What the Secret of Gandhi’s Greatness Really Was

The eminent sociologist T.N. Madan remembers the Mahatma on his 68th death anniversary.

Gandhi in Noakhali. Painting by by V.R. Ambrekar

Gandhi in Noakhali. Painting by by V.R. Ambrekar

By general worldwide recognition, Mohandas K. Gandhi was not only the greatest man of modern India – notwithstanding passionately sincere dissenters such as B.R. Ambedkar – but also one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. Whom would one place by his side as a political leader of our time who stood or stands tall because of moral stature? Nelson Mandela and the present Dalai Lama come to mind. Who else? Charles Andrews, who had once in South Africa been prevented by Gandhi from touching his feet because it would “demean” him, had warned him that he would find it difficult to make people desist from this traditional gesture of reverence in his own country. Reverence there is in ample measure, but understanding is harder to achieve.

Taking his cue from a letter from Andrews, Rabindranath Tagore, eight years Gandhi’s senior in age, had in 1918 addressed him as ‘Mahatmaji’. A year later, Motilal Nehru, in his presidential address to the Indian National Congress, referred to him by the same honorific. Nearly a hundred years have passed since then and ‘Mahatma’ has survived as an inalienable part of Gandhi’s name and personality: Mahatma, the Great Man.

Additionally, he came to be called the ‘Father of the Nation’ by someone who surely had been wronged by Gandhi. Speaking on July 6, 1944 from Azad Hind Radio somewhere in South-East Asia, Subhas Chandra Bose sought the “blessings” of the “Father of the Nation” at the commencement of the “holy war” against the British.

When four years later Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948, the United Nations flag flew at half mast in homage to a man who was not the head of a member state, only an honoured citizen of a newly independent country. And the citation of “The People’s Peace Prize in accordance with the Will of Alfred Nobel”, posthumously bestowed on Gandhi on December 5, 2015 by the Peace Movement of Orust in Sweden, calls him the “Lodestar of the Peoples of the World”.

What was the secret of Gandhi’s greatness? Much has been written about it but somehow it remains elusive. Perhaps even he himself did not know it. He was a very complex man, a mix of contradictions. The key that he had discovered in Jainism to the understanding of the “many-sidedness” (anekanta) of reality could well be kept in mind by anyone who seeks to understand the nature of Gandhi’s greatness. One may then perhaps glimpse an aspect of it.

Erik Erikson has written about Gandhi’s greatness in his insightful study, Gandhi’s Truth (1969), drawing attention, among other things, to his sense of mission, the call to leadership, and a sense of indispensability. He had this sense from the time of his father Karamchand’s death, Erikson observes, when he was just 16. He lived in guilt ever after for not having been with his father at the time of his death, as if his presence at the deathbed had been indispensable.

Decades later, Gandhi obviously considered it his moral responsibility to prevent the homicidal madness that had seized Hindus and Muslims alike. He also wanted to stand firm like a rock against the demand for the division of the country on communal lines. Nirmal Kumar Bose, the Calcutta University professor who worked as his secretary during the critical years 1946-1947, recalls how he found a sleepless Gandhi agonising at night, “Main kya karoon? Main kya karoon? (What should I do? What should I do?)”.

Gandhi and Badshah Khan in Bihar, 1947

Gandhi and Badshah Khan in Bihar, 1947

He surely addressed to himself the question that he asked on March 19, 1947 of Congressmen in Bihar, who had remained mute witnesses to the massacre of Muslims, including the killing of a110-year-old woman: “Main toh apse poochhna chahta hoon ki aap zinda kyun rahe? (I wish to ask you, how could you liv … How could you tolerate it?”). He then said, “I have vowed to do or die. I will not rest nor let others rest. There is such a fire raging in me that I will know no peace till I have found a solution for all this.” (Discussion with Congress Workers, 19 March 1947; The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol 87, pp. 118-119). He did not find the solution, and true to his word, he died, although at the hands of an assassin.

In this self-questioning lament there is a most unusual combination of humility and moral egoism. From the early years of the century, when Gandhi was in South Africa, he had the conviction that he had to be the leader; and to be a public figure, he had first to awaken his own moral conscience. In a 1942 letter to an obtuse Englishman, Viceroy Linlithgow, he wrote: “A mission… came to me in 1906, namely to spread truth and non-violence among mankind in the place of violence and falsehood in all walks of life.” And to achieve this mission, he had taken the vows of chastity and poverty and surrender to the will of God.

Inevitably, on his return to India, Gandhi assumed the leadership of the national movement in 1920. For this he had already shaped the powerful instrument of non-violent satyagraha – insistence upon truth in all one’s actions. Civil disobedience was a specific form of this mode of action in the political arena. The immediate objective was swaraj; the means to it, satyagraha; and the ultimate goal, sarvodaya.

For a quarter century, from the early 1920s to the mid-1940s, Gandhi was the leader of the Indian national movement,  a colossus, and that too most of the time on his own terms. He was indeed a charismatic leader who almost always managed to win over dissenters, who suppressed their doubts about his approach, and eventually fell in line. The most notable example, of course, is that of Jawaharlal Nehru. There were some, however, who felt displaced and became his bitter political foes, foremost among them being Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

From Quit India to Partition

The leader was his own stern judge and on occasion confessed to what he called his Himalayan blunders. One of these perhaps, although not acknowledged as such by him, was the Quit India movement launched in August 1942. It led to the immediate imprisonment of Gandhi, his closest associates, and the top rung of Congress leaders. The political space was thrown open to his opponents, notably the Muslim League under Jinnah, to spread their appeal and consolidate their position. Partition became a reality in less than half a dozen years, although Gandhi had said this could happen only over his dead body.

Before the eventual turn of events came the event of his being sidelined by his own followers. Gandhi was released from detention in 1944 in view of his deteriorating health. Viceroy Wavell believed that he would never again be physically strong enough to resume the role of the leader. Gandhi himself acknowledged that the countrywide fervour generated by the Quit India movement had been exhausted: “History can never be repeated,” he said.

Gandhi recovered remarkably well and soon enough for him to embark upon new initiatives on his own; the top Congress leadership was still in prison. He began with a series of meetings with Jinnah which produced no agreement because Jinnah was by then a changed man and fixated on his idea of Pakistan, which however remained only vaguely defined.

After the end of the war in Europe in 1945, Wavell and the new British government, headed by Labour Party’s Clement Attlee, took several major steps in just a year in an effort to arrive at a satisfactory manner of transfer of power in India, which had become inescapable for a variety of reasons. These efforts failed primarily because of the unwillingness of both the Congress and the Muslim League to compromise, and Jinnah’s refusal to acknowledge that the Congress could negotiate on behalf of all Indians including the Muslims. This intransigence derived some legitimacy from the surprisingly good performance of the League in the elections to the Central Legislative Assembly in early -1946.

During this momentous year, Congress leaders began to act independently and even in defiance of Gandhi’s advice. Nehru went so far as to question Gandhi’s vision of a future India based on his idea of the ideal village. Gandhi clearly saw the writing on the wall: his days of leadership of a unified national movement were drawing to an end. The Muslim League had established itself as a rival to the Congress. More significantly, his long-standing position as the supreme leader of the Congress had ended. Gandhi stood “rejected” – to borrow this blunt word from his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi’s 2006 book Mohandas.

The final phase

But Gandhi’s greatness had not really been rooted in the shifting sands of politics. He had long been recognised as a ‘Mahatma’, a spiritual person rooted in moral principles – in an ethic of conviction or conscience. The shutting of the doors of the political arena did indeed open wide for him the vast universe of ethical conduct unsullied by the quest for political power.

Stalled by an unyielding Congress and what he considered an unsympathetic British government, Jinnah ironically announced in the summer of 1946 “direct action” for the achievement of Pakistan; he had always opposed any but the constitutional means of achieving political goals. Wavell had feared such an impasse between the two leading political organisations would result in large-scale violence. Standing firm on the principle of an undivided India, Gandhi’s emphatic response to him (August 27, 1946) had been, “If India wants her bloodbath, she shall have it.” This might seem like it was said in anger. We know better: it was said in sorrow, but with moral conviction. Principles are after all most important; those who would rather live by expediency are perhaps better dead. “Kitne marenge (how many will die)?” Bose used to recall Gandhi asking Nehru.

Gandhi in Noakhali, 1946

Gandhi in Noakhali, 1946

The first enactment of the bloodbath was on the streets of Calcutta which were taken over on August 16 1946 for three to four days by Muslim League rioters. Gandhi rushed there to join with others, including Premier Suhrawardhy, to restore peace and sanity to the city. But more was to follow. Muslim majority Noakhali erupted in flames in October, and Gandhi arrived there to a hostile reception in early November. Retaliatory killings of Muslims began soon after in Bihar, but Gandhi continued with his mission of communal harmony in Noakhali.

Each day began with prayers, including most poignantly Tagore’s haunting song, ‘Ekla chalo re’, as though it had been specially written for him: Walk alone/ If they answer not to thy call, walk alone… O thou of evil luck/ With the thunder flame of pain ignite thine own heart/ And let it burn alone…”

Under enormous pressure to go to Bihar, Gandhi finally got there in February 1947, and heard horrifying accounts of Hindu brutality against Muslims. I have already mentioned his anguished speech when he asked Congressmen how they could have remained mute witnesses to the killings and not done anything to protect innocent Muslims even if this might have meant their own death. Once again he did his usual best to restore calm. From Bihar he went to Delhi and later in the summer to Kashmir.

And then he decided to return to Noakhali, but the situation in Calcutta which had continued to simmer, had taken a turn for the worse. Gandhi was in Calcutta on August 15, Independence Day, which he observed as a day of fasting and silence. This time he had to resort to his famous fast unto death in September in order to bring peace to the city. Peace was restored once again, and after assurances that seemed to satisfy him, he went to Delhi.

He was in Delhi on October 2, 1947. It was to be his last birthday. What was going through his mind – the sense of disillusionment – found expression in very poignant words that day: ‘Today is a day of mourning. I am still alive… nobody listens to me anymore. In such a situation there is no place for me in India, nothing for me to do… Today I have reached the age of 79 and this is a thorn in my flesh’. He did not suffer long: in just another four months, but after one last fast in mid-January for communal harmony, Godse’s bullets put an end to his misery.

Gandhi assassination by Godse (1)

1948 print depicting the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by the Hindutva activist, Nathuram Godse

It is not my intention here to go over the incidents of 1947-1948 culminating in his assassination on January 30, 1948. An uncharitable critic, Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri, grudgingly admitted the significance of Gandhi’s assassination when he said that the only thing that could not be “taken away” from Gandhi, whom he judged to be a total failure, was “the glory of martyrdom”. Rather, I am looking for a clue, surely just one among many, to the secret of Gandhi’s greatness. May one say it lay in his boundless love for all human beings, and particularly his compassion for the suffering? For long, one of his favourite hymns chosen for daily singing was Narsinh Mehta’s Vaishnava jana to …: They alone are godly people who feel the pain of others as their own.

It is noteworthy that genuine Christian seekers detected this virtue quite early. Andrews, I noted at the outset, wanted to touch Gandhi’s feet in heartfelt reverence during the early South African days. In 1921, John Haynes Holmes called Gandhi in a sermon, “unquestionably the greatest man living today”, and even considered him to be Jesus returned to the earth. Rabindranath Tagore in a 1933 letter compared him to the Buddha for his limitless compassion for all living creatures.

Gandhi as a leader of people has few peers in our time. In a timeless perspective, he belongs together with Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ. His all-embracing compassion was, surely, an aspect of Gandhi’s many-sided Truth.

  • Gurbachan Singh

    I came across some new facts that I didn’t know earlier. Interesting. Gandhi is classic in the true sense of the term. He lives on.

  • jandhan

    secret-of-gandhis-greatness- was his hypocrisy of always talk about poor but work for vested-corrupt interests of powerful Britishers and pseudo rich of the Indian society like Nehrus, Birlas, Bajaj, others and same principles adopted by corrupt politicians-bureaucrats of Independent India.


    This article is worth reading again and again as it is thought provoking. I believe that when one remembers Mahatma Gandhi one invariably thinks about ‘nationalism’ propagated by Mahatma Gandhi’s opponents and more particularly his assassin Nathuram Godse or his party Hindu Mahasabha. (2) Godse’s perverted views, which essentially denied democratic right of freedom political activity and also other’s right of freedom expression of views, have to be rejected straight away. (3) I am aware that there are educated Indians who are fans of Godse. But I believe that sensible Indian would neither defend Godse type of nationalism nor defend Godse’s action of killing Mahatma Gandhi in so-called national interest. (4) We Indians should defend rule of law and right of freedom of expression of views, two basic principles of all democratic societies and defend democracy with vigour and full faith. That is the message I wish to convey to all my fellow countrymen on the occasion of 68th death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

  • Radha Rajan

    I suggest the author sits down with each volume of CWMG, and read every sentence, every page meticulously for six months like I did and then come back to write about Gandhi. He may not have the same views then – Gandhi and the white colonialists, Gandhi and colonialism’s victims, Gandhi and Empire loyalists, Gandhi and Tilak/Bose/Ambedkar, Gandhi and Birla, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Gandhi and white king/queen, Gandhi and Indian brown kings, Gandhi and Nawabs, Gandhi and animals, Gandhi and women – little educated women and well to do educated women, Gandhi and Nehru vs Gandhi and Patel. Original source only.