which is relevant today is his understanding of the relation between the great world faiths. ’The time is now passed,’ he said, ’when the followers of one religion can stand and say, ours is the only true religion and all others are false’ (Indian Opinion, August 26, 1905). He was particularly influenced by a Jain, Raychandbhai, who introduced him to the idea of the many-sidedness of reality (anekantavada), so that many different views may all be valid. And this includes religious views. Gandhi shared the ancient Hindu assumption that ’Religions are different roads converging at the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal?'
He regarded it as pointless, because impossible, to grade the great world faiths in relation to each other. ’No one faith is perfect. All faiths are equally dear to their respective votaries. What is wanted, therefore, is a living friendly contact among the followers of the great religions of the world and not a clash among them in the fruitless attempt on the part of each community to show the superiority of its own faith over the rest. His ’doctrine of the Equality of Religions’, as it has been called, did not move towards a single global religion, but enjoins us all to become better expressions of our own faith, being enriched in the process by influences from other faiths.
The day after Gandhi was assassinated, a foreign journalist was in South India and witnessed millions of people torn by grief. He had never seen something like this before and asked somebody to explain the phenomenon. The person said, 'Gandhi held up a mirror which showed us the best we could possibly be. Now we fear that the mirror has been shattered.' In Gandhi in His Time and Ours, David Hardiman writes that there have been great moral activists like Mandela, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X etc. (some of whom do not endorse Gandhi's policy of adhering to non-violence at all times) whose quality of leadership parallels that of Gandhi. He writes:
The moral activist puts her or his life on the line by challenging the 'system' to do its worst. Too often, the challenge is taken up, and the activist has been murdered. Each such violent and premature death has been a tragic setback. There is however hope, for people of such ethical power have again and again emerged to pose the question in new ways and to suggest new answers. They have not been perfect beings - they have had their human weaknesses and sometimes made great mistakes.
Their personal family lives have often been sad, even tragic. But still, they are people who in their fierce and uncompromising moral commitment have soared above those around them. They stand for a human spirit that refuses to be crushed by the leviathan of the modern 'system' of violence, oppression and exploitation, and which aspires for a better, more equitable and non-violent future. In this, they inspire huge numbers. In them, Gandhi - their model - still lives.