Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Gujarati: મોહનદાસ કરમચંદ ગાંધી, Mohandās Karamcaṃd Gāndhī, API: ˈmoː.ɦən.d̪aːs ˈkə.rəm.t͡ʃənd̪ ˈɡaːn. d̪ʱi Listen), born in Porbandar, Gujarat, on October 2, 1869, and died assassinated in Delhi on January 30, 1948, was a political leader, important spiritual leader of India and of the Indian independence movement. He is commonly known and referred to in India and around the world as Mahatma Gandhi (from Sanskrit mahātmā, “great soul”), or even simply Gandhi, Gandhiji or Bapu (“father” in many Indian languages). “Mahatma” was, however, a title that he refused to associate with his person all his life.
He was a pioneer and theorist of satyāgraha, resistance to oppression through mass civil disobedience, this theorization was based on ahiṃsā (“non-violence”), which helped lead India to independence. Gandhi inspired many liberation and civil rights movements around the world. His critical analysis of Western modernity, forms of authority and oppression (including the state), are a challenge to development that influenced many theorists and political leaders.
A lawyer who studied law in Britain, Gandhi developed a method of non-violent civil disobedience in South Africa as he organized the Indian community”s struggle for civil rights in the course of his actions for human dignity and social justice. Upon his return to India, Gandhi encouraged farmers and poor workers to protest against high taxes and discrimination, and brought the struggle against British colonial laws to the national stage. As the leader of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi led a national campaign for relief of the poor, for women”s liberation, for brotherhood between communities of different religions and ethnicities, for an end to untouchability and caste discrimination, and for economic self-sufficiency for the nation, but above all for Swaraj – India”s independence from foreign domination.
Gandhi led the Salt March, a famous opposition to the salt tax. He also called for the Quit India movement on August 8, 1942. He was imprisoned several times in South Africa and India for his activities; he spent a total of six years in prison.
A deeply religious Hindu and follower of Indian philosophy, Gandhi lived simply, organizing an ashram that was self-sufficient. He made and washed his own clothes – the traditional Indian dhoti and shawl, from cotton spun with a charkha (spinning wheel) – and was a vegetarian activist. He practiced rigorous fasts over long periods of time, for self-purification but also as a means of protest, influence and reform in others.
Gandhi is recognized as the Father of the Nation in India, where his birthday is a national holiday. This date was also declared “International Day of Non-Violence” by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007.
Youth in India (1869-1888)
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869 in Porbandar, in the present-day state of Gujarat, India. Gandhi was born and lived his entire life as a Hindu, but in a family that was open to other religious communities, be they Jain, Muslim, or Parsi.
He shows great attachment and respect for his parents. His father, Karamchand Gandhi, was a court official in Rajasthan and later the prime minister of the small principality of Rajkot, as were the Gandhis for six generations. Gandhi describes him as a man who, despite his limited education, is able to solve problems thanks to his experience. His mother, Poutlibai, was his father”s fourth and last wife, and she had four children, Gandhi being the youngest of them. He keeps the memory of her as a woman of great piety, strictly observing her religious vows, especially fasting, and the Vishnuite rites. Thus, Gandhi was born into a wealthy Hindu joint family. Although his father, who wore gold jewelry, was able to give his youngest son an accordion, tradition dictated that the Gandhi home would house several nuclear families of the same stock. That said, his family, from the caste of vaishyas (merchants), does not belong to the higher castes of brahmins (literate, religious) and kshatriyas (warriors), a superiority that is of a sacred and cosmic nature, not economic.
Gandhi was, in his own words, a mediocre student at the elementary school in Porbandar, who later became studious but very shy and sensitive at the college in Rajkot.
In May 1883, at the age of 13, Gandhi was married by his parents to Kasturba Makhanji (also spelled “Kasturbai” or known as “Ba”), who was the same age. They had four sons: Harilal Gandhi, born in 1888; Manilal Gandhi, born in 1892; Ramdas Gandhi, born in 1897 and Devdas Gandhi, born in 1900. Following this marriage, his studies are delayed by one year but being a good student, he is allowed to skip a grade, which will not be without problems in his schooling.
His father Karamchand Uttamchand Gandhi, whom he revered, had been ill for a long time and died when Gandhi was 16. He will remain marked by the fact that he could not attend his last moments because he spent the night with his wife. Gandhi will think all his life that it is because of what he considered a lack of filial piety that the baby they had shortly after survived only a few days.
Gandhi forged during this part of his life very important aspects of his ethics and personality such as honesty, tolerance, respect for his elders, vegetarianism and especially the rejection of lies and the search for truth.
He took the entrance exam to Samaldas University in Bhavanaga, Gujarat in 1887 but was completely overwhelmed by the demands that seemed beyond his reach.
Studies in England (1888-1891)
On the advice of an old family friend, he decided to study law in England, an opportunity that filled him with enthusiasm. In the presence of Becharji Svâmi, a Jain monk and other family advisor, he promised his mother to follow Hindu precepts and “not to touch wine, women or meat. His caste opposes his departure, considering that life in this country can only lead to a loss of faith. Gandhi, putting forward the vow made to his mother and supported by his family, decides to leave in spite of everything and is condemned to be out of caste by the chief of his community.
Gandhi entered University College in London on September 4, 1888 at the age of 18 to become a lawyer. He tried to adapt to English customs to a certain extent, by dressing like a gentleman and taking dance lessons, but he refused to eat meat at his hosts” homes. He later frequented London”s vegetarian restaurants. Instead of simply keeping his promise to his mother, he went beyond that and became interested in dietetics, particularly vegetarianism. He joined the Vegetarian Society and became a member of the executive committee for a time. Gandhi later said that this gave him his first experience of organizing an institution.
Some of the vegetarians he met were members of the Theosophical Society, founded in 1875 and dedicated to the study of Buddhist and Brahmanic literature in the hope of strengthening universal brotherhood.
Thanks to them, Gandhi studied the Bhagavad-Gita more closely, which left a deep impression on him, particularly through the idea that desire is a source of agitation of the mind and suffering. On this occasion, in 1890, he met Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant (whose membership in the Theosophical Society had just caused a controversy). Invited to join them, he declined out of humility, considering, as he wrote in his autobiography, that “he did not know his own religion well enough to belong to a spiritual movement. He then developed an interest in religion, which was not limited to Hinduism but also extended to other religions such as Jainism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, from which he retained, among other things, the incitement to react by non-violence; “if someone hits you on the right cheek, present him with the left cheek”.
Return to India (1891-1893)
He took the boat back to India on June 12, 1891, two days after being easily admitted to the bar in England and Wales. However, he found it much more difficult to practice his profession: his studies remained theoretical, he had no knowledge of Indian law and his shyness made it difficult for him to express himself in public. He first tried to settle in Bombay where he was admitted to the bar, but had to give up after six months because of a lack of income.
Gandhi then returned to Rajkot to work with his brother, a lawyer as well. He wrote petitions and briefs while taking advantage of his brother”s clientele.
At this time, an incident occurred which is known from Gandhi”s Autobiography and which would play a decisive role in his life. His brother Laxmidas, who had been secretary and advisor to the head of the princely state of Porbandar, was accused, in Gandhi”s words, of having given the prince “bad advice. According to Gandhi”s grandson, Laxmidas was accused of turning a blind eye to a theft of crown jewels by the heir to the throne, who was still a minor. According to another source, Laxmidas Gandhi was accused of having suggested the theft himself. The case was investigated by the Raj”s political agent in Kathiawar, Charles Ollivant (en), a British official whom Mohandas had met in London and who had been kind to him. Laxmidas, who professed that only influence counted in Kathiawar, asked Mohandas to intervene on his behalf with Ollivant. Mohandas objects that Laxmidas has legal means of defense, but he reluctantly gives in to his brother”s insistence and is received by Ollivant, although he is aware that he has no right to it. Ollivant does not appreciate this step: “Your brother is a schemer. I do not wish to listen to you further. I don”t have the time. If your brother has something to say, let him apply through the proper channels.” In his autobiography, Gandhi acknowledges that this response may have been deserved “but attachment to our interests blinds us. I continued to speak.” Ollivant tells Gandhi that he must now leave. Gandhi asks to be listened to until the end and Ollivant has him expelled by his servant. Gandhi, “weeping and fuming with rage” in his own words, sends a letter to Ollivant, demanding an apology or face prosecution. Ollivant replies that Gandhi had been rude and that the servant, in pushing him out by the shoulders after having vainly invited him to leave, did not abuse force. He added that Gandhi could proceed against him if he so desired. Gandhi asks the opinion of a famous Indian jurist, who believes that “the hot-blooded lawyer from England” would not win his case in court and advises him against taking legal action.
In his autobiography, Gandhi acknowledges that he was at fault, but argues that Ollivant”s impatient reaction was excessive and that he was intoxicated by power. For Gandhi”s grandson, Ollivant”s conduct was racial arrogance: “The shock, however, proved salutary. Gandhi had been confronted with a form of racial arrogance that he had never experienced during his three years in England – his dismissal by Ollivant had set in motion a process that would lead, fifty years later, to the Quit India campaign. However, Nagindas Sanghavi believes that Ollivant”s conduct was fully justified and he criticizes Gandhi for never recognizing that all the blame was on his side.
Practicing law in Kathiawar would have required Gandhi to greet Ollivant after unsuccessfully threatening him with legal action, an idea Gandhi found unbearable.
Moreover, he is disgusted by the climate of power struggle that reigns around him and by the obligation to curry favour with the hierarchy, Indian or British. Not only does his quarrel with the “sahib” Ollivant divert him from a career as a lawyer in Kathiawar, but he also comes up against an Indian official who outshines the sahib in arrogance.
He jumped at the chance when an Indian company offered him a contract for up to a year in the Cape Colony in South Africa. He saw this as an opportunity to leave India, to travel and to gain experience, and so he embarked for Africa in April 1893.
Gandhi in South Africa (1893-1915)
At this period of his life, Gandhi is a gentle, shy and politically indifferent individual. He read his first newspaper at 18 years old, had only a bookish culture in law, of which he was unaware of the commercial aspects that were of interest to the Indian business circles that would form his main clientele. Without any particular facility in the exercise of his profession, he is subject to stage fright when he has to speak in court. South Africa changes him in a spectacular way, on the one hand by giving him, through his professional success, the assurance that he lacked until then, on the other hand by awakening his political conscience by the testimonies of discrimination towards the Blacks and the Indians that he will be confronted with in this country.
Various anecdotes, first reported by Gandhi as “truth experiences”, can explain the evolution of Gandhi”s position at this period of his life.
The Natal Mercury reported on May 26, 1893, that the day before, an Indian entered the courthouse and took a seat in the lawyers” section of the courtroom. “He entered the courtroom without removing his headdress or salaaming and the magistrate looked at him disapprovingly. The newcomer was courteously asked what his business was and he replied that he was an English barrister. He made no attempt to present his credentials, and when he returned to the bar he was calmly told that the proper way to proceed, before taking up his position at the bar, was to be admitted to the Supreme Court.” Gandhi immediately responds to this article that if he drew a reproving look from the magistrate by keeping his turban on, he is very sorry for it and that he only acted as he did out of ignorance of the prevailing customs in Natal. He added that if he returned to the bench after the clerk had taken him aside to warn him of the need to produce his credentials, it was because, since the clerk had thought he could depart from the rule on this occasion, he did not expect the magistrate to be less accommodating.
In his 1927 Autobiography, Gandhi said that when the magistrate asked him to remove his turban, he refused to do so and left the court. In this account, Gandhi does not say that he had to leave the bench because he had not accredited himself as a lawyer.
N. Sanghavi notes that Gandhi”s later version is not in harmony with the two documents of the time, which do not allow for the conclusion of a racial incident. G. B. Singh and T. Watson, authors hostile to Gandhi, make the same point.
Gandhi also recounted a racial incident on the train that took him from Durban (Natal) to Pretoria (Transvaal), a few days after his arrival in South Africa, and thus in late May or early June 1893. This incident seems to be known only from Gandhi”s accounts. According to his 1927 Autobiography, Abdulla Sheth, one of the Indians settled in South Africa for whom Gandhi was going to work, bought him a first-class train ticket for the first part of the trip, which would be to Natal, and warned him that in the Transvaal, unlike in Natal, Indians were not allowed to travel first or second class. The custom,” Gandhi recounted, “was to pay an extra five shillings if you needed bedding. Abdulla Sheth insisted that I order bedding, but out of stubbornness and pride, and to save five shillings, I refused.” At Pietermaritzburg station (the capital of Natal, and thus still on the part of the route where Indians could travel first class), a railway employee distributed the beddings. Gandhi did not take any, saying that he had his own. After the employee left the compartment, a passenger arrived and looked down on Gandhi. Gandhi, in his account, does not give any words to this passenger, but says: “He saw that I was a colored man. It bothered him.” The passenger goes to alert airline employees and one of them tells Gandhi to go to the baggage car. Gandhi”s account does not indicate what motive the employee was alleging, nor does it make him say anything racial. Gandhi refused to leave the compartment and was forcibly removed by a policeman at the Pietermaritzburg station. Gandhi spent the night at the station and the next morning sent telegrams to the general manager of the railroad company and to Abdulla Sheth, who intervened with the general manager. The latter justifies the conduct of the employees (Gandhi does not say with what arguments), but gives instructions so that Gandhi can continue his journey with one day of delay. This time, Gandhi bought the bedding ticket that he had refused to order in Durban. G. B. Singh and T. Watson, in a book devoted primarily to casting doubt on the train incident as told by Gandhi, question whether his troubles, instead of having the racial cause Gandhi claimed, were not actually due to his being in violation of the bedding regulations.
The rest of the journey, as we know it from Gandhi, is marked by other similar incidents.
The turban and train incidents have been described by several biographers as a turning point in his life and later served as a catalyst for his activism. It was through witnessing firsthand the intolerance, racism, prejudice and injustice against South African Indians that Gandhi began to reflect on the status of his people and his own place in society. Gandhi reacts with first protests. Thus, he writes a letter to the management of the Transvaal railroads and obtains that the Indians “suitably dressed” can travel in first and second class.
At the end of his contract, Gandhi prepared to return to India. However, during a farewell party in his honor, he noticed a newspaper article according to which members of the Natal assembly were preparing a law (Franchise Amendment Bill) withdrawing the right to vote from Indians (see Indians of South Africa). According to Gandhi”s later account in his Autobiography, it was he who alerted his hosts, because Indians, even wealthy ones, considered themselves incompetent in politics. Maureen Swan notes, however, that Gandhi”s autobiography is highly romanticized, and that in reality, there is every indication that even before Gandhi”s arrival in South Africa, wealthy Indians were aware of their political interests as Indians. Gandhi”s hosts asked him to stay and help them as a lawyer to fight this bill. He circulated several petitions, addressed to the government of Natal and the British government. Although unable to prevent the passage of the bill, his campaign helped to draw attention to the plight of Indians in South Africa.
At the request of his supporters, he agreed to remain in the region to continue to defend the rights of the Indians, but, in order to maintain his independence, he refused to be paid for his political actions. He therefore asked that he be provided with income as a fee for private causes, which about 20 merchants did. He rents a two-storey house on the seafront in Durban: it is a question of prestige for him and he wants to fight against a prejudice according to which the Indians are greedy. In 1894, he founded the Natal Indian Congress, taking the position of secretary himself. This organization transforms the Indian community into a homogeneous political force, publishing proofs of the British segregation in South Africa: limitation of Indian immigration in Natal (Immigration Law Amendment Bill, Immigration Restriction Act of 1897, law requiring Indians to give their fingerprints to obtain a travel permit (Black Act).
For more than ten years, Gandhi”s actions against the laws of discrimination against Indians will be carried out by traditional and completely legal means: petitions to the government and appeals to the opinion through the press.
In June 1896, Gandhi stayed a few months in India, on the one hand to bring his wife and children to live with him in Natal and on the other hand to encourage Indian lawyers to come and practice their profession there. He is also mandated by leaders of the Indian community of Natal to make known in India the grievances of Indians living in South Africa. His trip was paid for by the Natal Indian Congress.
In India, he publishes a pamphlet expressing the grievances of the Indians of South Africa; he says in it, among other things, that in Natal, the railroad employees can treat the Indians like animals. The pamphlet caused a stir in India, which was reported in Natal in a Reuters dispatch dated September 14, 1896. In view of the summary of the brochure given by this dispatch, the press of Natal is indignant against Gandhi, but concedes very early that the summary caricatures the brochure.
A second order of facts contributes to turn some minds against Gandhi. At that time, four shipping lines whose owners were Indians brought each, four times a year, 300 or 400 Indians to South Africa, which gave whites the feeling of being invaded. The boat that brought Gandhi back in December 1896, which belonged to his friend Abdullah, was accompanied by another boat that belonged to a company whose agent was Abdullah”s firm. Together, these boats carried about eight hundred passengers. Gandhi is seen as organizing the invasion. In addition, in August, the Tongaat Sugar Company had tried to bring Indian skilled workers to Natal who would receive wages far below the market rate. White workers opposed this with massive rallies, denouncing the rapacity of the capitalists and the unfair competition of Indian workers who, they said, were willing to live in undignified conditions to supplant the whites. The project had been abandoned, but the anger was now rekindled against Gandhi.
While the two ships were in quarantine, a public meeting was held at Durban City Hall. In front of an audience of 2,000 people, mostly artisans, agitators demanded that all would-be immigrants be returned to India. The authorities sympathized with the malcontents and tried to pressure the arrivals by extending their quarantine and inviting them to return home at Natal”s expense, but, encouraged by Gandhi, the passengers remained firm. The authorities, having no legal means to refuse entry to British subjects, decided to let them dock.
When Gandhi disembarked on January 13, 1897, he was attacked by a crowd of whites and blacks. The South African press, according to which these blacks were brought by the white leaders, denounced the irresponsibility of the latter, particularly in view of the unfriendly mutual feelings of the blacks and the Indians. The rioters threaten to lynch Gandhi, but he is protected by the authorities. A first indication of the values that will shape his future campaigns is his refusal to press charges against his assailants, stating that it was one of his principles not to solve personal problems in a court of law.
At the outbreak of the Second Boer War in 1899, Gandhi declared that Indians must support the war effort if they were to legitimize their claim to citizenship. He organized a volunteer ambulance corps of 300 free Indians and 800 Indian coolies, called the Indian Ambulance Corps, one of the few medical units that assisted black South Africans. Gandhi himself was a stretcher bearer at the battle of Spion Kop. He is decorated on this occasion. Nevertheless, at the end of the war, the situation of the Indians did not improve, and even continued to deteriorate.
In 1906, the Transvaal government passed a new law requiring the registration of the entire Indian population. At a protest meeting in Johannesburg on September 11, 1906, Gandhi put into practice for the first time his methodology of satyagraha (attachment to truth), or nonviolent protest, which he had theorized in 1904. He called on his fellow Indians to defy the new law and suffer the resulting punishments instead of resisting with violence. He was inspired by the precepts of his Indian friend Shrimad Rajchandra, a Jain ascetic with whom he corresponded until his death and who was considered his first guru, i.e. spiritual master.
This plan was adopted, leading to a seven-year struggle during which thousands of Indians and Chinese were imprisoned (including Gandhi himself on many occasions), whipped or even shot for striking, refusing to register, burning their registration cards or resisting nonviolently. It was during this period that Gandhi began a correspondence with Leo Tolstoy, where they exchanged views on nonviolence and global politics until the Russian writer”s death. Civil disobedience culminated in 1913 with a miners” strike and the Indian women”s march.
Although the South African government successfully suppressed the Indian demonstrators, public opinion reacted violently to the extremely harsh methods used against the peaceful Asian demonstrators. Finally, General Jan Christiaan Smuts was forced to negotiate a compromise with Gandhi. Non-Christian marriages became legal again and a tax of three pounds, which represented six months” wages, imposed on Indians who wanted to become free workers (i.e. coolies), was abolished.
Several authors have noted the contempt often expressed by Gandhi towards blacks (whom he called Kaffirs) during his stay in South Africa, and even the racist prejudices that he would abandon in his maturity. The trial was investigated in some detail by G. B. Singh (en) in 2004, then by two South African academics, A. Desai and G. Vahed in 2015.
At the time of Gandhi”s arrival in South Africa, there were two entrances to the Durban post office, one for whites and one for blacks and Asians. The Indians considered it an outrage to be put on the same level as the blacks. The Natal Indian Congress petitioned and in a report on the activities of this organization, Gandhi announced in August 1895 a result that he considered “not unsatisfactory”: from now on there would be three entrances, one for whites, one for Asians and one for blacks.
In 1896, Gandhi protested against the equating of the Indian with the lazy black. The Europeans “wish to degrade us to the level of the rude Cafre whose occupation is to hunt and whose only ambition is to gather a certain number of head of cattle to buy a wife and then spend his life in indolence and nakedness.” A Natal order requiring the registration of black servants or those “belonging to the uncivilized races of Asia” is, according to Gandhi, justified with respect to blacks, who are still learning the dignity and necessity of work, but not with respect to Indians, who know these things and are brought in because they know them. Gandhi notes that the Durban superintendent of police, R.C. Alexander, did not apply this order to Indians. In 1904 and 1905, Gandhi made the same distinction between “natives who do not want to work” and “decent, hard-working and respectable” Indians.
In 1905, after a newspaper accused Indians of concealing cases of contagious diseases that had to be declared, Gandhi said he was convinced that a comparison between Europeans and Indians of the same social class would not reveal any difference in this respect, but he added that as long as a double segregation was not practiced in hospitals, between Indians and blacks on the one hand, and between Indians of different religions and castes on the other, the salutary measures of the administration would encounter obstacles. Maureen Swan observes that this demand of Gandhi”s differs little from the segregation between whites and non-whites desired by the white power.
Gandhi”s grandson, while acknowledging that Gandhi was often contemptuous of blacks, notes that he sometimes spoke more respectfully. On May 18, 1908, invited by the Young Men”s Christian Association (YMCA) of Johannesburg to participate in a debate on the question “Are the Asiatic and coloured races a menace to the Empire?”, Gandhi, without alluding to his own segregationist claims of the past years, declared: “I have certainly never been able to find any justification for the color barrier. It seems to me that Africans and Asians have been useful to the Empire as a whole; it is difficult to imagine South Africa without the African races. And how would the African races be a threat? They are still in the history of the world”s learners. Physically fit and intelligent as they are, they can only be an asset to the Empire. I agree with Mr. Creswell that there is no need to protect the Africans. We do not want protection for them in any form, but I believe this: they are entitled to justice, to fair treatment, not favor. If we look to the future, is it not a legacy that we must leave to posterity that all the different races mix and produce a civilization that perhaps the world has not yet seen?”
In 1905, the government of Natal was faced with great financial difficulties and decided to increase taxes, both on whites and Asians and on blacks (Zulus). In January and February 1906, when the new tax was collected throughout the country, blacks rebelled: this was the Zulu rebellion, also called the Bambatha Rebellion. After the unrest caused the death of three whites (a farmer and two policemen), the government declared martial law on February 10, 1906. The rebels soon numbered in the thousands.
Many blacks, however, disapproved of the rebellion. Zulu representative John Dube, for example, felt that blacks should temporarily put aside their (legitimate) grievances to help the government suppress the revolt.
Gandhi, who in November 1905 had demanded for the Indians of Natal “full training for real military service,” pleaded in March 1906 for the government to allow Indian participation in the suppression of the Zulu revolt. Since the Indians had not received military training, they would do unarmed service.
In April, addressing the Indians and urging them to form an ambulance corps, Gandhi insisted that all considerations of justice be set aside: “It is not for us to say whether the Cafre revolt is justified or not. As the case of the twelve Cafres [executed as guilty of the murder of two policemen] shows us, any justice we might seek would ultimately come to us only from the local government.” The Natal Indian Congress offers Indian services to the government. In May, Gandhi described the rebellion as threatening the whole of South Africa and argued that if the Indians stood aside in such danger, they would make a bad impression. In response to some of the criticism echoed in the press, Gandhi acknowledges that the Indians are not indifferent to the esteem in which they may be held by standing “shoulder to shoulder with their fellow settlers” and to the improvement in their legal status that may result, but he protests that their offer of support to the government is unconditional and inspired only by a sense of duty. At the end of May, the government agreed to the formation of a corps of twenty Indian stretcher bearers. Gandhi campaigned for Indians who did not go to the front to help the government soldiers financially. He also argued that in the future, it was necessary not to remain with a corps of stretcher bearers, but to obtain the constitution of a permanent corps of armed Indian volunteers, who would receive military training every year. There will be little risk of fighting, for wars are rare: the last rebellion of the Cafres was more than twenty years ago. The training will be a kind of annual picnic, which will bring the Indians health, moral improvement (such as learning to obey without arguing), respect from the whites and, presumably, political advantages. In any case, political benefits or not, it is a duty.
The stretcher-bearer corps began its work on June 26, 1906. It was led by Gandhi, who had the title of sergeant major. In an account of the corps” activities that he published at the time, Gandhi mentioned the various tasks assigned to his men: supplying water from a nearby stream, disinfecting the camp, keeping the infirmary register, transporting wounded British soldiers and, on two occasions, caring for blacks: first, three or four Indians were required to dress rebellious blacks who had been whipped, and later, the stretcher-bearers were assigned to transport a loyalist black who had been shot by a soldier in error. In the latter case, some twenty loyalist blacks are assigned to assist and guide the stretcher bearers; it is in this regard that Gandhi expresses the only moral assessment of blacks found in this account: “The blacks at our disposal proved to be very untrustworthy and obstinate. Without constant attention they would have dropped the wounded man at once, and they seemed to have no concern for their suffering countryman.”
The rebel leaders surrendered on July 14, 1906, and the stretcher bearer corps was disbanded on the 19th.
In a letter dated July 31, 1906, Gandhi again advocated the formation of a permanent corps of Indian volunteers. This time, he specified that the service that seemed best suited to Indians was that of stretcher bearers and nurses. He added that in performing this service, Indians should be armed for their own defense.
In July 1906, the Gaelic American and the Indian Sociologist described Gandhi”s conduct as contemptible.
On August 4, 1906, Gandhi responded to protests in England against the harshness with which the Zulu rebellion was suppressed. He mentions the very severe punishments inflicted by the British on the Egyptians who revolted during the Denshawai incident (en) and concludes that in comparison, there is no reason to be indignant against the Natal authorities.
In his later accounts of his participation in the suppression of the rebellion, Gandhi will describe his conduct and the conduct of the white soldiers towards the rebellious blacks in a way that is not borne out by his contemporaneous texts of the revolt. Thus, he said in his 1927 Autobiography that “I was in any case wholeheartedly with the Zulus and was delighted to learn that the main part of our work would be to treat wounded Zulus. While before the formation of the stretcher-bearers corps he had urged the Indians to react to the spread of the revolt, he stated that on arriving at the front he had seen nothing that could justify the word “rebellion”. And he who in 1906 had expressed no sympathy for the rebellious Zulus and had declared the loyalist Zulus untrustworthy, painted in his Autobiography a touching picture of mutual affection between blacks and Indians, contrasted with the odious racism of the whites:
“He told us that the whites did not want to nurse the wounded Zulus, that their wounds were festering and that he was out of resources. He welcomed our arrival as a gift from heaven to these innocent people. The Zulus were delighted to see us. The white soldiers peered through the fence separating us from them and tried to dissuade us from treating the wounds. And when we refused to listen to them, they became enraged and hurled indescribable abuse at the Zulus.
In 1906, Gandhi met Hermann Kallenbach in Johannesburg, a wealthy German-Jewish architect with a passion for bodybuilding, who was to become one of his most faithful friends and fellow fighters. At that time, which was also the time when Gandhi took a vow of chastity to his wife, the two men lived together. In 1995, in an unpublished paper, James D. Hunt pointed out that the correspondence between the two men in their youth manifested what he considered to be a clearly homoerotic but not homosexual relationship. Thomas Weber, in a 2004 book, echoed Hunt”s paper. This issue came to public attention in 2011, when Joseph Lelyveld, in a biography of Gandhi entitled Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, published excerpts from Gandhi”s private correspondence with Kallenbach. Several media outlets or historians have interpreted these letters as revealing a homophilic or homosexual love affair between the two men from 1908 to 1915, which continued through correspondence after Gandhi”s return to India. Lelyveld rejects this interpretation, considering that the words of love exchanged are rather mystical and that at that time Gandhi had already taken his brahmacharya vow of chastity. Graham Smith, in an article in the Mail Online, points out that Gandhi, although it is not clear what he meant by this, wrote in this correspondence that Vaseline and cotton constantly reminded him of Kallenbach. The controversy was so great that two Indian states (including his home state of Gujarat) banned the publication of the book, but the Indian government, which was preparing a law that would punish insults to the “Father of the Nation” with imprisonment, finally dropped the measure.
Fight for the independence of India (1915-1945)
On his return to India, Gandhi discovered that he did not know his own country. He then decided to travel from village to village in order to meet the Indian soul and know its real needs. In May 1915, Gandhi founded an ashram on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in India and called it Satyagrah Ashram (also known as Sabarmati Ashram). It houses 25 men and women who take vows of truth, celibacy, ahimsa, poverty, and service to the people of India.
He made speeches at Indian National Congress meetings, and was introduced to politics by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who was one of the most respected party leaders at the time. After joining the Congress Party leadership, he imposed, according to journalist Tibor Mende, “a veil of religious mysticism over an essentially secular movement that masked the harsh economic realities of the Indian people.
In 1917, he precipitated the abolition of indentured servitude for coolies, Indian emigrants who worked in conditions similar to slavery in the English and French colonies. Gandhi had met coolies for the first time in South Africa and had launched his first petition against indentured servitude in 1894.
Gandhi”s first major success came in 1918 with the Champaran and Kheda satyagrahas, although for the latter he was involved with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who acted as his right-hand man and led the rebels.
In Champaran, a district of Bihar state, he organized civic resistance for the tens of thousands of landless farmers, serfs, and poor smallholders who were forced to grow indigo and other export crops instead of growing the food they needed to survive. Oppressed by the militias of the large British landowners for the most part, they receive meager compensation, leaving them in extreme poverty. The villages suffered from deplorable hygiene conditions and alcoholism, discrimination against untouchables and purdah were widespread. During a terrible famine, the British wanted to increase one of their taxes again, making the situation desperate.
In Kheda, in Gujarat, the problem is identical. Gandhi established an ashram there, gathering a large number of partisans and volunteers from the region. He conducts a detailed study of the villages, reporting on the atrocities and the terrible living conditions. Gaining the trust of the villagers, he directed the cleaning of the villages, the construction of schools and hospitals and encouraged the local leaders to condemn and eliminate the social problems described above.
The peak of the crisis comes when he is arrested by the police for “disturbing the peace” and asked to leave the province. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrate around the prison, police stations and courthouses demanding his release, which the justice system reluctantly grants.
Gandhi led strikes and demonstrations against the big landlords who, under the leadership of the British government, signed an agreement giving more compensation and more control over production to poor farmers, as well as a cancellation of the tax until the end of the famine. If for Gandhi the material gains of the victory were minimal, the fact that the peasants had acquired a political conscience was invaluable.
It is from this time that Gandhi is called by the people Bapu (father) and Mahatma (Great Soul). This term, which is commonly used in Sanskrit culture to designate any “magnanimous” being, was also used by Annie Besant among the Theosophists she led, for whom a Mahatma was a “great soul” who guides humanity. In Gandhi”s case, it is reported that it was Rabindranath Tagore who first gave it to him, perhaps with a little irony at a Western correspondent who compared Gandhi to Jesus Christ. In his Autobiography, Gandhi explains that he never approved of this title, which even bothered him.
In Kheda, Patel represented the farmers and achieved the same victory.
Gandhi”s fame then spread to the whole of India.
In March and April 1919, Gandhi organized a satyagraha to protest against the Rowlatt Act. Clashes took place between Gandhi”s troops and the authorities. From April 10 to 12, Indians who had responded to Gandhi”s call committed murder, arson and looting against European civilians in the city of Amritsar, Punjab. On April 13, the British authorities fired, without warning, on Indians who, defying the ban on gatherings of more than five people, had amassed in their thousands in the same city of Amritsar. This is what is called the Amritsar massacre.
Gandhi criticizes both the violence of the United Kingdom and that of the Indians. He writes a resolution where he presents his condolences to the British civilian victims and condemns the riots. It was accepted despite initial opposition from the party, after Gandhi stated his position in a moving speech in which he put forward his principle that all violence is evil and unjustifiable.
In 1921, Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales, visited India. According to his memoirs, published in 1947, Gandhi and his followers used intimidation and bribery to dissuade the population from attending the Prince”s public appearances; they spread the rumor that the police had orders to shoot the natives and that the food traditionally offered to the poor during the princely visits would be poisoned. On November 19, 1921, in Bombay, Parsis, Christians and Jews returning from greeting the prince were attacked by non-cooperators. They killed two Europeans, an American (William Francis Doherty) and two Parsis. Among the rioters, fifty-three were killed. Doherty”s name is known to us in particular through Harry Hubert Field, according to whom Gandhi tried to pay Doherty”s widow not to publish the fact in the United States.
It was after these massacres that Gandhi focused on independence, which became swaraj, that is, complete independence, both individual, spiritual and political, by becoming the executive leader for the Congress Party in December 1921. Under his leadership, the Congress was reorganized with a new constitution, mentioning the goal of swaraj. Membership in the party was opened to all who were willing to pay a nominal fee. A committee hierarchy was established to improve discipline, transforming an elitist party into a mass organization of national dimension and representation.
Gandhi extends his principle of non-violence to the Swadeshi movement and his policy of boycotting foreign goods, especially British goods. Linked to this policy, he demands that khadi (home-made clothing) be worn by all Indians instead of British textiles. Rich or poor, men or women, must spin every day to help the independence movement.
This strategy instills discipline and commitment, in order to weed out the less motivated or the more ambitious. It also allowed for the inclusion of women in the movement, at a time when such activity was not considered “respectable” for women. Gandhi also called for a boycott of judicial and educational institutions, resignation from government positions, and rejection of British titles and honors.
The “non-cooperation” was very successful, increasing the enthusiasm and participation of all sections of Indian society. Just as the movement reached its peak, it came to an abrupt halt following violent clashes in the town of Chauri Chaura in Uttar Pradesh in February 1922. Fearing that the movement would turn violent, and convinced that this would ruin all his work, Gandhi stopped the civil disobedience campaign.
Gandhi was arrested on March 10, 1922, under the charge of subversion. On March 12, he made a speech in court. According to the text of this speech published in Young India (March 23, 1922), he said: “It is impossible for me to dissociate myself from the diabolical crimes of Chauri Chaura or the senseless atrocities of Bombay and Madras. I am quite right in saying that as a man bound to responsible conduct, as a man well endowed with education and experience of this world, I ought to have known the consequences of each of my acts. I knew I was playing with fire. I ran the risk and if I were freed, I would do the same thing again”, in his book Gandhi and Anarchy, published in the same year 1922, makes this comment: “A man who says that if he were freed, he would behave in the same way while knowing the consequences of his actions, is not a reliable leader”. Gandhi was sentenced on March 18 to 6 years in prison. He served only two years and was released in February 1924 after an appendicitis operation. Without Gandhi”s unifying personality, the party began to split while he was in prison. Two factions appeared, one led by Chitta Ranjan Das and Motilal Nehru favoured the participation of the party in legislative bodies, the other led by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel opposed it.
In addition, the cooperation between Hindus and Muslims, which had been strong during the campaign for non-violence, began to wane. Gandhi tried to mitigate these differences through various means, including a three-week fast in the fall of 1924, but with limited success.
Gandhi stayed out of trouble for most of the 1920s, preferring to resolve differences between the Swaraj Party and the Indian National Congress, and increasing initiatives against the segregation of untouchables, alcoholism, ignorance and poverty.
He returned to the forefront in 1928. The previous year the British government had appointed a new commission for constitutional reform that did not include a single Indian among its members. The result was a boycott of the commission by all Indian parties. Gandhi supported a resolution at the Calcutta Congress in December 1928 asking the British government to choose between granting protectorate status to India or facing a new non-violent campaign for complete independence.
Gandhi mitigated the views of younger people like Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru, who wanted to demand immediate independence, but he had to give the British a year”s delay instead of the two he had envisaged as compensation.
As the British did not respond, on December 31, 1929 the Indian flag was unfurled in Lahore. January 26, 1930 is celebrated by the Congress party and almost all Indian organizations as Independence Day.
Keeping his word, Gandhi launched in March 1930 a new campaign against the salt tax, first by the famous salt march from Ahmedabad to Dandi from March 12 to April 6, 1930. Thousands of Indians joined the 400 km long march to the sea to collect their own salt. The Indians then peacefully took over the salt deposits. This campaign was one of the most successful but the British Empire reacted by imprisoning more than 60,000 people.
The government, represented by Lord Edward Irwin, decides to negotiate with Gandhi. The Gandhi-Irwin Pact was signed in March 1931. The British government agreed to release all political prisoners in exchange for a suspension of the civil disobedience movement. Moreover, Gandhi is invited to a round table in London as the only representative of the Congress party. He stays three months in Europe. This conference was disappointing for Gandhi and the nationalists because it focused on the princes and the Indian minorities rather than on a transfer of power.
Moreover, Lord Irwin”s successor, Lord Willingdon, begins a new campaign of repression against the nationalists. Gandhi is again arrested, and the government tries to destroy his influence by isolating him completely from his supporters.
This strategy failed, because in 1932, following the campaign of untouchable leader Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the government granted untouchables separate electoral status under the new constitution. In protest, Gandhi went on a six-day fast in September 1932, forcing the government to adopt a more equitable arrangement through negotiations with Palwankar Baloo, the untouchable cricket champion turned political leader.
This marked the beginning of a new campaign by Gandhi to improve the lives of untouchables, whom he called Harijans, the children of Hari (one of the names of God). On May 8, 1933 Gandhi began a 21-day fast to help the Harijan movement.
In July 1933, Gandhi dissolved the Sabarmati ashram. Conflicts had been frequent and a scandal had broken out in 1929: two members of the ashram were having illicit sexual relations; Chhaganlal Gandhi, a cousin of Mohandas in charge of managing the ashram”s finances, had been embezzling funds for years; and even Kasturbai, the Mahatma”s wife, had (repeatedly) kept money intended for the ashram in her pocket. Gandhi had given the Bombay Chronicle a version of events that suggested that Kasturbai was only in violation of an ashram rule, and a few days later he congratulated himself in a letter for having spared Kasturbai, Chhaganlal and others “needless accusations. When, on July 25, 1933, he announced the dissolution of the ashram to the Associated Press of India, he presented this decision as a sacrifice made in solidarity with Indians struggling against land taxation, but Kathryn Tidrick notes that later, in 1935, he would speak of “the failure of Sabarmati.
During the summer of 1934, three assassination attempts were made against him.
When the Congress party chose to contest the elections and accept power in exchange for a federal status for India, Gandhi decided to leave the party. He did not disagree with the party”s action, but felt that if he resigned, his popularity would cease to stifle the party”s membership, which then included communists, socialists, trade unionists, students, religious conservatives and liberals alike.
Gandhi also did not want to become a target for British propaganda by leading a party that had temporarily accepted a political agreement with the colonizer.
Gandhi returned to party leadership in 1936 with Nehru as president. Although he wanted total concentration on achieving independence rather than speculating on India”s future, he did not prevent the congress from adopting socialism as its goal.
Gandhi had a confrontation with Subhas Bose, who was elected president in 1938. The problems that Bose posed to Gandhi were his lack of involvement in democracy and his lack of faith in non-violence.
Bose won a second term despite Gandhi”s opposition but left the Congress when leaders resigned en masse to protest his abandonment of the reforms introduced by Gandhi.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Gandhi favored offering “non-violent moral support” to the British war effort, but other Congress leaders were offended by India”s unilateral involvement in the war without consultation with the people”s representatives. All Congressmen resigned en masse.
After long deliberations, Gandhi declares that India cannot participate in a war with the aim of democratic freedom, while this freedom is denied to India itself.
As the war progressed, Gandhi increased his demands for independence, writing a resolution calling on the British to leave India: Quit India. This is for Gandhi and the Congress party the most radical revolt to throw the British out of Indian lands.
Gandhi is criticized by some members of Congress and other political groups both for and against the British. Some think that opposing the United Kingdom at the time of this total war is immoral, others find that Gandhi does not go far enough. Quit India became the strongest movement in the history of the struggle for independence.
Gandhi and his supporters make it clear that they will not participate in the war effort unless India becomes immediately independent. In the summer of 1942, Gandhi called for a general strike to force the British to leave India. He made it clear that the movement would not stop even if individual acts of violence were committed, saying that the “orderly anarchy” around him was “worse than real anarchy. He called on all Indians and Congressmen to maintain the discipline of ahimsa, and Karo Ya Maro (do or die) for the cause of ultimate freedom. Gandhi and the entire Congress leadership were arrested in Bombay by the British on August 9, 1942. Independents, both members and non-members of the Congress, launched a wave of violence against the British, destroying or damaging hundreds of government buildings, breaking communication channels and killing Raj employees. Two thousand five hundred independence fighters were killed or wounded by the police, and more than sixty-six thousand others were arrested.
Gandhi was detained for two years in the Aga Khan”s palace in Pune. It is there that he suffers the two most terrible blows of his personal life. First, his 42-year-old adviser Mahadev Desai died of a heart attack six days after his detention. Then his wife Kasturba, who had always been supportive and committed to him, died after 18 months of imprisonment of a heart attack following pneumonia.
Gandhi was released on May 6, 1944 because he had to undergo an operation due to his declining health. The British did not want him to die in prison and thus raised the whole of India. Although the violent repression of the movement by the British forces brought relative calm to India at the end of 1943, Quit India succeeded in all its objectives. At the end of the war, the United Kingdom gave clear indications that power would be transferred to Indian hands. Gandhi asked to stop the Congress leadership struggle and about 100,000 political prisoners were released.
The liberation and partition of India (1945-1947)
Appointed Viceroy and Governor General of India on March 24, 1947, Lord Mountbatten had the difficult task of preparing for independence. Gandhi advised Congress to reject the proposals offered by the British Cabinet Mission in 1946, as he was wary of the proposed grouping of Muslim-majority states, which he saw as the beginning of partition. However, this was one of the few times Congress rejected his advice (but not his authority), as Nehru and Patel knew that if Congress did not approve the plan, control of the government would pass to the Muslim League.
Between 1946 and 1947, more than 5,000 people were killed in inter-community violence. Millions of people were forcibly displaced in order to homogenize the populations according to their beliefs. Gandhi was viscerally opposed to plans that would separate India into two different countries. Many Muslims in India lived alongside Hindus or Sikhs and were in favour of a united India. But Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, is very popular in the states of Punjab, Sindh, NWFP and East Bengal.
Partition is approved by the Congress leadership as the only way to avoid a full-scale civil war between Muslims and Hindus. They knew that Gandhi would categorically reject this partition, and it was impossible for the Congress to move forward without his agreement because Gandhi”s popularity in the party and throughout India was immense. Gandhi”s closest colleagues accepted partition as the best solution and Sardar Patel set out to convince him of this. It is a devastated Gandhi who gives his agreement to avoid civil war.
On Independence Day, August 15, 1947, Gandhi did not participate in the festivities with the rest of India but remained alone in Calcutta, mourning the unity of India and working to stop the violence. After independence, Gandhi focused on unity between Hindus and Muslims. He built a dialogue with the leaders of both communities, working to ease tensions in North India and Bengal.
Despite the 1947 Indo-Pakistani war, he was disturbed when the government decided to deny the Pakistanis the 550 million rupees provided for in the partition negotiations. Leaders like Sardar Patel feared that Pakistan would use the money to finance the war against India.
Gandhi was also shocked when demands were made for the deportation of all Muslims to Pakistan, and when the leaders of each community expressed their frustration and inability to reach agreement among themselves. In an address on January 12, 1948, he expressed these concerns and also deplored the fact that, since independence, the new political class had been extremely corrupt, to the point where people were beginning to say that the British government was better. He launched his last fast in Delhi on January 13, 1948, at the age of 78, asking that all communal violence cease once and for all, that Pakistan and India guarantee equal security and rights for practitioners of all religions, and that the payment of 550 million rupees be made to Pakistan. Gandhi feared that instability and insecurity in Pakistan would increase their anger towards India, that violence would cross the border and that civil war would break out in India because of new tensions.
After long and heated debates with his closest colleagues, Gandhi refused to give in, and the government had to turn around and pay the money to Pakistan. The leaders of each community, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha, assured him that they would renounce all violence and demand peace. Gandhi then breaks his fast by drinking orange juice.
The new fast of January 1948 is perceived by the Hindu nationalists as a support to Muslims and Pakistan and a weakening of India. One of their leaders, Narayan Apte, decided to attack Gandhi.
A first attempt failed, for lack of preparation, on January 20, 1948. The only one of the three grenades launched exploded 50 m from the Mahatma. A member of the commando was arrested.
On January 30, 1948, on his way to a prayer meeting, Gandhi was shot dead in the gardens of the Birla House where he was staying, in New Delhi. The author of the shooting was Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist linked to the fanatic group Hindu Mahasabha, and already implicated in the first attack. Godse held Gandhi responsible for the partition of India and the weakening of the Hindus against the Muslims. Gandhi died in the following minutes, while his assailant let himself be arrested.
Jawaharlal Nehru addressed the nation on the radio as follows:
“Friends and comrades, the light has left our lives, darkness is everywhere, and I don”t know what to tell you and how to tell you. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the father of the nation, is no more. Perhaps I am wrong in saying this; nevertheless, we will no longer see him as we have seen him all these years, we will no longer be able to ask him for advice or consolation, and this is a terrible blow, not only to me, but to millions and millions in this country.”
Two million Indians attended his funeral, the funeral procession and his cremation on the banks of the Yamuna River in Delhi. According to his wishes, most of his ashes were scattered in several major rivers of the world such as the Nile, the Volga and the Thames.
Gandhi”s memorial (or Samādhi) at Rāj Ghāt in New Delhi, bears the epitaph (devanagari: हे! राम or, Hey Rām), which can be translated as “Oh God”. It is widely accepted that these were Gandhi”s last words, although some dispute this.
Godse and the sponsor Narayan Apte were tried in a trial in which they publicly assumed their decision to kill Gandhi. They were sentenced to death and executed on November 15, 1949.
In March 2009, Gandhi”s possessions were sold in a single lot at auction for $1.8 million in a controversial sale to Indian billionaire Vijay Mallya. The seller, James Otis, said he would use the proceeds of the sale to promote nonviolence and pacifism.
Influences of Tolstoy and Ruskin
The common view of Tolstoy”s influence on Gandhi is that the former “only denounced” while the latter “acted and built”, and that in order to do so, the latter had to correct his thinking because he “did not know all the issues of democracy and the rule of law”. But, on the contrary, what Gandhi admired most about Tolstoy”s life was that he “practiced what he preached” – he said in the pages he dedicated to him; for both men democracy was a worthless ideal compared to the truth, “which remains the truth even if you are a minority of one” and Tolstoy was “only opposed to violence and the opinion that force makes right”, like Gandhi. According to the common opinion, Tolstoy”s influence consists in political ideas: he castigated laws that are not an expression of “the will of the people,” and claimed (it is said) that he was a “Christian anarchist” and that, “contrary to what the title with its religious connotations indicates, The Kingdom of Heaven Belongs to You (sic) is above all a pamphlet against the state, the army, and war, and all political or religious powers that endorse and maintain violence”; and the consequence of this view is that Gandhi was mostly, if not only, a charismatic political leader.
But the current opinion ignores the essential, and tends to it more or less strongly according to the authors, because in the heart of the influence of Tolstoy on Gandhi there is the conception of the individual, as this one says: “the remarkable development which he knew how to give to the doctrine makes shame with the narrow and without nuance interpretation which give of it today, in our country, the followers of non-violence (a “parody” of the non-violence). True ahimsâ should mean that man is totally freed from ill will, anger and hatred, in order to make room for an overflowing love for all beings. For instilling this ahimsâ in its truest and highest form, Tolstoy…
“While I was going through a serious crisis of skepticism and doubt, I came across Tolstoy”s book The Kingdom of God is Within You, which made a deep impression on me. At that time I believed in violence. After reading this book I was cured of my skepticism and firmly believed in ahimsâ”, he writes about himself. Gandhi thus acquired from Tolstoy his understanding of the vital character of non-violence (and also of “true Christianity” according to Tolstoy), the conviction that “the law of love is the fundamental law of life”, as he expressed it all his life: “The law of love is the law of our species”; it “governs the world”; “moral forces are superior to brute force”; as Tolstoy had preached in the desert at the beginning of the Bolshevik revolution, and wrote to him personally in his last letter: “The law of love is the superior, unique law of human life”; “without the law of love there could only be that of violence, that is, of the right of the strongest.”
Gandhi said that Tolstoy was “the most truthful man of his time”; “No one in the West, before him or since, has spoken of non-violence so masterfully, and with such insistence, penetration and insight”. Converted from nihilism to Christianity in 1880, Tolstoy expressed until his death in 1910 the absolute opposition, the “contradiction”, between the law of love (“the aspiration of souls towards harmony and the resulting action”) and the law of violence, and this in all areas of human life (economy, international relations, governments, courts, etc.). – The “commandment of nonresistance” is a fundamental principle of the law of violence, and is applied in all areas of human life (economy, international relations, governments, courts, etc., and occasionally in literary portraits, which evoke the subject in a more sensitive and less abstract way), by putting forward the notions of nonresistance and conscientious objection. Christ”s “commandment of non-resistance”, “You have heard that it was said, ”An eye for an eye”… And I say to you, do not resist him who is wicked”, was the key to his conversion. Tolstoy demonstrated in the book that marked Gandhi that this “new conception of life”, 1) meets the requirements of human consciousness, 2) satisfies reason and the feeling of love, which is for the human being natural, 3) shows the direction of life in the whole history of mankind, and 4) “changes the whole social system.” “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is the supreme law, and as such admits of no exceptions, the rule for never going backwards, and thus always going forwards being: “if you are not able to do to others what you would like them to do to you, at least do not do to them what you would not like them to do to you. Thus, Tolstoy”s influence on Gandhi was that of faith in the truth of the law of love.
According to Gandhi, “by respecting this law of our being”, a man “his religion, his soul and his honor”, and even he alone “can manage to shake the power of an empire based on injustice” “or promote its rebirth”; however, “nonviolence was not simply a tactic” but a “value system based on love”, whose source is God; In much the same way, according to Tolstoy, non-resistance is for every man a matter of doing God”s will, “saving his soul” and “fulfilling his destiny”; and non-resistance, true ahimsa, was not simply a political stance but, by virtue of a spiritual force from God that enables man to respond to evil with good, was, as in Adin Ballou, “a war against ignorance, blind will and immorality. In fact, Gandhi said he was fighting against “irreligion, hatred and falsehood.
Tolstoy had taken up the notions formulated about governments by Ballou; “Non-resistance cannot be for war, capital punishment, slavery and all sorts of penal injuries”; “its adherents cannot be for a government that is fundamentally for these things”; “nor take part in governments, not because they are opposed to governments as such, but because they are opposed to its fundamental evils” (this is “the method by which true Christianity teaches its followers to reform governments”. Considering Tolstoy”s thought in this light, it appears that Gandhi largely adhered to his ideas, even with regard to governments: A) not collaborating with English imperialism, B) refusing to support England in World War II, C) ruling out the use of arms if India were to be invaded by foreigners, D) not attending the ceremony of raising flags and partitioning the territory between India and Pakistan, and E) never becoming a member of the government.
Gandhi had a brief correspondence with Tolstoy in 1909-1910, which ended with the latter”s death at the age of 81. Gandhi had written to him to ask his opinion on the “morality” of “passive resistance” in the Transvaal conflict (then, because his “sympathy was very close to his heart”, he asked him to use his influence to make his movement known (and finally he asked him (April 4, 1910) for a review of his book Hind Swarai or India Home Rule (Their Civilization and Our Deliverance). On these occasions, Gandhi received permission from Tolstoy to translate and distribute his Letter to a Hindu, and to do as he wished if he wanted to omit the word “reincarnation” from it, – as he had expressed his wish; his spiritual agreement (the expression of his enthusiasm (“passive resistance is of paramount importance, not only for India but for the whole world” – 2nd letter) as well as his confidence (“sooner or later the contradiction [between the use of violence and the law of life] will be recognized by all”), a whole summary of his thoughts on the fundamental law of life in relation to the Western situation, and finally a warning about governments, which “know this contradiction – yours, the English, as well as ours. But it is a matter of self-preservation. That is why the fight against violence is pursued more energetically than any other anti-governmental activity by the Powers, Russian and English…”; with his “very deep esteem” (3rd and last letter, September 7, 1910).
Troyat reports that Tolstoy admired Gandhi, “except for his Hindu patriotism which spoils the whole thing”, but this he never expressed to him personally in his letters, leaving him to decide for himself what he would do. Thus, to Gandhi”s basic question, “Is it wrong to ask for help? “, – when he was seeking support in London from the “imperial authorities” -, Tolstoy answers only indirectly, but in a very subtle and profound way, with the example of a schoolgirl who courageously expresses her faith in the face of the authorities; and while suggesting to him to be innocent as a dove and cunning as a snake, to act with conviction according to his faith, he actually expresses to him his most intimate convictions about politics, as he said them in 1909, at the age of 80: 1) “I believe in the free play of man”s psychological nature,” and 2) “I do not believe in a parliament as the final goal of social leadership…”
Both men often expressed their complete agreement, even in the words used, on faith, reason, religion, morality, true progress, history, etc. They both gave the highest priority to self-improvement, with a view to the growth of love through self-denial and the advancement of truth; life itself may have led them to similar experiences and statements (e.g. on abstinence and vegetarianism), as well as to different and unique experiences, each according to his time and place. They come together in their differences, while their lives clearly demonstrate that for them “true morality” is their own way…
Tolstoy thus provided Gandhi with the essence of his spiritual weapons, as well as notions to be applied and deepened in order to instruct and elevate his people and the world, starting with himself, according to his faith and reason, including by his personal example, because Gandhi admired Tolstoy”s humility, his “doctrine of bread through work”, and that he “knew how to limit his needs little by little”.
Tolstoy”s influence on Gandhi was so profound and lasting that it was passed on by the latter to his “spiritual son” Vinoba Bhave, who “dedicated himself to the realization of Gandhi”s moral and social conceptions, with his methods. Indeed, his program, his “triple revolution” (“purifying minds and hearts”, “transforming lives” by eliminating hatreds between rich and poor, and “changing and revolutionizing society”) took up Tolstoy”s “three main ideas” in The Kingdom of God is Within You (“sincerity of effort on the part of every individual”, transforming lives by eliminating hatreds expressed “in universal armament and conscription”, and “changing the whole social system”). Indeed, hatreds related to possessions and to the inhabited place, stemming from feelings such as egoism and greed, are linked together in the whole social organization according to Gandhi; “the ownership of the soil must end. Sixty years ago Tolstoy proclaimed it immoral”, said Vinoba.
In 1904, after having founded the newspaper Indian opinion, the reading of Unto This Last by John Ruskin influenced him deeply and pushed Gandhi to radically change his life in the following years. Soon after, he buys the Phoenix establishment, which becomes the Tolstoy farm, in memory of Tolstoy, where all the editors of the newspaper participate in the agricultural work and receive the same salary without distinction of profession, nationality or skin color. He began the practice of fasting, stopped consuming milk, cut his hair himself and cleaned his latrines (work reserved for untouchables in India), and encouraged his wife and friends to do the same. In 1905-1906, Gandhi”s reputation for competence and integrity made him the preferred lawyer of the Gujarati merchants, which ensured a sustained activity of the prosperous law firm that he directed. This allowed him to have a comfortable income of about 5,000 pounds per year, and demonstrates that his later disregard for material comfort, “more than a ”natural” attitude, is in Gandhi a deliberate choice.
Gandhi was born a Vaishnava and practiced Hinduism all his life, which inspired most of his principles. Like any traditional Hindu, he saw all religions as possible paths to the Truth, and refused to convert to any other faith. Gandhi wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita in Gujarati.
In his Autobiography or My Experiences of Truth, Gandhi confided that from 1887 onwards he chose as his first “guiding principle” to return good for evil – which he considered to be “the origin of more than one of experiences”, an ethical and religious precept taken from a Gujarati sixtan composed by the poet and Brâhmane Shamal Bhatt:
Gandhi was avid for theological knowledge and read extensively on all the major religions. He declared about his own religion:
“Hinduism as I know it completely satisfies my soul, fills my whole being… When doubt assails me, when discouragement stares me in the face, when I see no more glimmer of hope on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad-Gita, and I find a verse to console me; and I begin to smile at once in the midst of overwhelming grief. My life has been filled with tragedies, and if they have not left an indelible effect on me, I owe it to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.”
Gandhi believed that the heart of all religions was truth and love (compassion, non-violence and ethics of reciprocity). He criticized the hypocrisy, malpractices and dogmas of all religions and was a tireless social reformer. His comments on the different religions were :
“Thus, if I could not accept Christianity as perfect or as the greatest of religions, I could not consider Hinduism as such either. The flaws of Hinduism are very apparent to me. If untouchability could be a part of Hinduism, it would be a rotten part or a growth. I could not understand the purpose of a multitude of sects or castes. What would be the sense of saying that the Vedas are sacred texts inspired by God? If they were inspired by God, why not the Bible or the Koran too? My Christian friends have been as aggressive in converting me as my Muslim friends. Abdullah Sheth continually urged me to study Islam, and obviously always had something to say about its beauty.”
“As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as a religion that erases morality. Man, therefore, cannot be a liar, cruel or depraved and claim that he has God on his side.”
“Muhammad”s words are a treasure of wisdom, not only for Muslims but for all mankind.”
His favorite religious hymn was the Christian song Abide with me or the Hindu song Vaishnava Jana To (“He who is Vishnu”).
Despite their deep mutual respect, Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore were involved in prolonged debates on several occasions. These debates illustrated the philosophical differences between the two most famous Indians of that time. Gandhi dedicated himself to improving the living conditions of the untouchables, calling them Harijans, the people of Krishna. On January 15, 1934, an earthquake hit Bihar and caused many casualties and damage. Gandhi maintained that this was due to the sin committed by the upper Hindu castes in not allowing the untouchables access to their temples. Tagore diametrically opposed Gandhi”s view, arguing that an earthquake could only be created by natural forces, not by moral reasons, however repugnant the practice of untouchability might be.
Gandhi dedicated his entire life to the discovery of truth or satya. He tried to reach it by learning from his own mistakes and by experimenting on himself. This is the theme of his book Autobiography or My Experiments in Truth.
Gandhi established that the most important battle to win was overcoming one”s own demons, fears and insecurities. He summed up his beliefs when he first said, “God is truth. He then changed this statement to “truth is God”. Thus satya (truth) in Gandhi”s philosophy is “God”.
It was in South Africa, while fighting for Indian rights, that Gandhi discovered the importance of respecting the truth. “Like a huge tree, it gives all the more fruit the more you take care of it. Like a mine, where the deeper you dig, the more precious the diamonds you find, it is remarkable that the more you explore the truth, the more numerous and varied are the services it provides.
Gandhi sincerely believed that a person involved in social service should lead a simple life that would lead to brahmacharya. His practice of asceticism was inspired by the thoughts of the American philosopher and poet Henry David Thoreau. This simplicity began with the renunciation of the Western lifestyle he lived in South Africa. He called it “reducing oneself to zero”; “living simply so that all may simply live” were his values, his way of life, which meant giving up all unnecessary expenses, living a simple life and washing his own clothes. On one occasion he returned the gifts given by the natives for his help to the community.
Gandhi spent one day of each week in silence. He believed that refraining from talking brought him inner peace. This came from the Hindu principles of mauna (Sanskrit, मौन: silence) and shanti (peace). On those days he communicated with others by writing on a paper.
For three and a half years, at the age of 37, Gandhi refused to read newspapers, claiming that the tumultuous news of the world caused him more confusion than his own inner turmoil.
Returning to India after his stay in South Africa, he abandoned the wearing of Western clothing, which he associated with wealth and success. He dressed to be accepted by the poorest in India, and promoted the use of home-made clothes (they encouraged others to do the same) in order to restore some economic autonomy to rural India, which had been eroded by the domination of British industry, which owned the industrial spinning mills. The spinning wheel was soon incorporated into the flag of the Indian Congress Party.
Gandhi wore a dhoti (the male equivalent of a sari) for the rest of his life, not only as a sign of simplicity but also because this garment, spun by his own hands, was a guarantee that he would not condone the exploitation of British or Indian workers in industrial spinning mills.
The practice of vegetarianism is strongly rooted in Hindu and Jain traditions, and in his native Gujarat most Hindus and his family were vegetarians. Before leaving to study in London, Gandhi promised his mother that he would not eat meat. He kept his promise and his vegetarianism became an integral part of his political philosophy of non-violence. He wrote the book The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism and several articles on the subject, some of which were published by the London Vegetarian Society, of which Gandhi was a member, and where he made many friends, such as the president Dr. Josiah Oldfield. Having read and admired the works of Henry Stephens Salt, the young Mohandas met him and corresponded with the vegetarian activist for a long time.
Gandhi spent a lot of time promoting vegetarianism during and after his stay in London, seeing its propagation as a mission to be accomplished; he came to declare “that one recognizes the greatness of a nation by the way it treats its animals. In addition to the ethical dimension of vegetarianism, he considered the economic dimension, since meat was (and still is) more expensive than cereals, vegetables and fruits, and thus helped Indians with low incomes. Finally, meat production requires a large availability of land and water for fattening animals, and establishes a monoculture that favors the food industry and large landowners over the local and varied production of Indian peasants with small plots of cultivable land.
He noted in his autobiography that vegetarianism was the beginning of his deep commitment to brahmacharya; without total control over his dietary needs he could not have achieved brahmacharya.
Gandhi also had a very clear tendency to veganism, out of compassion for the cows, declaring about his abandonment of all dairy products (making him a vegan, since “Indian vegetarianism” excludes eggs): “Religious considerations had been the strongest, when it came to abjuring milk. The image of the barbaric procedures that the Calcutta govâls used to milk their cows and buffaloes to the last drop of milk, had haunted me then. I had also felt that, just as meat was not human food, neither could milk be…”; and, in so doing: “I refuse to take milk, the products in which milk enters, and no meat. If this refusal were to sign my death warrant, my feeling is that I should not change anything.”
Brahmacharya (spiritual and practical purity) is widely associated with celibacy and asceticism. Brahmacharya, which corresponds to one of the four periods of human life as theorized by Hinduism, is to be compared with a form of body discipline whose aim, spiritual or religious, is the detachment of the senses (which would hinder the liberation (moksha) of the soul). Gandhi conceived of brahmacharya as a means to get closer to God and as the foundation stone of his personal realization. For Gandhi, brahmacharya meant “control of the senses in thought, word and deed. Gandhi considered – in line with Hindu wisdom – that the true practitioner of brahmacharya no longer conceived of the passions, not only in his waking mind, but also in his dreams – those thoughts that we formulate in sleep and that we believe to be uncontrollable: conscious self-control therefore requires first of all a mastery of one”s own unconscious, something that is made explicit in the classical Hindu philosophy of Patañjali”s Yoga-sutra.
In his autobiography, he recounts his struggle with his sexual urges and bouts of jealousy towards his wife Kasturba. He felt a personal obligation to remain abstinent in order, on the one hand, to be able to learn to love rather than to seek pleasure, and on the other hand, to confine the body – and more broadly the world of matter – to the service of the aspirations and will of the spirit. This struggle, according to what he exposes in his autobiography, was relentless, since at the end of his life, now a widower, he regularly shared the bed of his favorite niece, Manu, in order to test the solidity of his past vow (this caused a scandal at the time). Moreover, Gandhi did not cease all his life to extend and deepen the fields of application of his research of control of the senses. In addition to the control of sexual desire, he also sought to detach himself from gustatory pleasure: regularly forming “vows”, Gandhi progressively suppressed such and such a condiment, such and such a food, or reduced more and more the number of foods that he could ingest.
“While a good deed should call for approval, and a bad one for reprobation, the doer of the deed, whether good or bad, always deserves respect or pity, as the case may be. “Hate the sin, not the sinner” – this is a precept seldom applied, if it is easy to understand; and this is why the venom of hatred spreads so fast in the world. Ahimsâ is the foundation of the quest for truth. There is not a day when I do not realize that this quest is futile, if it is not based on ahimsâ. To oppose a system, to attack it, is good; but to oppose its author, and to attack him, is to oppose oneself, to become one”s own assailant. For the same brush has painted us; we have for father the same and unique Creator, and therefore the divine faculties that we conceal in ourselves are infinite. To fail in one human being is to fail in those divine faculties, and thereby to wrong not only that being, but, with it, the whole world.”
– Mahatma Gandhi, Autobiography or my experiences of truth.
The concept of nonviolence (ahimsa) and nonviolent resistance has a long history in Indian religious thought and has had numerous occurrences in Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Judeo-Christian contexts. The concept of nonviolence itself is a translation, coined by Gandhi, of the Sanskrit word ahimsa (a: privative and himsa: harm, violence), which is present in the religious traditions of India. Gandhi explains this philosophy and way of life in his autobiography.
“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether indiscriminate destruction was brought in the name of totalitarianism or in the sacred name of freedom and democracy?”
“There are many causes I am willing to die for but no cause I am willing to kill for.”
In applying these principles, Gandhi did not hesitate to take them to the extremes of his logic. In 1940, when the invasion of the British Isles by Nazi Germany seemed imminent, Gandhi gave the following advice to the British people.
“I would like you to lay down the weapons you possess as useless to save yourself or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want from the countries you call your possessions… If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will let them. If they do not let you go, you will allow yourselves to be slaughtered, men, women and children, but you will refuse to pledge allegiance to them.”
Nevertheless, Gandhi realized that this level of nonviolence required an incredible amount of faith and courage that few people possessed. He therefore advised that it was not necessary for everyone to remain nonviolent if violence was taken to the extreme:
“I believe that if there is only a choice between violence and cowardice, I advise violence.”
“I would a thousand times rather risk violence than risk the emasculation of an entire race.”
“To walk on the sharp edge of ahimsâ is not easy in this world full of himsâ. Wealth does not help; anger is an enemy of ahimsa; and pride is a monster that devours it. In this firm and sharp observance of the religion of ahimsâ, one must often recognize the so-called himsâ as the truest form of ahimsâ.”
“I repeated at every meeting the warning that unless they felt that with nonviolence they had infinitely more strength than they had before, they should not apply nonviolence and take up arms.”
Gandhi believed that violence was ineffective and could only initiate a continuous chain of revenge. He said of the law of retaliation:
“An eye for an eye and the world will end up blind.”
Gandhi also linked non-violence to feminism. He explained it in a speech during the Salt March: “To call women the weaker sex is a lie. It is an injustice done to women by men. If nonviolence is the law of our beings, the future is with women.”
Gandhi drew some of his inspiration from the writings of Leo Tolstoy, who converted to Christianity in 1880, and expressed until his death in 1910 the absolute opposition between Christ”s law of love and the law of violence, opposing “the notion that might makes right” in all areas of human life (international relations, politics, courts, economics, etc.), and putting forward the notions of non-resistance, non-cooperation. Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy in 1909 seeking his advice on the morality of his struggle in South Africa, and they had a brief correspondence that ended the following year with his death at age 81. In one of these letters Gandhi asked Tolstoy to confirm the authenticity of a copy he had of his Letter to a Hindu, written in response to the violence of the Indian nationalists, with the intention of translating it into an Indian language and publishing it. Tolstoy was very famous, and he had a very abundant correspondence in Europe, America, and also with Buddhists, Hindus and Baha”is.
Gandhi considered euthanasia as a form of non-violence, of sacrifice, meaning that Life can only be valid if it is “liveable”:
“One does not commit the sin of himsâ by the mere act of killing, but when one kills for the sake of his own perishable body. Any destruction of life caused by eating, drinking, etc., is selfish, and therefore himsa. But some men consider it inevitable and resign themselves to it. Destroying, in order to give peace to creatures who suffer horribly in their bodies, cannot be considered himsâ, any more than the inevitable violence to which one is compelled to ensure the protection of what is entrusted to one”s care.”
“Many men in India have acquired an instinctive horror of killing living beings under any circumstances. It has even been suggested that rabid dogs should be locked up and allowed to die a slow death. My idea of charity makes this solution absolutely unacceptable to me. I could not suffer for one moment to see a dog, or for that matter any other creature, abandoned without help to the torture of a long agony. If in the same circumstances I do not give death to a human being, it is because I have less desperate remedies. But if I kill a dog in the same case, it is because I have no remedy to cure it. If my child had rabies and there was no cure to alleviate his suffering, I would consider it my duty to kill him. Fatalism has its limits. We must not give in to fate until we have exhausted all remedies. One way, which is final, to relieve a child in the throes of excruciating suffering, is to give him death.”
Satyagraha (“the strength born of truth and love or non-violence”) is the outcome of this truth against unjust laws or systems through non-violent struggle. Gandhi even considered satyagraha superior to civil disobedience or nonviolent resistance because the term implies serving a just cause and thus became the weapon of the strong and no longer the weapon of the weak.
For him, this struggle must not cause any suffering to the adversary, if there is suffering it is up to the defender of the truth to undergo it:
“The search for truth must not admit of any violence being inflicted on an adversary, but that he must come out of error by patience and sympathy. Because what appears as truth to one can appear as error to another. And patience means self-sufficiency. So doctrine is claiming the truth, not by inflicting suffering on one”s opponent, but on oneself.”
In August 1947, the black American minister William Stuart Nelson asked Gandhi why the Indians, who had “more or less achieved independence by peaceful means,” were unable to stem inter-communal violence. Gandhi replied that he had come to understand that, as many of his English friends had pointed out to him, the satyagrahas against the British government were not real satyagrahas, but mere passive resistance; the Indians, while they claimed to resist non-violently, had violence in their hearts; their passive resistance was only a weapon of the weak, which became apparent when, with British rule ended, the Indians jumped at each other”s throats. However, Gandhi declared that he had no regrets, for if his vision had not been clouded by his delusion of the satyagrahas, India would never have come to the point it had (in a letter of July 21, 1947, Gandhi even said that it was God who had blinded him to the good cause).
William Borman noted that Gandhi”s statement about his lack of regret is tantamount to saying that violence can be a good thing, which contradicts other statements by Gandhi proscribing violence absolutely.
Critique of Western development and its economic model
Gandhi could admire the technological advances and economic comforts that modern Western civilization provided, but he also pointed out its shortcomings and the new risks and needs it brought to the individual. In his book Hind Swaraj or Indian home rule (Their Civilization and Our Deliverance), in which he criticizes development and the very notion of civilization as idealized by Britain and the West, Gandhi shows that every advance made on the one hand corresponds to a worsening of living conditions on the other, that Western civilization has left aside morality and religion, that it creates new needs linked to money and impossible to satisfy, that it increases inequalities and condemns to slavery a large part of humanity. For him, this type of civilization has no way out:
“This civilization is such that we just have to be patient and it will self-destruct.”
Mechanization and globalization of trade is for him a disaster for India (the Manchester spinning mills had made Indian crafts disappear). He takes as an example advances that are generally felt to be positive, such as the train, doctors or lawyers, which can be just as harmful in his opinion. The train because it can transport diseases as quickly as passengers and can lead to speculation and famines. Lawyers because they prefer to find a legal solution to a moral solution to a conflict, claim higher wages than common workers without any reason, and strengthen British power in India. Doctors, because by providing health care they encourage negligence and lack of individual prevention, break religious taboos and make huge profits with overpriced drugs.
For Gandhi, Indian civilization has nothing to envy to Western civilization with its race to economic development. The access to wealth for all is for him impossible and the individual must himself control his needs, as the ancient Indian sages had understood:
“The mind is a restless bird; the more it gets, the more it desires; it is never satisfied. The more we satisfy our passions, the more unbridled they become. Our ancestors understood this and placed a limit on our indulgences. They had noticed that happiness was mostly a mental condition.”
“The justification for voluntary poverty was the impossibility of all being rich. All could share in non-possession; the less one possesses, the less one desires. I do not preach voluntary poverty to a people who suffer from involuntary poverty, but the serious national economic problem could be easily solved if all who are rich would submit to voluntary poverty.”
Gandhi understood economic processes as a force that must be regulated by laws based above all on morality and general harmony between all beings, and not to let it “self-regulate” by itself as it is in the market economy, capitalism, an economy linked to supply and demand, because, in itself, any economic success is immoral:
“The art of becoming rich, in the common sense of the word, is not only the art of accumulating a lot of money for ourselves, but also the art of discovering how our neighbor can get the least possible money. In exact terms, it is the art of establishing maximum inequality in our favor.”
Strongly criticizing the “logic” of the market economy, an economy reduced to itself and as an inescapable pillar in international relations (commercial or not), Gandhi saw the refusal to build an equitable global society, a refusal coming from the West and – because of the inherited colonization – from the rest of the world, as a headlong rush, which would always lead the weakest and most destitute into the abyss, an abyss symbolized by Gandhi by famines, the latter being linked either to war, or to this economic mechanism that is always defective, because it always refuses to submit to moral principles of universal well-being:
“If all men understood the eternal moral law of service to others, they would consider it a sin to amass wealth; then there would be no more inequality of fortune, and consequently no more famine, no more people starving.”
We can therefore understand that Gandhi reveals himself as a great defender of the four sacred Hindu castes, which for him represent the cosmic essence of all human society at the universal level (shûdraserviteurs):
“Each of us has his own occupations. These occupations are not castes; they are what Hinduism calls varna. Varna has nothing in common with caste as we know it today. Caste is a human institution, fit only to be destroyed, but varna is a divine law. We may neglect it and suffer the consequences, but if we observe it we will benefit. A carpenter, a blacksmith, a bricklayer, a sweeper, a teacher, a soldier, all have different occupations, but none of them is superior or inferior to the others. If we start encroaching on each other, we create a confusion (sankar) of all the varnas. Therefore, as soon as you take away from the law of varna the bitter feelings of inferiority that have been put into it, it not only acts as a law, but also provides an opportunity to do what we have the most aptitude for.”
His attack on the abuses suffered by the poorest people – garbage collectors in India or the disenfranchised elsewhere – was never directed against the Hindu tradition, nor against any metaphysical wisdom of a people, but against a type of injustice which is especially asserted in a system where it is the economic power which reigns supreme, whereas as a good Hindu he thinks that it is the moral and spiritual power (embodied in India by the orthodox brâhmanes) which must always have the last word, at least, in the organization of the human society:
“Stealing from the poor because he is poor is especially the mercantile form of theft, consisting in taking advantage of man”s needs to obtain his labor or property at a reduced price. The ordinary highway robber steals from the rich, but the merchant steals from the poor.”
He thought that the development of the cities could not allow the autonomous and non-violent life of the Indian people: only the consolidation of the economic and political autonomy of the villages could, in his eyes, contribute to the construction of a non-violent society; an ideal that could be seen as inspired by Hindu mythology, since the Goddess Ahimsâ – non-violence – is the spouse of the God Dharma – sociocosmic order. For him, the West remained a vector of “wickedness” that abused the whole world, but he remained certain that one day or another Justice would triumph on Earth.
Project of a non-violent society without state
Although Gandhi essentially devoted himself, in practice, to the struggle for the Independence and then the unity of India, he never separated, in his thought, the actions of struggle from the constructive actions to prepare the durable organization of a non-violent society. He even thought that constructive actions were an indispensable prerequisite to the struggle for independence. His fear was that, once Independence was achieved, India would be a country that continued to dominate and oppress its people. According to him,
“If, in the end, the only change expected is in the color of the military uniform, we really don”t need to make all this fuss. In any case, in this case, the people will be ignored. They will be exploited just as much, if not more, than they are now.”
Thus, Gandhi”s peaceful struggle attacked the very foundations of the caste system, considering that Hinduism, if it was to survive, had to be transformed into a caseless system. He refused the objective of giving untouchables a political status, thinking that it was necessary, in the words of Nehru about him, to “dynamite” the system by attacking its weakest link. In his fight against caste, he thus differed greatly from Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, one of the representatives of the untouchables and the first Minister of Justice of independent India, who was not only opposed to the caste system, but to Hinduism as a religious and social philosophy.
Steeped in the writings of Tolstoy, Gandhi developed his analysis into a radical critique of the state. The nature of the state, he argued, is essentially violent and oppressive; the existence of a state is incompatible with nonviolent principles of life:
“The State represents violence in an intensified and organized form. The individual has a soul, but the state, which is a machine without a soul, cannot be exempted from violence since it owes its existence to it.”
This is why he developed the idea of elaborating, in parallel to the actions of struggle and civil disobedience to obtain Independence, a “constructive program”. It is through the search for the autonomy of each village, outside (and against) any centralized organization that a truly democratic and non-violent India could endure after Independence.
“True independence will not come from the seizure of power by a few, but from the power of all to oppose the abuses of authority. In other words, independence will have to be achieved by instilling in the masses the belief that they have the ability to control the exercise of authority and hold it in check.”
The level chosen to exercise such control is the village, which would exercise a form of sovereignty within a federal framework.
“Independence must start at the grassroots. Then every village will be a republic.”
Gandhi, who was aware of the difficulty of achieving such an organization of society, brought this goal closer to an anarchist society:
“It would be a state of enlightened anarchy. In such a country, everyone would be his own master. He would rule himself in such a way as never to interfere with his neighbor. Therefore, the ideal state is one in which there is no political power at all because of the very disappearance of the state.”
Because of his critique of authority, oppression and exploitation; because of his critique of the state; because of the fact that Gandhi himself frequently and explicitly linked his political philosophy to anarchism, some have asked whether Gandhi could not be called an anarchist. Asked whether it was realistic to want to achieve a non-violent democratic society of federated villages – a situation Gandhi called anarchy – he replied in 1940:
“It is feasible insofar as non-violence is feasible. The closest stage to pure anarchy would be a democracy based on nonviolence.”
This important aspect of Gandhi”s thought, along with that of the critique of the Western mode of development, was left fallow since the question of the partition of India occupied in practice the last years of Gandhi”s life. However, these two complementary dimensions did not remain pure theory.
The constructive program that Gandhi had called for was deepened by Vinobâ, one of his closest disciples. In a resolutely critical perspective and opposed to the Western mode of development, Vinobâ undertook to resolve the agrarian question by seeking, through the opening of new fronts of non-violent struggle, to bring about the autonomy of villages, the basis of a non-violent Indian society.
For Gandhi, everyone by their actions had to be the change they wished to see in the world, often quoted as :
“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Truth, non-violence and the struggle for their success were an inseparable whole, and to betray one aspect of this whole was to betray one”s entire ideal.
“It is an error to believe that there is no relationship between the end and the means, and this error has led men who are considered believers to commit terrible crimes. It is like saying that by planting weeds you can harvest roses.”
By leading a simple life close to the Indian tradition, he applied to himself the ideal of life which was for him the most beneficial to humanity, very far from the Western criteria of development. As a deeply religious Hindu, he respected all other religions as different paths to love and truth. Even if the path that led to this truth was long and full of pitfalls, for Gandhi, justice should always triumph:
“When I despair, I remember that throughout history, the paths of truth and love have always triumphed. There have been tyrants and murderers, and sometimes they have seemed invincible, but in the end they have always fallen. Always think about that.”
As he himself noted, not without humor, maintaining this ideal was even for his friends “the work of a madman”.
Gandhi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and 1948, but never won it. Later, some members of the committee will publicly regret that the prize was never awarded to him. The chairman of the committee will say, during the presentation of the prize to the Dalai Lama in 1989, that the prize is given in part to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1937, Ole Colbjørnsen, member of the Norwegian parliament, nominated Gandhi. The motivation for this nomination was written by the members of the Norwegian branch of the “Friends of India”. A reviewer of the committee, Professor Jacob Worm-Müller, gave a negative opinion: “He is a freedom fighter and a dictator, an idealist and a nationalist. He is often a Christ, and then, suddenly, an ordinary politician.” Jacob Worm-Müller of the League of Nations added: “It may be said to be significant that his well-known struggle in South Africa was only on behalf of the Indians, not the blacks, whose conditions were even worse.” The Nobel Committee took into account Worm-Müller”s criticism and did not award the prize to Gandhi this year. The following two years, Ole Colbjørnsen proposed Gandhi again, without more success. In 1947, the tensions due to the partition of India did not allow for a majority of votes for Gandhi, and in 1948 the committee considered awarding the Nobel Prize to Gandhi posthumously, but finally decided not to award the prize that year because “there were no suitable living candidates.
Gandhi”s birthday, already a national holiday in India, became the “International Day of Non-Violence” by a unanimous vote of the United Nations General Assembly on 15 June 2007.
Time Magazine named Gandhi the Personality of the Year in 1930 and Gandhi was 2nd behind Albert Einstein as Personality of the Century in 1999. The magazine has named the Dalai Lama, Lech Wałęsa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, César Chávez, Aung San Suu Kyi, Benigno Aquino, Jr, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela as children of Gandhi and spiritual heirs to nonviolence.
In his book How I See the World (Politics and Pacifism, for the Suppression of the Danger of War), Albert Einstein wrote about it:
“Gandhi, the greatest political genius of our time, has shown the way and the sacrifices of which men are capable when they have recognized the right path. His work for the emancipation of India is a living testimony that the will dominated by firm conviction is stronger than seemingly invincible material power.”
Every year on January 30, the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi”s death, the School Day of Nonviolence and Peace (DENIP), founded in Spain in 1964, is celebrated.
More than 80 countries on all continents have issued at least one stamp with the effigy of Gandhi between 1961 (the year the first one was issued by the United States) and 2011. Countries that have not issued any include France and Canada.
A species of Coleoptera insect of the family Histeridae: Chaetabraeus (Chaetabraeus) gandhii, described from India (Kerala), was dedicated to him by the French entomologist Yves Gomy in 2009.
Throughout the world, there are many monuments, statues or busts erected in memory of Gandhi.
Gandhi is celebrated as the Father of the Nation and his birthday on October 2 is celebrated as the Gandhi Jayanti and is a public holiday.
The Government of India awards the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Prize each year to distinguished individuals or citizens. Nelson Mandela, was one of the famous non-Indians to receive it.
Since 1996, the government has printed Gandhi”s portrait on all banknotes, which is considered paradoxical by some, given Gandhi”s negative views on wealth accumulation and the power of money.
In New Delhi, the Birla Bhavan (or “Birla House”), where Gandhi was assassinated has been open to the public since 1973 and is known as the Gandhi Smriti (“Gandhi Remembrance”). It preserves the room where Mahatma Gandhi lived the last four months of his life and a stone column symbolizing his martyrdom marks the exact spot where he was shot.
Supporters and influence
Gandhi influenced important political leaders and movements.
The first was of course Nehru himself who said: “It was clear that this little man compensated for his poor physique by a soul of steel or rock which refused to bend before brute force. In spite of his unimpressive face, his loincloth, his nakedness, there was something royal in him that forced obedience…”
In the United States, Martin Luther King specifically referred to Gandhi in his struggle for the American civil rights movement, and the inspiration he provided for his own theories of nonviolence. The anti-apartheid activist and former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, also claims to have been inspired by Gandhi as was Steve Biko. Other personalities such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in Pakistan and Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma have been declared heirs to Gandhi”s methods. Among the many personalities who have claimed his influence are also John Lennon, and Malala Yousafzai.
Many people and organizations have dedicated their lives to spreading his ideas. Madeleine Slade, the daughter of a British admiral, decided to leave everything to live in India with Gandhi. Romain Rolland was the first to make Gandhi”s life known with his book Mahatma Gandhi. Lanza del Vasto went to India in 1936 to live with Gandhi. Upon his return to Europe, he decided to propagate Gandhi”s philosophy. In 1948, the man whom Gandhi had called Shantidas (Servant of Peace) founded, in a resolutely Christian perspective, the Ark Communities on the model of the Gandhian ashrams. Jean-Baptiste Libouban, a member of the Ark Communities, is one of the initiators of the Voluntary Reapers” movement, which inscribes its struggles against GMOs in the field in a non-violent perspective. José Bové was also one of Lanza del Vasto”s disciples. The creation in 1966 of the Center for Nonviolent Communication (based in Albuquerque, United States) by the psychologist Marshall Rosenberg was made in reference to Gandhi and the pastor Martin Luther King.
In India, a disciple of Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, undertook to deepen and extend the process of non-violent emancipation of the Indian people: he devoted himself, not without some success in some areas, to solving the agrarian question, and then worked to promote village autonomy. In India today, Narayan Desai, son of Mahadev Desai, Gandhi”s personal secretary, is perhaps the personality whose work and practice most closely resembles that of Gandhi.
The American magazine for racial equality The Crisis even compared Gandhi to Jesus in 1922. In Europe too, voices have been raised to claim this double heritage, notably that of Dr. Albert Schweitzer:
“When asked which modern thinkers have influenced my life and philosophy, I invariably answer these two names: the great German author Goethe and the humble Hindu saint Mohandas Gandhi. Similarly, Gandhi, who was the most Christian Hindu of the century, acknowledged that he got the idea of Ahimsa and nonviolence from the commandments of Jesus In both of them, the ethic of inner perfection is governed by the principle of love.”
Gandhi had many admirers; in addition to those who advocated non-violence, we can mention the photographer Margaret Bourke-White, the general George Marshall. The physicist Albert Einstein said of Gandhi: “Future generations will hardly believe that such a man existed in the flesh on this earth.
Some Dalits (or “untouchables”), notably Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, criticized Gandhi”s position as “paternalistic,” calling them harijan, children of God. Ambedkar criticized Gandhi for not addressing the root of the problem, which he said was the caste system as a whole. If Gandhi adopted an ambiguous position on this complex question, he undertook several fasts in defence of the untouchables, and also held clear positions on this question: thus, in a letter addressed to his friend C. F. Andrews (dated 29 December 1921), he declared in particular: “I could no longer consider myself as a Hindu if untouchability remained included in Hinduism. Gandhi remains nevertheless a “hero” for the great majority of Dalits.
Winston Churchill, who rejoiced in the partition of India (resulting in millions of deaths) by declaring “finally we have had the last word”, Churchill who participated as a soldier (at the same time as Gandhi, but the latter as a stretcher-bearer occupied with the care of the black South Africans left behind) in the battle of Spion Kop, said in 1931 that he considered it “alarming to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious lawyer, posing as a fakir of a kind well known in the East, climbing half naked the steps of the viceroy”s palace while still organizing and conducting a campaign of civil disobedience, talking as an equal to the representative of the emperor-king.
According to political science professors Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd I. Rudolph, white nationalist Katherine Mayo”s 1927 book Mother India is an early example of “Gandhi bashing” written for both the official and unofficial British purpose of securing U.S. support for the United Kingdom”s continued rule in India. Katherine Mayo particularly targeted Gandhi, whose success was panicking Mayo”s British sponsors, whom she described as “seditious. According to Mayo on Gandhi”s action: “The mystical doctrine of spiritual warfare, of warfare by ”soul force,” which uses language of hate while displaying theories of love, had logically and persistently materialized in the form of the butchery of human beings.”
In a 1987 book, the Indian writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri, whom Gandhi at one time charmed with his good looks (“There was no trace in his face of the repulsive arrogance that disfigures the features of every holy Hindu man”), discerns in him an “insatiable taste for power” and a “simplicity of character that made him more crooked than the worst of crooks. For Chaudhuri, the British cult of Gandhi was “a nameless imbecility and a sure sign of the degeneration of the British character. According to a review by Geoff Wisner, Chaudhuri believes that by appealing to the primitive nationalism of the masses, Gandhi negated all that the British Empire had done to unify and civilize India and thus paved the way for the bloody riots and partition of India that followed independence.
The controversial author Koenraad Elst summarizes in a book some of the criticisms he believes are still made against Gandhi by a part of the Indian opinion:
However, concerning non-violence conceived as a political weapon against tyrannies based solely on force and violence, Gandhi was no less of a realist: faced with the imminence of the Japanese invasion, he gave way to the partisans of armed resistance, limiting his action to an eventual disobedience directed, not against the invaders, but against the masters of India.
The argument that aims to criticize Gandhi (who was only one Congressman among others) with the partition of India (a huge failure for Gandhi), is tempered by the Jesuit priest and India specialist, Guy Deleury, who recognizes that partition was essentially the combined result of the (inconsistent and partisan) haste of the British Lord Mountbatten (who decided on partition and was in any case the only one with the power or political legitimacy in the British Empire to make the final decision on this issue) and the political opportunism of Ali Jinnah”s Muslim League (a minority party betraying the trust Gandhi had placed in them).
But with or without Gandhi, the partition would have taken place, since Lord Mountbatten finally took into consideration only the will of the Muslim League (creation of an Islamic state, Pakistan, and a Hindu state, Hindustan, a Hindu state that would never see the light of day: the Indian Union was “secular” but without a uniform civil code); the Muslim League (a minority faction that was not representative of the Muslims of India, who wished to have an Indian Union) had in fact as its ideology the conception of an Islamic state. Lord Mountbatten agreed to the partition of the Muslim League for reasons that remain unknown to this day, either to “avenge” the loss of the British colony of India, to undermine the desire for the new secular state so desired by the Indians and the Congress, and thus to inflict an ideological failure on them, or by a total lack of political discernment and lack of consideration for the possibilities of civil wars and communal conflagrations that would result from the creation of an Islamic state for Muslims only and a Hindu state for Hindus only, when religious communities are scattered all over the sub-continent.
Gandhi was a prolific writer. For decades he was the senior editor of several newspapers, both weekly and monthly, including Harijan in Gujarati, Hindi and English; Indian Opinion, a weekly in English, while he was in South Africa, and Young India (en), a weekly in English, and Navajivan, a monthly in Gujarati, after his return in India. Navajivan was also published later in Hindi. He also wrote many letters to personalities and newspapers on a daily basis to defend his cause. Between 1915 and 1947, he exchanged more than 75 letters with the poet and activist Sarojini Naidu.
Gandhi also wrote several books, including his autobiography, An Autobiography or My Experiences with Truth, Satyagraha in South Africa about the campaign for Indian rights in that country, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, a political pamphlet, and a Gujarati paraphrase of John Ruskin”s book Unto This Last. The latter essay can be considered his economic program. He also wrote many articles on vegetarianism, diet and health, religion, social reforms, etc. Gandhi usually wrote in Gujarati, but he himself edited the translation of his books into Hindi and English. Only a few of his writings have been translated into French.
Gandhi”s complete works were published by the Indian government as The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi in the 1960s. His writings run to about 50,000 pages published in a total of 100 volumes. In 2000, a reworked edition of his complete works sparked a major controversy, with Gandhi”s supporters accusing the government of politically motivated changes.
: document used as a source for the writing of this article.
Homonyms : Indira and Rajiv Gandhi
The name of Gandhi, which we find at the head of India in the following decades, is due to chance: the first Prime Minister after independence, Nehru, had a daughter, Indira, who married Feroze Gandhi (1912-1960), a journalist and politician of Parsi religion, unrelated to the Mahatma. She succeeded her father in the same position. Later, Indira”s son Rajiv succeeded her and, following his assassination, was replaced as head of the Congress Party by his wife Sonia.
Several biographers have undertaken the task of describing Gandhi”s life. Among them, two of the most complete works: D. G. Tendulkar with his Mahatma. Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 8 volumes, and Pyarelal and Sushila Nayar with their Mahatma Gandhi in 10 volumes.
: document used as a source for the writing of this article.