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Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand

(1869-1948). Mohandas Gandhi, usually called by his admirers “Mah€tma” or “Great Soul,” was born on October 2, 1869, on the Kathiawar Peninsula north of Bombay (presently part of Gujarat State) in the coastal city of Porbandar, the ancestral home of the Gandhi family. About 1876 his family moved to the larger city of Rajkot in the center of that Peninsula and it was there that the young Gandhi was raised and in 1882 was married to Kasturbai, both being 13 years old at the time. Gandhi’s mother was a devout Vaishnava Hindu, but his father was very eclectic and often had friends from different religions over to the home to discuss their ideas, so young Gandhi became acquainted very early in his life with both devotional HINDUISM, ISLAM, JAINISM, SIKHISM, ZOROASTRIANISM, and CHRISTIANITY. These religious influences were important throughout his life in shaping his character and determining the nature of his political philosophy. His father and grandfather had gotten positions in the British Indian government and that also had a significant influence on his later career, since he rankled at the demeaning treatment of Indians by their British rulers.

After graduating from Indian schools, where he learned English, he was advised to go to England for legal training, even though it involved ostracism from his caste (later rescinded). He sailed from Bombay on September 4, 1886, and in England encountered a very different British world from the one that existed in India. There was both tolerance and great intellectual ferment, as found in the socialist ideas of the Fabian Society, the communist ideas of Marx’s Das Kapital, the materialistic theory of evolution in Darwin’s Descent of Man, Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, and Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia (a poetic retelling of the life of Buddha) and The Song Celestial (a poetic translation of The Bhagavad-Gita). As D. G. Tendulkar observes, in his eight-volume biography of Gandhi, “Learned bodies throughout Great Britain invited Max Müller to deliver lectures on Indian philosophy and religion. Where formerly about fifty people attended these lectures, now as many as 1,400 people flocked to hear the wisdom of the East” (Tendulkar, Mahatma: the Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, 1951, vol. 1, p. 39). Gandhi had promised his mother that he would remain a vegetarian, as he had been raised, so it was only reasonable that he would eventually come into contact with members of The Theosophical Society (TS), many of whom had embraced vegetarianism. In 1889, he made contact with theosophy through members who asked him to assist them in their study of the Bhagavad-Gita. This experience led him to study more deeply his own Hindu religion. It also led him to become an “affiliate” member of The Theosophical Society, a class of membership which no longer exists. Although he never became a full member (or “fellow”), he told TS members that Theosophy had changed his whole life and that he owed a debt to the Society which he could never repay (cf. Josephine Ransom, A Short History of The Theosophical Society, 1938, p. 318). It was while he was an affiliate member of the Blavatsky Lodge, London, that he first met Madame Helena P. BLAVATSKY, Colonel Henry S. OLCOTT, and Annie BESANT.

Gandhi passed his bar exam on June 10, 1891, and sailed two days later to India. In 1893 he accepted an offer to give legal aid to an Indian firm in South Africa. It was during his years in South Africa that he formulated his political concept, which he termed satyagraha, literally “clinging firmly to truth,” a central aspect of which was non-violence (ahimsa). He also developed a lucrative legal practice in Johannesburg, mainly serving the Indian community there. It is interesting that he kept pictures, among others, of Jesus and Annie Besant on the walls of his law office. Again, he made contact with the Theosophical Society and had daily discussions of religious subjects with members of the Johannesburg Lodge. He concluded that theosophy and Hinduism were the same in theory but that the TS members he had met gave too much attention to intellectual development and not enough to the central idea of brotherhood. Eventually he dropped even his “affiliate” status in the Society.

In 1904 Gandhi started a newspaper which he called Indian Opinion to awaken the Indian community in South Africa to their ill treatment at the hands of the government. On August 22, 1906, the British Colonial Government in South Africa announced its intention to pass an Asiatic Act which would greatly restrict the freedom of Indians, Chinese, and others there. Gandhi led a peaceful protest against this Act, which he called “passive resistance.” This campaign lasted eight years, ending January 21, 1914, when Gandhi arrived at a satisfactory agreement with General Jan Christian Smuts, and included other grievances, such as abolition of the Immigration Bill and the Three-Pound Tax Bill. Gandhi was jailed three times, went to London in 1909 to petition the British Government unsuccessfully, and in 1910 stopped his legal practice to devote his full time to the campaign, whose name he changed to “satyagraha,” for he said truth (satya) implies love and non-violence and firmness (agraha) “engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force” (Gandhi, Autobiography, abridged version, 1951, p. 170). It should be noted that Gandhi also raised an Ambulance Corps during the Zulu Rebellion of 1906 (as well as doing similar work during World War I) for which he was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind medal on June 3, 1914. He was not opposed to government as such, just to what he deemed immoral acts of a government.

Gandhi had long been concerned with the situation in India. He left by ship for his native land, via England, upon conclusion of his work in South Africa, writing Hind Swaraj (Indian Self-Rule) in Gujarati en route. World War I broke out while he was on shipboard. By now, he was well-known in India and was met by hundreds of people upon arrival in Bombay on January 9, 1915. His friend Gopal Krishna GOKHALE (1866-1915) admonished him not to engage in political activity there until he had acquainted himself with its situation, so for two years he traveled, mainly in the north, to gain first-hand knowledge of conditions in India. In 1917 he launched agitation on behalf of indigo growers in the Champaran district of Bihar and on behalf of weavers in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Both were effective. He then went to Kheda, Gujarat, in 1918 to protest against collection of taxes during a year of crop failure and famine. Once again he was successful. But upon the conclusion of WWI and realization that the British Government had no intention of granting India independence, as Indians had assumed it would as a reward for their cooperation with the British in the War, he began satyāgraha campaigns on a national basis.

The first of these began in 1919 in protest against the notorious Rowlatt Bills, formally known as Indian Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill No. 1 and Criminal Law (Emergency Powers) Bill No. 2 aimed at suppressing revolt. Actually, what Gandhi never acknowledged, is that the Bills had been so altered by the time they were passed that their original objectionable intent had been eliminated. Perhaps it was easy for him to overlook that fact because of the shocking action of the British in massacring and wounding a large number of unarmed Indians who had gathered for a peaceful rally at Jallianwala Bagh in the Punjab on April 12, 1919. That enflamed many Indians against the British. Unfortunately for Gandhi, the 1919 saty€graha movement turned violent and, although it formally lasted until 1922, in effect it had ceased by 1920.

It was during this movement that Annie Besant declared her opposition to Gandhi’s movement. When, in 1919, Gandhi took effective control of the Congress Movement (started by the British Theosophist Allan O. HUME in 1985 as a non-political movement to petition for what they called Home Rule), and turned it into a political party, Besant, its President in 1917, quit and joined the Liberal Party, starting a newspaper called New India to combat Gandhi’s ideas articulated in his newspaper Young India. Among the prominent Theosophists who worked for her newspaper was Nilakanta SRI RAM, later elected as the fifth President of the TS. Mrs. Besant had no objections to the basic idea of satyagraha, which she had practiced herself for years. Her principal objection was to Gandhi’s making it a mass movement since, she said, the average person does not have the ability to meet physical abuse with non-violence and therefore, she correctly predicted, the movement would quickly turn to violence — or “brick-bats and bullets” (New India, Dec. 13, 1923), to use her expression. It was her belief that the average Indian needed education in citizenship and democratic ideals and would misuse Gandhi’s ideas to foment anarchy, to her the worst possible human condition. She stated that Gandhi was a “saint” but not a “politician.” Gandhi, of course, steadfastly rejected her criticism, putting his faith in what he believed was the inherent peaceful nature of the Indian population. He also denied that he was a saint, though he never vigorously protested the title of “Mah€tma” given him.

For the next 15 years, Gandhi devoted his attention to social and economic reform, starting his swadeshi (lit. “own land” but implying “buy Indian products instead of British imports”) movement, an important aspect of which was wearing home-spun cloth. Gandhi practiced what he preached, working every day at a spinning wheel, which became a powerful symbol of the Indian independence movement. He adopted the dress of a simple Indian peasant. He also wrote extensively in an effort to instill his ideas of a peaceful protest in the Indian population. He believed in the dignity of labor and insisted that his followers engage in what many educated Indians believed to be menial and undignified chores, such as cleaning latrines, as he did himself. He protested the shameful treatment of outcastes, calling them Harijans, i.e., “Children of God.” Actually, it was Henry S. OLCOTT who first attempted to improve the status of poor children of low caste, calling them panchamas or “the fifth caste,” thus identifying them as essential to the Indian caste system rather than outside it. The first school Olcott organized for them in 1894 still exists just outside the Society’s compound in Adyar, Chennai, today. But Gandhi popularized such ideas in a way that no Westerner could. Unfortunately, many of his social reform movements died out after his assassination.

When the British Government of India instituted a Salt Tax in 1935, Gandhi and a small number of his disciples began a march to the sea to protest it. Although it was not a formally organized movement, hundreds of people spontaneously joined him along the way, distilling salt from the sea water when they arrived at the Indian Ocean. The British police attempted to stop this action by beating the participants — both men and women — with lathis or “night sticks.” Despite some disorganization of the participants as a result of being attacked, there was little or no attempt on their part to fight back or defend themselves. The result was embarrassment on the part of the officials and eventual repeal of the odious tax. It was the most peaceful and, from the standpoint of Gandhi’s ideals, most successful of the mass saty€graha movements.

Unfortunately, that had little effect on the overall oppressive behavior of the British government in India. When WWII broke out and Churchill stated that he had no intention of granting India independence in return for its cooperation with the Allied war effort, Gandhi launched his final campaign, the Quit India Movement of 1941, unquestionably the most violent of the three major movements, ending when the British finally granted India independence in 1947. But the price of independence was a separation of predominantly Hindu India from predominantly Muslim Pakistan. Gandhi’s behavior had so alienated Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), a prominent member of the Congress Movement in its early years, that he had joined the Muslim League and had successfully agitated for the separation. That greatly distressed Gandhi and he began to study Urdu, the principle language of the Muslim area which became Pakistan, as part of an effort to counteract the separation. The effort stopped when he was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic during a prayer and pacification meeting in New Delhi on January 30, 1948.

Gandhi’s basic ideas of satyāgraha can be traced back to Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Tolstoy derived them, basically, from Christianity. Thoreau, however, seems to have derived them from Buddhism, as a result of his translating into English a French translation of the Mahāyāna Buddhist work Saddharmapundarika (Lotus of the Good Law). The philosophy behind satyāgraha is that all people have a spiritual essence within them and if one can appeal to that in a just cause one’s enemy will become one’s friend and stop his oppression. The important idea, as Gandhi put it, is that “there can be no Satyāgraha in an unjust cause” (Young India, April 27, 1921). It seems obvious that one must have a firm conviction not only that one’s cause is just but that everyone has a divine principle within one. It also implies an unshakable belief in a Divine Being. To quote Gandhi again, “Satyāgraha presupposes the living presence and guidance of God” (op. cit., August 2, 1928). It also presupposes the idea that a wrong-doer will be embarrassed by his actions when he meets no resistance. Gandhi’s ideas, in a Christian framework, influenced the American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), who encapsulated the idea when he said, “We will wear you down by our suffering” (stated in a speech at the University of Minnesota in 1959).

Although Gandhi was opposed by Annie Besant and did not meet with an unqualified success in India, it should be pointed out that he was a rather shy person and not a great orator. As some of his biographers have noted, he is living proof that ordinary people can have a tremendous impact on history if they just cling with steadfast determination to their highest moral principles, even in the face of severe opposition.


R.W.B.


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