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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 42, October 5, 2013

The Mahatma Who Suffered

Wednesday 9 October 2013, by Upasana Pandey


There is an old maxim that says: “Do not judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” It means one should be judged through one’s capacity of suffering. Suffering prepares us to be compassionate to others. Suffering contains a particle of truth. Suffering enhances our ability to pray effectively. Praying is an instinctive human response to severe hardship. But effective prayer is a learned exercise. A song suggests: Pray when you are happy, pray when in sorrow. One should pray frequently and in all moods; under the burden of suffering, however, one will learn how to pray as he never has prayed before. Suffering highlights the fact that we are fragile human beings; that is to say, we are not God. Suffering can draw our interests towards the true God. When one is in a state of anguish that offers little respite, the natural inclination is to turn toward a higher source for help. Only a deliberate and forced stubbornness can quench that urge.

It is not only the Indian civilisation that has sown within itself the seeds of suffering and allowed those to sprout, but across the world we can see the importance of suffering. Whether it is Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, in each and every religion’s history we can easily get a detailed tradition and practice of suffering. Even before Christ, during the Greek era, under the charismatic leadership of Socrates we have seen how suffering became the very basis of societal and political set-up in Athens. But, the notions of suffering evolved by Socrates, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Gandhi and other monks like Ramkrishna Paramhansa/Vivekananda are slightly different from each other. Although each one of them has evolved their own style, the inherent cause has always remained the same: to elevate the soul either along with the society or individually. Socrates and Gandhi had suffered for the sake of the political society. Christ, Buddha and others suffered individually although later on their teachings had its huge impact on the socio-political set-up. But the way Socrates and Gandhi’s suffering evolved, was unique in the sense that they made suffering a political, social and collective phenomenon. Socrates died for the establishment of truth for a democratic set-up and Gandhi presented before us fantastically how an individual’s suffering can impact on the empire in the most effective manner.

Gandhi had faith in the karma principle but not in the traditional way. He developed his own law of karma. If Gandhi conceives of self-suffering as doing penance for others, then he has gone far beyond the traditional view of tapas. (N. F. Gier: 2003) Indeed, it may even be at odds with the law of karma which holds that karma is always individual, not collective. Gandhi, however, appears to believe in collective guilt. He believes in the advaita principle (Naess: 1974); hence he once said that the impurity of my associates is but the manifestation of the hidden wrong in me. (Manmohan Choudhary: 1989) Chauri-Chaura (1922) was not the only incident where Gandhi kept himself detached from the rest of the activities, went on fast for a public cause and announced that he must undergo suffering for personal cleansing. But in various Satyagrahas like Salt-Satyagraha, the question of separate electorate, the issue of partition etc. Gandhi went through the self-imposed purification process.

Gandhi expanded his concept of Brahmacharya as self-control in all actions, whether personal or political. He was committed to spiritual purity for himself and his followers. For Gandhi, it is impossible to reach God, that is, Truth, except through love. Love can only be expressed fully when man reduces himself to a cipher. This process of reduction (to cipher) is the highest effort a man or a woman is capable of making. It is the only effort worth making, and it is possible only through ever-increasing self-restraint, self-control or suffering. He said that the seeker of truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker of truth should be so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of truth.

Hence, prayers became essential in Gandhi’s various programmes. Gandhi assumed that prayer makes an individual more inclined towards the process of suffering or ensures the capacity to do intense prayer for all living beings. Actually, Gandhi’s spiritual self believes in eternal oneness, that is, advaita. Gandhi says: “I do not believe... that an individual may gain spiritually and those who surround him suffer. I believe in advaita (non-duality), I believe in the essential unity of man and, for that matter, of all that lives. Therefore, I believe that if one man gains spiritually, the whole world gains with him and, if one man falls, the whole world falls to that extent.” (Naess: 1974)

Since we all are sons of the same God, we all are eternally attached to each other. Directly or indirectly we are getting influenced by our fellow-beings and also influencing them. That is why, Gandhi believes in the principle of non-duality. In his own words: “The atman was the same in all men and could not provide the principle of individuation. Although separate and distinct human bodies were so many different anatomical configurations of the identical material substance, they were subject to the same laws, displayed the same basic proper-ties and functioned in the same way. The body was the seat of particularity not individuality, a principle of numerical, not substantive or essential differentiation.” (Parekh: 1989)

Gandhi also believes that all of us are part of the same soul. Though all of us are having different appearances physically, yet spiritually the essence of our life is one. God is the origin/source of all our activities. It is only this spiritual force through which we are bound. That is the reason why Gandhi accepts the power of spirituality in every moment of our life. This is the reason why he used to say: “The purpose of life is undoubtedly to know oneself. We cannot do this unless we learn to identify ourselves with all that lives. The sum total of that life is God.” (Iyer: 1986)

It shows that Gandhi developed the principle of karma in an altogether different manner and hence his approach to suffering also connotes differently. Though Gandhi’s karma starts with the individual self, it ends in collective efforts. The sinner could be an individual but the sufferer is the society; hence members of the society have to take the responsibility.

Gandhi does claim to have suffered for the good of all (sarvodaya). Gandhi practised self-suffering in order to change other people’s behaviour. Gandhi developed the creed of non-violence on the foundation of suffering. For Gandhi, non-violence not only means not to do harm to any living-creature, but also in its broader sense, it means active love. To leave behind each and every kind of hate, selfishness, reaction is called ahimsa. In Gandhi’s view, identi-fication with everything that lives is impossible without self-purification, the observance of the law of ahimsa must thus remain an empty dream. God can never be realised by one who is not pure of heart. Self-purification, therefore, must mean purification in all walks of life. And purification being necessary, it leads to the purification of one’s surroundings. (Gandhi: 1927)

Gandhi added that this path to self-purification is hard and steep. To attain perfect purity, one has to become absolutely passion-free in thought, speech and action; and also to rise above the opposing currents of love and hatred, attachment and repulsion. He was of the opinion that in every individual God resides and to realise this God is the ultimate objective of human life. Only an individual’s efforts can lead to this end. Gandhi’s truthful and non-violent world order is a God-centred religious society where the satyagrahis or the self-sufferers reside to achieve certain special goals: to make the self a conscious and alert being, to build a friendly society and to realise the ultimate reality by everyone. The means to realise this end is suffering or self-purification.

This is a coherent means evolved by Gandhi. It does involve individuals as it involves the whole society. Both work for a common purpose. This process of self-purification not only makes an individual aware of the guilt but also makes society alert for the civil-protest or collective-cleansing. This unique concept of suffering brings about changes in an individual’s behaviour as well as in the societal attitude. It is not only spiritual but also has political as well as cultural impact.

This method of suffering evolved by Gandhi includes love, peace, harmony, mutual concerns for fellow-beings which are totally missing in the models of government these days. Liberal democracy, the most favourite model of government across the world, has not evolved any agenda for all these. But these can be seen in Gandhi’s idea of democracy. As we have seen, how he imagined to let heart culture flourish replacing the unsympathetic political culture. How he wished to encourage the relational-
self rather than the abstract-self of liberal democracy.

The philosophy of relativity developed by Gandhi is a way of life, a code of conduct which enjoins us to understand that the other’s perspectives are also important. In relativity alone, one can get due recognition for oneself as well as for others. Tolerance, non-violence and peace are those values for which Gandhi suffers. Differences are fundamental and those cannot be avoided. Relativity is universal and it cannot be ignored. Particularity is natural and it must not be overlooked. But we must not forget the fact that the beauty of unity lies in diversity. We must accept this universal truth that everything which happens in this phenomenon-rich world is highly relative in nature but the phenomena are regulated by a universal power. And to realise this power we are compelled to develop a connection with the rest of the society. The effort to develop this connectivity demands suffering. It is not only a common Constitution and a common citizenship, but a common feeling of brotherhood and friendship is necessarily required; all this is missing in the way of life these days.

Even though we accept the relevance of the principles developed by Gandhi like truth, non-violence and love, we are not ready for suffering either individually or collectively. We are ready to purify neither our hearts nor those of others. Both public and private spheres are responsible for violence and lack of faith in the way of life these days. If we are looking for real peace or real inclusion of love and peace, we should develop the culture of heart or the culture of harmony as Gandhi explained to us.


1. Nicholas F. Gier, “Gandhi and Mahayans Buddhism”, Gandhi Marg, Vol. 25, No. 2, July-September 2003, pp. 155-177.

2. Raghavan Iyer (ed.), The Essential Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991.

3. Bhikhu Parekh Colonialism, Tradition and Reform: An Analysis of Gandhi’s Political Discourse, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1989.

4. Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination, London: Macmillan Press, 1989.

5. Arne Naess, Gandhi and Group Conflict: An Exploration of Satyagraha, Theoretical Background, Oslo, Universitetsforlaget, 1947.

6. Manmohan Choudhuri, Exploring Gandhi, New Delhi: Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1989.

7. M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1927.

Dr Upasana Pandey is an Assistant Professor in Political Science, Vasanta College for Women, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. She can be contacted at e-mail:

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