Mahatma Gandhi occupies a central position in the history of the modern world. This is so not only because of his extraordinary life and work but also because of his extraordinary death. Let us have a broad overview of his life’s achievements first. Most of the achievements of Gandhi’s life are well known. He was the foremost leader of the anti-colonial struggle, spending more than 50 years of his life in fighting against the mighty British empire in South Africa and India. For 30 years, he was the undisputed leader of the Indian freedom struggle.
His efforts for the reform of the Hindu society, especially his lifelong campaign against untouchability, puts him in the category of the great social reformers of the modern world. The moral and ethical example that he set by living an exemplary life remains a beacon of hope for mankind. Equally great was his achievement in bringing out the moral and spiritual side of religion and employing it for the welfare of India and the world. Satyagraha remains a widely applicable and potent weapon in the hands of the oppressed peoples.
Similarly, his work on maintaining harmony among different religions remains relevant. His fundamental critique of modernity, as contained in the Hind Swaraj, clearly sets him apart from the other great leaders of the modern era. The civilisational challenge that he posed to the West at a time when the latter was ascendant everywhere was undoubtedly an extraordinary achievement.
However, Gandhi was not just a great nationalist, anti-imperialist leader. More than that, he was a symbol of peace and nonviolence in an era full of strife and violence. It was this role of Gandhi as the apostle of peace, as he is often described, that put him in the category of the greatest leaders in the history of mankind.
Extraordinary as the achievements of Gandhi in life were, they become much more meaningful because of the manner in which he died. Not only did Gandhi manage to live as meaningful a life as possible, his death too was rich in meaning. There are scarcely any examples in history, where the life and the death of a great man hold great lessons for humanity.
Having achieved the principal objective of his life — India’s freedom from colonial rule — Gandhi’s life had reached its fulfilment, especially in the months that he spent in Noakhali and Delhi trying to restore peace between the Hindus and Muslims. In fact, this was Gandhi’s finest hour — he had staked everything in the cause of the principles of truth and nonviolence. His assassination at this juncture symbolised not so much the end of life as a fulfilment of the message of his life.
In his life Gandhi was the Mahatma; in death he became the great martyr.
Kavi Pradeep has expressed the enormity of what the nation felt at Gandhi’s death in a sublime manner: Jag me koi jiya hai to bapu tu hi jiya/Tune vatan ki coluraah me sab kuchh luta diya/Manga na koi takht na to taj hi liya/Amrit diya sabhi ko magar khud zeher piya/Jis din teri chita jali roya tha mahakal. (If anyone has lived Bapu, you have/You sacrificed everything for the nation/ Never asking for a throne or a crown/You gave everyone ambrosia and drank poison yourself/When your funeral pyre was lit, death itself wept.)
One may choose to see poetic exaggeration in this description of Gandhi’s life and death. In saying that death itself cried when Gandhi was killed, the poet imparts a new meaning both to Gandhi’s life and to his death, a meaning which remains relevant for all.
In a world full of strife and violence, Gandhi spent his life preaching and practising non-violence. Intriguingly enough, his violent death provided a powerful counter-narrative to the violence and cowardice masquerading in India then as justice and courage. This complements the achievements of Gandhi’s life which arose in a context of opposites — nonviolence versus violence, truth versus untruth, courage versus cowardice.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 30, 2020 under the title “Mahatma, the martyr.” The writer is deputy director, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.
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