(The following is a post by Jonathan Loar, South Asia Reference Librarian, Asian Division).
On Wednesday October 2, the Library of Congress and Embassy of India will invite the public to the Library for an exhibition to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948). This exhibition will draw from the Library’s vast collections to showcase the legacy of India’s social and political leader known by the honorific title “Mahatma” (great soul). It is also an opportunity to learn how Gandhi became one of the most recognizable figures in the Indian independence movement and one of the world’s foremost models of nonviolent resistance.
In India, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, known as Gandhi Jayanti, is a national holiday. In 2007, the United Nations designated October 2 as the International Day of Non-Violence. Indeed, this date is an occasion for reflecting on the different stages of his career and his unique philosophy of bringing about change through nonviolence, as well as his contributions to inspiring figures like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr.
M.K. Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869 in Porbandar in what is today India’s western state of Gujarat. He studied law for three years in London, after which he spent his early years as a legal consultant in South Africa. This time proved to be very influential on his political thought, as he witnessed and experienced the stark inequalities engrained in South African society. He drew attention to the government’s harsh treatment of Indians and organized nonviolent resistance to discriminatory laws. Upon return to British-controlled India in January 1915, Gandhi had acquired the skills both of an accomplished lawyer and a community organizer dedicated to peaceful protest.Following the end of World War I, it became clear that the British government would not grant more social and political freedom to their prized colonial possession, India. Gandhi subsequently embarked on a career to challenge the British and fight for self-rule, or swaraj, a term that resonates on the level of India’s political freedom from the British Raj and also the individual’s efforts toward moral betterment and self-purification. His large body of written work often alternated between addressing whole communities and the individual within a collective group. In this way, Gandhi sought to bring about change on the macro and micro levels, expanding his advocacy to a number of issues in the sphere of social reform, such as harmony between India’s Hindus and Muslims and the promotion of women’s participation in politics. These are but a couple of examples of how Gandhi lived the life of a changemaker—someone who demonstrates how ideas are put into practice to change and improve the world for generations to come.
Certainly, the story of the Indian independence movement includes a wide range of personalities and methods for obtaining political goals. Yet, it is also the case that Gandhi’s model of nonviolence is one of the movement’s most enduring components. Gandhi found ways to fight the British not with guns and bombs, but with massive peaceful demonstrations (like the 1930 Salt March), civil disobedience, and long fasts. In one instance, Gandhi explained his commitment to the nonviolent approach in the English-language journal “Young India” in 1925:
“There is no principle worth the name if it is not wholly good. I swear by non-violence because I know that it alone conduces to the highest good of mankind, not merely in the next world, but in this also. I object to violence because, when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent (“Young India,” vol. 7, no. 21, 21 May 1925, p. 178).”
Another major aspect of Mahatma Gandhi’s thought comes from his study of the “Bhagavad Gita,” a seminal Hindu religious work originally composed in Sanskrit around two thousand years ago. Gandhi was introduced to the Bhagavad Gita during his studies in England, where he obtained a copy of the text’s English rendering as “The Song Celestial” by British poet Edwin Arnold. In Gandhi’s interpretation, the Bhagavad Gita’s central theme is anasakti, or non-attachment. It refers, in essence, to living one’s life free from obsessive, or selfish, attachments to the results of one’s actions, which often produce violence against others. Gandhian philosophy sees a natural affinity between this philosophy of non-attachment and a commitment to nonviolence, two components held together by principles like love, justice, and equality. Because these ideas are commonly found throughout other religions in South Asia, Gandhian philosophy has also served as a blueprint for interreligious cooperation in the fight for the common good.
In the United States, a notable admirer of Gandhian philosophy was Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). King was a seminary student when he first learned of Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. King was particularly moved by Gandhi’s notion of satyagraha, which means “firmly holding onto the truth,” namely, the truth that nonviolent civil disobedience is the most effective method to bring about change. In February 1959, King and his wife Coretta traveled to India for a month-long tour of “Gandhi’s land.” King discussed matters of discrimination, race and caste, and social uplift everywhere he went, including meetings with the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, members of Gandhi’s family, university students, and residents in cities and villages around the country. The fact that Gandhian philosophy was alive and well even after the Mahatma’s assassination in 1948 encouraged Reverend King that nonviolence could be the most potent method for obtaining civil rights in the United States.
Gandhi never visited the United States, but he had correspondence with a number of other Americans, such as Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes and social philosopher Richard Gregg. African-American civil rights leader and theologian Howard Thurman met Gandhi during a “Negro Delegation of Friendship” in India in 1936, where they discussed a variety of matters, including racial segregation in the United States and the principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence. Gandhi’s impact reaches far beyond India; he is a prominent part of 20th-century American history, too.
Mahatma Gandhi is such a towering figure in South Asian history that he and his writings have been the subject of praise, criticism, and everything in between. On one hand, Gandhi is a testament to the power of nonviolence to unite different communities for a common goal, and achieve major political and social transformations. Others, however, contend that his efforts fell short in some areas, such as combating the persistence of caste-based discrimination in Indian society. And there is the complicated intersection of religion and nationalism in the Partition of South Asia in August 1947, out of which Pakistan and India became independent countries. Gandhi was assassinated only four-and-a-half months later on January 30, 1948 by a Hindu nationalist who felt that Gandhi betrayed India’s Hindus by supporting the plan for South Asia’s Partition. Indeed, all of these issues are part of the analysis and re-analysis of Mahatma Gandhi and remain of perennial interest to researchers and authors around the world.
The Library of Congress is an ideal place for learning more about Mahatma Gandhi. The upcoming display on Wednesday October 2 will highlight some of the more notable items in our collections, all of which are available to researchers in our various reading rooms. For example, the Library recently digitized and made available an important item in the South Asian rare book collection: a handwritten draft of an essay with Gandhi’s signature, “A Common Platform.” This essay, which was written around 1933, shows Gandhi’s support for removing laws upholding practices related to untouchability. More information on “A Common Platform” is in this blog from last week.
Many books, journals, and other materials by and about Gandhi in South Asian languages are available in the Library’s Asian Reading Room. This includes a commemorative publication on the nascent Gandhian movement from the editors of the Gujarati literary journal, Prasthan, in 1926. The Asian Reading Room is also where you will find the multivolume set of Gandhi’s collected works in Gujarati and Hindi, as well as a small Gujarati booklet “Rāshṭrapitānāṃ caraṇomāṃ“ (At the feet of the father of the nation, 1948), which was published shortly after his assassination. Many older works are available on microfilm, like V.G. Apte’s “Gāndhi-Gītā” (Song of Gandhi, 1919), a Marathi work that re-imagines the “Bhagavad Gita” as a modern conversation between a wise “Mahatma” and an inquisitive youth who wants to learn about the Gandhian views on western reform and untouchability, among other topics. Another interesting title on microfilm—“Rajakiya tikacitre” (Political cartoons, 1941)–is a collection of cartoons and commentary about the Indian freedom struggle, one of which depicts Mahatma Gandhi as the American cartoon character Popeye the Sailor. However, unlike the American counterpart who grows strong from spinach, Gandhi gains muscle from a can labeled “satyagraha” and “ahimsa.”
Additionally, you will find tons of English-language materials in the Library’s Main Reading Room. This includes various editions and translations of his major works, such as “Satyagraha in South Africa,” Gandhi’s political treatise on Indian self-rule “Hind Swaraj,” and the autobiography, “My Experiments with Truth.”
Looking for particular book about Gandhi or the Indian freedom movement? Want to know more about the South Asian collection at the Library of Congress? Submit your questions through the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian to learn more!