Calls to remove various statues of Mahatma Gandhi have risen in recent years, making the Indian independence leader a target of today’s turbulent cancel culture.
First, the University of Ghana took down a statue of Gandhi in 2018 after faculty and students complained the historic figure was racist toward Black Africans. Then in 2019, students in Manchester, England also asked for a similar statue to be rejected, due to Gandhi’s “well-documented anti-black racism.” And in 2020, a petition to remove another statue from Leicester, England, reached 6,000 signatures, accusing the independence campaigner of causing “inconsolable suffering.”
While there are those who agree, for a variety of reasons, that it’s about time he be stripped of his decades of blind idolization and praise, the accusations of racism might have many others who’ve always thought Gandhi to be a shining light of integrity and peace, wondering: was he really racist?
The answer is yes, he was racist, at least as a younger man. But to walk away and leave it at that would be both inaccurate and a great societal disservice.
Of the many lessons Gandhi’s life has to offer, the capacity of humans to change is one that rings as loud as any.
The idea of improving oneself through a transformation of consciousness is deeply ingrained in Hindu philosophy. According to Vedic teachings, the soul is on a voyage of self-improvement, reincarnating from body to body, wading through the waters of its own selfishness, until it learns to love all of creation sincerely.
It’s true that, primarily during his 20s in South Africa, he spoke of Africans as inferior to Europeans and Indians, derogatively referring to them as “uncivilized.”
It’s also true, however, that by the time Gandhi left this world, he had not only changed his views on race, but due to the friendships he formed with Black Americans, played an integral role in positively affecting America’s civil rights movement and saw their struggle as the true test for realizing satyagraha’s full potency.
In fact, his views had changed so much he even said, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”
In the early 1900s, Gandhi began studying Booker T. Washington, the influential Black American leader who warned Black Americans not to push too hard for their rights, believing it would result in a backlash that would lead to a loss of even more rights. Instead, Washington said they should uplift their communities through investing in their own self-improvement by becoming developed skilled laborers. He insisted all labor was dignified, and that physical labor, especially, was the foundation of any successful community.
Inspired by Washington’s teachings, Gandhi developed a new-found respect for physical labor, and even mandated all participants of his ashram to engage in physical labor. Gandhi believed connecting to the land helped one connect with God, giving one the strength needed to become peaceful spiritual warriors.
Gandhi even began corresponding with Black scientist George Washington Carver, whose research was focused on creating educational pamphlets that would help impoverished Black American farmers grow food on lands that had been stripped of nutrients as a result of years of cotton farming. In support of India’s freedom struggle, Carver sent these pamphlets for Gandhi and his followers to use on Indian soil which had similarly been depleted.
By the end of 1936, Benjamin Mays, who was the dean of Howard University’s School of Religion, as well as a friend of Martin Luther King’s father, became one of several Black leaders who personally met Gandhi.
Gandhi left a deep impression on Mays, teaching him that the potency of nonviolence is drawn from a person’s internal spiritual resolve. This spiritual resolve gives one the ability to turn the other cheek, not out of weakness, but out of forgiveness. To Gandhi, forgiveness was what truly changed a person’s heart.
Mays eventually went back home, where he, along with other Black leaders Gandhi met with, profoundly affected Martin Luther King Jr. and America’s nonviolent civil rights movement.
The relationships Gandhi formed with these African Americans were not only mutually beneficial to both the Indian and Black freedom struggles, but they also transformed and evolved Gandhi’s own consciousness.
There are many examples in Hindu texts depicting this capacity to evolve.
One such story involves Ratnakar, a murderous robber who supported his family through plunder. One day Ratnakar sought to steal from the sage Narada, who he encountered in the forest. Sage Narada told the thief he would give him anything he wanted, but requested that he first approach his family and ask them if they were prepared to accept a share of the bad karma Ratnakar had accumulated from his crimes.
After agreeing, Ratnakar went to his wife and kids and asked if they would accept a share of bad karma he had amassed to provide for them. They declined, saying that it was not on them to accept any portion of the negative moral debt he had acquired in the name of family maintenance.
Understanding that he alone would have to atone for his misdeeds, Ratnakar returned to Sage Narada and asked for a way in which he could redeem himself. Sage Narada told him to chant the name of Lord Rama because chanting God’s name would purify him. But Ratnakar’s consciousness had become too contaminated from years of plundering to accept Sage Narada’s instruction.
Out of his mercy, Sage Narada told him to instead meditate on the personality of Death, known as Mara. By repeating the syllables in quick succession, Mara eventually began to sound like Rama which, in turn, transformed Ratnakar’s consciousness. Through chanting the Lord’s holy name, Ratnakar became a purified soul who was so devoted to the Lord that he came to be known as the revered Sage Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana — the Hindu epic detailing the accounts of Lord Rama’s life.
This story illustrates, like many others, that nobody is a fully lost cause.
The Vedas insist the soul’s original nature is pure, but through its interaction with the material world, it has the tendency to become deluded by lust, anger, greed, selfishness, etc. Like a reflection that’s distorted from accumulated dust on a mirror, a soul’s actual selfless and blissful identity can only be exhibited through the cleansing of the dust of egocentrism.
Like Gandhi, by serving a higher cause or purpose, people can pull themselves out of their own selfish tendencies. Working for something that’s larger than ourselves can compel us to become more aware of how our thoughts and actions affect others. This self-reflection opens the door to empathy, enabling us to form relationships with people from different backgrounds. As in Gandhi’s case, these relationships are essential in helping a person change his or her consciousness.
The examination of the propensity to evolve one’s consciousness is in no way a call to cast aside a person’s wrong doings; it is in no way a plea to forget someone’s past transgressions.
It is, however, a contemplation of hope — the hope that people can change, that they can improve so much so, that they can be judged not only by their mistakes, but by the totality of who they were.
A call to remove Gandhi’s statue is a call against hope. It is a call to deny a message, perfected through practice world over, because of an imperfect messenger.
Photo: Timothy Tolle