Learning from India’s Great Soul

Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948) was a towering figure in history. He lived his philosophy of nonviolent resistance (satyagraha) to the best of his ability. His approach, which grew into a full-fledged ideology with many specific tenets, was primarily based on acts of self-control, developing peace from within, and standing firm when it came to righteous convictions, never at the expense of others but always at one’s own expense. He preached that satyagrahis should never hate the doer, only resist the action, and that no human being was beyond redemption, repeatedly stating that:

“It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.”

As a lawyer, activist, spiritual figure, and politician, Gandhi was not beyond reproach, but looking at his life, one can hardly doubt the sincerity of his convictions nor argue against their effectiveness.

His road from self-care to world-care began with a spiritual upbringing in India and a legal education in England. Pride was the seed that flowered into a lifetime of activism. After buying a first-class train ticket via mail, Gandhi was thrown out of his prepaid cabin and off the train for being Indian. That so insulted his dignity that he went to work for the civil rights of the Indian community in South Africa. It was there, with inspiration from Thoreau, among others, that he developed his philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience. During that time he also emphasized good relations between religions, which became an ongoing theme throughout his life:

“If we are to respect others’ religions, as we would have them respect our own, a friendly study of the world’s religions is a sacred duty.”

After success in South Africa, Gandhi returned to India and expanded his circle of care to include the Indian people who quickly bestowed on him the honorary title Mahatma, which means great (Maha) soul (Atman). He spent most of his adult life working towards Indian independence at a tremendous personal expense. Sacrifice was really at the heart of his philosophy; the will to suffer until the suffering became unbearable in the eyes of the oppressors. Partly thanks to his efforts, India finally gained independence in 1947, one year prior to his assassination.

In the final year of his life, Gandhi kept expanding his circle of care to include all of the world’s inhabitants and was increasingly worried about world peace, but, since his life was cut short, we will never know what kind of work he would have engaged in for the purpose of co-human harmony.

Today, Gandhi is a revered historical figure, sometimes to the point of deification (especially in India), but he was simultaneously an exceptional servant of humanity and a flawed human being. He readily admitted to some of those flaws in his autobiography while other shortcomings have been exposed in the light of modern values.

We can surmise from Gandhi’s story that without a modicum of self-care — including a spiritual upbringing and high-quality education — he would not have been prepared to fill his role of service and would likely have failed. Personal pride may have been the instigator for his activism, but he grew into the role and became more selfless with every passing year. His vocation required tremendous sacrifices, especially in regards to his family, as Gandhi spent much of his adult life in and out of prison. His expansion was realized step-by-step by living an intentional life focused on service.

Adapted from Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides (click here to learn more)

Icelandic-American author, bridge-builder, interfaith minister, and amateur musician. Learn more at www.gudjonbergmann.com

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