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Passage from India

How Westerners Rewrote Gandhi's Message

By Richard G. Fox | HUMANITIES, January/February 1998 | Volume 19, Number 1

Fifty years ago this January, Mahatma Gandhi was shot down in a prayer garden in New Delhi. He was seventy-nine years old, and had lived to see India win independence from Britain. His leadership of India's masses reverberated on the world stage, not least in the United States, and changed profoundly how protesters dealt with those in power.

How well his adaptors in the West understood Gandhi's message, or how faithfully they adopted his philosophy, is a matter still being debated by historians. Revolutionary ideologies cross the world in steerage or even as stowaways, passing from place to place unheeded by those in power. Only afterward, when the actions and the actors are forgotten, can they come to appear as an inevitable and obvious flow of the culture.

In the 1950s Gandhi's legacy passed to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who took up the philosophy of nonviolence in his long march for civil rights. With King came the Congress on Racial Equality and other civil rights groups, then the Berrigans, Dellinger, and anti-Vietnam activists; Cesar Chavez and his farm workers; Mitch Snyder and the homeless; and the rights advocates for ecology, animals, reproduction, and gays today.

However, what happens if we look at a time before King, and if we set aside the after-the-fact certainty that Gandhian nonviolence was inevitable? The methodology is one that Clifford Geertz calls "doing history backwards."

Gandhi and his methods were easily misinterpreted by Westerners. In order to fathom what he was about, Westerners fluctuated between hyper-difference, in which Gandhi was seen as the inexplicable product of a foreign culture; and over-likeness, in which they found similarities that were not really there. The real Gandhi lay somewhere in between.

Gandhi departed from Hindu orthodoxy in two significant ways: on nonviolence and on caste. Ahimsa, or nonviolence, maintained that all killing should be avoided to accrue spiritual merit. Gandhi, who had encounters with poisonous snakes in South Africa and rabid dogs in India, redefined the concept and mandated killing for humanitarian purposes, as in the euthanasia of rabid dogs. If some Hindus were alienated by his lack of orthodoxy on ahisma, many more fell out with him over his championing of the untouchables, the lowest of India's castes. In traditional Hindu belief, an untouchable's contact with the person, food, or drink of a member of a higher caste would defile that person. For orthodox Hindus, it was a scripturally enjoined inequality, a product of individual karma (action) and performance of dharma (dedication to a calling), and a proof of the cycle of sansar (reincarnation). Gandhi never succeeded in justifying his stance against untouchability; in the end, he simply asserted that Hinduism needed to change.

Attempting to understand Gandhi fares no better if he is misconstrued as a product of Indian asceticism. Although Gandhi followed various ascetic regimens such as brahmacharya (celibacy), his purpose was to gain the strength for successful worldly action, rather than to accumulate spiritual merit.

Just as mistakenly, Gandhian protest can take on the guise of things Westerners already know well. Attempting to see in Gandhian nonviolence a form of Christian nonresistance glosses over the activist, confrontational element in Gandhism. Gandhi wanted worldly success, the independence of India, not divine martyrdom. He made salt, he burned cloth, he led boycotts, he was thrown in prison, but he never waited around to be thrown to the lions.

The concepts of Gandhian nonviolence and pacifism are not at all close. Gandhi did not believe in turning the other cheek in every situation--evil had to be resisted, best done nonviolently, but better by violence than not at all. Passive resistance was the term that Gandhi originally used for his South African protest, but he soon disowned the term in favor of his neolocution, satyagraha or soul-force. For Gandhi, passive resistance was a weapon of the weak, used expediently, not morally, when violence was impossible or too costly. When Gandhi pondered the case of the British suffragettes and Irish Republican hunger-strikers offering passive resistance in jail, he saw an essential coercive element in the protests, which made them akin to violent resistance. Such passive resistors were perpetrating nonviolence to extract concessions from their enemies. The purpose of India's nonviolent resisters, in Gandhi's terms, was to suffer nonviolently to engender trust and respect in their opponents.

Civil disobedience against the state, and the anarchist spirit of protest it represented, was also a departure from the Gandhian concept. Civil disobedience as proposed by Thoreau and practiced by anarchists depended on individual acts. Mass action was suspect because participants might not share the same conviction or some might feel coerced into action. (The anarchist U.S. Catholic Worker movement was never reconciled to Gandhism). In Gandhian protest, civil disobedience could begin with individual acts, but only for the purpose of mobilizing mass protest. Otherwise, civil disobedience was an ego trip, not a moral action.

Gandhi's truth was not just a product of his Indian tradition; nor was he parroting methods already known in the West. It was a syncretism of Western and Indian practices that drew upon Gandhi's experiences living in England, South Africa, and India. By 1918 Gandhi had put together the three most important elements of his philosophy--namely, morally informed nonviolence, mass civil disobedience, and courageous suffering. The concept was almost as strange to Indians as it was later to Americans.

In the West, Gandhi was perceived as powerful for his ability to hold back threatened violence from the Indian masses. That power was taken as spiritual. Gandhi "suffers himself to be adored," as one New York Times commentator put it. Another commented that Gandhi's penitential fasting for political ends illustrated the "difference between East and West."

A Gandhi sanctified in this manner spoke to American social activists only as a saint--which meant that he was heard best by Christian militants, rather than by secular ones, and that his work was taken as prophecy, not politics. Even this depended on seeing Christlike qualities in Gandhi and in tailoring nonviolent resistance to Christian nonresistance and pacifism. This over- likeness grew stronger from the 1920s on as Gandhi's influence over Indian nationalism developed and as more and more American clergymen went to India to meet the Mahatma and bring his ideas home.

John Haynes Holmes, a Protestant minister, pacifist, and activist with A. J. Muste's Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) was a major agent of Western over-likeness. He began to preach a Christianized version of Gandhi and Gandhism as early as 1918 and met the Mahatma in 1931. In a 1922 sermon, Holmes said that "Gandhi is thus undertaking to do exactly what Jesus did when He proclaimed the kingdom of God on earth."

For many U.S. activists in the 1930s, even Christian ones, a Christ-like Gandhi gave no political direction. A. J. Muste remembered the period with regret: "In the thirties . . . we faced a terrible situation . . . .I did not know how to apply nonviolent methods effectively to the situation. The effort to apply Gandhian methods to American conditions had scarcely begun. Pacifism was mostly a middle-class and individualistic phenomenon." Rejecting Christ and a Christ-like Gandhi, Muste turned to Trotsky and Communism for a period.

In 1943, W.E.B. Du Bois disputed with Ralph Templin of the Harlem Ashram and the Kristagraha movement, over the worth of launching a Gandhian mass action. Du Bois argued that austerities--fasting, prayer, self-sacrifice, and personal abnegation--had been bred into "the very bone" of India for more than three thousand years, whereas a U.S. movement that embraced such tactics would be judged a joke or an insanity. "Our culture patterns in East and West differ so vastly," he contended, "that what is sense in one world may be nonsense in the other."

Templin replied that Gandhian protest took its methods from Thoreau and the American abolitionists, so it was eminently suitable to the United States.

In the fall of 1941, James Farmer began to plan a Gandhian campaign for racial equality in the United States. At that time, he worked for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Christian pacifist organization run by Muste. Farmer sent Muste a memo asking FOR to support a major effort at reforming U.S. race relations. Farmer wrote that "we must withhold our support and participation from the institution of segregation in every area of American life--not an individual witness to purity of conscience, as Thoreau used it, but a coordinated movement of mass noncooperation as with Gandhi. . . .Like Gandhi's army, it must be nonviolent . . . .Gandhi has the key for me to unlock the door to the American dream."

By that fall, Gandhian rhetoric had spread to the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) and its leader, A. Philip Randolph. Gandhian nonviolence had begun to remake existing forms of protest in the United States in its own likeness. Randolph's metamorphosis is a good example. Randolph's roots were in the labor movement, and they emphasized mass action over spirituality and passive resistance. In July 1941, Randolph had called for a mass march on Washington to convince Roosevelt of the need for antidiscrimination laws in the war industry. He exhorted his followers to concerted action, such as marches and petitions. There was no mention of Gandhi or Gandhian technique; instead, Randolph invoked earlier black leaders such as Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Harriet Tubman.

Soon after, Randolph came to a more radical consciousness and rhetoric, strongly influenced by Gandhian methods. In his September 1942 address to his March on Washington organization, Randolph spoke of a "Negro Liberation Movement," and he had Indian nationalism in mind. "Witness the strategy and maneuver of the people of India," he exhorted, ". . .mass civil disobedience and noncooperation and the marches to the sea to make salt." He called for marches, picketing, and civil disobedience-- and for the courage to accept courtroom battles and even imprisonment. By 1943, Randolph described his method as "nonviolent, good-will direct action," which he said was a modification of "the principle of nonviolent civil disobedience and noncooperation set forth by Gandhi in India."

Bayard Rustin seems to have incorporated philosophical elements of Farmer's CORE, Muste's FOR, and Randolph's MOWM. Like Muste, Rustin had renounced secular radicalism for Christian activism. On a bus trip through Tennessee, he refused to sit at the back and ended up in jail. In his article "The Negro and Nonviolence," written in October 1942, Rustin rejects what he called the "pink tea" protests of the black middle class and white intellectuals. He argued for what he called "nonviolent direct action." Rustin, the intermediary among several U.S. protest groups, was also an intermediary in his understanding of Gandhian nonviolence: he demystified it and put it into practice. He also placed something of a Christian likeness on it, which neither CORE nor MOWM did.

The initial effort to relocate Gandhian nonviolence to the United States came from Richard Gregg, a lawyer who specialized in dispute settlement on the Labor Relations Board during World War I. Gregg traveled to India and lived in Gandhi's Sbarmati ashram for several months in the mid-1920s; he returned to India as an observer during the 1930 Salt March. In Gregg's Power of Nonviolence, published in 1934, he introduced a powerful image of Gandhian protest: he called it "moral jiu-jitsu" because it used active protest and love against an opponent to throw him off-balance rather than to beat him down by violence. The martial arts image dislocated Gandhism from Indian spirituality and ascetic practice. By moral, Gregg wished to emphasize that Gandhian nonviolence was not coercive; it compelled through superior social leverage, personal dedication, and moral balance.

Gregg also began to shape Gandhian protest in the United States by emphasizing how unlike existing ones it was. He condemned American pacifists as ineffectual, selling out to the government whenever their beliefs were tested. Although Gregg minimized their otherworldly and ascetic elements, he still thought Gandhian methods depended on religion and faith.

Jay Holmes Smith, a missionary to India, also helped establish Gandhian methods through the Harlem Ashram he established in 1940. He formed the Non-Violence Direct Action Committee "to study the application of Gandhi's way to American life." Their protests against draft registration and participation in mass marches began at the same time. By later instigating nonviolent resistance he also used the ashram as a staging ground for such protests against discriminatory hiring by Harlem businesses. Smith's application of Gandhism was confrontational and, in practice, as subordinated spiritual merit to secular action.

Moral jiu-jitsu and Kristagraha, or Christ-force movement, still conserved many notions of "Oriental" self- discipline or, alternatively, Christ-like understandings. When James Farmer left Chicago in 1943 and went to New York, he initially stayed in the Harlem Ashram but was soon put off by the voluntary poverty and renunciation. Farmer says he was "not one for asceticism," and the final step in dislocating Gandhian nonviolence was to remove the fasting and personal austerities. The faith in it had to be made a secular and political, not religious, one.

To do so required relocating Gandhism even more outside Orientalism and even further from existing Christian protest methods. The moving force turned out to be Krishnalal Shridharani, who acted with profound albeit brief influence on would-be Gandhian activists in the United States. Self-exiled from India in 1934, a Gandhian nationalist from childhood, poet and playwright in his native Gujarati language, Shridharani completed a Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia University with a dissertation on Gandhian nonviolence and its application to the United States. It was published in 1939.

Shridharani defined Gandhian nonviolence as distinct from passive resistance, nonresistance, pacifism, and conscientious objection. Harshly condemning American pacifists for their lack of any activist program, he accused them of "religious appeasement." In Shridharani's view, nonviolent resistance was basically a secular technique and the religious trappings were mainly there to satisfy Gandhi. The irony of Shridharani's de- Orientalizing was obvious to one reviewer: "we are confronted with the curious anomaly of having to learn from a follower of Gandhi . . . that American pacifism is too `unworldly' and `essentially religious and mystical.'"

Shridharani made the rounds of American protest organizations. In 1943, he spoke in Chicago to James Farmer and thirty others involved with CORE. A.J. Muste also convened a meeting with him and American activists, and he advised a nonviolent direct action in Pennsylvania.

Farmer was surprised at Shridharani's dapper appearance and the cigars he smoked. Shridharani dispelled stereotypes about Indian abnegation at the same time he asserted his comfort with Western forms of pleasure.

Richard Gregg and Jay Holmes Smith also had uncommon lives. Both were self-exiles. Gregg went to India to find new ways of managing disputes and returned with an empowering Gandhism. Smith's original Christian mission to India radicalized him, and when he was exiled from that mission and forced to go home to the United States, he returned filled with a Gandhian Christ-force that had no place in his church but was to have a future place in U.S. social protest. Dislocation and relocation in terms of Gandhian nonviolent resistance echoed their own dislocation and relocation. That was true of Gandhi, also. On the path to satayagraha, he wore top hats in England, then the turban of an indentured laborer in South Africa, until finally, he bared his head in India.

About the Author

This article is adapted from a chapter in Between Resistance and Revolution, edited by Richard G. Fox and Orin Starn, ©1997 by Rutgers, the State University. Reprinted by permission.