By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. While Mahatma Gandhi may not have been born ‘great’ in the sense that he was not of princely family, but his father was the Diwan or Chief Minister of Porbandar, which certainly gave Gandhi a leg up, throwing open opportunities for him, most notably, the chance to go for bar studies to England. He achieved greatness to such unimaginable extent that thrusting greatness upon him became redundant. Even so, India thrust greatness on him by calling him Bapu – Father of the Nation, with some awarding him a divine status as a Great Soul (Mahatma).
In contrast, consider one such as George Floyd whose course of life as only partially lived and known could not be deemed exceptional or great. Yet, greatness was thrust upon him by the accident of his brutal avoidable death at the knee of a rogue cop. The unfairness and savagery of his death undoubtedly caused a near global upheaval and stirred the nation’s and humanity’s conscience over the persistence of injustice and racism. In response, as rage spread over racial injustice provoking widespread protests in support of Black Lives Matter (BLM) across America, other forces took over, altering initially peaceful into destructive violent protest. Ironically, some of the same protesters who arose from the ashes of the unjust death of Floyd went on to unjustly topple and vandalize (spray painting with profanities) national iconic statues including the one commemorating Gandhi located in Washington D.C.
Today in his hometown, as approval has come for a street to be re-named after Floyd to commemorate him, there is an obligation to distinguish between achieved and imposed greatness, and between deserved and undeserved attribution of martyrdom.
Gandhi’s life is an open book and the trajectory of his evolution from an anglicized and anglophile toady to a proud Indian and a transformative force in India’s struggle for independence is too well known to bear repetition. Those to walk the earth such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr are few and far between. The similarities between them are hard to miss. They were spiritual without being bigoted, warriors without being violent, and stubbornly principled yet open-minded and flexible. In their personal lives, they made daring extramarital choices and sexual experiments that would bury most others, but remained mere blips on their biographic profiles. King adopted Gandhi’s successfully tested weapon of peaceful protest and, like Gandhi, led his people out of psychological darkness of enslavement. That both Gandhi and King lost their lives to an assassin’s bullet remains the ultimate irony of their lives.
On October 2, as we celebrate Gandhi’s 151st birth anniversary (1869), the message of non-violence and peaceful protest seems to have washed away. In the current “Woke” age where America’s past heroes are being torn to shreds, and extremist groups on right and left claim only their understanding and interpretation of our past are correct, and new heroes can only be of one color, Gandhi’s stature seems also to be gravely threatened and diminished. Black Lives Matter and its surrogate groups deem Gandhi racist because he was dismissive of blacks in Africa and considered them inferior. In India too, deriding and dehumanizing Gandhi has been a favorite pastime.
But it is precisely in corrosive times like these that one needs to clear one’s eyes and consider the times in which our past heroes grew and how in their own courageous way they tried to alter reality to serve a higher number and a nobler purpose. For those willing to separate the grain from the chaff – and willing to revisit and learn from but not rewrite history – two assessments of what Gandhi meant are worth recalling. “In a harsh, cynical, violent and material world,” writes one of the best-known authors and Gandhi biographer William Shirer, “he taught and showed that love and truth and non-violence, ideas and ideals, could be of tremendous force – greater sometimes than guns and bombs and bayonets – in achieving a little justice, decency, peace and freedom for the vast masses of suffering, downtrodden men and women who eke out an existence on this inhospitable planet.”
Not satisfied, Shirer ropes in strong testimony from another observer of world events – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, a Nobel laureate in Medicine. In his book – ‘The Crazy Ape’ – the laureate wrote:
“Between the two world wars, at the heyday of Colonialism, force reigned supreme. It had a suggestive power, and it was natural for the weaker to lie down before the stronger. Then came Gandhi, chasing out of his country, almost single-handed, the greatest military power on earth. He taught the world that there are higher things than force, higher even than life itself; he proved that force had lost its suggestive power.”
Today, as America anguishes over the meaning of liberty for all, and the disenchanted increasingly appear to take to the streets and slash and burn or cancel out whatever dares to stand in their way, Gandhi and his American soul-brother Martin Luther King need to be re-called and their message and example better appreciated and imbibed.
Ms. Sohoni is a freelance writer and published author.