The act of walking, which Mahatma Gandhi called “the prince of exercises,” liberated him from daily crises and enabled him to seek the truth, according to Dr. Sanil Viswanathan Nair, professor of philosophy at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, currently at CEU as a Research Excellence Fellow of the Higher Education Support Program. Viswanathan’s Feb. 28 lecture, “The Walking Gandhi – Reading Gandhi's Thought and Politics through the Activity of Walking,” was hosted by the South Asia Research Group.
Gandhi was both a political leader and a writer who was dedicated to long walks, part of the daily routine of ashram life in India. This combination also made Gandhi quite inviting to be taken seriously as a philosopher, though he was not an academic philosopher, Viswanathan said.
At the age of 60, Gandhi walked 231 miles from his ashram to Dandi to break the law of salt tax. Gandhi chose salt as an instrument of civil disobedience because of its importance as a basic necessity for people across all communities and not because it had a mere symbolic value, Viswanathan said. Amidst violence in Noakhali in 1946, a year before independence from Great Britain, Gandhi insisted on undertaking a lonely walk as an experiment with truth.
Gandhi used walking as a form of emancipation from the crises he would encounter on an everyday basis - crises he would encounter while living the life of a mahatma in his ashram or those which he would encounter as a political leader fighting for India’s independence, Viswanathan said.
Placing his views in a larger theoretical framework, Viswanathan pointed out three paradigmatic gestures: pointing; a gesture creating the conception of space, grasping; taking something in hand and, groping- establishing an exploratory, experimental relationship with the unknown. Viswanathan placed Gandhi’s gesture of walking within the larger paradigmatic gesture of groping. In the act of walking, he sees Gandhi performing his everyday experiments with truth.
Gandhi made a distinction between morality based on exemplarity with morality based on principles. According to Vishwanathan, Gandhi stayed away from the ethics of principles. Gandhi observed Bramhacharya, which was akin to following the rules rather than merely obeying them. Prof. Vishwanathan narrated several instances from Gandhi’s everyday life for the audience to be able to visualize Gandhi’s Bramhacharya. He, thus, held that walking was an intrinsic part of Gandhi’s enunciation of Bramhacharya.
Viswanathan concluded by pointing out how walking takes on different meanings to different individuals pursuing different sets of objectives. For example, the walk of Mao Tse-tung’s retreating army cannot be understood the same way as the walks taken by Gandhi.
This article was prepared with the help of Nikhil Dubey and Waqas Shabir, students in the Master's in Public Policy program at CEU's School of Public Policy.