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GANDHI - A perennial source of inspiration

By Dr. Neeta Khandpekar

Head, Dept. of History, K. J. Somaiya College of Arts & Com., Mumbai]

News Headlines like GLOBAL MAHATMA (Martin Luther King Jr, Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Adolfo Perez Esquivel) keep coming for all the above Nobel Prize Winner leaders from different continents were inspired by Gandhiji’s philosophy and practice . Non-violence has achieved many successes. The American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, led by Martin Luther King Jr. culminated in political rights for African-Americans. Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe when confronted with non-violent resistance, led by forces like Solidarity[i] in Poland and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. In 1986, a massive show of people’s power toppled Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship in the Philippines. The army refused to fire on the people after being convinced by them-Photographs of girls offering roses to men manning the tanks are still etched in memory –to support the pro-democracy movement.

Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu[ii] played a major role in South Africa’s relatively peaceful transition from aparthied to a democracy that granted blacks political rights by urging the violent elements in the anti-aparthied movement to withdraw. Esquivel an Argentinian was the founder of Peace and Justice, a pan-Latin American civil rights movement in the 1970s that adopted non-violence as its credo at a time when the continent was gripped by violent conflict.

In 2005 a bill board campaign showing Gandhi working on his spinning wheel in Los Angeles, Atlanta and other US cities proved Gandhiji has significant impact on Society-at-large. Atlanta based Professor Walter Earl Fluker who visited India in 2007 described Gandhi as someone who has a great role in teaching the world peaceful coexistence. Fluker working on a book on the 20th Century African-American civil rights leader Dr. Howard Thurman who had met Gandhi in 1936 in Bardoli to discuss the satyagraha movement said “When Dr.Howard requested Gandhiji to come with him to the US to participate in the civil rights movement, the Mahatma had declined saying that first he needed to test the effectiveness of the non-violent resistance in his own country.”[iii] Earlier in 1930 Gandhi was regarded in the US as ‘the man of the year’ on the basis of mileage in its newspaper headlines.[iv] Gene Sharp [v]in his write up A Study of the Meaning of Non-Violence writes that in 1959, “Non-Violence”, “Non violent resistance”, “Satyagraha” and “Pacifism” were words frequently quoted in newspapers as The New York Times, The Times and The Manchester Guardian.[vi] And today exactly after fifty two years we have these words ringing in a globalized world, which has though late but made UN observe 2nd Oct as the International Day of Non-Violence.[vii]

Gandhi has intrigued poets, writers and artists over the decades.

Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan sought the timeless and universal in the Gandhi Phenomenon. Louis Fischer praised him for his extraordinary and original contribution to human understanding. Walter Lipmann admired Gandhi’s creed for peace and non-violence.[viii]

Ahmedabad based artist Rajesh Kagra made a mosaic glass mural of 30,000 sq feet on Gandhi, Ashok Modi’s Paintings Gandhiji my first inspiration is also famous.

Joseph DeLappe, a Professor at University of Nevada built a giant three dimensional 17 foot tall sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi in 2008 which is displayed at the Eyebeam gallery in New York. Delappe had virtually walked 240 miles with Gandhiji on a treadmill for 26 days before he created the above sculpture. The American artist has also published a nine-step guide on the Internet. The guide aims at helping the model enthusiasts to build their own Gandhi.

The year 2009 was fifty years after Martin Luther King’s pilgrimage to India, it also inaugurated Barack Obama[ix] as president of the US, which led to a statement Rosa Parks sat so King could walk, King walked so Obama could run, Obama ran so we all could fly.[x]

Obama has been an avid admirer of Mahatma Gandhi whom he calls “a real hero of mine”. Obama in an interaction with students in Sept 2009 said ‘if given a chance he would love to have dinner with Mahatma Gandhi. The America of today has its roots in the India of Mahatma Gandhi and the non-violent social action movement of Indian independence which he led’.

M. V. Kamat rightly said “Gandhi wrote in a manner that anybody could understand….He was writing for Everyman so that Everyman could understand him easily. He had no literary pretensions but what he wrote was literature.” He clearly believed in the power of the word and used a space of his own newspapers, Navajivan and Harijan to mobilize public opinion. Gandhi disturbs us from within and urges us to ask important questions. Replying to a journalist whether he didn’t feel under-dressed to meet the king in his dhoti, Gandhi’s response- “The King has enough on for both of us”- was the perfect riposte. By keeping his wits on well as his wit about him, Gandhi showed the world what is to be taken seriously and what is to be brushed off with a quick line- One can even say that many of his ‘methods’- whether it was satyagraha[xi], the hunger strike, or spinning the Charkha- were infused with what would later be called ‘Performance art’. He channelized his actions into the political rather than the aesthetic realisms.

There are over 13,000 books on and by Gandhi, but his autobiography is the one most in demand. Gandhi Ganga, a compilation of speeches and writings of various people on Gandhi was published in two languages. [xii] Number of people writing on Gandhi is increasing.

Gandhiji a simple man has made India Proud and many instances can be cited in this regard. He was nominated five times (1937, 1938, 1939, 1947, Jan 1948) for the Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King Jr. was popularly called American Gandhi. In Palestine, Professor Edward Said was famous as Gaza’s Gandhi who taught English literature and Comparative Literature and died in 2003. Durban Street in South Africa is named after Gandhi. Sibnarayan Ray wrote that in the first half of the twentieth century the two men who made the greatest impact on history were Gandhi and Lenin from USSR. The two gave new direction to the political life of the world though their policies were diametrically opposite. To honour their distinguished works one finds postal stamps released by many countries of the world from time to time.

Around 150 countries have depicted Gandhi on their Postal stamps. He happens to be the first person outside the British Royal family to be depicted on British Stamps. Nigeria came out with Stamp showing Gandhi and Einstien and Tajikistan depicted Gandhi riding a bicycle.[xiii]

Gandhi told Charlie Chaplin on Sept 22 1931 when they met in the slum District off the East India Dock Road in London, the true meaning of supreme independence i.e. to shed one self of unnecessary things which echoes the Jaina principle of aparigraha, for Gandhi was deeply influenced by the principle of Jainism. Non-possession of material things Aparigraha could well be seen when one sees sum possessions of Gandhi on his death. While Mahavira the ascetic followed the path of austerity and Buddha advocated a middle path, Gandhi revisited the concepts of ahimsa and Satya and used them successfully in the political sphere as well.

He was a practising environmentalist. Long before environment protection became fashionable, he provided us an alternative model of development.[xiv]. When Gandhi returned from Africa to enter public life in India, he was probably among the very few who toured the country extensively to understand the people of India.


Rare example of voluntary obedience and dedication

Vinoba Bhave began where Gandhi had stopped especially in non-violent socio-economic revolution. He travelled by foot for 13 years in different parts of India. His Bhoodan, Gramdan and Sampattidan movement were unique. The New York Times special correspondent Robert Trumbull described Vinoba as “the God who gives away land” and “loots people with love”. The Time magazine featured this ‘man on foot’ in its cover story and hailed him as the dynamic disciple of Gandhi. Hallam Tennyson grandson of the English poet who walked with Vinoba for several days, called him ‘the embodiment of India’, and remarked “ The Twentieth century may be rich in jet aeroplanes, but it is pretty poor in saints. We need to remember that what we call ‘progress’ is nothing if it leads to no corresponding inner change, and Vinoba gives us this reminder in the one way which has power to move and impress.” Gandhiji once said to C Andrews, “Vinoba is one of the Ashram’s rare pearls- one of those who have come not to be blessed but to bless, not to receive but to give.” Bhave being a student of mathematics and also having a scientific temperament, knew the worth and significance of the word as a medium of expression. [xv]


Global Legacy of Gandhi’s Non-violence.

Tolstoy’s work The Kingdom of God is Within You made the strongest impression on Gandhi. With his letter to Tolstoy dated 4th April 1910, Gandhi sent his book Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule. A note in Tolstoy’s diary dated 19 April 1910 says ‘This morning two Japanese came, wild people, moved to rapture by European civilization. But from an Indian I received a book and a letter which show an understanding of all the shortcomings of European civilization, even all its worthlessness.’ This shows that this book left a positive impression on the Russian writer. In his reply to Gandhi he wrote that your passive resistance is a question of vital importance not only for India but also for all mankind.’[xvi]

Romain Rolland wrote in 1924 Mahatma Gandhi: The Man Who Became One with the Universal Being , one of the early Western biographies of Gandhi and his title emphasized the saintly qualities of the Mahatma: ‘With Gandhi, everything is nature- modest, simple, pure- while all his struggles are hallowed by religious serenity…..’ When he personally met Gandhi in Switzerland he described Gandhi’s blessings to him as they parted: ‘It was the kiss of St.Dominic and St.Francis.’

Philip Talbot an American witness[xvii] to India’s Partition says Gandhi’s best gift was that he could go very deep into one thing while he was at it. It can be politics, his philanthropic ventures, reading from the Gita, he could really immerse himself into what he was doing at any given point of time.[xviii]

Joesph Jean Lanza Del Vasto was a scholarly Christian idealist who came to Wardha in 1937 to meet Gandhi and wrote Le Pelerinage aux sources in 1943. He became a follower, and Gandhi conferred on him an Indian name- Shantidas, or’servant of peace.’

Later Del Vasto became active in French politics in 1957, fasted for 20 days in protest against the torture of Algerians by the French.

Back to the year 1955-56 when the Blacks of Montgomery were on a year long non violent bus boycott ( to oppose some of the barbaric custom of segregation practiced in Southern US), Danilo Dolci was jailed for leading hungry Sicilians in a non-violent demonstration, Welsh Nationalists used non-violent resistance for Welsh self Government, Commander Sir Stephen King-Hall lectured to top British naval, army and air force officers on ‘The Alternative to the Nuclear Deterrent:Non_Violent Resistance’[xix]. Women of Budapest(Hungary) stopped Russian tanks by lying down in front of them.

Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s leader who was a teacher by profession said he was greatly influenced by Asian leaders, and especially Gandhi, for he sought to impose non-racialism on Tanganyika’s revolution. This was a daring piece of wisdom…….[xx] Also among his most ardent students was a devout muslim from Nigeria Aminu Kano who analysed Gandhi’s success in lifting millions of Indian to a high level of dedication and he endeavoured to adapt Gandhi’s non-violent techniques to Northern Nigeria.

Martin Luther King wrote in Pilgrimage to Nonviolence[xxi] ‘As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhain method of non-violence, is one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. Christians generally were moved by Gandhi’s Godliness to name a few, Protestants like Stanley Jones, Henri Roser and Dr.Corman, W W pearson a quaker was an English admirer of Gandhi who died very young and off course Dinbhandu C.F. Andrews.

How many world leaders have gone on sixteen fast of protest in their lifetime? Yes Gandhi did with the one lasted from 13 to 18 January 1948 to get a promise that communal peace would be maintained.

Gandhi chose the spinning wheel(Charkha) as a symbol of the Indian national liberation movement. Today Hiremath a Bangalore based engineer has developed for KVIC an e-Charkha that not only weaves khadi but generates electricity as well. Its called new age charkha. Khadi’s environment friendly nature has rightly made an American call it the air-conditioned cloth of India, due to its climatic adaptability. Besides, the US, the demand for khadi products including Charkhas is immense in Japan and Australia. The Charkha is exported to Britain against whom Gandhi used it as a weapon of non-violence.[xxii]

The London Underground Trains information service introduced Bapu’s words “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” for the commuters to make traveling on the Underground more enjoyable and thought-provoking.

The Western way of life is projected as the model to emulate resulting in the break up of the family and the value system we had cherished for centuries. Still the Generation ‘X’ is now slowly accepting that Gandhi is relevant to India and in contemporary world torn by violence in many patches. Gandhi is the most quoted pathfinders for today’s perplexed world in search of peace and harmony.

Gandhi cultivated love and tolerance[xxiii] of other people and was usually loved and deeply respected by the people he opposed. [xxiv] Gandhi I will stress was able to disarm many of his opponents by the example of his ‘suffering without vengeance’. He is an inspiration to the struggle for peace in the East, West, North and South.


[i] An Organization of Free Trade Unions headed by Lech Walesa.

[ii] South African Archbishop Tutu was given the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2005

[iii] Shanbani Ansari, Mumbai is fascinating, DNA Newspaper, February 8,2007

[iv] Krishnalal Shridharani, My India, My America New York 1941 p355.

[v] Gene a student of non violence has documented over 198 kinds of nonviolent action, and each successful struggle invents new one.

[vi] In Gandhi Marg.GM (ed. By G Ramchandran)Oct 1959 Vol III No 4.

[vii] The idea of promoting the resolution originated from the Declaration adopted at the International Conference convened in New Delhi in Jan 2007 to commemorate the centenary of Satyagraha.

[viii] M.M Sankhdher, Understanding Gandhi Today, New Delhi 1996 p164.

[ix] Obama was also the first to be nominated for president by a major US political party.

[x] Obama’s link with King and Gandhi in The Times of India, 1st January 2009

[xi] A very interesting detail about how the word Satyagraha came. When Gandhiji started his movement in 1906 in Africa he and his followers were confused what name shall be given to this movement. With this thought in mind he instituted a small prize which was advertised in Indian Opinion for the reader who would invent the best designation for their struggle. A number of suggestions came forward and Maganlal Gandhi was one of the competitors. Maganlal suggested the word Sadagraha, meaning firmness in a good cause. Gandhiji liked the word but it did not represent the whole idea he wished to connote. He therefore corrected it to Satyagraha, Truth implying love and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. He thus began to call the Indian movement - ‘Satyagraha’.

[xii] Ashutosh Shukla, More and More people are writing on Gandhi DNA 2nd October 2008

[xiii] Deepak Sen, Bapu’s greatness stamped in 150 lands.

[xiv] Amrit Gangar, When Chaplin Got Convinced of Gandhi’s Philosophy ,The Speaking Tree Column, The Times of India, 30th September 2005.

[xv] Jayant Pandya, Gandhiji and his Disciples, National Book Trust, New Delhi 1994,P45

[xvi] Marietta T Stepaniants, Gandhi and the World Today A Russian Perspective, New Delhi 1998 p40

[xvii] For Many Americans in the 1930’s Gandhi “became the grand exemplar of the Christian ‘way’, the ‘Strategy of love, the politics of the cross”

[xviii] DNA Newspaper Oct 27, 2007

[xix] Gandhi had been an outspoken critic of nuclear weapons after the American atomic bombing of Japan in 1945. He transformed the virtues of Truth and non-violence into powerful weapons with which illiterate masses could fight for freedom

[xx] Anil Nauriya , The African Element in Gandhi, New Delhi 2006 p98

[xxi] GM April 1968 Vol 12 No2.

[xxii] Nibandh Vinod ‘Khadi Philosophy sells, not just the fabric’ in Hindustan Times Oct 2 2007.

[xxiii] Tolerance gives us spiritual insight, which is as far from fanaticism as the north pole is from the south. Cultivation of tolerance for other faiths will impart to us a truer understanding of our own.

[xxiv] Michael Nicholson, Mahatma Gandhi, The man who freed India and led the world in non-violent change, reprint Hyderabad, 2005.(Gandhi gave a pair of slippers to Smuts who imprisoned him in south Africa and a hand spun loin cloth as wedding gift to Queen Elizabeth)

The paper presented in one day Seminar on "The Legacy of Gandhian Approaches: Vinoba to Obama"
on 24th February 2011 organised by Centre of Gandhian Studies K. J. Somaiya College of Arts and Commerce, Mumbai.