January 30 marks the 69th anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu himself, by a Hindu extremist in 1948. At the conclusion of a month when we recall the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. — who was deeply influenced by Gandhi and visited India in 1959 — let us also honor Mahatma Gandhi.
Gandhi and King are two of President Barack Obama’s heroes. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009, President Obama remarked, “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.”
Gandhi, King, John Lewis, Civil Rights, and Barack Obama
Congressman John Lewis has repeatedly cited Gandhi as well as King (with whom he worked directly) among his sources of inspiration for work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the struggle for civil rights in the U.S. For example, Congressman Lewis mentioned Gandhi in a January 2017 interview On Being (with Krista Tippett), addressing “love in action.”
As noted in a 2015 piece via Medium, Gandhi read the work of 19th-century Americans including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson — who had drawn upon Indian texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads. According to D.G. Tendulkar’s Mahatma (cited by George Hendrick in his 1956 New England Quarterly article, “The Influence of Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ on Gandhi’s Satyagraha”), Gandhi in 1942 wrote Franklin Roosevelt, “I have profited greatly by the writings of Thoreau and Emerson.”
Satyagraha was Gandhi’s conception of “truth force” — part of what John Lewis understands as “love in action.”
In November 2010, when President Obama traveled to India, he saw a Gandhi museum in Mumbai as well as the Rajghat memorial (where Gandhi’s body was cremated) in New Delhi.
Family Visits to Learn about, and Remember, Gandhi
In December 2009 and again in April 2016 with our children, my wife and I visited another Gandhi museum in New Delhi: the Gandhi Smriti (remembrance) at the site of his assassination.
There, visitors can walk from the room where he spent his final months, along the path of his final steps.
Signs on that path show Gandhi’s own words, including this call for a universal nationalism:
“My patriotism is not exclusive, it is calculated not only not to hurt any other nation but to benefit all in the true sense of the word. India’s freedom as conceived by me can never be [a] menace to the world.”
The museum has a serenity and a solemnity akin to a place of worship. Where a horrific murder occurred, a sanctuary now prevails amid India’s capital city.
India is typically in the American consciousness for global economic reasons, or regarding national security in relation to China and Pakistan, or because of the many contributions of the growing Indian American population.
We should also recognize the power of Gandhi’s example — how he helped bring about a nation’s independence and inspired other leaders and citizens of the world to dream.
Gandhi’s vision of peace too often remains unrealized, in his own country and beyond. But that vision’s moral appeal endures as an ideal to inform the everyday strivings of people and of nations.
Josiah H. Brown lives in New Haven with his wife (who grew up in India before becoming a U.S. citizen in 2016) and their two children. A version of this piece appeared in the New Haven Independent. Other previous articles address subjects from India, the Indian and U.S. republics, and Indian Americans, immigration, and refugees to new voters, citizenship, men’s role in defending reproductive choice, men and the campus climate for women, history and public lands, marching in peaceful protest, and U.S. politics of the last two decades. Twitter: @JosiahBrownCT