Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World 1914-1945
by Ramachandra Guha London: Allen Lane, 2018, £40
Patrick Claffey SVD
In 1911 the British authorities decided to move the capital of their Indian Empire from Calcutta to Delhi. They set about doing this by creating a new district that came to be known as New Delhi.
The work on what was to become an enormous project was handed over to the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869–1944) who set to work on the task that was to last up to the end of his life. The Scottish historian and great Indianist William Dalrymple writes that “there can be no doubt that New Delhi was very deliberately built as an expression of the unconquerable might of the Raj”.
He adds that Lord Stamforhdham, Private Secretary to George V, was echoing the King Emperor’s views when he wrote: “We must let [the Indian] see for the first time the power of Western civilisation…”
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, described the project as “the visible symbol of British power, with all its ostentation and wasteful extravagance”. There is more than a little irony in the fact that the Raj, like may other empires before it, was all over just four years after the completion of Lutyens “monstrous, almost megalomaniac” project, when India gained independence.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born October 2, 1869 into a Gujarati Hindu family of the Baniya or merchant caste. He studied law in London and qualified as a barrister at the Inner Temple. He failed in his attempts to establish a practice in Mumbai and in 1893, at the age of 24, he accepted a position in a practice in Natal, South Africa, also a part of the British Empire, where he spent the next 21 years.
Becoming involved in political activism, it was here that he first enunciated the political methodology of satyagraha (devotion to the truth), that was to become one of the cornerstones of his political philosophy.
Some years after Lutyens had commenced the grandiose New Delhi project, in 1915, Gandhi returned to India to commit to what became his life’s work. This “dark little wisp of a man” as the admiring American clergyman and pacifist, John Haynes Holmes described him, took on the might of the most powerful Empire of the earth.
Holmes was perhaps the first to see the importance of Gandhi’s charisma, the most powerful of all political tools. In a sermon in 1921, he spoke of Gandhi in very American terms as ‘the Greatest Man in World’, who, of all of those then living, reminded him most of Jesus.
Like Jesus, “he lives his life; he speaks his word, he suffers, strives, and will someday nobly die, for his kingdom on earth”. Prophetic words indeed! Holmes provided an insightful analysis of the man when he compared him to Garibaldi and to George Washington. “Gandhi is far more, infinitely greater, than a nationalist leader. At bottom he is a great religious leader…his movement in this respect is a movement for world redemption, Gandhi is thus undertaking to do exactly what Jesus did when he proclaimed the kingdom of God on earth.”
In today’s more prosaic terms he didn’t just “talk the talk, he walked the walk”, eschewing all the trappings of worldly power. Gandhi and his wife Kasturbai Makhanji Kapadia (known as ‘Kasturba’, and affectionately as ‘Ba’) set up what was in fact a lay religious community in the Sabarmati ashram in the Guajarati city of Ahmedabad. Here he gathered a group of about 40 members “called to serve the motherland one’s whole life”.
They all, whether married or not, took vows, dedicating themselves to truth, non-violence, celibacy, non-stealing, non-possession and ‘control of the palate’. In addition, they were committed to wearing hand-spun cloth and the abolition of untouchabilty, which Gandhi described as “a great Satanism in Hinduism”.
There were morning and evening prayers at the ashram, with readings from Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Islamic and Christian scriptures, as well as hymns from these traditions. There was also regular manual work, notably spinning, which he did himself daily.
His political objectives were simple: swaraj or self-rule for India, harmony between India’s often disputatious communities, the end of untouchability, and swadesh or self-reliance. The objectives were not to be prioritised but rather striven for in parallel. In his moral view, political independence meant nothing without religious harmony, caste and gender equality and the development of self-respect for every Indian.
A heterodox faith
As a heterodox Hindu, who did not go to temples during his adult life, there were many religious, spiritual and intellectual influences in Gandhi’s life. He had a good knowledge of Jainism and Buddhism, both of which contributed to his espousal of ahimsa (non-violence), but also Islam and Christianity. He argued that “it is the duty of every cultured man or woman to read sympathetically the scriptures of the world…for myself, I regard my study of and reverence for the Bible, the Koran, and other scriptures to be wholly consistent with my claim to be a staunch sanatani Hindu”.
His sources were not only scriptural and religious but was also strongly influenced by secular authors and philosophers, most notably the great Russian Leo Tolstoy with his emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1-12), but also by the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and the English art critic, social thinker and philanthropist John Ruskin.
There can be no doubt, however, that the most influential text for Gandhi was the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. He described it as a valuable provision for the mind in one’s life journey, as the spinning-wheel is for the body. The Gita “is a big knowledge feast, as it is the very amrita [nectar] of knowledge”.
In reading and meditating on the Gita he came to a deep understanding of his own dharma/duty as a life of self-sacrifice. As Guha points out: “Gandhi spoke repeatedly of the Gita’s emphasis on work without expectation of reward.”
This short text of 700 verses was certainly the bedrock of his spiritual life, as well as his political philosophy. He noted that “in trying to enforce in one’s life the central teaching of the Gita, one is bound to follow satya (truth) and ahimsa (non-violence)”. As Guta notes: “Pluralism of faith, was for Gandhi a political choice as well as a moral obligation.” Ahimsa/non-violence was an ethical choice but also a political strategy and both were at the core of Gandhi’s faith and life.
Holding to the truth – Satyagraha
Satyagraha, a policy of passive political resistance, was undoubtedly his most powerful and original political concept. He had developed and used it to great effect in South Africa Satyagraha is a composite of the Sanskrit words for ‘truth’ (satya) and ‘insistence’ or ‘holding firmly to’ (graha).
It became the centre of his strategy in the swaraj/self-rule campaign and was later adopted in other liberation struggles, notably in the Civil Rights Movement in the US, and several other similar movements. It was first used in India, in Gujarat, in 1917 in a local dispute on taxes.
It was, of course, the ideal weapon of the weak, based entirely on non-violence but leaving the oppressor, who did not hesitate to use violence, the loser in the moral argument and in the eyes of the world.
While it would be easy to dismiss Gandhi as an eccentric as many did and still do, including modern Indians, he was much more. He was a wily political strategist in an enormous and deeply divided country. Guha writes: “No political leader before Gandhi had so radically simplified his life. The clothes he wore, the food he ate, the homes he lived in all brought Gandhi far closer to the masses than professedly socialist leaders like Lenin. While passive resistance had been practised by particular groups…it had never before been made part of wider national struggle. That both man and movement had set themselves up against the great British Empire was a further marvel.”
Probably the most spectacular of the satyagraha actions was the Salt March, which took place from March to April 1930. The colonial administration in the Salt Act of 1882 had prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt.
It was a truly perverse piece of legislation by which citizens were forced to buy the staple commodity, a local product, from their British rulers, who, in addition to exercising a monopoly, imposed a heavy tax on it.
Although India’s poor suffered most under the tax, all Indians required salt and thus it was an effective rallying point for popular discontent across the castes and classes.
The plan was quite simple. On March 12, 1930, Gandhi set out from his Sabermati ashram, with several dozen followers, to walk the 240 miles to the coastal town of Dandi on the Arabian Sea.
Not surprisingly, this brought enormous publicity.
While there were several locations that were much closer and could have been used, Gandhi adopted one of the most important aspects of Indian culture for his purpose, the pilgrimage, thus charging the demonstration with a quasi-religious significance.
One of his followers, Vallabhbhai Patel told village audiences along the route that the march [was to be] “a dharmayudh, a battle of righteousness, for good against evil, ‘unprecedented in the history of the world…’”
The nationalist press, both in English and in the vernacular languages, was already well-developed and presented the march in “epic and mythic terms”, while Nehru’s father, Motilal, a close friend, “compared it to the march of Lord Rama to Lanka” recounted in the great Hinda epic, the Ramayana.
Gandhi declared: “I can understand there being a tax on such things as hookah, bidis (Indian cigarettes) and liquor…and if I were an emperor, I would levy with your permission a tax of one pie on every bidi…but should one levy a tax on salt?”
He openly defied the authorities, making salt from Indian seawater. He addressed large crowds on the way, adding an increasing number of people each day, thus creating the effect of a rising tide coming not from the sea but from the heart of rural India, where he lived. Playing on a religious register, it was an act of political genius.
An eye witness left a marvellous account of the conclusion of the march:
“When I saw him on the morning of the 4th [of April] he was coming briskly up the straight road…the red sun has just risen….and his body was golden and transfigured, in the light of the morning…It was a quick pace, between running and walking…It did not seem to me he was using his staff to any purpose. He was not particularly leaning upon it. He seemed strong, lean like a lathe and fleet of foot… the country road was cool and frank and beautiful. It struck me there were many ways of walking and that any other would have looked ridiculous. Suppose that he had led the procession at a slower pace, like a gipsy pedlar or a mandarin, how incongruous it would be. I realised what a consummate artist-realist the old man must be. The breathless walk made you see how urgent and downright and final was his message.”
Ramachandra Guta has written what will be for a long time the definitive biography of Mahatmaji, the Great Soul. He is not blind to his often self-acknowledged weaknesses or what appear as his eccentricities, particularly in relation to his family. However, he has captured his essential greatness, and what is now the myth in the best sense of that term.
While I had read his autobiography and seen Richard Attenborough’s wonderful film, I had never read a critical biography of Gandhi. Reading this doorstopper of over 900 pages has been a rewarding experience in a time when politics and politicians seem too often to let us down.
Patrick Claffey SVD lectures in World Religions at Trinity College Dublin. He teaches modules on Christianity in Africa and Asia, the Dharmic Religions of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, and also the relationship between religions and politics in today’s world.