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Myth and Mahatma

The biggest myth about non-violent action is the idea that Gandhi invented it and he is often called ‘the father non-violence’. Well, he did raise ahimsa action to a level never achieved before him, but he was not its author or inventor

JAYDEV JANA | New Delhi |

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the term myth as “fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomenon.” Mahatma Gandhi was an exceptional mythology man, terribly intelligent, with tremendous intuition for people, and a great instinct for what was right. He generated stories wherever he went; his arrival at a place was preceded by stories; and invariably, he left behind many more when he departed. There were many comple things that the anecdotes conveyed. When the stories reached the people’s ears, they got mutated into something more magical. These mutations have not stopped even in the sesquicentenary year of his birth. However, a perpetual mythmaking took place during his lifetime. This made the Mahatma more fascinating than Gandhi, the actual historical figure.

There are many myths about Mahatma Gandhi. Only a few of them would be mentioned here.

Myth One: One of the most common and dangerous myths about Gandhi is that he was a saint. He was also endowed with the title the Mahatma (means ‘Great Soul’). People called him saint since he was considered as a master of meditation. But indeed, there was hardly anything to call him the master of meditation or that he meditated at all ~ aside from observing a minute of silence at the beginning of his prayer meetings. Gandhi even objected when people called him ‘a saint trying to be a politician.’ He said he was instead ‘a politician trying to be a saint.’ Gandhi recognized the supremacy of politics by suggesting that if moral politics is not the basis of society, pure power politics will be the determining force. Indeed, this is what has happened now to the politics of this country. In his Autobiography entitled The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi wrote: “My experiments in the political field that are now known, not only to India, but to a certain extent to the ‘civilized’ world. For me, they have not much value; and the title of ‘Mahatma’ that they have won for me has, therefore, even less. Often the title has deeply pained me; and there is not a moment I can recall when it may be said to have tickled me.”

Myth Two: Most of the myths and misconceptions surrounding Gandhi have to do with non-violence (Ahimsa). The biggest myth about non-violent action is the idea that Gandhi invented it and he is often called ‘the father nonviolence’. Well, he did raise ahimsa action to a level never achieved before him, but he was not its author or inventor. Ahimsa has been part of the Indian religious tradition for centuries ~ Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist. Gandhi took the religious principles of ahimsa common to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism and turned it into a non-violent tool ( ‘Satyagraha’ which means Truth-Force) for mass action. He used it to fight not only colonial rule but social evils such as racial discrimination and untouchability as well. Gandhi said that he had an innate and natural attraction for truth from his early years, but ahimsa was not an innate trait for him. It was in the pursuit of truth that he discovered ahimsa. His ideas on ahimsa were born later, during the most difficult crises and conflicts of his life. Sharp of Harvard University in his book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, cited over 200 cases of mass nonviolent struggle throughout history. Curiously, some of the best earlier examples come from the US, in the years leading up to the American Revolution.

Myth Three: Another myth about Gandhi is the idea that India’s political leaders, especially leaders of Indian National Congress (INC) beginning with Nehru, are the inheritors of his tradition and have carried it on. But really, India’s leaders have rejected much more of Gandhi than they have adopted. Gandhi began his political career in India by joining INC, instead of trying to build up new institutions for the fulfillment of his aims and objectives. The objective, which he set before himself, was to organize people collectively in terms of non-violence.

But how the INC viewed Gandhi’s non-violence is revealed from a statement of the then Congress president Abul Kalam Azad: “Mahatma Gandhi has to give the message of non-violence to the world and, therefore, it is his duty to propagate it; but we have to consider our position as the representatives of the INC. The INC is a political organization pledged to win the political independence of the country. It is not an institution for organizing world peace.” On 29 January 1948, the day before his assassination, he advised the INC to go into voluntary liquidation, form the Lok Sevak Sangh and devote themselves wholly to the education and organization of the masses for Swaraj. But the top leaders of the party were so enamoured of power that they gradually isolated Gandhi who lamented, “I am a spent force.”

Myth Four: One of the most common myths is that Gandhi put in efforts, out of all proportion, to appease Muslims and the belligerence of Muslims was the result such appeasement. The allegation is far from true. During the fiftieth anniversary of 1857, way back in 1907 in England, Vir Savarkar had described the Mahommedans in India as one of the hues of the rainbow. By the Lucknow Pact in 1916 the Muslims were given greater measure of representation in proportion to their population. Gandhi had indeed arrived from South Africa, but he had no share in the Lucknow negotiation. Because he was then a new entrant in the public life of the country. However, sagacious leaders like BG Tilak, Annie Besant and Mohammed Ali Jinnah justified the pact. Even Dr Shyamaprasad Mookherjee, after quitting the first Cabinet of Ministers of the first independent Government, did not return to the Hindu Mahasabha, for he thought it improper on the part of any political party not to accommodate Muslims and other communities. Subhash Chandra Bose, too, complained against the inadequate representation of Muslims in the INC. It is quite clear that it was not Gandhi alone who persevered in his efforts to take Muslims along. Other leaders, including the Hinduists, were working towards it. So, how could Gandhi alone be accused of appeasement?

Myth Five: Gandhi has been labelled as anti-science by a large section of intelligentsia. It is often assumed that he was against the use of machinery as such, in agriculture as well as in industry. This is an erroneous notion and has caused unnecessary misgivings about Gandhi’s economic thought. He did not reject modern science. He would “welcome the machine that lightens the burden of crores of men living in cottages.” What he was really against was ‘the craze for machinery’ and ‘ its indiscriminate multiplication.’ In his words, “Mechanization is good, when the hands are too few for the work intended to be accomplished. It is an evil when there are more hands than required for the work, as is the case in India.”

Myth Six: It is widely held that Gandhi was responsible for the creation of Pakistan. But close scrutiny of pages of history of the period prove it to be a clever distortion to misguide the gullible. Lord Wavell, the then Viceroy, invited Gandhi and Jinnah for negotiations. Abul Kalam Azad represented INC. The INC had not subscribed to the two-nation or two-community theory. The question of Gandhi ever conceding it does not arise. He had gone to the extent of saying that that partition could take place only over his dead body. But Jinnah had succeeded in poisoning the minds of a big chunk of Muslims in India. There was a patent hazard. If the political parties failed to arrive at an agreement at the national level, British would exploit the situation and evade independence of India under one pretext or another. Mountbatten announced his plan to quit, leaving India in the lurch.

However, on the morning of 3 June 1947, the day the partition plan was announced, Gandhi had serious doubts pertaining to the wisdom of the decision. He told Rajendra Prasad, “I can see only evil in the plan.” In utter frustration he started to speak in an anguished idiom: ‘O God, please take me away!’. He was completely frustrated and broken down. Questions are often raised as to why Gandhi did not resort to a fasting to protest the partition of India. He did not do that simply because partition itself was not the root of the problem.Gandhi once said about himself, “I have been known as a crank, faddist, madman. Evidently the reputation is well deserved. For, wherever I go, I draw to myself cranks, faddists, and madman.” Indeed, Gandhi was a fascinating person. Whether one loves him or hates him or reveres him or studies him, there is no denying that he was one of the most gripping and interesting characters in the history of the last century.Throughout history myths have been used by people all over the world to inspire and draw others into action. Just like we have used Gandhi as the poster boy today to drill in the idea of Swachcha Bharat – Gandhi also turned to popular characters from Indian mythology and narrative whether he needed a poster boy to further his idea of nationalism and independence. Whether we like it or not, a mythological personality matters!