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MYTHS AND UTOPIAS OF MAHATMA GANDHI: The Politician Who Decided to Become a Saint

MYTHS AND UTOPIAS OF MAHATMA GANDHI: The Politician Who Decided to Become a Saint
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Source of the photo: history.howstuffworks.com


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is the full name of the man who entered the history of the 20th century as Mahatma Gandhi. This name is primarily associated with the concept of satyagraha — «the pursuit of truth», which became the ideology of nonviolent resistance. Based on this ideology, the Indians managed to expel the British from their country. Moreover, the former colonizers were so impressed by Gandhi that, according to a BBC poll, they considered him the «Man of the Millennium».

Gandhi deservedly bears the nickname Mahatma — «great soul». However, this outstanding preacher of pacifism was a complex individual, not free from mistakes and contradictions. So what was Mahatma Gandhi really like beyond the myth formed about him?




In the 20th century, colonialism, which had its roots in the pre-capitalist era, was becoming increasingly toxic. European newspapers were filled with horrifying accounts of famine and mass shootings in India carried out by the British. Uprisings were breaking out across the empire, making it clear that governing the colonies solely through force was no longer feasible.

As a result, the Balfour Declaration of 1926 proclaimed the right of the dominions to pursue policies independent of London. The British Empire increasingly became known as the British Commonwealth of Nations, emphasizing voluntary union rather than oppression.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who studied law in England, was deeply immersed in the anti-colonial fervor and humanistic ideas that permeated the British media landscape at the time. Therefore, the source of Gandhi’s theory of nonviolence is to be found not so much in mystical Eastern wisdom but in European influence.

Gandhi first encountered the «Bhagavad Gita», one of the parts of the Indian epic «Mahabharata», in a theosophical circle in London. He admitted that it was not the «Bhagavad Gita» but the New Testament that revealed to him the «value of passive resistance». Additionally, he was inspired by Leo Tolstoy. Mahatma clearly followed the European ecumenical trend and, to a significant extent, aimed his messages at a European audience.

Orientalism was in vogue, and Gandhi’s personality fascinated figures like George Orwell, Romain Rolland, Bernard Shaw, Herbert Wells, and Hermann Hesse. Acting in the spirit of ecumenism, Gandhi spoke of a religion «without geographical boundaries» and a faith «that would surpass love for India». However, his faith and love were entirely dedicated to India and the idea of its liberation.




Christian Europe, weary of the bloody wars often fought over religious differences, applauded Gandhi, who presented a blend of Helena Blavatsky’s occult ideas and Leo Tolstoy’s non-resistance to evil through violence. Mahatma Gandhi proclaimed that all religions lead to the same goal by different paths. Thus, there could be no religious justification for enmity.

For Gandhi, the Bible, the Quran, and the Avesta were equally authoritative and divinely inspired. Alongside these stood the Indian Vedas. He did not consider Christ the sole incarnation of God. These ideas, drawn from European thought, were infinitely distant from classical Hinduism, towards which Gandhi had a complex and contradictory attitude.

He called himself both a Muslim and a Hindu, interpreting the Muslim «holy war» as a nonviolent struggle. At times, he succeeded in preventing mutual massacres between Hindus and Muslims, which can be seen as one of his significant achievements. Gandhi acknowledged the flaws of Hinduism but admitted that it was dearer to him than other religions. He even compared Hinduism to a beloved wife who «moves him like no other woman in the world». However, tolerance did not always translate smoothly into practice.

For instance, Gandhi was uncompromisingly against imported goods, favoring «domestic production». He demonstratively burned all his European suits, tuxedos, and shoes. This act is a form of nonviolent resistance to the vices of civilization. However, in the context of political and economic relations, Gandhi behaved more like a typical pragmatic nationalist. His Indian National Congress (INC) was emphatically nationalist and predominantly Hindu.


MYTHS AND UTOPIAS OF MAHATMA GANDHI: The Politician Who Decided to Become a Saint
Source of the photo: history.howstuffworks.com




Gandhi described himself as a politician striving to become a saint. He deliberately cultivated the image of a «poor in spirit» philosopher-ascetic, walking in rags and sleeping on the bare floor. Like Christ, who befriended prostitutes and tax collectors, he publicly associated with the «untouchables» — sweepers and scavengers.

Mahatma adhered strictly to vegetarianism, asserting that humanity’s renunciation of meat would end wars and unlock incredible spiritual development opportunities for people. Gandhi produced a variety of eccentric ideas. He once tried to convince philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan that drinking milk was wrong because it was the essence of beef. To which the philosopher wittily replied, «In that case, we are all cannibals, as we drink our mother’s milk, which is the essence of human flesh».

The practice of celibacy, brahmacharya, required abstaining not only from meat but also from women. In 1901, Gandhi ceased all sexual relations with his wife Kasturba, although, after her death, he often invited young women to share his bed and bath. This sparked rumors that Gandhi, using his authority, engaged in the most flagrant debauchery.

It is difficult to say whether Gandhi’s detractors were correct or not. However, Mahatma himself claimed he did nothing inappropriate and that women in his bed were there to help him practice self-restraint and test his willpower. Many aspects of Gandhi’s behavior might surprise or shock people, but he genuinely tried to be a saint, shedding everything that contradicted his moral sense.

For instance, he rid himself of racism and repented for the racist views he held in his youth while practicing law in South Africa. Later, his example inspired civil rights leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. Therefore, the Black Lives Matter movement’s demand to remove the «racist» Gandhi statue in London seems hardly fair.


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Preaching the ideals of sanctity and being personally unattached to women, clothes, food, property, and comforts, Gandhi still urgently needed money. However, the money was not for him personally but for the party he had led since 1921 — the Indian National Congress.

Preaching peace, Mahatma led the national liberation movement for decades during an era of wars and social catastrophes. Such leadership is unthinkable without sober, pragmatic thinking, steely will, and a firm political grip. Party building, ashrams, propaganda, and publishing required significant funds. These were provided by big Indian capital, which was a natural competitor to British capital.

Among Gandhi’s contemporaries, the expression «Gandhi’s poor life costs a lot» became common. The most generous donors were the Indian textile kings. They were used to negotiating with the British, but how could they negotiate with a popular uprising? Gandhi preached something akin to utopian socialism but without brutal class struggle. His sermon was a wonderful alternative to social revolution and Marx’s teachings.

The ruling elites were categorically unwilling to repeat what had happened in Bolshevik Russia with its GULAG, bloody terror, and civil war. Probably, it was the principle of «do no harm» that dictated the pact signed on March 5, 1931, by Gandhi and the Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin. Proponents of rapid revolutionary changes often criticize it, as it is believed that the pact significantly delayed Indian independence. But who knows, perhaps this «delay» saved millions of lives?


MYTHS AND UTOPIAS OF MAHATMA GANDHI: The Politician Who Decided to Become a Saint
Source of the photo: completeinfocenter.com




The 20th century was an era of leaders and masses, and Gandhi was a true people’s leader, speaking to millions of Indians in a language they could understand. «The rebellious fakir», as Winston Churchill called him, sincerely sought his version of «the kingdom of God on earth».

This explains the politician’s interest in the Soviet project and his characterization of Lenin as a great teacher, a «Mahatma». How the preaching of nonviolence could be reconciled with admiration for a man responsible for one of the bloodiest revolutions in history remains a mystery.

Gandhi was a paradoxical blend of pragmatist and idealist. For example, in letters to Hitler, he addressed the Führer as «dear friend», genuinely hoping to dissuade him from war. In Gandhi’s utopian vision of «Ramarajya», there was no place for machine production, as he believed it destroyed the harmony between humans and nature.

He rejected technological progress so thoroughly that he made an archaic spinning wheel the emblem of his party. When the poet Rabindranath Tagore criticized this anachronism, Gandhi advised him to «spin like everyone else». In Gandhi’s utopia, there were no machines, factories, laws, cities, or centralized authority.

Instead, there was Swaraj — a self-governing confederation of free villages. Remarkably, these utopian ideals did not prevent Gandhi from being politically effective. Jawaharlal Nehru considered him a creative genius for good reason. He could bring a shaven-headed and barefoot Englishwoman named Mirabai to the House of Lords to demonstrate the superiority of Indian culture. When the Prince of Wales visited India, he traveled through deserted streets as Indians emphasized that he meant nothing to them. Such performances created a sensation in the global media, producing the effect of a bombshell.




This is a fitting characterization of Mahatma Gandhi. Did Gandhi, the politician, succeed in becoming a saint? Each person may have their own answer to this question. Gandhi himself once said, «A man’s freedom is worth nothing if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes». He referred to the partition of the country into Pakistan and India as «a mistake the size of the Himalayas», a mistake paid for with the lives of 6 million Muslims and 4.5 million Hindus.

Writer Aldous Huxley believed that Gandhi plunged India «into the mass inhuman madness of nationalism, with a devilish zeal to establish a people’s state». Huxley was concerned with how easily the struggle for freedom could turn the pursuit of good into its complete opposite.

Perhaps the great anti-utopian was too harsh on the «father of Indian independence». Equally insightful, Albert Einstein once said of Gandhi: «Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth».

One thing is certain: Gandhi’s ideas had a tremendous impact on the history of the 20th century. The human desire to regain a lost paradise is indomitable. Thus, Gandhi’s call for goodness, beauty, and harmony continues to resonate with millions.

It is nearly impossible for a politician to become a saint, and indeed, civilizations are built on blood. But Mahatma Gandhi sincerely tried to change this. It was not perfect. Yet Gandhi’s life is inspiring, not because it was full of oddities, mistakes, and contradictions. It is inspiring because Gandhi proved a crucial point: with certain spiritual efforts, humanity can indeed make this world a better place.


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