Lives Well Lived

3. Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)

Very few people on this list of well-lived lives spent as much time thinking about how to live a ‘well-lived life’ as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.  He examined every aspect of life—large and small—from hygiene to religion to the food he ate to sexual conduct to how he should treat his fellow man to how he should clothe himself to how a government should lead its citizens. Gandhi plumbed the depths; his attention was never cursory or thoughtless. He dove deep, and the intensity of his gaze is admirable—too few of us turn a critical lens on the decisions that make up our days, and therefore our lives.

Gandhi lived according to his teachings, without hypocrisy. He told one journalist, “My life is my message”, and it was. He was a deep believer in “ahimsa”, the principle that we should do no harm to any living thing. (Indeed, Gandhi said, “There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for.”) He was a committed vegetarian, since if you eat meat you necessarily cause animals harm. He was a pacifist, and when he led activists in both South Africa and India he insisted that they follow his path of non-violence. Gandhi considered himself no better than the poor and underprivileged he struggled for, so he chose to live like them, often in tiny villages in spare homes. He cleaned his own toilet and performed other basic household chores because he believed all work was meaningful and of equal value. When he wanted to boycott British goods, he invented a simple, portable spinning wheel to make his own clothing. His dress was always identifiable for its homespun simplicity—he intentionally dressed like this even while travelling in Europe (much to Winston Churchill’s disgust)—because materialism held no value for him. Gandhi examined every aspect of life, decided on the most meaningful, compassionate path, and then walked in that direction. The connection between what we believe and how we live was vital to him. He said, “We need to be the change we want to see in the world.”

It required tremendous bravery for Gandhi to be the change he wanted to see. He woke up each morning prepared to suffer, starve and even die for his beliefs. He was beaten and arrested multiple times in both India and South Africa. He was regularly mocked and shunned for the unpopular stances he took. He abstained from eating for long periods, using hunger strikes as a form of political protest; he refused to eat until either his death or his demands were met. In 1924, he refused to eat for three weeks to bring together Hindu and Muslim factions within the Indian National Congress. He conducted fasts in 1932 and 1933 to fight for equal rights for the “untouchables” of Indian society. He was assassinated in 1948, but there were numerous attempts before that; his life was constantly at risk. Gandhi must have been scared every day, but he refused to let his fear stop him. As Nelson Mandela, one of the many leaders inspired by Gandhi, later said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Once Gandhi decided his path was correct, he refused to change his mind. He was deeply stubborn, a trait that made him difficult to live with at times. He held himself to an exacting standard and he expected his wife, children and close advisors to do the same. His commitment to a cause was absolute. When, during one of his later fasts, it appeared that he might die before peace was reached between the Muslims and Hindus, Jawaharlal Nehru and his wife begged him to eat—just a tiny amount that no one need know about, just enough to save him—but he refused. He knew that if he died, his influence would grow even stronger. Either peace would be reached soon, and he would end his fast, or he would die, and peace would likely be reached because of his death. His vision was cloudless; he refused to step off his path no matter what the personal cost.

Mohandas Gandhi provides the perfect example of how to slay a Goliath. He took on the unprecedented might of the British Empire—which at its height was the largest empire in history and held sway over a quarter of the world’s population—and won. Perhaps most amazingly, he won without raising a fist in anger; he achieved his goal with words and leadership and non-violent protest. He dismantled the empire, and its influence, piece by piece. In 1930, Gandhi took on the nationally despised British Salt Tax by announcing that he was going to make his own salt, and invited all Indians to join him. The British made fun of Gandhi’s plan, at first. They watched as he marched from Ahmedabad to the seaside in Dandi, Gujarat. His march lasted a total of two hundred and forty-one miles, and thousands of Indians joined Gandhi along the way. Every newspaper in India was riveted by the story. When Gandhi reached the beach, he set about making salt with his countrymen, and the British went wild with anger. They imprisoned Gandhi immediately, but Gandhi’s followers, inspired, vowed to continue the fight without their leader.

According to Gandhi’s plan, they conducted a non-violent raid of the Dharasana Salt Works. A seventy-six-year-old retired judge led the march beside Gandhi’s wife. When the judge and Kasturbai were arrested en route, new leaders took their places. When the protesters reached the factory gate, the first man was beaten by the British guard until he dropped. The next man stepped forward, and he was beaten too. When the injured protesters were able to stand, they rejoined the line. Gandhi’s followers continued to receive blows with their hands at their sides. An American journalist cabled the story to his newspaper—describing the protesters as going “down like ten-pins”—and news of the scene spread around the globe. This was the key turning point in the Indian struggle for independence, as the British lost all moral credibility in the eyes of the world—you can’t enact one-sided violence against peaceful protesters without your support draining away like the blood you spill. This was Gandhi’s gamble, and he was right. As he famously explained: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

By upending the mighty empire, Gandhi achieved a goal that appeared, from any perspective, to be impossible. He achieved the impossible. Nelson Mandela, César Chávez, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Ky and countless other peaceful activists have claimed Gandhi as their inspiration. Reverend King said, “Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics.” Gandhi’s disciples have continued his work of shining light into the dark corners of humanity. They have fought for human rights and dispelled apartheid, poverty, racism and facism. The truth is that Gandhi’s example should both inspire and chide us all. It should land us on our feet, our own individual lights pointed toward the darkness. After all, if a skinny man in a homespun toga was able to bring down the British Empire, then what excuse do we have?

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