Bapu Kuti: Lessons from Gandhi’s Home – Letter to Adolf Hitler
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 7 Oct 2019
“My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements on a given question, but to be consistent with truth as it may present itself to me at a given moment. The result has been that I have grown from truth to truth ….”
— The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 90
Eighty kilometres to the east of Nagpur lies Bapu Kuti, a historic site in Sewagram, the “village of service”, nestled in the serene rustic surroundings close to the Wardha district. This was the humble abode of Mahatma Gandhi from 1936 to 1948 and was the epicentre of the Indian freedom movement. During the 12 years Gandhi lived here, Wardha became the de facto nationalist capital of India. A motley array of foreign delegations — politicians, pacifists, religious leaders and do-gooders of all complexions — regularly found their way to Sewagram. In July 1942, the Quit India resolution was passed here and in 1946, Gandhi left the ashram, never to return.
By 1931 Gandhi was already famous following his immensely successful Salt March. In 1930, he launched the Salt March against the absurd law that made the production of salt a monopoly of the British Raj and prohibited Indians from making their own salt. Instead Indians were required to buy expensive, heavily taxed salt that often was imported. As a token protest he organized a 241-mile (385 km) long protest march that initially had a band of 78 marchers but swelled into thousands along the way .The distance was covered in 25 days and the caravan finally converged at the shores of the Arabian Sea in a small coastal town, called Dandi (near Surat) in Gujarat. On the morning of April 6, Gandhi and his acolytes harvested salt, thereby recording their transgressions of the British law. This act sparked a nationwide revolution and catalysed civil-disobedience campaigns across the country.
Soon everyone was making salt in their backyards and on their roofs, and the colonial power panicked and put 60,000 protesters in jail. The pinch Gandhi himself had collected was sold at auction for 1,600 rupees For Jawaharlal Nehru, the defining image of Gandhi was: “Many pictures rise in my mind of this man (Gandhi) …but the picture that is dominant… is as I saw him marching, staff in hand, to Dandi on the Salt March in 1930. Here was the pilgrim on his quest of truth, peaceful, determined and fearless, who would continue that quest and pilgrimage, regardless of consequences.”
On his way from Round Table Conference on India in London in 1931, he said in Rome:
“We will not pay taxes, we will not work for Britain, we will completely isolate British authorities and British institutions. India would certainly be crushed if we resorted to violence, but we have enormous resources in the shape of passive resistance”.
In a “cynical, materialistic and disillusioned” age, wrote the liberal journal the Nation of America, there had emerged a man “whose singular devotion, unselfishness and spiritual power have won him the almost superstitious reverence of his own people and the respect of the skeptical critics.” Gandhi had become a world icon and was known as the Mahatma (an honorific meaning “great soul”). He became pioneer of the global movement of passive resistance and non violence.
It was around this time that Gandhi felt the urge to identify himself with the grassroots communities and start a process of rural regeneration. He was 64 when in 1934 he resigned not only as the leader but also as a member of the Congress Party. Gandhi was an early member of the only major national party and helped transform it from an elite organization to a national force.
Gandhi was unhappy with the inability of the Congress party to embrace nonviolence as a fundamental duty. He believed that its leading members had adopted nonviolence as a political expedient and not as the fundamental creed it was for him. In place of political activity he then concentrated on his “constructive programme” of building the nation “from the bottom up”— promoting hand spinning, weaving and other cottage industries as a superior alternative to top-down modernization in a country largely populated by peasants; continuing his fight against the social practice of untouchability; devising methods of sanitation for rural communities; and evolving a system of education best suited to the needs of the people.
Gandhi wrote to Jamnalal Bajaj, a famous philanthropist, that he wanted to live alone in a small hut in a small village to launch his programme of social and economic uplift Shegaon, a tiny hamlet that later became Seagram –was to become the village of Gandhi’s future .It was too small for such an international guest .However, his presence alone was enough to draw scores of votaries as well as visitors from across the country and around the world as Jawaharlal Nehru came several times. Soon, there was a road and one hut became a cluster. The British set up a telephone so that they could communicate with the Mahatma. However, Gandhi’s attempt to disconnect from the world failed just like his attempt to change India from outside did. It, however, did quicken the course of the trajectory towards independence.
Gandhi never gave up on his alternative vision for India as a nation of enlightened but simple and self-sufficient villages. In this way, he hoped that the equality of all citizens would be realised and everyone would contribute a portion of their labour to produce the basic necessities of life —food, clothing and shelter— from local, renewable materials.
He stuck stubbornly to this vision, long after it was clear that the Congress party and the Indian elite were not interested. In village after village around Wardha, Gandhi applied his efforts to transforming India’s villages from cesspits of ignorance and rigid social hierarchy into beacons of order, cleanliness and brotherly affection.
He started his efforts in social improvement with a basic issue: teaching villagers to take responsibility for their waste. Central to this was how Gandhi expected people to deal with the most basic aspect of cleanliness, the removal of their own excrement.
The task of removing human waste was traditionally delegated to Dalits, or simply avoided. Gandhi expected that when his disciples entered a village they would begin their work by looking for stray human waste, to move to a remote spot and bury it. Shocked by this work, Gandhi argued, people would get the message—but they did not.
One does not have to be a Gandhi devotee to be able to appreciate the austere beauty of the ashram’s premises. Gandhi shared these thoughts about who should consider residing in it: “He alone deserves to be called an inmate of the ashram who has ceased to have any worldly relation — one involving monetary interests — with his parents or other relatives; who has no other needs save those of food and clothing; and who is ever watchful in the observance of the 11 cardinal vows. Therefore, he who needs to make savings should never be regarded as an ashram inmate.”
Bapu Kuti is nothing short of a museum. A quaint bath, an elderly, dignified telephone box and neat little alcoves shyly peeping from the walls, all serve to create an inexplicable nostalgia for a past that we were not even part of. There are some bare relics: Glasses, a spoon, a pocket watch and a pumice stone to scrub his body. The kitchen contains the flour grinder Gandhi put to use occasionally. His cot and massage table have also been retained. The sacredness of the place is preserved by the several sombre trees that have themselves withstood the passage of history and ravages of time. The practice of daily prayers in the open continues. The campus glows with humility evoking memories of its master.
The major activity at the ashram commune was hand –spinning. For preparing Indians for independence by inculcating discipline and self-reliance, Gandhi urged women and men, including the highest officials, to produce at least 25 meters of yarn a year, enough to meet one’s needs. “Every revolution of the wheel spins peace, goodwill, and love,” he preached.
Sewagram was built on low ground, in an area that became a malaria-infested swamp during the monsoon and was infested with poisonous snakes and scorpions. Sewagram had no paved road and no post office. When Louis Fischer—the American author whose 1950 biography, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, served as the basis for Richard Attenborough’s 1982 blockbuster film—visited Sewagram for a sweltering week in 1942, the only way he could summon the energy to type out his daily notes was to sit naked in a tub on a crate, with a towel folded under him, his typewriter perched on another crate nearby. “
At intervals of a few minutes, when I began to perspire, I dipped a bronze bowl into the tub and poured the water over my neck, back and legs. By that method, I was able to type a whole hour without feeling exhausted,” he wrote.
When Gandhi came to Wardha in 1933, he wanted to retreat to a place that had none of the amenities that India’s poor lacked. While Gandhi worked for independence from Shegaon—which he renamed Sewagram—he left his the most doting devotee, Mirabehn (Madeleine Slade), daughter of an English admiral, with the plan of constructing of buildings in the village. Housing at Sewagram was to be built strictly from local, affordable and renewable materials. Nothing should come from beyond a five-kilometre radius.
The structures were to be simple enough for a small group of ordinary people to build and maintain on their own. Indeed, the modest scale of the lodgings comes as a surprise to many visitors. The cottages are well-crafted with thick mud-brick walls, clay roof tiles and palm leaf thatching. The most important of these historic structures are Adi Niwas, Ba Kuti and Bapu Kuti. Adi Niwas was the first house built at Sewagram and was the place where the first ashram members lived together. Bapu Kuti and Ba Kuti are the cottages of Mahatma Gandhi and his wife, Kasturba Gandhi, respectively.
Originally determined to live in an isolated hut, Gandhi decided that his own house should be open from all sides in order to let natural elements and his visitors circulate freely. The building’s design, though loosely inspired by traditional village houses, was an idealised design from Gandhi’s imaginary village “in my mind” as he wrote in his famous exchange of letters with Nehru in 1945.
Bapu Kuti is a sparse and austere mud-walled cottage. The building remains as a symbol of the Mahatma’s dedication to a mode of living that treads lightly on the land and is accessible in its material simplicity to even the poorest. Three of Gandhi’s original possessions are highlighted in the building today: His iconic round-shaped spectacles, his pocket-watch and his two cross-strapped slippers. These three have taken on a symbolic value in the commemoration of the great leader. The first enabled him to see the world around him with clarity and the second helped him keep and respect time — that of others as much as his own — and the third symbolised his light but unmistakable footprint on the Indian landscape.
A number of Gandhi’s other sparse possessions are exhibited at Bapu Kuti: A walking stick, a portable spinning wheel, a paperweight, an inkpot, a pencil stand, a bowl, prayer beads and a small statue of three monkeys among other things. The cottage is partitioned into separate rooms, which left some space for Gandhi to write, meet visitors and for guests to sleep. It also contains a latrine connected to a septic tank with a note informing visitors that Gandhi cleaned it himself. Bamboo shelving hangs from the ceiling for storage. For aesthetic effect, Mirabehn herself drew simple ornamental designs on the walls of palm trees, an “Om” symbol and a spinning wheel.
Gandhi never gave up on his alternative vision for India as a nation of enlightened but simple and self-sufficient villages. In this way, Gandhi hoped that the equality of all citizens would be realised and everyone would contribute a portion of his or her labour to produce the basic necessities of life—food, clothing, shelter—out of local, renewable materials. He stuck to this vision stubbornly, long after it became clear that the Congress party and the Indian elite were not interested. Nevertheless, in village after village around Wardha, Gandhi applied his efforts to transforming India’s villages from cesspits of ignorance and rigid social hierarchy into beacons of order, cleanliness and brotherly affection.
Gandhi started his efforts in social improvement with the most basic issue: Teaching villagers to take responsibility for their waste. Central to this was how Gandhi expected villagers to deal with the most basic aspect of cleanliness, the removal of their own excrement. The task of removing human waste was traditionally delegated to Dalits or simply avoided. Gandhi expected that when his disciples entered a village they would begin their work by looking for stray human waste, to move it to a remote spot and bury it. Shocked by this work, Gandhi argued, the villagers would get the message—but they did not.
His instructions to those who wanted to join his ashram were also an exercise in frugality. They had to take 11 vows in just 11 words — ahimsa (nonviolence); satya (truth); astyeya (non-stealing); brahmacharya (celibacy); aparigraha, (non-possession); sharir shrama (manual labour); asvada (control over palate); sarvatra bhaya varjana (fearlessness), sarva dharma samanatva (equality of all religions); swadeshi (use of locally manufactured goods); sparsha bhavana (removal of untouchability).
The food was also prepared according to rule number four of Gandhi’s (Sabarmati) ashram rules. According to Gandhi, the first step to control sexual appetite — that is essential for curbing one’s selfish impulses—was to eliminate the pleasure of eating: “Food must, therefore, be taken like medicine under proper restraint.” Fischer noted in his diary that he didn’t like the mush that was served and after the third day, he declined to eat any more of it.
The peace of village life was bittersweet. Sewagram’s calm was, in fact, due to the absence of any real, living activity. Today, the ashram is preserved in time in the manner of an old sepia photograph but the idealised life it documents is now dead. Sewagram is no longer a vibrant place inhabited by the indefatigable Gandhi and his devoted votaries. It is a shell of what it was, a time capsule fondly and painstakingly preserved but devoid of its living inhabitants and shorn of its original aura.
The site is at once stimulating and soothing, haunting yet peaceful. It is as if the aura of the man himself hovers above it. Part of the reason, of course, is that the ashram simply doesn’t attract that many visitors as Gandhi’s importance and pertinence to ordinary Indians fades.
Gandhi would also have been dismayed by the disregard for environmental sustainability and adoption of energy and resource-guzzling technologies rather than seeking more sustainable alternatives. The results are there for all to see. Many of our rivers are biologically dead. The chemical contamination of the soil is immense and possibly irreversible. Sewagram continued to nurture Gandhi’s vision of a sustainable world. Modern India is an environmental basket-case, with falling water tables, massive pollution (disappearing forests and toxic soils.
The economic universe that Gandhi visualised for India is now in total conflict with the technology-driven, production based, market-oriented and consumption-inducing economy that is the regiing modern economic ideology. His emphasis was on need-based simple living expressed through his oft-quoted statement,
“The world has enough for everybody’s need but not enough for everybody’s greed.”
As against transnational production and marketing, Gandhi conceived an economic structure, in which a self-sufficient, self-reliant and self-sustaining village was to be the constituent unit of a decentralised political system, independent by itself in most respects. Local demand was to be met by local production with villagers adapting vocations in alignment with local demand –supply equation.
Gandhi cautioned as far back as 1928:“God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip of the world bare like locusts. Unless the capitalists of India help to avert that tragedy by becoming trustees of the welfare of the masses, and by devoting their talents not to amassing wealth for themselves but to the service of the masses in an altruistic spirit, they will end either by destroying the masses or being destroyed by them.”(Young India, 20-12-1928, p. 422)
Gandhi’s critique of modern civilization hinged on what he saw as its refusal to recognize limits. To a civilization shaped by unappeasable human will and ambition Gandhi counterposed a civilization organized around self limitation and ethical conduct. “We shall cease to think of getting what we can, but we shall decline to receive what all cannot get,” he wrote. “The only real, dignified, human doctrine is the greatest good of all, and this can only be achieved by uttermost self sacrifice.”
Gandhi’s impact on social, cultural and economic transformation has been indelible. He infused India with a revolutionary blend of politics and spirituality. He called his action-based philosophy Satyagraha or the truth force. The aim of Satyagraha was to arouse the conscience of oppressors and invigorate their victims with a sense of moral agency. Gandhi’s unique mode of defiance, Niebuhr observed as early as 1932, not only works to “rob the opponent of the moral conceit by which he identifies his interests with the peace and order of society.” It also purges the victim’s resentment of the “egoistic element,” producing a purer “vehicle of justice.”
He guided India to independence and forced his countrymen to question their deepest prejudices about caste, religion and violence. His ideas continue to resonate across the world and he has inspired generations of great leaders. He harnessed the moral firepower of nonviolent resistance and inspired countless others, across different cultures and different time. To the end Gandhi persisted in his belief that the salvation of India lay in the home spinning wheel and hand loom. His lack of interest in industrial planning and other economic matters exasperated many younger members of the Congress.
As a young man, King read Gandhi closely. In 1958, as he was making his name as a civil rights leader in the American South, King published a tribute to Gandhi in an Indian newspaper describing the deep influence the “Father of the Indian Nation” had on his thought: “I came to see at a very early stage that a synthesis of Gandhi’s method of nonviolence and the Christian ethic of love is the best weapon available to Negroes in this struggle for freedom and human dignity…. His spirit is a continual reminder to oppressed people that it is possible to resist evil and yet not resort to violence.”
Yet, Gandhi’s legacy is in shreds .It had already started waning immediately after his death. There’s a lack of understanding of his beliefs today. Gandhi is no longer quite so awe-inspiring, or even relevant. As time goes on, he seems to be falling out of sync with the prevailing trends in Indian politics His vision of villages as the most fertile ground for India’s progress now seems like a utopian dream. The Governor-General of independent India, C. Rajagopalachari gave a disenchanted verdict in the years that immediately followed Gandhi’s death .It still rings true:
“The glamour of modern technology, money and power is so seductive that no one–I mean no one–can resist it. The handfuls of Gandhians who still believe in his philosophy of a simple life in a simple society are mostly cranks.”
Gandhi may have at times been a politician; but unlike many of them he was morally purer. In his Reflections on Gandhi, George Orwell wrote,
“Regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!”
Gandhi offered the world’s people a simple philosophy in keeping with his precepts of plain living and high thinking—a shining set of ideals to emulate; individual freedom, political liberty, social justice, nonviolent protest, passive résistance, religious tolerance. The creed of non-violence which made him unique among world leaders was the extreme opposite point to the ruthlessness of the totalitarian age His work and his spirit awakened the world to ideas that serve as a moral beacon for all epochs. Gandhi normally chose only men for his protest marches, but he regarded women as natural allies. “I feel they will be worthier interpreters of nonviolence than men,” he said, “not because they are weak, as men in their arrogance believe them to be, but because they have greater courage.”
Perhaps, what makes his words still resonant is his talisman:
“Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him…? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? … Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away (MK Gandhi, Mahatma: Vol. VIII).”
Like the Buddha, Gandhi was a beacon not just for India, or for his own time, but for all epochs.
|Gandhi’s letter to Adolf Hitler written from Sewagram Ashram
As at Wardha,
December 24, 1940
That I address you as a friend is no formality. I own no foes. My business in life has been for the past 33 years to enlist the friendship of the whole of humanity by befriending mankind, irrespective of race, colour or creed.
I hope you will have the time and desire to know how a good portion of humanity who have view living under the influence of that doctrine of universal friendship view your action. We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity, especially in the estimation of men like me who believe in universal friendliness. Such are your humiliation of Czechoslovakia, the rape of Poland and the swallowing of Denmark. I am aware that your view of life regards such spoliations as virtuous acts. But we have been taught from childhood to regard them as acts degrading humanity. Hence we cannot possibly wish success to your arms.
But ours is a unique position. We resist British Imperialism no less than Nazism. If there is a difference, it is in degree. One-fifth of the human race has been brought under the British heel by means that will not bear scrutiny. Our resistance to it does not mean harm to the British people. We seek to convert them, not to defeat them on the battle-field. Ours is an unarmed revolt against the British rule. But whether we convert them or not, we are determined to make their rule impossible by non-violent non-co-operation. It is a method in its nature indefensible. It is based on the knowledge that no spoliator can compass his end without a certain degree of co-operation, willing or compulsory, of the victim. Our rulers may have our land and bodies but not our souls. They can have the former only by complete destruction of every Indian—man, woman and child. That all may not rise to that degree of heroism and that a fair amount of frightfulness can bend the back of revolt is true but the argument would be beside the point. For, if a fair number of men and women be found in India who would be prepared without any ill will against the spoliators to lay down their lives rather than bend the knee to them, they would have shown the way to freedom from the tyranny of violence. I ask you to believe me when I say that you will find an unexpected number of such men and women in India. They have been having that training for the past 20 years.
We have been trying for the past half a century to throw off the British rule. The movement of independence has been never so strong as now. The most powerful political organization, I mean the Indian National Congress, is trying to achieve this end. We have attained a very fair measure of success through non-violent effort. We were groping for the right means to combat the most organized violence in the world which the British power represents. You have challenged it. It remains to be seen which is the better organized, the German or the British. We know what the British heel means for us and the non-European races of the world. But we would never wish to end the British rule with German aid. We have found in non-violence a force which, if organized, can without doubt match itself against a combination of all the most violent forces in the world. In non-violent technique, as I have said, there is no such thing as defeat. It is all ‘do or die’ without killing or hurting. It can be used practically without money and obviously without the aid of science of destruction which you have brought to such perfection. It is a marvel to me that you do not see that it is nobody’s monopoly. If not the British, some other power will certainly improve upon your method and beat you with your own weapon. You are leaving no legacy to your people of which they would feel proud. They cannot take pride in a recital of cruel deed, however skilfully planned. I, therefore, appeal to you in the name of humanity to stop the war. You will lose nothing by referring all the matters of dispute between you and Great Britain to an international tribunal of your joint choice. If you attain success in the war, it will not prove that you were in the right. It will only prove that your power of destruction was greater. Whereas an award by an impartial tribunal will show as far as it is humanly possible which party was in the right.
You know that not long ago I made an appeal to every Briton to accept my method of non-violent resistance. I did it because the British know me as a friend though a rebel. I am a stranger to you and your people. I have not the courage to make you the appeal I made to every Briton. Not that it would not apply to you with the same force as to the British. But my present proposal is much simple because much more practical and familiar.
During this season when the hearts of the peoples of Europe yearn for peace, we have suspended even our own peaceful struggle. Is it too much to ask you to make an effort for peace during a time which may mean nothing to you personally but which must mean much to the millions of Europeans whose dumb cry for peace I hear, for my ears are attended to hearing the dumb millions? I had intended to address a joint appeal to you and Signor Mussolini, whom I had the privilege of meeting when I was in Rome during my visit to England as a delegate to the Round Table Conference. I hope that he will take this as addressed to him also with the necessary changes.
Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a member of NITI Aayog’s National Committee on Financial Literacy and Inclusion for Women. He is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tags: Activism, Culture, Gandhi, History, Human Rights, India, Nonviolence, Politics, Satyagraha, Social justice, Solutions, World
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 7 Oct 2019.
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