“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
Known as ‘Mahatma’ (great soul), Gandhi was the leader of the Indian nationalist movement against British rule, and is widely considered the father of his country. His doctrine of non-violent protest to achieve political and social progress has been hugely influential.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869 in Porbandar in Gujarat. After university, he went to London to train as a barrister. He returned to India in 1891 and in 1893 accepted a job at an Indian law firm in Durban, South Africa. Gandhi was appalled by the treatment of Indian immigrants there, and joined the struggle to obtain basic rights for them. During his 20 years in South Africa he was sent to prison many times. Influenced primarily by Hinduism, but also by elements of Jainism and Christianity as well as writers including Tolstoy and Thoreau, Gandhi developed the satyagraha (‘devotion to truth’), a new non-violent way to redress wrongs. In 1914, the South African government conceded to many of Gandhi’s demands.
Gandhi returned to India shortly afterwards. In 1919, British plans to intern people suspected of sedition – the Rowlatt Acts – prompted Gandhi to announce a new satyagraha which attracted millions of followers. A demonstration against the acts resulted in the Amritsar Massacre by British troops. By 1920, Gandhi was a dominant figure in Indian politics. He transformed the Indian National Congress, and his programme of peaceful non-cooperation with the British included boycotts of British goods and institutions, leading to arrests of thousands.
In 1922, Gandhi himself was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. He was released after two years and withdrew from politics, devoting himself to trying to improve Hindu-Muslim relations, which had worsened. In 1930, Gandhi proclaimed a new campaign of civil disobedience in protest at a tax on salt, leading thousands on a ‘March to the Sea’ to symbolically make their own salt from seawater.
In 1931, Gandhi attended the Round Table Conference in London, as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress, but resigned from the party in 1934 in protest at its use of non-violence as a political expedient. He was replaced as leader by Jawaharlal Nehru.
In 1945, the British government began negotiations which culminated in the Mountbatten Plan of June 1947, and the formation of the two new independent states of India and Pakistan, divided along religious lines. Massive inter-communal violence marred the months before and after independence. Gandhi was opposed to partition, and now fasted in an attempt to bring calm in Calcutta and Delhi. On 30 January 1948, he was assassinated in Delhi by a Hindu fanatic.
Listen Below: The Speech of Mahatma Gandhi recorded in Kingsley Hall, London in 1931.
The Gandhian Principles
The first principle which guided all his thoughts and activities is the complete unity and integrity of body, mind and soul in the individual human being. He was never tired of saying that the body should be controlled by the mind and the mind by the soul. But this control is not to be achieved by despising or neglecting either the body or the mind or in the mystic exaltation of the soul by itself. He attached to physical health and well-being as much importance as to plain and logical thinking or moral responsibility. He was one of the most logical and powerful writers; yet, he was never tired of decrying all idle and purposeless playing with words and ideas or deification of thought as such. He was convinced that real thought must be organically connected to moral purposes on the one side and useful and right action on the other.
It has been claimed that the greatest achievement of Gandhi was the spiritualization of politics. This is undoubtedly true; but he had no faith in spirituality by itself as an abstract virtue. He conceived it as a kind of illumination or fragrance which should accompany every thought and action. It is difficult to define it, except, perhaps, through the verses of the Bhagavad-Gita which constituted his daily prayer.
The second principle of Gandhian philosophy may be stated as follows: All social action should be governed by the same simple set of moral values, of which the main elements are selflessness, non-attachment, nonviolence and active service. It will take me too long to define and elaborate his ideas in respect of each of these; but he believed that the growth of a mans personality is proportionate to his faith in and practice of these virtues. This is possible only when he identifies himself more and more with an ever-increasing circle till it embraces all humanity and even all living beings. He judged the value and vitality of social institutions by their capacity to foster such growth.
His third conviction was that no society, state or any other institution has any worth or importance apart from its part in contributing to the growth of the individuals of which it is composed. The State, the Nation, the community and other traditional groupings had no intrinsic value for him. In the pages of Young Indis in the earlier years, he defended the caste system as a great scheme of social and sexual discipline; but in the light of actual experience he abandoned it as an impractical system, though to the end he believed in some kind of voluntary and ideal social groups based on qualifications and capacity for service.
It was Gandhi’s firm conviction that means are at least as important as, and often even more important than, ends. It is, of course, desirable that ends should be good and reasonable. But they merely give a direction to life while the means adopted constitute life itself. Therefore, if the means are right, that is, if they conform to the tests of truth and nonviolence, even mistakes, errors and failures aid the growth of the individual. On the other hand, wrong means corrupt the soul and no good can ever come out of them. Gandhi repudiated categorically the idea that ends justify the means. This implies the rejection of war, espionage and crooked diplomacy, even when they are adopted for the so-called noble ends of defending the country, religion or humanity.
Faith in God is, according to Gandhi, the foundation of all moral values. He never defined God and was prepared to allow every person to have his own idea of God. For himself, he was inclined to think of Him as the Upanishadic Brahman. But, so long as a person believes in some source of spiritual life and holds it superior to the material universe, he is a believer in God. Gandhi had no objection even to a formal profession of agnosticism, so long as a person demonstrated by his attachment to moral values that this outlook was essentially spiritual in essence.