30 January marks the death of Mahatma Gandhi. At a time when in India, there is a strong current of narrow Hindu thought with political consequences, it is useful to reflect on some of the sources of Gandhi’s thought leading to nonviolent action. Gandhi drew on a variety of thinkers to develop his approach to nonviolence: the Jain convictions of his mother, the later writings of Leo Tolstoy, Edwin Arnold, author of a verse biography of the Buddha The Light of Asia whom Gandhi knew when he was a law student in London, and the writings of the American New Thought writer Ralph Waldo Trune.
When Gandhi returned to India from his work in South Africa in January 1915, he was known among the political elite of India for his South African campaigns, but he was not part of any existing Indian organization and had no political base of his own. He was confronted with three basic facts of life: First, the world was at war and English troops were heavily engaged.
Secondly, the British administration in India (which also governed what is now Burma) decision-making was done from Calcutta. The Indian Civil Service was preoccupied with stability and not with the nature of colonial decentralization. A fairly liberal Indian Council Act of 1909 had given some aspects of representative government at the level of provincial governments and most British administrators thought that this was “going far enough for the moment.”
Thirdly, the one major Indian national political movement, the Indian National Congress, founded in 1885 by the English Theosophist, A.O. Hume, former a high administrator who died in 1915 just as Gandhi returned, was made up of elite, educated Indians such as its later President of Congress, Motilal Nehru, father of Jawaharlal Nehru but with little impact among the Indian masses.
As in South Africa, with Tolstoy Farm, Gandhi began his work in India with the creation of an ashram, a small intimate community in which life could be disciplined both on a spiritual and a physical level. Some of the members of the ashram were relatives and others had been with Gandhi in South Africa. Life consisted of a routine of prayer with reading of scriptures of different faiths, singing and talks, of manual labour, of social service to nearby villages and training in non-violence. Ashrams are part of religious life in India, but it must be noted that none of the Hindu religious leaders who had their own ashrams joined Gandhi’s non-violent efforts, nor invited Gandhi to join them. Gandhi became a Mahatma — a great soul — to ordinary Indians and to Indian intellectuals such as Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first to publicly use the term, but not to Hindu religious leaders.
At the ashram, Gandhi steadily Hinduized his public persona and his manner of life. He quoted from Hindu religious-political reformers such as the founder of the Arya Samaj, Dayanand Saraswati (1824 -1883) and the Bengali reformer Vivekananda (1863-1902) who was one of the first Indian religious leaders to go to the USA. Gandhi spent nearly 15 years in preparation for the March 1930 Salt March, Gandhi’s first large public nonviolent effort in India, in training his close followers, in developing contacts throughout the country and in trying to understand the issues which would move people to action.
It is from his Satyagraha Ashram that Gandhi at sixty-one years of age set out for the Salt March, early morning of 1 March after a long evening prayer meeting at which some 2000 people participated. Gandhi closed by saying to his band of 79 marchers, “I have faith in our cause and the purity of our weapons… God bless you all and keep off all obstacles from the path in the struggle that begins tomorrow. Let this be out prayer.”
Gandhi had been for some months before March thinking about what issue he could select around which to organize a campaign of non-violence that would have national significance, would be meaningful to many Indians and send a strong signal to the British administrators that their rule would no longer be tolerated. The decision-making body of the Congress Party with which Gandhi had an on-again-off-again relationship called the “Working Group” had met for a week over New Year’s Day, 1930. Gandhi drew up a grab bag of eleven demands around which he thought that Congress could organize non-violent campaigns. The first was the total prohibition of making and drinking alcohol and the eleventh was that Indians should be able to buy fire arms, there being a total prohibition on the sale of fire arms. Among the eleven demands was the abolition of the Salt Tax. The Working Group thought that the non-payment of taxes could be done without violence but had no idea as to how to carry this out in a dramatic way. Gandhi returned to his ashram and kept largely to himself in meditation. Then, as Gandhi later wrote, the answer came to him “like a flash”.
The importance of intuition — of ideas that come as a flash once the form has been created in another dimension — came to Gandhi largely through the writings of the American New Thought writer Ralph Waldo Trine (1866-1958). His parents were from New England and named him after Emerson.
Kathryn Tidrich has written an interesting biography of Mahatma Gandhi: Gandhi: A Political and Spiritual Life (London: I.B.Tauris, 2006, 380pp.). Tidrich puts the accent on the spiritual and intellectual contacts that Gandhi had when a law student in London and in his years as a lawyer and non-violent activist in South Africa. She highlights the friendship with Edward Maitland and Gandhi’s connections with the Esoteric Christian Union founded by Anna Kingsford and Maitland in 1891. It is probably Maitland who introduced Gandhi to the writings of Ralph Waldo Trine.
It is from Trine’s writings that Gandhi received the term “soul power or soul force “ – the term Gandhi used as a translation into English of his Indian term satyagraha. Satyagraha is more often translated today by the term nonviolence, but there was already in use in India the term ahimsa— a meaning non and hinsa, violence. Gandhi wanted another term that was more active, and he took from Trine the term soul force.
As Kathryn Tidrich notes “All Trine’s books contained the same message: spiritual power – also termed ‘thought power’ and ‘soul power’ – could be acquired by making oneself one with God, who was immanent, through love and service to one’s fellow men …The Christ he followed was one familiar to Gandhi — the supreme spiritual exemplar who showed men the way to union with the divine essence. Trine promised that the true seeker, fearless and forgetful of self-interest, will be so filled with the power of God working through him that ‘as he goes here and there, he can continually send out influences of the most potent and powerful nature that will reach the uttermost parts of the world.”
Gandhi seems to have remained interested in Trine. He read his My Philosophy and My Religion (1921) in Yeravda jail in 1923, and in 1933, as he recovered from his 21-day fast for self-purification, he observed that the fast had sprung from ‘a yearning of the soul to merge in the divine essence. How far I have succeeded, how far I am in tune with the Infinite, I do not know.’ In Tune with the Infinite was the title of Trine’s best known book. In Tune With the Infinite or Fullness of Peace, Power, and Plenty (New York: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1899, 175pp.)
For Trine, thought was the way that a person came into tune with the Infinite. “Each is building his own world. We both build from within and we attract from without. Thought is the force with which we build, for thoughts are forces. Like builds like and like attracts like. In the degree that thought is spiritualized does it become more subtle and powerful in its workings. This spiritualizing is in accordance with law and is within the power of all.
“Everything is first worked out in the unseen before it is manifested in the seen, in the ideal before it is realized in the real, in the spiritual before it shows forth in the material. The realm of the unseen is the realm of cause. The realm of the seen is the realm of effect. The nature of effect is always determined and conditioned by the nature of its cause.
“The great central fact in human life is coming into a conscious vital realization of our oneness with this infinite Life, and the opening of ourselves fully to this divine inflow. In just the degree that we come into a conscious realization of our oneness with the Infinite Life, and open ourselves to this divine inflow, do we actualize in ourselves the qualities and powers of the Infinite Life, do we make ourselves channels through which the Infinite Intelligence and Power can work. In just the degree in which you realize your oneness with the Infinite Spirit, you will exchange disease for ease, inharmony for harmony, suffering and pain for abounding health and strength.”
For Gandhi, the Salt Tax, because unjust and touching especially the poor, had already been abolished within what Trine called “the realm of cause”. Gandhi had the intuition to see that salt was then freely available for all who would take it from the sea of life (either the actual sea or from rock salt on land). Into the realm of effect one had to walk to manifest this change, and so the march to the Dandi beach on the Gulf of Camby began.