It’s hard to imagine how Adolf Hitler would have responded to the letter Mahatma Gandhi wrote to him from his jail cell in 1939, imploring him not to wage war—had he received it. “Dear friend,” Gandhi wrote. “Friends have been urging me to write to you for the sake of humanity. But I have resisted their request, because of the feeling that any letter from me would be an impertinence.” Ian Barrow, professor of history and Gandhi authority, shared this letter along with other examples of Gandhi’s life and work during a “dessert talk and discussion” about Gandhi and Civic Engagement last week. The talk, sponsored by the Office of Community Engagement, asked the audience to consider whether Gandhi’s ideas for combatting the scourges of poverty, discrimination, and violence would work today, or are they rooted in a certain time and place in history?
An audience of students, faculty, and staff filled an Axinn Center classroom to hear Barrow describe Gandhi’s evolution from the young middle-class man receiving his education in Britain, to the attorney working for Indian rights in South Africa, to the abstemious and charismatic individual who helped propel India to independence in the late 1940s.
Barrow explained that when Gandhi returned from South Africa at the age of 46, he had come to the realization that traditional techniques for changing the status quo were not going to work, and the alternative would be violence, which Gandhi abhorred. “Gandhi fought against violence his whole life,” Barrow said. “He had been schooled from a very young age that nonviolence was preferable to violence.” For Gandhi, agitating for change without violence was accomplished “through the idea of loving the person who is hurting you and engaging in activities that will force that person to rethink and withdraw power.”
Gandhi believed, said Barrow, that people gained salvation by gaining complete control over themselves—their appetites, passions, and desires—to achieve “non-attachment.” This meant not being attached to anything material, including the fruits of their labors; eating only for nourishment, not enjoyment (Gandhi, for example, only allowed himself seven grains of salt per meal); and avoiding sexual activity. Once individuals mastered non-attachment and self-control, Barrow said, they would have “perfect equanimity,” would not be swayed by emotions, and could focus on loving those who are hurting them. He believed that these principles had to be implemented on the individual level, then become established in communities, then in nations.
Gandhi set up two ashrams in India, “spiritual communities, designed to overcome problems of poverty, discrimination, and violence,” said Barrow. Joining was completely voluntary. And life there was regimented in such a way to help the members develop the high degree of non-attachment Gandhi advocated. For example, members rose at four in the morning, and began the day in prayer. The day’s activities were scripted till bedtime at nine.
But, in addition to non-attachment and self-control, how could Gandhi go up against the most powerful empire in the world? “He devised a technique that reversed traditional orders,” Barrow explained. “He chose every attribute that the British said was a weakness in Indians, and he made that a powerful attribute.” He lived a simple life and wore peasant attire. He adopted customs of women—spinning, serving tea, involving women in discussion (“he was a protofeminist”). He became a vegetarian, which, to the British, meant weakness. “It meant you couldn’t fight,” explained Barrow. He basically said to the least powerful in society, I am one of you. “It was an extraordinary reversal,” Barrow said. “He electrified Indian society.”
And his protests embodied issues of symbolic significance. Gandhi’s trek to the sea to make salt, which was illegal, is a well-known example. “He’d wanted to plead guilty, because he wanted to show the bankruptcy of British law,” said Barrow. The British decided not to prosecute, knowing how it would look. “But Gandhi made his point.”
When Gandhi was assassinated, he was viewed as nearly a god and a martyr by many in India. “Today, he’s become a tourist curiosity,” said Barrow. And the results of some of his efforts have clearly failed the test of time. For example, he went to the Noakhali district of Bangladesh in 1946 to help quell violence between Hindus and Muslims, Hindus comprised about 36 percent of the population at the time. Today they are down to about 10 percent, having been killed or moved.
Barrow concluded his talk by asking, “Would these principles work in today’s world?” Despite the discussion that ensued, this answer remains a tantalizing unknown.
The letter to Hitler, only 134 words long, was still projected on the screen. “You are the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state. . . . Any way [sic] I anticipate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you.” It is signed, “I remain your sincere friend. M. K. Gandhi.” The letter was never mailed. His British jailors would not send it. And so Barrow’s question, would Gandhi’s principles be effective in today’s world, begs another, would they have been effective in Hitler’s?