Last Friday was the birthday of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whom they called the Mahatma, the Great Soul. For all of us who don’t know much about him, the 1982 movie does a good job of filling in the holes. Sometimes portraying him as a bit too holy (and I guess he would agree to that), it still gives a great impression of the man he was in the public imagination. A friend of Tolstoy’s, often viewed as a saint by western Christians, although he himself disliked Christianity and its missionary zeal.
He was no saint, and he would be the first to say so. In his autobiography “The Story of My Experiments With Truth,” he recounts many failures of his own life, beginning with his early marriage, at 13, to the woman whom he stayed with until the end, although he wasn’t always faithful to her. For all his revolutionary zeal, he was very much a child of his time and society, and he expected obedience from his wife and his family, not allowing his son to study law as he himself had done. He was also, in practice, much less ecumenical than he preached, and many see him as responsible for Hindu nationalism and the partition of India, which might have been avoided with a more moderate leader.
Gandhi’s autobiography provides an extraordinary view on the thoughts and the life of this exceptional man. If you buy through this link, Daily Philosophy will earn a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks!
But all this seems less important today when we look back at the life of Gandhi. What we see, as seekers of wisdom (for that is what philosophy is supposed to be), is a man who stood by his principles and who fought for them until the end. Like many revolutionaries and great leaders, he wasn’t an easy man to get along with. A softer, more likeable man would have tried to avoid spending much of his life in prison, fasting, hunger striking, organising walks and marches, and facing off the wrath of the British empire, while still finding the strength to fight. In this, he is similar to many other great revolutionaries and saints, Che Guevara, Leo Tolstoy, or Mother Teresa, who were all heavily criticised for flaws in their personalities. But they all had the lives and the success that they had, not in spite, but because of these flaws.
When we look around today, we see a world that is ruled and dominated by amoral men, seeking only to enrich themselves at the cost of everyone else, at the cost of the world as a whole: the Trumps, Bolsonaros, Berlusconis, Putins and Orbans (and the list doesn’t stop there, of course). In this environment, it is particularly important to remind ourselves that we are not stuck with the likes of them, that there is no law of nature that decrees that we have to be content with them and accept their rule.
There is better. And Gandhi, the great soul, the Mahatma, was one of those who came to show us that despite all the flaws of the human condition, despite all the limitations and all the brokenness that is in every one of us, there is also this other thing: the greatness of the human character, incorruptible honesty, faith in a better world, and the silent courage of all who have learned to suffer – and to fight through their suffering for what they believe.
If we want a better world, we must go out and get it. If we want the leaders we deserve as human beings, we must tear down those who are demeaning and enslaving us, get rid of them, and choose those who will do justice to our dignity and our humanity. And Mahatma Gandhi’s memory will always be a reminder of that, and an assurance that it is possible to create a better world, if we want it enough and if we are willing to pay the price for it.
Happy Birthday, Mahatma Gandhi!