Mahatma Gandhi would be 150 years old today. Every year, his birthday is celebrated as Mahatma Gandhi Jayanti, a public state holiday. Leader of the nonviolent movement that won freedom for India in 1947, Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. More than 70 years later, he is both a beloved figurehead who represented the best in us, and a polarizing figure who was painfully imperfect – and very much a product of his time.
Who was Gandhi?
The international figurehead was born October 2, 1869 as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The name “Mahatma” was given to Mohandas as an adult. Meaning “Great Soul”, Mahatma was almost a title, a sign of respect from the population he mobilized to work for freedom from British rule. Some call him simply “Bapu”, a term of endearment meaning “Father”.
A practical leader, Mahatma Gandhi took up spinning in order to advocate simple real-world solutions to complex political problems. The British colonial system held control of cloth production in India in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and Gandhi believed India could not break its dependency on Britain until this systemic imbalance was rectified. He taught spinning and weaving and regularly spent hours at the spinning wheel himself, showing people how to free themselves from dependence on outside goods by taking back control of the means of production.
At the same time, the Mahatma believed firmly that violence breeds violence, and that only non-violent protest could lead to a lasting freedom without the decimation that would likely have taken place had India attempted to rise up in a violent revolt. Large-scale non-violent protest in the philosophy Gandhi termed ‘Satyagraha’ was his lasting contribution to the world stage. The spinning wheel is still a symbol of Gandhi and his peaceful resistance today.
Satyagraha, Gandhi, and the 21st Century Lens
Gandhi’s life reflected his work. According to the most popular narrative, he lived Satyagraha and his example allowed him to lead from a legitimate position of service to others. He inspired such generational leaders as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, launching a tide that spread much farther than India, crossing continents and decades to lodge in the worldwide popular consciousness. The United Nations even chose to declare an International Day of Nonviolence to coincide with October 2 in order to build on and reinforce the legacy of Gandhi’s teachings.
But the farther we get from the 1800s, the more the story of Gandhi is being reexamined and rewritten. With the lens of modern ethics and inclusivity, some of his beliefs and writings seem painfully dated.
A young Mohandas Gandhi wrote, while in South Africa, of Africans as inferior to Indians, sometimes using racial slurs. He may also have supported the traditional Indian caste system. Though he pushed back against the idea of anyone as “untouchable” or unclean, he did believe in finding ways to provide a “harmonious social order”, and the caste system provided that order. According to an article in the Washington Post by Joanna Slater commemorating this day, some scholars believe that he did not believe in preserving the caste system but advocated for slower, more gradual change – in part to avoid alienating the most powerful upper castes during the struggle for Indian independence.
Learning from the Past
Mahatma Gandhi was an imperfect human. He was enculturated in the Indian caste system and lived at a time when interaction between cultural groups was more limited and often fraught with misunderstanding and lack of knowledge or empathy. Even anthropologists in this period were woefully (sometimes embarrassingly) under-equipped to make the judgments they were often quite happy to make anyway. From eugenics to craniometry, the world was rife with false ideas of what it meant to be human, “civilized”, “better”. Luckily, both scientific curiosity and the social drive toward equality have outlasted such dated attempts at categorization and classification. But undoubtedly, this social structure influenced Mohandas as he grew and learned to navigate his way in international waters.
Like all of us, he learned as he lived. Some of his early words are counteracted by his actions and teachings later in life. He watered the seeds of curiosity and a sense of justice within himself, and he followed where that growth led.
None of us come into this world perfect. We’ll leave this world imperfect as well, but most of us who work toward self-betterment over a life will change our minds, our thoughts, and our hearts as we grow. It’s the mark of a Seeker’s soul to leave the world – and oneself – better than we found it. On this day of remembrance let’s do more than take apart the past… let’s step forward and, in the spirit of Gandhi’s best self, find concrete ways to make the future brighter.