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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi: The Great Synthesizer of Ideas

N. Gerald Barrier is Middlebush Chair in the Social Sciences at University of Missouri at Columbia and has published widely on Sikh studies as well as nonviolence and communalism in India. In a letter (December 29, 2004) to The Sikh Times, G.B. Singh wrote, "I am not sure if Professor [Barrier] has read my book or read it carefully. I never proposed any theses suggesting Gandhi as 'agent for the British.' In fact on page 302, I wrote categorically that I disagree with some Indians who promote the idea of Gandhi as a secret agent of the British."

Sikh-Diaspora (Yahoo! Groups), Dec. 14, 2004

Photo: Gandhi, with Abha (left) and Manu

I have taught courses on Gandhi and nonviolence for two decades and know the literature fairly well. In all honesty, I am not a big Gandhi fan. With that caveat, however, I think he was one of the most extraordinary human beings, warts and all, that ever lived. His family life and personal relations were fouled up, but he was very consistent when operating in public arenas (where he stayed most of his life after around 1895).

The book on Gandhi (Gandhi: Behind the Mask of Divinity by G.B. Singh) referred to by numerous contributors is interesting. I have spoken with the author several times as he visited our bookstore. I cannot buy into one of his major theses, that Gandhi was an agent for the British and constantly a supporter of the Empire. There were periods in South Africa when he helped the British war effort (Zulus and Boers), but he learned from that. He supported World War I despite being a strong advocate for nonviolence because he felt Indians had an obligation to the British. From 1918 onward, he moved away from that position and, of course, strongly opposed World War II.

With reference to the Sikhs, Gandhi was never comfortable with Akali leaders. I think that when the final analyses of the Gurdwara Reform Movement are completed (and we really lack that now except for some overviews based on British records and scattered accounts), we will discover the elements within Sikh society, religion and politics that made the movement such a nonviolent operation. Gandhi's ideas probably had little to do with it. In fact, Gandhi and Nehru were mystified by Punjab politics and thought all leaders and organizations a bit out of the Indian mold (as they saw it). Gandhi certainly withdrew from active work with Sikhs and Punjabis. Sikhs in turn often distrusted Gandhi.

Without going into some of the difficulties of the historical facts surrounding the early Namdhari movement, I have never seen any link between Gandhi's ideas and those of Ram Singh.

Gandhi was not a great original thinker but instead a synthesizer, pulling together ideas in coherent fashion, and then, most importantly, putting ideas into action. There may have been nonviolent campaigns later among Afro-Americans, in Europe, and South Africa, but certainly Gandhi's ideas and systematic development of satyagraha (passive resistance) as a strategy played a pivotal role in all of those movements.

If Sikh-Diaspora participants are interested, I suggest reading Dennis Dalton's excellent analysis in Gandhi's Power: Nonviolence in Action. Also, for original writing there is nothing better than Hind Swaraj or India Home Rule, a fascinating moral, religious and political document.

Gandhi had his strengths and weaknesses, and certainly his vision of India (non-Western, small communities, little or no central government, and with distinct values (often from Hindu traditions)) never came to be. Gandhi was neither a friend nor an enemy of the Sikhs. He worked with individual Sikhs (especially in Delhi during partition, and to a lesser extent, with some participating in non-cooperation campaigns). On the whole, he tended to distrust Sikh militancy and felt that factions and competing groups undermined the community (he had a similar analysis for Hindus and Muslims).

On Henry David Thoreau, while Gandhi quotes him occasionally, he often criticizes Thoreau because from Gandhi's perspective, Thoreau's ideas emphasized passive resistance rather than militant nonviolent action.

Gandhi's major influence was Leo Tolstoy and his radical views of Christian tradition. Actually a major reference for Tolstoy was an American, Adin Ballou, a militant supporter of nonviolence and radical abolition of slavery. The preacher kept losing his flock and wandered from place to place in the 1840s. In one of those interesting facets of cultural interaction, Gandhi in a sense completed the circle back to the U.S. with several devotees working with Americans, especially those in the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.), who eventually connected with Martin Luther King and Jim Lawson in Nashville. The rest is history - the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (S.N.C.C.) and the systematic application of satyagraha in the U.S.

For further information see Howell Raines's My Soul Is Rested. On the Gandhi/Black American links, and for delightful reading, see John Lewis's autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.

Gandhi took nonviolence and ahimsa, literally non-hurting, and turned it from passive to active. That was his major contribution.

Ahimsa for Gandhi, within the structure of satyagraha, was acting nonviolently, not passive nonviolence. Saving a policeman or an enemy about to be killed. Or, as King put it quite eloquently, loving someone enough to give up your life to help them change.

Active nonviolence means living nonviolence. It does not necessarily mean not killing. In several instances Gandhi addressed the issue of life and felt that quality of life was important. For example, when animals were dying painfully in his ashram in India, he speeded their death with poison. Gandhi's views were neither simple nor rigid. He said he would have entertained the idea of doing the same with his own son.

When the Dalai Lama addressed the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago, he took the same position. He said misery and poverty in the world and quality of life should be a major concern. If birth control or other means to limit population helped improve people's lives, that was for him a universal goal.

I think it is fitting that we are discussing Gandhi on the eve of Christmas because Gandhi felt that Jesus was the most important advocate and human personification of nonviolence the world has seen. Unfortunately that part of Jesus's message has been lost among many who fight wars in God's name.