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Home > Tamil National Forum Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha > Remembering Mahatma Gandhi on the 135th anniversary of his Birth

Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

Remembering Mahatma Gandhi
on the 135th anniversary of his Birth

[see also Mahatma Gandhi:An Average Man - Nadesan Satyendra, 1998]

2 October 2004

During the past 40 years, I have read hundreds of popular articles, reasearch papers and a dozen of books on Mahatma Gandhi. Among all the portrayals made of this great human being by academics, acquaintances, politicians and journalists, suppose if I�m asked what I consider as the best, I�d say my number 1 pick is the article by Leo Rosten (1908-1997), which appeared in the Reader�s Digest of July 1983. Note the date. It appeared in July 1983 � a date Eelam Tamils will never forget � and following the 1983 Academy Awards which honored Richard Attenborough�s 1982 movie Gandhi. I have kept an original tear sheet of this article by Leo Rosten in my collection.

Rosten was a noted Poland-born American humorist author. The introductory note to his article (length, only around 2,840 words) stated the obvious, which the Gandhi movie had obscured. It was as follows:

�The saintly image put forth in book and film � most recently in this year�s Academy Award-winning epic � obscures the mortal person the Mahatma truly was; a man often troubled by contradictory and bizarre impulses who was also a leader of great vision and charismatic courage.�

The iconic image-making of Gandhi became an industry in post-independent India. The culprits were India�s pygmy-grade politicians, pundits and mainstream press (including the House of Hindu in Chennai). The money bags owning the House of Hindu initially didn�t even warm up to Gandhi�s agitational politics of non-violence campaigns (see below, for the details). They were fence-sitters in the 1919-21 period, more inclined to protect their business investment, rather than openly supporting the Gandhi, then in his early forties. But, once Gandhi�s agitational campaigns gained momentum among the nominally illiterate masses, making money on Gandhi�s name and fame was an untold, ulterior motive for the Indian money bags.

It was an anathema for these mediocrities to present views such as

(1) Satyagraha as a non-violent technique has limitations (which Gandhi himself has acknowledged) to gain independence from demonic oppressors.

(2) Gandhi was not a democrat; he didn�t contest any elections, held under the sponsorship of his British adversaries.

(3) Gandhi was �often autocratic�. He basically wanted sole representative status in his political negotiations with the British imperialists.

(4) Gandhi didn�t fear death. He passionately advocated thanatophily (thanatos � death; phile � love) for his cause. This is why, among all the portrayals of Gandhi I have read as of now, I like the Gandhi profiled by Leo Rosten. Not that, his was perfect. But, he present a well- rounded personality of Mahatma Gandhi the genius.

In 1991-92, under my pen name C.P.Goliard, I wrote two columns on Gandhi; �Mahatma Gandhi and Tamils� and �The Madras Hindu and the Brahmin Establishment� to the Tamil Nation bi-weekly. In these two columns, I presented how Gandhi was treated by the two types of Tamil Nadu Tamils. The first type (the then illiterate coolies in South Africa) were the enlightened Tamils. The second type (the money bags of the Hindu establishment in Tamil Nadu) were the fence-sitting Tamils. Thus, in celebration of Mahatma Gandhi�s 135th birth anniversary, which falls on October 2nd, I present Leo Rosten�s 1983 article and excerpts from my two 1991- 92 columns to the Tamil Nation.

A Man Called Mahatma

by Leo Rosten

[courtesy: Reader�s Digest, July 1983, pp.124-130.]

The skinny, bald, half-naked Hindu in a loin cloth had walked for 24 days and over 240 miles, to Dandi, north of Bombay. He was recruiting villagers for a peaceful demonstration against the overlords from England. He had coined a name for the protest: Satyagraha, meaning �force of truth�.

He had notified the viceroy that he would deliberately break the law � by picking up a pinch of dried salt at the water�s edge. No Indian was permitted to pan salt, which was a monopoly of the English government. Now he bent down, picked up a small lump of caked salt and held it high. Ideally, native police would brutally break up the crowd. Then India would rise up; offices would empty, railroads would stop running�

But not a single policeman was present. Mahatma Gandhi decided that more provocations were needed. So he announced a reckless and dramatic act: he and his followers would raid the government salt works at Dharsana in the name of the people. He was arrested now, but 2,500 of his followers marched upon the salt works, where 400 police awaited them. The Satyagrahis were clubbed about the head and body. �Not one raised an arm to ward off the blow,� wrote Webb Miller of the United Press. �The waiting marchers groaned and sucked in their breaths at every blow, [then] marched on until struck down.� The horror went on for two hours, the phalanxes surging on, stomped, hurled into ditches. Everywhere people lay moaning or unconscious. The date was May 21, 1930. Miller�s chilling report raced to the farthest parts of the globe. The salt-march massacre was a turning point in the history of India � and, as it turned out, of the world.

This extraordinary man called the Mahatma (�Great Soul�) absolutely baffled the colonial governors. They called him a crackpot, a hypocrite, a mystic. To the rajahs and maharajahs in their palaces, he was a preposterous rabble-rouser. To the Indian politicians struggling for home rule, he was a deluded demagogue. To an incredulous Parliament in London, he was a �troublemaker in a nappie�.

Touring India�s engorged cities and squalid villages, he championed a revolutionary weapon; peaceful disobedience. Early in his life, he read in the New Testament: ��resist not evil � but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other�� Years later, he remembered that �the words went straight to my heart�. He appeared in the most wretched parts of India, with a goat whose milk he drank. He was a vegetarian. He addressed mass meetings; sometimes he would sit absolutely silent, cross-legged, on a high platform � and his audiences remained silent too, transfixed.

He held no office. He commanded no soldiers. He had no formal authority. Yet he could paralyze India, for at his word his followers simply stopped working and crippled the nation�s offices, factories, railways. His votaries deliberately invited arrest by the tens of thousands. He, himself, spent some 2,100 days in Indian jails, after 249 in South Africa. �Jail is jail for thieves�, he said. �For me, it is a temple�. As a masterstroke, he fasted. Nothing so haunted the satraps in Delhi or the wisest men in Parliament as the nightmare of what might happen, the length and breadth of India, if �this seditious fakir�, as Winston Churchill growled, were to die of starvation. What could one do with such a man?

He was born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1869, in Porbandar, India. The Gandhis were middle-class Hindus (�Gandhi� means grocer) of the Vaishyas caste, ranking just below the awesome Brahmans (priests, scholars) and the Kshatriyas (noblemen, warriors). The Gandhis, strongly influenced by a strict pacifist sect, abhorred the taking of life, even that of an insect. Young Gandhi took as his models two holy figures from Hindu mythology, one who represented Truthfulness and one who symbolized Sacrifice. At the age of 13, he was married off to a 13-year-old girl. Sent to London to study law, the shy, melancholy young Hindu sought to turn himself into a proper Englishman. He practiced elocution, studied French, even took dancing lessons.

After three years in London, he passed his law exams and returned to India. A Moslem company soon asked him to go to South Africa to help handle a lawsuit. There a searing episode changed his life. First class tickets to Pretoria had been purchased for him by his employer. At Pietermaritzburg � the first stop of his journey by rail � a European entered the compartment. Seeing a Colored, however English his dress, the white man summoned the conductor, furious at sharing a compartment with �a damn coolie�. Gandhi refused to go to the baggage compartment and was thrown off the train. The humiliation proved to be �the most creative experience of my life�, Gandhi said. �My active nonviolence began from that date�.

The gaunt, jug-eared barrister began to urge his despised and voteless compatriots to unite for �peaceful disobedience�. Gandhi had learned this doctrine from reading Tolstoy and the American advocate of civil protest, Henry David Thoreau. Soon Gandhi was expounding the doctrine of ahimsa (non violence). He admonished Indians in South Africa to purge themselves of the ancient hatred that split Hindu from Moslem. He drummed two injunctions into the minds of the ignorant; they must be clean (public hygiene was an alien concept in India), and they must set a moral example by practicing absolute truthfulness.

Gandhi began to denounce a series of prejudicial acts by the South African authorities; the restricting of travel by Indians, making strikes a breach of law, holding only Christian marriages legal. After 50,000 Indians joined this Satyagraha campaign, the government enacted a historic reform bill. Eventually he turned away from politics to pursue his spiritual longings. �What I have been striving for [all] these years is to see God face to face�. He established an ashram, a working agrarian commune devoted to prayer, meditation and humility. And in 1915, 22 years after he had arrived in South Africa, he forsook his law practice to return to India.

India? The name is misleading. For this was not a nation; it was a hodgepodge of principalities, a patchwork of faiths and superstitions, a conglomeration of creeds and cults and castes who slaughtered one another in periodic orgies of fanaticism. Even today, India harbors 312 languages � 15 of them official � and some 1,400 dialects. The land was besotted with myriad mythologies and superstititions, and so ravaged by plagues and famine that it sometimes seemed to be the domain of the dead. Most shocking were the Untouchables; 50 million social lepers yoked to the basest tasks, forbidden to live in villages or drink from public wells or enter a caste temple; bound to shout �Unclean! Unclean!� as a warning to others of their approach. It was to this India, in which cholera, typhoid, hepatitis and dysentery felled millions, while billionaire maharajahs wielded power over the docile masses, that Mohandas Gandhi returned. �All India,� he announced, �is my family�.

Gandhi established another ashram and calmly declared that he welcomed: Untouchables! He called them �Harijans� (�children of God�. His most loyal disciples were horrified by this defiance of taboo. Even his obedient wife, appalled, warned him that an ashram so �defiled� was certain to fail. For years thereafter Gandhi was harassed by orthodox Hindus and by gangs of youths who would lie down in front of any vehicle in which he rode. When his car was stoned, Gandhi would get out and march straight into the mob, and sometimes he would be so frustrated that he would cry �Kill me! Why are you afraid to kill me?�

He never feared dying, nor was he unduly upset by the death of others � if they died �innocently�, voluntarily. To him, death meant the achievement of perfect Brahmacharya, the state of no sensuality, of sinlessness. Ideally, death meant to be forever united with God. His new ashram grew to over 200 souls, among them athiests, racists, bigots, advocates of violence. When a startled visitor asked Gandhi how he could accept them, he replied, �Mine is a madhouse, and I am the maddest of the lot. But those who cannot see the good in those people should have their eyes examined.� When funds for the utopian retreat were exhausted, Gandhi said, �We shall go to live in the Untouchable quarter�. And they did.

�Gandhiji�, as his adoring followers now called him, began a campaign to persuade Indians to boycott British goods. The exhilarations aroused by the boycott soared beyond control. A mob of excited Satyagrahis clashed with police in the village of Chauri Chaura. Twenty-two policemen were hacked to pieces. Gandhi, stunned, canceled his crusade. And those politicians who despised ahimsa, who insisted that massive force would sooner achieve Indian independence, berated the Mahatma. He was stoned, vilified, almost assassinated. But he also became the acknowledged leader of India�s National Congress, and the father of modern India.

His fame spread around the world. Idealists and converts flocked to him. He was venerated as an avatar (an incarnation of a deity). It is to Gandhi�s credit, however, that he begged his disciples not to �treat me as a god�. To an Englishman who sneered, �You are a saint meddling in politics�, Gandhi replied, �No, I am a politician trying to be a saint.� He beseeched his followers to love those who reviled them. When his political rivals taunted him because he refused to call the British enemies, he said, �If we are just to them, we shall receive their support�.

Gandhi�s conduct in World War II was utterly bewildering to Westerners. When Japan seemed about to invade India, Gandhi advised his countrymen; let the Japanese take as much of India as they want, but make the conquerors �feel unwanted�. With England defending India, Gandhi wanted to call a disobedience campaign to hasten Indian independence. That it would also cripple the production of arms sorely needed by Indian, no less than British, troops seems not to have disturbed him. And, in an open letter to the besieged, bombed people of Britain, Gandhi urged surrender: �Let them take possession of your beautiful island with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls nor your minds.� He once wrote to the viceroy: �Hitler is not a bad man.� More incredible is the letter Gandhiji wrote to Adolf Hitler on December 24, 1941:

�We have no doubt about your devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But many of your acts are monstrous. We resist the British Imperialism no less than Nazism�If there is a difference, it is [only] in degree.�

And if all this is too much to believe, the Mahatma advised the desperate Jews of Europe to rebuke Hitler by committing suicide en masse; this would be a noble martyrdom, he promised; it would �arouse� world opinion; it would leave humanity �a rich heritage�.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, leader of the militant Moslem League, had long demanded the partition of India, so that Moslems would have a separate homeland � Pakistan: �I will not accept the replacement of English tyranny by the tyranny of the Hindus�. Gandhi fiercely opposed partition, predicting bloodshed. Jinnah proclaimed a �Direct Action Day� on August 15, 1946, in Bengal. One result of this was an outbreak of unprecedented violence in Calcutta, where Hindu and Moslem mobs went crazy � attacking, raping, beheading one another.

Two months later the 77 year-old Gandhi set forth for another bloodied city, Noakhali, where Moslems had gone wild. With an interpreter and secretary, he proceeded, barefoot, trying to still the terror, preaching his gospel of love. He so walked for four months. Although his effort succeeded around Noakhali, the violence spread like wildfire to other provinces.

India became independent on August 15, 1947. As Hindus and Sikhs moved eastward, out of the newly created Pakistan, they clashed with Moslems from East Punjab heading west to their new land. Literally millions of people perished in the ensuing carnage. Gandhi, stricken, announced that he would fast �to the end� unless the blood bath stopped. To the Mahatma�s bedside came Moslem, Sikh and Hindu leaders, pledging themselves to stop the killings. But in September hideous riots broke out in Delhi; again Gandhi fasted.

Orthodox Hindus were incensed by the Mahatma�s call for love of the detested Moslems. During one of Gandhi�s evening prayer meetings, a bomb exploded. Gandhiji objected when police searched those who came to his next meetings, telling the officers not to worry about his safety. �If I have to die, I shall die at a prayer meeting.� And so it happened. He was on his way to a huge prayer meeting in 1948 when he was killed � not by a Moslem but by a Hindu, a zealot who hated Gandhi�s pro-Moslem and �Christian� ways and blamed him for partition. Shot at close range, in chest and abdomen, he cried �Hai Rama� (�Oh, God�).

The Mahatma�s ashes were carefully portioned out to province governors, and tiny amounts were cast into each of India�s sacred rivers. His great disciple and chosen successor, Jawaharlal Nehru, spoke for uncountable millions when he said, �The light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere.�

Today, not 40 yeas after his death, the story of Mahatma Gandhi seems a medieval saga. History, unlike movies, must reserve judgment on his achievement. Some scholars believe that India�s independence was imminent, and that the erratic and unrealistic Gandhi actually delayed it. The success of Gandhi�s Satyagraha tells us as much about the English as it does about passive resistance. For despite dubious ordinances and harsh law enforcement, the English did remain committed to decency. Gandhiji confessed: �I doubt if I ever could have succeeded against any other nation.�

The Untouchables are marginally better off because of him. But India�s hierarchy of birth, riches and loathing still survives. Nor has India given the world a shining example of Gandhi�s ideals. In 30 years, India has waged three bloody wars with Pakistan. For all his beatification by the masses, for all the nobility of his purpose, Gandhi was not a saint. He had a sharp temper and a prickly temperament. He would not work with many who would have strengthened a common cause. He was often autocratic. His periods of silence, to say nothing of his fasts, produced a bounty of �inner voices�, guiding (or misguiding) him. His penchant for eloquent outbursts led him to cry, �I would not flinch from sacrificing a million lives for India�s liberty!� For a man who held that to take even an ant�s life is evil, the offering of a million lies gives one pause.

In politics, Gandhi was much shrewder than he appeared. Consider the political power of his fasts. From his bare hut came messages, radio speeches, interviews. Day by day, in this apparent march to death by starvation, the world�s excitement mounted. Every minor scrap of information held millions enthralled � and triggered marches from Bombay to Boston to Berlin.

Gandhiji�s treatment of his family was not heartwarming. His moral demands were so harsh that they alienated his four sons. He took a vow of total celibacy at the age of 37 and ordered his two older sons to make the same lifelong commitment. When Harilal, the eldest, wanted to marry, Gandhi refused to give him his blessing. Harilal converted to the Moslem faith, became an alcoholic and died of tuberculosis.

Gandhi did not give his children much education. He also denied elementary education to his wife, who, for the 42 years after Gandhi took his vow of celibacy, bore the burden of her husband�s compulsive rectitude. He had said of her sad expression, �It is often like that on the face of a meek cow. I see, too, that there is selfishness in this suffering of hers.� Gandhi�s celebrated celibacy embraced some curious facts. It was widely rumored that the young girls of his ashrams slept in his bed. Nor that the Mahatma violated his vows. He just let the maidens hold him in their arms while he �tested� his self-control.

But Gandhi�s wiles and quirks do not diminish his humanity or the superhuman magnitude of his courage. He launched three great mass movements; against colonialism, against racism, against religious intolerance. He gave our modern world an electrifying vision of the potential of peaceful resistance, and young men like Martin Luther King Jr. took him as their model. Albert Einstein said, �Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.�

Gandhi was flawed, as we all are; he was driven by a corroding rage for �perfection�, as few of us are. He is already a legend, the very incarnation of compassion, a beacon of religious intolerance, champion of the poor and the degraded, to whom he gave a new and historic sense of self-respect. To the mega-millions, whatever his faults, he will forever be; the Mahatma.



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