On Gandhi, Greatness and Excellence

I was going to call this “How the Readers Digest made me a Leftist” but I’m not quite sure that that is how I would describe myself. But indeed my mostly to the left (call it progressive, call it radical, call it what you like) political orientation is largely due to the Readers Digest. And yes, it is quite true that the Readers Digest is not known for being in the vanguard of politics or radical reform. But here’s my memory of how it changed my thinking.

I was a child of the 1960’s and 1970’s. That in itself says a lot, I think. So, in April 1968 I was in high school and the Readers Digest published an article about Dr. King and the Poor People’s March on Washington, DC. I read it and was taken with the clarity and courage of Dr. King. Somewhere in what I read (or in listening to others around me talk about what I had read there), I learned that Dr. King had studied the strategy and tactics of someone called Mahatma Gandhi.  This Gandhi fellow was from India and even though he was a leader in securing his country’s freedom from England, people around me then didn’t like him very much. Of course that made him an immediate hero to me. So, when I had to choose something to write about for my senior year Problems of Democracy class, Gandhi was a no brainer selection. He has been a hero of mine ever since. Well, mostly ever since. There was a period of time when I learned that even Gandhi was not an impeccable saint, and I was too through with him for having flaws. Now that I am older and have noticed a flaw or two in myself, I am much more tolerant of the imperfections in others. There are even moments when I’ve learned a bit from the flaws of others. 

So, because of the Reader’s Digest I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and because of Dr. King I learned about Mahatma Gandhi. And eventually because of Mahatma Gandhi I learned about compassion and forgiveness – for others and maybe even for myself. So, here is a bit about Gandhi … just enough to whet your appetite for more, I hope.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, a small state in western India. Though his family was lower caste, they were also middle-class, cultured, and devoutly religious Hindus. When Gandhi was thirteen, he was married to Kasturbai, a girl of the same age – child marriages, arranged by the parents, were then the common practice in India.

While he was in school a friend convinced Gandhi that the British were able to rule India only because the British ate meat and the Hindus did not. The friend said that eating meat built strength and with strength freedom could be gained.  Gandhi and his family were strict vegetarians, and his dreams of freedom for India were strong. He struggled with this conflict, and one day, he snuck off to a secluded place with his friend who gave him some cooked goat’s meat. Gandhi disliked the taste of the meat and after he ate it he immediately became ill. He tried to eat meat again several times, but finally decided that it was not worth the guilt. He never ate meat again, and went on to work to free India with a moral strength rather than physical might.

In many ways Mohandas Gandhi was a normal teenager. There is a story that once, when he needed money, stole a bit of gold from his brother. He was overcome by guilt for his crime, and so he confessed to his father, expecting him to be angry and violent. Instead his father wept. “Those pearl drops of love cleansed my heart,” Gandhi later wrote, “and washed my sin away.” It was his first insight into the impressive psychological power of ahimsa, or nonviolence.

When he finished high school Gandhi wanted to go England where he could earn a law degree in three years. After he vowed he would not touch liquor, meat, or women, his mother gave him her blessing and his brother gave him the money. Leaving his wife and their infant son with his family in Rajkot, he sailed for England on September 4, 1888, just one month short of his nineteenth birthday. In England Gandhi was a disciplined student. He was frugal and studied hard. While in England, two English brothers asked him to study the Bhagavad Gita, a part of the sacred Hindu scriptures, with them. The Gita is a dialogue between the Hindu god Krishna and Arjuna, a warrior about to go into battle. At about the same time he was searching through the Gita, a Christian friend persuaded Gandhi to read the Bible. The New Testament, particularly Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, moved him deeply. Both sacred Hindu and Christian texts set the foundations for Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence.

Three years later, in 1891 Gandhi returned to his family at Rajkot. He reunited with his wife and son, but he was unable to earn money to support them. He was at his wits end about what to do with his life when a large Indian firm asked him to go to South Africa to assist in complex legal case in the courts there that would take about a year to resolve.  He would be paid all his expenses plus a salary. Gandhi accepted, bade his growing family farewell and in April, 1893, not yet twenty-four years old, he set sail to try his luck in South Africa.  

In South Africa Gandhi found his voice, his philosophy, and his following – but only after much struggle.  When Gandhi arrived in South Africa he had to travel across the country to Pretoria. On the journey he was beset with discrimination because he was a dark skinned man from India. The humiliations he experienced stayed with him even as he worked at resolving the case that brought him to South Africa. Gandhi also worked with the local Indians to discuss their condition. As he met with them his indignation freed him from his shyness and he made his first public speeches.  Through his repeated experiences of harassment, exclusion and discrimination he began to find his voice and his ability to speak out and protest. He formed an organization called the Natal Indian Congress to work for Indian rights in South Africa.  Gandhi liked to live simply and independently, eating mostly fresh fruits and nuts and starching his own shirts.

While he worked, his political aims continued to fuse with his spiritual and emotional life. He studied the Bhagavad Gita pasting portions of it on a wall, memorized verse after verse as he stood brushing his teeth for fifteen minutes every morning. The Gita became his guide to living and he embraced its teaching that truth could be gained only through renunciation of all possessions and all pleasures. While in South Africa, Gandhi often shuttled back and forth between Johannesburg and Durban. On one of his long train journeys he read a book called Unto This Last by John Ruskin, English author and critic. Gandhi said the book transformed his life by teaching him that the good of the individual is contained in the good of the group, that manual occupations are as valuable as intellectual ones, and that the life of the laborer–the man who works with his hands–is the only life worth living.  Immediately, Gandhi translated principle into action. At this point Gandhi’s family rejoined him. They lived as close to Ruskin’s ideal as they could, grinding the meal and baking their bread by hand.  In 1906, not quite thirty-seven years old, he took a vow of celibacy which he never broke, and the bride of his childhood, Kasturbai, relinquished the role of wife to become a devoted follower.

Now all of this sounds quite wonderful – Gandhi the man is finding himself, developing his philosophy and his leadership skills, working hard to help his fellow Indians in South Africa to secure their rights and freedoms. But – think, feminists and freedom fighters among you – all of this was quite wonderful for Mohandas Gandhi. But what about his wife and children? How  was his love for them manifest? How much attention and ‘quality time’ did this great soul devote to his wife and children? Kasturbai doesn’t seem to have a voice or vote in any of this. She is moved from wife to devoted follower in response to his acts. Hmmm… is this the only way to bring about change? Is this the necessary cost of leadership? (And yes, in fairness, please do remember that all of this is taking place in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.)

And the work went on. Gandhi comes to call his work satyagraha, a combination of two words meaning truth and force. Gandhi’s battle was to be fought with truth and love. His soldiers were to be known as satyagrahis.  In July 1914, after nearly twenty years in South Africa Gandhi returned to India having lead a movement that helped to eliminate the major grievances experienced by the Indians in that country.

Back in India Gandhi took up work for Indian independence from England. The independence campaign had thus far been waged by a small clique of upper-class intellectuals who aped the British in manners and aloofness. Gandhi saw this was a path that led nowhere. Until that time he had worn European dress; now he discarded it for the simple trousers of the peasant. Some eighty percent of his countrymen were peasants; freedom could not be won without their support. For Gandhi freedom meant not the substitution of select Hindu rulers for the Viceroy but a truly representative government. It also meant freedom from poverty, ignorance, and discrimination.

In India a religious retreat is called an ashram, and Gandhi’s cooperative community came to be known as the satyagraha ashram. But it was as political as it was religious. “Men say I am a saint losing myself in politics,” Gandhi once commented. “The fact is that I am a politician trying my hardest to be a saint.”  To the horror of orthodox Hindus he admitted into his ashram a family of untouchables, who by implacable Hindu tradition are condemned from birth as unclean and outcaste. Reforming India was as much a part of Gandhi’s program as was home rule.

From 1914 through until August 15, 1947 the struggle for India’s independence from England went on. Gandhi organized strikes and protests. The British physically attacked the protestors, passed oppressive laws; put hundreds of thousands of people in prison. The protests continued; Gandhi fasted, he traveled the country lecturing, he organized ashrams and called for civil disobedience. He worked at newspapers to educate the people about the ideals and the costs of satyagraha. Gandhi spent years in prisons where he took his spinning wheel and his writing tools, he spend days and months fasting.

 Gandhi was widely regarded as a Mahatma, a great soul, across India. Those who did not call him Mahatma often call him bapu or father. And for all of this, Gandhi was not fully the saint he strove to become. His work, his traveling, his advocacy on behalf of the poor was costly.  From about 1921 Gandhi presented himself to the public dressed only in the dhoti (loin cloth) that was worn by the poorest Indians. And yet his followers have noted that it took a lot of Indian millionaires to keep Gandhi in poverty. Gandhi worked tirelessly for the freedom and independence of all Indians. And yet he frequently left his wife and children behind as he set out on his work. Early in his adult life, he committed himself to chastity. It is said that he tested his chastity and demonstrated the strength of his commitment by sleeping in the same bed with naked young women. The appearance of these acts – feigned poverty, neglect of his family, use of others to his own ends – much of this grates on my feminist, my humane sensibilities. I want my heroes to be perfectly heroic. And yet there is so much that I have learned from Gandhi. He is a hero to me. He is also wonderfully human. He is not perfect; maybe he is even far from perfect. Yet, he has taught me about commitment to values and ideals. He has taught me about persistence. From him I learned about satyagraha. And from his imperfections I have learned to cherish the foibles of other human beings, and to open my heart with forgiveness if I will keep open my mind to learning.

The Progressive has published a wonderful biography of Gandhi, written by Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht. You can read it at http://www.progress.org/gandhi/gandhi01.htm

 Why Gandhi? Why now? I am moving ever more deeply into my second year of being retired. On occasion I think about what I have accomplished or not accomplished. On occasion I find myself thinking about greatness and how far I fell from that mark (I never wrote the text book I envisioned, even with the detailed outlines, even with the endless drafts of the first three chapters; I never achieved the rank of full professor, I never … so many things I never). I find myself thinking about excellence, and there I might actually judge myself a bit less harshly (I do believe that I was a reasonable good teacher, with a solid command of my subject; I think I may have touched a life or two for the better). So, early in my retirement, early in my 60th decade, I find myself thinking about greatness and excellence, and wondering about how they are defined. And in all of my feminist arrogance, I find myself challenging working societal definitions, and wondering, what would greatness look like if its definition were wrested from power and grounded in love?

What do greatness and excellence look like to you? Who are some of the heroes in your life? How do you judge the consistency of their lives and their actions?

What are you committed to? What do you struggle and strive for? What compromised have you made in your commitments and values?

What would greatness and excellence look like in a world where there justice, fairness and human dignity were fully respected? What would greatness and excellence look like in a world of compassion, generosity, patience, diligence, wisdom, loving kindness and joy?

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