This month marks the 150th birthday of Mohandas K. Gandhi. People revere Gandhi as a Mahatma, which means “great soul.” At Fresno State, we celebrated Gandhi’s birthday with speeches by luminaries such as James Lawson, Dolores Huerta, and Gandhi’s granddaughter, Ela Gandhi.
One might wonder what Gandhi has to do with America in the 21st century. Well Gandhi’s ideas have roots in the American tradition. He was fond of Emerson and Thoreau. He influenced the American nonviolent liberation movement of the 1960s. And he offered critical insight on issues that continue to concern Americans.
In the popular imagination Gandhi has merged with Yoda. We picture him as a peaceful old sage, smiling benevolently. Gandhi is quoted on bumper stickers. Among the most famous is, “Be the change you’d like to see in the world.” Gandhi didn’t say those exact words. But bumper sticker Gandhi is useful. It is helpful to be reminded to be kind and peaceful.
But Gandhi should not be defanged. Yes, he valued peace and nonviolence. But Gandhi worked actively in opposition to injustice. He marched. He fasted. He broke the law. And he was assassinated. His revolution against Britain’s colonial power inspired anti-colonial activism across the globe.
Gandhi was also sharply critical of America. He had American friends and supporters. But he was appalled by America’s treatment of nonwhite people. He also criticized American militarism. He thought that the American innovation of the atomic bomb was disastrous. In 1946, he said, “The atom bomb brought an empty victory” since it was a weapon of unlimited violence.
Gandhi also said that American materialism was corrupting the American soul. He called this “Mammon-worship,” saying that America would have a “dismal future if it swears by Mammon.” In 1947 Gandhi said, “If America does not put its affluence to good use, its very affluence will ruin it.”
This critique was taken up by Martin Luther King who condemned the three evils of racism, poverty, and war. The Rev. James Lawson, who studied Gandhian nonviolence in India before he joined King’s movement, has recently added a fourth evil to the list: sexism.
Like every other great person in history, Gandhi remains controversial. Among the most important questions is whether nonviolence is really effective. Can nonviolence really produce a better world? Gandhi said yes. He thought that nonviolent action was the key to social progress.
A central idea for Gandhi is the need to unite means and ends. If we want to build peace, we must use peaceful tools. The way to create a world of justice is through just and loving means. Intolerance is cured by teaching toleration. These are nice ideas. But critics will say that Gandhi’s vision is naïve, absurd, and even dangerous.
So-called “realists” will argue that, in the real world, nonviolence will get you killed. The realist sees violence as a fundamental part of reality. The realist will say that the dream of love and harmony ignores the nightmare of injustice and oppression. And he will argue that violence and war can be used to create peace and justice.
You don’t have to look far to see that the real world is lacking in peace, love, and harmony. Our democracy is increasingly polarized. Racism, sexism, and intolerance continue to exist. Terrorists attack. Wars break out. And nuclear weapons continue to pose an existential threat. All of this can lead to despair. The hope for peace, love, and justice seems absurd in a world of violence, hate, and oppression.
But hope is essential for Gandhi, along with faith in the power of nonviolence. Social change is slow. But the commitment to nonviolence aims at the long run. King said, “we must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
James Lawson has described those who imagine a better world as “citizens of a country that does not yet exist.” This helps explain Gandhi’s approach. To “be the change you want to see,” as the saying goes, is to live as if the world has already changed. As Gandhi himself put it, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” The Mahatma reminds us that to change the world, you must enlarge your own soul.