Gandhi’s Life – Part 05
|October 6, 2002||Posted by Staff under Biographies|
Biography of M.K. Gandhi
“To Serve is My Religion”
No matter what Gandhi did for humanity he felt it was not enough. “To serve is my religion,” he once said. He wanted to free men politically, restore them spiritually, and heal them physically. When plague erupted in India during his brief visit there; he inspected the quarters of the poor and sick for cleanliness and nursed his dying brother-in-law. When a leper came to his door in Natal he dressed the man’s sores. He worked in a hospital for two hours every morning, and when his third son was born in South Africa he cared for the infant himself. He even delivered his fourth and last son because the midwife was late.
Gandhi liked to live simply and independently, eating mostly fresh fruits and nuts and starching his own shirts. After a white barber refused to give him a haircut, he bought barber’s shears and cut his hair himself.
When the Boer War exploded in 1899, Gandhi’s sympathy lay with the Boers, but he remained loyal to the British. He felt that since he demanded rights as a British subject he was obliged to participate in the war on behalf of the Empire.
He organized eleven hundred Indians into a British ambulance corps. Frequently they had to haul the wounded off the field in the direct line of fire, and it was not unusual to carry casualties twenty or twenty-five miles a day in stretchers. Gandhi’s ambulance corps won begrudging admiration from the British. When the corps was disbanded and replaced by British units, Gandhi and some of the other leaders received medals.
In 1901 Gandhi decided that if he remained in South Africa he would simply become a prosperous attorney and so the time had come for him to go home to work for India. He left Natal promising that if the Indians needed him within a year he would come back. He was showered with costly jewels and ornaments as farewell gifts but he put them in a bank to be used as a trust fund to meet community needs.
Back in India, Gandhi traveled a great deal and attended the annual meeting of the Indian National Congress, the only national political party in the country. He found the delegates indifferent, the sanitation insufferable, and the movement lacking vision or direction. Nevertheless, he had decided to settle in Bombay, practice law, and enter politics when a cablegram came from South Africa. “Chamberlain expected here,” it said. “Please return immediately.” Gandhi left his wife and children in Bombay and returned to South Africa to resume his crusade.
Joseph Chamberlain was the British Colonial Secretary. His mission in South Africa was to collect a gift of thirty-five million pounds and try to heal the rift between the victorious British and the defeated Boers. Nothing could persuade him to aggravate the whites on behalf of the Indians. “Your grievances seem to be genuine,” he told Gandhi, who represented the Natal Indians, “but you must try your best to placate the Europeans if you wish to live in their midst.”
Though he failed to move Chamberlain in Natal, Gandhi followed him to the Transvaal to present the complaints of the Indians there. This time the authorities would not even permit him to see Chamberlain, and Gandhi soon realized that the condition of the thirteen thousand Indians in the Transvaal was worse than in any other part of South Africa. Gandhi decided to remain there and set up a law office in Johannesburg to work for his people.
While he worked, his political aims continued to fuse with his spiritual and emotional life. He studied the Bhagavad Gita to the marrow and, by pasting portions of it on a wall, memorized verse after verse as he stood brushing his teeth for fifteen minutes every morning. The Gita became his guide to living and he embraced its teaching that truth could be gained only through renunciation of all possessions and all pleasures.
In 1904 Gandhi helped found a weekly newspaper called Indian Opinion. It was the first of several publications which he edited or wrote for most of his life, and which allowed him to express his views on all issues, from politics to birth control, and to gauge his readers’ reactions from numerous letters to the editor.
Though Indian Opinion was published in Durban, Natal, Gandhi spent most of his time in Johannesburg. When local officials tried to dispossess Indians from their land without compensation, Gandhi sued seventy times and won all but one case. Then plague broke out in the Indian ghetto and Gandhi set up a hospital in an empty building and nursed the victims himself. When the authorities decided to fire the hovels to burn out the disease, it was Gandhi who persuaded the Indians to move to a campsite near the city. They would obey no one else. Still in his thirties, he had become their leader and they called him bhai, which means brother.
Gandhi often shuttled back and forth between Johannesburg and Durban. On one of his long train journeys he read a book called Unto This Last by John Ruskin, English author and critic. Gandhi said the book transformed his life by teaching him that the good of the individual is contained in the good of the group, that manual occupations are as valuable as intellectual ones, and that the life of the laborer–the man who works with his hands–is the only life worth living.
Immediately, Gandhi translated principle into action. He moved Indian Opinion, its staff, and its presses to a farm at Phoenix, near Durban. When not working on the paper, the men could work the soil. Gandhi, however, remained in Johannesburg, where his family again joined him. They lived as close to Ruskin’s ideal as they could, grinding the meal and baking their bread by hand.
In 1906, when the Zulus in Natal rebelled, Gandhi again stood with the British Empire. He formed another Indian ambulance corps and was delighted to be assigned the task of nursing wounded Zulus, a duty no white man would accept.
During the solitude of the Zulu campaign in the bush, Gandhi had much time for contemplation, and he committed himself to a course he had long considered. “I could not live both after the flesh and the spirit,” he wrote. If all humanity was to be his family, he could spare no special attention to his own; if he was to serve the world he could not serve his senses as well. In 1906, not quite thirty-seven years old, he took a vow of celibacy which he never broke, and the bride of his childhood, Kasturbai, became not so much a wife as the most devoted of his followers.
END OF PART FIVE
This biography was written by Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht and is reprinted here with the permission of the copyright holder.
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