By Mark Shepherd
There are many myths about Gandhi. First, a quick one: Gandhi was not a scrawny little man. Yes, his legs were scrawny and bowed, but he had a barrel chest and a deep, booming voice to match it.
In pictures, you don’t notice his chest, because he usually had a cloth draped around it. That was an easy one. Let’s try another. One of the most common, and dangerous, myths about Gandhi is that he was a saint.
The title ‘Mahatma’ means a ‘great soul’. Gandhi tried to avoid the title, but people ignored his protests. Now, even the American Library of Congress classifies him under ‘Gandhi, Mahatma’.
So I guess he’s lost that battle. It is argued that Gandhi was a saint, since he was a master of meditation. In all my readings of and about Gandhi, I’ve never come across anything to that effect, apart from observing a minute of silence at the beginning of his prayer meetings.
Gandhi objected when people called him ‘a saint trying to be a politician’. He said he was ‘a politician trying to be a saint’. I’d go along with Gandhi’s judgement on this. Not that we shouldn’t honour Gandhi’s spiritual achievements.
But if we label him a perfected being, we lose our chance to view his life and career critically and learn from his mistakes. Besides, if people see Gandhi as a saint, they’ll think he is too good for the world’, and won’t consider him a model for concrete social change.
Another myth about Gandhi is the idea that India’s political leaders are the inheritors of his tradition. But really, they have rejected much more of Gandhi than they’ve adopted. They abandoned non-violent action as soon as they attained power.
India now sports the world’s fourth largest armed force, and the leaders haven’t hesitated to use it to settle conflicts. No thought is given to possible Gandhi-style alternatives.
Worse, India’s leaders have done their best to imitate Western countries by building an economy based on large-scale industry and agriculture. Gandhi fought this kind of development. He had warned that it would ruin the villages, where 80 per cent of India’s people live. And Gandhi has proved correct.
India is now a richer country. But it also has more of the desperately poor than ever. India prides itself on growing enough grain so it does not need to import, but the surplus rots in storage while people starve.
Gandhi stressed building on the villagers’ own strengths and resources. He may be considered this century’s greatest advocate of decentralism, basing economic and political power at the local level.
You may recall images of Gandhi spinning cotton yarn on a compact spinning wheel. Gandhi and his colleagues were the ones who developed this wheel and introduced it in the villages. It is the first case of what is now called ‘appropriate technology’ or ‘intermediate technology ‘.
Gandhi set up a number of organizations to help carry out village development. He sent many workers to live in the villages. Since his death , thousands have carried on this work. Most of the myths surrounding Gandhi have to do with non-violence.
For instance, it is surprising how many people still think that non-violence is passive. There is nothing passive about Gandhian non-violent action. Gandhi himself helped create this confusion by referring to his method at first as ‘passive resistance’. He, however, soon rejected the term.
Gandhi’s non-violent action was not an evasive or defensive strategy. Gandhi was always on the offensive. He believed in confronting his opponents aggressively, in such a way that they could not avoid dealing with him.
But was not Gandhi’s nonviolent designed to avoid violence? Yes and no. Gandhi steadfastly avoided violence toward his opponents but he did not avoid violence toward himself or his followers. Gandhi said that the nonviolent activist, like any soldier, had to be ready to die for the cause.
During India’s struggle for independence, the British killed hundreds of Indians. The difference was that the nonviolent activist, while willing to die, was never willing to kill.
One of the biggest myths about non-violent action is the idea that Gandhi invented it. Well, he did raise nonviolence to a level never seen before, but it was not his invention.
In his book, Gandhi as a Political Strategist, Gene Sharp of Harvard University, shows that Gandhi and his Indian colleagues in South Africa were aware of other nonviolent struggles before they adopted it themselves. That was in 1906.
A couple of years before that, they had been impressed by mass nonviolent actions in India, China, Russia, and among blacks in South Africa. Gandhi called his overall method of nonviolent action satyagraha. This translates roughly as ‘truth force’.
A fuller rendering would be ‘the force that is generated through adherence to truth’. For Gandhi, nonviolence defined a broader concept, namely ‘a way of life based on love and compassion’.
Satyagraha and non-violent action do not refer to the same thing. Satyagraha is a form of non-violent action-Gandhi’s own version of it. Gandhi practised two types of satyagraha.
The first was civil disobedience, which entailed breaking a law and courting arrest. When we hear this term today, our minds tend to stress the ‘disobedience’ part of it.
But for Gandhi, ‘civil’ was just as important. He used ‘civil’ not just in its meaning of ‘relating to citizenship and government’ but as ‘civilized’ or ‘polite’. We also think that breaking the law is the core of civil disobedience.
But to Gandhi, the core was going to prison. So, was Gandhi trying to fill the jails? Overwhelm and embarrass his captors?
Not at all. He just wanted to say: ‘I care so deeply about this matter that I’m willing to sacrifice my freedom. Because when you see the depth of my concern, and how ‘civil’ I am in going about this, you’re bound to abandon your rigid, unjust position, and to let me help you see the truth of my cause.’
In other words, Gandhi’s method aimed to win not by overwhelming but by bringing about a ‘change of heart ‘.
The belief that civil disobedience succeeded by converting the opponent, however, happened to be a myth held by Gandhi himself. Let me give a general description of what really seemed to have happened: Gandhi and followers break a law, politely.
Public leader has them arrested. Gandhi and his followers cheerfully accept it. Public sympathy is aroused for the protesters and their cause. The public puts pressure on public leader to negotiate with Gandhi.
As cycles of civil disobedience recur, public pressure grows stronger. Finally, public leader gives in to pressure from his constituency and negotiates with Gandhi.
Notice that there is a change of heart, but it is more in the public than in the opponent. Notice too that there is an element of coercion, though it is indirect, coming from the public, rather than from Gandhi’s camp.
Gandhi set out some rules for practising civil disobedience, which baffle his critics. Even his admirers often set them aside as nonessential. But once you understand that civil disobedience, for Gandhi, was aimed at working a change of heart, it is easy to make sense of them.
One rule was that only specific, unjust laws were to be broken. In fact, Gandhi said that only people with a high regard for the law were qualified for civil disobedience. He also ruled out direct coercion, such as trying to physically block someone.
Hostile language was banned. Destroying property was forbidden.
The easiest way to see that non-violent action is globally suitable is to look at all the cases of non-violent action outside India. It is not easy to ignore the example of Martin Luther King Jr., or to forget the Solidarity Movement in Poland, and the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in Philippines.
One of the interesting things about nonviolent struggles around the world is that it is often by people who know nothing or next to nothing about Gandhi. You have to conclude that people just naturally turn to such methods.
Another group of Gandhi’s critics says: ‘Perhaps nonviolent action does work but it is just too slow. People are suffering injustice, slavery, starvation, and murder. How can you ask them to be patient and work nonviolently?’
If we look at the Chinese Revolution, we find that Mao Tse-Tung and his Communist forces were engaged in combat over a period of 22 years. Vietnam was embattled for 35 years. These are not swift victories.
Whereas the nonviolent overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines, measured from the assassination of Benigno Aquino, took only three years. Violence feels quicker, because time passes rapidly when you are dodging bullets. nonviolence requires patience because the action is less thrilling.
Theodore Roszak, professor of history and director of the Ecopsychology Institute at California State University, once commented: ‘People try nonviolence for a week, and when it doesn’t work, they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries.’
What Roszak means is that violence, even when it succeeds, has major side-effects.
A violent struggle will tend to bring about more destruction of life and property. The difference does not arise because nonviolent struggles are aimed at ‘nice’ enemies.
The difference arises because, in a violent struggle, the violence of each side goads the other to greater violence. Also, each side uses the violence of the other side to justify its own violence.
Another negative impact of violence is that it leaves the two sides as enemies. The most amazing thing about Gandhi’s nonviolent revolution was not that the British left, but that they left as friends, and that Britain and India became partners in the British Commonwealth.
One more myth about Gandhi’s nonviolent action is held both by Gandhi’s critics and his admirers. In fact, the misunderstanding is so common that most admirers of Gandhi’s methods miss the point.
Just as I did when I began my study of Gandhi. Prior to that study, most of my experience with political activism had been with Marxists. But later, after exploring several spiritual traditions, I felt I could no longer endorse Marxists’ methods.
How then to oppose injustice and reform society?
I hoped that Gandhi held the answer. It seemed to me that he had meant to work out what I was looking for-a way of overthrowing the oppressors of the world, but by moral means. That was my myth about Gandhi.
I had to read an entire book and a half about Gandhi before it struck me-and it struck me hard-that Gandhi was not talking about overthrowing anyone.
Satyagraha, Gandhi’s nonviolent action, was not a way for one group to seize what it wanted from another. It was not a weapon of class struggle, or any other kind of division.
Satyagraha was an instrument of unity, a way to remove injustice and restore social harmony to the benefit of both sides. When satyagraha worked, both sides won. That concept did not pass easily through my filter, and I understand why so many others miss it entirely.
But it is, really, the essential difference between Gandhi’s satyagraha and so much of the nonviolent action practised by others. You may wonder how Gandhi himself came to this attitude.
He said: ‘All my actions have their source in my inalienable love of humankind.’
So, love for the victim demanded struggle, while love for the opponent ruled out doing harm. But in fact, love for the opponent likewise demanded struggle.
Because by hurting others, the oppressor also hurts himself. Of course, the oppressor is not likely to be aware of that. He may be thoroughly enjoying his power and wealth.
But beneath all that, his injustice is cutting him off from his fellow humans and from his own deeper self. And when that happens, his spirit can only wither and deform.
If you do not believe it, I do not know any way I might convince you. But if that does pass through your filter, you may be well on your way to understanding the man who was Gandhi.
In 1978-79, Mark Shepard travelled around the world to meet modern-day ‘successors’ of Mahatma Gandhi in India, France, and the United States. Out of these visits came two books: Gandhi Today and The Community of the Ark, plus a series of articles that appeared in over 30 publications in nine countries. Shepard became recognised as one of the foremost authority on Gandhi and on the Gandhian movement in India today.
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