As Gandhi was settling down in Johannesburg with his family, and building up the Natal Indian Congress as the spearhead of the struggle for the rights of the Indian Community, other developments took place. South Africa had to go through the ordeal of a civil war. The two sides who were ranged against each other were the descendants of the original Dutch settlers who had colonized large areas of South Africa, and the descendants of the whites who came later, particularly from Great Britain. They had their differences in attitudes and beliefs. The descendants of the Dutch were called Boers. They spoke 'Afrikaans' which was very similar to Dutch. They were tough farmers. They looked down upon the Indians and wanted only to use them as slave labour, confined to their locations. The attitudes of other whites were not very different.
Gandhi was in a
quandary. What attitude should the Indians adopt in the war between these
two white groups fighting for supremacy? Were they to side with the
Government or with those who were challenging the Government that they were
fighting? Or were they to remain neutral?
Gandhi believed that
rights and duties were related. If Indians asked for equal rights they
should be prepared to accept equal responsibility for discharging the duties
of citizenship. A primary duty of the citizen was to defend the state when
it was in danger. They could not claim exemption on the ground that they
believed in pacifism or non-violence unless their faith in non-violence was
well known even before the war. Moreover, even a symbolic participation by
the Indian community would raise their standing in the eyes of the whites.
Gandhi therefore offered
to raise a Corps of stretcher bearers to serve with the Army. His offer was
accepted. With characteristic efficiency he recruited and trained an Indian
Ambulance Corps. The members of the corps won admiration and praise for the
exemplary courage they displayed on the field of battle carrying out their
duties even in danger zones that they were not bound to enter. They
surprised the Army and civilians with their feats of endurance, trudging
through rough terrain, often doing more than 25 miles a day. All this
compelled the white population to revise their view about the Indians whom
they had written off as feeble and cowardly, and concerned only with eking
out an existence. At the end of the war, the Indian corps was mentioned in
the despatches of the General, and its members and Sgt. Gandhi were praised
for their contribution, and awarded medals of recognition. Gandhi had put
the bona fides of the Indian community beyond question.
The war with the Boers
was over in 1901. Gandhi felt that he had put the Indian struggle on course.
He had created awareness and determination. He had brought different
sections of the community together. He had built up an organization. He felt
that the time had come for him to return to India and work among his people
there. The Indian community was sad, and did not want to let him go. But
they could not dissuade him. So they arranged a farewell and showered him
and Kasturba with gifts in gold and gems and jewellery. Kasturba herself was
presented with a necklace worth more than fifty sovereigns of gold. Gandhi
was deeply perturbed. How could he accept these costly gifts for services he
rendered in answer to the call of his conscience? He had a sleepless night.
He was deeply agitated, and paced up and down in his room. By the morning he
had taken the decision to make a trust and donate all the gifts he had
received from the community the day before, and five years ago, on the eve
of his return to India. The Trust and income from it were to be used for the
service of the community. It was not easy for him to persuade Kasturba to
part with the golden necklace and diamonds gifted to her. She demurred and
was in tears. Gandhi was harsh, and reminded her that the gifts were for the
service he had rendered.
On his return to India,
Gandhi wanted to set up practice in Rajkot. But he was persuaded to settle
down in Bombay, since Bombay had more opportunities for public work as well
as for his work as a barrister. He spent some time in Pune with the great
Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and visited Calcutta, Varanasi and other places on
his way back to Rajkot. He was shocked and appalled to see the river of
blood flowing from the goats that were sacrificed at the Kali temple at
Calcutta, and the filth and ungodly atmosphere at Varanasi.
He had hardly settled
down in Calcutta when South Africa summoned him again, to lead a delegation
of Indians to meet Chamberlain, the British Secretary of State for Colonies.
Great hopes were entertained from the visit. Gandhi (and the Indians)
believed that the Imperial Government would be more responsive and fair to
the Indians because of the service that Indians had rendered in the cause of
the Crown, and because Transvaal had now become a Crown colony after the
defeat of the Boers. But they were shocked and sorely disappointed.
Chamberlain was more interested in raising funds from the whites than in
doing justice to the coloured or the blacks. The memorial that Gandhi had
drafted was brushed aside saying that the colonies had self-rule.
Worse humiliation was
awaiting Gandhi and the Indians in Transvaal where too the Indian community
wanted to wait on Chamberlain. After the war, conditions in the Transvaal
were not normal. An Asiatic Department had been set up. The declared aim of
the Department was to protect the Asians, but the real purpose was to harass
them and drive them out. They insisted that Asians from outside Transvaal
could enter Transvaal only with a permit. The system of permits had led to
corruption. Gandhi found it hard to get a permit to enter Transvaal, and
when he managed to do so, he was not permitted to join the Indian delegation
that Chamberlain received. This was an eye opener. Gandhi was insulted and
excluded. He realized what the new policy of the Government meant. The odds
would now be heavier. They would have to start afresh. He would not be able
to return to India as he had planned to do. He would have to make
Johannesburg (Transvaal) his headquarters. He got his colleagues to agree to
his moving from Durban, and enrolled in the Supreme Court at Johannesburg.
He found a house in the legal quarters of the city. Since he now anticipated
a prolonged stay in South Africa, he asked his family to return to be with
He knew that the
struggle was going to be long and hard. The whites had already hardened
their attitude. It might harden further and might become ruthless when their
interests were in real danger. Rights will not be granted for the asking.
They will have to be wrenched from unwilling hands.
For this, two things
were necessary. The Indian community should be united. Their organization
should be strengthened. They should be willing to back their petitions with
action, if that became necessary. Action was not possible without readiness
to suffer its consequences, without sacrificing narrow self-interest,
without readiness to pay the price of freedom and equality. The Indian
community had to shed its fear; know its goals; understand the means that
they were to employ, cooperate in the strategy of action. All this meant
constant communication between him and all sections of the Indian community
living in all the states of South Africa. Gandhi decided to start a journal
for this purpose. The journal was published in English, Hindi, Gujarati and
Tamil. Week after week he wrote on all issues, all aspects of the ideology
behind the struggle, all problems before the community. It was the life line
of his communication with the people, and with all sympathisers and
adversaries. He continued to edit it till he returned to India in 1914.
The second need related
to himself. He should become a fit instrument to lead his people in such a
struggle, — the struggle in which the weak who were in the right were pitted
against the mighty who were defending injustice. Gandhi had already shed his
shyness. His diffidence had melted in the fire of his commitment to the
cause. The cause was not self- glorification but the vindication of the
dignity and equality of the human being. He had discovered the power of the
spirit, of the will. This is present in all. But everyone has to be helped
to discover it and to use it against evil. Gandhi had to help them to
discover this treasure house of power that they held within themselves. But
he could do so only if he became the selfless transparent manifestation of
this power within. He could do so only if he purified himself, overcame, and
became immune to, all temptations. In his own words, a leader had to be
immune to all temptation, and be in command of his desires.
In the midst of all his
public activity, he therefore embarked on a ruthless and relentless exercise
of introspection and self-purification. He delved deep into the life and
message of every great human being who had set out to discover the power and
ways of the spirit. He embarked on a respectful study of all the main
religions of the world, — Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and others. He had
studied something of these religions earlier. But now it became urgent, and
was based on his commitment to find and tread the path of the spirit for
himself and for his colleagues.
He had many friends
among the Christians. Many of them had been impressed by his respect for
Christianity. They had hoped that Gandhi would accept the Christian faith.
Some of them had urged Gandhi to do so. Gandhi was greatly attracted by the
life of Jesus. Tears welled in his eyes when he thought of the crucifixion
of Jesus, or the Sermon on the Mount, and its message of love and
renunciation. But he had difficulties. He could not accept Christianity as
explained by his followers. He could not believe in miracles. He could not
believe that Jesus was the only Son of God. In his view, all human beings
were the children of God. He could not subscribe to the belief that only
those who accepted 'His great redemption' could find eternal peace. He
replied, "I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek
to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin.
Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless."
He could not accept many
of the superstitions and rituals that had come to be identified as an
essential part of Hinduism. He could not accept that God or religion could
ordain human beings to be treated untouchables. He had revolted against this
even while he was a young boy, and his mother had asked him not to touch the
young Ulaka who belonged to a caste that was considered untouchable. He
would touch Ulaka to show that the belief was a myth and was indefensible.
There were many questions in his mind about human life, death, the soul,
rebirth and so on, and he engaged in discussions and correspondence with
Raichandbhai, a well-known religious thinker and practitioner in Gujarat. He
delved into a study of the Gita, and discovered a veritable 'spiritual
dictionary' in it. It had an answer for every occasion, every difficulty.
Many of its stanzas brought tears to his eyes. To him the battlefield of
Kurukshetra was metaphorical. There was an incessant fight going on within
us between good and evil. Lord Krishna had shown us the path that could lead
to the victory of the good. It did not lie through violence and war, but
through the renunciation of attachment to desires and the fruits of action.
A human being cannot escape action. He should wear himself out in action,
not with attachment to the fruits of his action, but by dedicating them to
all, by renunciation. He called the Gita the yoga of the non- attachment. He
also saw in the Gita the message that all human beings had to earn their
bread by their own work, looking upon all such work as a link in the
sacrificial effort that maintained society and sustained nature. This he
called the spirit of Yajna. He accepted the Gita's idea that one who wanted
to serve others or even himself should control his desires and emotions and
become a Sthitaprajna or a man of abiding wisdom. He had to overcome his ego
and the temptation of the senses, and live by the sweat of his brow.
All these thoughts and
beliefs were surfacing and milling in his mind when, on one of his journeys
from Johannesburg to Durban, his friend and colleague, Polak gave him a book
to read on the train. It was Ruskin's Unto This Last. He started reading,
and found that he could not lay the book down. The book confirmed many of
1. The good of the
individual is contained in the good of all, — since all human beings are
2. All socially useful
work, — whether that of the lawyer or barber has the same value.
3. A life of labour,
particularly productive labour related to basic needs — like agriculture or
handicrafts - was the life worth living.
Gandhi believed in
practising whatever he accepted as true or desirable. So, he decided to lead
the life of a farmer and craftsman, while devoting his life to the struggle
for justice. He bought a farm near Phoenix, 14 miles from Durban, and moved
to this farm which was named the Phoenix Settlement. This was in 1904 when
he was 35 years of age. He often trekked from Durban to Phoenix and back. He
invited his colleagues - Indian, European, Chinese and others to go and
settle in the Phoenix Settlement. The printing press of the Indian Opinion
was shifted there. The Settlement became Gandhi's laboratory to discover the
transformation that the individual and the community needed to lead a life
free from exploitation and dedicated to the realization of high ideals.
Among the members of the community were Polak and his wife Millie, Maganlal
Gandhi and many others.
The experiments that
Gandhi conducted at the Settlement related to all aspects of life. He had to
discover what helped to tame the body and mind, — to acquire mastery over
the senses, to overcome the ego that stood in the way of the mind, and an
order that worked for the welfare of all that he described later as
So there were
experiments with food or diet; experiments aimed at self-sufficiency in the
production of essentials; experiments on the extent to which an individual
could go in achieving self-sufficiency consistent with interdependence;
experiments in new methods of education through manual work or craft,
supplementary study, character-building and community living. Gandhi was
the example that inspired these experiments and monitored the evolution
towards truth, love, sacrifice and non-exploitative values. The community
also witnessed experiments aimed at acquiring control over emotions like
anger and jealousy, and problems arising from boys and girls living in each
other's constant company.
In the meanwhile South
Africa was rocked by a rebellion of the Zulus. There were large-scale
military operations against the Zulus. Again Gandhi offered to raise an
Indian Ambulance Corps to tend the wounded and remove the dead. Gandhi's
experiences during the Rebellion were harrowing and excruciating. He saw
barbarism at its worst. Zulus were whipped till their skins peeled off. They
were left in a pool of blood. Whites refused to tend the wounded Zulus. They
wanted the Zulus to bleed and die, and be fed upon by birds of prey or wild
beasts. The Indian Ambulance Corps looked after the Zulus - wounded and
dead. Again the courage and forbearance of Gandhi and his colleagues were
commended, and they were honoured with medals. But Gandhi's mind was
restless and in remorse for what he had seen of the cruelty of man against
man. The physical sufferings that he had seen had drained his mind of all
desire for the momentary pleasures of the body. He had already been thinking
of a vow to give up the life of the flesh, and the attractions of the flesh.
The conviction grew in him that he could not do public work without leading
a life of brahmacharya or celibacy. So, when he returned from the field of
battle, he talked the matter over with his wife. She had no objection. He
was happy to receive her consent. He took the vow of brahmacharya (celibacy)
in 1906. He was 37 years of age.