Dialogue  October-December, 2010, Volume 12 No. 2

Revisiting Mahatma Gandhi

Pawan Kumar Gupta

Like many so called educated people in India, I always assumed I knew Mahatma Gandhi without actually having read much of what Gandhi ji had written or spoken. One starts believing that one knows the Mahatma and unconsciously forms a negative or positive impression about the man, depending on one’s environment - based only what others have had to say about him. It was much later (while working in education in the remote villages of Uttarakhand), that many of my notions got challenged and I was forced to confront some harsh realities which made me acknowledge and examine my assumptions.

I owe my learning or rather unlearning first to the elderly women of these villages who challenged my notions about present day education and Sri Dharampal who introduced me to the Mahatma. I got introduced to the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG). I am told that these 100 volumes (each volume of about 300 – 400 pages) of CWMG contain only about 60% of what he wrote or spoke.

It would be presumptuous to claim that one fully understands Mahatma Gandhi. But over the years, as I read him, the Mahatma has begun to make more and more sense. It is through him that it became easier to understand the present day situation of society and polity. What he was trying to achieve is as relevant today as it was 80 or a 100 years ago. Things may have changed superficially but at a deeper level the issues remain the same. His understanding of modern systems was phenomenal. He could see how present day modernity is designed to make an individual more and more dependent at all levels – materially, spiritually and mentally – on forces outside one’s control. 

He was trying to make us self reliant in more ways than one - materially of course- but more so at the level of spirit and mind. Freedom in its true sense was of utmost importance to him - where one’s freedom is not in conflict with the freedom of the other; where freedom is based upon the understanding of the universal principle of co-existence and where freedom is based on individual sense of responsibility rather than the notion of Rights. He had an intuitive understanding of the universal principles of co-existence and his readings and experiences convinced him that this was also our civilizational understanding and that the remnants of this understanding still existed among our people. He learnt from the ordinary Indians and developed a great respect for them which reinforced his faith in this learning.

Gandhi ji was in search of an integrated samadhan (resolution) which he constantly strived for yet he was extremely practical in his approach at the level of society and politics. He understood the spiritual striving - so intrinsic to human beings - where we all desire peace and harmony at all levels of existence. His was not an anthropomorphic world. He believed in the ancient Indian understanding where in existence there is co-existence between all orders of existence – the material, the pranic, animal/ birds and human beings. At the same time he also understood the power of modern systems where the individual was increasingly driven to become not only a pawn but often an accomplice of the very forces and systems that exploited him. 

The uniqueness of Gandhi ji does not come across unless we read him together with the socio- political context of the times. Like most things worthy of understanding, Mahatma Gandhi also needs to be read with trust and faith. Only after understanding the context, the meaning behind what he was saying or doing, can we really evaluate him – and only then, accept or reject him.

Mahatma Gandhi arrived in India in 1915 at a time when the British had established themselves firmly and believed that now India was theirs for a long period of time. The sun never set of the British Empire! Delhi durbar in its full glory had already taken place in 1911. He was trying to infuse courage in our people after more than 150 years of British rule - when their spirit was at its lowest ebb.

Romain Rolland in his book “Inde” described his meeting with Pearson, an Englishman who came to India in 1907, when the Mahatma was still in South Africa. Pearson observed that the ordinary Indian was hardly able to speak to an Englishman or look him straight in the eye. But when Pearson came back again in 1917 (just two years after the Mahatma’s arrival in India), he perceived a remarkable change in the ordinary Indian’s behaviour. According to Pearson the average Indian was now, not only able to look the Britisher in the eye, but “dared to insult him”. He attributes this newly found courage among the Indians to Mahatma Gandhi. Louis Fisher in “The Life of Mahatma Gandhi” expresses the same sentiments when he says, “Indians became free men. The body still wore shackles; but the spirit had escaped from the prison. Gandhi had turned the key.” Unfortunately, Mahatma Gandhi’s courage has neither been seen in this way nor does it match the image we have created of him in the last 63 years.

He was a courageous man. As Gilbert Murray says in 1918, “Persons in power should be very careful how they deal with a man who cares nothing for sensual pleasures, nothing for riches, nothing for comfort or praise or promotion, but is simply determined to do what he believes to be right. He is dangerous because his body, which you can always conquer, gives so little purchase upon his soul.”  Much earlier Lord Ampthill wrote to General Smuts on 10th August 1909 (CWMG vol. IX, pp583), “It is impossible not to admire the man, for it is evident that he recognizes no court of appeal except that of his own conscience.”

Gandhi ji was very aware of the typical Indian problem of saying things out of politeness. and he was always exhorting people to say what was in their hearts, without fear. The timidity of our people was of great concern to him and he was constantly working towards infusing courage into our people by invoking faith.  In Surat, he told the students and teachers, “Where there is timidity there is no courage. Our people are afflicted with timidity… Unless I teach you the A B C of how to shake off your slavery, everything else will be unavailing”. In his speech at YMCA, Madras on 16th February 1916 he said, “I found throughout my wanderings in India that educated India is seized with a paralyzing fear… If we continue to say things out of politeness we really become a nation of hypocrites…I would admit that we, unlike most Englishmen, would not dare to say “no” when it was “no” that we meant. We do hesitate to say “no” frankly and boldly when we want to pay due regard to the sentiments of the person whom we are addressing… we must (learn) to say “no” when we mean “no” regardless of the consequences.” And again in the same speech he goes on to say, “there is only one Being…whom we have to fear, and that is God. When we fear God, we shall fear no man, no matter how high placed he may be.”

Gandhi ji had the courage to go against public opinion if he was convinced he was right and did not hesitate to express himself boldly. We certainly need to learn this from him in present times, when the entire intelligentsia is so careful about being ‘politically correct’. There is a dread about being ‘politically incorrect’ even if our entire being tells us otherwise.

There are two kinds of terrorism with which we are afflicted today. The terrorism of bullets, bombs and the state sponsored terrorism - the like of which we have recently seen in Afghanistan and Iraq - is one kind- in which normally the poorer sections of society are the ones who suffer. Then there is another kind of terrorism, perhaps even more dangerous - with which our elite and intelligentsia are badly afflicted – that of ‘political correctness’. We need to be more honest and bold in our public utterings. Timidity and terrorism of political correctness is a lethal combination with which our country seems to be badly afflicted today.

We can learn a lesson here from the Mahatma. When the entire country was aflame, raging against the tragedy brought upon innocent Indians by General Dyer in a speech to students and teachers in Surat on 6th October 1920 he dared to say, “The men and women who died in Jallianwala Bagh were not martyrs or heroes. Had they been heroes, when General Dyer came to the scene in all his pride, they would have fought with swords or sticks or would have stood up before him and faced death.” This statement is no ordinary statement considering the sentiments of our people at that time. He dared to speak his mind, even if it went against public sentiments in a highly emotionally charged atmosphere. It is not important to get into a debate about what Gandhi ji said about the people who were murdered at Jallianwala but what is to be admired and acknowledged is his courage to speak so boldly against public opinion.

He was both angry and disturbed by the complete subjugation of the educated people of India. In his speech to students at Agra on November 23, 1920 he said, “We are dazzled by the shining lustre of our chains and look upon them as symbols of freedom. This state of mind speaks of slavery of the worst kind.”  But Gandh ji only partially succeeded in educating the educated. The ‘shining luster of the chains’ that bind us continues after 90 years.

Gandhi ji’s Ahimsa has also been misunderstood by the majority of our people, especially the educated. The mainstream, the Congress and the Right wing politics have all contributed to this misunderstanding and confusion. The Left has largely ignored him, thus leaving the field free for misinterpretations. We need to read CWMG carefully to understand what he meant by Ahimsa and what he thought of violence. Ahimsa was dear to him because it made sense to him in more ways than one. He was acutely aware of the Indian swabhava. He was aware that essentially deep within, Indians are not violent, but are God fearing and have faith; and if faith could be re-kindled and channelised properly, it could make them courageous. But this courage would of the Indian kind, quite distinct from the European courage. In the Surat speech to students and teachers on October 6, 1920 he says, “If I rule out the sword, it is not because I do not know how to use it or because I am weak. Even this moment I can fire a revolver. If I wish I can put a dagger into a man’s bowels. I have ruled them out, however, because there is no great profit in them… If the country does not remain peaceful when they arrest me…I would think that it had not learnt the lesson. Violence in such circumstances would be natural in Ireland or Arabia, for there, everyone has the right to carry arms and knows how to use them. If I were among them and the Government tried to arrest me, the people would say that it would have to fight them before it could take me away. But conditions here are not the same… However (in this country) the Hindus have no such strength, nor the Muslims…Suppose we succeeded in attacking the Viceroy unobserved and killing him, or get someone to do so…the result would be Martial law. Even that would not matter, were it not that India would be completely suppressed”. We could draw varying conclusions from the above, but few things are quite clear - that Gandhi ji was acutely aware of the swabhava of Indians (both Hindus and Muslims) and that of the British. For Gandhi ji, courage was most important. Ahimsa required the greatest of courage, and  Ahimsa was also conducive to the swabhava of our people.

For Gandhi ji faith and courage went hand in hand. He was trying to infuse both faith and courage in our people. In “Hind Swaraj” he was concerned about this issue when he said, “It is my deliberate opinion that India is ground down, not under the English heel but that of modern civilization. It is groaning under the monster’s weight. There is yet time to escape it, but every day makes it more and more difficult. Religion is dear to me and my first complaint is that India is becoming irreligious. Here I am not talking of Hindu or Mahomedan or the Zorastrian religion but of that religion that underlies all religion. We are turning away from God.”  And then in Surat in 1920 he relates the two – faith and courage. He said, “To plunge into a thing with faith and without any fear of consequences is courage”.

Satya-agraha (demanding truth), according to him was superior to the force of arms. In “Hind Swaraj” he said, “How then can it be considered only a weapon of the weak? Do you believe that a coward can ever disobey a law that he dislikes?” In July 27, 1916 he said, “we will never bow to ….outrageous laws.. you will have to ask our opinion about the laws that concern us. If you make laws to keep us suppressed in wrongful manner and without taking us into confidence… we will never obey them.”  Further, “Extremists are considered to be advocates of brute force. Why do they then talk about obeying laws? …When they succeed in driving out the English and they themselves become Governors, they will want you and me to obey their laws… But a passive resister will say he will not obey a law that is against his conscience, even though he may be blown to pieces”.

His speech at Sabarmati Ashram on 17th March 1918 needs careful reading. After 40 days of strike by Ahmedabad mill workers, Gandhi ji decided to go on a fast. He realized that this would put undue pressure on the mill owners and that would be violence too. On the other hand he was aware that the strike was on the verge of breaking down as the  mill workers had reached the limits of their endurance. They had gone on strike on Gandhi ji’s assurance that God was on their side because they were fighting for truth. He was aware that if the strike broke, they might lose faith in God and that was not acceptable to Gandhi ji. It was difficult to make a choice between the two evils. He chose the lesser of the two and decided to go on a fast. Before going on the fast he gave a speech explaining his dilemma. Even as he spoke about several issues, his understanding of the Indian swabhava came across clearly in the speech.

He was critical of both Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He deliberately picked these two persons as they were supposed to be representing and having an understanding of India and our ancient culture more than others. Gandhi ji said, “From the ancient culture of India, I have gleaned a truth which, even if it is mastered by the few persons here at the moment, would give these few a mastery over the world. Before telling you of it, however, I should like to say another thing. At present, there is only one person in India over whom millions are crazy, for whom millions of our countrymen would lay down their lives. That person is Tilak Maharaj. … He has written on the inner meaning of the Gita. But I have always felt that he has not understood the age-old spirit of India, has not understood her soul and that is the reason why the nation has come to this pass. Deep down in his heart, he would like us all to be what the Europeans are. As Europe stands on top at present, as it seems, that is, to those whose minds are steeped in European notions—he wants India to be in the same position. He underwent six years’ internment but only to display courage of the European variety, with the idea that these people who are tyrannizing over us now may learn how, if it came to that, we too could stand such long terms of internment, be it five years or twenty-five. In the prisons of Siberia, many great men of Russia are wasting their whole lives, but these men did not go to prison in obedience to any spiritual promptings. To be thus prodigal of one’s life is to expend our highest treasure to no purpose. If Tilakji had undergone the sufferings of internment with a spiritual motive, things would not have been as they are and the results of his internment would have been far different. This is what I should like to explain to him. I have often, with great respect, spoken about this to him, as much as I could, though I have not put the thing in so many words orally or in writing. I might have, in what I wrote, watered down my meaning, but Tilak Maharaj has so penetrating an intellect that he would understand. This is, however, no matter to be explained orally or in writing. To give him first-hand experience of it, I must furnish a living example. Indirectly, I have spoken to him often enough but, should I get an opportunity of providing a direct demonstration, I should not miss it, and here is one”.

“Another such person is Madan Mohan Malaviya. Amongst the present leaders of India, he is a man of the holiest character —that is, amongst political personages and amongst those whom we know. Unknown to us, there may be many such indeed. But although he is so holy in his life and so well informed on points of dharma, he has not, it seems to me, properly understood the soul of India in all its grandeur. I am afraid I have said too much. If he were to hear this, Malaviyaji might get angry with me, even think of me as a swollen-headed man and take a dislike to me. But I feel no hesitation in saying what I do because it is quite true…. I have this opportunity to provide him, too, with a direct demonstration. I owe it to both to show now what India’s soul is.”

To understand Gandhi ji, it is important to know what he meant by – ‘Soul of India’; ‘courage of the European variety’; ‘courage of the Indian variety’; ‘undergoing the sufferings of internment with a spiritual motive’… We need to ask how many of us doing satyagraha undertake it with a ‘spiritual motive’ or is it just another form of protest? Gandhi ji is being critical of Bal Gangadhar Tilak when he says, “Deep down in his heart, he would like us all to be what the Europeans are. As Europe stands on top at present, as it seems, that is, to those whose minds are steeped in European notions—he wants India to be in the same position.”. If so, what was his vision of India? We will have to go back to “Hind Swaraj” to find these answers.

It would be a mistake to put a label on him and place him in a category. It would be gross injustice to the man. He did not believe in boundaries or systems imposed from outside. Gandhi ji never hesitated in admitting that he was guilty - in front of the court. He always pleaded by saying, “Yes, I am guilty.” But then after a pause he would say, “But according to your law.” In one stroke he would step out of the category of the framework of the law and plead his case on the basis of what he considered to be a higher or supreme law. One could call it his ‘voice of conscience’ or universal law which he kept referring to. 

That is why he was dangerous, not only then, but even today. That is why he is being labeled and categorized today to make him less dangerous. He made sharp distinctions to remove the cobwebs in the minds of the educated. In Bombay Chronicle he wrote on 26th October 1920 to make things clear, “About the word ‘illegal’… A cyclist cycling without a lamp to fetch a doctor acts contrary to (man made) law but does not engage in illegal activity…To disregard a tyrannical administrative order may be contrary to law but it is not in my opinion an ‘illegal activity’.

Even many of our activist friends do not understand this. Except for Maoists who unfortunately have taken to arms, all the rest want to work only within frameworks. They plead “not guilty” when brought before a court. For Gandhi ji “politics without religion was dead. In Madras on 14th February 1916 he said categorically, “I do not believe that religion has nothing to do with politics. The latter divorced from religion is like a corpse only fit to be buried.” This conviction was what helped him to fight his case in British courts taking recourse not of the British law but something else. It can be said he took recourse of religion in these cases and he put it above law. Gandhi ji is quoted by Romain Rolland in his book “Inde” as having said, “God is an unchanging law. Normally we understand what is prescribed in the religious texts but here what I am talking about is an eternal principle (shashvat niyam) which does not change with change in circumstances. This is truth and that is why I say truth is God.” 

We have put his Ahimsa also into a category- where we only talk about peace, without its essential accompaniments – faith, spiritual motive and courage. We have made his Ahimsa seem like a weak person’s ploy. But Gandhi ji “was all fire”, according to Meera Behen (as told to Dharampal ji  during her last days in Austria).  Our mainstream has been trying very hard to douse that fire.

Gandhi ji was a man on faith. He drew his strength from that. In an article called Brahmacharya written in 1938 he wrote, “I am a self appointed General of the army of Satyagrahis. I have no armour but that of Brahmacharya. Truth and Ahimsa can not walk without Brahmacharya. I have no wireless but my thoughts. I am not aware of having reached millions through human agency. I believe from well grounded experience that if one has full control over his thoughts one has a powerhouse unequalled by any yet devised by all the physical sciences combined….Non violence can not be imparted by mere appeal to the intellect. Its ultimate appeal must be from heart to heart. But for that appeal to succeed, my thoughts and thence word, must have power”. One needs not only guts but conviction and faith in oneself and in a higher power. Who can dare to make such a statement today in our ‘secular democratic environment’?

There is a distinction between a nationalist and a patriot. Gandhi ji was a patriot not a nationalist. For nationalists, the law is above all, but for a patriot love for the people is above the law. People were important for Mahatma Gandhi. Every thing else - the law, technology, education, judicial system and systems of governance were to serve the people, not the other way around. He was acutely aware of this. He could understand how modernity was professing freedom but doing something entirely contrary to the claim.

Gandhi ji was an idealist but also pragmatic at the same time. He was aware of the conflict it created. There was an ideal he was striving for but knew only too well that the ideal could not be achieved easily. He took into account the level of preparedness of our people.

On January 26, 1921 he wrote, “But I would warn (the reader) against thinking that I am today aiming at the swaraj described therein (in “Hind Swaraj”). I know that India is not ripe for it. It may seem an impertinence to say so. But such is my conviction. I am individually working for the self-rule pictured therein. But today my corporate activity is undoubtedly devoted to the attainment of parliamentary swaraj in accordance with the wishes of the people of India. I am not aiming at destroying railways or hospitals, though I would certainly welcome their natural destruction. Neither railways nor hospitals are a test of a high and pure civilization. At best they are a necessary evil. Neither adds one inch to the moral stature of a nation. Nor am I aiming at a permanent destruction of law courts, much as I regard it as a ‘consummation devoutly to be wished for’. Still less am I trying to destroy all machinery and mills. It requires a higher simplicity and renunciation than the people are today prepared for”.

In a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru on October 5, 1945 he said, “My experience has confirmed the truth of what I wrote in 1909. If I were the only one left who believed in it, I would not be sorry. For I can only testify to the truth as I see it. I have not Hind Swaraj in front of me. It is better that I redraw the picture today in my own language. Then it would not matter to me whether or no the picture tallies with that of 1909, nor should it to you. I do not have to establish what I had said before. What is worth knowing is only what I have to say today.  I believe that if India, and through India the world, is to achieve real freedom, then sooner or later we shall have to go and live in the villages—in huts, not in palaces. Millions of people can never live in cities and palaces in comfort and peace. Nor can they do so by killing one another, that is, by resorting to violence and untruth. I have not the slightest doubt that, but for the pair, truth and non-violence, mankind will be doomed. We can have the vision of that truth and non-violence only in the simplicity of the villages. That simplicity resides in the spinning-wheel and what is implied by the spinning-wheel. It does not frighten me at all that the world seems to be going in the opposite direction. For the matter of that, when the moth approaches its doom it whirls round faster and faster till it is burnt up. It is possible that India will not be able to escape this moth-like circling. It is my duty to try, till my last breath, to save India and through it the world from such a fate. The sum and substance of what I want to say is that the individual person should have control over the things that are necessary for the sustenance of life. If he cannot have such control the individual cannot survive. Ultimately, the world is made up only of individuals. If there were no drops there would be no ocean.”
         “You will not be able to understand me if you think that I am talking about the villages of today. My ideal
village still exists only in my imagination. After all every human being lives in the world of his own imagination. In this village of my dreams the villager will not be dull—he will be all awareness. He will not live like an animal in filth and darkness. Men and women will live in freedom, prepared to face the whole world. There will be no plague, no cholera and no smallpox. Nobody will be allowed to be idle or to wallow in luxury. Everyone will have to do body labour. Granting all this, I can still envisage a number of things that will have to be organized on a large scale. Perhaps there will even be railways and also post and telegraph offices. I do not know what things there will be or will not be. Nor am I bothered about it. If I can make sure of the essential thing, other things will follow in due course. But if I give up the essential thing, I give up everything.”     

Today the world is confronted with three major crises – economic, environmental and terrorism/ war. No one has any permanent solution for them. At best we are fire-fighting, which has become the norm to address any kind of problem. We look for relief rather than resolution (samadhan). While we sometimes are able to solve a problem in the immediate, we create a bigger problem in the future. Currently the market economy is ruling world politics, which is intrinsically linked to exploitation of nature and man. This approach is unsustainable. Greed is being eulogized. Wants are being turned into needs. This may be obvious to many but yet we are afraid to address the issue squarely and boldly because all of us have become victims of modernity and the material conveniences it provides.

Here again we can learn from Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi ji was questioned about apparent contradiction between his criticism of modernity and modern technology and his use of them. He wrote an article, “Unbridgeable Gulf” in Harijan on 14th October 1939 as a rejoinder to a person referring to these contradictions in Gandhi ji’s life: “I must deprive the ridicule of its sting by informing my friend that I was in my senses when I wrote the note referred to. I might easily have avoided the exact place (this refers to a note he had written and mentioned ‘on the train to Simla’ before signing it). But I wanted to add point to my remark and to discover to the reader the vast gulf that separates me from my ideal. Let the waverers take heart from the fact that though my note containing the flat contradiction of the ideal has provided my friend with mirth, I have got the credit for trying my best to live up to the ideals, I may profess. If I am to make an ever-increasing approach to my ideal, I must let the world see my weaknesses and failures so that I may be saved from hypocrisy and so that even for very shame I would try my utmost to realize the ideal. The contradiction pointed out by the friend also shows that between the ideal and practice there always must be an unbridgeable gulf. The ideal will cease to be one if it becomes possible to realize it. The pleasure lies in making the effort, not in its fulfilment. For, in our progress towards the goal we ever see more and more enchanting scenery.”

“Coming, however, to the friend’s gibe let me tell him and the reader that I could pen those lines because it is never a pleasure to me to travel by motor or rail or even a cart. It is always a pleasure to walk. Nor should I mind in the least if every rail was removed and men, except the sick and the maimed, had to walk to their businesses. I cannot only imagine but am working for a civilization in which possession of a car will be considered no merit and railways will find no place. It would not be for me an unhappy event if the world became once more as large as it used to be at one time. Hind Swaraj was written in 1909. Since then it has undergone many editions and has been translated in many languages of the world. I was asked last year by Shrimati Sophia Wadia to write a foreword for the edition that she was bringing out. I had the pleasure, therefore, of having to re-read it carefully. The reader may know that I could not revise a single idea. I had no desire to revise the language. It is a fair translation of the original in Gujarati. The key to understand that incredibly simple (so simple as to be regarded foolish) booklet is to realize that it is not an attempt to go back to the so-called ignorant, dark ages. But it is an attempt to see beauty in voluntary simplicity, poverty and slowness. I have pictured that as my ideal. I shall never reach it myself and hence cannot expect the nation to do so. But the modern rage for variety, for flying through the air, for multiplicity of wants, etc., have no fascination for me. They deaden the inner being in us. The giddy heights which man’s ingenuity is attempting, take us away from our Maker who is nearer to us than the nails are to the flesh which they cover.”

“Therefore even whilst I am traveling at the rate of 40 miles per hour, I am conscious that it is a necessary evil, and that my best work is to be done in little Segaon containing 700 souls, and in the neighbouring villages to which I can walk. But being a highly practical man I do not avoid railway traveling or motoring for the mere sake of looking foolishly consistent.”

Gandhi ji has addressed all questions that we need to address today both at the personal and societal level. There seems to be no option but to revisit Mahatma Gandhi.   


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)                                                Astha Bharati