ONLINE BOOKS > GANDHI - His Relevance For Our Times > The Essence of Gandhi
The Essence Of Gandhi
By G. Ramachandran
(In this article the author gives us an insight about how Gandhi arrived at the technique of Satyagraha. Being a many-sided personality his experiences in South Africa became his laboratory where he conducted experiments for the betterment of down trodden, subjugated human beings. Through his constant experimentation he realized that nonviolence was the strongest weapon of the subjugated masses and taught them to use it. He was able to induce courage and strength in the weakest of the weak and remorse in the hearts of the cruelest of the cruel. Such were his discipline and aspirations and his belief that good exists in all humans, one only has to awaken that good within).
Gandhi was a many-sided personality. The outward simplicity of his life and his single-minded devotion to nonviolence cloaked innumerable deep currents of ideas, disciplines, loyalties and aspirations. He was at once saint and revolutionary, politician and social reformer, economist and man of religion, educationist and satyagrahi; devotee alike of faith and reason, Hindu and inter-religious, nationalist and internationalist, man of action and dreamer of dreams. He was a very great reconciler of opposites and he was that without strain or artificiality. He loved greatly and accepted unreservedly that truth can reside in opposites. No one has yet attempted a complete analysis of his complex and magnificent personality. We have all come too much under the spell of the astonishing integration and unity of the man within himself. It was Rabindranath Tagore who once wrote that those disciplines are the most complex which finally lead to the utter simplicity of a great song. One has only to look at those who learn music to see the daily grind of hard discipline through which they must pass before they bring out a soulful song. Gandhi's life was one long and ceaseless saga of endeavour in which he added, bit by bit and piece by piece, to his stature culminating in the advancing fullness of his personality. There was nothing mystic or miraculous about his development and growth, from a common man into the unsurpassed mahatma of our history. It is open to each one of us to see how he advanced, step by step, gathering innumerable fragments of truth one by one and piecing them together in the crucible of his life, ready to look at facts, understand their significance, face any consequence in the pursuit of a cause, suffer any penalty for a mistake, recover lost ground again, but always advancing, open-minded and without fear and dedicated selflessly to reach and hold the truth of a matter at any cost. He was, therefore, not born a mahatma. He grew into one. He was a common man who pulled himself up to most uncommon heights. He was no god, but became a god-man. Gandhi knew this about himself and that was why he called his biography, “The Story of My Experiments With Truth”. Experimentation was one of the deepest passions of his life. He experimented with food, health and cure, clothes and dress, politics and economics, education and reform, organisation and revolution, ethics and spirituality, with almost everything that his life knew as part of life. With relentless logic and courage he broke new ground in every direction and yet had the depth and width of mind to separate defeat from success, the false from the true, the unreal from the real and to integrate all his aims and achievements into the unity of his personality.
But when we look into the splendid mosaic of his thoughts and deeds there is one thing which stands out as unique and puts him in the forefront of the evolution of man in our time. This was the unique discovery he made in a unique laboratory. The laboratory was South Africa and the discovery was satyagraha. It was history which threw Gandhi into the South African laboratory. The situation in South Africa was itself unprecedented in history. It was not merely that a white minority Government brutalized itself and millions of coloured people in an attempt to permanently enslave them. Slavery was nothing new in the world, but this one was unique in that it was grounded in a new metaphysics and ethics buttressed by modern science. Every thought and action conceivable to diabolic human ingenuity was drawn upon to perpetuate the subjection of the many who were weak to the few who were strong. Any rebellion was totally made impossible. The very thought of rebellion was made treason. The White minority Government was armed not only with weapons but with perverted laws, institutions and philosophy. This slavery itself was held up as part of God’s plan for man and the teachings of the New Testament were blackened and poisoned in support of it. The Bible had taught through twenty centuries that God made man in His image, but the White tyrants in South Africa taught that this applied only to the White man and never to the coloured man. The many who were weak and held in subjection had no arms, no organisation, no education, no power of any kind. They could work and manage to live only within the unbreakable boundaries of their slavery. Once they accepted their slavery, they were fed, clothed and given shelter, but without any human rights whatsoever, not even for a husband to live with his wife, nor a mother with her children. They could live like cattle in the cattlesheds of this fantastic civilization. Any attempt to break away was met with torture and death. It was a terrible prison house within the heart of modern civilization. History cast Gandhi into such a prison house. He had lived and studied in London. He was a Barrister-at-law. He was an Indian with a great and ancient tradition of culture in his blood. He was, however, young and inexperienced. He could have turned tail and run away from this terror. It was at this point that Gandhi revealed the first glimmer of his greatness. He stood firm and looked at the terror with unflinching eyes. Can we not say, in humility today, that God broke into history at this point and gave Gandhi the inner urge to stand firm? He had behind him only unlettered, poor and weak Indian coolies and he himself was dubbed a coolie barrister by the arrogant Whites who kept the keys of the prison. The historic challenge before Gandhi was whether the weak could fight the strong with any hope of redemption. Throughout history in all the battles between the strong and the weak the weak had always surrendered or perished. Gandhi asked himself the question if the inescapable fact of history, as it appeared to be, could ever represent the law of truth, justice and love, i.e. the law of God. Again, God broke into the soul of Gandhi and Gandhi knew at once that what surrounded him was really the negation of the law of history and the law of God. That settled, he plunged into the experiment to discover a weapon with which the weak could fight the strong.
In South Africa
Many ingredients went into the experiment of Gandhi in South Africa. The first was Gandhi’s unalterable belief in God. To Gandhi, God was truth, justice and love. Truth and justice were concepts, but love or hate furnished the motivation for action. Hate was acting in South Africa. Could love be made to act effectively in the same area of human life? Gandhi’s inner mind said, yes, it can because it must. Otherwise, God would be defeated, i.e. truth and justice would be defeated. That was impossible! This was the logic of Gandhi. How then could love be made to act? Certainly it could not be made to act in the manner hatred acted. Suppression, torture, violence, the prison and the bullet were the instruments of hate. These must be rejected as instruments of love. But what could be the instruments of love? Having come to the conclusion that love must reject the weapons of hate, Gandhi set about to discover the instruments of love in the battle of the weak against the strong. Discoveries came to him one after the other. The weak must not surrender. The weak must not obey. Instead of inflicting suffering, the weak must invite suffering on themselves and put the tyrant to shame and make his weapons as useless as possible. This must be done collectively by the entire Indian community. Large masses of people must act together nonviolently. Gandhi was modern enough to understand the significance of numbers which he did not disdain in a mood of super-saintliness. He realised at once that it was his duty to disobey iniquitous laws and make all his people also disobey them. He understood why the White minority Government used cruel violence to suppress coloured people. It was only under suppression that the coloured millions, including Indians, would give unmurmuring obedience. The whole aim was to secure obedience through terror. Gandhi's answer was to create fearlessness and inaugurate disobedience. Disobedience suddenly became the only duty. But there could be violent disobedience! Gandhi discovered that violence weakened disobedience and still left the initiative in the hands of the tyrant who was the master of the art of violence. Disobedience became more effective when it was nonviolent. Gandhi thus arrived at this strategy of effective disobedience through nonviolence. Here was the unassailable logic of nonviolent disobedience. Disobedience and surrender are poles apart. Disobedience was the exact opposite of surrender. If the tyrant secured no obedience from the slave what would happen? He would punish the slave, beat him up, throw him into prison, shoot at him with bullets. Yes, the tyrant was bound to do all these. So Gandhi said to himself and his people that disobedience should persist in spite of everything the tyrant did. The tyrant could torture, imprison and kill a few people, but he could not do that to the whole of the people when they were nonviolent. Therefore, the larger the number, the better. But the question was, would the weak disobey in sufficiently large numbers and face the consequences of disobedience? Here Gandhi’s mind hesitated. Then he quickly came to his next discovery. There was a soul in each human being. Whatever might be the differences between human beings due to different circumstances and conditions of history in recent centuries, man himself who was several hundred thousand years old on earth had each one a soul equal to every other soul. God created man in his own image, said the Bible. God resided in each human being, said the Gita. The Buddha and Mohammed affirmed the same truth. Gandhi was a believer. He decided heroically to act upon the basis of the equality of human souls.
From that belief sprang the faith that there was no man or woman so small, weak or helpless who could not discover the strength of the soul inside and make use of it when life itself was in peril before tyranny. Gandhi put his faith not only in the transcendent God but the God imminent in every man and woman. Gandhi thus pieced together all these fragments of truth and welded them into a new courage and hope. Thus, step by step, the experimenter in the laboratory of South Africa arrived at his radiant discovery of the power of passive resistance which later evolved into the revolutionary weapon of satyagraha.
Gandhi at once applied his discovery to the situation. He gave the call to his people to awake, arise and act nonviolently. They were only poor, weak and illiterate coolies who had long submitted to tyranny and knew the pains of slavery. But they responded to him in the most astonishing manner. Gandhi’s faith in man was justified. What happened as passive resistance grew and advanced is now part of history. It startled the Whites in South Africa and flashed the message of a new revolution across the world. The coolies began civil disobedience. The Whites became angry. They struck out at Gandhi and his coolies with all their weapons. Thousands were thrown into prisons, properties were confiscated, crowds were beaten up. Disobedience continued nevertheless. No Indian surrendered and no Indian obeyed. No Indian weakened in the struggle because of the beatings and the prisons. It became a long drawn out struggle of seven years which ended in the Smuts-Gandhi agreement. The struggle ennobled the coolies, gave them confidence and self-reliance. The Whites were ashamed inside themselves and were cleansed a little. The Whites were Christians. The coolies showed them the meaning of the Cross. Both sides emerged from the struggle with a premonition that something new had happened to them equally. The world had changed a little, not only in South Africa but in the conscience of man. Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi that the struggle he organised in South Africa was important for the whole world. More than everything else Gandhi himself was a transformed man. Deep within him there stirred the first awareness of a great mission and we witness the rebirth of the man Gandhi into Gandhi the Mahatma. Mahatma literally means great soul. That was an apt title which Dr. Annie Besant and poet Rabindranath Tagore combined to confer on the transformed man from South Africa.
This then was Gandhi’s discovery in his laboratory of South Africa. It was the discovery of a weapon with which the weak can fight the strong. It is perhaps the greatest discovery of our century. It was a greater discovery than that of atomic power in our time. Atomic weapons are now in the hands of the mighty and with these weapons the strong will fight the strong and destroy themselves. But here was the discovery of a weapon which the weakest could use with effect against the strongest. Nonviolence was certainly older than Gandhi. But Gandhian nonviolence is altogether a new thing in history. Under the technology of satyagraha, Gandhi threaded nonviolence in a chain reaction and then harnessed its redemptive power to revolution, thus knocking out the idea that the essence of revolution was in violence, blood and terror. Gandhi proved that there could be massive nonviolent action against tyranny and injustice which could shake both to pieces and at the same time redeem alike the tyrant and his victim. Gandhi's courage, his faith in the common man, his power to organise love in action, his iron determination and his power of analysis and synthesis which he applied to his experiment in South Africa, require a much fuller study than any undertaken so far.
Gandhi was the discoverer of a new dimension in nonviolence and he opened a new chapter in history. No longer need the world be divided always between the strong who must dominate and the weak who must surrender or perish. That was true only so long as might alone could settle the right. After Gandhi, there is a new vista which has opened up before man. If only the weak could know, there would never again be subjection and slavery anywhere in the world. Gandhi brought back with him his new weapon as he returned to India. Later in India, after a process of slow and laborious preparation of himself and the people, he marshalled millions of his countrymen to plunge into three great tides of nonviolent revolution. The first was the non-cooperation movement in which he trained India to know that India was in subjection because of Indian cooperation with British rule and the moment that cooperation was withdrawn, British rule would collapse. The second was the salt satyagraha movement which when started excited the ridicule of the British masters, but who later realised to their dismay, that they could no longer hold India in subjection against its consent. Finally came the Quit-India revolution which ended British rule in India for ever and launched the nation on the road to independence and the Republic. What astonished the world, however, was that when the British left and India became independent, there was no rancour left in the minds of either India or England. It looked as though the last act was more one of a great reconciliation than a parting. The Republic of India voluntarily chose to remain in the Commonwealth. Is it any wonder then that the great historian and thinker, Arnold Toynbee, recorded later that Gandhi had liberated not only India but also Great Britain.
Let us not be lulled into thinking that the impact of Gandhian nonviolence on world events does not appear to be clear or effective. Outwardly the world seems to have little to do with Gandhi and satyagraha. The two mighty powers, the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. dominate the world scene largely because they both possess atomic weapons of incalculable destructive power. We have then the emergence of China as a world power. Civilization is in the grip of competition and violence. The image and challenge of Gandhi appear small on the world horizon. But that image and that challenge will steadily advance into the twentieth century and on to centuries yet to come. Since the end of the second world war there have been several groups in the world which have practised satyagraha against tyranny and injustice. The Negroes, in the mainstream of their struggle in the United States under Martin Luther King, have firmly grasped this new weapon in their hand. But this stream of nonviolence is still only a trickle against the background of the tidal waves of violence sweeping the world. These tidal waves represent the decay and death of civilization. The trickle of nonviolence, which is very slowly but steadily gathering strength, shows the way onward to a great renaissance of the human spirit with the possibility of building a new human society based on freedom, justice and peace. India owes a special duty to mankind because it was in India that Gandhi was born, lived, worked and gave his life for nonviolence. The Gandhi Centenary will arrive in 1969. Will the people and the Government of India take a deep breath and recapture for themselves and for the world the true image of Gandhi in the next few years before the Centenary? There cannot be the slightest doubt as to what Gandhi wanted India and the world to do for the future of man. But have we the courage and the integrity to live up to Gandhi’s challenge? This is one of the biggest question marks before the world today.