Time magazine selected Indian social reformer Mohandas K. Gandhi
the runner-up to scientist Albert Einstein as the Man of the Millennium. As Johanna
McGeary said in her lead-article, “The flesh and blood Gandhi was a
most unlikely saint. Just conjure up his portrait: a skinny, bent
figure, nut brown and naked except for a white loincloth, cheap
spectacles perched on his nose, frail hand grasping a tall bamboo
staff. This was one of the century's great revolutionaries? Yet this
strange figure swayed millions with his hypnotic spell. His garb was
the perfect uniform for the kind of revolutionary he was, wielding
weapons of prayer and nonviolence more powerful than guns.” Gandhi
may have become a “towering myth” in the West, but it was one that
mattered. His work and his spirit have awakened a moral beacon for all times.
At first glance, Gandhi's ideas may seem irrelevant to current struggles for social
change. He railed at industrialism and material pleasures. He
remained unpersuaded by the value of modernity and technology, and
offered us instead a backward-looking romantic vision of a simple
society. Much of his ascetic personal philosophy has lost its
meaning for newer generations of people used to more hedonistic
ways. His kind of pacifism would not be tolerated even in India
where he is regarded as the Father of the Nation.
Despite Gandhi’s idiosyncrasies and the anachronism of some of his ideas, there
is much to his beliefs that is relevant. For us, his enduring value lies in
the power of love, peace, and freedom. Freedom and justice were ever
his guiding light. His ecumenical approach to religion is a model of
tolerance that we can follow; and his visionofnon-violence as a
basis of change provides lessons for resolving conflicts within our society.
We are particularly attracted by Gandhi's way that reform begins with an individual.
Spiritualize and awaken the individual conscience, and we will have
an easier road to peaceful change. A majority of one is all one
requires to effect meaningful change.
Spirituality as the Basis of Change: The Context of Gandhi's Social Action
For Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), religion was both, the formal where ritual
practices diverged, and the eternal where all faiths had common
goals. Prayers were needed to affirm and activate the divine
within, not to ask favours. He did not care for dogmas. For him, it
was not theology but morality that mattered. There was truth in each
of the religions, but that did not mean they were all true, because
they contained some falsehood as well. God was infinite even if
every religion was partial and limited. He argued for sadbhava, that
is goodwill and toleration. Therefore religions could gain much by a
dialogue, and none should claim exclusivity since it would amount to
"spiritual arrogance." Religion was "not an authoritative and
monolithic structure of ideas and practices, but a resource from
which one freely borrowed ..." It was the basis of all life, and it
thus shaped all activities. No action was without the influence of
religion, and for him politics was not separate from religion,
althoughhe did not advocate theocracy. Religion was a matter of
freely and sincerely held beliefs.
Gandhi was following an ancient tradition of using spirituality as a basis of
social change. The Buddha and Jesus Christ had used them
effectively. Gandhi’s unique discourse on the subject was the
result of his having discovered the East and the West at about the
same time, the one through the other. Thus he incorporated Christian
notions of love, forgiveness, and uncomplaining suffering into his
philosophy while rejecting theidea that salvation could come only
through Christ; and he embraced Islam’s emphasis on equality.
Jainism's anekantavada (the many-sidedness of truth) made him
tolerant to all religions.
Injustices could be eliminated if ahimsa (non-violence) was practiced. But he
found the Hindu idea of ahimsa too passive, and the Christian notion
of love too attached. Thus he combined ahimsa and love, and added
the Hindu concept of anaskati (detachment) to arrive at his activist
philosophy. For Gandhi the world was ordered on moral principles and
brute force had no place in it. He added fasting as a tool in his
armoury. Fasting was not hunger strike designed to extract
submission or evoke self-pity. Rather it was a way of atoning
vicariously for the misdeeds of others. This "vicarious suffering"
like "voluntary crucifixion" is an essentially Christian idea.
Hinduism nevertheless formed the core of his religious beliefs. It offers
salvation through karma-yoga (selfless action), raja-yoga (bodily
discipline), bhakti-yoga (devotional endeavours), and jnana-yoga
(knowledge through mental discipline). He chose to stress the first,
and adapted it to four fundamental Hindu ideas to suit his
philosophy of social activism. Thus, Moksha (individual
liberation), Tapasya (penitence), Yoga (mind-body harmonization),
and Samadhi (withdrawal to prepare for moksha) all were adapted to suit his
commitment for social reform and change in the service of the poor and the needy.
He drew upon the lives of ordinary people to create symbols with which they could
identify. His approach was always aimed at appealing to the head and
the heart. In any situation, he set the rules, developed his own
unique logic. From this core set of beliefs, he shaped
satyagraha(Passive Resistance). This concept means "soul-force"
in Sanskrit, but in Gujarati (Gandhi's native language), it also
means insisting on truth without being obstinate or uncompromising.
Truth had many sides, so one had to remain open and flexible.
The use of violence implied infallibility and was therefore totally
inappropriate in satyagraha. He called satyagraha "surgery of the
soul" intended to awaken the opponent’s humanity.
A satyagrahi (one who pursues Passive Resistance) has to observe certain rules of
behaviour: believe in the power of right action, think rationally,
study the situation, dissuade the opponent, keep open the channels
of communications, use intermediaries, follow rules and principles,
be courteous, remain open to compromise, and accept suffering love.
If the opponent proved to be unyielding, the satyagrahi must engage
in economic and political action such as boycott. Take positive
action, or be trampled upon like worms, is the way he put it.
This is the lesson he sought to impart at his ashrams or communal settings where he
experimented in group living. Religious spirit was used at these
places to turn the individual into a social activist. The first,
Phoenix Settlement, was inspired by a single reading of John
Ruskin’s Unto This Last (1900), a work that extolled the virtues of
the simple life of love, labour, and human dignity. The second was
founded in 1910, and was called Tolstoy Farm in honour of Leo
Tolstoy (1828-1910). Gandhi first read the Russian’s The Kingdom of
God is Within You in 1893 soon after it was published. At these two
experiments in communal living, he sought to shape the moral and
spiritual life of the residents so that they may engage
effectively in political and social change in the world outside.
When he returned to India, ashrams continued to be an important part of his life. He
taught the residents to serve their fellows around strict moral
principles, and to be daunted by nothing, not even death, in
pursuing their goals. They were expected to find the truth through a
life of simplicity, tolerance, hard-work, discipline, and
self-reliance. Christians, Hindus, and Muslims nurtured respect for
one another. There was much that was experimental as the residents
tried out new diets, nature cure, and harmonious living with the
environment. It was a way of training an army of spiritualized
soldiers ready to effect change through ahimsa (non-violence).
Theashrams produced heroic individuals.
He entered South Africa in 1893 a hesitant person; he left in 1914 self-confident and
purposeful, spiritual and humble. He had learned that thought had no
meaning unless it was lived out. Life was shallow unless it carried
with it a vision. It was a weapon with great potential.
In India, Gandhi launched the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920 that lasted for two
years. It was inspired by the simple but effective idea of
withdrawing cooperation to the imperial government, and of setting
up alternative institutions. Non-cooperation came in several stages:
resigning from government services, refusing to use
government-created institutions, withholding taxes, quitting the
armed services, and destroying foreign cloth. The movement
made independence a widely shared goal. It radicalized a large body
of Indians who had been drawn into it, and it helped to promote the
Indian National Congress whose president he became in 1924. The
movement reduced the hold of the colonial state on the people, but
it failed to end foreign rule. For Gandhi, the failure
signalled a need for reform from within. He withdrew from active
politics, and devoted his energies to a "comprehensive syllabus" for
change in what became known as the Constructive Program.
This program aimed at effecting national regeneration. Gandhi believed that Indians
did not deserve independence unless they ended divisiveness, and
changed their outmoded practices and beliefs. For him, political
power for its own sake would only encourage careerism. Overall,
Gandhi hoped to awaken spirituality. The program aimed to produce,
among other things, Hindu-Muslim unity, equality for the
untouchable caste, use of domestically-produced cloth (khadi),
development of village industries, institution of craft-based
education, and a ban on alcohol. It also worked for other desirable
social changes such as introducing equality for women, developing
health education, promoting indigenous languages, working for
economic and social equality among peasants, workers, and tribal
groups, creating a code of conduct for students, bringing help to
lepers and beggars, and inculcating respect for animals.
For 35 years Gandhi single-mindedly expended his energies towards achieving these aims.
The goal of political independence, however, had a logic different
from and often contradictory to that of the Constructive Program.
Satyagraha (Passive Resistance) required working within the
institutions created by the colonial state. Many Indian leaders
were more interested in political independence rather than moral
regeneration, and believed that the second was better left until
after the first had been achieved. Gandhi needed to redefine
constantly the relationship amongconventional politics, satyagraha,
and his reform program, not always with success. This made his
overall strategy incoherent, and he appeared occasionally erratic
and unpredictable. He was most comfortable with his reform program
and satyagraha rather than conventional politics.
Gandhi's search for communal harmony went with an inner personal search. When
violence broke out between Hindus and Muslims, he blamed himself,
and often wondered why God was not working for him. Was he pure, had
he removed all traces of violence within himself? This brought him
to the conclusion that the possible source of his violence was the
presence of unconscious sexuality. He had already taken a vow of
celibacy in 1906. He thus began his experiments of sleeping with
carefully chosen female associates. The experiments showed him that
he was pure and that God had not forsaken him. He was ready to offer
his own life to fight against communal violence, and thus to awaken
the conscience and moral energies of his misguided countrymen. From
October 1946 to February 1947, he walked from village to village,
working 18 hours a day and covering as many as 49 villages, living
in huts. His feet developed chilblains. He faced death threats.
Nothing deterred him.
Gandhi’s emphasis on awakening individual spirituality offers a solution to
communities in search of ways to effect desirable social change. The
process must begin with the individual. Awakened to the potential
within, the individual will carry the message to others. The
individual thus repays the moral debt owed to others, and
contributes to harmonious living. This strategy is an effective
anti-dote to the modern state’s tendencies towards centralization
and bureaucratization; as well as againstthe intolerance that
divide one human being from another. Share, do not waste resources;
do not despoil the environment; and recognize that the earth belongs
to all who live in it. There is much we can learn from him.
Gandhi's Ideas: A Basis for Dialogue and Action
There are five major ideas from Gandhi's teaching and example, and
their implications for dialogue and social action.
1. Leadership By Example:
Gandhi exercised leadership by example. There was nothing
he expected his followers to do that he himself was not prepared to
do. There are many such instances when he took the lead. His sheer
dedication and commitment inspired his followers. They quicklyrecognized thatnothing deterred him.
Here are three examples.
First: When he agreed to a political compromise in 1908 with the Boer leader Jan C.
Smuts, some of his supporters accused him of expediency. He
remained firm that it was the right thing to do, and so set out to
be the first to register for a new identity document and thereby
honour the compromise. On his way, however, he was severely assaulted
by one of his compatriots. When he regained consciousness, he
insisted on fulfilling his promise to be the first to register, and
asked that the registrar be brought to him.
Second: He headed the column of 2000 marchers during the Great March of 1913 in South
Africa. He dressed like them, ate what they ate, and was prepared to
experience all the hardships that they endured.
Third: At the age of 61, Gandhi set out on the Salt March of 1930 with 78 loyal
supporters. Theymarched 241 miles at the rate of 10 to 15 miles
per day over 24 days. It was “child’s play” to him, but his feat of
endurance was illustrative of what could be done with the courage
and determination that were hallmarks of his leadership by example.
Based on Gandhi's leadership by example, here are some questions to stimulate dialogue
and action: How would Gandhi's example be seen in your community?
Would those trying to lead by his example have followers? How does
experiencing hardships prepare us for leadership? In your community
today, what sort of example would best fit the leadership neededto
address what matters to local people?
2. Serving as a Moral Symbol:
Gandhi was himself
a moral symbol: his dress, his language, mode of public speaking,
food, bodily gestures, ways of sitting, walking, talking, laughter,
humour, and staff or walking stick. Each evoked deep cultural
memories, spoke volumes, and conveyed highly complex messages. He
hoped to reach the "whole being" and thus to mobilize their moral
energy. In this world that he created, the colonial world had no
access. No other leader before Gandhi had such a clear and complete
strategy of action. None possessed either his self-confidence or his
organizational and communication skills.
Gandhi evolved a distinct mode of discourse. He appealed to the emotions by
judiciously selecting culturally significant symbols drawn from the
daily lives of ordinary Indians. The symbols were: khadi, cow,
Gandhi cap, spinning wheel. The spinning wheel was not only intended
to rebel against modern technological civilization, but was
affirming the dignity of rural India. It also affirmed the dignity
of manual labour and social compassion. By supporting the spinning
wheel he was promoting the needs of the poor. It was infinitely more
moral than asking for financial donations.
Consistent with the idea of Gandhi serving as a moral symbol, here are some questions to
guide dialogue and action: In your community, what dress, language,
and manner of speaking and acting would bring out the rich culture
of the local people? What beliefs and values shouldbe represented
in our leaders (and followers)? What are the traps or challenges of
being seen as a "moral' leader? How might it benefit (or harm) the cause of a group?
worked when different parties recognized their fallibility and
were prepared to be self-critical and understood the psychological
and moral context within which they operated. When this did not
work, it was necessary to appeal to the heart to expand the range of
sympathy and understanding for the other party. The recourse must
not be violent. The use of violence denied that all human beings had
souls, and that they were capable of appreciating and pursuing good,
and that no one was so degenerate that he could not be won over by
appealing to his fellow-feeling and humanity. Violence presupposed
infallibility and this was not the case. The consequences of
violence were irreversible. Morality suggested otherwise, and ends
do not morally or otherwise justify the means.
Following Gandhi's practice of non-violence, here are some questions to promote
dialogue and action: How was Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil
Rights Movement in the United States influenced by the idea of
non-violence as a means for social change? How has this idea
influenced social change movement throughout the world? Are there
conditions under which violence might be justified?
4. Satyagraha (Passive Resistance):
The way out of the dilemma of effecting change without violence is to use soul force.
Mobilize theenormous latent energy of the soul, and thus bring to
bear spiritual power to the issue. The new method should open up
the opponent's heart and mind and thus renew rational discussion.
However degenerate a person might be, he has a soul, and thus he has
the capacity to feel for other human beings and to acknowledge their
common humanity. Satyagraha was a "surgery of the soul", a way of
activating "soul-force" and "suffering love" was the best way to do
it since "moral nobility" disarmed opponents. A sense of common
andindivisible humanity was necessary as an article of belief; as
well as the feeling that degrading anotherdegraded oneself. So the
community's moral capital was necessary. Gandhi would say that it
is always presentno matter appearances to the contrary.
Satyagraha has resonance in both Hindu and Christian traditions:
spiritual nature of human beings, the power of suffering love, and
the deliberate and skillfull use of suffering love to reach out to and
to activate the moral energies of others.
In reflecting on Gandhi's idea of Satyagraha (Passive Resistance), here are some
questions to stimulate dialogue and action: Under what conditions
might passive resistance be more likely to be effective as a change
of strategy? Under what conditions might it fail? For example,
would we expect it to work in a Holocaust in which the Nazis killed
millions of Jews?
5. Compromise and Negotiations:
A satyagrahi (or a
practitioner of Passive Resistance) observed basic principles:
study rationally, carefully, and methodically the situation;
convince opponents of the passion of his feelings; keep open
channels of communication; use intermediaries; observe rules and
principles, be courteous; be ready for compromises; be prepared for
suffering love. When the stakes got high (that is suffering love
alone was not enough), the satyagrahis used additional methods:
defiance of laws, non-payment of taxes, non-cooperation, and
strikes. Gandhi's vocabulary changed when the reality proved
intractable: "non-violent warfare", "peaceful rebellion". He also
introduced fasting as a tactic for purification and attracting public support.
Gandhi's example of communication and compromise suggests several questions to guide our
own efforts: How do we come to understand the situation in which we
do community work? How do we demonstrate our commitment to bringing
about desired change while being open to compromise? When do we use
more aggressive approaches to change (e.g., strikes, boycott)? How
do we keep communication open during a "battle" with others?
Conclusion: Applying Gandhi's Ideas in Today's Social Action
The modern industrial civilization is characterized by rationalism,
secularization, science, technology, and globalization. Gandhi saw
the impact of modern civilization essentially through the eyes of
its victims. For him, all civilizations are inspired and energized
by specific human conceptions, which, if corrupted could become
sources of evil. The corruption he spoke of related to the neglect
of the soul as a consequence of the emphasis on materialism and
reason. It made for an aggressive, violent, and exploitative world
sustained by regimentation and abuse of the natural environment in
which the poor and the weak were treated with contempt.
The modern state tends to promote the idea that ordinary individuals—especially the
poor and the "weak"—are not able to solve problems on their own.
This has destroyed stable and long-established communities; devalued
personal autonomy; and has undermined the individual’s sense of
identity and continuity. It could destroy the moral foundation of
the individual, and this could lead to indifference, alienation, and hostility.
Gandhi was prepared to accept the role of the state as a trustee within
defined limitsin which the local community could determine its own needs. In
India’s case, thevillage community was a basic unit of
economy. Large-scale industries were necessary, but they
should be located in a city and restricted. Local communities should
have the power to redefine their own institutions.
Gandhi’s notion of a good society held thathuman beings are informed by the spirit
ofpiety andrecognize their interdependence. They are governed by
moral and spiritual powers. They cherish plurality of reason,
intuition, faith, and traditions,and appreciate the individual’s
need for autonomy. It placesmorality at the center of
individual behaviour. The spirit of reverence and broad-minded
tolerance is the hallmark of a society that Gandhi helped us to see.
*The author wrote his first article on Gandhi in 1975: "The Tolstoy Farm: Gandhi's
Experiment of Co-operative Commonwealth," South African Historical Journal. Since then, he has continued to read and write on Gandhi.
Gandhi's Legacy in 1997 focused on one hundred years of an organization that he founded in 1894 in South Africa, namely the
Natal Indian Congress. Currently, he is researching new aspects of Gandhi in South African so as to better understand his life and work later in India.
The volume of literature on Gandhi is enormous. For the beginner, the following few references are a starting point.
- Gandhi, Mohandas ., Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. New Delhi: Government
Printer, 1958-1997. There are 100 volumes of Gandhi’s own writings over the course of his life, and are most useful sources of
information to a scholar researching on Gandhi.
- Gandhi, Mohandas K., Satyagraha in South Africa, Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1928.
This is a detailed account of the historical circumstances that surround the first Passive Resistance campaign in South Africa.
- Gandhi, Mohandas K., The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Boston: Beacon Press,
1993. This most widely read autobiography is perhaps the best one-volume statement of Gandhi’s life by Gandhi himself.
- Parekh, Bhiku, Gandhi, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. This little volume
(110 pages) is an excellent introduction to Gandhi’s life and thought.
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