Mahatma Gandhi: An Existential Journalist

Prof. (Dr.) Santosh Kumar Tewari*

The twin objectives of this paper are to make readers aware of the concept of existential journalist and to prove that Mahatma Gandhi belongs to that category.

History of journalism in India and the world would never be complete without mentioning Mahatma Gandhi. He was a great journalist and he tried to create harmony between different groups of society as well as with nature, without losing his ethical values.

Gandhiji was the editor of three English weeklies: Indian Opinion (1903 to 1915), Young India  (1919 to 1931) and Harijan (1933 to 1942 and 1946 to 1948). Of them, Indian Opinion was published from South Africa. It was bilingual – in English and Gujarati languages. For some time it had Hindi and Tamil sections too. Young India’s Gujarati edition was titled as Navjivan. Harijan was in three languages: English, Hindi and Gujarati.

Mahatma Gandhi once wrote in his Young India:

I have taken up journalism not for its sake but merely as an aid to what I have conceived to be my mission in life. My mission is to teach by example and precept under severe restraint the use of the matchless weapon of Satyagraha which is a direct corollary of non-violence and truth. . . . To be true to my faith, therefore, I may not write in anger or malice. I may not write idly. I may not write merely to excite passion.1

In his autobiography he said:

The sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole country sides and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within. If this line of reasoning is correct, how many of the journals in the world would stand the test? But who should be the judge? The useful and the useless must, like good and evil generally, go on together, and man must make the choice.2

Existential journalism:

In my view, Mahatma Gandhi was an existential journalist. The difference between existential or non-existential have been perhaps best expressed by Professor John C Merrill in his May 2011 blog (Existential to be or not to be). He wrote:

Some of us are born, and in some kind of statistical, materialistic way slip into old age and death without any meaningful guiding principles for a meaningful life. For such people existence means a kind of passive being, connected only by birthdays, weddings, illnesses, and catastrophes. For existentialists, on the other hand, existence means a more active and involved immersion in life experiences that largely are determined by our willingness to take chances. The existentialist refuses to be a robotized citizen who sees life as no more than a period of time where the person touches most of the laid-out bases but knows little or nothing about what is in the outfield.

Merrill’s definition of existentialism matches with the life and works of Mahatma Gandhi as a journalist.

Sometime in 1990 or 1991, when I was conducting my doctoral research at Cardiff University in Britain, I read through Professor John C Merrill’s  bookThe Imperative of Freedom: A philosophy of Journalistic Autonomy(1974). In the book he mentioned about existential journalism. That was my first encounter with the term ‘existential journalism’. I was so fascinated by reading the book that I wrote a letter to Merrill who was then a professor emeritus in the discipline of  journalism at University of Missouri-Columbia in the USA. I was happy and feeling privileged to get a reply from him. He suggested to me some further readings on the subject. Those days there was no Internet or email. Letters to foreign countries used to go by air mail. Merrill passed away in 2012.

In his book Merrill did not mentioned about Mahatma Gandhi, but said that Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an existential journalist/ writer.

Here the noteworthy fact is that Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha was highly influenced by Henry David Thoreau’ writings.

Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” was first published in an obscure and short-lived  journal/ periodical Aesthetic Papers in the USA in 1849.3 In that era, the essay attracted few readers. However, in the next century it was read by hundreds of scholars and affected the lives of millions. One such scholar was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience was reproduced in Gandhiji’s Indian Opinion in South Africa. It was also translated into Gujarati language for publication.4

Later the Indian Opinion in South Africa organized an essay competition on “The Ethics of Passive Resistance” with special reference to Thoreau’s essay and Socrates’s writings.5

We can easily notice that in the current history of mankind, life and works of Mahatma Gandhi influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) in America and  Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) in South Africa, the great scientist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and many others. Thus one candle lit another to enlighten the world.

Some people think existentialists are against the State. However, that is not always the case.  According to Philip Stokes:

Existentialists argue for human responsibility and judgment in ethical matters, seeing the individual as the sole judge of his/ her actors, with human freedom understood precisely to choose.6

Today’s media are agents of power:

In fact, today’s main stream media, not social media, are agents of power. They are agents of those who have social, political and economic power.7 Newspapers and television channels are primarily for earning more and more profits. They work to save interests of their proprietors. Not only media, but journalism schools too largely promote this culture.

Only an existential journalist can change this situation. Gandhiji was first jailed in India for his articles published in Young India.

On the other hand,  today media managers and so called big editors are given official awards and packages of millions of rupees as “paid news” by governments.8

Thoreau was against sensational, celebrity oriented press.9

Unlike today’s newspapers, Gandhiji’s journals in India never carried any advertisements, but they did not run at loss. Profits from his own writings were mainly spent on khadi work. He made a trust deed of the Navjivan Press worth one lakh rupees.10 His papers were self-supporting. They were primarily views-papers. They did not carry sensational topics. They carried Gandhiji’s writings on Satyagraha, non-violence, nature cure, Hindu-Muslim unity, untouchability, prohibition, etc. His autobiography written in Gujarati was first serialized in his journal. The autobiography has been translated into all major languages of the world including English, French, Russian, German, Chinese, Japanese, etc.

If I would be asked to list a few existential journalists and writers, I would suggest the names of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), George Orwell (1903-1950) of Britain, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and Thomas Paine (1737-1809) of USA, Dostoevsky (1821-1881) of Russia. The list is not exhaustive, but of course, there would be many unknown existential journalists and writers too, about whom this world does not know.  Vivekananda used to call such persons as “unknown heroes”.

Vivekananda said:

If you really want to judge the character of a man, look not at his great performances. Every fool may become a hero at one time or another. Watch a man do his most common action; those are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man. . . . The greatest men in the world have passed away unknown. The Buddhas and Christs that we know, are but second-rate heroes in comparison with the greatest  men of whom the world knows nothing. Hundreds of these unknown heroes have lived in every country working silently. Silently they live and silently they pass away. . . . In the life of Gautam Buddha we notice him constantly saying that he is the twenty-fifth Buddha. The twenty four before him are unknown to history although the Buddha known to history must have built upon the foundations laid by them.”11

Now the question is why we need to know about existential journalism and its philosophy and practice in this twenty first century?

According to Gandhi, as stated above, the sole aim of journalism should be service, whereas today, largely, the sole aim is to make money.

We need to know about existential journalists, because if the old media (newspapers, magazines, radio and television) have lost contact with their spiritual and ideological roots, the new media culture of twenty first century can adopt these roots.

End Notes

  1. Quoted from Bandyopadhyaya, AnuM.K. Gandhi: Author, Printer, Publisher, (First Edition, April 1994), Navjivan Publishers, Ahmedabad, back cover page
  2. Ibid
  3. Downs, Robert B. Books That Changed The World, (1956) Mentor Book New American Library, New York, p. 65
  4. Ibid, p. 73
  5. Ibid, p. 73
  6. Stokes, Philip Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers (2010) Arcturus Publishing Ltd., London, p. 212
  7. Altschull, J. Herbert Agent of Power (1984) Longman, New York, p.298
  8. Achyutanand Mishra said in an interview in Lucknow on 2 January 2014 (Achyutanand Mishra is a senior journalist and former Vice Chancellor of Makhanlal National University of Journalism and Communication, Bhopal. Full text of his interview by this author has been published in Media Vimarsh, Bhopal, March 2014, pp.12-14)
  9. Altschull, J. Herbert, From Milton to McLuhan (1990): New York, Longman p.14
  10. Bandopadhyaya, op.ct., p.18
  11. Rolland, RomainThe Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel (English translation from French) 2006 23rd Impression: Advait Ashram, Kolkata, pp. 167-168.

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