Mahatma Gandhi’s Passion: A Magnificent Obsession

October 2 marks Mohandas Gandhi’s 147 birth anniversary. Professor Satendra Nandan’s Gandhi Gitanjali: Poems and Passions will be published on the eve of the Mahatma’s 150th anniversary   In 1939
25 Sep 2016 11:34
Mahatma Gandhi’s Passion:  A Magnificent Obsession
Mahatma Gandhi

October 2 marks Mohandas Gandhi’s 147 birth anniversary. Professor Satendra Nandan’s Gandhi Gitanjali: Poems and Passions will be published on the eve of the Mahatma’s 150th anniversary


In 1939 the only Australian Nobel literary laureate Patrick White’s first novel Happy Valley was published in London.  It had an epigraph from the writings of Mahatma Gandhi:

It is impossible to do away with the law of suffering, which is the one indispensable condition of our being.  Progress is to be measured by the amount of suffering undergone . . . the purer the suffering, the greater the progress.

White was 27 years old; Gandhi 70.  The epigraph was taken from Gandhi’s essay ‘The Law of Suffering’ published in 1920.  The novelist went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature; Gandhi, though nominated, was never awarded the Nobel for Peace.

The head of the Nobel Committee after the Second World War, Gunnar Jahn, vetoed Gandhi’s name, proposed by two other members of the committee.  Jahn wrote in his diary ‘Gandhi is obviously the greatest personality proposed . . . .  But we must remember that he is not only an apostle of peace, he is also a nationalist’.  Since then the Peace Prize has gone to some odd characters. Doubtless Gandhi would have had a quip or two to make if he cared for such prizes at all.

Yet White’s quotation from Gandhi and the denial of the Peace Prize reflect two major themes of Gandhi’s life:  suffering as a primary definition of human condition, reminiscent of Christ’s passion, and the rejection of what most of us would consider substantial honour in this world.

His standard were of a different order. Gandhi was never even a Member of Parliament and when he died, his material property was worth barely five dollars.

His comment about Western civilisation is well known:  he said, ‘it would be a good idea’. More than ever, we see its validity daily.  And when dressed as the ‘half-naked fakir’, in Churchill’s words, as he went to parley with the King-Emperor of the Empire, a journalist accosted him, apparently on the steps of Buckingham Palace:  ‘Mr Gandhi are you going to see our Emperor dressed like this?’

Gandhi’s reply, as always, was polite and pointed:  ‘Don’t worry, my friend, the King will be wearing enough clothes for both of us!’

That was his way of saying that the Emperor had no moral clothes, when his empire was full of naked and starving people.  Or again, when after his dramatic Salt March wherein he broke the imperial law by the seashore, the Viceroy was compelled to invite him to tea.  Asked by his host if he’d care for  a teaspoon of sugar, Gandhi’s answered:  A pinch of salt will do!

Gandhi wrote that if he didn’t have a sense of humour, he’d have committed suicide.  But his humour was lashed with human pain of others for whose lives and peace he fasted so often, close to death. That is what distinguishes Gandhi from many names,  and he, in a sense, belongs to the exclusive company of the Christ and the Buddha.

More than most, Gandhi was a human being, he lived and died among them: and he struggled throughout his life to reveal the potential for our unfinished and inseparable humanity and its many vulnerabilities.

For him the impossible was always possible in every soul—to make this extraordinary revelation, I feel, was his deepest gift to the world we live in and die. The self-worth and freedom of each individual is in his or her hand and heart.

The potential power of the atman- soul-force – is the power hidden in an atom. Gandhi didn’t leave any ‘isms’ behind, and he was always embarrassed by the title ‘Mahatma’, the Great Soul.  For he knew in a land of gods, if he was elevated to that level, his life’s message would be forgotten.  It’s easier to worship.

In the beginning of his remarkable journey, he believed ‘God was Truth; after a life-time’s experiments in daily life, he came to the conclusion that ‘Truth was God’. And it was for this unshakable belief , he was assassinated in his own country of birth.

He’d understood that the idea of God is different from the ideals of religion — and on that axis of difference the world eternally revolves. God alone was good.

Born in a little town in Gujarat in 1869, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was killed in 1948 by extremist high caste Hindu in New Delhi.  His contemporaries were men like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Mao.  His legacy, however, is more relevant and meaningful in the twenty first century.

He had, in his unique way, deconstructed the largest Western empire in less than fifty years; he was martyred when he attempted to dismantle the archaic, oppressive structures of caste and communalism on the subcontinent. And yet he saved more lives than the imperial armies of the time.

That he continues to give powerless, peaceful people hope and self-respect is his enduring legacy and he became a man for ‘all times and in all places’.

Gandhi was an enigmatic and elusive personality.  He himself wrote more than any other person: his writings are now collected in a hundred volumes, each over five hundred pages.

Some of the most original appraisals of Gandhi have come from writers:  V.S. Naipaul, George Orwell, Ved Mehta, Arthur Keostler and Jawaharlal Nehru. Louis Fischer’s The Life of Mahatma Gandhi is still the most readable biography.

After all, Gandhi spent almost twenty five years of his formative life outside India, three years in London, almost twenty two years in South Africa.  It is outside India that he was truly fashioned: he became aware of his identity as an Indian in the Empire’s exilic existence.

It all began on 7 June, 1893, at an obscure railway station in Pietermaritzburg about eighty kilometres from Durban.  Even today (I visited it in November 1999) the place looked bare and desolate.  Near it, in the Town Centre, stands a statue of Gandhi, unveiled by President Nelson Mandela in 1993.  It is an impressive and moving piece of sculpture.  But someone had vandalised his famous pair of spectacles – as if men and women of vision need glasses: A truth captured by a cartoonist when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 depicted Gandhi waiting on his mat in heaven with the loving greeting:  ‘The odd thing about assassins, Dr King, is that they think they’ve killed you.’

It is about his South African experience that Gandhi had written a line about an indentured labourer, that inspired Richard Attenborough to make Gandhi, the film:  ‘It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.’

An extraordinary perception profoundly relevant to Australia, Fiji, India, America and much of the world today.

John Briley, the author of Gandhi: the Screenplay , wrote that Gandhi’s ideas were forged in painful experience, a brave man determined to show the complexity of men and women and the power of one good and decent human being and his firm belief that on balance human beings are marginally inclined to do good than evil – and that on that slight imbalance they can build and achieve and perhaps survive even in a nuclear age.

Partition of the subcontinent remained the unspeakable sorrow in his soul.  This darkened his vision of India; many today see this as his greatest failure. And religion, not God, had won the day. An assassin’s bullet finally killed him when he thought that Indians, though deeply wounded, could be truly free.

One of the great miracles of Gandhi’s life was his ability, when relatively young, to attract people of different colours, faiths, to his many causes for human freedom and dignity. In South Africa, in the most extreme conditions, he had friends who were Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Parsis, among girmityas and small merchants.

Imagine this in our modern Parliaments –from Fiji to Australia!



Gandhi’s life is a narrative of that adventure of the human spirit, invincible and vulnerable, that keeps the wick of self- reliance burning in some of the darkest places in our world in the hearts and minds of men and women, ordinary and extraordinary.  Gandhi showed that one must become worthy of one’s suffering: that was his passionate conviction.

He  has a special resonance to the lives of the indentured Indians. It was his efforts, with Rev C F Andrews, and a few others, that led to the abolition of the abomination termed Indenture. This was his first victory against the British using their laws.

Much of his life was spent fighting the unjust laws of an Empire—the miracle was that he succeeded so immeasurably without firing a single shot.

And he continues to inspire more people towards their self-respect and self-independence than any other human being. More than three quarters of the world gained its swaraj- self-freedom –  through the peaceful means adopted by Gandhi.

His vision of humanity was grounded in human decency by which generations have survived and helped others to survive. At a time of deepest darkness on the  European continent, Africa, Asia, the subcontinent, he shone like that extraordinary light that some of us experience in a millennium.

And to think he was made among the girmit people in Natal and Transvaal is to realize what truly is the greatest epic of India and who is its genuine hero. Gandhi had two undying passions: love and peace, summed up in a single word ahimsa : love  in action forged on the anvil of equality and justice. More than most he understood the real cause of inhuman violence was our human silence.

But he believed in the audacity of love that was superhuman.


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