Gandhi’s life: a lesson for everyone

Sandhya Rao | Updated on October 01, 2019 Published on October 01, 2019

Two-and-a-half year old Shivakumar donning the role of Mahatma Gandhi and walking at the Gandhi Museum premises   -  The Hindu

Student, teacher, freedom fighter, messiah... Mahatma Gandhi was many things to many people. Whatever role he donned, he immersed himself deep into it, and blazed a path few could walk on with success

A 10-year-old once said to me: “They’re saying Mahatma Gandhi is the father of the nation. Aunty, can one man have so many children?” Even as the great man was busy ‘being’ or ‘playing’ father to the nation, it’s been well documented that he had little time for his own four boys. There are many instances in Mahatma Gandhi’s life that reveal the cracks in his larger-than-life persona, built up over the years, even as they show him as a person who worked hard overcoming what he perceived were his weaknesses and building his strengths. The cracks scatter light on his approach to life.

Despite Munnabhai’s best efforts, it is not possible to be Gandhi, but it is possible to realise that he is not related to Rahul, Rajiv or Indira — as a lot of children seem to think today — although he was ‘family’ to ‘Indu’, mentor to her father Jawaharlal, and ‘Bapu’ to thousands of others.


Mull over this: as a child, Mohandas was shy, scared, spoilt, a mother’s boy. He was afraid of the dark. He hated school and did badly, and college he just couldn’t stomach. Lucky chance, good advice and a supportive family sent him to England to acquire a law degree when he was just short of his 19th birthday. He left behind his beloved mother, a wife he was possessive about and a small baby. He had poor English, was a pure vegetarian and was not exactly flush with funds.

Yet, this young man landed on his feet. He bumbled his way through foreign ways and silly gaffes. Perhaps what kept him going was that he had wanted to escape the life in India; yes, it would seem he felt he had no future back home despite everything that tied him to it, and he was looking for a way out. Perhaps that is why he stuck on.

The University of Life

Of course, there was course work to attend to. But he also started looking inward and outward, observing people and life, reading, working on his language skills, putting his efforts into studying. He began to learn. Life became his best teacher.

Then came South Africa, Pietermaritzburg, cooperative living, fighting for the rights of people of Indian origin in South Africa; his gradual development into a political figure; the return to India, his leadership of the freedom struggle, Independence, seeing Partition as a personal failure, assassination; sainthood, the growth and propagation of Gandhism and its use and abuse by political forces; remembered every October 2 by children doing dress-up; the real Gandhi got lost along the way.

Yet, the oft-quoted ‘My life is my message’ slogan is neither disingenuous nor boastful. His life sends out many different messages. It’s been documented that before he decided to start washing his own clothes, he first studied the best ways of washing. He read up all he could about it, just as he read up and tried to learn all about naturopathy before he launched into a regimen of naturopathy for himself and others. He followed up on all his experiments and experiences by writing about them; he held nothing back. People responded to him, and there were often long, written discussions. All this, while devising a strategy to get the British out, meeting political leaders and ordinary folk, travelling, being imprisoned, running ashrams, reading, walking…

Rooted in humanism

Writing in The Living Gandhi: Lessons for Our Times, James O’Toole talks about how Gandhi acquired the practical skills of leadership by reflecting on experience: “What he learned in the process was to desire ‘the welfare of others’. This became the basis of a philosophy that might best be described as ‘humanism’.” Intrinsic to this philosophy were truth-telling, good hygiene and a readiness to change. In fact, DG Tendulkar, somewhere in his monumental Mahatma, tells of how an irate Nehru complained to Gandhi that he was saying one thing now when he had said something else about the same thing earlier. “Yes,” his mentor replied, “I changed my mind.”

Gandhi recognised the power of languages and encouraged learning many languages, including, of course, the mother tongue. In this effort, he taught himself Urdu on one of his sea voyages. He practised writing with his left hand for when the right grew tired. Educationists untiringly stress the importance of doing and learning. So did he — not just to learn but to build character and self-reliance.

He called his philosophy of education Nai Taleem. Anil Sadgopal quotes Gandhi as saying: “Look at takli … The lesson of this takli will be the first lesson of our students through which they would be able to learn a substantial part of the history of cotton, Lancashire and the British empire … When he is asked to count the number of cotton threads of takli and he is asked to report how many did he spin, it becomes possible to acquaint him step by with a good deal of mathematical knowledge.” He also felt children should learn to draw before they learned to write, in order that they develop good handwriting.

Today, when we’ve been overrun by the virus of rote learning, Gandhi’s holistic, self-supporting approach to education could well provide a partial antidote to mass cheating and unemployability. To quote Sadagopal again, “...the central thesis of Gandhian pedagogy is promoting human welfare through coexistence and cooperation, elimination of inequality and poverty and a sustainable relationship with nature.”

Gandhi and Young India

And what about children? What does Gandhi say to them? Stand up to bullies, speak up for yourself, learn by finding out. Most of all, he embodies the power of ideas to change the world. Besides, an eye for an eye renders everyone sightless. As he has said, and as all the books of faith suggest: “Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Perhaps we could let some controversies remain in the past, where they were born and where they belong, in order that our children move forward towards peaceful times.

The author is a Chennai-based independent journalist who has authored a children’s book on Gandhi

Published on October 01, 2019
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