Sayonara, Mr. Gandhi...

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is a name and persona not fully understood by the West. Today, we often refer to him as the 'thin man in the loin cloth, who helped bring his country to independence', but we know little to nothing about his beliefs, his struggles, and his ability to transcend cultural and religious barriers. Here in the west, we carry no comparable measure to the 'man in the loin cloth', but we often briefly reference him when we discuss civil disobedience or nonviolence. Sure, we had Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and Henry David Thoreau in the 1840s, but whom do we admire today? Where is the man or woman who speaks truth against the majority? Can he or she be found in the political scene today?

I argue no. A man like Gandhi would be killed, labeled a heathen or unconscionable liberal with little or nothing to offer today's political scene. In fact, during his second civil disobedience campaign of the 1930s, Winston Churchill spoke of Gandhi in the following words, "It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor." Tell me, was Churchill fair in his reference?

Gandhi was born in the town of Porbandar in Gujarat from a family of grocers (members of the vaishya caste). He lived at a time when his contemporaries stood for little to nothing meaningful--men like Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini. His attempts towards social reform were sparked by an event that took place in his early 20s when he was pushed off of a train for sitting in first class on his way to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Ben Kingsley who played Gandhi in the 1982 film by Richard Attenborough stated that the lesson learned from Gandhi's life is that 'you don't throw young men off of trains' as the result could be catastrophic. Regardless, from 1893 onward, Gandhi would swear loyalty to satyagraha (satya = truth, graha = force), and thus emerged an active and nonviolent movement amassing support from peasants, farmers, industrialists, and capitalists alike.

Gandhi grew more revolutionary in spirit as he faced and witnessed discrimination in South Africa. By 1906, he took a vow of brahmacharya (celibacy) after his wife and he fostered four sons. Furthermore, his vow of satyagraha, or civil disobedience, helped to abolish the indentured labor system in India on part of the British Raj by 1916.

Gandhi's demand for swadeshi, a movement of spinning thread that began in 1905 after Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal, became the focal point of swaraj (self-rule). No longer could Indians afford to trust the British by the early 20th century, but rather turn to their own devices for all-out independence. In addition, Gandhi worked with people from all facets of class consciousness--landlords (pattidars) and industrialists alike, in order to help gain rights for the planters or workers abused by the local governments.

So where is Mr. Gandhi today? Men who take it within their own hands to change the wrong in the world? Henry David Thoreau in his 1849 essay, 'On Civil Disobedience' wrote, "That government is best which governs not at all, and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have." Thoreau went on further to question the morality of the law in America arguing that such unjust laws must be challenged. He wrote, "Can there not be a government in which majorities do not viritually decide right and wrong , but conscience? in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to legislation? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward." Perhaps asking for another Gandhi is wishful thinking, idealistic and unrealistic. But the idea of such a man walking this earth gives us the hope that perhaps we can become better people, making rightful changes for the will to survive. Mr. Gandhi was such a man, and we shall not take his memory for granted.
The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi, 1929.
"On Civil Disobedience", Henry David Thoreau, 1849.
Gandhi by David Arnold, 2001


Robert said...

For what it's worth, I've been asking this question for several years. Where is the MLK, Vernon Johns, Harvey Milk and Gandhi of this day? I certainly don't see them in the self-proclaimed advocates of civil rights such Jesse Jackson and his ilk.

I realise that I am cynical, but I believe you are mistaken when you say that we will not take the memory of Gandhi for granted. I am certain that we already have. You state right at the beginning that he is not understood here in the West. I'd take even money that if you were to do something like a Jay Walking skit (ala Jay Leno), you'd find that most people wouldn't be able to identify him, let alone know what he accomplished and how.

Outside of the realm of historians and civil rights activists, I'd be willing to say that he is (mostly) forgotten. Such a loss to the world.


Rania said...

Hi Robert!
Thank you so much for commenting on this, it is good to know that people are following my blog!
As for your statements on Gandhi and my ability to contradict myself, yes, I agree. We do take his memory for granted, in fact, we don't teach our children enough about the virtues of men like Gandhi.
Don't get me wrong, the man was no saint, but he did stand for something. My dad always said that it was important to stand up for what you believe in, even if the world says its wrong. We really need a man like Gandhi today.
I often refer to Gandhi's ideas of ahimsa or nonviolence to my students when I teach about colonialism. How difficult that must have been for he and his disciples. But Gandhi argued that the means was just as important as obtaining the glorified end. In this sense, he is forgotten in modern-day political discourse. Perhaps we need less politicians in politics, and more talented writers, professors, musicians, and lawyers to work the grassroots circuits. What are we waiting for?

Anonymous said...

I am a student who is doing a project for my history fair. My project is on the Quit India Movement 1942 in which Mahatma Gandhi was involved. While searching for some professors and historians online, I came across this article. I then hoped to find some contact information with you but I had no such luck. So i was hoping that we could possibly email each other because it would help to have some interesting facts from a historian. I really hope you can help my team and I get some more facts! Thanks!

(Please email me if possible at sharanyachander999@gmail.com)

Shilpi Patel said...

Rania,you are right that we need more people Gandhi,we should tell kids the history of Gandhi so they inspired by him and fight for the rights that they deserve.I learned when I was younger because its part my culture.I have inspired by him since I was five.One thing I find fascinating is that is that my grandma was only eleven when he died but she was involved in the things he did for India's freedom.He was my great grandfather's friend.I would not be here in America if it was not for Gandhi.I may be 13 but trust me that I could tell them about they know when I'm serious especially since smarter than rest my class.They full monkeys but they will inspired to do better in school and for what they want to fight for.Anger can be taken out in a non-violence way.There is more than one.If plan does not work you still have 25 more letters and a numbers.Trying again and again will lead you to success like Gandhi.Hard work is the key to life.Without him my mom,grandparents,uncles,aunt,dad,
brother,and me would not be alive.We didn't ask him to do that,he had courage that not all people had.Five hundred years of torture for anybody is to much.
Since Gandhi had a great soul they call Mahatma. Gandhi may have got arrested for doing right by the British but that did not stop him for doing the right thing.There might have been many more people who got arrested but we remember Gandhi more.Because of of we have Independence day on Aug 15 and Republic Day on Jan. 26.He have shortly died after Republic Day but down history we will remember him forever like now.