Revered by millions all over the world, Mohandas Gandhi was called a Mahatma, a great soul. On January 30, 1948, he was getting ready to lead a prayer meeting when he was slain by an assassin. George Marshall, the U.S. Secretary of State, called Gandhi “the spokesman for the conscience of mankind.” A benign shrunken brown man in owl-like glasses and conspicuous loincloth had left an indelible imprint in this history and philosophy of humankind.
In England, where he undertook legal study and qualification, he set about acquiring all the trappings of a proper English gentleman: clothes from Bond street, elocution, violin and dancing lessons. It was also here that Gandhi discovered his own roots as a Hindu. His stay in England and later in South Africa was a time of real intellectual ferment as he confronted diverse religions and philosophies.
The three principles that formed the core of Gandhi’s philosophy were ahimsa or nonviolence, satyagraha—truth or soul force—and brahmacharya or celibacy. For him, true religion was above all religions because he was open to all aspects of truth: “I saw the cross and also Christians, but I did not find God on the cross. I went to find him in the temple, but in vain. At last I looked into my heart and found him there, only there and nowhere else….”
Some have labeled Gandhi’s all-inclusive approach as one that fails to establish real identity. But he pointed out to them that he had always asked people to grow spiritually and within their own tradition while accepting other religions as equal. The hallmark of his religious and political style was that it presupposed a whole way of life and thought. What distinguished him from other politicians was that he was not interested in power. He was more of a moral visionary than a career politician.
In South Africa, the unchristian behavior of so-called Christians appalled him. Gandhi wrote to the newspaper Natal Advertiser about the shabby treatment of Indians, asking “Is this Christian like? Is this justice? Is this civilization?” In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, he writes, “I can say without the slightest hesitation and yet in all humility that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”
Gandhi favored “showing” more than rhetoric. His life was to be an example of moral struggle, personifying the heights to which he believed we were all naturally inclined, given the rigor of moral discipline.
Always an optimist, he believed in the inherent supple ability of human nature to change and evolve to a higher plane of morality. Gandhi’s own actions captured his belief by showing remarkable elasticity well into old age, turning each crisis into an opportunity for spiritual growth. While castigating the British, he berated Indians as well. For a truly moral person, the observation of caste untouchability was sinful.
His sadhana or spiritual path was to adopt poverty, to live like the peasant. He took to the spinning wheel as a form of protest over imported cloth and as a means of paving the way for rural development. He wanted Indians to revive the link between the craft and the craftsman. Spinning required no qualifications, it was accessible to all. An added bonus was the fact that this simple gesture also sparked the growth of Indian nationalism. Gandhi had shown the poor Indian a new way of believing in themselves.
Gandhi focused on the fact that the functioning of the Raj depended on Indian cooperation. Noncooperation was, therefore, a morally justifiable act since the British rule of India stood for evil, for exploitation of Indians for the sake of prosperity abroad.
Gandhi’s talent for tactical inventiveness always resorted to the use of symbolic gestures. The first of these took place in Johannesburg where he made a bonfire of registration certificates that to him marked the inequality of Indians. In Gandhi’s struggle for answers, he asked many uncomfortable moral questions that are of significance to all of us. The political achievements were mere byproducts in this ongoing journey.
When communal violence erupted among Muslims and Hindus, he frequently rushed to the eye of the storm, reducing people to sheer helplessness by embarking on fasts. His personal suffering, his nonviolence, was an offering of invitation for people to lay down their arms.
It was precisely because of this moral philosophy that Gandhi’s public and private life fused to become one. “Only by service could one understand truth and embrace one’s deepest self,” he said. For him, governments that created an economic structure of inequality were immoral.
Gandhi also championed women’s rights and felt that in many ways women more than men had an advantage in working towards nonviolence as the nurturing role came to them more easily. Feminists accuse Gandhi of not treating women as equals since he carved out a separate area of action for them, not allowing participation along with men as partners. His experiments in celibacy present a particularly controversial and problematic issue for many followers.
Perhaps it is more to the point to view Gandhi as a man of moral leadership and cherish his special brand of spiritual legacy. In Gandhi’s struggle for answers, he asked many uncomfortable moral questions that are of significance to all of us. The political achievements were mere byproducts in this ongoing journey.
Contrast his contemplative view of politics and religion to the utilitarian capitalist view of corporations ruling people worldwide, countries and politicians practicing division and polarization. Where is the intellectual openness, reflection, promoting inner harmony while celebrating our differences? Where is the light shining on workers’ rights, respect for nature and earth, the multitude of species that surround us?
Martin Luther King Jr., James Lawson, Cesar Chavez, and other American luminaries felt the heat of Gandhi’s incandescent words. As responsible citizens, it is our duty to keep the embers alive and bring back the pioneer spirit of cherishing nature, upholding the dignity of labor and equality for all by stamping out racial and class imbalance. At this juncture of history, it is only the moral coward that does not take a stand in favor of uplifting our humanity.
The Menil Collection in Houston featured an exhibition on Gandhi till January 30, 2015, and the exhibition is on view in Geneva at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum through January 3, 2016.