Why Gandhi Today?

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Why does a man who was born 150 years ago in India mean so much to me and, I would argue, all of us? 

In brief

  • Gandhi developed passive resistance into active nonviolence.
  • Gandhi fought racism in South Africa and colonialism in India.
  • Gandhi emphasized economic resistance and resistance to religious and cultural difference as much or more than political resistance.
  • Gandhi focussed on what each person, and many people together, can do for themselves, as more powerful and essential than changing leaders
  • Gandhi presented nonviolence as both moral and practical
  • Gandhi’s saw personal life and political life as one, connected, what works in one works in the other, both violence and love.
  • Gandhi saw love as the core attribute of the soul, and human souls joining in action as the most powerful force.
  • Gandhi thought our suffering is the source of our strength, the truth of our oppressed situations, which, when presented openly moves people to change oppression.
  • Gandhi saw his life as experiments, as occasions to grow, learn from mistakes, learn from allies and enemies, with curiosity and courage. 
  • For us to succeed in improving our problematic society, we can learn a lot from Gandhi’s discoveries. 

Gandhi began public life at age 21 writing articles on vegetarianism in London, he began to fight for his people in South Africa at age 26, and at age 37, on September 11, 1906, Gandhi initiated a method of mass noncooperation that he soon named satyagrahaor nonviolence.

Discovery of Nonviolence

Like all discoveries, nonviolence has many antecedents. Gandhi learned from methods of social protest in his Gujarati Indian culture called hartal and dharma, from “Nonconformists” in England, and from Leo Tolstoy’s “non-resistance to evil”. Though the press used the common term “passive resistance,” there was nothing passive in Gandhi’s method, and today we use terms like nonviolent resistance, active nonviolence, civil resistance, love in action.

Gandhi learned from these examples and discovered his own ways in confronting the racism of a new South African nationstate that overtly defined white privilege in law and policy. He began, as most freedom fighters do, to organize for his own people, Indians, in South Africa, and it took time before he recognized the cause of African natives. Gandhi was not the formed man we may remember to start with. He grew, faced and broke through a remarkable number of limitations, though not all. My question is, what can I learn in my life from this pioneer of popular action for justice?

Portrait of Gandhi

Gandhi’s Sources and Personal Practices

Gandhi was born into religious pluralism, living close among Hindus and Muslims in his home state of Kaawar, India. Traveling outside his homeland at a young age, he found intellectual pluralism in London and South Africa, living in households with feminists, seekers, social experimenters. From the beginning he insisted that his social movements featured Muslims, Hindus, Tamils, Parsis, Chinese Buddhists, theosophists, Christians, Jews.

From his first vows to his mother to not eat meat, drink alcohol or be unfaithful to his wife when he went to London, Gandhi developed personal practices that he kept at the core of his life as a community activist. He developed a very strict diet, fasted often, performed difficult tasks himself before asking others to do them, and lived in community. The Nonviolence we learn from Gandhi was more than protest. More than questioning authority. More than instinctual noncooperation with unjust conditions. More than electoral politics.

The Nonviolence we learn from Gandhi was more than protest. More than questioning authority. More than instinctual noncooperation with unjust conditions. More than electoral politics.

Nonviolent Action Campaigns

Gandhi’s nonviolence was practiced in campaigns—planned series of actions directed at specific institutions seeking to change specific laws and policies. Gandhi-organized campaigns usually included personal meetings with leaders responsible for the injustice, direct public appeals to them, defiance of unjust laws by many people, intentional seeking of arrest and jailing, training of activists, leafletting and appeals to the community urging participation, coordinated courting of arrest to continue the pressure on authorities, accompanied by refusal to blame authorities, seeking compromises to gain some portion of goals, all grounded in the power people possess in their own human capacities, and abilities to withdraw cooperation with injustice and build their own just relationships.

Culture of Nonviolence

Gandhi created a culture of nonviolence. He founded two intentional communities or Ashrams in South African, Phoenix and Tolstoy Farm. He wrote constantly in the magazine Indian Opinion printed by the collective at Phoenix, addressing every aspect of politics and daily life. “You must watch my life, how I live, eat, sit, talk, behave in general. The sum total of all those in me is my religion.” I call that view moral, and practical.

Nonviolence as a process of personal growth

Gandhi grew. He learned and developed his own understanding.

His nonviolence was a process. Satyagraha means grasping the truth and Gandhi saw every person containing truth. Gandhi’s life and nonviolence was active engagement with others to discover value in every person, outcast and ruler, and seek resolutions that honored everybody—while not giving in to institutional violences that dishonor the marginalized.

Principle of Self Rule

Gandhi’s nonviolence was devoted to self rule. National self rule, community self rule, personal self rule. Hind Swarajin Gujarati and the title of his fundamental book telling his personal, social and political philosophy. Gandhi took self rule to the extreme. He meant everyday possession of the means and methods of our lives. The culture he advocated and practiced was to refuse participation in technologies and economies of oppression as well as oppressive politics. Make your own clothes. Eat simply. Develop silence. Do the dirty work like cleaning latrines. Read texts of many religions and social philosophers. Gandhi even criticized train travel, though he did it, he much preferred to walk, and founded many of his nonviolent actions in walking, and talking. And he meant self control of emotions, desires, and lifestyles. “…as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power that can move the world.” 

Gandhi emphasized self-criticism over criticism of leaders, even as he could be critical of leaders. Gandhi believed our fates and our conditions are in our hands. We need withdraw our allegiance and the ways we orient our lives to the mass institutions that are oppressive, and create our own just, dignified, courageous, inter-communal, (we could say intersectional), lives with others, in our localities.

Power of suffering

One last point is a difficult one to understand. Gandhi saw strength in willingness to suffer for one’s rights and dignity. Members of his movements openly sought arrest and jail as a key strategy. The way I see it, putting vulnerability at the forefront of social action attracts attention to the human quality of the injustice, motivates the call to change what can not be ignored when it is presented dramatically in public, without changing focus to attacks on others. 

Personal is Political

Gandhi’s life stood for what we call “the personal is political.” There is a relationship between the ways we live and interact with one another and the ways we participate in larger institutions and nations. Love is not something confined to family life and impractical in politics or international relations. Violence is counterproductive on the street and on the battlefield. The means   we use create end results. Live personal and political lives that build culture and institutions of mutual respect and wellbeing for every person and all of the living environment.  That’s nonviolence, hinted at in hundreds of ways by Gandhi. While it is the honored legacy of no one flawed person, nonviolence is a most accessible opportunity for each of us, with plenty of examples from the creativity of many people in many struggles to learn from.

Mohandas Gandhi lived in another time and another country. Learn a lot about Gandhi and find many quirky qualities. Find things to criticize. Still, the broad and deep method and culture of nonviolence that Gandhi discovered and practiced and urged upon the whole world contains many qualities that we need, to live amidst technologies and means of exploitation that reach deeper and deeper into our lives, our dignity, our environment, our communities.

I encourage you to learn from Gandhi, and many other practitioners of nonviolence, and welcome you to do so with the Resource Center for Nonviolence.

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