Mahatma Gandhi: “My Life is My Message”: A Note on the 152nd Anniversary of his Birth

Public statue of Mahatma Gandhi depicting his 1930 Great Salt March. Washington DC. (Photo by C. Aklu).
By Chaitram Aklu

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was on a train in a station in Bengal where a British journalist asked from the platform: “Do you have a message I can take back to my people?” Gandhi scribbled a note that read “My life is my message” and passed it to him. “Gandhi is revered by people of conscience in all walks of life around the world. “He is hailed as the father of the nation, Crusader for human rights and liberty, thinker, writer, reformer, apostle of truth and nonviolence.”

Gandhi’s life was indeed his message. Born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, a sea coast town in Bombay (Mumbai) to a wealthy family he received a quality education and was sent to England where he earned a law degree.

On his return to India and unable to find suitable work he entered into a contract and went to Durban, Natal State, South Africa. It was there that Gandhi’s life direction changed forever. He witnessed and experienced the racial discrimination that was part of the daily lives of the Indian population already there. It was immediate. He was not allowed to wear his turban in court and was mocked and humiliated in the local press.

But the transformation came suddenly on June 7, 1893. When traveling by train to Pretoria, and in possession of a valid first class ticket, he kicked out of first class and off the train. He adopted the civil disobedience path to fight color prejudice and injustice.

Gandhi returned to India in 1914 and intensified his struggle for human rights and the end to British rule. In doing so, he succeeded in uniting millions of people of all faiths across India in his mass movement of civil disobedience. “He renounced all worldly possessions, devoting his life to work for the dignity and uplift of the downtrodden.” He engaged in peaceful but effective protests (Satyagraha). He led the historic 240 mile-23 day Salt March to the Arabian Sea in 1930 to protest the British increase in the salt tax.

Public statue of Mahatma Gandhi depicting his 1930 Great Salt March. Washington DC. (Photo by C. Aklu).

He was inspired by the writings of great writers Ruskin, Henry David Thoreau  and Tolstoy and in turn influenced international leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Martin Luther King jr., Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Nelson Mandela, Dalai Lama, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Aung San Suu Kyl among others, through his life and message.

Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian poet and philosopher and the first Indian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, proclaimed Gandhi a Mahatma (Great Soul). And on Gandhi’s 70th birthday, Albert Einstein wrote “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” And Martin Luther King Jr. who visited India and Gandhi’s grave in 1959 said in his “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” speech on April 13, 1960: “So the nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those who committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources that they did not know they had. Finally, it reaches the opponent and stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes reality.”

Gandhi could not keep India whole, mainly because Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Muslim leader decided that Muslims must have their own country and would accept no compromise. Gandhi himself had pleaded with the Hindu leaders and especially Jawaharlal Nehru to let Jinnah lead the country to avoid partition.

The British relented and literally drew boundary lines on a map to demarcate India and the new state of Pakistan and East Pakistan and set August 14, 1947 as Independence Day. (Deliberately dividing the state the way it did?). East Pakistan later seceded and became Bangladesh. Jinnah died just one year and one month after the breakup of India, on September 11, 1948. Later Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy to India would reveal that had they known that Jinnah had early stage lung cancer, they would have waited him out.

British rule in India ended August 15, 1947, Independence Day. Approximately 2 million people lost their lives in the Hindu-Muslim violence following partition.

Although Gandhi is hailed as the Father of the Nation, he refused to be a part of the political leadership and wanted to work to keep India and Pakistan in unity and to inculcate proper health and sanitation practices in the nation, as he had done in his commune in South Africa.

He fought to end the caste system, calling the lowest or untouchables, Harijans or the Children of God. To date this has not been accomplished. The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in 2017 embarked on a Swachh Bharat – Clean India Mission, which would have made the entire country open-defecation free by October 2, 2019 (Gandhi’s birthday) by constructing millions of toilets at no cost to residents. According to a National Geographic article, castes above the Harijans refused to use the toilets for the intended purpose. They were strictly forbidden by their caste to clean their own toilets. They used the structures for storage or other purposes. The mission failed.

In 2019, a hand written letter unearthed in the National Library of Israel, dated September 1, 1939, revealed that Gandhi was concerned by the persecution of Jews in Germany. A  September 25, 2019 article published by the New Indian Express he wrote to the head of an Indian Jewish organization. The letter states, “My sympathies are with the Jews” and “If there ever could be a justiable war, in the name of and for humanity, war against Germany to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race would be completely justified. But I do not believe in war” (emphasis added). He also wrote a letter to Hitler referring to him as a ‘friend’ and that he did not think Hitler was a ‘monster’ as he was being made out to be. He was wrong in his assessment.

World War 11, began in 1939 and by the time it ended in 1945, 6 million German Jews were exterminated. Before he was himself assassinated on January 30, 1948 at age 78, he referred to the holocaust as “The greatest crime against humanity.” Some have opined that he should have been more forceful.

Gandhi was shot to death on January 30, 1948 by a Hindu extremist named Nathuram Godse. He was angered by Gandhi’s efforts to keep Hindus and Muslims united. But people who believe in Godse’s Hindu nationalist ideas also celebrate him annually and have continued to fight for the establishment of temples to honor the assassin.

Nearly 100 countries have now committed to ending violence in all its forms and use peaceful means to solve conflicts. A few years ago I was walking along Massachusetts Ave. in Washington DC when I came upon the life size public bronze statue of Gandhi clothed in his ascetic wear, depicting the 1930 salt tax march. On the pedestal the message read: Mahatma Gandhi 1869-1948. “My life is my message.”