A Brief Study of Mahatma Gandhi

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A Brief Study of Mahatma Gandhi

Rajaram Vinayak Gogate, M. A., Ed. M.

Reprinted from

American Federationist

December, 1926


Rajaram Vinayak Gogate, M. A., Ed. M.[1]

TRUE greatness and nobility of a nation does not depend upon its territorial bigness, nor upon its military and naval power, nor upon its wealth, but upon its just dealing and unselfish service to others. The possession of material powers brings in its train not only the possibilities of health, wealth and happiness, but also it is fraught with equally certain dangers which are quite capable of destroying the possessor materially as well as morally. Nations have risen and fallen, leaving behind them a lesson which, if looked in the face, could help to save further disintegration of humanity. But the intoxication of material power is still too great for mankind, and one has to agree with Edmund Burke in his assertion that men do not learn from history.

In spite of this discouraging aspect of human nature, it is possible with a little sober deliberation to discern that there are still other elements in human nature, viz., reason and righteousness, which persist in bringing forth in the midst of a matter-mad humanity personalities that are at once human and capable of revealing the divine potentialities of men. All greatness has to stand the test of time, and judged by this standard, one is happily surprised to realize that those civilizations which are called primitive, are the only ones that have brought forth permanent values. Even to this day, in spite of the material degeneration of the Orient, which has inflicted upon its teeming millions the punishment of ignorance, misery and poverty, it is obvious that great souls are arising in those lands who are admitted to be the saving grace of this war-torn world.

It is the recurring presence of such great souls as Buddha, Jesus, Confucius, Lincoln and Tolstoy which has brought from time to time stability to the tottering edifice of human civilization. The great English writer, H. G. Wells, in his attempt to write the history of the world as a narrative of man and his works on this earth, found himself impelled to engage in a retrospective evaluation of the makers of human history. In choosing the six greatest men from the recorded history of the world, he has taken one Jew, one Greek, one Englishman, one American and two Indians, Gautam, the Buddha, and Emperor Ashōka. If Wells were to pick the six greatest living men of the present age, I believe that again he would choose two Indians, Gandhi and Tagore. The lives of both of these great sons of India are full of human pathos, sublimity of human conscience, unfaltering devotion to work which is the true lot of man, and above all, a restless urge toward the realization of human unity.

In this article I intend to present a brief study of Mahatma Gandhi, promising the reader to give later on a similar sketch of Poet Tagore.

Gandhi was born in 1869 in the province of Gujrath, in the northwestern part of India. He came of a rich and influential family, his father, Karamchand, being a prime minister of one of the native States. He is a Jain by religion. Jainism is a branch of Hinduism and it was born in an attempt to reconcile the revolutionary tenents of Buddha with the orthodox teachings of Hinduism. The doctrine of non-injury to any form of life is a cardinal principle with the Jains. Gandhi received his school and college education in India, and at the age of nineteen he was sent to England to study law. He was called to bar in London and in 1891 returned to India where he began practicing law at Bombay. This part of his life history is not particularly unusual. Although signs of great future promise were frequently displayed in his boyhood and youth, it was not until 1893 that one could consider him as a singular personality. Gandhi's career divides itself into two distinct periods, one from 1893 to 1914 which is identified with South Africa, and the second from 1914 to 1923 which is identified with India.

In the early nineties of the last century, there were located some 150,000 Indians in South Africa, chiefly in the province of Natal. Their presence led as usual to arouse the color obsession of the Anglo-Saxons. Wherever the Anglo-Saxons go, whether it be to the land of the African Negroes, the Mongolide Japanese and Chinese, or to the land of the Latins, they unfailingly introduce their color complex and help to produce conditions which prove degrading to some and humiliating to others. Resistance on the part of the Indians brought upon them indescribable outrages. In 1893 Gandhi came to Pretoria on legal business and found himself at once at the center of disturbance. On realizing the helplessness of the Indians and their need for a leader, he decided to espouse the cause of his oppressed fellow-countrymen.

It was during this period of his stay in South Africa that Gandhi came to know Count Tolstoy and studied his philosophy of passive resistance. Gandhi was successful in organizing the Indian Colony into a unit and followed a policy of non-cooperation with the so-called whites whenever he was compelled to and a policy of cooperation and helpfulness whenever he could. Thus during the Boer War in 1899, during the plague of 1904 and again during the native revolt of 1908 Gandhi organized his colony for public relief and did all he could to serve his opponents.

Gandhi was frequently arrested and punished, but in 1914 he won his fight and had the obnoxious legislation repealed, opening the Natal to Indians on equitable terms with the Europeans.

Gandhi returned to India with the enormous prestige of his success in his mission to South Africa. Indian leaders in various walks of life began to take note of him, and he came to be regarded as one of the patriots of the first rank.

During the Great War Gandhi supported the British cause and rendered loyal services to Britain in recognition for which he was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind gold medal. Up to this period, although Gandhi’s activities were consistently carried on, on principles of sacrifice, helpfulness and love of humanity, his name was little known outside of his immediate sphere of work. But in 1919 circumstances so conspired that this unpretentious, non-violent, humble man was, as it were, forced to the front in the Indian political crisis.

The bureaucracy which was in power during this crisis, instead of rewarding India for her loyal and munificent support which was unflinchingly given to England during the perilous years of the great war, actually went back on its promises and entered upon the rough-shod policy of force and suppression. Revolts broke out everywhere and under the black regime of martial law the Amritsar massacre took place to crown the reign of terror. Mahatma Gandhi took the front and for the first time in history imposed upon the Indian masses the sublime law of “non-violent non-cooperation” as a measure to win political rights for a great people from the hands of a great imperial power.

It will be of interest here to state in brief the views and principles which Mahatma Gandhi holds on the various important problems of India.

Political. — Mahatma Gandhi, although by training a lawyer, is not, in the opinion of many who have known him intimately and have worked shoulder to shoulder with him, a politician of the first rank. In fact, in view of the nature of his popularity, both in India and abroad and especially in view of the methods he has used in facing the political situations which taxed what political capacities he possessed, one may safely say that he is predominantly a saint (this is what the term Mahatma, by the way, means) and accidentally a political leader.

After the passing of the Rowlatt Act and the later developments of disaffection between the British bureaucracy and the Indian people, as a first gesture of conscientious disapproval Mr. Gandhi returned with thanks the various honors and gold medals which were bestowed on him by the British government for his loyal and humanitarian services. The following abstract from the letter which accompanied the medals is expressive of the sentiment of all Indian patriots:

“Your Excellency’s light-hearted treatment of the official crime, your exoneration of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, Mr. Montague’s dispatch and above all the shameful ignorance of the Punjab events and callous disregard of the feelings of Indians betrayed by the House of Lords, have filled me with the gravest misgivings regarding the future of the Empire, have estranged me completely from the present government and have disabled me from tendering, as I have hitherto whole-heartedly tendered, my loyal cooperation.”

Gandhi was arrested on March 10, 1922, and was tried on March 18. He was convicted and given a sentence of six years. The trial scene was most impressive, although it did not last very long, for Mahatma Gandhi pleaded guilty and suggested to the British judge that there was no course open to him than either to pronounce the highest punishment for what was considered a crime under law or to vacate his chair, if his conscience disturbed him, and join Gandhi in his work. The following statement which Gandhi made during his trial tells in brief his main contentions:

“From a staunch loyalist and cooperator, I have become an uncompromising disaffectionist and non-cooperator … To preach disaffection towards the existing system of government has become almost a passion with me … If I were set free, I would still do the same. I would be failing in my duty if I did not do so … I had either to submit to a system which has done irreparable harm to my country, or to incur the mad fury of my people, bursting forth when they heard the truth from my lips … I do not ask for mercy. I am here to invite and to submit to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a crime, but which is the first duty of every citizen … Affection can not be manufactured or regulated by law. I hold it to be a virtue to be disaffected towards a government which, in its totality, has done more harm to India than any previous system … It is physical and brutal ill-treatment of humanity which has made many of my co-workers and myself impatient of life itself.”

In any struggle between nationalism and imperialism more than one policy of activity is responsible for the achievement of the goal. Also the causes for such diversity of policy are many. It is not, therefore, only the desire of the British imperialists and die-hards to perpetuate the vested interests of their country in the soil of India which has kept India’s aspirations for freedom down but there are other important causes as well. The chief among these is the lack of unity among the various communities which constitute the Indian nation. Although modern Indian culture and literature have been the joint product of Hindu-Moslem creative endeavor, dividing historical memories have persisted. Unfortunately, however, divide et impera policy pursued by the bureaucracy in India has augmented the disunity, and the Hindus and Moslems are ever being played off one against the other with disastrous success. Mahatma Gandhi, therefore, postulated the freedom of India upon the communal unity of the peoples of India. He holds that the various communities inhabiting India must learn to replace their communal self consciousness by the larger national consciousness. According to Mahatma Gandhi, although the union of India with Britain may have been productive of some very great boons on either side, it is an unnatural union. It rests fundamentally on the basis of inequality. There is little real partnership in the actual running of the great Indo-British affairs. Gandhi therefore advocates a Swarajya (self rule) for India, if possible without national indignity to his country, within the Empire; if not, complete independence.

Religion.—Mahatma Gandhi calls himself a Hindu, although many religions have claimed him. Staley Jones, an American evangelist in India, once asked Mahatma Gandhi whether it would not be a desirable thing to see Christianity naturalized in India, and as a part of national life contribute its power to the uplift of India. Replying to this query, Gandhi said, “I would suggest four things in order to make that possible: (1) All of you Christians, missionaries and all, should begin to live like Jesus Christ, (2) that you must practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down, (3) that you make love central in your lives, for love is central in Christianity, and (4) you should study the non-Christion religions more sympathetically to find out the good that is in them in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.”

Gandhi offered these suggestions in full sincerity, and in them is embodied one of the greatest challenges ever given to the West.

In the turbulent days of non-cooperation in India, when the height of human passion and patriotism was reached, Gandhi issued the following statements to the Indian press. These words of Gandhi more than explain his understanding of the great religion of the Hindus and its universality when seen in its entirety:

“There is only one God for us all, whether we find him through the Bible, the Koran, the Gita, the Zindvesta or the Talmud, and He is the God of love and truth. I do not hate an Englishman. I have spoken much against his institutions, especially the one he has set up in India. But you must not mistake my condemnation of the system for that of the man. My religion requires me to love him as I love myself. I have no interest in living except to prove the faith in me. I would deny God if I do not attempt to prove it at this critical moment.

“Our non-violence teaches us to love our enemies. By non-violent non-cooperation we seek to conquer the wrath of English administrators and their supporters. We must love them and pray to God that they might have wisdom to see what appears to us to be their error. It must be the prayer of the strong and not of the weak. In our strength must we humble ourselves before our maker.

“In the moment of our trial and our triumph let me declare my faith. I believe in loving my enemies … I believe in the power of suffering to melt the stoniest heart … We must by our conduct demonstrate to every Englishman that he is safe in the remotest corner of India as he professes to feel behind the machine gun.”

This interpretation of his faith when applied to the movement he was leading, viz, non-violent non-cooperation with the British bureaucracy in India, at once explains both the material weakness and the spiritual strength of his position.

Labor.—Gandhi is a worker. His whole career has been distinguished by his extraordinary love for work that is productive, elevating and emanicipating. He abhors talk, and in all he has ever said he shows lack of oratory and rhetoric. No other leader of India has been so directly and staunchly associated with the cause of the Indian workers whether they be farmers or workers in the mills.

Mahatma Gandhi is opposed to industrialization of India because, like many opponents of industrialism in the West, he sees in it a serious obstacle to simple life. His stand against industrial progress is based on moral considerations rather than on economic principles. His deep interest in the human being makes him revolt against machinery—the modern monster—as he conceives it, which is grinding man down. About the workers in the mills he says:

“The workers in the mills of Bombay have become slaves. The condition of the women working in the mills is shocking. When there were no mills, these women were not starving. If the machinery craze grows in our country it will become an unhappy land. It may be considered a heresy, but I am bound to say that it were better for us to send money to Manchester and to use flimsy Manchester cloth than to multiply mills in India.…By using Manchester cloth we would only waste our money, but by reproducing Manchester in India, we shall keep our money at the price of our blood, because our very moral being will be sapped, and I call in support of my statement the very mill hands as witnesses. And those who have amassed wealth out of factories are not likely to be better than other rich men. It would be folly to assume that an Indian Rockefeller would be better than the American Rockefeller. Impoverished India can be free but it would be hard for an India made rich through immorality to regain freedom.”

When Gandhi faces the realities of economic and industrial situation obtaining in India, he becomes a follower of Alexander Hamilton. He supports the demands of Indian mill owners that the excise duty of Indian cotton goods be abolished, and as an advocate of the Protectionist policy, he argues in the columns of Young India thus:

“Every Indian publicist knows that when a duty was placed on cotton goods imported, an excise cotton duty was placed on Indian production solely in the interest of Lancashire, and it still remains in spite of protests and in spite even of promises that it would be reconsidered. This duty is a continuing reminder to us of the subordination of India’s interests to England’s. Some friends who only know my strong, indeed passionate, preference for the hand spun to the exclusion of mill spun, cannot understand my advocacy of preference for Indian mill spun. A little reflection must however show the consistency between the two policies. Foreign cloth must be totally banished from the Indian market, if India is to become an economically free nation, if her peasantry is to find honorable employment during times of famine and such other visitations. Protection of her staple industry is her birthright. I would therefore protect the Indian mills against foreign competition, even though for the time being it may result in mulcting the poor people. Such mulcting can take place only if the mill owners be so unpatriotic as to raise prices owing to the monopoly they may secure. I have therefore no hestitation in advocating the repeal of cotton excise duties and imposition of a prohibitive import duty.”

While opposing the machine industry, Mahatma Gandhi most emphatically endorses the promotion of cottage industry. He does not oppose peoples producing things of comfort and convenience, and thus experiencing the bliss of prosperity. He fears, for good reason indeed, the effects of large scale productions which remove personal initiative of the consumer and which gradually but inevitably renders him hopelessly dependent upon the impersonal providers of human wants.

Why Gandhi Emphasizes the Spinning Wheel.—India in the past had a very flourishing cotton industry, and Gandhi, like other Indian nationalists, believes that it was deliberately destroyed to benefit the British merchants. Gandhi therefore wishes to revive the cotton industry to such an extent that Indians will not have to buy any foreign cloth. This is his main plea for reviving the spinning wheel and hand-looms. Without affecting the Indian cotton mills, Indian peasants will be greatly profited by this and will stop the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars from India into foreign markets. This would prove a great national economic asset to India. Gandhi says:

"I want to see the spinning wheel everywhere because I see pauperism everywhere. Not until and unless we have fed and clothed the skeletons of India, will religion have any meaning to them. They are living the cattle-life of today and we are responsible for it. The spinning wheel, therefore, is a penance for us."

Some Economic Facts About India.—India is an enormous reservoir of material wealth yet undiscovered and unused. “Congregated on the banks of the River Hugli,” says Earl Ronaldshay (in his India, A Bird's Eye View, p. 156), “are innumerable jute mills with something like 850,000 spindles and 400,000 looms, employing in all about 275,000 persons. It has been estimated that the total capital, including shares, debentures, reserve and other funds invested in the mills on the banks of the river, amounts to £30,000,000 sterling. But with scarcely an exception the mills are in the hands of the Europeans.”

In the words of Mr. Cecil Jones of the Geological Survey of India, the iron ore deposits of India “are remarkable for the enormous quantities of extremely rich ore they contain and will undoubtedly prove to be amongst the largest and richest in the world. In a region about 150 to 200 miles from Calcutta the minimum quantities of iron deposits are estimated up to the present, of ore containing not less than sixty per cent of iron, or 2,832,000,000 tons, on a conservative basis.”

It is not unknown to Indian intelligentia and particularly to Mahatma Gandhi that India will not be able to avoid the use of machinery in order to secure for her people the enormous gifts that their motherland treasures within her soil. The only concern they legitimately feel is about avoiding the machinery from becoming a curse, as it has become in the West, and about using it for the benefit of humanity. Human values must count first and not be overlooked. This is the chief contention of the East against the practice in the West.

Wherever machinery has captured the industries, Indian workers have not been slow to follow in the steps of their fellow-laborers in the West. They have been forced to organize trade unions, and the movement is growing fast. In 1920 the membership of Indian trade unions was 500,000. In 1922 it rose to 1,500,000. There is considerable labor unrest in India and many strikes on a large scale have occurred all over the country during the past few years.

Gandhi has, on all occasions, stepped forward to champion the cause of Indian workers and peasants. “About 200,000,000 people in India are engaged in agriculture; about 14,000,000 are engaged in cotton mill; and the industrial population is some 8,000,000. Of these about 2,000,000 are engaged in more than 5,000 factories and the industrialization of India is growing every day.” (T. Das, World Tomorrow, Dec. 1924, p. 371.)

Gandhi, in discussing the capital and labor situations in his Young India, says:

“Two paths are open before India today, either to introduce the Western principle of might is right, or to uphold the Eastern principle that … the strong and the weak have alike a right to secure justice. In the struggle between capital and labor it may be generally said that more often than not the capitalists are in the wrong box. But when labor comes to realize its own strength, I know it can become more tyrannical than capital. To use violence to secure rights may seem to be an easy path but it proves to be thorny in the long run.”

“A satisfactory solution of the condition of labor must include,” suggests Gandhi:

  1. The hours of labor must leave the workmen some hours of leisure.
  2. They must get facilities for their own education.
  3. Provision should be made for an adequate supply of milk, clothing and necessary education for their children.
  4. There should be sanitary dwellings for the workmen.
  5. They should be in a position to save enough to maintain themselves in old age.

Needless to say that none of these conditions are satisfactory today.

When organized labor succeeds in securing increased wages and shorter hours of work, Gandhi feels that the money thus received should be devoted to the education of the children of the workers and the time saved for their own education. He advises the mill owners to open restaurants for their employees, where they can get pure milk, which has become such a rarity in the industrial centers of India, and wholesome food for moderate prices, by running these restaurants at cost. Employers should open reading rooms and provide harmless amusements and games. He advises the trade unions to do similar things.

“They would be better employed in devising means for improvement from within than in fighting the capitalists,” asserts Gandhi, and adds: "It is a sign of national degradation when little children are removed from school and are employed in earning wages. No nation worthy of the name can possibly afford to so misuse her children. At least up to the age of sixteen the children must be kept in school. Similarly the women must also be gradually weaned from mill labor.”

This shows in what unmistakable terms Gandhi has given his serious thought to the problems of Indian workers, and, in spite of reasonable difference of opinion that one may hold with regard to Gandhi’s economic theories, it is refreshing to note that, after the manner of all really great men of the past, his soul is keenly concerned with the uplift and well-being of the toiler.

Professionally a lawyer, Gandhi built up his career through his services in South Africa to his countrymen there, then engaged in a bitter fight for justice against the white man. He emerged from this color conflict as a devoted social worker and engaged himself in the humanitarian activities during the entire period of the World War. He accepted honors conferred on him by the British government, and demonstrated his faith in the British sense of justice, by adopting a policy of unflinching loyalty to the cause of the British Empire. With the close of the war, like the rest of the faithful humanity, Gandhi found himself disillusioned and under a deep sense of humiliation and remorse; he extricated himself from all affiliations which he regarded evil. His devotional nature got the better of him, and, unlike other leaders of national movements, he set about to study the true conditions of things that contributed in the main to the degeneration of his people. He associated the mystical practices of prayer, fast and renunciation of worldly possession with his program for social, political and economic regeneration of India. Although Gandhi has been enthusiastically busy with the work of social reform and the abolition of “untouchability,” his name and energies have been more prominently used in the political struggle. The world outside is naturally interested in the outcome of political issues involved in the relation of Great Britain and India.

Gandhi’s spectacular movement, known as “non-violent non-cooperation” flashed through the political circles, both in the Orient and in the Occident, and the world press became loud both in its condemnation and praise of Gandhi as the great passive revolutionist of India. Indian people also emphasized Gandhi’s political services and leadership by electing him President of the Indian National Congress and later by rendering him “dictator,” an honor never before in the history of the Indian National Congress enjoyed by any political leader. The incarceration of Gandhi by the British also helped at a very psychological moment to bring untold publicity to Gandhi and his movement, in Europe and America.

Although by no means a politician of high rank or a scholar in the ancient lore of India, Gandhi embodies in his life and personality all those spiritual qualities which honest students of Oriental culture have declared to be of Indian origin.

Gandhi is a typical saint; living in our times, he is drawn into struggles which are peculiar to our present day civilization. Like the saints of old, he has given full measure of his powers to the service of his fellowmen and also simultaneously has adopted a mode of life which is calculated to purify and emancipate his being from the material fetters of wordly existence. He is not only proving in his life what is best in the Hindu mysticism but is effecting a happy union between what is truly spiritual, humane and honorable in the cultures of the East and the West.

It is to the credit of Western Christianity that many of its prominent divines have been moved to call Gandhi the greatest living man of the world and many others have been liberal enough to speak of him in the same breath with Christ. We in India are especially happy for this honesty of courage displayed by the prominent ministers of the Christian gospel, for this is highly promising in bringing about a healthy understanding and appreciation between the two great faiths. Responsive appreciation and will to understand the contributions made by the Eastern and Western peoples are alone capable of fostering international spirit and human solidarity.

  1. Mr. Gogate represented India at the World Conference on Education in 1923 at San Francisco and as a member of the Board of Directors attended the Educational Congress held at Edinburgh in the summer of 1925. At present he holds the Macy Scholarship at Teachers' College and the chair of Philosophy in the Pre-Legal Division of the New Jersey Law School at Newark, N. J.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was legally published within the United States (or the United Nations Headquarters in New York subject to Section 7 of the United States Headquarters Agreement) between 1923 and 1977 (inclusive) without a copyright notice.