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A Profile of Mahatma Gandhi

23 Feb 2017Personal Essays

In January 1948, before three pistol shots put an end to his life, Gandhi had been on the political stage for more than fifty years. He had inspired two generations of India, patriots, shaken an empire and sparked off a revolution, which was to change the face of Africa and Asia. To millions of his own people, he was the Mahatma- the great soul- whose sacred glimpse was a reward in itself. By the end of 1947 he had lived down much of the suspicion, ridicule and opposition, which he had to face, when he first raised the banner of revolt against racial exclusiveness and imperial domination. His ideas, once dismissed as quaint and utopian, had begun to strike answering chords in some of the finest minds in the world. "Generations to come, it may be", Einstein had said of Gandhi in July 1944, "will scarcely believe that such one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon earth."

Though his life had been continual unfolding of an endless drama, Gandhi himself seemed the least dramatic of men. It would be difficult to imagine a man with fewer trappings of political eminence or with less of the popular image of a heroic figure. With his loincloth, steel-rimmed glasses, rough sandals, a toothless smile and a voice, which rarely rose above a whisper, he had a disarming humility. He used a stone instead of soap for his bath, wrote his letters on little bits of paper with little stumps of pencils which he could hardly hold between his fingers, shaved with a crude country razor and ate with a wooden spoon from a prisoner’s bowl. He was, if one were to use the famous words of the Buddha, a man who had "by rousing himself, by earnestness, by restraint and control, made for him an island which no flood could overwhelm."

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) - a small Introduction:

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869 in Porbandar, India. He became one of the most respected spiritual and political leaders of the 1900's. GandhiJI helped free the Indian people from British rule through nonviolent resistance, and is honored by Indians as the father of the Indian Nation. The Indian people called Gandhiji 'Mahatma', meaning Great Soul. At the age of 13 Gandhi married Kasturba, a girl the same age. Their parents arranged the marriage. The Gandhis had four children. Gandhi studied law in London and returned to India in 1891 to practice. In 1893 he took on a one-year contract to do legal work in South Africa. At the time the British controlled South Africa. When he attempted to claim his rights as a British subject he was abused, and soon saw that all Indians suffered similar treatment. Gandhi stayed in South Africa for 21 years working to secure rights for Indian people. He developed a method of action based upon the principles of courage, nonviolence and truth called Satyagraha. He believed that the way people behave is more important than what they achieve. Satyagraha promoted nonviolence and civil disobedience as the most appropriate methods for obtaining political and social goals. In 1915 Gandhi returned to India. Within 15 years he became the leader of the Indian nationalist movement. Using the principles of Satyagraha he led the campaign for Indian independence from Britain. Gandhi was arrested many times by the British for his activities in South Africa and India. He believed it was honorable to go to jail for a just cause.

Altogether he spent seven years in prison for his political activities. More than once Gandhi used fasting to impress upon others the need to be nonviolent. India was granted independence in 1947, and partitioned into India and Pakistan. Rioting between Hindus and Muslims followed. Gandhi had been an advocate for a united India where Hindus and Muslims lived together in peace. On January 13, 1948, at the age of 78, he began a fast with the purpose of stopping the bloodshed. After 5 days the opposing leaders pledged to stop the fighting and Gandhi broke his fast. Twelve days later a Hindu fanatic, Nathuram Godse who opposed his program of tolerance for all creeds and religion assassinated him.

Gandhi: The Father of India:

The average Indian has written essays on the Mahatma in school, and pored over his contribution to India’s independence in History classes. While most historical personalities in India’s checkered history, no matter how dynamic, could inspire only a fraction of the population, Gandhi connected with Indians at their own level, their caste, creed, sex or status notwithstanding, and was aptly christened BAPU or father. This is not to say that hagiographers could be summoned, and Gandhi is above criticism. In fact, the man attracted criticism, and continues to do so, like a bee is drawn to honey. But few would have beheld the man and his philosophy, without yielding both a reaction.

Gandhi hardly needs an introduction. A voluminous literature has gone into studying the man who became the Mahatma or ‘great soul’. His personal writings add up to ninety large volumes.

Words Of Gandhi:

Gandhiji has given new definitions to some words, which can change our lives. Let’s see them in his words:

Truth:

WHAT…is Truth? A difficult question; but I have solved it for myself by saying that it is what the voice within tells you. All that I can in true humility present to you is that Truth is not to be found by anybody who has not got an abundant sense of humility. If you would swim on the bosom of the ocean of Truth, you must reduce yourself to a zero. (YI, 31-12-1931, p428). Truth and Love--ahimsa--is the only thing that counts. Where this is present, everything rights itself in the end. This is a law to which there is no exception. (YI, 18-8-1927, p265). To see the universal and all-pervading spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. (A, p370-1). Truth resides in every human heart, and one has to search for it there, and to be guided by truth as one sees it. But no one has a right to coerce others to act according to his own view of truth.(H, 24-11-1933, p6).

Non-violence:

Non-violence is an unchangeable creed. It has to be pursued in face of violence raging around you. Non-violence with a non-violent man is no merit. In fact it becomes difficult to say whether it is non-violence at all. But when it is pitted against violence, then one realizes the difference between the two. This we cannot do unless we are ever wakeful, ever vigilant, ever striving. (H, 2-4-1938, p64)

God:

To me God is Truth and Love; God is ethics and morality; God is fearlessness. God is the source of Light and Life and yet He is above and beyond all these. God is conscience. He is even the atheism of the atheist. For in His boundless love God permits the atheist to live. He is the searcher of hearts. He transcends speech and reason. He knows us and our hearts better than we do ourselves. (YI, 5-3-1925, p81). The spinning wheel rules out exclusiveness. It stands for all inclusiveness. It stands for all including the poorest. It, therefore, requires us to be humble and to cast away pride completely. (H, 13-10-1946, p. 345)

Altruism:

YAJNA MEANS an act directed to the welfare of others, done without desiring any return for it, whether of a temporal or spiritual nature. 'Act' here must be taken in its widest sense, and includes thought and word, as well as deed. 'Others" embraces not only humanity, but all life.... …

This need not frighten anyone. He who devotes himself to service with a clear conscience will day by day grasp the necessity for it in greater measure, and will continually grow richer in faith. The path of service can hardly be trodden by one who is not prepared to renounce self-interest,. If we cultivate the habit of doing this service deliberately, our desire for service will steadily grow stronger, and will make not only for our own happiness, but that of the world at large. (FYM, pp. 53-56)

Spirituality:

I DO not believe...that an individual may gain spiritually and those who surround him suffer. I believe in advaita, I believe in the essential unity of man and, for that matter, of all that lives. Therefore, I believe that if one man gains spiritually, the whole world gains with him and, if one man falls, the whole world falls to that extent. (YI, 4-12-1924, p. 398)
Gandhi: As a leader to the India and the World:

The Beginning of Struggle In Africa:

The turning point in Gandhi’s life begins in South Africa. He found himself in the midst of an intimidated and oppressed Indian community that was the butt of racial discrimination. Only too aware of his own shortcomings, Gandhi struggled to overcome his personal inhibitions, and worked towards uniting the South African Indians to protest against discrimination and racial bias. After a few brief spells in prison, he succeeded in getting the local governance to relax its laws for the first time in 1908, then again in 1914. He lived in South Africa for 20 years and it would not be out of line to believe that the nature of his work in South Africa inspired him to achieve the near impossible back home, where Gandhi was already a name to reckon with.

Gandhi's Fight For Indian Freedom:

He finally returned to India in 1915. Instead of breezing into Indian politics, he thought it necessary to travel across India, and had the first adult up-close-and-personal experience of his country. What he saw was an India crippled by poverty and ignorance, and the apathetic handling of the country’s affairs by the British. Appalled by an abject India, he set up the Sabarmati Ashram near Ahmedabad and went on to live there in quest of his Holy Grail.

The Swadeshi Movement:

That he was an ace economist, theologian, politician and sociologist is evident from his mastery and handling of each of these branches of knowledge. And his dialogue with the Indians and the British was based on a personal discourse that emerged at the crossroad of these disciplines. With an unparalleled understanding of the needs, wants and beliefs of the neglected and forgotten Indians, 80% of whom lived in villages, Gandhi was ready to make a difference. The Swadeshi Movement that exhorted the people of India to wear khadi (home-spun cotton) and shun European goods as the first step towards self-reliance, is just one of the numerous revolutions he engineered successfully. But the remarkable quality about Gandhi, and perhaps the reason of his sorrow, was that in spite of his obvious practical good sense, he ached for the ideal.

Gandhi, as a Communicator:

It has often been asserted that Gandhi’s impact on the people he met and spoke to be simply electrifying. These people were not just freedom fighters and politicians, writers and thinkers; there were among them slum dwellers and villagers, farmers and laborers, little-educated people and illiterates. But Gandhi wasn’t a populist, saying what he thought his audience would like to hear; he was on the contrary quite capable of saying things or doing things that were rather incomprehensible to the people at large or were considered unacceptable, which may not be surprising since he was a great deal more than the leader of a freedom movement; he was a social reformer too. Consider these examples: Hinduism has sinned in giving sanction to untouchability (Young India, April 24, 1921).

We are guilty of having suppressed our brethren; we make them crawl on their bellies, we have made them rub their noses on the ground; we push them out of railway compartment – what more than this has British rule done? What charge can we bring against Dyer and O’Dwyer, may not other, and even our own, people lay at our doors? We ought to purge ourselves of this pollution (Young India, May 4, 1921).

There is no ambiguity in the language, no hedging, and no avoiding saying directly what he thought about some matter in apprehension of the possible resentment that these thoughts might evoke in the people. In fact, it is this directness that makes his expression forceful. Gandhi eschewed rhetoric in favor of clarity and directness. One rhetorical device that Gandhi used effectively, like many other effective journalists, was rhetorical question. He used it only occasionally, as in the third extract above and in the following:

The Qaid-e-Azam says that all the Muslims will be safe in Pakistan. In Punjab, Sindh and Bengal we have Muslim League Governments. Can one say that what is happening in those provinces augurs well for the peace of the country? Does the Muslim League believe that it can sustain Islam by the sword (Speech at a Prayer Meeting, September 7, 1946)?
What good will it does the Muslims to avenge the happenings in Delhi or for the Sikhs and the Hindus to avenge cruelties on our co-religionists in the Frontier and West Punjab? If a man or a group of men go mad, should everyone follow suit (From a Prayer Meeting, September 12, 1947)? Apart from rhetorical question, he sometimes used irony, as in (8) and occasionally, a simple metaphor, as in (9). Simplicity of language, the balanced structure and the irony make (8) effective.

I believe myself to be an orthodox Hindu and it is my conviction that no one who scrupulously practices the Hindu religion may kill a cow-killer to protect a cow (On “Hindu Muslim Unity”, April 8, 1919).
Let not future generations say that we lost the sweet bread of freedom because we could not digest it (From a Prayer Meeting, September 12, 1947). An unexciting metaphor, a student of language might say, but an intelligible metaphor from the point of view of the common man. He could use gentle satire quite effectively; when, after the reception at Buckingham Palace, King George V warned him against attacks on the British Empire, Gandhi’s reply was (10):

When Churchill made extremely negative remarks about the post-Independence violence in the subcontinent, Gandhi responded to the same in the following way: Mr. Churchill is a great man…He took the helm when Great Britain was in danger…he saved the British Empire from a great danger at that time… If he knew that India would be reduced to such a state after freeing itself from the rule of the British Empire, did he for a moment take the trouble of thinking that the entire responsibilities for it lies with the British Empire? (Gandhi, R. 1995:143)

End of The Legendary Hero:

Gandhi led the Congress for a period of 25 years, and during this time the party truly came to represent united India’s struggle for freedom. Gandhi’s charisma caught the imagination of millions. Villagers and city dwellers, men, women and children rallied behind the Congress as it led India’s march towards freedom from the British. Freedom came, but at a price. A nation was partitioned to yield a Hindu-dominated India and a Muslim-dominated Pakistan. Gandhi opposed the partition that left millions dead, mutilated and homeless, bitterly till the end. By upholding the cause of the Muslims and Harijans, he alienated himself from the Hindu majority. and on January 30th 1948, in an India that was finally free, a Brahman named Nathuram Godse walked right unto Gandhi and shot him at point-blank range.
Both India and Pakistan continue to be plagued by the repercussions of partition till this day. A man who regarded him as a saint but could not live with his ideals assassinated that Gandhi, and that Gandhi hankered after the ideal in a practical world far-removed from ideality, shall forever remain a paradox.

The bibliography

  • An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth: M.K. Gandhi :translated from Gujarati by Mahadev Desai : Navajivan Publishing House. Ahmedabad; vol. I, 1927;Vol. II, 1929; edition used: 1959
  • All Are Equal in the Eyes of God ( Selections from Mahatma Gandhi’s Writings).
  • Chakravarty, Nikhil (1995). “Mahatma Gandhi: The Great Communicator”, Gandhi Marg, January-March,1995, pp.389-397.
  • Fiske, John (1990). Introduction to Communication Studies. Routledge, London.
  • From Yeravda Mandir: Ashram Observance: M.K. Gandhi; translated by V.G.Desai ; Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1933; edition used:1957.
  • Gandhi: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, New York. Publication Division, Government of India (1994).

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