You have probably seen pictures of the man from India known as "Gandhi:" a skinny, bald-headed man with wire-rimmed glasses, a white cloth wrapped around him. Gandhi made history by practicing nonviolence as a way to confront power. Nonviolent "civil disobedience" is a way for oppressed people to defy their oppressors—and not lose their integrity in the process. It sends the following message to the world: "Look at our truth. We are human beings with dignity and worth. Our oppressors may use violence, but we will not sink to that level."
Mohandas Gandhi was not always that man dressed simply in white cloth. As a law student in London and as a lawyer with a successful practice in South Africa, he dressed up in European clothes because he thought it would improve his status, and the status of all Indians. He encouraged Indians to fight for Britain in World War I for the same reason. At the time, India and South Africa were part of the British Empire. Indians in those countries were ruled by a white colonial government, and had very few rights.
So, who was the true Gandhi? The man in the suit and tie, who promoted military service or the avatar of nonviolence who wore hand-woven cloth and sandals—even when meeting with high officials in foreign lands? Gandhi would have a ready answer. He once wrote, "What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of truth, my god, from moment to moment, no matter how inconsistent it may appear. My commitment is to truth, not to consistency." But he had to experiment to know what Truth was for him—at each moment of his life. In fact, his autobiography is titled The Story of My Experiments with Truth.
Here is an example of Gandhi's "experiments," from his childhood. He was raised to be a vegetarian; it was part of his parents' Hindu religion. However, a friend suggested that eating meat would make him strong—and to get strong that way was patriotic. His friend argued that India would never be independent of colonial rule if its people didn't eat meat. Gandhi saw merit in the argument and tried meat. But he felt shame when he returned home. He saw that the truth of his loyalty to his parents was stronger than his friend's truth. Young Gandhi swore to never eat meat again, as long as his parents lived.
Later, he found another truth: the principle of ahimsa that motivated his parents' Hindu practice. This principle rejects any kind of violence to any other living thing. Vegetarianism became Gandhi's own moral choice.
Gandhi was an endless seeker after truth, and approached the task humbly. When Christians sought to convert him, he did not dismiss them; instead he listened and learned about Jesus. He read the Gospels. He monitored his impressions throughout, using his inner light to sort Truth from mere religion. He read about Buddha and Muhammad as well as Jesus. When he began to investigate Hinduism through books, Gandhi began to more deeply appreciate parts of his native religion. However, some aspects appalled him, such as the slaughter of lambs he witnessed at a temple of the Hindu goddess Kali.
Other books affected him deeply. Unto This Last, a book by the British author John Ruskin, led Gandhi down the path of simplicity. He saw the practical virtue of simplicity for his people. For instance, if Indians learned how to weave their own cloth, they would not have to buy British factory-made clothes. They could increase their economic independence by making the cloth themselves.
The important thing to Gandhi was not just to hold a truth as if it were a possession. It was to put truths into practice, literally "try them on" for size. Not only did he wear homemade cloth, he took a spinning wheel with him wherever he went so that he himself could practice what he preached. He embodied the message of nonviolence to such a degree that riots would stop wherever he showed up—no small thing in a country that was both struggling for independence from Britain and painfully divided between Hindus and Muslims.
Throughout his life, Gandhi influenced millions of oppressed people to stand up for their rights. In South Africa, he united Indians in struggles against racist laws intended to keep them subordinate to whites. In India, he won independence from Britain—without having to fight a war! Gandhi's strength lay in the power of his example—an example of commitment to finding and practicing Truth.
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