Gandhi: The Mahatma Who Unified Protest & Peace

Gandhi: The Mahatma Who Unified Protest & Peace

Sixty years after he was assassinated, some of Indian peace icon Gandhi’s ashes were scattered in the Arabian Sea at the family’s request and not publicly displayed. A small steel urn of the ashes — one of dozens dispersed across the country after his death — was sent to a Gandhi museum in Mumbai in 2008 by an Indian businessman whose father, a close friend of Gandhi’s, had preserved the ashes.

Trustees had planned to display the nonviolence leader’s ashes in a memorial in downtown Mumbai, but Gandhi’s descendants requested the ashes be scattered at sea off Mumbai’s coast on Jan. 30, the anniversary of his death. Hindus cremate their dead and generally scatter the ashes in rivers or the sea after 13 days.

“We had thought of displaying the ashes, but naturally we will respect the family’s wishes,” said Mehta. “This is the right thing to do.” Gandhi was shot to death by a Hindu hard-liner in 1948 while walking to a prayer meeting in New Delhi. His ashes were sent to towns and villages across India for countless memorial services. “No one knows for sure how many such urns there are elsewhere,” Mehta said. “The ashes were sent to Gandhi’s followers wherever they requested it.”

Each Oct. 2, the world marks the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was simply known as the Mahatma. A deceptively simple man, Gandhi overturned the greatest Empire the world had ever seen — Britain. So moved was the world by the little man in his homespun garb that the famous scientist Albert Einstein remarked upon Gandhi’s death: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

Gandhi never visited the U.S., but few non-Americans have had such a great impact on American life. His work as a freedom fighter and social reformer in India was closely followed in the U.S.

In the 1920s, when Gandhi launched a nonviolent mass movement against British colonial rule in India, his struggle was widely reported in the African-American press. Thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois and E. Franklin Frazier wrote about him, and several influential African-Americans visited him to seek advice, including Howard Thurman, later a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. Thurman wrote of how he had been subjected to an intense examination by the Indian leader: “persistent, pragmatic questions about American Negroes, about the course of slavery, and how we had survived it.” As Thurman prepared to leave, Gandhi offered him this hopeful prediction: “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

As a young man, King read Gandhi closely. In 1958, as he was making his name as a civil rights leader in the American South, King published a tribute to Gandhi in an Indian newspaper describing the deep influence the “Father of the Indian Nation” had on his thought: “I came to see at a very early stage that a synthesis of Gandhi’s method of nonviolence and the Christian ethic of love is the best weapon available to Negroes in this struggle for freedom and human dignity…. His spirit is a continual reminder to oppressed people that it is possible to resist evil and yet not resort to violence.”

During Gandhi’s lifetime, however, his most fervent American admirer was another clergyman, the white New York pastor John Haynes Holmes, who in 1920 helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union. The following year, Holmes delivered a sermon titled “Who Is the Greatest Man in the World?” His answer was Gandhi, who reminded him of Jesus: “He lives his life; he speaks his word, he suffers, strives, and will some day nobly die, for his kingdom upon earth.”

At the time, Gandhi was in the middle of the Non-Cooperation Movement, his first major campaign against British rule in India. This involved the burning of foreign cloth to promote indigenous Indian industry, the nonpayment of colonial taxes, and the withdrawal of Indian patriots from serving in colonial offices, universities and law courts. The struggle was widely covered in the American press. In a “cynical, materialistic and disillusioned” age, wrote the liberal journal the Nation, there had emerged a man “whose singular devotion, unselfishness and spiritual power have won him the almost superstitious reverence of his own people and the respect of the skeptical critics.”

Gandhi appealed to American radicals because of his anti-colonialism, and to American Christians because of his simple life and message of brotherhood. While he opposed British imperialism, he often said that he had no hatred for individual Englishmen. Indeed, his closest friend was a British priest, C.F. Andrews, who wrote several books and many articles praising Gandhi for an American audience. The Chicago-based magazine the Christian Century repeatedly proposed Gandhi’s name for a Nobel Peace Prize, though it failed to persuade the Anglophilic Norwegians to award him the honor.

In 1930, Gandhi launched another mass nonviolent struggle, known as the Salt March, since its principal target was an oppressive colonial law that prohibited Indians from making their own salt. Following the Salt March, Gandhi spent many months in prison. When he was released, he received a flood of letters conveying the admiration of Americans for his struggle. A particularly moving letter came from a Chicago resident named Arthur Sewell. The “Negroes of America,” Sewell wrote, were “keenly and sympathetically” following Gandhi’s movement. African-Americans “sympathize and suffer” with India and Indians, “for here, in America, they not only rob us of our possessions and hurdle us into the prisons unjustly, but they mob, lynch and burn us up with fire…. May God Bless you,” Sewell declared, “and enable you to carry on the great battle for righteous adjustment until you win a glorious victory for the common cause of the lowly.”

The Salt March made Gandhi immensely famous in America; Time Magazine named him Man of the Year. A certain James B. Pond of New York’s Pond Bureau, self-professed “Managers of American Tours for World Celebrities,” urged Gandhi to capitalize on this acclaim by making a tour of the U.S. “When you visit this country,” Pond promised, “you will receive a welcome such as no man has ever had, and it is going to require the utmost knowledge, the utmost sympathy and utmost tact on the part of a manager to meet the situation.” But the idea of a lucrative lecture tour didn’t appeal to the austere and ascetic Indian.

Despite never setting foot in the U.S., Gandhi remained much on the mind of Americans. In 1932, a charming tribute appeared in the form of an advertisement by Saks, the New York department store, playing on the fact that Gandhi made his own clothes. Filling almost a whole page in the New York Times in 1932, the ad featured an illustration of four men wearing suits, each reading a newspaper, with the slogan “EVERYBODY BUT GANDHI.” The text underneath said, in part: “The Mahatma chooses to spin his own…such as it is…and that’s his business! He needn’t read this ad. But all the rest of you gentlemen prefer to wear good suits…and that’s our business.” Evidently, the well-dressed man in New York knew very well what the Indian leader wore—or didn’t wear.

Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu fundamentalist enraged at his insistence that, in an independent India, Muslims and Christians must have the same rights as Hindus. Six decades later, an African-American became president of the U.S., his rise made possible by the struggle for racial equality that had Gandhi as one of its exemplars. In an interview shortly after taking office, Barack Obama was asked to choose a figure from history he would like to dine with. Gandhi, he answered, adding that, of course, it would be a frugal meal.

Today, there are statues of Gandhi in many American cities, and courses on him are taught in numerous colleges and universities. His name and example once inspired the civil-rights movement; now it animates environmental debates. At Arizona State University in Tempe,  a campaign for public transportation invokes India’s freedom icon with the tagline “Even Gandhi walked.”

Gandhi wore little and ate even less. Yet he may have influenced the citizens of the most prosperous society on earth more than any non-American in modern times.

Adapted from a tribute in the Wall Street Journal and other sources


No comments yet. Why don’t you start the discussion?

Add Your Thoughts