The return of a Mahatma to our newspapers in January 2015 should be considered almost as welcome as the return of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to his motherland on 9 January 1915. 1915 marked a seminal moment in history, for Gandhi’s intervention in India’s freedom movement ended the era of European colonisation, a process that progressed without setback for three centuries and never seemed stronger than it did in the first decade of the 20th century. It was said, famously, that the sun did not set on the British empire. After Gandhi, the sun never rose on any empire.
Born in 1869, Gandhi left for South Africa to work as a lawyer for a businessman, Abdullah Sheth, at the age of 24. He landed in Durban on 23 May 1893, clad in frock coat, striped trousers, black turban, watch and chain. When he came home in October 1901 for a year’s break, his fame had begun to spread among the elite. He went to the Calcutta session of the All India Congress Committee in the same train that carried great personalities like Dinshaw Wacha [who would preside], Pherozeshah Mehta and Chimanlal Setalvad. After his first night at the session, Gandhi was shocked to discover that delegates had relieved themselves on the veranda. He did not wait, like the others, for Dalits, still considered “untouchable”, to clean up. He picked up a broom and did so himself.
No one followed his example in 1901.
At the core of the Gandhian movement lay a proposition. India had not been defeated by the strength of Britain; India had been betrayed by her own weaknesses. India would recover its health only when Indians had purged society of evils like the curse of untouchability, ignorance and superstition. In Calcutta, Gandhi sought out the one genius who had, in a sense, inaugurated such a mission, Swami Vivekananda. Gandhi walked to Belur Math, but they could not meet as the Swami was ill. But Gandhi had already begun to implement what the Swami had begun to preach: “India’s doom was sealed the very day they invented the word mleccha…” And: “Remember that the nation lives in the cottage.”
In 1909, Gandhi read an article by a British author, G.K. Chesterton, which echoed his own thinking. Chesterton wrote in the Illustrated London News of September 1909, about Indian nationalists of that time: “I get bored and feel dubious about them. What they want is not very Indian and not very national…Suppose an Indian said: ‘I wish India had always been free from white men and all their works. Everything has its own faults and we prefer our own…If you [the British] do not like our way of living, we never asked you to. Go, and leave us with it’.” Chesterton was accurate and prescient. A leader would emerge who understood the way to true Swaraj, self-rule. An Englishman he did not know had put into words what few Indians had envisaged, let alone articulated.
Gandhi went back to his practice in Johannesburg, but his mind and heart never left India again. He realised that if he was going to lead the process of reform among Hindus, he would have to first fully understand Hinduism. He immersed himself in study of the Bhagvad Gita, in both Sanskrit and English, became a Gita-bhakt and memorised 13 of 18 chapters. He was entranced by the concept of non-possession.
Through careful steps over more than a dozen years he prepared himself for the liberation of India, both from its own sins and from the unbearable burden of colonial rule.
He turned religion into a powerful asset, for men of every faith, by giving it a new social dimension: religion was a source of unity, not discord, for the foundation of every belief system was the same, an eternal truth. In three major speeches, at Calcutta University and St Stephen’s College in 1915, and at the inauguration of the Banaras Hindu University in 1916, he enumerated the basic principles of his political philosophy: non-violence, unity of every Indian across all communities, reform, sacrifice, dedication, cleanliness and a future that belonged to the starving and impoverished. At Banaras, he ridiculed the “richly bedecked noblemen” sitting on the dais and said that India would be rescued by the farmer, not the lawyer or the aristocrat. In 1916, this was a revolutionary thought.
Look at India and the world a hundred years later, and wonder how much we miss this voice, this vision, this embodiment of principle. Non-violence might seem the most relevant idea in an environment ravaged by war, but how can the elimination of degrading poverty be any less important? When murder and mayhem are rampant in the name of faith, how vital is his projection of religion as a force of peace and harmony?
Gandhi’s face has returned to mass media in the centenary year of his return. We now need space for Gandhi’s mind and heart.