My friend, Sabirsha, gave me several gifts when Diane and I visited with him in the Kerala region of India in February, 2011. One of those gifts was An Autobiography, by M.K. Gandhi. First published in the Gujarati language in two volumes in 1927 and 1929, the English version was published in 2009. Though a translation, these were Gandhi’s own reflections on his search for truth. He concluded his reflections far before the end of his life because, as he noted, his life became so public after 1921 that numerous sources could be consulted to learn about his experiences after that date.
An Autobiography is an evolutionary story of Gandhi’s discovery of the essentials of life. The concept of satyagraha, or the voluntary simplicity and denial of self in service to others, was not something that came easily. Indeed, as so many other spiritual luminaries over the ages, Gandhi struggled, questioned, and perfected his spiritual calling through many trials and tribulations. Ultimately, his journey, recognizing many flaws along the way, served to break the bonds of discrimination against Indians in South Africa and moved on to confront the mistreatment of “untouchables” in India. Eventually, as we know from history, Dr. Martin Luther King’s non-violent resistance, the “Velvet Revolution” of the Czech Republic, and perhaps even moments of the “Arab Spring” of 2011 are derived from Gandhi’s philosophy of first showing respect to others and then challenging injustice through non-participation in systems of oppression and exploitation.
There is so much deep wisdom in Gandhi’s reflections that it is impossible to do justice in one blog post. One point that fascinated me most is that satygraha, serving others, embraced those with whom he disagreed. When Gandhi began to realize the depth of the abuse of Indians and other people of color in South Africa, he was asked how he could not be angry with the perpetrators. His reply, “I am only sorry for their ignorance and their narrowness. I know that they sincerely believe that what they are doing today is right and proper. I have no reason therefore to be angry with them.” (p. 176) Such a view made way for a compassion that allowed Gandhi, and others who worked with him, to serve and bring justice to even those who opposed him. As an example, during the closing months of WWII, Gandhi actively recruited Indians to serve the British war cause against Germany, even when the record clearly demonstrated long-standing abuse of Indians by their colonizer. Gandhi sincerely believed that, although he disagreed with many of Britain’s actions, it had attempted to bring prosperity to India and therefore deserved the loyalty of British subjects who would defend her against other enemies. His point was that, even though he disagreed with Great Britain on very important issues, he was first committed to understanding their needs and viewpoint and by so doing agree with them as much as possible.
Once the commitment to understand, respect, and serve was established, Gandhi had an unswerving dedication to the causes he undertook to resolve. Through refusing to ride first class on trains when others of his culture were excluded, by creating voluntary living communities, by establishing natural fiber weaving groups and advocating work stoppages, Gandhi demonstrated in all he did that he would always observe “Ek Tek” – keep the pledge. The solidarity he reflected and fostered in others had a power that broke down many conventions that others assumed to be fair and right, or too difficult to challenge. The point was not to tear down the unjust systems but it was, through Ek Tek, not to participate with the oppressor.
These to core concepts – agreeing/engaging as much as possible with those who oppose you and staying true to your pledge – are found in many leadership texts. They are likely universal principles that help when negotiating the more difficult landscapes of leadership – a gift from one of the most often recognized great leaders when you ask “Who do you look up to when you think of great leadership?”