I enjoyed the opening installment of the program on Gandhi, currently showing on the ABC Monday’s at 7.30pm. It traced his roots to his birth town in India and looked at the early influences on his life. There is a tendency in us all, I think, to see great historical figures as ready-made and cardboard cut-outs, rather than the deeply complex individuals they were. In fact, I posit, the same is true of us all – we are all far more complex than we are seen and considered by our friends and networks of acquaintances to be.
I wonder if this tendency is due to the design of our brains and how we think. The fact that we can only hold about a six or seven thoughts in our conscious brain at any one time, before needing to delve into memories stored in another part of the brain. Perhaps we hold a single over-riding impression of someone, like a main categorisation, and below this lesser details are listed in other thoughts and memories. If that person was an intimate – a partner, parent or child – then we would readily augment our basic definition with subtler complexities. If, however, they were someone outside of our inner circle we would generally not bother with such shades and colouring of character.
Gandhi’s early life was influenced by Jainism, a religious sect predating Buddhism by 500 years. In particular the seeds of non-violence were sown through his exposure to his mother’s Jain proclivities. Osho or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was also raised in the Jain tradition. The program stressed that Gandhi was initially resistant to the strict religious expectations within his family home life and that he rebelled by eating meat, drinking wine and having sex. So the great soul was not born already formed but developed slowly from his unfolding life experiences. There is a lesson here for all of us and in particular our expectations upon our children.
Indeed Gandhi’s commitment to vegetarianism came to fruition, during his time in England, where he was studying law. He was exposed to a rich vein of social and spiritual practices in the great city of London, where he met many influential people. Gandhi became acquainted with Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophists and greatly admired their appreciation of the rich diversity of religions and spiritual approaches. He was very young, and I would imagine impressionable, as we all are in our youth, during his time in the capital of the British Empire.
Upon his return, as a newly qualified barrister, to India and his home town of Porbandar, Mohandas Gandhi received a number of powerful blows to his self-esteem. Firstly the news of his mother’s death was deeply effecting, and then an attempt to establish a legal practice in what was then Bombay failed. This was then compounded, when whilst defending one of his brothers, he was officially stymied by a British officer and refused any legal status in the matter. His career in a becalmed state in India, Gandhi then accepted a post in South Africa.
It is here that most of us are more familiar with his story, from the Richard Attenborough movie of Gandhi’s life. The ABC program points out a seminal moment in Gandhi’s time in South Africa, when he has been ejected from a train after purchasing a first class ticket – after refusing to move into the third class carriage. Sitting in the station where he was put off, he spends a cold night in serious contemplation about his life’s purpose and comes to a powerful decision to combat racism. Over the next twenty years Gandhi develops his core ideas that become Satyagraha (devotion to truth) through non-violent means and the program points out that this was also influenced by his reading and contact with Islam – in that it was his Jihad or divine struggle.
The next installment will focus on Gandhi’s return to India and promises to enlighten us further to the reality of his experience, in contrast to the Hollywood movie version – which portrays his almost immediate elevation to the leadership of the Indian resistance movement. It is always wonderful to be reminded of the complexities of reality and to remember the light and shade in every bodies lives. Groups and influential individuals are always appropriating segments from the lives of people like Gandhi and then promoting these aspects alone to help their own causes, conveniently leaving out any conflicting realities. For example the Hindu’s, who cast Gandhi out for leaving India for England, then later claim him as their Mahatma. Gandhi was a man – a human being – as we are all human beings.