by Rick McCharles <e-mail>
Gandhi's "Village of Service" ashram is in Sevagram, the very heart of India. We were greeted warmly by Rambhau. Smiling, he handed us the daily schedule:
4:30 AM! Wake-up
6:30 "Bread Labour"
8:00 Kitchen work
2:00 pm (spinning thread)
7:30 (devotional & national music / discussion)
Gandhi said, My life is my message. The study of Gandhian thought here is active learning.
Rambhau is fit & energized, kindly & wise. During morning bread labour (the dirtiest jobs he can find) he joyfully outworks the backpackers.
As a fire-brand at age 18, he told his family he would go to the revolutionary, Gandhi. Father threatened suicide. Rambhau asked that he do it quickly so that he could perform the last rites. Rambhau would not return home.
He's been at the ashram since -- over 50 years.
Rambhau has not travelled. He's not seen the mountains where old Hindus should go. Echoing Gandhi, he said, My Himalayas are here.
Rambhau is inspiring and grand. But there is a grander. Grander than the God of Michelangelo. Stooped, big-bearded, bushy-eyed. The ancient's mobility is limited but, in excellent English, he told that he was still completely self-sufficient. He joined in 1945.
Another of Gandhi's Freedom Fighters, age 75, was visiting. He did go to the Himalayas, completing the sacred Narmada river pilgrimage as a sadhu. For over 450 days he never touched money. Best experience of his life. He was still elated.
I suggested to his son that father had earned a good rest. I'm afraid not, he said. Now he will be a caged tiger.
In 1916 Gandhi was to speak to a noisy crowd who did not yet know him. He stood on a table.
I will not address you as long as I hear the voice of even a single person, nor will I leave this hall as long as a single person is left to hear me. Know that I am obstinate.
These words had a magic effect. Three in the audience that night became disciples. One was Desai -- Gandhi's personal secretary for life.
Who was Gandhi that he could so inspire these impressive people? I only knew him as Ben Kingsley.
In the West we vaguely associate the Mahatma ("great soul") with:
- winning Indian Independence
- passive resistance
- acceptance of poverty
- return to the simplicity of India's rural economy
Each of these is wrong.
Who was Gandhi?
Nehru said his greatest gift was fearlessness. Indeed, that is the Gita's first divine quality of the Man of Steadfast Wisdom, Gandhi's favourite scripture which we recited daily at the ashram:
... jealous of none, who is without egotism, who is selfless, who treats alike hot and cold, happiness and misery, who is ever forgiving, who is always contented, who's resolutions are firm, who is versed in action and yet remains unaffected by it, who treats friend and foe alike, who loves silence and solitude, who has a disciplined reason
Multi-denominational prayers are chanted in Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu (Islam), and English (Lord's Prayer). A blind man accompanies on home-made sitar.
Though Gandhi's fearlessness was to fear nothing and frighten no one, I find it scary. A Buddhist detachment.
Death is not such a disaster. It comes sooner or later.
Some are ready to die, but can't bear to have their loved ones taken away. Others can't part with property. Others fear the bad opinion of the world.
Gandhi met the King of England as a half-naked fakir (Churchill), wearing a peasant's dhoti. Like Christ he defied the greatest Empire, alone.
When asked if he felt under-dressed for Buckingham Palace, he replied, The King was wearing enough for the both of us.
In the West we mainly know Gandhi for freeing India. Actually, this was his darkest hour, Partition his greatest defeat. Perhaps 500,000 dead, 10 million displaced. While they celebrated Independence in Delhi, Gandhi was comforting the despairing in East Bengal. He declined to speak to the BBC -- They must forget I know how to speak English.
Gandhi was a warrior, as driven to conquer as any Alexander.
My mission is to convert every Indian, every Englishman, and finally the world to non-violence.
I've been a fighter for over 50 years. But I found weapons more powerful than guns and tanks -- truth and non-violence"
Does this sound like a passive resister?
He was no martyr, but a man of action. He wanted results. Like any general, he picked his battles.
He fought for South African Indians but not for the Blacks. (Mandella has forgiven him.) Through the deliverance of India, I seek to deliver the so-called weaker races of the Earth.
He fought for untouchables, but downplayed other caste injustice. If untouchability goes, the caste system goes.
Gandhi loved confrontation. Loved to win over his opponent with courtesy, kindness, and the power of his personality.
Gandhi was no peace-nik. He was warlike, and was called to task for it by one of his greatest admirers, The Poet Tagore, who felt that hunger strikes and burning of British cloth were not conversion but coercion, a lesser violence.
Gandhi and war:
- Zulu war -- NON-VIOLENT support of British. Ambulance core.
- WW 1 -- VIOLENT support of the British. Tried to enlist Indian soldiers.
- WW 2 -- NON-VIOLENT moral (conditional) support of British.
- 1947 -- VIOLENT support. Told Nehru, You can't escape sending the army to Kashmir.
Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.
Gandhi slipped at the end. Compassion got the better of him. If he did not reluctantly agree to Partition, his comrades would be ruined.
Gandhi loved to call himself a Hindu. But wasn't he a heretic? He abandoned the temple by age 16. He knew no idol. He railed against untouchability and Hindu treatment of women. In fact, he denounced almost all of what we would call Hinduism as superstition.
Humanitarianism. That was Gandhi's God, though he called it Rama.
I will give you a talisman. Recall the face of the poorest and most helpless man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.
This talisman is key to understanding Gandhi. This is the premise. Everything else falls into place.
One disciple kept 2 photos on his wall; Gandhi (my master) and a poor peasant (my master's master).
Gandhi's fight to free India was only a means to an end. Under colonial exploiters it was impossible to fight poverty, prevent disease, end suffering. Even before self-rule had been won, his focus had shifted to Advancement of All.
For Gandhi, work was worship. To work until not a single citizen was deprived of the necessities of life.
His last (unheeded) directive to the Congress Party was to disband; to pledge to make every village self-sufficient; that all workers form a service army to promote:
- Khadi (hand-spun clothing)
- basic education
- women's welfare
- removing untouchability
- Hindu-Muslim unity
- "Peace Army"
Gandhi had great timing, a marvellous gift for symbolic action. He kept it simple. The audience was illiterate; the dumb millions. He identified with and united these disparate people beyond what seemed possible.
Remember his march to Dandi? To pick-up natural sea salt which the British were trying to tax. That was perfect.
I want world attention in this battle of right vs. might.
His ashram is a living museum almost unchanged since his death. It was Gandhi's experiment in training Satyagrahas (seekers after the steadfast truth), sometimes called Sadhaks (servants of society).
The "inmates" vow to live by Gandhi's 11 Commandments:
- Bread Labour
- Control of Palate
- Equality of religions
- Self-sufficiency (use local products only)
- Removal of untouchability
Sadhaks seek spiritual fulfilment through social service, without living beyond the means of the poor.
When a court asked Gandhi his occupation he replied, Farmer and weaver.
Non-stealing is much more than Thou shall not steal. Gandhi felt that keeping a secret was stealing; accepting anything you don't really need is thieving; even a desire could be theft.
Non-possession is voluntary poverty, and more. Being content with the minimum possible, and being a trustee of those few items, not the owner. Gandhi admired sadhus who seek truth with no possessions. The rest of us need critically examine our possessions and try to reduce them.
Bread Labour is a curious Russian notion that people should WORK for their breakfast. Manual labour. Farm work is best.
We ate excellent food; seasonal, home-grown, unseasoned (except for a little salt and sugar). Ideally the sun should be our only cook.
They use solar cookers and a cow manure biogas stove. Gandhi advocated we drink 2 pounds! of milk every day, (no wonder cow protection is so important) boiled, though he knew that not to be completely safe.
Everyone washes their own dishes, scouring with ash.
I won't dwell on Gandhi's failed experiments, his mistakes -- but I'll note a few briefly.
He had some mistaken ideas of holistic medicine -- using mudpacks, for example, to treat all manner of illness.
Gandhi did not advocate contraception. Big mistake. Reincarnated today (after a quick headcount) he would reverse that stand, as well as his opposition to inoculation.
He was too puritanical, though as forgiving as demanding. Too enamoured of the religious traditions of renunciation, prayer as confession of unworthiness, fasting, and penance.
Chastity as a straight and narrow road to enlightenment is over-rated at best, anguishing and damaging at worst. I'm surprised it persists with so many seekers.
Most infamously, in the last years, Gandhi tested his self-control (hoping to gain power) by asking young women to lay down with him at night. Other people slept nearby, doors were open. But perhaps this was his Himalayan blunder.
Notwithstanding his few and unimportant faults, Gandhi will prove to be our greatest prophet. The warrior brave enough to embrace his enemy. When I say Gandhi, I see King, Mandella, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Non-violence is increasingly the only option. Would India and Pakistan be playing cricket if both had not tested nuclear weapons?
(Now that an Islamic nation has the bomb, it's time to revisit the hasty British withdrawal from India and the Middle East; the role of Indian-hating Churchill in the dynamic.)
Ultimately Gandhi declared that Truth is God. A leader who puts truth first is credible -- essential if conflicts are to be resolved with words. The alternative is arms.
I regard Gandhi as the only truly great figure of our age.... Generations to come will scarce believe that a one such as this was ever flesh and blood walked the Earth.
It would surprise me if Gandhi is not soon worshipped as a God -- an incarnation of Vishnu, along with the Buddha.
Perhaps those two are together now. Gandhi said if he was ever fortunate enough to talk with the Lord Buddha he wouldn't hesitate to ask him why he did not teach the gospel of WORK instead of contemplation.
Gandhi embraced the Christian work ethic. (I've come to believe this is wrong. Many workaholics are misled. Good work is good. Bad work is bad, or at least a waste of time.)
It will take some decades (as it did with Christ and Siddhartha) to forget he was human. Now is not the time.
Vinoba was asked what Gandhi would think of how India was progressing.
Men like Gandhi transcend time. He is known as the father of the nation. We are all his children. For the moment, we are behaving as children.
In his lifetime we worked with confidence, but not self-confidence. We worked with confidence in Gandhi.
Vinoba said we should not be dismayed. The forces of peace in the world have never been as strong. It took great vision to make this statement during the Cold War.
Gandhi and grandson Kanaa