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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)

In an age of empire and military might, he proved that the powerless had power and that force of arms would not forever prevail against force of spirit

By Johanna McGeary

cover photo

December 27, 1999
Web posted at: 12:38 p.m. EST (1738 GMT)

The Mahatma, the Great Soul, endures in the best part of our minds, where our ideals are kept: the embodiment of human rights and the creed of nonviolence. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is something else, an eccentric of complex, contradictory and exhausting character most of us hardly know. It is fashionable at this fin de siecle to use the man to tear down the hero, to expose human pathologies at the expense of larger-than-life achievements. No myth raking can rob Gandhi of his moral force or diminish the remarkable importance of this scrawny little man. For the 20th century--and surely for the ones to follow--it is the towering myth of the Mahatma that matters.

Consciously or not, every oppressed people or group with a cause has practiced what Gandhi preached. Sixties kids like me were his disciples when we went South in the Freedom Summer to sit in for civil rights and when we paraded through the streets of America to stop the war in Vietnam. Our passionate commitment, nonviolent activism, willingness to accept punishment for civil disobedience were lessons he taught. Martin Luther King Jr. learned them; so did Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Aung San Suu Kyi, the unknown Chinese who defied the tanks in 1989 and the environmental marchers in Seattle a few weeks ago.

It may be that this most Indian of leaders, revered as Bapuji, or Father of the Nation, means more now to the world at large. Foreigners don't have to wrestle with the confusion Indians feel today as they judge whether their nation has kept faith with his vision. For the rest of us, his image offers something much simpler--a shining set of ideals to emulate. Individual freedom. Political liberty. Social justice. Nonviolent protest. Passive resistance. Religious tolerance. His work and his spirit awakened the 20th century to ideas that serve as a moral beacon for all epochs.

Half a century after his death, most of us know little of Gandhi's real history or how the Mahatma in our minds came to be. Hundreds of biographies uncritically canonize him. Winston Churchill scorned him as a half-naked fakir stirring up sedition. His generation knew him as a radical political agitator; ours shrugs off a holy man with romantic notions of a pure, pre-industrial life. There is no either-or. The saint and the politician inhabited the same slender frame, each nourishing the other. His struggle for a nation's rights was one and the same with his struggle for individual salvation.

The flesh-and-blood Gandhi was a most unlikely saint. Just conjure up his portrait: a skinny, bent figure, nut brown and naked except for a white loincloth, cheap spectacles perched on his nose, frail hand grasping a tall bamboo staff. This was one of the century's great revolutionaries? Yet this strange figure swayed millions with his hypnotic spell. His garb was the perfect uniform for the kind of revolutionary he was, wielding weapons of prayer and nonviolence more powerful than guns.

Saints are hard to live with, and this one's personal habits were decidedly odd. Mondays were "days of silence," when he refused to speak. A devoted vegetarian, he indulged in faddish dietetic experiments that sometimes came near to killing him. He eschewed all spices as a discipline of the senses. He napped every day with a mud poultice on abdomen and brow. He was so insistent on absolute regularity in his daily regimen that he safety-pinned a watch to his homespun dhoti, synchronized with the clock at his ashram. He scheduled his bowel movements for 20 minutes morning and afternoon. "The bathroom is a temple," he said, and anyone was welcome to chat with him there. He had a cleansing enema every night.

Gandhi bathed in water but used ashes instead of soap and had himself shaved with a dull straight razor because new blades were too expensive. He was always sweeping up excrement that others left around. Cleanliness, he believed, was godliness. But his passion for sanitation was not just finicky hygiene. He wanted to teach Indian villagers that human and animal filth caused most of the disease in the land.

Every afternoon, Gandhi did an hour or two of spinning on his little handwheel, sometimes 400 yards at a sitting. "I am spinning the destiny of India," he would say. The thread went to make cloth for his followers, and he hoped his example would convince Indians that homespun could free them from dependence on foreign products. But the real point of the spinning was to teach appreciation for manual labor, restore self-respect lost to colonial subjugation and cultivate inner strength.

The man was not unaware of his legend in the making--or the 90-plus volumes that would eventually be needed to preserve his words. Everything Gandhi ever said and did was recorded by legions of secretaries. Then he insisted on going over their notes and choosing the version he liked best. "I want only one gospel in my life," he said.

A strange amalgam of beliefs formed the complicated core of Gandhism. History will merely smile at his railing against Western ways, industrialism and material pleasures. He never stopped calling for a nation that would turn its back on technology to prosper through village self-sufficiency, but not even the Mahatma could hold back progress. Yet many today share his uneasiness with the way mechanization and materialism sicken the human spirit.

More central and even more controversial was Gandhi's cult of celibacy. At 13, he dutifully married and came quickly to lust for his wife Kasturba. At 16 he left his dying father's side to make love to her. His father died that night, and Gandhi could never forgive himself the "double shame." He neglected and even humiliated Kasturba most of his life and only after her death realized she was "the warp and woof of my life." At 36, convinced that sex was the basis of all impulses that must be mastered if man was to reach Truth, he renounced it. An aspirant to a godly life must observe the Hindu practice of Brahmacharya, or celibacy, as a means of self-control and a way to devote all energy to public service. Gandhi spent years testing his self-discipline by sleeping beside young women. He evidently cared little about any psychological damage to the women involved. He also expected his four sons to be as self-denying as he was.

Gandhi sought God, not orthodoxy. His daily prayers mixed traditional Hindu venerations with Buddhist chants, readings from the Koran, a Zoroastrian verse or two and the Christian hymn Lead, Kindly Light. That eclecticism reflected his great tolerance for all religions, one of his holiest--and least respected--precepts. "Truth," he preached, "is God," but he could never persuade India's warring religious sects to agree. His spiritual mentors were just as broad--Jesus, Buddha, Socrates, his mother. Gandhi later said his formative childhood impression was of her "saintliness" and her devout asceticism infused his soul. The family's brand of Hinduism schooled him in the sacredness of all God's creatures.

While studying in England to be a lawyer, he first read the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu religious poem that became his "spiritual dictionary." For Gandhi, the epic was a clarion call to the soul to undertake the battle of righteousness. It taught him to renounce personal desires not by withdrawal from the world but by devotion to the service of his fellow man. In the Christian New Testament he found the stirrings of passive resistance in the words of the Sermon on the Mount.

Those credos came together in the two principles that ruled his public life: what he called Satyagraha, the force of truth and love; and the ancient Hindu ideal of ahimsa, or nonviolence to all living things. He first put those principles to political work in South Africa, where he had gone to practice law and tasted raw discrimination. Traveling to Johannesburg in a first-class train compartment, he was ordered to move to the "colored" cars in the rear. When he refused, he was hauled off the train and left to spend a freezing night in the station. The next day he was humiliated and cuffed by the white driver of a stagecoach. The experience steeled his resolve to fight for social justice.

In 1906, confronting a government move to fingerprint all Indians, Gandhi countered with a new idea--"passive resistance," securing political rights through personal suffering and the power of truth and love. "Indians," he wrote, "will stagger humanity without shedding a drop of blood." He failed to provoke legal changes, and Indians gained little more than a newfound self-respect. But Gandhi understood the universal application of his crusade. Even his principal adversary, the Afrikaner leader Jan Smuts, recognized the power of his idea: "Men like him redeem us from a sense of commonplace and futility."

South Africa was dress rehearsal for Gandhi's great cause, independence for India. From the day he arrived back home at 45, he dedicated himself to "Hind swaraj," Indian self-rule. More than independence, it meant a utopian blend of national liberty, individual self-reliance and social justice. Freedom entailed individual emancipation as well, the search for nobility of soul through self-discipline and denial. Most ordinary Indians, though, were just looking for an end to colonial rule. While his peace-and-love homilies may not have swayed them, they followed him because he made the British tremble.

"Action is my domain," he said. "It's not what I say but what I do that matters." He quickly became the commanding figure of the movement and brooked no challenge to his ultimate leadership. The force of his convictions transformed the Indian National Congress from upper-class movement to mass crusade. He made his little spinning wheel a physical bond between elite and illiterate when both donned the khadi cloth. Despite the country's proclivities for ethnic and religious strife, he inspired legions of Indians to join peaceful protests that made a mockery of empire.

In the next 33 years, he led three major crusades to undermine the power and moral defenses of the British Raj. In 1919-22 he mustered widespread nonviolent strikes, then a campaign of peaceful noncooperation, urging Indians to boycott anything British--schools, courts, goods, even the English language. He believed mass noncooperation would achieve independence within a year. Instead, it degenerated into bloody rioting, and British soldiers turned their guns on a crowd in Amritsar, massacring 400. Gandhi called his underestimating of the violence inside Indian society his "Himalayan blunder." Still, villagers mobbed him wherever he went, calling him Mahatma. By 1922, 30,000 followers had been jailed, and Gandhi ordered civil disobedience. The British slowed the momentum by jailing him for 22 months.

Gandhi was never a man to give up. On March 12, 1930, he launched his most brilliant stroke, national defiance of the law forbidding Indians to make their own salt. With 78 followers, he set out for the coast to make salt until the law was repealed. By the time he reached the sea, people all across the land had joined in. Civil disobedience spread until Gandhi was arrested again. Soon more than 60,000 Indians filled the jails, and Britain was shamed by the gentle power of the old man and his unresisting supporters. Though Gandhi had been elected to no office and represented no government, the Viceroy soon began negotiating with him.

World War II caught him by surprise. The unremitting pacifist did not grasp the evil of Hitler because he thought no man beyond redemption. He deeply offended Jews when he counseled them to follow the path of nonviolence. Gandhi did not want Britain's defeat, but recognized a political opportunity. In late 1940 he agreed to a modest campaign of individual civil disobedience he intended to be largely symbolic.

But other politicians pressed hard for nonviolent mass struggle against a Raj dangerously weakened by the threat of Japanese invasion. In 1942 Gandhi reluctantly endorsed the Quit India plan, calling on London for Indian independence "before dawn, if it could be had." He and the Congress leaders were arrested and jailed. Huge demonstrations soon flared into rioting and revolt. Mobs attacked any symbol of British power, and the disorder cut off British communications to its armies at the frontier. Government forces struck back hard, and nearly 1,000 Indians were killed before the uprising flamed out. Gandhi was finally freed on May 5, 1944. He had spent 2,338 days of his 74 years imprisoned.

By war's end, Britain was ready to let India go. But the moment of Gandhi's greatest triumph, on August 15, 1947, was also the hour of his defeat. India gained freedom but lost unity when Britain granted independence on the same day it created the new Muslim state of Pakistan. Partition dishonored Gandhi's sect-blind creed. "There is no message at all," he said that day and turned to fasting and prayer.

At 77, he despaired that "my life's work seems to be over." Had liberty been won by the long years of peaceful and moral coercion or the violent spasm of Quit India? Resentment of Britain had been replaced by religious hatred. The killing before partition made it inevitable, and the slaughter afterward trampled on his appeals to tolerance and trust. All the village pilgrimages he made in 1946 and 1947 could not stop Muslims and Hindus from killing one another. All the famous fasts he undertook could not persuade them to live permanently in harmony. He blamed himself when Indians rejected the nonviolence he had made a way of life.

Assassination made a martyr of the apostle of nonviolence. The Hindu fanatic who fired three bullets into Gandhi at point-blank range on Jan. 30, 1948, blamed him for letting Muslims steal part of the Hindu nation, for not hating Muslims. Not long before, Gandhi had noted his new irrelevance. "Everybody is eager to garland my photos," he said. "But nobody wants to follow my advice."

He was both right and wrong. Interest in the flesh-and-blood Mohandas Karamchand has faded away. We revere the Mahatma while ignoring half of what he taught. His backward, romantic vision of a simple society seems woolly minded. Much of his ascetic personal philosophy has lost meaning for later generations. Global politics have little place today for his absolute pacificism or gentle tolerance.

Yet Gandhi is that rare great man held in universal esteem, a figure lifted from history to moral icon. The fundamental message of his transcendent personality persists. He stamped his ideas on history, igniting three of the century's great revolutions--against colonialism, racism, violence. His concept of nonviolent resistance liberated one nation and sped the end of colonial empires around the world. His marches and fasts fired the imagination of oppressed people everywhere. Like the millions of Indians who pressed around his funeral cortege seeking darshan--contact with his sanctity--millions more have sought freedom and justice under the Mahatma's guiding light. He shines as a conscience for the world. The saint and the politician go hand in hand, proclaiming the power of love, peace and freedom.


Cover Date: December 31, 1999

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