The Indian spiritual and political leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on this day in 1869 in Porbander, a town in present day Gujarat. Later called Mahatma, or Great Soul, a title bestowed by the poet Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi would become a singular figure on the twentieth century public stage.
Of course there’s much that could be said. He has been praised. Wildly. He has been condemned. With just about as much abandon. People have come to make a lot of his pursuit of sexual purity and its unhealthy manifestations. Of course, lots of people have problems with how he engaged politics, and that he made political decisions that were at odds with his professed larger view. As I look at Youtube for the term “Gandhi” attacks on him for one thing or another seem nearly as common as tributes. I think it fair to say in the course of his life he failed probably a lot more than he succeeded.
Here’s the fact. Gandhi was a human being.
He was born into a world of conflict. He lived in a world of conflict. He died in a world of conflict.
But, what he did at the same time was to turn on himself, looked as closely as he could, and within the person he found, he saw some strands of possibility. He took them and he wove them together into a rope. He found others, and encouraged those same strands within them, and as a politician, he gathered those together and wove what would become a miracle, a non-violent revolution that founded a nation.
Basically, he was a complicated man with a simple message, Satyagraha, soul power, the ability of simple people to resist tyrany through radical non-violence.
I think of these things, and I find my reflection going to the state of our human condition. Me, I think the odds are against us as a species. We seem too violent, too grasping, too much about the short term.
But, within the great play of life and death and the arc of existence on this little planet spinning through the great night, I also see we have some choices. One can argue in some very big picture sort of way that in the play of cause and effect we have no choice but to follow patterns that were laid down even before the sun was created. But, in any practical sense, in the world in which we actually live we usually can say yes or no, and what we do has consequences.
We can make conscious decisions. And we can act from those decisions. There are things we can do. Despite our flaws, numerous as the sea, we can act in ways that bring hope to the world.
For me Gandhi’s life is an invitation for each of us to find within the context of who we are, with all its limitations what it is we will do. And for that, what can I call it, for that miracle we should pause and notice. The threads of connection are many and complex. And the choices we make have consequences that we cannot even dream of at the time we take them.
Not all are good. Some are amazing.
And with that, thank you, Mohandas. Truly, a great soul…
A brief biographical sketch:
More on that salt march:
And, finally, one of Mahatmaji’s favorite hymns: