The Mahatma, the Great Soul, endures in the best part of our
minds, where our ideals are kept: the embodiment of human rights
and the creed of nonviolence. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is
something else, an eccentric of complex, contradictory and
exhausting character most of us hardly know. It is fashionable
at this fin de siecle to use the man to tear down the hero, to
expose human pathologies at the expense of larger-than-life
achievements. No myth raking can rob Gandhi of his moral force
or diminish the remarkable importance of this scrawny little
man. For the 20th century--and surely for the ones to follow--it
is the towering myth of the Mahatma that matters.
Consciously or not, every oppressed people or group with a cause
has practiced what Gandhi preached. Sixties kids like me were his
disciples when we went South in the Freedom Summer to sit in for
civil rights and when we paraded through the streets of America
to stop the war in Vietnam. Our passionate commitment, nonviolent
activism, willingness to accept punishment for civil disobedience
were lessons he taught. Martin Luther King Jr. learned them; so
did Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Aung San Suu Kyi, the unknown
Chinese who defied the tanks in 1989 and the environmental
marchers in Seattle a few weeks ago.
It may be that this most Indian of leaders, revered as Bapuji,
or Father of the Nation, means more now to the world at large.
Foreigners don't have to wrestle with the confusion Indians feel
today as they judge whether their nation has kept faith with his
vision. For the rest of us, his image offers something much
simpler--a shining set of ideals to emulate. Individual freedom.
Political liberty. Social justice. Nonviolent protest. Passive
resistance. Religious tolerance. His work and his spirit
awakened the 20th century to ideas that serve as a moral beacon
for all epochs.
Half a century after his death, most of us know little of
Gandhi's real history or how the Mahatma in our minds came to be.
Hundreds of biographies uncritically canonize him. Winston
Churchill scorned him as a half-naked fakir stirring up sedition.
His generation knew him as a radical political agitator; ours
shrugs off a holy man with romantic notions of a pure,
pre-industrial life. There is no either-or. The saint and the
politician inhabited the same slender frame, each nourishing the
other. His struggle for a nation's rights was one and the same
with his struggle for individual salvation.
The flesh-and-blood Gandhi was a most unlikely saint. Just
conjure up his portrait: a skinny, bent figure, nut brown and
naked except for a white loincloth, cheap spectacles perched on
his nose, frail hand grasping a tall bamboo staff. This was one
of the century's great revolutionaries? Yet this strange figure
swayed millions with his hypnotic spell. His garb was the perfect
uniform for the kind of revolutionary he was, wielding weapons of
prayer and nonviolence more powerful than guns.
Saints are hard to live with, and this one's personal habits were
decidedly odd. Mondays were "days of silence," when he refused
to speak. A devoted vegetarian, he indulged in faddish dietetic
experiments that sometimes came near to killing him. He eschewed
all spices as a discipline of the senses. He napped every day
with a mud poultice on abdomen and brow. He was so insistent on
absolute regularity in his daily regimen that he safety-pinned a
watch to his homespun dhoti, synchronized with the clock at his
ashram. He scheduled his bowel movements for 20 minutes morning
and afternoon. "The bathroom is a temple," he said, and anyone
was welcome to chat with him there. He had a cleansing enema