The Today, October
2, 1995, is the hundred and twenty-sixth anniversary of Mahatma
Gandhi's birth. Mahatma Gandhi's legacy to the world, and to India
especially, is immeasurable; his life and work have left an impact
on every aspect of life in India; he has addressed many personal,
social and political issues; his collected works number nearly one
hundred volumes. From these I have gleaned only a few thoughts about
women and social change.
In 1940, reviewing his twenty-five years of work in India concerning
women's role in society, he says, "My contribution to the great
problem lies in my presenting for acceptance truth and ahimsa (non-violence)
in every walk of life, whether for individuals or nations. I have
hugged the hope that in this woman will be the unquestioned leader
and, having thus found her place in human evolution, will shed her
Woman is the incarnation of ahimsa. Ahimsa
means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering.
And who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the
Let her translate that love to the whole
And she will occupy her proud position by the
side of man .. .She can become the leader in satyagraha
What is significant here is his image of woman and his hope for
her, so radically different from that of any earlier reformer. He
was not the first to address women's issues in India; the great
cultural renaissance, as also the ferment of political agitations
for freedom had already reached a high peak in the late nineteenth
century. Before the advent of Gandhi on the scene, the attitude
to women, though sympathetic, was patronising; leaders and social
reform groups thought in language that made women look helpless.
They wanted to protect, uplift, bring relief to women. No doubt
there was value in all of it. Yet, with Gandhi a new, unique element
emerged. Woman to him was neither man's plaything, nor his competitor,
struggling to be like him.
What she needed most was education, the recognition of her birthright
to be free and equal, to steer her own destiny side by side with
"Therefore," he argues, "ultimately,
woman will have to determine with authority what she needs. My own
opinion is that, just as fundamentally men and women are one, their
problem must be one in essence. The soul in both is the same. The
two live the same life, have the same feelings. Each is a complement
of the other. The one cannot live without the other's active help.
"But somehow or other man has dominated woman from ages past,
and so woman has developed an inferiority complex. She has believed
in the truth of man's interested teaching that she is inferior to
him. But the seers among men have recognised her equal status."
It is noteworthy that present day conferences on women's issues
insist similarly on women's own leadership, initiative, and self-help.
For instance, Ela Bhatt, General Secretary of SEWA (Self-Employed
Women's Association) and winner of the prestigious Magsaysay Award
for her work with women in India, speaks up against the still persistent
attitude of superiority among men. Social workers around the world
encounter the same attitude.
Gandhi was no advocate of blind adherence to tradition; its strong
current could help us swim far, or sink us; for him the deciding
question was whether it would takes us closer to God (Truth), selfless
service and love of all human beings. He declared to a tradition-bound
India, "I do not subscribe to the superstition that everything
is good because it is ancient. I do not believe either that anything
is good because it is Indian
Any tradition, however ancient,
if inconsistent with morality, is fit to be banished from the land.
Untouchability may be considered an ancient tradition, the institution
of child widowhood and child marriage may be considered to be an
ancient tradition. And even so, many an ancient horrible belief
and superstitious practice. I would sweep them out of existence
if I had the power." And what do ancient books say about women
? "Her father protects her in her childhood, her husband protects
her in youth, and her sons protect her in old age; a woman is never
fit for independence
" Gandhi saw how wrong that was,
how unjust, how harmful to all; he spoke strongly against child-marriages,
the isolation and subjugation of widows, the cruel domination of
men over women, and women's own subservient mentality. In Ethical
Religion he says, "True morality consists, not in following
the beaten track, but in finding out the true path for ourselves
and in fearlessly following it."
Gandhi's life-long "experiments with truth" served that
very purpose. And when he felt sure he knew the way of truth, he
not only followed it fearlessly himself, but led others, millions
of men, women and even children. The title of his personal life
he aptly called, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with
Truth. For him God was Truth, but whereas the definition of God,
he said, was difficult to grasp, the definition of truth every person
could find in his or her own conscience. Even from his childhood
he was such an extraordinary lover of truth, that he tried to understand
and verify the truth of any new thought he came across, and every
personal experience. Among youthful experiments with truth, the
most pertinent in relation to women was his relationship with his
They were both born
in 1869, and married very young in 1882, when she was thirteen and
he was but twelve years old. Having read that a wife must always
be subjugated to her husband's will, he took on the role of a domineering
husband, and a boy husband at that! Little was he prepared to face
the challenge posed by his strong and spirited wife, who stood up
to him for her rights with dignity and self-possess, which, in the
early years he construed as stubbornness, and later extolled as
moral courage. Through several experiences with his wife during
his formative years, when he had tried to force her obedience, first
in his native
in 1898 he had insisted she not stir out of the house without his
permission, and in South Africa, where he had wanted her to clean
the chamber pot of a low-born clerk with a smile, he evolved his
ideas on women, and the relationship between men and women. She
had cried out, as he pulled her by her hand and tried to push her
out the gate of their home in Durban, "Have you no sense of
shame? Must you so far forget yourself ?" That was enough for
the sincerest of all votaries of truth; he thought a great deal,
constantly, all his life. He never forgave himself for causing Kasturba
to suffer pain.Page
Imagine his own pain and regret in his words, "Of all the evils
for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading,
so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity
- to me, the female sex, not the weaker sex. It is the nobler of
the two, for it is even today the embodiment of sacrifice, silent
suffering, humility, faith and knowledge."
These qualities he valued highly as indispensable for resistance
by satyagraha, whether in the home or in society. Ancient models
of womanhood - Sita, Savitri, Damayanti, Draupadi - he praised for
their moral strength; they were not passive, weak women. Passive
resistance, he explained, was not the right translation of satyagraha,
which means, "soul force" or "truth force",
the power of enlightened non-violence, neither passive nor timid.
The first line of a favourite Gujarati hymn at the Gandhi ashrams
was: Harino maarug chhe shooraano, nahi kaayarnu kaam jone. (The
way of The Lord is for the brave, not for the faint of heart, you
In South Africa Indian women, led by Kasturba, offered satyagraha
and went to prison, when the Government of South Africa was about
to pass a law making all Hindu, Moslem and Zoroastrian marriages
illegal, all wives married by those rites concubines, all their
children illegitimate, with neither status nor property rights.
The women's courage was amazing and inspiring to men. Their success
proved the power of soul-force.
"My wife" said Gandhi, "I
made the orbit of all women. In her I studied all women. I came
in contact with many European women in South Africa, and I knew
practically every Indian woman there. I worked with them. I tried
to show them they were not slaves either of their husbands or parents,
not only in the political field but in the domestic as well. But
the trouble was that some could not resist their husbands. The remedy
is in the hands of women themselves. The struggle is difficult for
them, and I do not blame them. I blame the men. Men have legislated
against them. Man has regarded woman as his tool. She has learnt
to be his tool and in the end found it easy and pleasurable to be
such, because when one drags another in his fall the descent is
easy." These words were spoken to Dr. Margaret Sanger
in 1936 in connection with birth control methods; Gandhi believed
men and women should practice restraint and have sex only for progeny.
Whereas such an austere ideal of celibate life is impossible for
all but a few, the words might well apply to the general scheme
of things between men and women.
He spoke of Kasturba as "above" himself, and it is to
her moral strength and example that he says he owed his most unique
and potent idea in personal growth as well as in activist politics.
He acknowledges, "I learned the lesson of non-violence from
my wife, when I tried to bend her to my will. Her determined resistance
to my will on the one hand, and her quiet submission to the suffering
of my stupidity involved on the other, ultimately made me ashamed
of myself and cured me of my stupidity in thinking that I was born
to rule her."
When he returned to India to join Indian politics in 1915, after
monumental work in South Africa, he realised he had very little
knowledge of India outside his native province. He saw from his
travels across the subcontinent that the real India lived in her
500,000 villages, not her elitist urban centres. Apart from the
poverty he witnessed, he was deeply agonised by two oppression in
Indian life - the oppression of people of low birth, referred to
as the untouchable, and the oppression of women. Both these he observed
to be the power politics of the higher castes, and of men already
comfortably elevated in patriarchy. Such injustice was easy to perpetrate
when it was presented to the populace as sanctioned, nay ordained,
by ancient scriptures. The "wounded civilisation," Naipaul
wrote about in 1977, was even more so when Gandhi embarked upon
a national reconstruction program in every area of social concern.
Again and again he proclaimed his conviction that India had to free
her own fettered poor people, untouchable, and women, before she
could meaningfully win freedom from her foreign oppressor.
"The oppressive custom of dowry too came under fire from Gandhi.
He preferred girls to remain unmarried all their lives than to be
humiliated and dishonoured by marrying men who demanded dowry
He found dowry marriages 'heartless.'"
Gandhi wished for mutual consent, mutual love, and mutual respect
between husband and wife. He said,"Marriage
must cease to be a matter of arrangement made by parents for money.
The system is intimately connected with caste. So long as the choice
is limited to a few hundred young men or young women of a particular
caste, the system will persist, no matter what is said against it.
The girls or boys or their parents will have to break the bonds
of caste if the evil is to be eradicated."
Injustice, like exploitation, has to be resisted wherever it is
found, not only in the political field. For the fight against foreign
domination, women by the thousands rallied to Gandhi's call for
civil disobedience. Women set aside their traditional roles, they
came out of seclusion, they cast off their purdah. They entered
the public domain along with men, and offered satyagraha; they remained
undaunted by police beatings and extreme hardships in prison. Even
illiterate tribal women from the woods joined the freedom movement.
That is the truth-force Gandhi urged for in private matters as well.
In fact, that is where he wanted it to begin. "The first condition
of non-violence is justice all round in every department of life.
Perhaps it is too much to expect of human nature. I do not, however,
think so." In Harijan, October 3, 1936, we find the reason
for his faith, "I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man
or woman can achieve what I have, if he or she will make the same
effort, and have the same hope and faith."
Further, ends and means must be deemed convertible. "Ahimsa
is the means. Truth is the end
If we take care of the means,
we are bound to reach the end sooner or later. When once we have
grasped this point final victory is beyond question. Whatever difficulties
we encounter, whatever apparent reverses we sustain, we may not
give up the quest for Truth which alone is, being God." So
he wrote from Yeravda prison in 1935, when freedom was nowhere in
sight. Non-violence to him was the greatest power. "It is,"
he said, "mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction
devised by the ingenuity of man. Destruction is not the law of the
Every murder or other injury, no matter for what cause,
committed or inflicted on another is a crime against humanity."
An-eye-for-an-eye attitude would not do, even if the opponent were
to act with such excessive greed and anger as to torture, beat or
burn a satyagrahi to death. Says Gandhi, "In the application
of satyagraha, I found in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth
did not admit of violence being inflicted on one's opponent but
that he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy. For
what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to another.
And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean
vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent,
but on one's self." It was Kasturba, who had shown him the
power of sacrifice by her readiness to die for justice and for her
religious beliefs; she acted with courage at all times and with
hatred toward none. He, the supreme master of the symbolic motif,
made her the model for other women to emulate. And they did by the
hundreds, dropping the veil like her, picketing like her, going
to prison like her, resisting every injustice like her, and like
her, being their own self-respecting person. He was very pleased
that his confidence in women was borne out by their work in the
freedom movement. Again and again he spoke of women's power to move
by suffering, where the law may be a mere "palliative",
occasionally correcting without permanently curing.
Speaking from experience, he wrote, "Nobody has probably drawn
up more petitions or espoused more forlorn causes than I and I have
come to this fundamental conclusion that if you want something really
important to be done you must not only satisfy the reason, you must
move the heart also. The appeal of reason is more to the head but
the penetration of the heart comes from suffering."
What Gandhi had in mind was not pitiful, helpless suffering, but
deliberate, purposeful suffering, patient, visible suffering, the
twin of which is sacrifice and the end of which may be death before
victory. It had to be enlightened, not abject. Sacrifice, like purity
may not be enforced; it must evolve from within by individual effort.
When all these conditions prevail, these words of Gandhi will come
to pass, "I am firmly of opinion that India's salvation depends
on the sacrifice and enlightenment of her women."
Any tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, the Great Soul, would be an empty
one, if we take no cue for our own guidance from his words and from
his life; for him ideas and ideals had no value if they were not
translated into action. He saw men and women as equals, complementing
each other. And he saw himself not as a visionary, but as a practical
idealist. If then, men and women work together selflessly and sincerely
as equals with a faith like Gandhi's, they may indeed realise Ram
Rajya, the perfect state. Traditionally, woman has been called abala.
In Sanskrit and many other Indian languages bala means strength.
Abala means one without strength. If by strength we do not mean
brutish strength, but strength of character, steadfastness, endurance,
she should be called sabala, strong. His message almost six decades
ago at the All India Women's Conference on December 23, 1936 was,
"When woman, whom we call abala becomes sabala, all those who
are helpless will become powerful." Such empowering, he was
convinced, may not be bestowed upon them by legislation or assistance
offered by men, or even some more fortunate women who think of them
as weak; they must gather strength to stand up on their own. Of
course, they may be educated in Gandhi's way, the way of non-violence,
which is truth. They may then follow the teaching of Lord Krishna
in The Gita, "Lift the self, by the self." Then shall
the meek inherit the earth. Then shall India deserve the wisdom
of the ancient Upanishads, which she has taken as her national motto,
"Satyameva jayate", "Truth alone wins!"
[Editor's Note: Dr. Kapadia, Director of the Self-Enhancement
Learning Forum in Houston, Texas, was earlier Associate Professor
of English at the City University of New York.]