The Danish Peace Academy
Gandhi: the Mahatma
It was in 1969 that I had an opportunity to discuss a little about Mahatma Gandhi with my teacher for the first time. What conversation I had about is now lost in the abyss of time. But later I always wondered – why an international political leader like Gandhi was addressed as Mahatma, an honorific frequently used for a spiritually elevated soul. To find an answer, I think it is essential to review his life not in parts, but as a whole.
Gandhi affectionately called Bapu was a great leader endowed with a spiritual yearning for truth. The quintessence of his philosophy of life was the realization of Satya [truth] and Ahimsa [non- violence]. His purpose of life was as he says, “to achieve self- realization, to see God face to face, to obtain Moksha [Salvation].” But his approach was different from that of other seekers.
Gandhi received good Samskaras [pre-disposition] by virtue of his birth in a religious Vaishnava family of Gujarat, particularly from his mother who left an indelible impression of her saintliness on his tender mind. He imbibed truthfulness from the characteristics of the hero of the play ‘Harishchandra’. He wondered – ‘why should not we be truthful like Harishchandra?’ The question haunted him day and night. The king Harishchandra became the ideal hero of his dream and the paragon of truth. He so inspired him as to remain truthful all through his life even under trying circumstances and stands firm on his convictions.
Gandhi’s endeavours for self-realization were through strict observance of truth. He moulded his actions on the basis of truth, only the truth that he perceived within. The word truth ordinarily connotes not to tell lies. But for Gandhi it implied much more. He deemed even hiding the truth from someone as untruth. He considered that the narrow implication of the term had belied its magnitude. Defining Truth he writes, “The root of ‘Satya’ [truth] lies in ‘Sat’. Sat means the ‘Being’ and Satya – the feeling of the Being. Everything is perishable except ‘Sat’. Therefore, the true name of God is ‘Sat’, thereby implying ‘Satya [Truth] so, instead of saying ‘God is Truth’, it is better to say ‘Truth is God’. A question may now arise whether the realization of Truth and the realization of Self were one and the same for him or the two entities. We get the answer from Maharshi Raman, “What is Satya except Self? Satya is that which is made of Sat. Again Sat is nothing but Self. So Gandhiji’s Satya is only the Self.” It is now clear, what Gandhi meant by Truth was in fact the realization of Self. He writes, “ What I meant 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 [salvation].”
How to realize God is a complicate question. The realization of God can be attained by purity of mind and heart and sadhna [constant practice]. Bhagvad Gita, the dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna in the epic Mahabharata, is regarded as a sacred Hindu scripture and an infallible guide of daily practice. Lord Krishna tells about four paths of God-realization. They are the service and sacrifice [Karma Yoga], devotion and self- surrender [Bhakti Yoga], concentration and meditation [Raja Yoga], discrimination and wisdom [Jnana Yoga]. There is no line of demarcation between one and another and one path does not exclude the others. A seeker can follow any of them according to his/ her temperament. Ultimately they all lead to one goal – the realization of God.
Gandhi held Bhagvad Gita in high esteem. He writes, “Those who will meditate on Gita will derive fresh joy and new meanings from it everyday. There is no single spiritual tangle which the Gita cannot unravel.” He found answer to the above question in Gita – Vairagya [non- attachment] or Abhyas Yoga [practice]. Vairagya means total indifference to worldly things and concentration only on the Absolute. Lord Krishna says in Gita: “Fix thy mind on Me only, place thy intellect in Me; then thou shalt no doubt live in Me alone hereafter.”[Chapter XII: Shloka – 8]
And further says he, “If thou art not able to fix thy mind steadily on Me, then by Yoga of constant Practice [Abhyas Yoga] do thou seek to reach Me”. [Ibid: 9]
Gandhi was born to serve humanity. He was a practical man; he chose the path of practice and the path of renunciation of the fruits of action. Absolute faith in God and surrender to His Will became his object of observance [Niyam] and the constant thought of the Truth – Practice [Abhyas Yoga]. His mind was always occupied with truth in all walks of life – personal, social or political.
Gandhi was a seeker and introspection was the method of his sadhna. He writes, “I have gone through deep introspection, searched myself through and through, and examined and analyzed every psychological situation.” The study of Gita and the process of self- introspection brought him face to face with the true meaning of Ahimsa [Non- Violence] – no violence in thought, speech and act. He came to the conclusion that the realization of Truth was impossible without adherence to the supreme conduct of man – Ahimsa. In his opinion Truth and Ahimsa were so inter- mingled as the two sides of a coin. For the achievement of one or the other, complete control over the senses of Action [Karmendriya] and those of Perception [Jnanendriya] is essential. Lord Krishna also says in Gita:
“Control Raga-dvesha [attachment–malevolence], obstructions on spiritual path; Do your duty well. Control desire and anger – the enemies of wisdom. Master first the senses. Kill this enemy - desire by restraining the self by Self and by knowing Him who is superior to intellect”. Chapter III; Shloka 37 – 43]
Truth and Ahimsa appear to be at the same level as a pair. Truth – Ahimsa, yet Gandhi regarded ahimsa as means [sadhna] and Truth as the ultimate goal [sadhya]. It is said ahimsa is the super- most religion [ahimsa parmodharmah], Truth for Gandhi was the Almighty God. He, therefore, strived for and adhered to perfect Truth in thought, speech and act all through his life and thereby achieved the realization of Self. It is most likely that he practiced also Kriya Yoga he was initiated in by Paramhansa Yogananda, who, who visited him in Wardha ashram in 1935. Although lean and frail in appearance, he was strong in body and mind and glowed with spiritual health.
Gandhi once admitted that he had little knowledge of religions even of Hinduism, yet he believed, like every Hindu, in God, in rebirth and Salvation. He had a broad perception of Hinduism. In this perspective he says, “I believe Hinduism is not an exclusive religion. In it there is room for the worship of all the prophets of the world. It is not a missionary religion in the ordinary sense of the term. It has no doubt absorbed many tribes in its fold, but the absorption has been of an evolutionary, imperceptible character. Hinduism tells each man to worship God according to his own faith or dharma and so live at peace with all religions.” So, he regarded all religions with Sambhaav [equitability]. He perceived no religion was superior or inferior. He had studied about all religions of the world and came to the conclusion as he says, “I believe the Bible, the Koran, and the Zend–Avesta to be as divinely inspired as the Vedas.” He even tried in his mind to unify the teachings of the Gita, Sermon on the Mount and the Light of Asia and found Renunciation in Gita as ‘the greatest philosophy of all religions’.
Gandhi said, “Nothing delights me so much as the music of the Gita or the Ramayana by Tulsidas.” It will, therefore, not be out of context if we consider here the influence of Ramayana on him. Ramayana is an epic like Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ - a grand story, of a grand Man, in a grand style. But unlike ‘Paradise Lost’, Ramayana is a sacred scripture of Hindus. Therein, Tulsidas has portrayed the persona magnum, Rama, as an incarnation of Vishnu as well as a model human being with high moral values to serve as example for common man. Frank Whaling writes, “Rama has remained a symbol of dharma, human relationship and kingship; for others he has been a symbol of ‘Brahman’ or a symbol of the loving Lord.” In his childhood, the repetition of ‘Ramnaam’ [Rama’s name] suggested to him to ward off his fear of ghosts and spirits became an infallible guide’ for him later in life. Gandhi was highly impressed with the characteristics of Rama. Gandhi’s heart was the permanent abode of Rama who was endowed with the attributes of Brahman. Rama’s obedience, ready submission to the vows of his father, his love for his subject, protection to the weak, and equanimity to all beings he met during his exile, left deep impressions on Gandhi’s mind and heart. But what impressed him most was Rama’s way of administration – Ramarajya, in which justice prevailed and the voice of the low of the lowest was given due regard. In fact, he regarded ‘Ramarajya’ as the true model of democracy.
In introduction to his autobiography, Gandhi has written, “My experiments in the political field are now known. But I should certainly like to narrate my experiments in the spiritual field, which are known only to me and from which I have derived such power as I possess for working in the political field.” Indeed, he relentlessly pursued truth all through his life and achieved self-realization.
It is an anomaly that he is remembered and evaluated only for his political achievements. Little attention has been paid to the spiritual force within him from which he derived power to work in personal, social and political fields. According to Maharshi Raman, Adhyatmik Shakti [spiritual force] was working within him [Gandhi] and leading him on. He always listened to his inner voice and took decisions accordingly. His inner- self prompted him to serve the wounded in Boer War and Zulu rebellion in South Africa. He was always in front line and fearlessly led people in Satyagraha and Non-Cooperation movements. Undaunted he walked unarmed without any protection through the riot- hit areas at the time of partition of India, giving message of faith, love and peace.
Gandhi was a yogi-householder living amidst people. He was a Nishkam Karmayogi with no aspiration for any recognition or reward. He had limited his desires and needs to the bare minimum. Whatever he did, he did with right intention, right spirit and conviction, and worked for the benefit of others irrespective of caste, creed or religion. Notwithstanding the power he wielded over the Congress party and the masses, he never aspired for or accepted any kind of office. Had his name been proposed as the first President of India in recognition of his services to the nation, I am sure, none would have opposed it but he himself. He was such a great and magnanimous person. Rabindranath Tagore, a poet and visionary, recognized his greatness and spirituality and called him Mahatma, an attribute he aptly deserved.
Lord Krishna says to Arjuna in Gita, “Whenever righteousness declines and unrighteousness becomes powerful then I myself come to birth.” [Chapter IV – 7]. If we turn to the pages of the history of the world, it is evident that there have descended super-beings whenever the righteousness or ethical values are on decline to guide people on to the righteous path. The Indian soil is credited with the birth of many a super-being or the lofty spiritual personages who inspired people to forsake the evils of materialism that cause suffering, dissatisfaction and misery and to follow the path of spiritualism. Rational explanations of Mahatma Gandhi’s thoughts and acts will certainly place him in history in line with Lord Mahavira, Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ. Gandhi stood for Truth, Ahimsa, Compassion and Service all through his life. ‘To serve humanity is the service of God’ was the principle of his life. He was a social saviour of the oppressed and down- trodden people and fought for their right of equality and justice. It is not all; he was the political saviour of nations in political turmoil. The leaders of many subjugated races and countries drew inspiration from him for their rights. Like Jesus Christ, he was Forgiveness personified. He had no feeling of malice towards anyone in his dying moments and breathed his last remembering his chosen deity ‘Rama’. Paying a glowing tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein has written, “Generations to come, it may be, will scarcely believe that such one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon the earth.”
Today, we are passing through a crisis – a crisis of identification of values. The world is entrapped in gross materialism. Man has become so selfish as to have utter disregard for others whether an individual or a society or a nation. Scientists are vying with each other to play the role of the Creator. It is high time to create a balance between materialism and spiritualism. In the chaotic circumstances prevailing all over the world today, we are looking for peace as elusive as the mirage in a desert. I think Mahatma Gandhi’s life and his teachings can serve as beacon-lights to guide us and lead us to steady peace.