4.27.2010

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.
Sources:
The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi, 1929.
"On Civil Disobedience", Henry David Thoreau, 1849.
Gandhi by David Arnold, 2001