We have an idea that we Indians can do something, and amongst the Indians we Bengalis may laugh at this idea; but I do not. My mission in life is to rouse a struggle in you. Whether you are an Advaitin, whether you are a qualified monist or dualist, it does not matter much. But let me draw your attention to one thing which unfortunately we always forget: that is — “O man, have faith in yourself.” That isle the way by which we can have faith in God. Whether you are an Advaitist or a dualist, whether you are a believer in the system of Yoga or a believer in Shankarâchârya, whether you are a follower of Vyâsa or Vishvâmitra, it does not matter much. But the thing is that on this point Indian thought differs from that of all the rest of the world. Let us remember for a moment that, whereas in every other religion and in every other country, the power of the soul is entirely ignored — the soul is thought of as almost powerless, weak, and inert — we in India consider the soul to be eternal and hold that it will remain perfect through all eternity. We should always bear in mind the teachings of the Upanishads.
Remember your great mission in life. We Indians, and especially those of Bengal, have been invaded by a vast amount of foreign ideas that are eating into the very vitals of our national religion. Why are we so backwards nowadays? Why are ninety-nine per cent of us made up of entirely foreign ideas and elements? This has to be thrown out if we want to rise in the scale of nations. If we want to rise, we must also remember that we have many things to learn from the West. We should learn from the West her arts and her sciences. From the West we have to learn the sciences of physical nature, while on the other hand the West has to come to us to learn and assimilate religion and spiritual knowledge. We Hindu must believe that we are the teachers of the world. We have been clamouring here for getting political rights ant many other such things. Very well. Rights and privileges and other things can only come through friendship, and friendship can only be expected between two equals When one of the parties is a beggar, what friendship can there be? It is all very well to speak so, but I say that without mutual co-operation we can never make ourselves strong men. So, I must call upon you to go out to England and America, not as beggars but as teachers of religion. The law of exchange must be applied to the best of our power. If we have to learn from them the ways and methods of making ourselves happy in this life, why, in return, should we not give them the methods and ways that would make them happy for all eternity? Above all, work for the good of humanity. Give up the so-called boast of your narrow orthodox life. Death is waiting for every one, and mark you this — the most marvellous historical fact — that all the nations of the world have to sit down patiently at the feet of India to learn the eternal truths embodied in her literature. India dies not.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.
I pass before me the mainsprings of my heritage:
The fruits of the labors of countless generations who lived before me, without whom my own life would have no meaning;
The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;
The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp and whose words could only find fulfillment in the years which they would never see;
The workers whose sweat has watered the trees, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;
The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence that I have never done my best, I have never reached for the highest;
The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the children of God as the waters cover the sea.
All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,
I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,
Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.
Reprinted from THE JOURNAL OF RELIGIOUS THOUGHT Autumn-Winter Issue, 1957-1958
CHANGE in the social order today is proceeding often violently and is frequently being resisted just as violently. Our own country is caught in a strange conjunction of Christian and democratic principles, fanatical resistence even to the belated application of these principles, and grave uncertainty as to how best the victims, the victimizers, and the innocent can escape both moral embarrassment and physical pain.
Somehow, happily, men appear less reluctant than formerly to hear testimony to faith in non-violence, a testimony borne so urgently in the past by Jesus of Nazareth, Gautama Buddha, Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi is nearest to us in time, the problems he faced were extraordinarily akin to ours, and his experiments with non-violence in the presence of these problems were so unique in method and so revolutionary in result that we are constrained to ask what guidance he has for us. Moreover, he fell under the influence of those who went before, and in him their spirit flowered.
I have chosen to discuss the principles of Gandhi’s non-violent non cooperation. Those who wish to understand the practice of non-violence must understand both the principles and the methods of the Gandhian way. There is, however, a limit to what may be included in one paper.
Gandhi was a practical man, but a man whose practice was rooted in verities from which he was unshakable. Thus when he sought a name for his struggle he chose Satyagraha, which means literally firmness in truth, but translated from the vernacular into English means Truth-Force and is called also Soul-Force. All of these terms are completely applicable to Gandhi’s movement, for” the movement was equally the product of this firmness in truth and a demonstration of the power of truth and of the spirit.
What, in Gandhi’s view, was truth? In the answer to this question lies the first step to an understanding of Gandhi and Satyagraha, for Satyagraha is a method of pursuing truth.
“What then is Truth?” asks Gandhi, and he answers: “A difficult question, but I have solved it for myself by saying that it is what the Voice within tellsyouV Still again he says, “What a pure heart feels at a particular time is Truth.” We would say obedience to one’s conscience.
In Tallahassee, Florida, a few months ago I explained this Gandhian version of truth to some of the members of the Inter-Civic Council of that city and one member of the Council raised the very natural question as to whether this did not make truth a variable, dependent upon an individual’s interpretation, and thus not an absolute, fixed eternally in the heavens. Gandhi anticipated this question and answered it in this wise: “Well, seeing that the human mind works through innumerable media and that the evolution of the human mind is not the same for all, it follows that what may be truth for one may be untruth for another, and hence those who have made experiments have come to the conclusion that there are certain conditions to be observed in making those experiments. . . . Everyone should, therefore, realize his limitations before he speaks of his inner Voice.” For Gandhi, the experiment leading to the right to speak of one’s following truth must include the vow of truth, of purity, of non-violence, of poverty, and of non-possession.
What I wish here to emphasize is that Gandhi’s entire theory of non violent non-cooperation had at its center the principle of truth or obedience to one’s conscience, a consuming conviction burnished by the fire of a pure life. The true Satyagrahi (that is, one who fellows truth, Satyagraha, or the non-violent way) cannot be the tool of self-interest or the victim of prejudice or a moment’s emotion. He must be deeply convicted after long and humble self-searching. “One discovers Truth,” said Gandhi, “by patient endeavor and silent prayer. I can only assure friends that I spare no pains to grope my way to the right, and that humble but constant endeavour and silent prayer are my two trusty companions along the weary but beautiful path that all seekers must tread.”
If there is any doubt as to the hold of truth upon Gandhi, one need only recall that he identified God with truth. “I have come to the conclusion,” he said, “that for myself God is Truth.” Then, he added that he had gone a step further and was prepared to say that truth is God.
Having heard this from him, that truth is one’s own and deepest inner voice and that this is God, it is at first unsettling to hear him say also: “The very insistence on Truth has taught me to appreciate the beauty of compromise. . . . But Truth is hard as adamant and tender as a blossom. The golden rule of conduct, therefore, is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we shall see Truth in fragment and from dif ferent angles of vision. Conscience is not the same thing for all. Whilst ividual conduct, imposition of that con duct upon all will be an insufferable interference with everybody’s freedom of conscience.” None, thought Gandhi, can realize truth perfectly “so long as we are imprisoned in this mortal frame,” but men do have the obligation to experiment in their search and they have the right to err. He said “compromise,” but he did not mean compromise on fundamentals.
Here then is a central principle upon which Gandhi built his program— truth or conscience, the voice of God itself, but a principle which never prevented him from, indeed, which led him to endless, tireless effort to reach agreement with those who differed with him.
The second great principle of Gandhi’s program was non-violence. “And,” says he, “when you want to find Truth as God, the only inevitable means is Love, i.e., non-violence, and since I believe that ultimately means and ends are convertible terms, I should not hesitate to say that God is Love.”
In this, two very important ideas are apparent: the first, that non violence is equated with love; and second, that truth and love are the twin pillars upon which Gandhi’s great revolutionary program rests.
Let us now take a further look at the nature of non-violence as Gandhi saw it. Repeatedly, Gandhi made it clear that non-violence is not to be confined to physical action but that it involves also words and even thoughts: “One had better not speak it,” he said, “if one cannot do so in a gentle way, meaning that there is no truth in a man who cannot control his tongue.” This does not suggest, he makes clear, that one should be deterred from telling a truth which may for the moment appear harsh or unpopular for fear of wounding susceptibilities.^The intention never to do violence must be controlling.
For Gandhi, in the second place, non-violence is non-violence of the strong and not of the weak. At the beginning of his mission, he was offended by South African interpretations that this method was devised for the weak, and toward the close of his life he was hurt beyond words that his own people had never learned the lesson that non-violence was of the strong and not of the weak. What virtue is there in a man being non-violent when he possesses no weapons? “Non-violence,” he says, “presupposes the ability to strike. It is a conscious, deliberate restraint put upon one’s desire for ven geance.” He rejected the use of the term “passive resistence” because of its being interpreted as a weapon of the weak. Moreover, he said, “Non cooperation is not a passive state, it is an intensely active state.”
Again non-violence makes a distinction between evil and the evil doer, and a Satyagrahi must never forget the distinction. He must not habour ill- will or bitterness against the latter (that is the evil doer). He may not even employ needlessly offensive language against the evil doer however un relieved his evil might be. No attack upon character should be made and no word should be spoken that will do lasting injury, lead to later regret, and make reconciliation impossible, remembering that the purpose is always to convince and correct, to reconcile and not to coerce. “. . . It is an article of faith with every Satyagrahi that there is no one so fallen.in this world but can be converted by love.” Gandhi was glad to contrast his attitude toward the colonial policy of the British Empire and his determination that not even the hair of one Britisher should be harmed.
Said he, “I hate the system of government that the British people have set up in India. I hate the ruthless exploitation of India. . . . But I do not hate the domineering Englishmen. … I seek to reform them in all the loving ways that are open to me. My non-cooperation has its roots not in hatred, but in love. My personal religion pre-emptorily forbids me to hate anybody.”
We are led immediately to an idea so fundamental that to fail to under stand it is to fail completely to grasp the spirit and method of Gandhi. I repeat these words from Gandhi: “For it is an article of faith with every Satyagrahi that there is no one so fallen in this world but can be converted by love.” Without this faith there can be no non-violence in the Gandhian sense. Read Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth. Follow him day by day along the torturous path of bringing an empire to bay or making “untouch ables” “Children of God,” and you will see not only the persistence in him of his faith in human beings but its near miraculous power.
“If I am a follower of ahimsa (non-violence),” says Gandhi, “I must love my enemy. I must apply the same rules to the wrong-doer who is my enemy or a stranger to me as I would to my wrong-doing father or son.” This is hard but it is the price which Gandhian non-violence exacts. “Having flung aside the sword,” he says, “there is nothing except the cup of love which I can offer to those who oppose me. It is by offering that cup that I expect to draw them close to me. I live in the hope that if not in this birth, in some other birth I shall be able to hug all humanity in friendly embrace.”
The Exaltation of the Means
I come now to a third principle of Satyagraha, the relation of means to ends. Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav writer, whose recent book, The New Class, has created such a sensation, states that “nothing so well reveals the reality and greatness of ends as the methods used to attain them.” There is still, however, a subtle and dangerous fascination in the doctrine that “the end justifies the means,” and no doubt many a well-intentioned person has fallen under its allurements. Gandhi wrestled strenuously with this problem for his was the need of fashioning means for the attainment of certain over riding ends and he was forced to make his choice in the light of a principle or court moral chaos. He defined his position unmistakably. He wrote that men often say, “Means are after all means.” He said, “Means are after all everything. As the means so the end. There is no wall of separation between means and end. . . . Realization of the goal is in exact proportion to that of the means. This is a proposition that admits of no exception.” He went on to compare the seed to the means and the end to the tree, and to quote the maxim, “As is the God, so is the Votary.” He says one would scarcely speak of worshipping God by means of Satan. “We reap exactly what we sow.”
It was suggested to Gandhi that the English had attained certain ends by brute force and that it was possible for the Indians to do likewise. To which Gandhi answered that surely Indians did not want that—the very kind of subjugation from which they were then struggling to be freed.
Or, as he said to me on the eve of India’s freedom, “We could have killed the British and perhaps have had our freedom but it would not have been this way.” By “this way” he meant that of the British leaving peace fully without the outward sign of animosity and the prospect of the two nations living not only in peace but in friendship. Twenty-five years earlier he had said, “Let there be no manner of doubt that Swaraj (freedom) estab lished by non-violent means will be different in kind from the Swaraj that can be established by armed rebellion. . . . Violent means will give violent Swaraj. That would be a menace to the world and to India herself.” For him, it was not the immediate but the enduring result which mattered.
The application of Gandhi’s philosophy of means and ends can be seen clearly in what he held to be the relationship of non-violence] to truth. Truth is the end. Non-violence is the means. To take care of the means, to keep them pure, is to reach the end sooner or later. Ultimate victory is assured.
Gandhi’s program of non-violent resistance or non-cooperation is often associated solely with his efforts to free India from British rule or from any one or more of the oppressive aspects of that rule. It was more than this. It involved intra-Indian conflicts and included numerous constructive movements within Indian life which in Gandhi’s view were essential to the winning of the freedom sought more directly by forms of non-violent resistence.
Untouchability was a curse in Indian life which Gandhi could not abide, and against this institution he fought relentlessly and against great odds. “My idea of village Swaraj,” he said, “is that it is a complete repub lic. . . . There will be no castes such as we have today with their graded untouchability. Non-violence with its technique of Satyagraha and non cooperation will be the sanction of the village community.” He said further, “I have put untouchability in the forefront because I observe a certain remissness about it. . . . We can never reach Swaraj with the poison of un touchability corroding the Hindu part of the national body. Swaraj is a meaningless term if we desire to keep a fifth of India under perpetual sub jection and deliberately deny them the fruits of national culture. . . . In human ourselves, we may not plead before the Throne for deliverance from the inhumanity of others.”
Gandhi did not simply speak and write against untouchability. He threw the full force of Satyagraha and his very life against it. In 1924 and 1925 Satyagraha was undertaken in Vykom in the Province of Travancore, South India. Its purpose was to obtain permission for “untouchables” to use certain roads about the temple in Vykom. Gandhi was not present in Travancore, but from a distance he sent advice and encouragement. The importance he attached to this episode is seen in the following statement which he made in Young India, the paper he was editing at that time: “The Vykom Satyagrahis are fighting a battle of no less consequence than that of Swaraj. They are fighting against an age-long wrong and prejudice. It is supported by orthodoxy, superstition, custom and authority. Theirs is only one among the many battles that must be fought in the holy war against irreligion masquerading as religion, ignorance appearing in the guise of learning.”
In September, 1932, Gandhi was in jail after his threat of a civil dis obedience campaign against the passage of certain oppressive ordinances by the British. From newspapers he had learned that the new constitution for India proposed by the British was to grant separate electorates for the “untouchables,” that is, that these members of the so-called “Depressed Classes” would have both a vote as Hindus and a vote as “Untouchables.”
Previously the British had made a somewhat similar provision for both Moslems and Hindus. To Gandhi this would be unbearable. He could not suffer these people to be separated from other Hindus in this statutory manner. As he wrote to Prime Minister MacDonald, it was a matter of pure religion, for it would arrest “the marvellous growth of the work of Hindu reformers who have dedicated themselves to their suppressed brethren in every walk of life.” The decision of the Government, therefore, he must resist with his life, in a fast unto death. This fast, he said, “is aimed at a statutory separate electorate, in any shape or form, for the Depressed Classes. Immediately that threat is removed once for all, my fast will end.” Since the British had stated that any different and mutually satisfactory agreement reached by the Hindus and “Untouchables” would be satisfac tory to them, this fast, according to Gandhi, was “to sting Hindu conscience into right religious action.” Such an agreement was reached and on the sixth day the fast was ended. During the period of the fast “a spirit of reform, penance, and self purification swept the land.” Hundreds of temples were opened to “untouchables,” thousands of the orthodox who had never received food from “Untouchables,” did so: villages, towns, and cities, or ganizations of many kinds, resolved to stop discrimination against these people. The fast has rightly been called the “Epic Fast,” and it was directed by Gandhi at his own people.
Another acute internal problem which haunted Gandhi was that of the unhappy Hindu-Moslem relations. The causes were both ancient and new and very deep. But Gandhi knew that tragedy for India was the price of continued failure to solve the problem. The freedom of India, he felt, depended upon Hindu-Moslem friendship. In 1919 he was given an oppor tunity to take a step toward reconciliation. The Moslems of India were deeply distressed that the Armistice of November 11, 1918, following the defeat of the Central powers, provided not only for the overthrow of the Turkish Sultan as temporal sovereign but as the Caliph or religious head of Islam, in spite of the promises made by Lloyd George, British Prime Minister, that the suzerainty of their religious head would be respected. This was a source of deep distress to the Moslems of India who organized a powerful opposition movement called Khilafat. Gandhi sympathized with the Moslems of India and persuaded the Congress, which was the organiza tion for the mobilization of Indian opposition to foreign rule and oppres sion, to engage in a movement of non-cooperation on behalf of the Moslem position. This non-cooperation provided for a boycott of British exports, British schools, British courts, British jobs, and British honors. Unhappily for Indian Moslems, Kemal Pasha (Ataturk), the powerful leader of the new Turkey, deposed the Caliph and left the Moslems in India without a cause. But Gandhi had attempted one more contribution toward the strengthening of Hindu-Moslem relations and toward the freedom of the Indian people.
Gandhi was deeply opposed to the use of alcoholIf beverages and to all the other evils growing out of the use of intoxicants there was the inability of those who were in their grip to contribute moral effort to Satyagraha. He urged especially that women take up agitation against the sale of liquors, and women who had lived the most sheltered lives were to be found in picket lines outside stores dispensing intoxicants. Moreover, they were enjoined to lay hold of the hearts of those given to drink by the provision of recreational facilities and other acts of loving service.
Dear to the heart of Mr. Gandhi was his movement called Swadeshi and Khadi. These too, he felt, were indispensable to the attainment of freedom. Swadeshi is the use of all home-made things, in so far as such use is necessary for the protection of home industry—more especially those in dustries without which India would become pauperized. Gandhi was so fervent about the importance of Swadeshi that he addressed huge meetings and asked those present to take off such garments as were foreign made and place them in a pile. He would then set fire to the pile. Inherent in the move ment is the sacrifice of a love for fineries and gladness in the wearing of coarse but beautifully hand-woven fabrics of India.
Khadi is this homespun cloth. Not only did Gandhi declare against the use of foreign-made cloth and for the wearing of homespun garments; he demanded that Indians make the garments themselves. Let every one be come his own spinner, he urged. Spinning he put in the center of the Satyagraha program, “no haphazard programme of spinning, but scientific understanding of every detail, including the mechanics and the mathema tics of it, study of cotton and its varieties, and so on.” “That,” he said, “is the mass constructive programme I want you to do, and that is the basis of the training for the non-violence of the brave.” In this program, Gandhi led, for he spun his cotton and he reduced his needs for clothing practically to a loin cloth.
Satyagraha had, therefore, what Gandhi called its constructive side. In this side he included many other programs but it is well illustrated by his determined efforts to heal the divisions of caste among the Hindus, to unite Hindus and Moslems, to break Indians away from intoxicants, and to unite the nation in the rejection of foreign fineries and in the making of their own necessary apparel.
I come now to the principle of renunciation, the final principle of Gandhi’s movement of non-violent non-cooperation which I shall discuss. Gandhi’s recurrent theme was “I must reduce myself to zero.” From the beginning of his program he almost achieved this in matters material. In England he knew how to play the English gentleman. All this was changed, however, by his bitter experiences in South Africa and his dogged determination to do what he could about them. To his son he wrote: “Remember please that henceforth our lot is poverty. . . . The uses of poverty are far sweeter than those of riches.,, At his Tolstoy farm, which was a kind of “co-operative commonwealth” for civil resisters, the members ground their own wheat, labored at construction work, and excluded every item of food above that necessary to health. Walking to the city, a distance of 21 miles, on any private errand was the rule, and Gandhi on one day walked fifty miles.
This was the beginning of nearly fifty years of austerity. It included the barest of clothing and food, the minimum of physical comforts of every sort; it included, at the age of 61, a walk to the sea of twenty-four days to break the law against the making of salt. Gandhi spent years in prison. At the age of thirty-seven, in marriage, he took the vow of sexual abstinence which vow he kept to the end of his life. His fasts were numerous. He died a martyr.
Why this renunciation and self-suffering on the part of Gandhi? He reminds us that sacrifice means to make sacred. He knew and he told those who would be leaders of the people that they must become one with the people. Said he of the people, “We must first come in living touch with them by working for them and in their midst. We must share their sorrows, understand their difficulties and anticipate their wants. With the pariahs we must be pariahs and see how we feel to clean the closets of the upper classes and have the remains of their table thrown at us. . . . Then and not till then shall we truly represent the masses and they will, as surely as I am writing this, respond, respond to every call.”
Or again he says, “The Satyagrahi s course is plain. He must stand unmoved in the midst of all cross currents. He may not be impatient with blind orthodoxy, nor be irritated over unbelief of the suppressed people. He must know that his suffering will melt the stoniest fanatic. . . . He must know that relief will come when there is least hope for it. For such is the way of the cruelly-kind Deity who insists upon testing His devotee through a fiery furnace and delights in humbling him to the dust.”
Leading India to freedom was a monumental achievement of Gandhi. But if freedom had never been attained, leading the Indian people by his own example to sacrifice themselves in the struggle for freedom would have been an achievement equally as monumental. Thousands upon thous ands of them entered the prisons and some died there, including Kasturbai, his wife. They were beaten; they were killed. Following his example they entered upon the simple life, even the formerly well-to-do. They spun and wore khadi; they foreswore intoxicants; they embraced the lowliest, lived among them, died among them. They reduced themselves, in their sights, to zeros. This was renunciation, the fifth great principle of non-violent non cooperation.
These are principles upon which the great Gandhian experiment was based: truth, non-violence, the exaltation of the means, constructive service, and renunciation. The experiment was determinative in the winning of India’s freedom. It altered the lives of countless Indians. But the experi ment is not completed. There is still oppression in the world, humiliation, and other offense. Well might we join in the wish of the President of India, Rajendra Prasad, recently uttered: “May some individual or nation arise and carry forward the effort launched by him till the experiment is com pleted, the work finished and the objective achieved.”
Nirmai Kumar Bose, Selectionsfrom Gandhi (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1948) M. K. Gandhi, The Story of My Experiment With Truth (Washington, D. C., Public Affairs
M. K. Gandhi, Satyagraha (Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House, 1951)
M. K. Gandhi, Non-Violence in Peace and War (Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House,
Gopinath Dhawan, The Political Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi (Ahmedabad, Navajivan
Publishing House, 1946)
Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi, The Last Phase (Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House, 1956) D. G. Tendulkai, Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. 8 Vols. (Bombay, V. K. Jhaveri and
D. G. Tendulkai Publishers, 1951-1954)
Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (New York, Harper and Brothers, 1950)
Yet no one really believes that science is the one perfect mode of disseminating mistakes. The progressive ascertainment of Truth is the important thing to remember in the history of science, not its innumerable mistakes. Error, by its nature, cannot be stationary; it cannot remain with truth; like a tramp, it must quit its lodging as soon as it fails to pay its score to the full.
Being a confirmed war resister, I have never given myself training in the use of destructive weapons in spite of opportunities to take such training. It was perhaps thus that I escaped direct destruction of human life. But so long as I lived under a system of Government based on force and voluntarily partook of the many facilities and privileges it created for me, I was bound to help that Government to the extent of my ability when it was engaged in a war, unless I non-co-operated with the Government and renounced to the utmost of my capacity the privileges it offered me.
It is worse than anarchy to partition a poor country like India whose every corner is populated by Hindus and Muslims living side by side. It is like cutting up a living body into pieces. No one will be able to tolerate this plain murder. I do not say this as a Hindu. I say this as a representative of Hindus, Muslims, Parsees and all. I would say to my Muslim brethren, ‘Cut me to pieces first and then divide India.’… If we continue to fight among ourselves, the shackles of slavery will never be removed. The British are bound to quit this country. They are a nation of businessmen. They calculate the profit and loss from every transaction. They have realized this, it is no longer profitable to rule India. But what good will that freedom be to us if we continue to fight among ourselves after the British leave?
When two nations are fighting, the duty of a votary of AHIMSA is to stop the war. He who is not equal to that duty, he who has no power of resisting war, he who is not qualified to resist war, may take part in war and yet whole-heartedly try to free himself, his nation and the world from war.
All activity for stopping war must prove fruitless so long as the causes of war are not understood and radically dealt with. Is not he prime cause of modern wars the inhuman race for exploitation of the so-called weaker races of the earth? (Young India, 9-5-1929, p. 148)
What is happening today is disregard of the law of non-violence and enthronement of violence as if it were an eternal law… We see today a mad race for outdoing one another in the matter of armaments.
Personally, I think the end of this giant war will be what happened in the fabled Mahabharata war. The MAHABHARATA has been aptly described by a Travancorean as the Permanent History of Man. What is described in that great epic is happening today before our very eyes. The warring nations are destroying themselves with such fury and ferocity that the end will be mutual exhaustion. The victor will share the fate that awaited the surviving Pandavas. The mighty warrior Arjuna was looted in broad daylight by a petty robber. And out of this holocaust must arise a new order for which the exploited millions of toilers have so ling thirsted. The prayers of peace-lovers cannot go in vain. Satyagraha is itself an unmistakable mute prayer of an agonized soul. (Harijan, 15-2–1942, p. 40)
I AM SURE that Chitragupta, who keeps strict record at the gate of Death, must have noted down in big letters accusations against me, which had escaped my attention altogether. On the other hand many of my sins, that have passed unnoticed by others, loom large in my own memory. The story of my transgression, that I am going to relate, belongs to the latter kind, and I hope that a frank confession of it, before it is finally entered in the Book of Doom, may lessen its culpability.
It all happened yesterday afternoon, on a day of festival for the Jains in our neighbourhood. I was going out with my wife, Kalika, to tea at the house of my friend Nayanmohan.
My wife’s name means literally a ‘bud.’ It was given by my father-in-law, who is thus solely responsible for any discrepancy between its implication and the reality to which it is attached. There is not the least tremor of hesitancy in my wife’s nature; her opinions on most subjects have reached their terminus. Once, when she had been vigorously engaged in picketing against British cloth in Burrabazar, the awe-struck members of her party in a fit of excessive admiration gave her the name, Dhruva-vrata, the woman of unwavering vows.
My name is Girindra, the Lord of the Rocks, so common among my countrymen, whose character generally fails to act up to it. Kalika’s admirers simply know me as the husband of my wife and pay no heed to my name. By good luck inherited from my ancestors I have, however, some kind of significance, which is considered to be convenient by her followers at the time of collecting subscriptions.
There is a greater chance of harmony between husband and wife, when they are different in character, like the shower of rain and the dry earth, than when they are of a uniform constitution. I am somewhat slipshod by nature, having no grip over things, while my wife has a tenacity of mind which never allows her to let go the thing which it has in its clutches. This very dissimilarity helps to preserve peace in our household.
But there is one point of difference between us, regarding which no adjustment has yet become possible. Kalika believes that I am unpatriotic.
This is very disconcerting, because according to her, truth is what she proclaims to be true. She has numerous internal evidences of my love for my country; but as it disdains to don the livery of the brand of nationalism, professed by her own party, she fiercely refuses to acknowledge it.
From my younger days, I have continued to be a confirmed book-lover: indeed, I am hopelessly addicted to buying books. Even my enemies would not dare to deny that I read them; and my friends know only too well how fond I am of discussing their contents. This had the effect of eliminating most of my friends, till I have left to me Banbihari, the sole companion of my lonely debates. We have just passed through a period, when our police authorities, on the one hand, have associated the worst form of sedition with the presence of the Gita in our possession; and our patriots, on their side, have found it impossible to reconcile appreciation of foreign literature with devotion to one’s Motherland. Our traditional Goddess of culture, Saraswati, because of her white complexion, has come to be regarded with-suspicion by our young nationalists. It was openly declared, when the students shunned their College lectures, that the water of the divine lake, on which Saraswati had her white lotus seat, had no efficacy in extinguishing the fire of ill-fortune that has been raging for centuries round the throne of our Mother, Bharat-Lakshmi. In any case, intellectual culture was considered to be a superfluity in the proper growth of our political life.
In spite of my wife’s excellent example and powerful urgings I do not wear Khaddar,—not because there is anything wrong in it, nor because I am too fastidious in the choice of my wardrobe. On the contrary, among those of my traits, which are not in perfect consonance with our own national habits, I cannot include a scrupulous care as to how I dress. Once upon a time, before Kalika had her modern transformation, I used to wear broad-toed shoes from Chinese shops and forgot to have them polished. I had a dread of putting on socks: I preferred Punjabis to English shirts, and overlooked their accidental deficiency in buttons. These habits of mine constantly produced domestic cataclysms, threatening our permanent separation. Kalika declared that she felt ashamed to appear before the public in my company. I readily absolved her from the wifely duty of accompanying me to those parties where my presence would be discordant.
The times have changed, but my evil fortune persists. Kalika still has the habit of repeating: ‘I am ashamed to go out with you.’ Formerly, I hesitated to adopt the uniform of her set, when she belonged to the pre-nationalist age; and I still feel reluctant to adopt the uniform of the present regime, to which she owns her allegiance.
The fault lies deep in my own nature. I shrink from all conscious display of sectarian marks about my person. This shyness on my part leads to incessant verbal explosions in our domestic world, because of the inherent incapacity of Kalika to accept as final any natural difference, which her partner in life may possess. Her mind is like a mountain stream, that boisterously goes round and round a rock, pushing against it in a vain effort to make it flow with its own current. Her contact with a different point of view from her own seems to exercise an irresistible reflex action upon her nerves, throwing her into involuntary convulsions.
While getting ready to go out yesterday, the tone with which Kalika protested against my non-Khaddar dress was anything but sweet. Unfortunately, I had my inveterate pride of intellect, that forced me into a discussion with my wife. It was unpleasant, and what more, futile.
‘Women find it convenient,’ I said to her, ‘to veil their eyes and walk tied to the leading strings of authority. They feel safe when they deprive their thoughts of all freedom, and confine them in the strict Zenana of conformity. Our ladies today have easily developed their devotion to Khaddar, because it has added to the over-burdened list of our outward criterion’s of propriety, which seem to comfort them.’
Kalika replied with almost fanatical fury: ‘It will be a great day for my country, when the sanctity of wearing Khaddar is as blindly believed in as a dip in the holy water of the Ganges. Reason crystallised becomes custom. Free thoughts are like ghosts, which find their bodies in convention. Then alone they have their solid work, and no longer float about in a thin atmosphere of vacillation.’
I could see that these were the wise sayings of Nayanmohan, with the quotation marks worn out; Kalika found no difficulty in imagining that they were her own.
The man who invented the proverb, ‘The silent silence all antagonist’, must have been unmarried. It made my wife all the more furious, when I offered her no answer. ‘Your protest against caste’, she explained, ‘is only confined to your mouth. We, on the contrary, carry it out in practice by imposing a uniformly white cover over all colour distinctions.’
I was about to reply, that my protest against caste did truly have its origin in my mouth, whenever I accepted with relish the excellent food cooked by a Muhammadan. It was certainly oral, but not verbal; and its movements were truly inward. An external cover hides distinctions, but does not remove them.
I am sure my argument deserved utterance, but being a helpless male, I timidly sought safety in a speechless neutrality; for, I knew, from repeated experience, that such discussions, started in our domestic seclusion, are invariably carried by my wife, like soiled linen, to her friendly circle to be ruthlessly beaten and mangled. She has the unpleasant habit of collecting counter-arguments from the mouth of Professor Nayanmohan, exultantly flinging them in my face, and then rushing away from the arena without waiting for my answer.
I was perfectly certain about what was in store for me at the Professor’s tea-table. There would be some abstruse dissertation on the relative position in Hindu culture of tradition and free thought, the inherited experience of ages and reason which is volatile, inconclusive, and colourlessly universal. In the meanwhile, the vision floated before my mind’s eye of the newly-brought books, redolent of Morocco leather, mysteriously veiled in a brown paper cover, waiting for me by my cushions, with their shy virginity of uncut pages.
All the same, I was compelled to keep my engagement by the dread of words, uttered and unuttered, and gestures suggestive of trouble.
We had travelled only a short distance from our house. Passing by the street-hydrant, we had reached the tiled hut occupied by an up-country shopkeeper, who was giving various forms to indigestibility in his cauldron of boiling mustard oil, when we were obstructed by a fearful uproar.
The Marwaris, proceeding to their temple, carrying their costly paraphernalia of worship, had suddenly stopped at this place. There were angry shouts, mingled with the sound of thrashing, and I thought that the crowd were dealing with some pickpocket, enjoying the vigour of their own indignation, which gave them-the delightful freedom to be merciless towards one of their own fellow beings. When, by dint of impatient footing of horn, our motor car reached the centre of the excited crowd, we found that the old municipal sweeper of our district was being beaten. He had just taken his afternoon bath and was carrying a bucket of clean water in his right hand with a broom under his arm. Dressed in a check-patterned vest, with carefully combed hair still wet, he was walking home, holding his seven-year-old grandson by his left hand, when accidentally he came in contact with somebody, or something, which gave rise to this violent outburst. The boy was piteously imploring everybody not to hurt his grandfather; and the old man himself with joined hands uplifted, was asking forgiveness for his unintentional offence. Tears were streaming from his frightened eyes, and blood was smeared across his grey beard.
The sight was intolerable to me. I decided at once to take up the sweeper into my car and thereby demonstrate to the pious party, that I was not of their cult.
Noticing my restlessness, Kalika guessed what was in my mind. Griping my arm, she whispered: ‘What are you doing? Don’t you see he is a sweeper?’
‘He maybe a sweeper,’ said I, ‘but those people have no right to beat him in this brutal manner.’
‘It’s his own fault.’ Kalika answered, ‘Would it have hurt his dignity, if he had avoided the middle of the road?’
‘I don’t know’, I said impatiently. ‘Anyhow, I am going to take him into my car.’
‘Then I leave your car this moment,’ said Kalika angrily. ‘I refuse to travel with a sweeper.’
‘Can’t you see,’ I argued, ‘that he was just bathed, and his clothes are clean,—in fact, much cleaner than those of the people who are beating him?’
“He’s a sweeper!” She said decisively. Then she called to the chauffeur, ‘Gangadin, drive on’.
I was defeated. It was my cowardice.
Nayanmohan, I am told, brought out some very profound sociological arguments, at the tea-table, specially dealing with the inevitable inequality imposed upon men by their profession and the natural humiliation which is inherent in the scheme of things. But his words did not reach my ears, and I sat silent all through the evening.
Sue Bailey Thurman and Howard Thurman travelled to India, Burma and Ceylon, as part of the first African-American delegation to colonial India in 1935-1936, at the height of its anti-colonial struggle against the British Empire. Known as the Pilgrimage of Friendship to the East, the delegation was organized by the Student Christian Movement in the United States in tandem with Christian student organizations in India, Ceylon, and Burma. The leader of the Christian student organizations in southern Asia at this time was a man named Augustine Ralla Ram, who felt that a black Christian delegation would be more accepted than white missionaries who cooperated with the British Empire, as Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt discuss in their new book, Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African-American Nonviolence. He called the delegation because “Christianity in India is the oppressors religion” and that “there would be a unique value in having representatives of another oppressed group speak on the validity of the contribution of Christianity” (quoted in Dixie and Eisenstadt 70). An article in the Spelman Messenger reported Augustine Ram Ralla’s interest in “The social and class distinctions to which Negroes in America are subjected” which “seemed to parallel, to some degree, caste distinctions in India” (70).
The delegation was chaired by Howard Thurman, a renowned theologian and civil rights agitator who would become a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., introducing the young King to Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence. The significance of their visit to furthering mutual understanding between India and African-America cannot be underscored enough as it was the first Black Christian delegation to tour India. The pilgrimage would also constitute an crucial dimension of Thurman’s 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited, a work of great spiritual striving and erudition, which King carried with him everywhere. Knowing this history is vital to understanding King’s oft-quoted remark that while he went as a tourist to other countries, to India he came as a pilgrim. In this book, Thurman would argue that
American Christianity has betrayed the religion of Jesus almost beyond redemption. Churches have been established for the underprivileged, the weak, the poor on the theory they prefer to be among themselves. Churches have been established for the Chinese, the Japanese, the Korean, the Mexican, the Filipino, the Italian and the Negro with the same theory in mind. The result is that in the one place in which normal, free contacts might be most naturally established – in which the relations of the individual to his God should take priority over conditions of class, race, power, status, wealth or the like – this place is one of the chief instruments for guaranteeing barriers. (Jesus and the Disinherited 98)
Thurman was King’s senior by thirty years, sharing the same birth year with his father: 1899. His proselytization, teaching, and scholarship at Howard University and Boston University, had a profound influence on the civil rights struggle and black leadership in the twentieth century. His philosophy emphasized the oneness of humanity and his theology emphasized communion with God and nature as a way of arriving at the truth about human existence. He saw the segregation of the Christian church in the United States as a great evil and his search for peace took him to India, where he and Sue Bailey Thurman, lectured widely and built relations with prominent figures like Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi.
Though Gandhi had embraced the teachings of Christ by the time the Thurman delegation came to India, most Indians were antagonistic towards Western Christianity given its repression of native spiritual traditions and saw great hope in African-American interpretations of Christ’s teachings. As Gandhi put it, he loved Christ, but couldn’t say the same about white Christians, who invoked the Bible to justify colonial violence against the darker races: “Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” King also drew attention to this central contradiction in Christianity, noting in a fiery 1956 sermon about “Redirecting Our Missionary Zeal“:
The paradox of it all is that the white man considers himself the supreme missionary. He sends [millions] of dollars to the foreign field. And in the midst of that he tramples over the Negro.
Gandhi began developing his own interests in Christianity as early as South Africa, after having come in contact with an English priest named Charles Andrews, who decried the white church’s treatment of Africans and Indians and lent his support to Gandhi who was there to study the condition of Indian laborers. In 1929, Andrews traveled to the United States and spoke on the theory of nonviolence at black colleges and universities. At the time, Gandhi was organizing the Indian people against the repressive imperialist tax on salt, which culminated in the great Dandi Satyagraha, where he marched more than. 150 miles from Sabarmati, with upwards of 60,000 Indians vowing to produce their own salt, in defiance of the British tax on the sale of salt. The act commanded the attention of the world to the struggle of the Indians, and was widely covered by the international press.
But Gandhi’s ambition was much higher than independence. “Through the deliverance of India,” he said, “I seek to deliver the so-called weaker races of the Earth from the crushing heels of Western exploitation in which England is the greatest partner” (see “Independence vs. Swaraj, 12 January 1928). White Christianity was an integral part of Western exploitation. Like Thurman, Gandhi believed that the consequences of racial strife and Western exploitation were manifested them most tragically in the inner life of human beings, in the dilapidation of the soul, in the breaking of the spirit, in the negation humanity’s fundamental interconnectedness to each other as well as to God and nature.
As King put it later, we are all wrapped in a single garment of destiny and so responsible to the “cosmic partnership.” Western civilization, by contrast, had done great violence to this unity and oneness of mankind, valorizing in its wake man’s inhumanity to man. It was for this reason that Gandhi would refer to segregation as a “negation of civilization,” a thought that King would echo in his sermon, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” whose allegorization and ventriloquization of the Apostle Paul as a character requires King to go into a dramatic monologue. Here, he impresses upon the Afro-Asiatic origins of Western civilization, like Gandhi, drawing attention to the fact that Paul would have been writing in Greek. The irony of reading this speech through a Gandhian looking glass tripled when we consider the fact that Paul is beaten, arrested, jailed, and beheaded by the Emperor Nero for his bearing and conveying the teachings of Christ, king of the Disinherited, as Thurman knew him to be.
As is somewhat well-known, King came to the teachings of Gandhi during his time in Pennsylvania, where I am writing this from. He studied at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, where in a homework assignment, he recognized Gandhi for having revealed to him “the working of the spirit of God in bringing about moral transformation within the individual.” He confesses to becoming a disciple of Gandhi upon listening to a lecture given by Mordecai Johnson in Philadelphia, shortly after the Howard University president’s own trip to India.
Mirabehn (née Miriam Slade), an English disciple of Gandhi’s, played an important role in the concretization of the Thurman delegation’s invitation to India. Mirabehn who was christened as such by Gandhi himself, was a prominent British admiral’s daughter. Thurman, who had been searching for a way to organize a meeting with Gandhi, intercepted her during her visit to the U.S. As he writes of her in his autobiography, With Head and Heart
She was an Englishwoman who had given up her life in England not only to become a mere follower of Gandhi but also to live in his ashram as a member of the family community of which he was the center…Her situation was unique because she was a woman of the upper class And had given up her way of life, abandoning the goals of her peers, including wealth and status.
Now an Englishwoman who had renounced imperial Christianity, Mirabehn took it upon herself to defend Gandhi against his Western critics, leveraging her position as an upper-class white woman . By this time, Gandhi had transmuted the existing Indian National Congress into a mass movement clamoring for Indian self-rule through a constructive program, which included the boycott of British goods and cultural institutions, an act that led to the mass jailing of thousands of satyagrahis, as his disciples were known, including Gandhi himself who was arrested and jailed in 1922 for two years on charges of sedition.
After making many inquiries as to her whereabouts, Thurman arranged for Mirabehn to give a lecture at Howard University:
I told her as Howard was the only Negro university of its kind in the United States, her experience there could not be duplicated anywhere else in the world.
In her address, she analyzed the connections between Gandhi’s teachings and those of Christ. She emphasized, that Christianity had arisen in the Near East, remarking that “the greatest spiritual teachings of the world have all come from the darker races.” As Gandhian philosopher-poetess Sarojini Naidu, had put it, “Jesus was an Asiatic, like me.” Watching Mirabehn speak passionately about these matters, Thurman came to a new awareness of the interconnectedness of Negro and Indian spiritual striving. Grateful for the experience at Howard, Mirabehn assured Thurman that she would relay his interest in visiting Gandhi’s ashram and she made good on her promise for Gandhi wrote back to Thurman:
Dear friend… I shall be delighted to have you and your three friends whenever you can come before the end of the year.
British officials initially opposed the trip, seeing the political connection between Afro-America and India as a threat to white supremacy and the colonial government. Sue Bailey Thurman, who was also invited as an official member of the delegation (not simply in her capacity as Thurman’s spouse), served as an important adviser on African American affairs to Mahatma Gandhi. During the visit to Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s University, she lectured on the historical and aesthetic development of Negro spirituals in America called “The History Of Negro Music,” after Tagore impressed upon her how much the Indian people found inspiration in African-American spirituals and traditionals. Coretta Scott King would discover the same sentiments amongst Indians, who had a great regard for the spiritual strivings of their black brothers and sisters in struggle. While in India, Sue Thurman taught local choirs how to sing spirituals and continued to develop these interests upon her return to the U.S. Thurman writes in his autobiography, “Sue delivered [lectures on the beauties of Indian civilization] at many campuses and communities in the United States and Canada on her return home.” She stayed at Shantiniketan longer than Thurman because “she wanted to learn more about India’s ancient musical instruments,” particularly the veena, a long-necked string instrument with a domed gourd on either end.
The delegation only met with Gandhi about five months into their visit, two weeks shy of their return. Gandhi, realizing that their stay was coming to an end, wrote them a note inviting them to Bardoli, where he was resting, rather than the sevagram. Thurman was lecturing at the University Of Bombay at the time. In his autobiography, Thurman writes of their discourse:
Never in my life have I been a part of the that kind of examination: persistent, pragmatic questions about American Negroes, about the course of slavery and how we had survived it.
The conversation about slavery took them to the question of religion and civilization, namely the existence of hierarchies amongst worshippers in all world religions except Islam. Gandhi reserved the highest respect for the Muslim Faith, noting that
If you had become Muslim, Then even though you were a slave, in the faith you would be equal to your master.
Likewise, he argued that Hinduism had been corrupted by caste and that as Hindus, we have lost our self-respect not because of the colonizer, primarily, but because of the presence of untouchability in Hinduism, which was–and remains–the greatest hurdle to be overcome by modern adherents of the faith.
As their three-hour conversation drew to a close (The Thurmans had to catch a train back to Bombay), Gandhi requests a song of them, the spiritual, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” (see here for Paul Robeson’s rendition which Gandhi likely encountered):
I feel this song gets to the root of the experience of the entire human race under the spread of the healing wings of suffering.
Thurman remarks that his wife was the real musician, but that he and the others would accompany her and so they joined in song as “Gandhiji and his friends bowed their heads in prayer.” As they took leave, Gandhi bestows a basket of tropical fruit to Sue Bailey Thurman, at which point Howard Thurman requests of him a gift of his own. After gazing upon the spinning wheel which accompanied Gandhi everywhere, he asks for a piece of khadi, the revolutionary fabric that would set India free:
I would like a piece of cloth that you yourself have spun from the flax.
In the ninth chapter of his 1946 inquiry The World and Africa, which explores the role played by Africa in the ancient and modern world, W.E.B Du Bois theorizes the black foundations of Asiatic civilization, citing as evidence the African origins of the name “Nahsi” and the black features of the Buddha and Krishna, two of India’s most revered gods. Siddhartha Gautama who ascended to Enlightenment many centuries before Hume, Kant, and Hegel, sought to liberate Hinduism from the strictures of inequality and chart out a selfless path of human being-in-the-world. Du Bois copiously illustrates the long history of trade and inter-civilizational exchange in the Afro-Asiatic zone–the region above the Sahara Desert linking the African continent to the Asian land-mass, particularly the Indian subcontinent, in antiquity as well as by modern developments. Moreover, sub-Saharan Africa and India met in the body of water we now call the Indian Ocean and Roman North Africa had extensive trade relationships with the Indian peninsula. Finally, these continents were linked by the spread of Christianity and Islam.
As Du Bois confirms
The Asiatic and African blacks were strewn along a straight path between tropical Asia and tropical Africa and there was much racial intermingling between Africa and Western Asia.
He advances a scientific argument that presents evidence about race relations in the framework of historical materialism, guided by the logic of the Marxist dialectic. As such, though he draws on mythology and literature and indeed European ethnography as primary sources, he reads them to reconstruct a picture of the world that counters the Western imperial order, one in which the dark proletariat leads humanity in our common efforts to build a civilization founded on principles of peace and freedom. As a sociologist, Du Bois was interested in studying aspects of social life arising from human actions. As a humanist, he was guided by the belief that humanity had emerged from a common origin in Africa before developing continuously to our present condition. Ancient Greece and Rome were not European or “Caucasian”, per the evolving field of race science in Europe which struggled to establish the origins of humanity even while denying kinship with African and Africoid peoples throughout the world. Such was the vastness of the shadow cast by the Du Boisian epistemology on the history of science. Scientists today confirm what Du Bois discovered in 1946: that bi-pedalism, tool use, and language first arose in Africa before spreading to Asia about 2 million years ago and to the Americas by way of the Atlantic and the Pacific and later to Europe. Settled cultivation of land and use of iron began in Africa, as we now know. Du Bois was one of the first historians to insist upon this truth in the West in his pivotal study, The World and Africa which was published in America at the height of Jim Crow as a wave of virulent anti-communism swept the nation. The ground-breaking philosophy of history argued that contrary to white civilization, Black Africans had not only contributed to but led civilization in all epochs of human history.
Social science saw the history of human being in the world as a materially unified whole capable of being studied scientifically. Humanity’s origins were relatively recent in the history of the modern world and each phase of its development was characterized by a different relationship to means of production and reproduction. For example, means of production differed in the Stone Age and the Iron Age; during the latter, which began earlier in Africa, human beings discovered iron as a raw material, welding it to create tools, weapons, and other implements to improve their lives and build civilization. Du Bois’s intervened in the debate about positivism in Western social science, which suggested that the laws of the human social world operated in the same way as the laws of the natural world, a premise which he exposed as a fallacy. As he continued his scientific study of social life and human actions he realized that there was something incalculable about humanity–human behavior is counterintuitive and human consciousness infinitely variable, always operating in movement of time as an unknown factor. Moreover, as he increasingly turns to the work of Karl Marx and strengthens his commitment to the world Communist movement, he understands that each epoch of human history, and its attendant form of social organization, was constitutionally shaped by the mode of production upon which it depended. Hence, he saw that the world around him–a world riven by the color line–was so because it depended on a system of production that necessitated subjugation of the darker races and most especially the black race to labor for the capitalist planter and merchant.Thus, his dialectical reasoning interprets the ancient and modern past of humanity and human action in terms of their political and economic consequences for the dark nations in order to carve out a path for revolutionary change and non-capitalist development.
The rise of Islam and Christianity in the past two thousand years and the latter’s deployment in defense of European capitalism and slavery inculcated new civilizational developments for humanity in the medieval and modern period. Du Bois’s argument in this chapter also reminds me that both Hinduism and Islam developed against the spread of Western Christianity which also took on a new life in Africa and Asia, like other Abrahamic religions, and amongst African-Americans and indigenous American peoples in the New World colonies of Europe. His hypothesis is also confirmed by recent investigations of scholars such as Kosambi, Abu-Lughod, Gunder-Frank, Panikkar, and, to some extent, Wallerstein, though what distinguishes the Du Boisian thesis from the above and even a Martin Bernal is his commitment to a revolutionary politic, exemplified by his lifelong search for a broad strategy for human liberation and in particular, the unconditional freedom of the African-American people, who continue to wage a heroic struggle against the forces of white supremacy and war in the heart of the American Empire.
As he argues in his “Guiding One-Hundredth Address,” race is not solely a physical reality; it is, first and foremost, a psycho-social dynamic in that the racial experience of each group is shaped by its relation to the social power structure, means of production, which together shape the movement of history. This Karl Marx understood is the struggle of the oppressed to overcome the oppressor in the pursuit of freedom, a deeply human drive. As he puts it here
all races really are a cultural group. It is too bad that we have to use the world “cultural” for so many meanings. But what it means in modern scientific thought is that 15, 000, 000 men and women who for three centuries have shared common suffering and have worked all those days and nights together for their own survival and progress; that this complex of habits and manners could not and must not be lost. That person’s sharing this experience formed a race no matter what their blood may be. That this race must be conserved for the benefit of the Negro people themselves and for mankind. I came then to Advocate not pride of biological race but pride in a cultural group, integrated and expanded by developed ideals so as to form a method of progress.”
Du Bois compels us to revisit the inconvenient truth that in the past four hundred years, the white race has subjugated the darker races to toil on its behalf so as to sustain its criminal pursuits throughout the world. It was thus no wonder that the struggles of black folk in America for peace and freedom from slavery and later, segregation, and the struggles of colonized peoples throughout the world against imperialism and European domination germinated a tremendous renaissance of civilization amongst the darker races in the twentieth century, from Baldwin in America to Tagore in India. The dark proletariat created civilization in the face of soul-seeping oppression, pressing on in its heroic quest to free society from imperial tyranny and monopoly capital, and to define and interpret reality so as to gain control of it and thereby, transform it themselves.
Du Bois’s thesis is a significant discovery because at the time he was writing in America, whites were perpetuating the lie that civilization amongst black people was impossible,drawing on this rhetoric to deny the connection of African-America to Africa–and the latter’s relation o Asia–so as to justify the slave trade and slavery, both of which formed the basis of the capitalist mode of production, a process that began in the early modern period and created the conditions for modern life aaa we know it. Thus, Du Bois marshals a wealth of evidence attesting to the achievements of black civilizations throughout the world in order to show the complexity of black peoples worldwide and to disprove, by way of scientific argument, the primary lie of Western science which served as colonialism’s chief alibi: that the black race was inferior by nature and that African-Americans were incapable of development and self-determination–a premise that compels him to write a novel called Dark Princess in 1928 wherein he presents a vehement rebuttal of European race theorists by way of a bravely imagined political allegory about a romance between an Indian princess and an African-American doctor who together establish a pivotal alliance against world imperialism. Du Bois’s research emphasized, by contrast, that it was oppression which had impeded the progress of black folks in America and throughout the world towards their highest potential, not nature or historical inevitability, as it was being suggested by bourgeois science. He thus recognized that colonialism had set the darker races back by several centuries in development. It was for this reason that he insisted upon world peace, communism, and Pan-Africanism, by which he meant something very specific, namely the progress of oppressed peoples against imperialism towards the non-capitalist path of development, wherein production and civilization are directed towards the fulfillment of human need rather than imperial gain.
Du Boisian Pan-Africanism, as Henry Winston, leader of the American Communist Party clarified some decades ago, rejected the vicious anti-communism of the day which had led to the witch-hunt of so many beloved leaders, including Du Bois and Robeson but also King and Gandhi, peace-bringers who were assassinated for their efforts to cultivate civilization amidst war, poverty, and colonial devastation. It sought to oust imperialism from every corner of Africa and the world. It advocated the pursuit of the non-capitalist path of national development in newly independent countries and called upon exemplary figures amongst the darker races to eschew the European bourgeoisie and join with the proletariat in order to build socialism in their countries. This intercivilizational vanguard sought to create a revolutionary society in its own image, in the service of the people’s interests–education, industry, harvests that fed the people, art that nourished and propelled their imagination in pursuit of the grandest possibilities of the human mind and spirit, music that combed through the most antagonistic knots of the soul, literature that revealed revolutionary being-in-the-world–the kind of human beings we must become to build the world that will overcome the one that is presently collapsing.
You have your own conscience, your own intelligence, and you know your own mind.
–Alice Turiyasangitananda Coltrane
A portrait of Alice Coltrane, R. Divya Nair
In this clip, Turiya Coltrane, the grand-daughter of jazz pianist, harpist, and vocalist Alice Coltrane (née McCleod) reflects on her grandmother’s study and interpretation of Hindu philosophy through the gospel of the Detroit churches of her childhood. The Hindu bhajan (devotional) and the African-American spiritual together constitute the formal foundations and thematic touchstones of Alice Coltrane’s ecumenical sound. I may have mentioned that a few weeks ago, I had the great honor of singing her composition, “Om Shanti,” at Blessed are the Peacemakers, the Saturday Free School’s celebration of the philosophy of Robeson, King, and Du Bois, at the historic Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia. I chose the piece because it is an invocation to world peace and a much-needed intervention in the politics of imperialism which thrives on perpetual war, war waged by the few at the grave expense of the many. The earth reels from many centuries of ceaseless destruction as humanity cries out for an end to oppression and a resolution to the degradation of the darker races in the past four-hundred years of white rule. Since then, I have been reading voraciously about her, focusing in particular on her spiritual evolution, namely her turn to Hinduism, the world-historical significance of her interpretation of it, and how it connects with the contributions of her contemporaries, familiars, and interlocutors.
After her husband, the legendary John Coltrane of North Philadelphia, passed on to the next world, Alice immersed herself further in the study of Hindu scripture and Indian classical music forms. She traveled to the city of Chennai in southern India to study with Swami Satchidananda. However, it was John Coltrane who would introduce her to the philosophy, theology, music, and meditation practices of Pan Africa and Pan Asia. John, who was ten years older than Alice when she first met him at age 26, likely encountered these sources during his world tour in the U.S. armed services–an experience which deeply inscribed upon him the evils of war and American imperialism. Coltrane would himself undergo a spiritual awakening in 1957.
Following her husband’s death, Alice fell into a deep tapas, a self-imposed spiritual retreat undertaken by Hindus committed to an intentional path wherein one lives a life of strict mental and physical discipline in order to reach a higher spiritual plane of existence and consciousness. Tapas often yields states of high spiritual vibration characteristic of Alice’s ecstatic compositions. During this period, it is said that Alice made connection with John’s spirit. She strove to continue advancing their common aspiration to create music capable of illuminating the totality of the human experience, the internal struggles of the atman (soul force) in the face of the external strife of humanity’s relation to itself and the physical world–songs of innocence, songs of experience, songs of pain, and songs of bliss. Indeed, her chosen spiritual name Turiyasangitananda roughly translates to the transcendental Lord’s highest song of bliss. In Hindu philosophy, turiya (Sanskrit: तुरीय or English “the fourth”) refers to the fourth dimension of consciousness, underlying waking consciousness, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. The seventh verse of the Mandukya Upanishad, which discourses upon these four states of consciousness which are accessible through the universal syllable Aum or Om, refers to the magnitude of Turiya’s infinity and incalculability in the following terms:
Not inwardly cognitive, nor outwardly cognitive, not both-wise cognitive,
not a cognition-mass, not cognitive, not non-cognitive,
unseen, with which there can be no dealing, ungraspable, having no distinctive mark,
non-thinkable, that cannot be designated, the essence of assurance,
of which is the state of being one with the soul
the cessation of development, tranquil, benign, without a second,
such they think is the fourth. He is the soul (atman). He should be discerned.
The Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad is the shortest of the Upanisads and is associated with the Atharvaveda, which is chiefly concerned with the practice of everyday life. It is also an affirmation of the soul force underlying all existence and creation. It reflects on the physics of the four-part structure of the sound AUM–A + U + M + “silence,” which not only harnesses the past, present, and future of time, but bends them such that the transcendence of time by the soul force is made possible. The intonation of the Aum sound explains the progression of sound through the universe, tracking its movement from the syllable “a,” which signifies Apti (searching and aspiring), to “u” or Utkarsa (exaltation) to “M” or Miti (Reconstruction) followed by the punctuating silence that separates each intonation. The rhythmic chanting of aum thusrepresents the human will to know in this world and beyond, to be of one’s time and yet, reach beyond it.
As such, it is high time that we recognize the true significance of the commitment to Afro-Asiatic civilization in twentieth-century jazz composition, a realization which once again affirms the intercivilizational unity of Pan Africa and Pan Asia in the struggle against imperialism and European civilization’s ongoing attempts to repress the contributions of the darker races to humanity. It is not a coincidence, for instance, that John and Alice Coltrane, along with Pharaoh Sanders, Don Cherry, Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, Yusuf Lateef, and so many other black composers in the United States, re-imagine the relation of the darker races to one another at a time when W.E.B Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Paul Robeson were extending their hands in open friendship with revolutionary leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, and others. They dedicated their life’s work towards establishing an epistemology that saw the civilizations of Africa and Asia in a historical continuum, so as to break free from the chokehold of the Western interpretation of human history.
Alice Turiyasangitananda Coltrane thus participated in the invention of a radically new form of world spiritual music that fundamentally re-interpreted Hinduism–not unlike her contemporaries Don Cherry (e.g: his record “Mahakali”), Pharaoh Sanders (e.g “The Creator has a Master Plan”), and indeed, John Coltrane (e.g “Om”)–in terms of the African-American spiritual tradition and political struggle for freedom, truth, and peace. Her work ought to be considered in dialogue with other Black composers of the period who increasingly turned to Africa and Asia to discover their relation to African-America and broadly, the truth about the origins of humanity and the shape of its future. In the wake of their musical and cosmological experimentations, they left behind a rich body of music characterized by a distinctive Afro-Asiatic sound . What distinguishes their aesthetic practice at this juncture in history is their grounding in the black anti-imperialist political tradition. Prophets and architects of peace, these artists were committed to fulfilling the Creator’s great plan for the advancement of humanity in the twenty-first century.
Alice Coltrane’s songs are hymns to truth, grace, love, and peace. Her oeuvre ought to be studied in light of her deep spiritual longing for what James Baldwin memorably christened the New Jerusalem. In the new galaxies of sound she maps out for the world, in her cosmic distillations of jazz, we see the outlines of all that which remains to be won by humanity in our common quest for a kingdom of heaven on earth.