This article attempts to identify the ideologies, and more important, its sources, that influenced Mahatma Gandhi. It will endeavor to understand and expound wherefore he sought his insights, his first revelations. Just how much of his ideologies and beliefs were formulated by introspection versus guidance from people or religious texts?
Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer, was of significant import to Gandhi and provided many of his inspirations, most significantly for the civil disobedience movement. Much of his knowledge of Tolstoy came from reading Tolstoy’s numerous works such as War and Peace, as well as correspondences they exchanged during Gandhi’s innumerable times in jail. The Bhagavad Gita, one of the most well–read sacred texts in the Hindu religion, also profoundly affected Gandhi. He saw in it the universal conflict of the soul and its battle to perform righteous deeds in a world gone wrong. Much of his later philosophies and beliefs about satyagraha were synthesized from these varied sources and brought together as one concept.
The Gita condemns inaction and shows how to avoid the evils that accompany inaction. The selflessness expounded by both the Gita and Tolstoy was enacted by Gandhi. As he once said, “When doubts haunt me, . . . I turn to the Bhagavad Gita
, and find a verse to comfort me. I owe [my life] to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita” (Kumar and Puri 29). He frequently quoted from it and during the Salt March each of his followers clutched one to their chests on their journey to make salt. This holy book held a mystique for Gandhi.
In the Gita, the warrior Arjun is about to begin a bloody battle against members of his extended family. His conscience causes him to stop the fight before it began and he suffers from inaction. Seeing that the warrior is not fulfilling his destiny, the God Krishna appears as Arjun’s chariot driver and extols him to walk the path of his destiny and battle against his family.
Examples of Tolstoy’s influence
Tolstoy exhibited distrust and dislike for organized religion, which Gandhi later emulated (Fischer 96). Gandhi became one who practiced no particular aspect of Hinduism, even though he was a Hindu by birth. He simply believed in the Universal One without any earthly manifestations.
Tolstoy was very critical of government, seeing it as an oppressive force that solves problems by killing (Fischer 96). Likewise, Gandhi too held harsh views about government, especially the British government in India. He believed that if the people were educated, they could make intelligent choices about whom they elected to government, reducing the number of problems they faced by ensuring their elected officials represented their interests.
Tolstoy tried to abide by his beliefs, simplifying his life, living on his own labor, and giving up material possessions. Gandhi followed suit by renouncing all material possessions, living a simple life, and even spinning cotton to make his own clothes. He appealed to Indians to return to a life of simplicity and self-sufficiency, and believed that this could be achieved by reviving the traditional Indian cotton-spinning lifestyle.
Tolstoy preached many other beliefs that later fashioned Gandhi’s appeals to the Indian masses. Gandhi implored of them to not work for the oppressive British government, not to pay land taxes, and not to obey a government not of their choosing. Tolstoy wrote that sacrifices are required for the truth to be found (Fischer 96).
Gandhi as a General
One of the accusations often hurled at Gandhi was that of being a Sergeant-Major during World War I (Nanda 69). When war broke out, Gandhi, now in London, chose to help the British out by volunteering to raise an ambulance corps headed by him. He led an ambulance team comprised of eighty university students to help the wounded (Fischer 123). How could one who professed to be a pacifist, one who claimed to be living the ideal of peace and nonviolence, seemingly reverse tracks and assist in a war? Gandhi himself was aware that his decision to help the British would cause him personal and political pains. He knew that he would lose followers who would see this as a sign of personal conflict or hypocrisy. He would also have to cope with and resolve the ambivalent feelings sure to emerge from such a drastic decision for one with a pacifist bent. As Gandhi himself once noted, “Do I contradict myself? Consistency is a hobgoblin” (Fischer 123).
To extricate himself from this paradoxical position, he reasoned that if one pays one’s taxes, then one is fully aware that some of it will be employed in funding and supporting wars. Therefore, one cannot pay taxes yet claim to be a pacifist, since a true pacifist must not support wars by express action or implicit inaction. Tellingly, Gandhi allowed himself no delusions about his participation: “Those who confine themselves to attending to the wounded in battle cannot be absolved from the guilt of war” (Fischer 123). He knew he was as guilty as the pacifist who paid taxes was. In his defense, he claimed that he accepted the benefits and protection of the British Empire; therefore, he cannot abandon it in its time of need. Here, for the first time, we note a dichotomy between his ideals and his practices. Aristotle had a penchant for demonstrating to people how their ideals and beliefs could often be contradicted when applied to real-world situations, and Gandhi proved no exception to this Aristotelian tactic.
While Gandhi was seen as the force that could unite India, the Indian National Congress had little unanimity about his goals of civil disobedience. Some, like Subhas Chandra Bose, felt that it was a step towards establishing a parallel government, while others, such as Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru‘s father, thought it would serve to collapse the British administration. His aspirations for satyagraha were on a grander scale: he was positioning it such that it would “. . . generate among Indians the interdependent qualities of strength and unity.” He knew that unity was of utmost importance if India was to present a continental front to Britain, from which it was demanding purna swaraj, or complete independence. As he himself described it, civil disobedience was “a process of developing internal strength, . . . not designed to establish independence but to arm the people with the power to do so” (Brown 80-81).
“Most British officials disputed the right of the rising class of educated Indians to speak for the masses” (Nanda 51). Lord Lamington, the Governor of Bombay, wrote, “The real guarantees of our stay in India remains as strong as ever viz., the caste system, the diversity of nationalities and creeds and the lack of confidence and trust of one native for another” (Nanda 51).
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the leaders of Indian nationalism looked forward to the day of Indian self-governance. They dreamt that one day India could be a self-governing dominion under the British Empire. In later discussions pertaining to India self-government, many in the British Parliament disagreed with the idea, fearing that self-government would lead to eventual and outright independence, with the accompanying loss of Indian revenue for the Crown (Nanda 49-56).
On August 14th, 1917, Lloyd George, then-Prime Minister of Great Britain, asked Ex-Viceroy Curzon to draft the declaration of British policy on Indian self-government. While discussing this policy with the Cabinet, he noted, “The Cabinet probably contemplated an intervening period which might extend to 500 years.” An intervening period meant the length of time it would take India to achieve self-government (Nanda 55).
Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, aptly described Gandhi in 1917as “a social reformer with a real desire … to improve the conditions of his fellow-men. He dresses like a coolie, forswears all personal advancement, lives practically on the air and is a pure visionary” (Nanda 57-58).
“Gandhi’s method created a dilemma for the British…. Non-intervention allowed the agitation to snowball; repression of unarmed men and women, who refused to retaliate, won the sympathy of the multitude and deepened its alienation from the Raj” (Nanda 69). Gandhi deliberately excluded peasants and industrial workers from the satyagraha movement because he felt they could not be controlled (Nanda 66).
During civil disobedience, Gandhi was on trial as an all-India leader. His fellow citizens saw in it a test of his leadership, while the world watched to see if Gandhi would prove to be the zealot for non-violent truth he professed to be, or a charlatan with ulterior political motives. Gandhi himself noted that it might well be his last chance to help his fellow Indians (Brown 99).
Gandhi began the famous “Salt March” to signal his discontent with the insistence of the British Raj to tax the Indian community for salt consumption. The British-imposed salt tax was paid, and intensely disliked, by everyone in India. Therefore, a march against this tax would serve to unite Muslims and Hindus, which was of crucial important to Gandhi. He chose the participants for the march from his ashram, assuring that it would be “. . . a lesson in discipline and non-violence” (Brown 97).
Gandhi chose a salt march for many complex reasons, among these being its relatively small impact on British revenues (he thus expected little British retaliation) and its non-religious, All-India appeal. Unfortunately, the salt march only assisted in “. . . generating widespread demonstrations of contempt for laws considered oppressive and for British authority” (Brown 115-116). While it had its anticipated, minimal effect on British revenues, it did not serve in its capacity as a unifying force for Muslims and Hindus, as Gandhi had hoped. However, both Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, a vocal member of the Indian National Congress, knew that the salt march would pave the way for the beginning of nonviolent, mass civil disobedience. They hoped that this disciplined procession to the Dandi shore would serve as a guiding light for the soon-to-follow civil disobedience protests.
Gandhi demonstrates his shrewd, strategic skills by both choosing this satyagraha march and hand-picking his companions for it. He knew the march could simultaneously rally all of India in support and engage the sympathy of the world in his struggle while controlling the nonviolence of the march. The very site chosen for the culmination of the march further highlights Gandhi’s strategic skills: the Dandi shore from which he would make salt was located in south Gujarat, his home state.
A major manifestation of the civil disobedience movement resulting from the salt march was the social boycott of government servants and pressure for their resignation (Brown 133). During the salt march, Gandhi had stopped in many villages along the way and beseeched the villagers to resign from their government posts as a protest against the British Crown. Another major act of disobedience was the refusal to pay land revenues. In one case, a Gujarati ashram and its followers refused to pay unless directed to do so by Gandhi. It is a testament to Gandhi’s leadership that the Gujaratis put such faith in him (Brown 137-138).
There were numerous boycotting and picketing among Calcutta’s Hindus middle class population. A major uprising began with University students, many of whom picketed and protested outside of their colleges, forcing state-level exams to be postponed. However, it was only in Bombay, Gujarat, Midnapore, and Peshawar that civil disobedience seriously threatened the British government. These are but a sample of the civil disobedience movement and its resounding ramifications for all of India, which blended well with Gandhi’s plans. In his eyes the immediate object for civil disobedience “. . . was to create a situation in which [the Indian National Congress] could go to the conference table as accredited national representatives with a strong negotiating hand” (Brown 153).
As noted earlier, Gandhi saw satyagraha as enabling a cohesive India, an India that could present a united front to the British. He knew that as long as India stood divided, it would stand conquered and servile. To paraphrase Lord Lamington, the Crown could guarantee its stronghold as long as it kept Indians divided and mistrustful of each other. If ever India stood in unity, the Crown would fall.
Brown, Judith M. Gandhi and Civil Disobedience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Fischer, Louis. The Life of mahatma Gandhi. New York: Harper and Row, 1950
Kumar, Chandra, and Mohinder Puri. Mahatma Gandhi: His life and Influence. London: Heinemann, 1982
Nanda, B. R. Gandhi and his critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.