You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.
An Indian Travelogue, Part 8
YESTERDAY WE VISITED Gandhi Smriti, the house, now a museum, in which Mohandas Gandhi spent 144 days before his assassination in its garden on January 30, 1948, at age 79. He had just completed a fast aimed at forcing the Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs of the new India and the new Pakistan from slaughtering one another.
I could have instead been attending the plenary of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi’s own party, because one of our hosts had obtained, with some difficulty, a visitor’s pass for me. I was unable to get into the Indira Gandhi Stadium even with the pass, however, because I was naively carrying a shoulder bag — no bags allowed — and after spending my afternoon reading about the corrupt and sometimes murderous history of the Congress, now out of power for the first time since independence, I decided to visit the political past instead of witnessing the political present. (I have a bit of a chest cold, too, and thought that 15,000 people in the packed stadium might be a bit much for me . . .)
The first college paper I ever wrote, way back in the late 1960s, was about satyagraha, “truth force,” Gandhi’s deeply conceived and embodied philosophy of using nonviolent resistance, rooted in the love of human beings, to force political change (or die trying). I have circled around this as my core political philosophy ever since, although I’ve never had the strength of character or the force of conviction to implement it in real life beyond the safe borders of my intellect: I simply care about people, try to stay modest in my material pursuits, believe that nonviolence has greater transformative potential than violence, etc.
It was Martin Luther King, Jr., of course, who drew me to satyagraha even earlier than in my college years, but Gandhi outlived King by forty years, long enough to elaborate his philosophy into a broad economic and political program for the liberation and maturation of his country. India also empowered him as the Mahatma, the “Great Soul,” father of their country, whereas Dr. King was cut down at the start of his emergence as a prophet not only of civil rights and racial justice but an agent of revolutionary transformation for America.
Here’s some footage from Gandhi’s Salt March of 1930, the massive civil disobedience that set India on its path to independence from Great Britain.
The song being played by the violinist, “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram,” was poured into my ears by Pete Seeger and the Weavers when I was young. I never knew what the song was, however (Gandhi’s favorite hymn), or even where it came from, until Susan prepared, special for her residency, a “journey lesson” about the Salt March. (In America, she leads teachers on a journey about the Underground Railroad; in Delhi, it’s been the Salt March.)
THE MUSEUM contains an inspiring exhibit, with both placards and ingenious multi-media displays, about Gandhi’s life and beliefs. It includes a case of the Mahatma’s eleven possessions at the time of his death: a walking stick, his glasses and his glasses case, a small scythe, two spoons, two forks, and a butter knife. The language of the placards rightfully exalt Gandhi, but it is his own words, throughout, that constantly challenged me to be more self-aware and generous, and often made me feel tearful and wistful:
I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate will be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it. Will it restore to him a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj [livelihood] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.
I suggest that we are thieves in a way. If I take anything that I do not need for my own I venture to suggest that it is the fundamental law of Nature, without exception, that Nature produces enough for our wants from day to day, and if only everybody took enough for himself and nothing more, there would be no pauperism in this world, there would be no man dying of starvation in this world. But so long as we have got this inequality, so long we are thieving. . .
I do not believe that multiplication of wants and machinery [created] to supply them is taking the world a single step near its goals. I wholeheartedly detest this mad desire to destroy distance and time. . .
And how about this excerpt from a translation of “A Servant’s Prayer,” the only poem that Gandhi wrote, according to the museum?
Thou art the ocean of humanity/You abide in the humble homes of the poor and the depressed./ Help me in my search for thee in this beautiful land/ awashed by the holy waters of the Ganga Amuna and Brahmputra./. . . Fill my heart with the desire and power to become one with the masses of India . . .
I was especially fascinated by Gandhi’s “Constructive Program,” or poornah swaraj, which included the revival of India’s native, small-scale industries, crafts, and agriculture — with the aim of self-sufficiency, sustenance for all, communality, and a very non-materialistic approach to living. I have little knowledge about the extent to which this “small-is-beautiful” philosophy has been championed and attempted in post-independence India, and until I leave Delhi and venture into much smaller locales, there’ll be no small-scale anything beyond tuk-tuk transportation to report on.
From my witnessing and reading so far, however, I fear that India today may embody Gandhi’s influence even less than I. According to today’s Economic Times (the first real newspaper I’ve read in days), not only has the world’s largest Rubber Duckie escaped from its moorings in Australia and drifted into the Indian Ocean (as I write, it’s been found), but India is second only to America -- who else? -- in the size of income disparity between people employed by companies, who average about $9,000 per year, and CEOs, who average $1.5 million per year.
Nevertheless, Gandhi is honored as “father of the country,” which is no small thing — his words are studied in the schools — and, perhaps, just perhaps, there is widespread aspiration to embrace and apply his version of orthodox Hinduism, in which he merged God and the masses, and then merged himself with both.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.