Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
1880 – 1948
Perhaps the most influential figure of the 20th century, Mohandas Gandhi (who became known as Mahatama which means “great soul”) did not seem destined for greatness. As a child, Gandhi suffered from nightmares and was a mediocre student. After receiving his degree in law in England, he went to South Africa for a one-year contract and experienced discrimination (for being Indian). That harsh reality ignited a life long journey.
This small, gentle man, a Hindu who also studied other faiths, gave birth to the concept of non-violent resistance for social change. In his native India, Gandhi was instrumental in ending British colonialism, fighting the caste system, and improving women’s rights. His unique non-violent approach would become a pivotal part of movements throughout the world, from the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. to the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
Building Blocks in the Development of Gandhi’s Character
Gandhi’s personality at a young age was difficult to attend to, because he was very curious and would wander off alone from home, and he also suffered from fear of thieves and snakes. Through patience and love, his mother, baby-sitter, and wife proved to be deeply influential in the development of Gandhi’s character and ultimately shaped his ideas, philosophy, and morals.
Putliba, Gandhi’s mother, was an honest and wise woman. Even though she lacked a formal education, she never let this handicap inhibit her curiosity and eagerness to learn as much as she could about other religions and spiritual practices. A devout Hindu, her instruction for Gandhi was an inner discipline, earned through spiritual awareness, and a shared compassion and respect for everyone.
Rambha, Gandhi’s baby-sitter, had a profound effect on his life in terms of conquering his fears. She would tell him to silently pray to Lord Rama, and trust in his protection. By practicing Ramanama, the silent recitation to the Hindu god, Gandhi was able to overcome his childish phobias and ultimately master fear throughout his entire life. He came to realize that an individual could practice nonviolence only when they had conquered fear, the injustice of the mind.
Gandhi’s wife, Kastur, and he had experienced what he later called his first experience with nonviolence, shortly after their marriage at the age of thirteen. Having been victims of an arranged marriage, they had to learn how to be compatible and fit the roles of a family together. Gandhi believed it was his duty as husband to ascertain his authority over his wife. When he attempted to exert control over her schedule, Kastur calmly responded that it was her duty to respect the eldest matriarch of the household, Gandhi’s mother, so how should she respond when two commands clash? Dumbfounded, he had no response.
Later in life, Gandhi had come to the realization that the burden of oppression of Indians will remain as long as women continue to be held to different expectations.
“As long as fifty percent of the population remains under subjugation, political freedom will be meaningless.”
More than this, he also recognized the necessity for women to liberate from within, because the shackles they had were shared from the expectations they accepted.
“No one can liberate you until you liberate yourselves.”
And though he received backlash from those who wanted to focus solely on independence from the British, Gandhi held strong and firmly believed that the liberation of everyone in India could not be a distraction if it meant a more unified India.
Oppression exists in almost every corner of the world, and in many instances, out of desperation, the suffering leads to a violent insurrection. Gandhi experienced intense suffering and humiliation, but through self-control, never allowed his anger to inspire violence. Instead, he sought peaceful and positive solutions to suffering.
In January of 1897, Gandhi, his family and two ships of indentured Indian servants arrived at the Durban harbor in South Africa. Previous to this event, Gandhi had experienced the discrimination that all Indians had faced in South Africa. He had been very vocal about the South African government’s treatment towards Indian servants, and the government had taken notice. They blocked the two ships from docking, resulting in a two week stand-off. After two weeks, the government folded and let the two ships dock. Once Gandhi had made sure his family was safe, he confronted an angry mob awaiting him. He was severely beaten before the police were able to safely remove him. Later, when asked to identify his assailants, he refused.
“It’s time we break this cycle of crime and punishment. They acted out of anger and ignorance, and if I do not forgive them, I will be as guilty of perpetuating hatred as they are.”
For Gandhi, knowing his assailants had to repent for their sin was punishment enough. Incarceration would only make them bitter and blame him for their situation. After another attack with a similar outcome, three of the assailants were so humbled by Gandhi’s reaction, they appointed themselves his unofficial bodyguards to protect him from future assaults.
Throughout his life, Gandhi would survive many physical attacks, including at least eight assassination attempts. Gandhi had no fear in the face of death, believing that submitting to fear would be submitting to injustice upon himself. Not once did Gandhi ever raise a hand back at his assailants.
Gandhi’s idea of non-violence consisted of five important elements – love, respect, understanding, acceptance and appreciation. He viewed non-violence as a state of being, in which the individual commits consciously towards actively avoiding any harm upon any individually, whether it be physical, mental, spiritual, cultural, social, or any other humanly possible way.
“Nonviolence has to become a way of life. It is not something that one could wear in the morning and take off in the evening.”
He called on all Indians to defy discriminatory law and treatment by the British and South Africans. He gave birth to satyagraha, or devotion to truth, which is a method of resistance using nonviolence.
Gandhi advocated for individuals to analyze every action they make, whether it be an interaction with a homeless man, or throwing out the trash. He believed that there were forms of violence people committed every day that they are not aware of, because it didn’t fit the criteria of typical physical violence.
One day, Gandhi’s grandson was walking home from school and noticed that his pencil was very short. Deeming it to had served its use and no longer worth owning, he threw it away in a field. Later that night, he told Gandhi that he needed a new pencil, because the one he had was too small and that he had thrown it away. Gandhi gave him a flashlight, and sent him back outside to look for the pencil. After two hours, he found it and brought it back home. Gandhi explained to him that he sent him out there to find the pencil to learn the valuable lesson of not being wasteful. Every object created, whether by men or earth, has a function and should not be wasted.
The Earth has just the right amount of resources for everyone, but not enough for everyone’s greed. When people over consume, it creates an imbalance in global economies and societies. When a poor man sees a rich man waste something he would gladly steal to have, resentment for that man and what he represents is created. This resentment will lead to a justification to steal and hurt others, all because of this imbalance. The act of wasting is a bad habit, and no matter how small, affects someone somewhere in the world.
Gandhi recognized that waste was a passive form of violence. Physical violence is very apparent, and easy to define. Passive violence does not exert physical force, but indirectly causes harm to the earth and people through indirect means. Whether it be waste, discrimination, name-calling, or gossiping, passive violence more than often leads to physical violence. When we ignore poverty of societies, and make excuses to make them fend for themselves, then we commit passive violence.
Interconnectedness of Life
Gandhi’s grandson tells the story of how Gandhi asked him to dismantle a spinning wheel. After he had done so, Gandhi asked him to spin some cotton into yarn. His grandson responded by telling him that he must put the spinning wheel back together in order to do so. Gandhi tells him to go ahead, but takes a small wheel, an important part of the machine. When his grandson asked him for it, Gandhi responded, “Why?” His grandson explained that the machine cannot function without the small wheel. Gandhi used this metaphor to explain to his son an important understanding of life.
"Just as the machine cannot function when it is divided into separate parts, life cannot function meaningfully when each person acts independently. Also, just as the smallest wheel is necessary to make the spinning wheel work properly, every individual that God has created is an integral part of the whole, and must work in unison with others so that life can be smooth and in harmony. Nobody is dispensable.”
Gandhi believed that every human being is important and deserving of respect. Peaceful co-existence will not exist without mutual respect.
Critics and opponents of Gandhi found it difficult to understand that at the core the non-violence movement there existed no hatred towards any one individual. Years after India had gained independence from the British Empire, Winston Churchill and Indira Gandhi sat together of this subject.
“How you must have hated us.”
“We never hated you. We hated the British Empire, against which we were fighting.”
How strange it must have been for Churchill, who certainly hated every Indian as they fought for independence, to discover years later that the only hatred they harbored was toward an empire that wished to control and suppress them all. What Gandhi had argued all along is that when you fight injustice non-violently, it brings about resolution without resentment. Resentment is the factor that causes retaliation, so to avoid this circumstance altogether is always the best option. Even when you resist nonviolently and lose, you do so with a full heart and respect for your opponents.
On September 11, 2001, four coordinated terrorist attacks in the United States resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 individuals and more than 6,000 injured. The American response to the events of 9/11 consisted of many emotions including grief, anger and violence. Across the U.S., reports of harassment against Muslim-American citizens escalated. Misplaced blame and retaliation for the attacks put many innocent Americans in danger.
Mainstream media published and broadcast the horror and violence perpetrated on American soil while ignoring the atrocities that the American military executed upon those who later attacked us. A few brave voices stood up and reminded Americans that fighting violence with violence was not the path to reconciliation. Instead the country was seduced into the romantic notion of revenge and a war that has lasted 12 years thus far.
On September 11, 1906, exactly 95 years before the tragedies of 9/11, Mahatma Gandhi and 2,000 men and women sparked the modern nonviolence movement in Johannesburg, South Africa. Though it is just a coincidence, a perceived injustice was fought on both these days using different methods with different outcomes. Food for thought.
Gandhi, Arun, Legacy of Love (El Sobrante, CA: North Bay Book, 2003), 30.
Spiritual Innovators: Seventy-Five Extraordinary People Who Changed the World in the Past Century (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2002), 59.
Spiritual Innovators, 60.
Sharma, Arvind, Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 204.
Fischer, Louis, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (New York: Harper and Row, 1950), 73.