“Modern civilisation has taught us to convert night into day and golden silence into brazen din and noise.”
In the context of the ongoing protests by farmers, a friend recently posted a meme on social media on Gandhiji (see above) which read: “Main iss gambhir vishay par chuppi sadhana pasand karunga (I would like to remain silent on this serious issue)”.
My friend had shared it as a joke and found it really funny. Rather than laughing at the meme, I was provoked into thinking about its meaning and what it signifies about the times we live in. The meme interpreted Gandhiji’s silence or his habit of observing vows of silence (mauna) during his lifetime as an inability to respond and a convenient way of ignoring the issue at hand; almost as if his silence was a sign of weakness, timidity or, worse still, a kind of political impotence.
Our failure to gauge the importance and profundity of Gandhiji’s silence perhaps has to do with the fact that we happen to live in an opinionated, social media-driven and noisy world. Primetime TV debates are more about noise than news. They are an excellent example of how not to conduct debates, with most anchors playing to the gallery, diluting issues and indulging in whataboutery. Most panellists part of these ‘debates’ are either shouted down or shouted at. Social media too is full of trolls, willing to hurl the vilest abuse at those they disagree with. Gandhiji is favourite target for many such trolls – a quick Google search for memes on the father of the nation would reveal vulgar and abusive memes.
In a world where “comment is free but facts are no longer sacred” and everyone is eager to have their say, silence is undervalued, dismissed or simply laughed at. It has become fashionable to offer an opinion on almost everything under the sun. It is customary to react to social and political developments immediately on social media and TV channels are desperate to get a ‘byte’, and it doesn’t matter how thoughtless or uninformed the opinions being bandied about are. Such a toxic news and social media landscape presumes that silence is either a sign of being dumb or ignorant. It is thus but natural that because of the times we live in, we are either prone to making fun of silence or seeing it as function of being inarticulate or senile.
Also read: My Ambivalent Relationship With Gandhi
What we don’t realise is that Gandhiji’s silence was not a convenient way of ignoring issues but rather a mode of deep reflection; a way of looking within. He thought of it as an antidote to the human tendency to modify or to tamper with truth. As he noted in his autobiography,
“Experience has taught me that silence is a part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth. Proneness to exaggerate, to suppress or modify the truth, wittingly or unwittingly, is a natural weakness of man, and silence is necessary in order to surmount it.”
Silence enabled Gandhiji to think deeply about issues and meant that he responded to them rather than reacted to them. As he perceptively observed in his autobiography,
“A man of few words will rarely be thoughtless in his speech; he will measure every word.”
Gandhiji was prescient in recognising the dangers of a world where “we find so many people impatient to talk”.
Gandhiji’s silence also represented a mode of self-reflection a way of thinking deeply about the self, a part of his self-reflexive praxis. As he once remarked,
“Silence is a great help to a seeker after truth like myself. In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.”
Silence, in other words, was a very active idea for Gandhiji, and not a form of passive withdrawal.
It is perhaps paradoxical to even attempt to write about Gandhiji’s silence for words can’t fully capture what his silence meant or signified. But if words can allow us to be more reflective, contemplative and meditative about ourselves and the world we inhabit, then maybe we can begin to appreciate what silence meant for Gandhiji.
Madhav Nayar has completed his Masters in Modern South Asian History from SOAS, University of London. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Instagram @nayarmadhav
Featured image credit: WhatsApp