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.