Very little survives a man’s death. I have commented before that most of the “Great’s” from history did not write much down for themselves and Gandhi is no different. For while he did write many letters (all available online) he did this not because he wanted to leave lessons for you and I to follow or to build a movement around, but simply because he didn’t have a telephone. If you are looking for published books then you only have one to find; his autobiography “The Story of My Experiments with Truth“.
I have a copy of it, I picked up in Mumbai, and it is not what you might expect.
For example, the modern way of writing a book on the subject of, “how society should be modelled”, a modern “The Republic” so to speak, is to write at length about the human mind and human condition together with conclusions that draw from these reflections. Take any modern or “New Age” work on this subject, such as the Kabbala inspired “The Secret” (which concludes that, “It’s all energy and vibrations” – my paraphrasing), and you will see this pattern emerge. We have come to expect the presence of such a structure, but in Gandhi’s book it is missing.
He didn’t talk the talk, he walked the walk and asked you to draw your own conclusions from that. Consequently, his book has very little philosophy in it at all and upon reading it you keep waiting for it to “start”. This can lead to a very frustrating feeling of being let down. “Where are the answers?” the reader demands. They are not there on the page, they exist only as potential in the reader’s own mind.
Gandhi’s philosophical writing is to be found in his (excellent) aphorisms, quoted from his sayings and letters. In this he is very like Confucius; the model of the citizen, a man of unsurpassed courage, a man who stood up to anyone and a man of enormous will. Charismatic but sharp.
In other words a man of destiny.
Gandhi had his destiny manifest itself when he was thrown off a train in the (then) institutionally racist state of South Africa. His crime was sitting in first class. He had a first class ticket, but the white train passengers were not about to let an Indian man – even one clearly dressed in a suit and tie (he was lawyer then) – to think above his “station”.
I can see Gandhi now, rubbing dust from his knees and staring after the train, saying to himself, “I am not going to stand for that”.
It must have been an interesting night for him, to have been given his future on a plate like that. Often it is the injustices in the world that give us our direction and clarify how we may contribute by opposing them. The Buddha had a similar night way back in his youth when he went out (so the story goes) and came across a sick man, a dead man and an old man for the very first time (he had an exceedingly sheltered upbringing). Met with such “injustice” he, like Gandhi, dedicated his life to solving these problems.
And in many ways they both did. The stubborn little so-and-so’s.
In Gandhi’s case he worked first for the down trodden Indian immigrant’s of South Africa, who christened him with the moniker, “Great Soul”. This was a process that took 20 years composed of lots of jail time, many beatings and being in the maw of a callous government. It was during these years that Gandhi was crushed by the state relentlessly, but for him the effect was like that of continuously folding a steel bar under extreme heat; he became strong, tempered…
His beliefs are often called Hindu, but from my understanding I sense much of the Jain in him (especially with how he later dressed). He combined these religious thoughts with the sort of rigorous legal grounding needed to study law in the UK. Nevertheless, these influences developed into what was called Satyagraha or “a devotion to truth”. This was his famous non-violent way of protesting and it was spectacularly successful.
“A weak man is just by accident. A strong but non-violent man is unjust by accident.” – Gandhi
He returned to India as a force of nature. No longer could he be anything other than what he was. He had arrived in himself. He didn’t toe the line in a country all about political compromise, he didn’t put up with the caste system in a country dedicated to it. He looked at British control of India and saw just another white Empire building monstrosity, like that of South Africa, which wanted to put his people in their place and he said to himself,
“I am not going to stand for that”.
And he didn’t.
He soon took up the political path to progress, which he fanatically organised, and this frightened the British more than the spiritual side of his character could ever had (the British have little truck with religion. favouring rational strength above all honours). They knew that Gandhi was a threat because organised Indians could not be ruled and, like the South Africans had come to know, Gandhi could not be frightened. When they tried to bring in a law of internment for sedition, Gandhi organised a million strong Satyagraha and stood up to them by simply boycotting British products and services. This clever stroke turned the tables as if sedition was the doing of something how could not doing something be sedition? This in-sensed the British and resulted in one of the darkest hours in the British history of India: the massacre at Amritsar. Something of which no one from my country can read about and be anything but ashamed.
“Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed. Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well.” – Gandhi
Gandhi was sent to jail. On his release he “retired” from politics and formed a commune where all faiths were welcomed. This was an attempt to show that all the faiths of India could live together. I have read a great book detailing the life of the commune and Gandhi would have rituals performed from muslim, Hindu and Jain canons every day. For him, what you believed wasn’t the point, it was that you did believe in something that truly mattered.
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” – Gandhi
Eventually he started another enormous Satyagraha after the British brought in a tax on salt and marched thousands down to the sea to harvest their own. The British caught up with them and handed out a beating, but it didn’t stop the protest. Gandhi had given the people the strength to take being physically beaten without resorting to violence in return. This had been achieved simply through the force of his will and charm.
And charm he had in spades.
Uncompromising people are easy to like. They appear uncomplicated and their lives tend to be written around their victories rather than any defeats making them appear larger than life. However, normally, such people are the great military leaders of the past such as Hannibal, Caesar or Alexander. These men used force of arms to free themselves from the binds around them and killed anyone who stood in their way. Their lives are celebrated in books and plays, their mistakes and evil deeds played-down and their legacies and triumphs emphasised.
Why it is the warriors that are so celebrated when the peacemakers, usually just as uncompromising themselves, are considered weak?
Is it because, more often than not, they sacrificed themselves and died for their beliefs?
“Men often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. But when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn’t have it in the beginning.” – Gandhi
Someone pointed out to me that Gandhi was shot to death and that this was an indication that his methods failed. A violent death means nothing. Hannibal committed suicide a defeated old man having brought his country to ruin, Caesar was stabbed to death on his own steps by his closest friends and Alexander’s children were all slaughtered after he died of excessive drinking.
Do we consider any of them to have been less important or influential?
Gandhi was not a military genius, but he knew that just as much could be achieved by simply refusing to believe in compromise. By being a symbol of that refusal people would be inspired to change and have the courage to refuse themselves. It was a long road. The British tried everything to “keep the Indians in line”, including shooting hundreds of them in massacres, beating them, imprisoning them and simply ignoring them.
None of that worked against the will of Gandhi forged by 20 years of similar treatment. The Empire of the British was done and Gandhi won his country’s freedom.
It came at a high price. The British split the country in two along religious lines, believing that this would lead to a peace between the people’s. Whoever came up with such a strategy failed to foresee the terrible consequences as everywhere this idea has been tried it has turned into disaster. Consider the mess of Israel. India was much worse. So much blood was spilt in sectarian violence along religious lines that it was like Indian history had dialled back 500 years to the time of the Mughal invasions.
Gandhi went on hunger strike to try and stop the murdering and it cooled tempers enough that eventually the two new countries were formed, but the cost was massive. I know people who were forcibly moved by the partitioning of India and they are still sore about it in 2012.
Among the countless lives lost and broken by the partitioning off of Pakistan from India was Gandhi’s himself. He knew it was coming as a bomb had almost got him a few weeks before, but he continued and met his death without compromise and without fear. His last words were that “Oh God [is great]!”. He is an example for us all in courage and that is one of the many lessons I have learned from this man and from visiting the places of his life and struggle.
Ask a random Indian today who he is and you may be surprised however. I was, when in Mumbai – way back the beginning of this journey – I had asked a taxi driver to take us to the Gandhi museum only to be met with a blank look. You have to understand that this was in a country where the picture of Gandhi is on every single bank-note.
Recently there has been a historical re-analysis of the man and his life. Some has commented that he was bisexual – I don’t doubt it – or that he was racist. In a sense; of course he was as he saw the white occupiers as an enemy and his time in South Africa influenced his language and speech, peppering it with phrases we don’t care for today. Others have commented that his ideas for India, that for example there should be small communities of cloth making cottage industry, were simplistic and soon a failure once he passed. I can’t understand this view at all since Britain was founded on cottage industrial labour. Sure it’s not the iPhone, banker bonus led disaster that is modern life, but does that mean it wasn’t a good idea?
In the end such revisionism is irrelevant. Gandhi believed that people were all equal, that women were just as good as men and that peace was to be found in one’s own self and communities. These are all notions that form the foundation of modern Western beliefs in the self and the country.
These are our ideals.
His death was used by many people to cement their power, but having left no definite teaching of metaphysical philosophy his ideas are easily confused with weakness.
He advocated Non-violence, yes, but non-violent protest. Non-violent resistance. Not passivity. He was all about boycotts, strikes and marches.
People power through symbols.
This is a very strong philosophy wound up in the social contract. It works too. Look at the falling of the Berlin wall or the Arab spring. This is not passivity and not weakness. It is non-violence as a form of strength and courage. Standing up as an icon of the good citizen even if that meant pain and suffering.
It works because it uses hundreds and thousands of people standing up and saying “no”. It won’t save your life in single combat or when being mugged, and Gandhi was not so stubborn as to say that violence had no place in change when faced with annihilation, but it works on a scale of the society, the country and the world.
Gandhi’s model of disobedience has brought down more successive governments that any amount of violence has achieved in terms of blood shed. Consider those countries in the Arab Spring that focussed on peaceful resistance and then compare them with those that have “rebelled” to the point of “civil war”. Once blood is on everyone’s hands then the moral argument is lost, war follows and civilians can be killed as “terrorists” or “insurgents” or other faceless empty words. Violence has no place in the power of the people, but courage does and Gandhi is the model of that for millions of people.
I count myself one of those inspired by Gandhi.
Many things that matter in my life were either put in motion of introduced by our three-month journey around India.
As we took our last tuk tuk to the airport I had it all swirling around in my head like a washing machine. The poverty is what most would say touched them, the different between “haves” and “have-nots”, and indeed I had been touched by it. Some others would point to the history, the endless aeons of time India encompasses so that even a person from a country as old as England (which was formed in as a state in AD 927) finds it staggering, and indeed we had been staggered.
But there is more to India than this.
There is the meaning of life to be found in India. It’s there, behind the grime and the mopeds. Behind the temples, behind the cricket and behind the heat and flies. It’s there in the simple people. It is a beating heart made up of a billion humans. Once you have felt that beating, listened to it and recognised it for what it is, then suddenly your heart rhythms change too and you can truly know a peace you wont be able to explain.
As we pulled up to the last set of lights before the airport we were surrounded by beggars. Cesca, breaking our mantra we had lived by for three months, reached out the change she had and gave it to the nearest person, who was holding a weak looking baby wrapped in rags.
She took it hungrily and then looked at it unimpressed. She angry jostled her hand for more.
Cesca was mortified.
The tuk tuk driver leant back and said, “please don’t give them any more as they just spend it on drugs”.
The lights changed and he revved the engine. We pulled off from the crowd and I looked back at the women as she and her child disappeared from view around the corner.
I looked at Cesca and kissed her head as she hugged me.