Gandhi—What Shaped the Man?
TO UNDERSTAND Gandhi we must relive two events that shaped his early thinking. Let us go back to the year 1869 in the state of Gujarat in northwest India. Hot, dry winds followed by ravaging floods exhaust this region. There Gandhi was born into a comfortable family who, like the majority of Gujarati, take pride in the fact that they have many Brahmans (priestly caste) within their state. Traditionally, Hindu society is divided into four major castes, or classes, with clear distinctions separating them. (See box on page 5.)
At the age of 18, Gandhi sets out on his first train ride to Bombay on his way to England to study law. He leaves behind his childhood wife Kasturbai and a son. Before boarding the SS Clyde, Gandhi is called before his caste elders and told in no uncertain terms that if he proceeds to England he will be formally expelled from his caste. Why? “One is obliged to eat and drink with Europeans,” they argue. “I do not think it is at all against our religion to go to England,” he replies. His caste elders consider it taboo that he be mingling with the white man who is polluted because he eats meat and drinks liquor. Gandhi protests that it is a case of caste discrimination reversed. Despite his pleas they are unmoved, and Gandhi leaves India an outcast from his Vaisya (farmers and traders) caste.
Life for Gandhi in England is difficult. He is not only a foreigner but a “colonial” Indian at that, and he could move about only among the fringes of British society. Gandhi is puzzled, since those who discriminate against him call themselves Christians. He has already formed an opinion about Christianity: “I developed a sort of dislike for it,” he wrote. “And for a reason. In those days Christian missionaries [in India] used to stand in a corner near the high school . . . pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this.” Likewise in England, Gandhi finds it difficult to endure discrimination foisted upon him by “Christians.” What is his verdict? ‘I love Christ, but I despise Christians because they do not live as Christ lived.’
Leaving England with a law degree, Gandhi attempts a practice in South Africa. There he finds racial prejudice from the onset. In spite of his first-class ticket, he is removed from the compartment of a train and told that he must travel in a van reserved for coloured people. Gandhi’s protests fall on deaf ears. He is forcibly removed from the train and left to spend the night in the waiting room.
A Vital Decision
That night he made the decision never to yield to force and never to use force to win a cause. Reflecting on the incident, he wrote: “The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial—only a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process.”
Let us go back for a moment and examine these two formulating incidents in Gandhi’s life. In the first instance, before leaving for England, Gandhi is rejected by his own people because of his desire to associate with the white man. In the second case, it is the white man that throws him off the train because of Gandhi’s skin colour. It was not just his own injury or humiliation that infuriated Gandhi; it was the deep cancer of man’s inhumanity to man because of differences in skin colour.
He later wrote: “So long as we have this contempt on the part of white races for the coloured man, so long shall we have trouble.” Interestingly enough, Gandhi’s verdict applied just as much to the Indian who for thousands of years had perpetuated a caste system based on differences of skin colour. In this segregation it was now Indian against Indian, Brahman against Untouchable.
Self-Respect for the Untouchables
On his return to India, Gandhi found hateful divisions and scars fostered by caste segregation. How can we condemn the British, he noted, when we are guilty toward our own Untouchable brethren? “I regard untouchability as the greatest blot of Hinduism,” he said. In giving sanction to untouchability, Hinduism had sinned, according to Gandhi.
Gandhi took up the torch for the Untouchables. He lived with them. He ate with them. He cleaned their toilets. He attempted to restore their self-respect. He gave them a dignified name—no longer were they Untouchables, but Harijans, or people of the god Vishnu. “It is necessary for us Hindus to repent of the wrong we have done, . . . we must return to them the inheritance of which we have robbed them,” he wrote.
What was the inheritance of the Harijan, according to Gandhi? Human dignity, the basic inheritance of all people. The Harijan simply wants to be treated as a human rather than an animal, he argued. Who robbed him? According to Gandhi, his fellow Hindus. “The most cruel crimes of which history has record have been committed under cover of religion,” he said. He shamed all of India by refusing to enter the great temples whose gates had been closed for centuries to low-caste Hindu worshipers. “There is no God here,” he told the crowds who gathered. “If God were here, everyone would have access.” Once an obviously well-off missionary came to Gandhi to get his advice on how to help the outcaste people in the Indian villages. Gandhi’s answer was a challenge to Christianity: “We must step down from our pedestals and live with them—not as outsiders, but as one of them in every way, sharing their burdens and sorrows.”
“In the dictionary of nonviolent action, there is no such thing as an ‘external enemy,’” Gandhi said. With the world’s future itself at stake, as one modern writer commented, all differences would be “internal,” and if our aim is to save humanity we must respect the humanity of every person. Segregation based on caste negates respect, therefore people suffer. Their suffering is not silent anymore. It is reflected in statistics of crime and violence. Therefore the questions come up: Have Gandhi’s ideals worked? What about nonviolence in India? How practical are Gandhi’s ideas for the world in general?
[Box on page 5]
Caste and Colour
The Hindu’s theological writings, Mahā-Bhārata, say:
1. “The colour of the Brahmans was white [highest caste, made up of the priests and scholars];
2. “that of the Ksatriyas red [second caste, of warriors and nobles];
3. “that of the Vaiśyas yellow [third caste, of farmers and traders],
4. “and that of the Śūdras black [fourth caste, of manual labourers].”
Below these and apart from the structure of society were the impure ones, the Untouchables.
Regarding this caste system, The Hindu reported:
“The Mandal Commission has warned against any assumption that the caste system was on the way out . . . If religion was ever used as an opium of the masses, it was done in India. A small priest class by a subtle process of conditioning the thinking of the vast majority of the people, hypnotised them for ages into accepting a role of servility with humility. . . . As caste conditioned and controlled every aspect of an individual’s life, says the Commission, it led to a situation where lower castes were backward, not only socially, but also educationally, economically and politically. But the higher castes advanced in all directions.”—May 4, 1982.
[Box on page 6]
If You Are an Untouchable
● You either sweep the streets, clean latrines or handle dead carcasses
● You cannot enter into the home of one of a higher caste. Brahmans will not allow you to enter a Hindu temple
● Your children cannot marry out of your caste
● In the cities you are the dispossessed—living in squatter settlements, desiring the basics of food, shelter and water
Untouchability has been outlawed in India since 1950. Yet a recent survey of about a thousand villages throughout India revealed that, if you were an Untouchable, 61 percent of other people would not let you use their well; 82 percent would not allow you to enter the temple; you would be refused lodging by 56 percent; 52 percent of the washermen would refuse you their services; and 45 percent of the barbers would refuse you a shave