The Man Behind the Mahatma - Gandhi Jayanti Special

Before the Mahatma, came the man. You & I reveals some of the lesser known facts about Mahatma Gandhi’s life.

The metaphor of Gandhi and all he stood for, both during his lifetime and more so after, has made it difficult to know the man behind this larger than life persona. Many Indians have little idea about what Gandhi was like as a person, and are content to quickly slot him into the hero/saint category. While these labels are undoubtedly appropriate, to fully understand Gandhi we must look past his iconic image and explore the more human side of this fascinating man.

The Early Years
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in the busy port town of Porbandar on October 2, 1869. Both his father and grandfather occupied the high office of the diwan (Chief Minister) of Porbandar. Gandhi was certainly born into a family with distinct privileges; at a time when literacy in British India was barely 8%, Gandhi enjoyed a British education in London, before taking employment as a barrister in South Africa.

However, Gandhi’s primary influence in his formative years was his mother Putlibai. Putlibai’s life was characterised by love and sacrifice, and included myriad religious fasts and vows, carried out to their finish with the most unfaltering restraint. Her austere leanings left a strong mark on her son, on whom she doted. In later years, this devoted, almost blind maternal love, as well as the belief that self-sacrifice could overturn any obstacle, found iconic expression in Gandhi’s basic outlook towards the world and its difficult challenges.

As a child, the young Gandhi was just a normal personality. He was neither an exceptional student nor a talented athlete, and was shy and self conscious. However, one aspect of Gandhi’s personality that did shine through was his strong desire to maintain a spotless reputation. As a child, Gandhi’s greatest pride lay in the fact that he never told a single lie, not to his parents or his teachers; even the slightest insinuation that he had not told the truth would immediately reduce him to angry tears.

Gandhi’s autobiography reveals some wayward incidents during his early youth. But for him, one mistake was usually enough to learn a lesson of a lifetime. Gandhi’s rebellious phase was not unlike that of other young men coming of age at the time. What differed, however, was Gandhi’s own reaction to his misdeeds; extreme penance seemed to be his most natural state.

Political Evolution
Most biographies of Gandhi focus on his political career after he returned from England in 1915 and participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement in the 1920s. What is less well known is that there was a period earlier when Gandhi was far from a revolutionary or anti-imperialist. In fact, in his own words, he saw in the British Empire a ‘spiritual foundation’ (Martin Green, “Gandhi: Voice of a New Age Revolutionary”). Upon his return to India in 1915, Gandhi actively attempted to recruit Indians for the British war effort; clearly, the concept of non-violence that Gandhi would become forever associated with, had not yet fully developed.

In contrast, the revolt of Chauri Chaura (1922), in which an occupied police chowki was set on fire by angry protestors, moved Gandhi into immediately calling for an end to the Non-Cooperation Movement. A nationwide revolt had been launched to protest the inhuman authoritarian laws of the British and appeal for self-government by Indians. However, Gandhi embarked on a five-day fast which cut short a civil movement that some feel might have hastened the departure of the British, who were already weakened by mutinies within the royal armies.

Gandhi’s political vision lay in his grasp of the importance of symbolic acts to rouse a country’s conscience. The Salt Satyagraha, launched to protest the imposition of salt tax by the British, found symbolic expression in Gandhi’s legendary Dandi March. He and thousands of his followers walked from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi in Gujarat, delivering speeches along the way and enjoining people to disobey the salt laws. The Salt Satyagraha soon became a nationwide movement, leading to a mass boycott of British goods. While the movement didn’t directly result in the departure of the British from India, Gandhi was able to unite much of India behind the cause, demanding the most basic of rights and thus increasing pressure on the British to pull out.

It’s a fact that Gandhi’s charismatic persona greatly influenced the turn that the freedom struggle took in its final phase, and the example it set for the rest of the world. Gandhi’s vision prevented the needless loss of life that a bloodier revolution would have undoubtedly brought. It offered a peaceful alternative to violence in a people’s struggle for freedom which valued the sanctity of human life above all else.

A Nation’s Father…
Popularly called the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi’s own family life was not without conflict. Gandhi married Kasturba when he was 13, and had four children - Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas and Devdas. Following the recent release of the film Gandhi, My Father, Gandhi’s turbulent relationship with his eldest son Harilal has attracted some attention. Gandhi was only 18 when his first son was born, and Harilal was just six months old when Gandhi had to leave his family in South Africa to train as a barrister in London. As a result, Gandhi was largely absent during Harilal’s early years.

Gandhi’s political philosophy required him to practice what he preached. He home schooled his sons instead of sending them to private European schools, something he certainly could have afforded. He explicitly refused shows of favouritism directed towards his children, apparently leading Harilal to feel deprived and cheated.

Gandhi once confessed that the greatest regret was that all his life, he was unable to influence two people – one was Mohammed Ali Jinnah, whose demand for a separate homeland for Muslims led to the partition of India. The other person was Harilal. While his father was urging the boycott of all British goods, Harilal traded in imported British clothes. Yet in spite of their differences, whenever Gandhi proposed or attempted anything radical, Harilal was the first to support his father.

Principles in Practice
As much as he was a nationalist leader and a social reformer, Mahatma Gandhi was also a brilliant communicator. While in South Africa, Gandhi launched a weekly newsletter called Indian Opinion in order to reach out to the people and mobilise public opinion. In his lifetime, he was associated with six journals, editing two of them. Publications were Gandhi’s mouthpiece not only for political ideals, but also to educate readers about self-discipline, sanitation and good citizenship.

Gandhi believed that newspapers fulfilled a social function, and shouldn’t be considered a means of earning a living. In a show of incredible foresight, Gandhi strongly stressed the importance of editorial responsibility, and refused to let his publications carry advertisements. In his autobiography, he says:

“The sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within.”

Gandhi also warned against unbridled development, and did not favour rapid urbanisation. He advocated small scale technology in most areas, limiting the use of large scale technology only to a few sectors. Consumerist tendencies, he felt, would put our very ecosystem in danger.

Mahatma Gandhi displayed the same forethought when it came to management and leadership. In his book “Principle-Centered Leadership”, Dr. Stephen Covey lists the seven modern sins that Gandhi believed could spell the death of civilization: politics without principles; wealth without work; commerce without morality; education without character; pleasure without conscience; science without humanity; and worship without sacrifice. Each of these conditions screams out its relevance for us today, as the world continues to struggle with challenging social, economic and spiritual issues.

Even Gandhi has had his fair share of detractors, both of his political actions, as well as certain controversial aspects of his personal life. These critics, however, only help underscore the important fact that Gandhi’s incredible vision and achievements were the product of a mere mortal, no different in this respect than the rest of us. If anything, this realisation should only spur us on to follow the life-changing ideals of this leader, whose remarkable strides in advancing the causes of civil rights, freedom and peaceful co-existence continue to make their mark around the world even today.         - Uttarika