I recently started reading a biography about Mahatma (Mohandes) Gandhi written by B.R. Nanda and it’s been deeply compelling to me to learn about the lived ins and outs of his life. Though his character is now mythic he was a real human being on a path, learning along the way, and he had foibles. It took years for his arrogant and controlling attitude towards his wife to be properly humbled and softened (He was married at 13! Can hardly blame him…). He struggled for years from paralyzing shyness, poor articulation, and lack of direction. While his flawed humanness helps people identify with him and thus transcend the typical separation we feel between ourselves and our heroes, it is the unveiled simplicity and straightforwardness of his process that is his most inspiring legacy to us.
Gandhi worked by a process of thinking, testing, feeling and questioning. He used his mind, body, relationships, and life as instruments of feedback in a way to sense the resonance of truth. Because of this his methods were incredibly transparent and thus accessible. Though our truths are different and we would find divergent paths, the power of his legacy was that he did not come by acts of great impact through a veiled process of divination or revelation but by his own thought, intuition, discipline and great love.
I suppose this is why people love to know the details of the lives of those they admire; the details make the person seem accessible and not so different from us. With someone like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. this is actually, in my opinion, really important lest we forget that they exhorted us to try and live those examples too. Perhaps we idealize the lives of our heroes as too perfect or good to strive for because the separation relieves us of the sense of obligation to strive. Perhaps we believe we are unworthy, perhaps it seems like too much work…I’m sure it’s different for each one of us.
When I read about MLK Jr. and Gandhi for the first time I remember feeling like their examples were challenges that I wanted, needed, and felt obliged to take seriously and accept. They felt that there was a moral obligation for us to accept our own power and to seek to use it responsibly for the benefit of all people, not for desire of power or fame, but because service for the sake of good is of the highest moral value. With the stakes so high, how could you say no? It has felt like a joyous duty to seek ways to serve. I know some feel that there is a question of worthiness when we strive to be great, but to me greatness is not measured by the things you need worthiness to achieve but by what your driving motivation is. If the motivation is to be great, or to accomplish goals, or to make a name for oneself than one might indeed ask if the seeker is worthy of attaining said goals. After all:
“Every fool may become a hero at one time or another. Watch a man do his most common actions; those are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man. Great occasions rouse even the lowest of human beings to some kind of greatness, but he alone is the really great man whose character is great always, the same wherever he be.”
Which is to say that it is the small things as much as the big which carry the deepest implications about who and what we are, because they belie our motivations and our core truths. If one can act great and public and despicable in private, to what end is his greatness? Everywhere he spreads discontent and hypocrisy. But if the greatness in public springs from a love that also touches people even when there is no one around to witness, everywhere this person goes goodness deepens and people are inspired to care more deeply for each other.
“…a man who can work for five days or even five minutes without any selfish motive whatever, without thinking of future, of heaven, of punishment, or anything of the kind, has in him the capacity to become a powerful moral giant. It is hard to do it, but in the heart of our hearts we know its value and the good it brings. ” both quotes from Karma Yoga: The Yoga of Action, by Swami Vivekananda
As the above passage implies, acting without any selfish desire is very difficult; what Gandhi showed was that this ideal was borne out by concrete actions in ones life not in words or in theory, and this is what was so powerful and compelling about his life. From not accepting money for certain services to putting all gifts into public trusts to be used for the good of all, he experimented with different ways to avoid the allure of selfish desires so that his work could be motivated by the incredibly powerful life force that informed his work rather than the dues it paid.
That Gandhi considered his work experimental and that he did not emerge from the womb with a fully developed conception of ahimsa (nonviolence) encourages me greatly. The ideas he was learning about and identifying had to be developed, experienced, tried in real situations with real consequences. He was guided by a moral sensibility that grew more nuanced and mature as he engaged himself more and more deeply with what he discovered. Gandhi was deeply engaged in this process of learning and was willing to go where it took him.
Yet he believed in independence for India, and he believed in the rights of all people, were these not ends that he was attached to? Was he not striving towards those outcomes? Does his commitment to those outcomes mean the same thing as attachment? I love this question, it’s a little tricky. I think that he would characterize his engagement as what was required in the moment, regardless of whether India achieved independence in the long run or not. I think he understood it to be a foregone conclusion, but not because he was attached to achieving it himself, but because he saw the writing on the wall that the relationship between Britain and India was destroying them both and could not last as it was then organized.
The paradox he lived is commitment of the deepest and most profound type, while remaining utterly unattached to the goal. It seems that he considered these outcomes inevitable truths, and he held to those truths with every action in his life…but gave merit to his processes based on how they reflected truth not how close they brought the goals or ideals to fruition. That is to say, if Gandhi had died before India had achieved independence, he would not consider it failure. Indeed the process itself he considered to be a success. He was moving in a direction with commitment, but his commitment to being present to what this moment required of him was just as strong as his belief that India ought to be free, and that Britain ought not be mired in colonialism. His goals did not take precedence over his means, and when means are of greater weight than ends then achievement of the ends cannot be ensured. He learned to believe that if he pursued means that were morally just that God would take care of the ends. Though there was much hardship involved in the struggle for independence Gandhi never seemed to grow anything but stronger and more energetic in his conviction that love and kindness were the only paths towards deep, efficient, lasting change.
That is a legacy I find great energy and enthusiasm in engaging with.