Gandhi’s Leadership in Hindu Context
“I am a Hindu not merely because I was born in the Hindu fold, but I am one by conviction and choice. As I know it and interpret it, it gives me all the solace I need both here and hereafter.” – Mahatma Gandhi, 1933
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, also known as “Mahatma Gandhi”, was arguably the most influential leaders India and the rest of the world has ever seen. He is considered the father of the Indian Independence movement. In the eyes of millions of Indians, he is known as “The Great Soul.” However, Gandhi was not born a leader. His personality was influenced by many experiences throughout the course of his life. Therefore, his leadership traits of humility, empowerment, truthfulness, charisma, and persistence have positively impacted Hindu culture.
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Born on October 2nd, 1869 in Porbandar, Gujarat, Gandhi was always shy as a young boy. However, his passion for reading, especially Indian classics, created a strong foundation in curiosity and intellect. In 1888 as a young adult, he began studying law at the University College London in England.
After completing his degree in law, Gandhi accepted an opportunity to practice in South Africa. However, he did not realize that racial discrimination against people of color was daily in South Africa. This led him into politics as he fought for the rights of Indians in South Africa. It is here in South Africa where Gandhi made a name for himself. Soon many countries across the globe were praising his influence.
In 1915, when he returned to India, Gandhi entered politics and began speaking at the National Indian Congress. He spoke out against certain British policies that discriminated against Indians.
Shortly after the independence of India, Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948 by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, for being supportive towards Muslims even though Gandhi was a Hindu. His assassination was deeply mourned by his country.
Clearly, Gandhi embodied the leadership trait of humility and heavily practiced servant leadership. According to Sen Sendjaya, an Associate Professor in Leadership at the Monash Business School, “This quality is a revolutionary act of will to voluntarily abandon one’s self to others by being a servant and by acts of service,” (Sendjaya, 2005). Furthermore, according to Nair, author of A Higher Standard of Leadership: Lessons from Gandhi, Gandhi was “a symbol of service to mankind. While most leaders identify with symbols of power to elevate themselves above the people they lead, Gandhi symbolized the people he was trying to serve. He tried to be like them with his loin cloth and his commitment to voluntary poverty. He symbolized service rather than power,” (Nair, 1994).
This selflessness and humility can clearly be paralleled to his days in South Africa. For example, Gandhi embodied these traits when he taught English to Indians to improve their stability among racial tensions (Gandhi, 1948). He used his time and energy without accepting any form of payment.
Furthermore, during his tenure in South Africa, a leper came to his door. Instead of turning him away, Gandhi gave him food, dressed his wounds, looked after him, and then sent him to the hospital (Gandhi, 1948). He embraced inclusive principles and rejected the stigmatization of leprosy during this time period.
Gandhi embodied service and even took pleasure in it. As he longed to be involved in humanitarian work, he helped as a nurse in a hospital and spent two hours daily serving the patients when he was in South Africa (Gandhi, 1948). Even when patients had infections, Gandhi ignored these circumstances and continued to establish well being even though he understood the risks involved.
Humility is the ability to create a lower estimation of one’s self. (Sendjaya, 2005). Gandhi did not desire influential outlets or positions. He was the leader of the Indian National Congress on it but creation. However, Sendjaya states, when “young leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru rose up, he gave way [the positions to] them to become leaders of the Indian National Congress. After independence, he did not hold any post in the government but remained a humble servant who sacrificed his life for the cause of India,” (Sendjaya, 2005). Sendjaya additionally, states, “One of the strong points of Gandhi’s character is his supreme indifference to what people say about any course of conduct which he has decided for himself, for good reasons that satisfy his conscience” (Sendjaya, 2005).
This humility and selflessness also had an impact on Hindu culture. According to his autobiography, “When Gandhi was pressured to wear the sacred thread, which is a mark of a high caste Hindu, Gandhi firmly refused. If the shudras [lowest caste] may not wear it, [he] argued, what right have the other varnas [classes of Hindu] to do so? And I saw no adequate reason for adopting what was to me an unnecessary custom. [Gandhi] had no objection to the thread as such, but the reasons for wearing it were lacking,” (Gandhi, 1948). These outstanding qualities of voluntary subordination and reformation techniques on the caste system led to great discussion and questioning within Hindu society. Without Gandhi piercing through this veil of injustice, social reform would simply be an afterthought.
Empowerment is also a key characteristic of servant leadership. Empowerment enables leaders to possess a confidence and a commitment to excellence in order to help subordinates grow. If one believes “that people have an intrinsic value beyond their contribution as workers,” the possibility for success in endless (Sendjaya, 2005).
Gandhi’s first Indian campaign in 1917 shows how Gandhi used empowerment on Hindu society. (Fischer, 1982). A lower caste of peasants in Champaran were continually oppressed by the British landlords at the time. These peasants resorted to inviting Gandhi to survey the area. According to Louis Fischer, an American Journalist who won the 1965 National Book Award in History, Gandhi “went to investigate their complaints but was advised by the British commissioner to leave. When he did not leave, he received an official notice ordering him out of the district. As he refused, he was summoned to court. On the day of the trial, masses of peasants appeared in town in a spontaneous demonstration of unity,” (Fischer, 1982). The mass gathering of peasants caused the court trial to be postponed. Gandhi used this extra time to consult with the representative of the landlords and create a negotiation to refund the illegal gain of the British landlords to the peasants. Fischer additionally states, “The peasants realized their rights and later the British planters abandoned their estates, which reverted to the peasants.” Gandhi empowered the peasants by restoring their lands back to them. Fischer, in his biography of Gandhi, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, commented, “In everything Gandhi did, moreover, he tried to mold a new free Indian who could stand on his own feet and thus make India free,” (Fischer, 1982).
In a similar way, Gandhi used empowerment to affect the Muslim-Hindu relationship in India. According to his autobiography, Gandhi and his followers, “travelled the villages of India carrying their pleas for non-cooperation with the British to the people,” (Gandhi, 1948). While traveling, Gandhi attained Hindu-Muslim unity. Both sides shared a common goal of undermining the British. This cooperation between Hindus and Muslims, according to Gandhi, “lead to the non-violent struggle against the British, forced the British to quit India, and led to the empowerment of [both Hindus and Muslims],” (Gandhi 1948). As clearly seen through history, Gandhi’s empowerment deeply affected Hindu society for the greater.
Regarding Gandhi’s empowerment, Gilbert Murray, retired professor from the University of Oxford, stated, “In a world where the rulers of nations are relying more and more upon brute force and the nations trusting their lives and hopes to systems which represent the very denial of law and brotherhood, Gandhi stands out as an isolated and most impressive figure. He is a ruler obeyed by millions, not because they fear him but because they love him,” (Murray, 1939).
Great leaders are willing to delegate responsibilities, share authority, and even embolden their followers with trust. Being honest, truthful, and even passing down these morals to his followers, Gandhi showed these characteristics even in times of conflict, (Sendjaya, 2005). For example, in South Africa in 1907, an ordinance called the Black Act was passed. This required Indians to be fingerprinted, registered, and to carry identification cards at all times. Failure to do so was punishable by prison, heavy fines, and in extreme cases deportation (Fischer, 1982). Led by Gandhi, many Indians resisted by picketing the offices at which they were supposed to register.
Later, Gandhi was called to a conference General Jan Christian Smuts to discuss the Black Act. Many Indians did not want Gandhi to negotiate, as Smuts could easily lie and betray Gandhi during negotiations.
Regarding Gandhi’s trust in the enemy, Fischer states that Gandhi, “…Is therefore never afraid of trusting his opponent. Even if the opponent plays him false twenty times, [Gandhi] is ready to trust him for the twenty-first time – for an implicit trust in human nature is the very essence of his creed,” (Fischer, 1982). Even though Gandhi knew it was risky, he trusted his enemy during negotiations.
Gandhi’s persistence can be seen in his willingness to keep protesting injustice, but never resorting to violence. Even after getting knocked down or even arrested by the British, Gandhi remained peaceful in his ways. In 1906, Gandhi developed the concept of satyagrah during a mass protest in Johannesburg. Coupled with ahimsa, which is a method of protesting injustice using non-violent resistance, satyagrah addressed resistance with peaceful assertion and observation. According to the principles of satyagrah, one should fight against injustice by using peaceful non-cooperation instead of rancor and violence. Gandhi applied these concepts successfully in Africa and repeated the same after returning to India in 1914.
Furthermore, Gandhi advocated self-reliance and his technique of satyagrah as ways to gain independence from the British. He asked the people of India to boycott British goods, textiles, and even the language. Gandhi was a firm believer in peaceful persistence. Gandhi was a model for satyagraha and non–violence. He practiced what he preached.
Gandhi’s charisma can be seen in his self-sacrifice. Soon after launching his monumental Satyagraha movement in South Africa, Gandhi resolved, as he wrote in 1906, that “sacrifice” was the “law of life.” According to Stanley Wolpert, an American historian and Indologist, Gandhi, “gave up his pleasures as a British barrister, his Saville Row suits, and sexual relations with his wife, vowing to focus all the heat of his passion toward helping India’s Dalit community. He vowed for freedom from racial prejudice and discrimination,” (Wolpert, 2002). This persistence and continual fight for the Dalit community shows Gandhi’s positive impact on Hindu society. Furthermore, after his return to India in 1915, his mission was to free the Indians from the British rule, and towards the end of his life his mission was to remove hatred between Hindus and Muslims and make Indians live in harmony.
Overall, there is no one leadership style that can fully describe Mahatma Gandhi. For example, Gandhi was a transformational leader while he dealt with the large Indian masses. He empowered them and motivated them to peacefully protest British tyranny. Additionally, Gandhi practiced servant leadership. He worked all his life with full dedication to Hindus of lower status, such as Dalits. Gandhi was an ethical, charismatic leader. He was the face of Indian freedom. He was driven by a set of high moral values and code of conduct which he followed throughout his life. This research shows Gandhi’s leadership can be followed in Hindu context.
Gandhi’s concept of Hinduism was highly complex as well as unconventional. His idea of equality of all religions was evidently rooted in his deep attachment to Hinduism, which, according to him, “was the most tolerant, peaceful and inclusive religion,” (Gandhi, 1948). Emulating himself as reformist Hindu, he positioned himself at the center of Hindu religious and cultural practices while simultaneously striving to build good relations with all other religions and create lasting unity among different viewpoints (Nair, 1994).