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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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Cover Date: December 31, 1999