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Gandhi Through The Eyes Of The Gita
By Marie Beuzeville Byles
Gandhi will be remembered in history because of his satyagraha campaigns and his use of the weapons of truth, love and nonviolence to win self-government for India. But Gandhi said that “no one is competent to offer satyagraha unless he has a living faith in God”.1 And the Bhagavad-Gita, to which he would always turn for inspiration, is the allegorical description, not of a satyagraha campaign, but of the quest of the human soul for union with the Supreme or God. Further, in the eyes of the Gita the outward work that Gandhi did in liberating India and raising the depressed classes, is of no more importance than the work of a humble scavenger, while Gandhi himself ceaselessly reiterated that no work is superior or inferior. It was this quest for God that determined Gandhi’s every action. And let us remember that when he said Truth is God, Truth did not mean only devotion to material facts. Far more important for him was devotion to the Inner Light that the rishis of India and the authors of the Upanishads told of and experienced.
It is therefore not through the pages of history but through the eyes of the Bhagavad-Gita that Gandhi’s work and message must be studied if it is to be understood.
It was in middle life when I was escaping from the intellectual and materialistic agnosticism of university days that I happened to pick up from a second-hand bookshop a copy of Edwin Arnold’s version of the Bhagavad-Gita, “The Song Celestial”. I had not the faintest idea what it was, but it swept me away with its sublime wisdom. It seemed incredible that such insight could be crammed into such a small space. Shortly afterwards someone told me my ideas were rather like Gandhi’s. Up till then Gandhi was almost as unknown to me as the Gita. I set to work to read everything I could find about him. His words gripped me in the same way as did the Gita's. Neither speaks through the beautiful veils and ecstasies of most religious literature. Both have a purity and simplicity related to everyday life.
When Harijan recommenced publication, Gandhi’s words came like a weekly tonic. Somehow he was always utterly right, right because no speck of self-pride or incredible supernatural revelation spoilt the purity, simplicity and courteousness of all he said. When news of his death came, I wept with a personal selfish sorrow, for a guiding hand seemed to have been withdrawn. We cannot read a weekly message any more, but his words and writings have been collected, and through them, perhaps for the first time in history, we have the intimate detail of the inner life of a great public character and spiritual genius, from childhood until death. Especially we are indebted to V.B. Kher for having collected in three volumes, entitled “In Search of the Supreme”, Gandhi’s words on the spiritual aspect of life. As well as his own “Experiments with truth”, there is also Pyarelal’s “Mahatma Gandhi: the Last Phase”, which gives the intimate details of this quest during the last years. This quest for the Supreme is Gandhi’s message and this quest must also be ours if we would follow in his footsteps.
All work is transient, and Gandhi’s is no exception. To very few is given the task of taking part in satyagraha struggles. But we each have our own work, and it is our own work, however humble, that both Gandhi and the Gita would have its fulfill, and it is of the Mahatma’s message in connection with our ordinary lives, that I would say something.
“It is better to do your own duty however imperfectly than assume duties of another person however successful; prefer to die performing your own duty; the duty of another will bring you great spiritual danger.” 2
Under the ancient Hindu system of division into castes, or more correctly varnas, a man’s work was determined by the hereditary calling of his father. The son of a sandal-maker must become a sandal-maker himself and a woman of course learned only the domestic arts according to the station in life of her father. The abuses of caste are so blatant that we of the West overlook the security and contentment that resulted from being born into one’s own niche, and also the absence of cut-throat competition. Gandhi’s ideas concerning caste or varna underwent considerable modification as his experiments with Truth proceeded and in the end he would probably have agreed that a man’s proper work was that ordained by his nature. But he never gave up the idea of the need for division of labour, and from the beginning he asserted that no work was superior or inferior; the work of a Brahmin, of expounding holy truths, was not one whit better than that of a sudra who removed night-soil. He also consistently asserted that the work done for a livelihood must be done as a duty, and not for money making or one’s own pleasure, and that it must never be changed for the sake of making a better livelihood. But of course one’s bread-and-butter work does not prevent one’s engaging in public service also.
Furthermore, even as there is no question of superiority and inferiority, neither is there any importance in success or failure. Success and failure are not in our hands, for all actions are the result of the working of the three gunas “and take place in time by the interweaving of the forces of nature”3 Only the deluded man thinks that he himself is the actor. How utterly foolish, therefore, to imagine that the result of our work matters. The Stoics compared man to a messenger boy sent to deliver a parcel. The boy does his best to find the addressee, but if after making every effort he fails to do so, he has no personal interest in the fate of the parcel.
Gandhi’s own work was only very partially successful. Self-government for India was obtained without violence or bloodshed. It was accomplished even without hatred for the British, with the surprising result that a person with a passport of the conquering race is welcomed everywhere as a friend, in a manner almost unbelievable and I should imagine unprecedented in history. But the innate tendency to hate was not sublimated; it was only repressed, and it came out in another way, in hatred between Muslims and Hindus. And the riots that followed independence were probably also unparalleled in history.
That Gandhi was unutterably cast down at the failure of his efforts to instill love and nonviolence, shows that even up to shortly before his death he had not wholly absorbed into his being the Gita teaching―and his own also―that success and failure are of no account. It was only by fasting that he was able to purify his mind of depression and regain the equanimity of a rishi. But the very fact of this human weakness and ability in the end to overcome it, perhaps makes his teaching more helpful than that of the rishis who are said to have dwelt always on the Himalayan heights of perfect serenity. It shows that he was human like ourselves and his heart speaks to our own as does that of Marcus Aurelius who also partly failed.
Those who have not absorbed the Gita teaching that success and failure are of no account and who suffered gaol and lathi charges, must find it hard to accept the truth that the “matchless weapon” of satyagraha that Gandhi brought into use is already being forgotten. When Martin Luther King started the desegregation movement in America, he did not consciously copy Gandhi’s methods. The movement came into being of its own accord, and only after it was fully launched did its leader remember back to his reading of Gandhi and see the likeness of Gandhi’s methods to his own. Gandhi’s work did not influence the Negroes, but the same spirit that was in him is now in the sincerely practising Christians who follow Martin Luther King. In each case the work was not that of an individual, but the result of the “interweaving of the forces of nature”.
Thus it is that all work, say both the Gita and Gandhi, must be offered to the Lord, or the Supreme, as a sacrifice, something to be made holy because it is done as a service to all.
When the universe was created, simultaneously the law of sacrifice, the opposite to creation, was brought into being, for the universe is composed of pairs of opposites.4 The clouds give of themselves to make rain. The rain gives of itself to feed the earth which in turn feeds the plant. The plant flowers and fruits and gives up its fruit. “Except a corn of wheat fall to the ground and die it abideth alone, but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit.”5 The law of sacrifice is universal; and it is only at his peril that man tries to exclude himself from the working of this law. In the East it seems to be almost a universal custom to recognize that this law applies to man, by symbolically offering food to the God before partaking of it oneself. Because of the absence of this custom in the West, the meaning of verses 11, 12 and 13 of Chapter 3 is usually lost to the Western reader. Gandhi says that “Sacrifice means exerting oneself for the benefit of others, in a word, service.... Look upon all creatures as Gods”.6 That is to say, we must sacrifice ourselves for all, giving our work freely and asking nothing in return.
In Japan at the beginning of this century, Tenko Nashida, affectionately known as Tenko San, discovered this law for himself. He was in his late twenties when he woke up to the alarming fact that society consisted of individuals and groups of individuals each striving against each other and each seeking to get as much as possible and give as little as possible. He asked himself how a peaceful society, let alone a peaceful world, could be built on such an attitude. He gave away his property, and for three years wandered about Japan seeking a way out of the impasse. Finally he sat down to fast and meditate at a wayside temple. On the fourth day he heard a baby cry and its cries subside as its mother gave it her breast. Light came. We must give instead of trying to get. There is a law within the universe by which man can be delivered from suffering and this deliverance includes provision for his daily livelihood; but that law cannot come into operation unless, like all else, we learn to give freely without asking anything in return. He at once started to put this new found truth into practice by going from house to house asking for work without payment. He never lacked for food and lodging. Out of that first venture there came into existence the now flourishing community of 350 men, women and children known as Ittoen, the Garden of the One Light, with thousands of “lay” disciples throughout Japan.
Tenko San later found that Mahatma Gandhi had made the same discovery as himself and a plaque of the Mahatma is now in the International Hall of Ittoen.
Ittoen’s men and women, youths and maidens will go anywhere and do any work provided only they can be the means of giving humble service to others. And that was Gandhi's passion also. It probably dated from the South African period, but in his “Experiments with Truth”, he said it had become utterly necessary for him on his return to India.
Gandhi’s interpretation of ch. 7 v. 17 is very interesting from this point of view. This verse describes the man dearest to God. It has been translated variously. Annie Besant translated it as “The wise, constantly harmonized, worshipping the one”; Mukherjee as “The wise, ever steadfast, fired by a single purpose”; Isherwood and Prabhavananda as “The man of spiritual discrimination”; Edwin Arnold as “He who is intent upon the One”; Mascaro as “The man of vision”; Radhakrishnan as “The wise one who is ever in constant union with the Divine and whose devotion is single-minded”. But Gandhi said it is “Those who know what they are about and for whom service to others is something they cannot do without”.7 Again in the Eighth Chapter, Gandhi’s interpretation of the bright fortnight of the moon is the path of selfless service.
Tenko San also made the same discovery as Gandhi concerning the need for complete sacrifice of self. Gandhi spoke of the reduction of self to zero. Tenko San said, “Death solves all problems; he who has any problems has not died to self.” Chapter II of the Gita describing God the Destroyer is another chapter which by and large Westerners skip over because they are accustomed only to the idea of God the Creator. But Gandhi says we should read, re-read and meditate upon “God as world-destroying time into whose gaping mouths the universe rushes to its doom”.8 If we do this we see that we are mere morsels, the sense of self is lost and we realize the need for utter surrender and the reduction of self to zero.
Complete surrender to the Supreme and universal love towards all creation are the culminating notes of the Gita. “Who burns with the bliss and suffers with the sorrow of every creature within his heart, making his own each bliss and each sorrow.”9 “He who in this oneness of love, loves me in whatever he sees, wherever that man may live, in truth this man lives in me.”10
But the culminating note of Gandhi’s teaching was Truth. Truth is doubtless implied in every chapter of the Gita, but its necessity is never made explicit. Truth is not one of the things that Krishna describes himself as being.
The reason, I think, is that the Gita came into existence when people were simpler and when there was greater harmony between the conscious and subconscious mind, which latter was brought into daylight, as it were, by dreams and myths which to people in those days were real. When the Gita talks about the sacred fig tree of Aswattha, “the everlasting rooted in heaven, its branches earthward, its leaves a song of the Vedas”, this to us is merely a pretty fancy. But to people of the age of the Gita it was real. It was real because it was part of the collective subconscious which dream-life showed to be a fact. Nowadays we treat the wisdom of the subconscious as beneath serious consideration―unless we are unusually devout disciples of Jung, perhaps!―and the result is that there arises a rift between the conscious and the subconscious. We deliberately try to repress the unpleasant darkness of the subconscious life and show always a respectable face to the world. The result is that self-deception and petty lies become the usual order of the day. However, whether this theory is or is not correct, it is a fact that untruthfulness is a vice almost unmentioned amid the many intimate details of virtues and vices and daily life told of in the many volumes of the Pali texts of primitive Buddhism. It is also a fact that today untruthfulness is taken for granted unless it is frightfully blatant. It was therefore utterly essential that Gandhi should place truth before all and state that Truth is God.
I have said that Gandhi’s message in Harijan came to me as a weekly tonic for the living of daily life. But it is often asserted that the gospels of Gandhi and the Gita are impossible of fulfillment in a society based upon money-making and self-seeking just as much as upon petty lying, for very few can live in a community like Ittoen. People who make this assertion forget that Gandhi himself was a highly successful barrister before he espoused the Lady Poverty. It is obvious, these say, that a person who owns a shop would soon go bankrupt if he gave his goods away instead of exacting a proper payment for them. On the face of it, it would seem that in such a case he must place his own self-interest before that of a starving waif.
If in fact considerations like this do prevent living the teaching of the Gita and of Gandhi, then such teaching can have no meaning for us. But do they? It is the attitude of mind and detachment that matter, not the things owned or the work done―so long as the work done is that for which we are born―and does not injure others, the Buddha would add.
The man who owns a grocer’s shop must obviously run it on ordinary business principles which include proper costing. If he feels called as a public duty to feed starving waifs, this too must be done on business principles, but here the means will probably be provided by donations of others as well as himself, and it will probably be done through a welfare society which in addition to giving food, will perhaps, like Gandhi, show the starving waifs how to give work in return for food. The test of whether this grocer is following in the steps of the Mahatma and the Gita, will be whether he is able to remain equable when someone defrauds him in his business, or when the hungry waif steals food he foolishly left open to temptation. The test is also whether he strives to make more and more money, instead of striving to give more and more service.
There is also another test even more down to earth, and this is the spirit in which we render little services to others, services which we are beholden to give. Most people give grudgingly, and expect thanks or a reward, or at least prestige. But the follower of the Gita will give because it is good to give; he will give his services as a thanks offering for being able to be in tune with the Law of Sacrifice. He will certainly not expect anything in return.
Another objection that is often raised to the possibility of living the teaching of the Gita and of Gandhi, is that we should completely exhaust ourselves if we “burned with the bliss and suffered with the sorrow of every creature”. Those who make this assertion have no experience of the meaning of detachment, or of being detached from their own bliss and sorrow. If we cannot stand aside from our own joys and troubles, we cannot understand how it is possible to feel sympathetic joy and compassion for another without being emotionally involved. It is this attitude of detachment that makes the work of a good doctor or nurse of value. No parent, no matter how eminent a surgeon, would operate on his own child simply because he is emotionally attached and cannot stand aside and know true compassion which is without worry and anxiety. But the compatibility of compassion and sympathetic joy with perfect detachment is something that must be experienced to be understood. It cannot be explained intellectually to one who does not know it from actual experience.
It is true that the greater our power, wealth and prestige, the greater the difficulty in achieving perfect detachment, love and truth. It is significant that Gandhi gave up his membership of the Congress when he found it was compromising his quest for Truth.
None the less it has been found in every age and all religions that though one lives in the world, it is still possible to follow the teaching of the Gita. Mahayana Buddhism expresses this faith in the much loved Vimalakirti Sutra. The hero of this was a wealthy house-holder, but though he had wife and children as well as wealth, he observed the monastic rules, and though a layman he was universally proclaimed wiser than the greatest of the Buddha’s monk disciples.
But let us make no mistake, if we aspire to be like Vimalakirti, the Pure One, we must make the quest for the Supreme paramount. That is to say, the things of this world, including its sensual pleasures, must play less and less part in our lives. God, the Light, the Oneness, or whatever we choose to call it, must become more and more a living experience, so that other things fade into the background and we become like Gandhi only “a dancer to the tune of God”.
Christians who admired Gandhi would ask whether it was not the Presence of Christ that guided him. He replied (I quote from memory): “If you mean the historical Jesus, then I feel no such presence. But if you mean a Spirit guiding me, nearer than hands and feet, nearer than the very breath of me, then I do feel such a Presence. Had it not been for this Presence, the waters of the Ganges would long ere this have been my destruction. You may call it Christ or Krishna―that does not matter to me.”
And that is the Gandhi we see through the eyes of the Gita, the only real Gandhi in so far as any perishable human being can be called “real”.
1. V. B. Kher, In Search of the Supreme, III, p. 343.
2. Bhagavad-Gita, Isherwood's translation, p. 58.
3. Ibid., Mascaro's translation, 3 : 27.
4. Gita, ch. 3; Kher, III, p. 236.
5. Gospel of St.John, II, ch. 12. v. 24.
6. Kher, III, p. 236.
7. Kher, III, p. 248.
S. Kher, 111, p. 257.
9. Isherwood's tr.,p. 86.
10. Mascaro's tr., ch. 6. v. 31.