January 30 marks the 70th anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu himself, by a Hindu extremist in 1948. In 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, and Civil Rights
Congressman John Lewis has repeatedly cited Gandhi as well as King (with whom he worked directly) as sources of inspiration for his efforts with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and civil rights struggle in the United States. For example, Congressman Lewis mentioned Gandhi in a January 2017 interview On Being (with Krista Tippett), addressing “love in action.”
Love and Truth in Action
In his memoir, Walking with the Wind, Lewis writes: “One of the most fundamental principles of the Gandhian notion of satyagraha — nonviolent action — is that it is not merely a technique of achieving specific goals. It is not simply a means to attaining political independence or racial desegregation. It is not just a tool to achieve unity and freedom in the world around us. True satyagraha, as Gandhi taught it, is about a fundamental shift inside our own souls. It is rooted in the achievement of inner unity, of inner freedom, of inner certainty. It is a place we find within ourselves — a calm, sure place.” (p. 126)
Lewis invokes the definition of satyagraha as “holding on to truth” and insists, “Truth cannot be abandoned, even in the face of pain and injury, even in the face of death. Once the truth has been recognized and embraced — in this case, the truth of the absolute moral invalidity of racial segregation and the necessity of ending it — backing away is not an option.” (p. 143)
Acknowledging some accuracy to comments like H. Rap Brown’s (“Violence … is as American as cherry pie”), Lewis asserted: “Violence has always been endemic to American culture. Dr. King said the same thing. We are, and have always been, a very violent society. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it. It doesn’t mean we have to respond to the worst of America with the worst of ourselves.”
“We are … a very violent society. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it. It doesn’t mean we have to respond to the worst of America with the worst of ourselves.”
John Lewis has “always believed it is possible to show ourselves a different way, a better way to solve our problems. This is what Gandhi tried to do in India. It is what Dr. King tried to do here, and it goes far beyond civil rights alone. It extends to all of the conflicts we face among ourselves and among other nations. There are simply other and better ways to solve our differences than through violence.” (p. 395)
Gandhi himself said, “Love is the strongest force the world possesses and yet it is the humblest imaginable.”
Indian and American Traditions: Cross-Fertilization
The relationship of influence between Gandhi and Americans was not one way. (This is true of others, too, including figures besides Gandhi featured in Makers of Modern India, edited by Ramachandra Guha.)
As noted in a 2015 piece (which also highlights B.R. Ambedkar), Gandhi read the work of 19th-century Americans 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 Gandhi, Universal Patriotism
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.”
As crude, xenophobic and paranoid patriotisms remain popular (including in the U.S.), this more humane alternative holds moral power.
“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.”
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 — now representing some three million people, one percent of the U.S.
We should also recognize the strength of Gandhi’s example — how he helped bring about a nation’s independence and inspired other leaders and citizens of the world to dream. Some of his notions may seem doctrinaire, quixotic. But whether he was aspiring to peace among nations or to counter the caste system or religious conflict, he established compelling goals while demonstrating (from the Salt March of 1930 to independence from the U.K., albeit with the partition that he lamented) historic results.
Of course, Gandhi was human — with flaws including his treatment of family members, as well as racially prejudiced views in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that were typical of the era. Those views did evolve, and didn’t stop leaders from King and Lewis to Obama from regarding him as a hero.
Yet that vision endures as an ideal to inform the strivings of people and of nations. Truth still has force.
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. Versions of this piece appeared in the New Haven Independent and via Medium. Other articles have addressed topics ranging from Indian Americans, immigration, refugees, nationalism, and the “Muslim ban” in historical context, to new voters, citizenship, men’s role in defending reproductive choice, men and the campus climate for women, college sports, history and public lands, marching in peaceful protest, men and the march for women’s empowerment (a version of which appeared at the Good Men Project), U.S. politics of the last two decades, historical facts versus mythology and fakery, the Loving v. Virginia legacy, and the Obama generation. Twitter: @JosiahBrownCT.