Studying Gandhi

A brief introduction to Gandhi's life and ideas

One of the articles in The Foundations Of Peace (IC#4)
Originally published in Autumn 1983 on page 53
Copyright (c)1983, 1997 by Context Institute

I asked Shelley to put together the following reader’s guide to Gandhi.

ON FRIDAY, JANUARY 30, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi – spiritual leader of India, Father of his country – was killed by an assassin’s bullet as he walked to his afternoon prayer meeting. His death followed an incredibly bungled police investigation of an earlier plot; it came at a time when his teachings were being firmly abandoned by his former followers. The new Government of India had decided that Gandhi did not understand the modern world; his teachings, they thought, would at best keep the country backward and ignorant. At worst they would lead to chaos and anarchy. Gandhi was mourned as a saint while his teachings continued to be ignored. Yet decades later, before his own death, Jawaharlal Nehru is reported to have told a friend, "We must go back to Gandhiji’s teachings. We should not have abandoned them."

Gandhi had taught that life was all of a piece. If India was to be independent, Indians must be independent and self-reliant. If India was to gain world respect, Indians must respect each other. If India was to be nonviolent, her people must express nonviolence in all aspects of their lives. Gandhi advocated no partition of India under any circumstances. He advocated development of village industry to provide a base of work for the people; he wanted villages to be economically self-sufficient and politically self- governing. He believed in national self-defense based on justice and on nonviolent citizen training. Gandhi emphasized the strong spiritual underpinning of life in this world: life was a whole, to be lived in one piece. After trying the modern methods of the West, Nehru was willing to admit that the Mahatma could have been right after all.

As we first-world citizens struggle to live responsibly in the global village, we would do well to explore Gandhi’s teachings. The direction of his thought is challenging and illuminating, pointing as it does to a wholistic world where small is understood to be beautiful. Gandhi himself wrote millions of words in his lifetime, and especially since the successful film Gandhi, numerous books have been written about him. By all means see the film. Then read books, lots of books. Then think hard, and experiment in your own life, because that is the only way Gandhi will live for you. The last step is the most important.

Here are some books to begin with: Gandhi (New York: Mentor Books, 1954), by Louis Fisher, a correspondent who visited Gandhi during his life. This is a short book but still a foundation for knowing Gandhi thirty years after its publication. Gandhi the Man, by Eknath Easwaran (Petaluma, CA 94953: Nilgiri Press, Box 477, 1983), is more recent and less demanding – it is illustrated with wonderful photographs and respects the whole Gandhi, emphasizing his spiritual commitment and wholistic analysis. A longer and more detailed book, Robert Payne’s Gandhi gives more attention to his political activism, and explores at length the plot that finally led to his death. Freedom at Midnight, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975) will help to clarify India’s freedom struggle and the position of Gandhi at the end of his life. In Conquest of Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965), Joan Bondurant has analyzed Gandhi’s tactics and shares the results of her study of his satyagraha; Gene Sharp has also studied Gandhian methods in Gandhi as a Political Strategist (Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1979).

As for Gandhi’s own writing, I think it makes more sense after the reader is familiar with the outlines of his situation and his thinking – read and judge for yourself, and remember that Gandhi himself was always revising and refining. Especially helpful is his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth (in many editions and usually available in libraries), although it ends early in his life. It is followed by Satyagraha in South Africa, the story of his first experiments in political truth. This must be a good book – our copy has been borrowed so often and for so long that I haven’t been able to read it. A special book for me has been the long biography of Gandhi by Pyarelal, his secretary. The Last Phase, two volumes covering the achievement of independence and Gandhi’s reaction to the violence of Partition, seem to me to convey the essence of his life and work.

These and other works by Gandhi are available through Greenleaf Books (Arthur Harvey), South Acworth, NH 03607, Write to them for a book list and tell them your special interests; they will recommend appropriate books. Greenleaf also stocks some information about the Community of the Ark, a Western Gandhian experiment. Greenleaf is itself an experiment in Gandhian living. You could sign up for an apple-picking camp or go for a visit, but write first.

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