The Activist

On January 30, 1948, the Friday he died, Mahatma Gandhi was what he had always been: a private citizen without wealth, property, official title, official post, academic distinction, scientific achievement or artistic gifts.                                                                                                                                           Louis Fischer

On 13 November 1909, a few weeks after his 40th birthday Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi boarded the S.S. Kildonan Castle to return to South Africa from Britain. As the ship pulled out to sea he sat down with a stack of its stationery and began writing an imagined conversation in which an Editor (himself) sought to convince a scepticalReader that India could win its independence from Britain using nonviolent “soul force.” It was a seemingly absurd argument, for Britain was the Super-Power of that ruthless era, untrammeled by either formal or informal codes to constrain its raw force; but he labored at it in a quiet frenzy, seldom stopping even to rest his hand; when the right tired he switched to the left. On 22 November when Gandhi finished writing, he had a 285-page manuscript in Gujarati titled Hind Swaraj (Indian Independence). It was the seminal work of his political career, not only explaining what he would do in the 39 years that remained of his life, but staking a larger claim on what Indian civilization could do to turn the world from the violent course that Europe had set for it in the previous four centuries.

Gandhi had been mulling Hind Swaraj for most of the four months he had been in London, lobbying parliament to protect the rights of Indians as it moved to authorize a blatantly White supremacist constitution for the new Union of South Africa. He and a fellow delegate had called on every official in London who would condescend to give them a hearing, and presented their case energetically to as many journalists as they could meet, but to no avail. The legislation sailed through parliament with no mention of the need to protect the rights of Indians. The Africaans leaders who were in London for the occasion made clear through an emissary that the community should expect to face continued discrimination in the new Union. Gandhi was concerned that in these circumstances some Indians in South Africa might follow the example of firebrands elsewhere and take to violence. There had been a growing number of political assassinations in India in recent years, and one even in London that July: an engineering student from the Punjab, Madanlal Dhingra, had approached an invited guest at an Indian celebration and emptied five barrels of his revolver into his face. Curzon Wyllie, the senior political aide to the Secretary of State for India, had died instantly. Gandhi, who was three years into his experiment with nonviolent Satyagraha in the Transvaal, was convinced that such actions betrayed the best values of Indian civilization and would prove disastrous. He “met with every Indian anarchist in the city” to argue the matter, and Hind Swaraj was a distillation of that experience. It was serialized in two December issues of Indian Opinion, the weekly paper Gandhi edited in Johannesburg, before appearing as a book; an English translation appeared in April 1910.

Gandhi was arguably the most influential politician in world history – he led India to freedom, rang down the curtain on the colonial era and set in motion the modern movements for racial equality, human rights and rural development — but Hind Swaraj won few converts among his peers. As he recalled ruefully several decades later, his political mentor in India, the veteran nationalist leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale, told him in 1912 the book was “the work of a fool.” Well after all India referred to him as the Mahatma, Gandhi’s closest associates in the Working Committee of the Indian National Congress refused even to discuss the proposals in the book. The British for their part banned it as soon as it appeared in 1910; they welcomed its nonviolent message but not its worldview. Gandhi was dismissive of two of their fondest claims: that they represented an advanced civilization, and that they had won and held India “by the sword” (“we keep them” declared the Editor). He was more comprehensively radical in his view of the British than any extremist of the Left or Right. Where Marx, and later Hitler, saw British rule as a blessing to India because it broke up what they perceived as the stagnant culture and economy of the village and forced people into the market system, Gandhi thought it was entirely evil and destructive. He looked on mechanized industry as a bane, calculated to benefit the few at the expense of the many; India would be better off avoiding it and developing its traditional civilization, the heart of which was the self-sufficient village.

In 1909, and even more so in 1947, Gandhi’s views made no impact on Europhile Indians, especially the officials who collaborated with the British and were in positions of power when they left. His supposed political heir Jawaharlal Nehru used a long tenure as the first Prime Minister of independent India to begin a massive program of industrialization. Today Nehru is widely lauded for laying the foundation for the country’s current economic success, and few seem to remember Gandhi’s ideas except to reject them. However, appearances are deceiving. His ideas have actually gained relevance as industrial civilization has become ever more destructive of human values and increasingly, a threat to all life. Problems that no one in his time imagined have emerged as global threats. The technologies for mass destruction have proliferated around the world, and to countries that are active sponsors of terrorism. The warming of the planet caused by human activity has raised the prospect of disastrous climate change and rise in sea levels. Industrial wastes have contaminated the entire surface of the planet. Pollution and destruction of natural habitats have begun to drive species to extinction at a rate not equaled since the dinosaurs disappeared. Productive land is being “desertified” even as the need for it grows, with the human population approaching 7 billion. As governments have begun to search for ways to back away from patterns of production and consumption that are threatening all of us with cataclysmic disasters, Gandhi’s recommendation that India stick to its traditional economic and social systems has begun to seem ever more sensible. However, most people have yet to notice that Gandhi’s ideas offer the only path of escape from the wasteland of industrial civilization; they do not see that all global crises are but different faces of an unworkable system and that it is delusional to hope for change through spotty and incremental action negotiated by governments. It is only a matter of time before people realize that emission and pollution controls and conservation measures cannot counter problems driven by the insatiable appetites of the affluent and the ambitions of some six billion people in poor countries to live like the industrialized rich. These circumstances make it opportune to call general attention to Gandhi’s ideas and explore whether we can now revive his political legacy to rescue not just India but the world from the deadly toils of European modernity.

To revive Gandhi’s political legacy we have to begin by acknowledging that our current political understanding is very confused. The Cold War had already begun by the time India became independent, and as the new government in Delhi struggled with the aftermath of Partition and the tasks of nation building there was no time to examine what had happened and how the colonial era had affected the country, especially how we perceived global realities. The impact of colonial oppression, exploitation and manipulative violence went unconsidered as the former colonial Powers shape-shifted into the “Free World” of the Cold War era. Our politicians are not reflective at the best of times, and caught as they have been in the catch-as-catch-can processes of a democracy under innumerable stresses no one has thought it necessary to try and forge a national view of one of the darkest chapters of Indian history. Our historians have been unable to do that either, for they have been divided into ideological camps, so-called “progressives” versus votaries of “Hindutva,” their angry confrontation generating far more heat than light. Politicians and historians alike have treated Gandhi as if he were a saintly aberration in politics. Both the Marxist Left and the Hindu Right have treated him as suspect; the pragmatic Middle has done him empty honor. No one has considered him for what he is, the author of a new and revolutionary political ideology based on spiritual realities, India’s answer to Europe’s violent materialistic conception of human affairs. To know what must be done to turn the world towards such a new political reality it is necessary to have a new understanding of Gandhi, of the nature of the opposition to his ideas, and of the historical context.

The first step towards a new understanding of Gandhi must be to remove the mantle of sainthood thrust on him at death; it has served only to obscure our view. Gandhi was a great and good man but saintliness was not something he cared about or sought to achieve. He was certainly spiritual, but so indeed are the majority of Indians; there are relatively few among us who think the world is just an accidental arrangement of atoms. Gandhi listened to the “still small voice” within him but his success came not from any specific instructions it issued, or from the special quality or quantity of his connection with the divine. God was undoubtedly central to Gandhi’s existence but he demystified that and brought it into the light of reason by declaring that “Truth is God.” In 1928, writing in Young India on God, he had this to say: “I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying, there is underlying all that changes a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves and recreates. That informing power or spirit is God. And since nothing else I see merely through the senses can or will persist, He alone is. … Is this power benevolent or malevolent? I see it as purely benevolent. For I can see that in the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists. Hence, I gather that God is Life, Truth, Light. He is Love. He is the Supreme Good.”














Gandhi’s autobiography, “My Experiments With Truth,” told how an uncertain, painfully shy youth became a leader. It made clear some of his primary attributes: an unremitting honesty and its corollary, a fierce conscience; courage; modesty; organizational capacity; and a spirit never at ease when problems were at hand. In later life he had a combination of virtues Indians associate with a great and realized soul: selflessness, equanimity, brahmacharya, wisdom, and above all, ahimsa. (Brahmacharya and ahimsa, usually translated as “celibate self-control” and “non-violence,” are far more complex concepts. They emerge from, and reflect, an acute awareness of the unity of life and the connection of the individual to the Universal Soul.) All those qualities were potentially quiescent but he focused them into relentless activism. Where other politicians manipulated differences among people to their own advantage he cut through to the universal realm of their inner self, gaining access with that rarest of currencies, a life of self-sacrifice. The clarity with which he combined truth and ahimsa allowed him to communicate across all cultural borders and won to his side great masses of people who never met him and knew little of the complex realities of India. Even those who should have been his adversaries, the lowly workers of Lancashire cotton mills thrown out of work by his boycott of British cloth, recognized him as a friend. Perhaps Gandhi’s most important achievement was the demonstration that the quality of Goodness can be mobilized politically. In a violent racist age filled with iniquities and oppressions of every kind he gave ordinary people the antidote to immoral power and destructive greed.

To do what he did Gandhi had to be extraordinary; we who follow are spared the need to be great; but we do have the responsibility to be informed about his life and work, and to figure out how they bear on contemporary problems. As things stand, we are far from being able to do that. Basic knowledge about Gandhi is at an all time low now in India, judging by the impact of a “Bollywood” movie in which the spirit of the Mahatma appears to a criminal and advises him to do good deeds, thus helping him win the girl of his dreams. The movie gave rise to the feel-good term “Gandhigiri” to describe positive actions in negative situations. The instances of Gandhigirireported by the Indian media include people sending roses to the United States Immigration Service to protest delays in getting visas, and a day of aggressive hospitality and harangues for foreign students at a university in the Punjab in response to press reports of murderous assaults in Australia on Indian students. However, things are probably not as glum as they might appear. The movie did rescue Gandhi from his tomb of sainthood, and young people seem to have developed a new interest in his life and work. Sales of his autobiography have spiked in recent years, and several web sites now offer much information about Gandhi. Of course, the reactivation of Gandhian politics will require a great intensification of education about him.

In Hind Swaraj Gandhi made the case for non-violence as part of a larger thesis: that Indian civilization is far superior to that of Europe. In fact, he declared that Europe did not really have a civilization, for its way of life degraded and endangered society. The foundation of its vaunted progress in such things as improved housing, labor-saving machines, speedy transportation, rule of law and better health, was the virtual slavery of millions of workers in factories and mines. Dishonesty was pervasive in European governments: the “mother of Parliaments” on which the British prided themselves was a hive of corruption, with its members obedient not to the interests of their constituents but to the rich and powerful. European newspapers shamelessly manipulated public opinion for political purposes. Rule of law was rule by lawyers, who benefited only themselves and the rich. Doctors motivated by greed for money ignored the real interests of their patients and prescribed medicines that only accommodated them to unhealthy ways of living. In a decade that headlined the achievements of the Wright Brothers, Marconi and Einstein, Hind Swaraj condemned the whole concept of Western progress as unnecessary, as subversive of humanity and its connection with the divine.

Gandhi argued that the industrial technologies the British introduced into India were undesirable, even “dangerous.” European factories had impoverished India, destroying village handicrafts and the entire indigenous textile industry. India was reduced to importing matches, pins and glassware; even the images of Indian gods were made in Germany. “Where there is machinery there are large cities; and where there are large cities there are tram cars and railways; and there only does one see electric lights.” Those technologies, so widely accepted as progress, in reality were deeply negative in impact. The railways strengthened Britain’s hold on India, spread bubonic plague, and increased the frequency of famines by making it easy for farmers to ignore local demand and sell their grain in distant markets. Machines encouraged sedentary habits that destroyed health. To treat the diseases caused by such progress European doctors made people dependent on medicines that developed through the vivisection and torture of thousands of animals. Modern civilization was “a disease,” antithetical to everything that India had found over the centuries to be worthy and true. “I believe that the civilization India has evolved is not to be beaten in the world,” Gandhi declared. Proof of its inherent superiority was that it had endured while all its ancient peers in Greece, Rome and Egypt had failed and faded away. Modern European civilization would also be a “seven day wonder.” (On China, Hind Swaraj was cryptic, saying “nothing can be said,” a view Gandhi did not expand on in the book.)

To oust the British violently India would have to train and arm thousands, Europeanizing itself. “Then her condition will be just as pitiable as that of Europe” and independence would mean little. “We will then fight for a few rights, get what we can and so pass our days.” In outlining how India could achieve meaningful liberation Gandhi set out the ideas he would use to revolutionize the nationalist movement in the decade after his return to the country in 1915 (as the conflagration he had foreseen in Hind Swaraj was overtaking Europe). They were deeply rooted in the Hindu concepts of Dharma and Karma, the laws of duty and the moral causality of action. Gandhi presented Swaraj as the natural result of self-control and performance of duty. If Indians used self-discipline to inflict violence, it would empower the violent and the country would merely exchange a foreign tyrant for a domestic one. If self-control manifested itself in nonviolence, India could achieve liberation according to the lights of its own best traditions. How would that happen? If Indians were in control of themselves, Gandhi explained, no one else could control them. Swaraj would come when Indians could say to the British, “If you do not concede our demand we shall no longer be your petitioners. You can govern us only so long as we remain the governed; we shall no longer have any dealings with you.” The force implied in such a statement “may be described as Love Force, Soul Force, or more popularly but less accurately, passive resistance.”

The Reader’s disbelieving query whether there was any historical evidence of a nation rising by soul-force or truth force, evoked a vehement response. “The force of love is the same as the force of the soul or truth. We have evidence of its working at every step. The universe would disappear without the existence of that force.” As for historical evidence, “it is necessary to know what history means. The Gujarati meaning is ‘It so happened.’ If that is the meaning of history, it is possible to give copious evidence. But if it means the doings of kings and emperors there can be no evidence of soul-force. … You cannot expect silver ore in a tin mine. History as we know it is a record of the wars of the world. … How kings played, how they became enemies of one another, how they murdered one another, is found accurately recorded in history, and if this were all that happened in the world it would have ended long ago. If the story of the universe had commenced with wars not a man would be alive today. … The fact that there are so many men still alive in the world shows that it is based not on the force of arms but on the force of truth or love. Therefore, the greatest and most unimpeachable evidence of the success of this force is to be found in the fact that, in spite of the wars of the world it still lives. Thousands, indeed, tens of thousands, depend for their existence on a very active working of this force. Little quarrels of millions of families in their daily lives disappear before the exercise of this force. Hundreds of nations live in peace. History does not and cannot take note of this fact. History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul.” Gandhi made the point that nonviolent opposition to unjust laws has always been at the root of human progress. In that sense Satyagraha was not new; it codified an old and universal process. Nonviolent action had the great advantage that if it was itself misguided, as it well could be, no one but the protesters would suffer.

The Reader’s comment that Satyagraha was a “splendid weapon for the weak” led to another vehement rebuttal: a bodily weak person could use soul-force but not one without courage. The user of soul-force “will not obey a law against his conscience even though he may be blown to pieces at the mouth of a cannon. What do you think? Wherein is courage required – in blowing others to pieces from behind a cannon or with a smiling face approach a cannon and be blown to pieces?” If Indians refused to cooperate with British rule, they would realize Swaraj instantly. The concluding section of Hind Swaraj prescribed that educated Indians give up their jobs and take to spinning khadi. It made Satyagraha seem entirely unrealistic in 1910 – but that was exactly what many thousands of Indians did when the great civil disobedience and non-cooperation movements got under way.

Several events conspired to bring the ideas in the book to life. Four years after his return from London, when the number of Satyagrahis had dropped to “65 or 66” at most (as Gandhi informed Gokhale), a South African judge reignited the movement with a ruling that Indian religious marriages had no legal standing. As the “free” Indians rose in outrage, the indentured laborers, who until then had been mostly passive in the struggle for civil rights, found a cause for protest in the death of a teenage Tamil girl in prison. The mineworkers of Newcastle went on strike, were locked out by the irate White bosses, and soon the protest expanded to economic issues, especially the onerous £3 head tax that had been imposed on workers and each member of their families. The tax aimed at forcing indentured workers to re-enter servitude after working out their five-year contracts; it constituted a basic breach of the agreement that brought them to South Africa, which gave them the right to settle there and do whatever they wanted. In an open and well-advertised violation of the law, Gandhi led a “long march” of several thousand striking mine workers from Natal into the Transvaal. In the glare of Press attention from India and Britain the government could do little legally to stop the march; arrests and even deportations back to India failed to sap the spirit of the protest. Gandhi was arrested several times but always made bail and rejoined the marchers as they headed forTolstoy Farm, a 1100-acre spread near Johannesburg that Gandhi’s German friend, Hermann Kallenbach, had put at the disposal of the Satyagrahis. The authorities finally arrested all the strikers and took them back to the mines by train. However, labor strife continued, and eventually the government initiated talks and made several concessions, rescinding the £3 tax and recognizing the legality of Indian religious marriages. That did nothing to stop the growth of racism in South Africa, which developed into the vicious system of apartheid in 1948; but Gandhi’s small victory was enough to demonstrate the power of nonviolent action and set history moving. More than five decades later, the transformations he let loose worked their way back to South Africa and dismantled apartheid.

Of all the ideas in Hind Swaraj only Satyagraha found ready acceptance in Indian politics and that only as a tactic proven to be effective in South Africa. For the leaders of the Indian National Congress nonviolence was never a matter of principle. How little they understood issues of cardinal importance to Gandhi can be seen in their expectations of easy success from Satyagraha and disappointment when, in the wake of the savage outbreak of violence at Chauri Chaura in 1922, he declared the Non-Cooperation Campaign a “Himalayan blunder” and called it off. Gandhi never held out the expectation that “soul-force” could deliver quick political results. Its operation was necessarily slow, for the self-sacrificial suffering of Satyagrahis had to find purchase on the conscience of political adversaries and turn their attention from matters of power and advantage to those of shared humanity. Gandhi’s description of the situation in South Africa upon his return from London in 1909 is revealing: “The Satyagrahis now saw that no one could tell how long the struggle would last. On the one hand there were the Boer Generals determined not to yield even an inch of ground and on the other there was a handful of Satyagrahis pledged to fight unto death or victory. It was like a war between ants and the elephant who could crush thousands of them under each of his feet. The Satyagrahis could not impose a time limit upon their Satyagraha. Whether it lasted one year or many, it was all the same to them. For them the struggle itself was victory.” Gandhi’s fasts in India did bring quick results but that was only because he had established by then an intimate rapport with the masses of Indians, the nature of which was captured in the term by which he was universally addressed: Bapu, father.

Another important point to understand about Gandhi’s use of nonviolent resistance is that it was never a stand-alone tactic. In South Africa, the movement he led was as much about unifying the Indian community and educating people about their rights as it was about confronting the conscience of the racist government. In India, Gandhi’s fasting certainly aimed at touching the British conscience, but more importantly, it sought to change the way Indians thought about themselves. At the same time, his nonviolence closed off a whole range of violent responses from the British. As they discovered during the Salt Satyagraha, the use of violence against people determined to do something nonviolently resulted in a great deal of bad Press and loss of authority. Gandhi the Saint was only one aspect of a brilliant political strategist. The British thought this was hypocrisy, and it drove Churchill, especially, to paroxysms of rage. In the 1930s, when Gandhi devoted himself to the revival of village industries and made khadi the uniform of the nationalist movement, they viewed it as “seditious.” When he fasted in prison against the creation of separate electorates for the “untouchable” castes, they saw it as blackmail. In the final phase of the struggle for independence, the British managed to neutralize Gandhi personally, but by then the quiet revolution in attitudes he had let loose within Indian society had made it impossible for them to continue ruling the country.

Gandhi’s disaffection with European civilization was visceral but the specific criticisms he leveled against it were all from books of his time by Western authors (listed at the end of Hind Swaraj). That must have served to reassure contemporary readers that his opinions were well founded, but a century later it renders Hind Swaraj deeply unsatisfying for anyone seeking a Gandhian/Indian critique of European civilization. Why are the two civilizations so vividly different? What explains the uniquely violent and dehumanizing course of Europe in world history or India’s fundamentally different path? Gandhi did not attempt an answer, and none of his followers has addressed the issue. Europeans, on the other hand, have been trying to explain – and justify – their own civilization ever since the easy expansion of their power around the globe threw up the possibility of an inherent superiority. From about the beginning of the 19th century such theorizing dwelt in particular on racial superiority, with wide belief in European kinship to an “Aryan” master race. Race came to be linked to technological prowess as industrialization spread in Europe. Oswald Spengler, a German who warned that the “colored races” would steal European technology and seek military domination, gave race a geopolitical dimension in his 1918 book The Decline of the West.

Hind Swaraj, for the first time, comprehensively refuted that entire set of European assumptions. Precursors like Vivekananda had only asserted Indian superiority in matters of the spirit; Gandhi rejected European technology, its whole way of life. The inability of Westernized Indians to accept Gandhi’s claims on behalf of their ancient traditions has been a key reason his political legacy became inert so quickly and why efforts to revive it have met with such steady lack of enthusiasm. Their disbelief reflected nothing more than a lack of self-confidence, a quality the British nurtured at every turn. Most Westernized Indians could see nothing of value in Indian tradition because the British had been so thoroughly and vocally scornful of it. If Martin Luther King had not demonstrated the validity of his tactics halfway around the world in a vastly different society, and if the admiration of White Americans for him had not caused anglophile Indians to reconsider their wholesale rejection, Gandhi might have sunk into even greater discredit.

However, that is not the only reason why Gandhi’s ideas have had such little political traction. An important reason is that he did not explain himself within the legitimizing materialist framework of his time, in particular Marxism, which appeared to young idealists then as the wave of the future. Karl Marx (1818-1883) had bought fully into the East India Company’s view of India as a land of ageless despotism and oppression; in his wake generations of “Left” analysts and historians have taken the position that British rule brought “progress” to India. Typically, Marx dismissed as unimportant the social devastation and misery caused by the deliberate destruction of the self-sufficient village economy of rural India. Writing in the New York Daily Tribune in June 1853, he urged readers not to be too sympathetic to the wretched Indians. Even though it was “sickening” to “witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence.” In his view, those “idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism.” Villages had “restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.” It had “brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman (sic) the monkey, and Sabbala (sic), the cow.” Britain “was actuated only by the vilest interests” in causing a social revolution in India, Marx said: “But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfill its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.”(As Marx is very much less in fashion these days it is probably necessary to explain that the “destiny” he thought humanity should fulfill was of his own invention, an atheistic, communist society of perfect equality among individuals, brought into being by violent socialist revolution and a “dictatorship of the proletariat” to eliminate “class enemies.” Marx expected that after fulfilling those brutal tasks the State, inspired by idealism, would automatically wither away.)

Gandhi consistently refused requests that he write about how a Satyagrahi would approach the issues raised in Karl Marx’s deeply negative and violent treatise. Sushila Nayar recorded one such response in her prison diary during Gandhi’s last imprisonment (1942-1944) in the malarial confines of the Aga Khan’s palace in Pune. In the entry for 28 November 1942 she wrote how Pyarelal, her brother, who had assumed the duties of Gandhi’s secretary after the sudden death of Mahadev Desai, asked during their morning walk: “how non-violence can get the penniless masses out of the clutches of the capitalists.” Gandhi answered, “My reply will be that if the penniless masses become conscious of their strength no one can hold them in their clutches.” He pointed out that he was himself penniless, yet no one could make him do anything against his will. Returning to the topic on his walk the next day, he said to Pyarelal, “I believe we can find solutions for all problems on the basis of non-violence. I also believe that if any country is ready for that experiment, it is India. Man aspires ever to go higher and higher. It is his nature. I know looking at the present state of society many arguments can be provided to counter my belief. Self-sacrifice and idealism will never become universal … Our people have many shortcomings,” and so on. Marx, he said, discussed only capitalism and asked “where can it take mankind?” In contrast, “I ask ‘Where can human nature take us?’” Pyarelal asked him to “write a treatise” on the subject. Gandhi replied, “The trouble is that I have to be Marx as well as Lenin. I have it all in my head. When the occasion comes I take out what is applicable to the situation.” Pyarelal pressed him, asking “You can see the situation and decide as to what should be done. … But who will give lead to the people when you are gone?” Gandhi replied “I cannot do what you want me to do. It is beyond my power. … I am not the man who can write a treatise. I speak under inspiration. I cannot decide as to how I shall tackle a particular situation until I am faced with it.”

It would be wrong to conclude from the quotes above that it is impossible to theorize what Gandhi did. He was merely stating his own limitation, and perhaps overstating it, for Hind Swaraj was more than a book of tactics; it conceptualized a clash of civilizations, held out the Indian past as a rival to European modernity, and explained how soul force would work. It was “a treatise,” albeit not written to scholarly rules; and remains the most important guide we have to the new politics of which he was the harbinger. Further, in what he said and wrote in his final days Gandhi indicated how he thought Indian politics should evolve. In what serves as his last political testament, completed the day before his death, Gandhi proposed the disbanding of the Indian National Congress and its replacement with an organization for social service and development. The preface to the English translation of Sushila Nayyar’s prison diary provided several additional clues to Gandhi’s thinking in his final days. “One day, during the last few days of his life, I asked Bapu: ‘You have often said that you are really a social reformer at heart. You had to enter politics because you could not carry out social reforms in the face of obstacles created by foreign rule. But now that we are free, will you devote yourself to constructive work and concentrate on social reform?’ His reply was ‘If I survive the flames surrounding me today my first job will be to reform politics.”

Nayyar suggested what route that reform might take in the succeeding passage: “Perhaps Bapu’s greatest contribution was to demonstrate that politics can be reformed and made moral, that it can be based on truth and non-violence. … To ensure the freedom of the common man and eliminate exploitation of the weak by the strong, he felt that decentralization of political and economic power was necessary. There can be no decentralization of political power while economic power remains centralized. To decentralize economic power we have to encourage cottage industries and cooperative economy. Mass production in big factories automatically means concentration of power in the hands of a few, whether of capitalists or of the State. That is why he insisted on putting the spinning wheel at the center as the sun and the other village industries around it as the planets as expressions of the ideal of a decentralized system of economic development which permitted no exploitation.” It was to shape the young to participate in such a system that he devised Nayee Talim (new education); it engaged the “three Hs” – heart, head and hand.

These are important ideas that have to be made meaningful in the context of the 21stcentury, and they have to be supplemented by an understanding of an aspect of Gandhi that analysts have been hesitant to explore, his spirituality. The word “spirituality” carries much baggage because many without scruple have trafficked in its vague concepts. Gandhi himself did not use the word much; but his politics was firmly rooted in the life of the spirit. He wrote in Young India in 1924 that “there are no politics devoid of religion. … Politics bereft of religion are a death-trap because they kill the soul.” The next year, in the Introduction to his autobiography My Experiments With Truth, he told how little he valued the title of Mahatma, but added: “I should certainly like to narrate my experiments in the spiritual field which are known only to myself, and from which I have derived such power as I possess for working in the political field. … What I want to achieve – what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years – is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha. I live and move and have my being in pursuit of this goal. All that I do by way of speaking and writing and all my ventures in the political field, are directed to this same end. But as I have all along believed that what is possible for one is possible for all, my experiments have not been conducted in the closet, but in the open; and I do not think that this fact detracts from their spiritual value.” The stories of his experiments with Truth would not include “things which are known only to oneself and one’s Maker. These are clearly incommunicable. The experiments I am about to relate are not such. But they are spiritual, or rather moral, for the essence of religion is morality.”

In 1937, when the essentials of Hinduism were being debated during the campaign to open temples to the so-called “untouchables” he went further in defining his system of belief. Speaking to a crowd at Quilon, he said that if all the scriptures of Hinduism were destroyed their “whole essence” could be found in the opening verse of the Ishopanishad. The following is a slightly edited version of his translation: “God the Ruler pervades all there is in this Universe. Therefore renounce and dedicate all to Him, enjoying or using the portion that may fall to your lot, without coveting what belongs to others.”  The next day, speaking at Haripad, he asserted that the verse contained the “the whole of the philosophy or religion found in any part of the world.” The truth of it lay in the fact that as individuals we are “such insignificant atoms” that the idea of “possession” is “ludicrous.”

In that recognition of the human connection to the universe lies the essence of Gandhian politics: if all Creation is part of the divine, all must share in and resonate to the force of the Soul, the spiritual truth. His tactics aimed at mobilizing the spiritual force of those he led and engaging adversaries at the level of their highest common denominator. Once that happened any problem could be worked out. He viewed parliamentary democracy as an obstruction to the politics of the spirit. “I do not believe in the greatest good of the greatest number” he wrote in 1932. “It means in its nakedness that in order to achieve the supposed good of 51 percent, the interests of 49 percent may be or rather should be sacrificed. It is a heartless doctrine and has done harm to humanity. The only real, dignified human doctrine is the greatest good of all.”

Cut from the same cloth was his opposition to capitalism but not to capitalists. As a member of the Bania (merchant) caste, as a lawyer who grew rich representing the interests of the Indian business community in South Africa, Gandhi was well aware of the importance of creating wealth; but he thought the rich should be “trustees” focused on the welfare of society. Sceptics repeatedly asked Gandhi if that was a realistic goal, and his answer was always the same: there had been countless cases of rich people committing their wealth to the good of society; if that could happen in some, it could happen in all.

But what will bring about such a transformation? Nothing less than a spiritual revolution is necessary, a wholesale change in the way we perceive and respond to reality. The division between poor and rich and the despoliation of Nature can no longer be just “political” matters relegated to the dry resolutions of elected assemblies and international agencies; they must be active moral concerns of our daily lives. Our schools must teach the attitudes and the skills required for effective action, our communities must be organized to enfold and care for the weak and the marginalized, and every individual must be alive to the sense of being part of a great human web caring for the living planet. Such change might seem impossibly difficult, but in reality, the obstacles are mainly in our own minds. The Internet and the Worldwide Web have knit the world into a global village; we know from the movements led by Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, Martin Luther King and Cezar Chavez that ordinary people will mobilize gently and powerfully in a moral cause. The world is tired of the violent, filthy, greed-driven system that has brought it endless misery and people everywhere are aching for change.

The problem is that no one knows how to set aside the deeply negative world shaped by five centuries of European domination. As the world staggers from crisis to crisis, economic, environmental, humanitarian and political, it is clear that our global institutions are powerless to effect real change, and in any case, our so-called leaders do not know what to do. They are stuck in their respective grooves, with little capacity to shift the world from its current state of violent disorder. Gandhi’s political legacy offers a way out because it empowers ordinary people. Cooperative effort can begin the spiritual revolution to bring a new world into being. To mobilize and direct that effort we must understand how the world came to be in its current miserable state. Most importantly, we must understand the strong opposition to Gandhi’s ideas from a post-colonial British elite that shape-shifted into the Good Guys of the Cold War but maintained its criminal exploitation of weaker countries. That phenomenon has received little attention from historians and is entirely ignored in the processes of the United Nations. That must change if the United Nations is to benefit from Gandhi’s legacy..

Gandhi did not consider industrialization "progress."  

Gandhi in South Africa

SS Kildonan Castle

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The United Nations pays little attention to Gandhi's ideas and legacy

Hind Swaraj in the original Gujarati

The Salt March: in 1930 Gandhi walked from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to Dandi on the Arabian Sea. There he picked up a piece of dried salt on the beach, thereby breaking the British colonial law forbidding  Indians to manufacture salt. It was an act of defiance reported around the world, and in the succeeding months, the Salt Law was broken all over India. The incapacity of the British to prevent that was a turning point in the Indian bid for independence.

Union of South Africa in 1910