Read this article for a beautiful introduction to the life and legacy of Ghandi.
The Struggles of a Young Ghandi
To say that Gandhi was a visionary would be an understatement of huge proportions. He was a spiritual giant who had the ability to see beyond corruption and barbaric practices to the spiritual poverty that lay not only at the root of such behavior but also allowed one to be a victim of that behavior. Deeply aware of the suffering of his fellow countrymen, Gandhi worked tirelessly to eliminate the cause of that suffering.
What we sometimes forget is that spiritual giants aren’t born that way. It takes a lot of hard work to get the ego out of the way if one is to truly serve the greater good. Gandhi was no exception. I say this because he was a misfit from the very beginning. Shy, introverted, a mediocre student at best, he was extremely self-conscious and could not get along well with others. After graduating from high school, he decided to become a doctor, but he failed every class. Since he had no idea what to do next, his uncle sent him to London to study law, but London was a nightmare for Gandhi. He couldn’t grasp the principles being taught and was completely tongue tied whenever he had to speak. Once he was back home in India, Gandhi was unable to apply whatever professional skills he had gained in London. Finally, out of sympathy, someone offered him a minor clerical position in South Africa. Even that didn’t work out very well.
It wasn’t until he was forced off a train after refusing to give up his seat to a white person that the forces of destiny began to take shape around him. Standing there on the platform in the middle of the night, Gandhi understood the degradation and humiliation his fellow Indians had been experiencing, and he vowed to never again give in to force. Gandhi had no idea how he would fulfill that vow, but fate is not blind. The powers that be were already at work preparing him for a position of leadership.
Ghandi’s Step Into Social Justice
Soon after the train incident, the white Transvaal government in South Africa proposed legislation that would deprive Indians of the few civil rights they still had. As he gathered crowds together to try to decide on a course of resistance, Gandhi wondered what he would tell them. In a moment of inspiration, he suggested that they refuse to obey the legislation and accept the consequences without retaliation, but also without yielding in their demand for fair and equal treatment under the law. Every man and woman present rose to meet the challenge and pledged nonviolent resistance, even to the point of death.
That signature moment was a turning point in Gandhi’s life. Intuitively, he had grasped the eternal truth that injustice and hatred and anger cannot exist unless we support them, either as a perpetrator or as a victim. Gandhi warned his fellow Indians that nonviolent resistance would demand the highest degree of courage, yet they embraced the idea completely and openly defied the South African government.
Gandhi called this approach satyagraha, satya representing the deep truth that all life is one, while graha stands for nonviolence. He based his premise on the belief that if you could get your opponent to participate in finding a solution, the conflict would be resolved. He began by appealing to his opponents’ mind, but he ended by touching their heart. This early success convinced Gandhi that he could free his homeland from 300 years of British domination without violence or war if people would accept his leadership and make selfless love and respect their standard.
To Change the World, One Must Change Oneself
This was the vision Gandhi took back to India, but his personality had not changed. He was still rigid and overbearing at home, difficult to get along with in just about every way. Fortunately, his faithful wife, Kasturbai, showed him through her own example how to be patient, how to be tolerant and loving. By focusing on his good qualities and encouraging him to live up to her respect, she demonstrated what he himself wished to become. Gradually, like water wearing away on stone, Gandhi began to understand that if he was going to change the world, he would first have to change himself. This was one of the most radical discoveries he was to make. This profound truth is one we would all do well to embrace: Life does indeed reflect our attitude right back to us. Our state of mind is the only lens through which we can see. We must always begin within if we want the outer to change.
Since Gandhi had no idea where to begin, he turned to the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita for guidance. There he learned that our choices destine us for conflict, but “we can choose how and whom we will fight.” Instead of striking out at his persecutors, Gandhi chose to turn his anger against what was selfish and angry in himself. Gandhi soon saw how anger is energy wasted, but if you can control the energy that fuels the anger, you can move mountains. And that he eventually did. We all have these same choices, but first we have to be aware of the fact that we have a choice. Much of the time we just sail along, living our lives on automatic. Only through conscious living – and choosing – can we tune in to the deeper wisdom where our answers are. The scriptures also showed Gandhi that hatred poisons the one who hates, yet when we love, it is we who become whole. This precept became the heart of satyagraha, but for it to work, he would have to bring love into the equation. So it was that ahimsa also began to surface in Gandhi’s consciousness.
Ahimsa requires a love so deep that it demands caring more about the wellbeing of others than about your own life. Of course, “others” means everyone, friend and foe alike. To extend your love even to those who hate you expands the boundaries of your consciousness until finally you realize that you and your opponent are one. The goal, of course, is to be love itself, and eventually Gandhi was able to reflect even that. Love this deep is the law of our being, even of our very body where every cell is aware of the needs of every other cell and willingly gives its life for the preservation of the whole. Gandhi embraced this concept completely and demonstrated it over and over. When reasoning with adversaries would not work, he simply refused to eat until an agreement was reached. Gandhi’s instinct and intuition were his infallible guides. He did not worry. He did not plan. He simply acted when the time was right. So humble was he, yet so much alive with the love and power of the spirit, that people were drawn to him wherever he went. Without even knowing it, his presence and his example lit the flame of selflessness within them.
Being able to truly love everyone pushes us to the very boundaries of our singularity until eventually the walls begin to crumble and the oneness we all share rises into our awareness. This more expanded level of awareness frees us of our small concerns and opens us to a love and joy that fuels all our efforts and drives the engine that moves us into our deepest level of service. That is how it was for Gandhi, and that is how it can be for anyone who carries a similar passion to make a difference for his or her fellow human beings. What we’re talking about, of course, is surrender – to the higher will, and to the calling that awaits us when we are finally able to let go and let the river take us where it wants us to go. Dedication such as this stretches our most inward parts and forces us to keep our goal first and foremost as we seek to move forward in our personal growth and level of service. To be able to understand, to forgive, to love and care deeply in the face of animosity is the stuff that courage is made of.
The Love of Ghandi that Changed the World
Gandhi’s complete dedication and deep sense of reverence allowed him to feel as much at home in jail as in his simple home or in the courts of London. Even his jailers grew to love and respect him, while the powerful in London grew to fear him. They knew if they came up against Gandhi, they most surely would not only lose, but walk away changed. Gandhi believed that trust abides in the core of every human heart. It was to that essential strain of trust that Gandhi spoke, and of course those efforts were never wasted. His enemies began to trust him because they could see he actually cared about them. Lines of communication began to open, which eventually led to compromise as seemingly unresolvable situations dissolved into bilateral understanding and resolution.
Because Gandhi could see beyond the fear that drove people to do what they did, he was able to speak to what was true and good and honorable within them. Recognizing the best in others always opens a door for communication, for finding common ground, even for bringing forward those same great qualities that abide in us all. So Gandhi appealed to what he knew to be their deep hidden truth. He believed that everyone was capable of transformation if he or she would just make the effort,[v] so he started communities where he taught people how to make nonviolence a way of life. So great was his magnetism that when he started an ashram in Sevagram, one of the hottest parts of India, so many people walked there that their feet made a road. He received so much mail that the government opened a post office there. So many telegrams came that a telegraph office was set up. Sevagram became a throbbing hub of activity where all the world could see the power of even the smallest daily acts in love.
Gandhi deliberately owned few possessions, and only a few books, yet the wisdom of the cosmos poured itself through this dedicated man. Quietly, fervently, Gandhi traveled those unseen inner highways that lead to the deeper truths that mark a person for a life of destiny. For Gandhi, his destiny was to become the destiny of India, and of England, and indeed of the 20th century. It was Gandhi’s simplicity – his directness and clarity of purpose – that freed him completely and filled him with boundless energy and an irrepressible joy. His spirit fairly bubbled over with whatever was appropriate for the moment. Serenity, peace in the midst of chaos, compassion in the midst of pain – it was all there, and it came so naturally that even his enemies respected him, whether they agreed with him or not. This, in fact, was one of his great strengths. Because he sought to serve all people, including his enemies, they knew they could count on him to be fair, to deal with them honestly. That respect was returned, fully.
We, Too, Can Be Ghandi
What Gandhi did, we can do, too. We all have seeds of greatness within us, but for those seeds to grow, we have to do the inner work that opens us to more expansive ways of being. The path will be different for each of us, but certainly study, honest introspection, and practice, practice, and more practice are required. It isn’t enough to know about something. You have to live it before you can be it. Gandhi’s life offers so many parallels for what we ourselves must do to reach our highest potential and serve the greatest good. It doesn’t matter if we are a “misfit.” That is how Gandhi was perceived far into his adulthood. It doesn’t matter if we haven’t yet “found our calling.” Not to worry. That calling will find you, just as it did Gandhi, if you are willing to follow your own highest leading. When people found it difficult to follow his example, Gandhi would tell them to love who they could, and let it grow from there. If they didn’t understand the depth of what he taught, he would tell them to commit to what they knew to be true and build on that. So it is with us. Patiently, step by sometimes painful step, we move toward the light and the vision – and the deep burning desire – that is drawing us inward.
The truth of Gandhi’s teaching, of course, still stands: to weaken and harm another is to weaken and harm yourself. There is no way to separate yourself from the effect of your actions. What you do to others you already are. Be it for good or evil, that is your witness to the world. We’ve all heard about the light that shines in darkness. For millions of people, Gandhi was such a light. In his presence, fear just fell away. His utter fearlessness spawned courage in those around him and inspired them to heights of living – and loving – which they had not previously imagined. Gandhi was a luminary in every sense of the word. His clarity, his absolute honesty, his devotion to truth as he understood it lit a flame of love that still burns.
Gandhi was aflame with that love. It became the basis for everything he did, and India was never the same because of it. People by the thousands found their own strength as they followed his example, and thus the ground-swell grew across the hot and dusty plains, through the villages and across the seas to Britain itself, while the world watched and waited. Gandhi was a cosmic warrior if ever there was one. The battlefield was India, and the lesson was for all time. Because Gandhi’s focus was so pure, his intent so clear, there was no difference between what he thought, what he felt, and what he said and did. No wonder he was so strong! Most of us think one thing and say or do another. Is it so surprising, then, that we feel fragmented? Our lives just mirror that dividedness right back to us. Consequently, very few of us can see life as it really is. We see life as we are, and so our view is limited. If the world seems troubled, it is only because we are troubled, yet Gandhi’s message was clear. If we are ever to see the world as one undivided whole, we must be willing to look beyond ourselves. We have to go beyond our selfishness so we can live from our otherness. In otherness, hostility ceases and fear vanishes. In otherness, love blooms.This is what Gandhi did, and it is what we must do if we are to release the power of our human potential and bring peace to our troubled world.
Once, when Gandhi was boarding a train, a reporter rushed up to him, asking for a message to bring back to his people. Gandhi’s simple reply said it all: “My life is my message.”
May it be so for us all.