"The nonviolent voice of Gandhi appeals to man's highest conscience. Let nations ally themselves no longer with death, but with life; not with destruction, but with construction; not with hate, but with creative miracles of love..." --Paramahansa Yogananda
During Yogananda's visit to Mahatma Gandhi's ashram in Wardha in 1935, Gandhi requested of Yogananda that he initiate him in Kriya Yoga. This is important because it serves to root our understanding of Gandhi within the framework of his own self-understanding: Gandhi was a student of religion and sought to align every aspect of his life with the Bhagavad Gita -- the Hindu handbook on how to achieve union with the Divine. Yogananda later wrote in his Autobiography of a Yogi, "Saints like Gandhi have made not only tangible material sacrifices, but also the more difficult renunciation of selfish motive and private goal, merging their inmost being in the stream of humanity as a whole."
For Gandhi, there was no division between the spiritual and the secular, between religion and politics, between practice and activism: this was perhaps Gandhi's primary "take-away" from his reading of the Gita. This philosophy of "no divide", flavored with nonviolence, is one of the Mahatma's enduring gifts to humankind. But like every other human being, Gandhi was also deeply flawed -- while his father was dying, the young Gandhi left his father's bedside to go and have sex with his wife... while so engaged, his father passed away -- his overwhelming sense of shame and guilt in pursuing this sexual release framed his ascetic attitudes, which in turn gave rise to his life-long struggles with sexual repression. It is important to also note that this same event and personal struggle was the "grounding" giving fuel to his passion for public service. All-in-all, Mahatma Gandhi was a complex mix of saint and rascal, politician and creative tactician: the ingredients of a life which he uniquely combined with a free-wheeling radicalism. All-in-all, Gandhi's life is essential reading and study for the mystic / activist of the 21st century.
The primary witness that Gandhi affords us is that of a person in whom humanity has awakened -- this is not a small thing! Perhaps, in truth, it is everything! India awoke in his mind while he was serving the cause of Indian justice in South Africa. But the entire world awoke in his heart when he returned to India and took up the cause of India's liberation from the British Empire -- especially and particularly by embracing the outcaste "untouchables" of his homeland. In Gandhi's mind, heart, practice, and politics, love was both the means and the end. If we would only take to heart the words and example of the Poor Man of Nazareth, the rich and powerful would divest themselves of both their wealth and their power and begin to serve in justice every "other". The suffering poor of the world would be "welcomed home" into human community: "There is enough for everyone's need, not for everyone's greed" said Gandhi. This example would then propel the entire world into the holy competition of loving more, and of loving loud to create Paradise where once there was discord, injustice, hatred, and violence. Gandhi believed that love in action was strong enough to change minds, reconcile opposites, and heal a devastated Planet.
In Gandhi's life, nonviolence was both tactic and transformational tool: useful for the "powerless" to confront, shame, and overthrow the powerful... not for the aquisition of power for a new elite, but for the radical "rooting out" of all temptation to power! For Gandhi, power was community service, advocacy, solidarity, and organizing. Nonviolence was known by Gandhi to be the applied power of personal transformation for the "other" and especially for the "least". The nonviolent practitioner was to spiritually prepare for action by first of all bringing into harmony one's inner life with one's outer life so that finally there would be no difference between how one thought, spoke, and acted. This unified being would then possess enormous spiritual power for public service -- and at the same time still be willing and able to scrub the toilets... Gandhi called this practice "Satyagraha", or "Truth Force". For Gandhi -- and this is of paramount importance -- there was to be no division whatsoever between inner or spiritual life, and outer or public engagement.
Gandhi believed that one's religion was one's politics -- not in the "fundamentalist" perception and practice, though. But rather in the deeper realization that true religion is about a total surrender to an overwhelming Love -- which then inspires in the heart of the surrendered one a radical commitment to loving others without limits. The Lover must respond to the call of love by becoming personally and profoundly engaged in the full development and liberation of the "other" -- without qualification or judgment. The Lover must enter into the struggle for justice and equality with every "other" -- liberating the truth of love in her / him self as in the "other". Action and service for peace and justice becomes a duty of a transformative faith; it is a practice, a way of life, not an occasional "feel good" add-on. So any and every injustice is personally experienced by the Lover; every violent act against any one is, again, personally experienced by the Lover; every starving child dies in the arms of the Lover and is, once more, personally experienced as the death of one's own child. For Gandhi, "When the practice of Love becomes universal, God will reign on earth as He does in heaven."
Much, very much, of what is masquerading as "religion" today is contrary to the actual wisdom teachings of the prophets, sages, and saints. Much, very much, of what is presenting itself as "faith" (especially in the three Abrahamic religions) is chock-full of personal opinion and the desire / need to maintain at all costs their version of the dominator paradigm. When the suffering of others, especially of the powerless, no longer matters in decision-making, those decisions have lost all validity and moral authority. Any society, religion, or group that gears itself for the oppression or condemnation of an "other" is by that very fact de-legitimized. Wherever Gandhi planted his foot, he considered that holy ground -- not by the fact of his presence, but by the fact of his awareness that it was holy! For this man of "no divide", there was no longer a limit to the measure of his willingness to either sacrifice or to love -- every moment then became a "holy competition" between him and his God: who could / would love more? This -- and nothing else -- is true religion. Apply the test of Gandhi to your religion, group, or society. Everything will shake out as it should after that.
For Gandhi, politics was the manifestation of sacred opportunities to love on a larger scale than one otherwise could. The needs of the poor, the needs of all those for whom to live meant little more than suffering, was taken up by him as the key to India's liberation. To the dismay of most of those around him, the "professional" revolutionaries, he would drop everything and postpone revolutionary action, to advocate for the abolition of untouchability (of the ancient Indian caste system). He would protest that he didn't want to live in a "free" India, if any Indian wasn't as equal and as free as any other Indian. All of the properly religious folk couldn't understand how he could connect untouchability with British oppression... Gandhi was certain that every injustice was factually connected with every other injustice in a "garment" whose every string needed to be unstrung and re-woven into something brand new with room enough for everyone to thrive under and reach their fullest potential. No one is free so long as someone -- anyone -- is absent from the human community and the banquet table of a good life. No action of Gandhi's was more profound, or enlightening for us, than that of his "fast unto death" for the untouchable, their welcoming into the temple, and their full integration in the national life of the Indian people and nation. The good Hindus held him in excommunicated disdain, the British thought him eccentric and weirdly strange, while he was an embarrassment to the intellectuals who saw him only a means to their ends. But for Gandhi, as for the Poor Man of Nazareth, his religion and his politics required that "the least" come first -- when relationships and public engagement proceed from this "righting" of society into essential "communitarian personalism" -- everything else will fall into place of its own accord.
Nonviolence, or Satyagraha, has gotten by far the most attention from studies of Gandhi -- perhaps that is right because violence is always "in our face". But Gandhi himself recognized that nonviolence is about establishing a continuum of right relationships rooted in equality and social justice. Revolution and the revolutionary is not just about "deconstructing systems of oppression", but most importantly about "constructing living systems of community". The Mahatma coined another word for his band of revolutionaries: Sarvodaya, "The Welfare of All", representing the ideal social order of an economics of solidarity (we're all in this together and responsible for one another); a social order of justice for all (greed, conflict, suppression, and overt consumption will never make for community or happy humans). Sarvodaya is the affirmation that there are practical implications to the requirements of Love: it is impossible to love God whom one cannot see, and be unjust to one's neighbor whom one can see. Sarvodaya also implies a radical self-emptying into the One, into the Transcendental Unity, that sees and serves "no differences". This is a spirituality of "deliverance from the little self" -- to "re-incarnate while still alive" as one's true and essential Self. In Sarvodaya one becomes an all-embracing love in the midst of all of the ordinary things and days of life. Gandhi didn't give a detailed blueprint for achieving a "utopian" society. He recognized the many ways in which he had changed through the course of his life, as well as his many mistakes and personal failings, and he knew that everyone else was just the same as him. But what he also knew was this simple truth: if we try everyday day to place no limits upon our Love -- and just keep showing up in life doing our very best for the other, then we would inevitably get to where we wanted to go and that would be good for all.
Selected Quotations of Gandhi:
If we take care of the means, we are bound to reach the end sooner or later.
When nonviolence is accepted as the law of life it must pervade the whole being and not be applied to isolated acts.
That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings.
True economics stands for social justice, it promotes the good of all equally including the weakest, and is indispensable for a decent life.
It should not happen that a handful of rich people should live in jewelled palaces and the millions in hovels...
My creed of nonviolence is an extremely active force.
No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.
A nonviolent system of government is clearly an impossibility so long as the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions persists.
It is difficult to forecast the possibilities when people with unflinching faith carry this experiment forward.
Gandhi The Man by Eknath Easwaran
The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer
Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda
The Story of my Experiments with Truth, An Autobiography by Gandhi
World Without Violence by Dr. Arun Gandhi