How Gandhi Became 'Mahatma'

M K Gandhi’s inspired struggle for Indian independence against British Colonisation turned him into a global icon for peaceful resistance. 

On his 149th birth anniversary, we attempt to understand the universal reverence for Gandhi. With the help of articles from the EPW archives, we look at the origins of Gandhian ideas, the roots of his philosophy, and his contemporary representation.


1. What is Truly Gandhian, and What Has Been Stolen?

Image Courtesy: Flickr/Public domain


The title “Mahatma” was often attributed to many benefactors of society. However, it is now exclusively the domain of M K Gandhi. As Sumanyu Satpathy explains in this 2014 article, practices we today associate as “Gandhian” were in fact in existence for years prior to Gandhi’s appearance in the national consciousness. Khadi cloth and the charkha, for example, were advocated by Swadeshi activists long before Gandhi adopted them. While Gandhi turned the charkha into a national symbol, it never returned to being the household staple it was meant to be. 

Looking at Swadeshi advocates prior to Gandhi, Satpathy presents a contrast between Odia author Fakir Mohan Senapati and Gandhi, stating that Fakir Mohan’s approach to self-sustenance was pragmatic while the latter’s existed only in theory, and came about by his need to re-identify himself as Indian after his return from South Africa. 

Fakir Mohan goes beyond the swadeshi call for the boycott of British goods, and pleads for the discarding of all foreign clothes. Not until much later, was Gandhi to distinguish between the position of the earlier swadeshi movement and his own…  the second point that Fakir Mohan makes in his essay (about “paying the foreign weaver”, etc) anticipates by a year Gandhi’s formulation on the subject in Hind Swaraj: “By using Manchester cloth, we would only waste our money.” 

[Fakir Mohan’s], rather, is an argument in favour of a need-based economy that would ensure a proper gender-balancing division of labour leading to self-sufficiency. His advocacy of the cotton that men cultivated alongside foodgrains had nothing to do with the modern-day view of growing it as a cash crop; rather, it was meant to sustain a parallel economy, that of clothing, to keep the charkha moving as a self-sustaining economic activity. 

In his Autobiography Gandhi makes the same point without, of course, dishing out the paraphernalia and minutiae of cost analysis that Fakir Mohan is able to supply from his intimacy with the ground reality. 


2. Gandhi, the Divine 

Image Courtesy: (Left); (Right) Saffron Art


As Seema Bawa writes, an image of M K Gandhi is often enough to convey his ideological and philosophical pinnings. Indeed, our interpretation of Gandhi and his ideals is often derived from visual representations, rather than from his writings. But why do we always associate Gandhi as bald, bespectacled, and either meditating or with a stick in hand? Bawa guides the reader through various artistic interpretations of Gandhi, and explains that this imagery is used to portray his “power” and “divine status.” She argues that the creation of idols and statues in post-colonial India has proved important in the masses’ worship of Gandhi as a mahatma. 

When a person is transformed into an icon, he or she has truly arrived. Not only does the icon “in itself” denote the powerful status of the persona involved, important enough to be iconised, but more importantly it implies an inherent transference of power to those who iconise him or her… Like a deity in traditional iconographic prescriptions, Gandhi is also shown in various postures, of which the sthanaka (standing with a staff) is the most popular. In his asana or seated figure, his feet are folded to the left, one hand on the ground, while the other is placed on the lap or in the vitarka gesture of lecturing, the face introspective.

Tracing the history of illustrations, Bawa notes that the hagiographic representation of Gandhi began only after his assassination. This deification, she says, has resulted in his image being appropriated for political gains.  

For Gandhi, the body itself becomes the site of his personal and nationalistic politics, as he sets his political/self disciplining agenda through the cleaning, disciplining and partial disrobing of the body… Pinney says that Gandhi fought his own battle with the body, but it was one that was explicitly articulated within a neo-traditionalist paradigm branded “made in India” (Pinney: 127).

Gandhi and Gandhism are variously invoked to set out a nationalist agenda, a constructivist programme, or an idealised state, in contrast to the entropy or degeneration perceived in the contemporary sociopolitical space.   


3. The Theory of Ahimsa


Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/ Public domain

There is no point in learning about Gandhi without understanding why the non-violence movement was a purely anti-colonialist movement, writes Akeel Bilgrami. He explains that since demanding constitutional rights from the British had, so far, proved ineffective, Gandhi saw the  need for a form of protest that would be an alternative to violent resistance. 

Gandhi chose his version of non-violent civil disobedience instead of the constitutional demands of the Congress leadership because he thought that the Indian people should not merely ask the British to leave their soil. It was important that they should do so by means that were not dependent and derivative of ideas and institutions that the British had imposed on them. Otherwise, even if the British left, the Indian populations would remain a subject people.

Bilgrami argues against conventional thinking that Gandhi regarded the pursuit of truth as the goal of life. Rather, Gandhi saw a satyagrahi’s ability to disassociate themselves from criticism as paramount. An incorrect view of moral judgement, Gandhi claimed, breeds violence in a society. Thus, there can be no true non-violence until criticism is removed from moral judgement. 

Criticism reflects an impurity of heart, and is easily corrupted to breed hostility and, eventually, violence. With an impure heart you could still indulge in non-violent political activism, but that activism would be strategic, merely a means to a political end…  The right moral sense, the morally pure-hearted satyagrahi, sees no such connection between moral judgment and moral criticism. Of course, we cannot and must not cease to be moral subjects; we cannot stop judging morally about what is and is not worthy, cannot fail to have moral values. But none of that requires us to be critical of others who disagree with our values or who fail to act in accord with them.


Read more:

Gandhi Before Habermas: The Democratic Consequences of Ahimsa | Dipankar Gupta, 2009.
Interpreting Gandhi | Manmohan Choudhuri, 2000.
Politics, Experience and Cognitive Enslavement: Gandhi's Hind Swaraj | Vivek Dhareshwar, 2010.



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