Lives of the Saints: Mahatma Gandhi
In this special YogaLife edition dedicated to the International Day of Yoga, we bring you the next in our series on Lives of the Saints by presenting the life of a modern saint through the eyes one of his contemporaries, another great saint of modern India, Sri Swami Sivananda. The following article is an edited version of “Mahatma Gandhi” from Swami Sivananda’s Lives of the Saints.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the youngest son of Karamchand Gandhi and Putlibai, was born on October 2, 1869. His birth – place was Porbander, a small seaside town in the Kathiawar peninsula of western India. His mother was a devout and religious woman who attended temple services daily and never ate before she prayed.
At school in Porbander, Gandhiji was very shy and lacked the confidence and poise necessary to talk to strangers. But he was admirably punctual and obedient, and participated actively in school games. In compliance with the prevailing custom of child marriage, Mohandas married at the age of thirteen. Kasturbai, his illiterate wife, was simple, persevering, bold and independent.
A Student of Law in England
Karamchand Gandhi died in the year 1885, leaving little property for his family. In 1887, Mohandas completed his matriculation and left for England to study law. He lived in London, where he found the life strange and difficult to adjust to. Although he adopted English dress and took dancing and violin lessons, he was nevertheless quite unsuccessful in conforming to the British mode of life.
His friends tried to compel him to eat meat but he abstained, adhering very rigidly to a vegetarian diet. He joined vegetarian clubs and very soon became a champion of vegetarianism. In fact it was in England where Gandhiji’s experiments in diet began. A transformation in Gandhiji’s life and character now began to take place. His heart ached deeply for religion. He was inspired by meetings with Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant.
He read their books on Theosophy and read the Bible. He was impressed by the similarity of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and the Gita. He began reading the Gita only during his second year in London, and in it found the comfort and solace he sought. Gandhiji studied French, Latin and science. He was called to the Bar in 1891, after which he at once sailed for India. On his return to his native land he began to study Indian Law.
At Rajkot he established a moderately successful practice. While there, he was insulted by a political agent, a British officer who was prejudiced against Gandhiji’s brother. This insult changed the course of his life, inspiring him with the desire to learn something about the politics of his country.
Fight Against Racial Prejudice in South Africa
At this time, Gandhiji accepted an offer from the Meman firm of Porbander to go to South Africa as their legal representative. He arrived in Natal in 1893 and was immediately requested to go to Pretoria where his presence was required. He confronted difficulty when he entered a first-class compartment on a train to the Transvaal. At Pietermaritzburg he was ejected from the train together with all of his luggage.
He now resolved to fight colour prejudice. The ill-treatment that the Indians received at the hands of colonialists was abhorrent to Gandhiji, and he was determined to champion their cause. This led him, in 1894, to found the Natal Indian Congress. In 1899, on the outbreak of the Anglo- Boer War, he led the Indian Ambulance Corps of one thousand members. They engaged in active service and on one occasion were under attack of heavy fire.
In 1901, Gandhiji’s health broke down and he returned to India. After a year or two he was again summoned to South Africa. While there, in 1901, he founded the newspaper, Indian Opinion. Five years later, when a native rebellion broke out in Natal, Gandhiji offered a Stretcher-Bearer Corps. During the First World War he raised an Ambulance Corps and conducted a recruiting campaign in Karia.
It was in South Africa that Gandhiji first adopted Satyagraha, the method of non-violence, to fight the injustice to which Indians were subjected. The entire Indian community rallied around him magnificently, for he had readily identified himself with all. His powerful Satyagraha campaign with which he confronted the unjust laws of the local government was overwhelmingly successful.
He showed that this “soul force”, as he called it, could be universally applied to bring peace and abolish despotism and ever-growing militarism.
Struggle for Independence
His mission accomplished, Gandhiji arrived in India in 1915. In 1918, he assumed leadership of the Indian National Congress and associated himself with the Khilafat movement. He used the peaceful method of non-co-operation and non-violence for achieving freedom for his country from the yoke of foreign rule. The Gandhi movement spread like wild fire.
He roused the masses to political consciousness and proved to them that they possessed immense soul-force. He was sentenced to six years imprisonment and was released in February, 1924. In that same year he became President of the Indian National Congress. In April 1930, the Salt Satyagraha was started by Gandhiji. For his breach of the Salt Laws he was interned on the 5th May, 1930.
He was released on the 25th January, 1931 in order to attend the Round Table Conference in London. He was again arrested in January, 1933 and released in May of the same year. Gandhiji’s intense love for his fellow men, his long fasts, his great sacrifices for his country’s cause, indomitable will, moral force and deep spiritual life, won for him the hearts of his countrymen.
In their excessive devotion, love and reverence for him they bestowed upon him the title of “Mahatma”, meaning “Great Soul”. They addressed him affectionately as Bapuji. It means “beloved father”. The tremendous soul-power of which Gandhiji spoke was essentially derived from the chanting of Ram-Nam and the study of the Gita and Ramayana.
Not a day passed without a study of the second chapter of the Gita, in which, Gandhiji felt, was contained its entire philosophy. On the 15th of August, 1947, Gandhiji won freedom for India. Soon after this he was shot three times at point-blank range by Nathuram Vinayak Godse, a Hindu extremist. On Gandhiji’s lips, just before he gave up his last breath, were the words “Hey Ram!”
“Mahatma Gandhi’s life is a monument to the triumph of spirit over flesh, a living witness to the victory of the divine over the base nature of man”
The Pattern of a Perfect Life
Bharatavarsha, as India is known, has always been a land of eternal ideals and sublime idealism, and of supermen who converted these ideals into actuality in their everyday life. Gandhiji was such an ideal superman. His name has become synonymous with unbending moral rectitude, heroic allegiance to truth, and perfect righteousness both in private and public life.
Mahatma Gandhi’s life is a monument to the triumph of spirit over flesh, a living witness to the victory of the divine over the base nature of man. A continuous exercise of self-restraint and discipline, along with deep prayer and an invincible faith in the Divine, enabled him to successfully resist all kinds of temptations, overcome all obstacles and gain full mastery over himself.
Gandhiji’s firm and tenacious adherence to the cause of the poor, the downtrodden Harijans, and the common man of the Indian village, is indeed worthy of emulation. Through all the vicissitudes of time and power and fame, he kept before the vision of the Indian Congress the fundamental purpose for which it came into being – the amelioration of the suffering of the poor.
Uncrowned king of the land, he remained a friend of the poor; he lived for them, moved among them as one of them, and served them with all his heart. He saw God in them, and in their service wore out his body. As the Father of the Nation in every sense of the term, Gandhiji brought about a re-orientation in the outlook of the average Indian, and instilled into him the love of God, his religion and his motherland, all of which had been eclipsed for more than a century by the unhealthy influence of Western culture, manners and language.
Mahatmaji demonstrated how a life of complete detachment and renunciation may be led while remaining in the thick of battle. His was a supreme example of one who had completely annihilated the ego, the little “I”, and led a divine life in the world. His life was like that of a lotus leaf in water. Albert Einstein, the famous scientist who propounded the theory of relativity, said of Gandhiji: “Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a man in flesh and blood once trod upon this earth”.
May the Mahatma’s light of love illuminate the hearts of nations and individuals! May his dream of world unity materialise this very day! May his spirit bless us all with the vision and strength to realise in our everyday life all his lofty ideals of truth, purity, non-violence and faith in the Divine!