Mahatma Gandhi used nonviolence to liberate the poor and the oppressed. “My life is my message,” he once said. How can his life help you find your message?
Video 1: My Life Is My Message
Focus on Today. Is your coffee traded fairly? How about your chocolate? Go into any supermarket and you will find dozens of items labeled “fair trade.” But what does that mean? The fair-trade movement aims to guarantee that farmers and workers earn a fair amount throughout the world. Consumers pay slightly more to increase the amount that is paid to farmers and workers. Some companies, like Ten Thousand Villages, sell only fair-trade products. But most goods are not fair-trade.
The anti-sweatshop movement has unmasked deplorable working conditions in many countries worldwide. In India, Kailash Satyarthi won a Nobel Prize for his efforts to end child labor, but that struggle remains ongoing. How can you help create a world without sweatshops and child labor, a world in which all trade is fair-trade?
Global Connections. Fair-trade is a global movement with global roots. In the 18th century, British anti-slavery activists urged a boycott of sugar produced by slave labor in the Caribbean. Following the supply chain to its roots in the plantation, one abolitionist declared, “Every person who habitually consumes one article of West Indian produce, raised by Slaves, is guilty of the crime of murder.”
The abolition of slavery did not mean the end of slave labor. Throughout the world, activists continued to use the power of the purse to improve working conditions in distant lands. Gandhi himself rejected goods like sugar and chocolate that were “produced through the labour of men who work more or less in conditions of slavery.” His opposition to chocolate is especially revealing. Unlike sugar, which was produced by Indian indentured laborers, chocolate was produced far from Gandhi’s own social and cultural world. By rejecting chocolate, Gandhi demonstrated the power of fair-trade to connect our everyday decisions to the lives of people throughout the world.
Interact and Learn | Gandhi’s House. Gandhi lived his values. Click on the objects in his house (illustrated for SC101 by Scott Porcelli) to explore the history of Gandhi’s life (click on the icon in the lower left corner to view the activity full-screen).
Experiment in social change. Think about your belongings. Is there anything you don’t need that you can give to charity? Look at the tags on your favorite clothes and try to learn more about where those clothes were made. Who made them? How long were the hours they worked? What were they paid? Then find something in a store or on-line that is labeled “fair trade,” and explore how that item was produced. (We recommend a chocolate bar.) Could everything you buy be “fair trade”? Why isn’t everything everyone buys “fair trade”?
Reflect and Question. “I’m spinning wool with a stone spindle. This tool has been used probably for more than 30,000 years. And when we twist fibers into yarn we are actually creating a spiral. And the spiral is a cosmic gesture of creation.” Watch fiber artist, Renate Hiller, discuss the importance of using our hands:
According to Renate, spinning yarn is more than a way to make clothes. What else does spinning provide? Why does she think it is important to work with our hands? Would Gandhi have agreed? Do you agree?
To learn more about how Gandhi became Gandhi, watch Video 2: The Train…
Video 2: The Train
Focus on Today: Slavery continues today. Forced labor and human trafficking impact millions of people worldwide. And if the exploitation of immigrants is included, the figure grows even higher. There are many organizations, such as Anti-Slavery International and Human Rights Watch, fighting modern slavery.
That fight connects the brick kilns of Pakistan to the fields of California, the brothels of Thailand to the mansions of Saudi Arabia and New York. What can you do to help end slavery once and for all?
Global Connections. From the earliest days of humanity, people have moved. Human beings migrated out of Africa to populate the planet, and they continue to move—drawn by new opportunities or pushed by famine, war, or disease.
Comparing Gandhi with indentured laborers like Balasundaram reveals one of the key lessons of the history of migration—not all migrants are the same. Vast differences separate elite travelers like Gandhi from working-class migrants like Balasundaram. Today, businesspeople jet from city to city while desperate migrants seek to escape poverty by entering Europe, the United States, or other wealthy countries. If the world were free of war and poverty, migration might be merely a matter of choice. What can we do to help today’s Balasundarams find a safe, stable home?
Experiment in social change. One way to empower people is to let them tell their stories. We have explored that power in our SocialChange101 workshops. Can you interview someone whose story might not otherwise be recognized or remembered? Perhaps an elderly relative or neighbor? Ideally, you could interview someone whose story speaks to communities of people often left out of history. People like Balasundaram tend to be remembered only in the words of others. If you can, ask for permission to record the interview and to share it online. Also, be sure to share whatever you record or write with the person you interview.
Balasundaram’s Story. Read the comic below (made for SC101 by Em DeMarco–be sure to also check out her comic about Rachel Carson and feminism) to get a little deeper into Balusundaram’s story. Click anywhere in the comic to view it larger!
Reflect and Question. Albert Camus, the French author and philosopher, made the following entry in his diary in 1940, a couple months before the start of World War II:
“Understand this: we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes; we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything. It is individuals who are killing us today. Why should not individuals manage to give the world peace? We must simply begin without thinking of such grandiose aims.”
What does the story of Balasundaram teach us about the power of individuals to shape history? How many forgotten figures like Balasundaram worked unseen in the shadows of our heroes?
To learn more about how Gandhi became a hero, watch Video 3: The Talisman…
Video 3: The Talisman
Focus on Today. Religious intolerance has scarred the planet for thousands of years. But faith can also bring people together. The Interfaith Youth Core connects young people from different faith traditions through cooperative service. Seeds of Peace brings teenagers from countries in conflict to camps focused on building friendship, tolerance, and leadership.
Gandhi would be proud of all those working to increase tolerance across divides of religion and nation. How can you get involved?
Interact and Learn: What Would Gandhi Do?
Swaraj means “self-rule.” For Gandhi, swaraj meant more than independence from the British. Swaraj meant true freedom, the freedom that would only come when India was free of poverty, hatred, and discrimination based on caste, gender, and religion. By Gandhi’s standards, India is not free, and neither is most of the world.
What do you think? If Gandhi was alive, what would he do?
Gandhi would not want us to focus on what he would do. His challenge to us is more immediate: what can we do?
When Gandhi launched his epic fast in Calcutta, many of his closest friends and supporters were skeptical. Could his fast stop the violence? “Can you fast against the goondas?” Gandhi’s friend and colleague, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, affectionately known as Rajaji, chose his words carefully. The Hindi word goonda refers to the thugs (to use another word of Indian origin) that Rajaji worried would remain untouched by Gandhi’s fast. The Mahatma had only just announced that he would forego food in order to end the violence in Calcutta. Rajaji urged Gandhi to reconsider. Could a fast change the behavior of criminals, hooligans, thugs, goondas?
Gandhi refused to blame the violence on criminals. He redirected attention back to his own failings and those of others like him. “It is we who make goondas,” he declared. “Without our sympathy and passive support,” Gandhi explained, “the goondas would have no legs to stand upon.” His fast aimed “to touch the hearts of those who are behind the goondas.” Gandhi fasted to inspire everyone, himself included, to confront the violence they abetted and to take concrete steps to bring peace. He bet his life that the common citizens of Calcutta could be convinced to take a stand for peace.
Many lives hinged on Gandhi’s gamble. “Supposing you die,” Rajaji pushed, “the conflagration would be worse.” Gandhi’s death could trigger waves of violent retribution. “I shall have done my bit,” Gandhi replied: “More is not given a man to do.”
Global Connections. Fasts have been used as a political tool throughout history. Gandhi learned to see fasting as a political tool in England. Among his teachers were British women who fasted for the right to vote. In London in 1909, Gandhi attended a suffragette meeting in St. James Hall. Afterward, he penned a glowing report of the suffragette’s struggle. Gandhi focused on their use of the hunger strike. Arrested and unjustly treated as “second class” prisoners, several suffragettes refused food. “One of them ate nothing for six days,” Gandhi reported, “some others for five days.” As a result, Gandhi concluded, “The Government felt helpless in the end and let them off.” The women “declared that they will continue to go to gaol [sic] till all women like them are treated as first class prisoners.”
Gandhi admired the suffragettes for their discipline and determination. Like them, he would employ the fast as a way to attack injustice both within and beyond jail. Gandhi was not alone in drawing inspiration from the global history of hunger strikes. After the First World War, several Indian nationalists were inspired by hunger strikes in Ireland.
Just as Gandhi was inspired by the Suffragettes, many others were inspired by Gandhi to use hunger in the struggle for justice. His legacy can be seen in the acts of famous activists like César Chavez and the quiet suffering of the many prisoners of conscience who remain in jail throughout the world.
Gandhi’s legacy goes well beyond the hunger fast. Here is a cartoon published in an African American newspaper, the Amsterdam Star News, in 1942, soon after Gandhi was arrested:
How is the base of Gandhi’s spinning wheel labeled? What might those words mean for African American readers, often called “colored” in those days? How might Gandhi have given African Americans hope in their struggle against racism?
Experiment in social change. Think about your values and the most glaring problems in the world today. What do you want to solve? Do you want to end poverty? Achieve world peace? Even if your goal seems impossibly large, focus on the significance of working towards it in small ways. Who is working on that challenge already? Could you help them? Or perhaps you could use something from Gandhi’s repertoire of tactics…a protest, a march, an editorial in a local newspaper?
Reflect and Question. Here is a poem by the German poet and playwright, Bertold Brecht:
A Bed for the Night
I hear that in New York
At the corner of 26th Street and Broadway
A man stands every evening during the winter months
And gets beds for the homeless there
By appealing to passers-by.
It won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation
But a few men have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway.
Don’t put down the book on reading this, man.
A few people have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway
But it won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation.
What does the poem ask us to do? To help “a few men” or to “shorten the age of exploitation”?
How does this poem relate to Gandhi’s Talisman? Gandhi challenged us to help “the poorest and the weakest man.” Was he calling us to small acts of kindness? Is there such a thing as a small act of kindness?
Keep Learning. To learn more about Mahatma Gandhi, explore our suggestions for further reading or…
See why Andrew Carnegie hated imperialism as much as Gandhi…Explore how Gandhi helped inspire Rosa Parks and the American civil rights movement…Explore why Einstein praised Gandhi as “the most enlightened of all the political men in our time”…Learn why Rachel Carson would have loved Gandhi’s spinning wheel…
The Autobiography. Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, is the story of how Gandhi became Gandhi. Originally written in Gujarati, the autobiography was published in installments in Gandhi’s newspaper from 1925 to 1929. Thus, it does not include the last twenty years of Gandhi’s life. The autobiography’s other limitation is also its greatest strength—the strong voice with which Gandhi frames his life’s events as a coherent whole. Read the autobiography to see a man becoming a mahatma, but also to see a mahatma making sense of his journey.
The Collected Works. Everything that Gandhi ever wrote (and much of what he said) has been preserved and digitized, and is now available on-line for free in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Every letter, diary entry, speech, article, book—everything—is on-line and searchable. Do you want to know what Gandhi thought of Hitler or Churchill? Buddhism or Christianity? Mangos or chocolate? Just search the collected works. It is addictive, and as revealing as the best biography. Speaking of which…
Hundreds of books and articles have been written on the life and legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. Here are a few places to start:
Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi Before India (New York: Knopf, 2014).
David Hardiman, Gandhi in His Time and Ours: The Global Legacy of His Ideas (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
David Arnold, Gandhi: Profiles in Power (New York: Routledge, 2001).
Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Judith M. Brown, Gandhi’s Rise to Power: Indian Politics, 1915-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972).
Shaheed Amin, “Gandhi as Mahatma: Gorakhpur District, Eastern UP, 1921-2” in Ranajit Guha, ed., Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1984).
Madhu Kishwar, “Gandhi and Women,” Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 20, No. 40 (Oct. 5, 1985), pp. 1691-1702 and Vol. 20, No. 41 (Oct. 12, 1985), pp. 1753-1758.
Karuna Mantena, “On Gandhi’s Critique of the State: Sources, Contexts, Conjunctures,” Modern Intellectual History 9, Issue 3 (November 2012): 535-56.
Mark Juergensmeyer, “Gandhi vs. Terrorism,” Daedalus Vol. 136, No. 1 (Winter 2007): 30–39.