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Mahatma Gandhi: Who is the Greatest Man in the World Today?

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by John Haynes Holmes
The Community Pulpit, April 10, 1921

I am going to speak to you this morning upon what I hope will be the interesting question as to who is the greatest man in the world today. In seeking an answer to this inquiry, I imagine that all of our minds instinctively go back to the days of the Great War, and run over the names of the men who held positions of vast responsibility and power in that stupendous conflict. Especially do we think of the great gathering of the war-leaders in Paris, in the opening months of the year 1919. Two years ago, at this time, we would all of us have agreed that if the greatest man in the world was anywhere, it was in this council of the premiers and statesmen of the Allied governments. These were the men who had been tested by the most awful peril which had ever threatened the civilization of the world, and who had brought out of that peril a victory which was as complete as it was sudden. Now they were being tested by the challenge of peace — by the great problem as to how to use a victory after it has been won. And it is just here, in this most rigorous of all tests, that these leaders of the nations failed. Who can say, in view of what happened at Versailles, and especially in view of what has happened since the signing of the treaty, that any one of these men responsible for the great disaster of the peace, has any substantial or permanent claims to greatness, in the true sense of the word?

I turn away, therefore, from the storm of the Great War, and from the men who rode that storm to power and place; and I look elsewhere for that man who impresses me as the greatest man who is living in the world today.

What we need is a universal man — a man who combines in perfect balance the supreme qualities of an idealist and a realist, a dreamer and a doer, a prophet who sees “the heavenly vision” and, “not unfaithful to (that) vision” makes it come true. Is there any such person living in the world?…

I believe that there is — unquestionably the greatest man living in the world today, and one of the greatest men who has ever lived. I heard of him first in 1917, through an article by Professor Gilbert Murray in the Hibbert Journal. I did not learn anything of him again until a few months ago, when there came to my desk a little paper-covered pamphlet containing extracts from his speeches and writings. This is meagre information; but when I read it, I felt as did John Keats when he first read Chapman’s translation of the Iliad:

“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific — and all his men
Looked at each other with a mild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”

The man whom I have in mind is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Indian leader, of the present great revolutionary movement against British rule in India, known and reverenced by his country­men as Mahatma, “the Saint.” I wonder how many of you have ever heard of him, or know the story of his life. Listen while I tell this story, and see if I am not right in calling its hero the greatest man in the world today!

Gandhi’s Early Life and Work in South Africa

Gandhi was born some fifty odd years ago in India, of a rich, clever and cultivated family. He was reared as the sons of such families are always reared, possessed of everything that money can buy and the imagination of devoted parents can conceive. In 1889 he came to England to study law.1 He took his degree in regular course, returned to India, and became a successful lawyer in Bombay.2 Already, however, he had found that religion was coming to have a dominant place within his life. Even before his journey to England, he had taken the Jain vow to abstain from wine, flesh, and sexual intercourse. On his return to India, his asceticism increased. Finding that money was inconsistent with his ideal of spirituality, he gave away his fortune to good causes, keeping only the barest pittance for himself.3 Later still, he took the vow of poverty, and thus became a beggar. Later still he became converted to the doctrine of non-resistance, which he calls “the root of Hinduism,” and therefore abandoned the practice of the law as “a system which tried to do right by violence.” When Gilbert Murray saw him in England in 1914, he ate only rice, drank only water, and slept on the bare boards of a wooden floor. “His conversation,” says Professor Murray, “was that of a cultivated and well-read man, with a certain indefinable suggestion of saintliness.” Gandhi was indeed become a saint. He had deliberately swept out of his life every last vestige of self-indulgence, that no slightest desire of the flesh might stand in the way of devotion to his ideals. From early in his life he was a man apart, with every last energy of soul and body dedicated to the service of humankind.

His public career divides itself into two distinct periods. The first extends from 1893 to 1913 and is identified with South Africa.3 The second, which belongs to India itself, runs from 1913 to the present day.


Gandhi as a young man.

In South Africa, in the early nineties of the last century, there were located some 150,000 Indians, chiefly in the province of Natal.5 The presence of these aliens had led to a situation very similar to that now prevailing in California as a result of the influx of the Japanese. The colour question, in other words, had become acute, and the South African government determined to meet it, first by forbidding the immigration of any more natives from India, and secondly by expelling the Indians who were already there. This last, it was found, could not legally be done; it violated a treaty, was opposed by Natal where industry was dependent upon cheap “coolie” labour, and was objected to by the Indian Government. The first proposal, of course, could easily be met by the passage of an exclusion act. At once began a long and bitter struggle. The whites of South Africa, baffled in their desires, did what the whites in all parts of the world have always done under such circumstances — namely, persecuted and outraged those whom they detested as so-called inferiors. Systematically they undertook to make life in South Africa as miserable an affair for all Indians, especially those above the labour class, as malice and cruelty could provide. Thus, these Indians were burdened with special taxes; they were forced to register in degrading ways; their thumb-prints were taken as though they were criminals; they were publicly insulted and discriminated against. In cases where the law could not be conveniently utilized, the South African whites did what we do so proudly here in America — organized patriotic mobs to loot, burn and lynch. Nothing was left undone to harry these unhappy Indians, and drive them in wretchedness and horror from the land.6

It was in 1893 that the Indians in South Africa appealed to Gandhi, and asked him to come and help them.7 At once he responded to their call, for it was his conviction that, if his countrymen were anywhere suffering, it was his duty and privilege alike to suffer with them. He came, therefore, to Natal in 1893, and there he remained, with the exception of one short interval of time, until 1913.8 As he was still a lawyer at this time, he began his fight against the Asiatic Exclusion Act, and won it, in the face of the most bitter and unfair opposition, on grounds of constitutionality. Then came the terrific battle for equitable political and social recognition — a struggle fought from beginning to end with the weapons of passive or non-resistance. Not once in all the years of the protracted struggle was there resort to violence, or yielding to the temptation of retaliation and revenge.

Acting as the leader and counsellor of his people, Gandhi founded a settlement in the open country, just outside the city of Durban. Here he gathered the Indians, placed them on the land for self-support, and bound them by the solemn vow of poverty. Here for years these organized thousands of resisters, suffering constant deprivation and frequent outrage, carried on their struggle against the government.9 It was in essence, I suppose, a strike — a withdrawal of the Indians from labour in the towns and villages, and a paralysis, therefore, of the industrial and social life of the republic. It was such a strike as Moses declared in ancient Egypt, when he led the Israelites out of the land of Pharaoh into the vast reaches of the wilderness. But this strike, if it may so be called, was in one thing different from any previous strike in human history! Universally in movements of this kind, the resisters make it their business to take quick and sharp advantage of any difficulty into which their opponents may fall, and press their claim the harder for this advantage. Gandhi, however, took the opposite course. Whenever, in these years of struggle, the Government became embarrassed by unexpected troubles, Gandhi, instead of pushing the fight ruthlessly to victory, would call a truce and come to the succour of his enemy. In 1899, for instance, the Boer War broke out. Gandhi immediately called off his strike, and organized an Indian Red Cross unit, which served throughout the war,10 was twice mentioned in dispatches, and was publicly thanked for bravery under fire. In 1904, there came a visitation of the plague in Johannesburg. Instantly, the strike was “off” and Gandhi was busying himself in organizing a hospital in the pest-ridden city.

In 1906 there was a native rebellion in Natal. Again the strike was suspended, while Gandhi raised and personally led a corps of stretcher-bearers, whose work was dangerous and painful. On this occasion he was publicly thanked by the Governor of Natal — and shortly afterwards, on the resumption of the resistance movement, thrown into a common jail in Johannesburg! It would be impossible for me to tell this morning the indignities and cruelties which were visited upon Gandhi during these years of intermittent resistance and forgiveness. He was thrown into prison countless times, placed in solitary confinement, lashed hand and foot to the bars of his cage. He was again and again set upon by raging mobs, beaten into insensibility, and left for dead by the side of the road. When not outraged in this fashion, he was insulted in public, mortified and humiliated with the most exquisite pains,11 But nothing shook his courage, disturbed his equanimity, exhausted his patience, or poisoned his love and forgiveness of his foes. And at last, after twenty years of trial and suffering, he won the victory. In 1913, the Indian case was taken up by Lord Hardinge, an imperial commission reported in Gandhi’s favour on nearly all the points at issue, and an act was passed giving official recognition to his claims.12 I know of no more astonishing illustration of a battle won by doing no wrong, committing no violence, but simply enduring without resentment all the punishment the enemy can inflict, until at last he becomes weary and ashamed of punishment!

Gandhi’s Revolution

The second period of Gandhi’s life began in 1913.13 This period, of course, has to do with the great revolutionary movement in India, which had been slowly developing during his years of absence in South Africa. Immediately upon his return, he took the leadership of this movement;14 but in 1914, with the outbreak of the war with Germany, suspended all operations against English rule. To strike at England at such a moment, he contended, was to strike her in the back; and it was as reprehensible to strike a nation in this cowardly fashion, as to strike a man. Throughout the war, therefore, Gandhi gave enthusiastic support to the Empire in every way not inconsistent with his religious ideals.

Immediately that the war was closed, however, quickened by the outrages visited upon the Indians during this period by the oppression of English tyranny, Gandhi lifted again his banner of revolt, and organised that stupendous non-co-operative movement which is shaking the British Empire at this moment to its foundations.15 What we have here, under Gandhi’s leadership, is a revolution — but a revolution different from any other of which history has knowledge. It is characterized by four distinctive features.

In the first place, it is a movement directed straight and hard against English rule in India. There is no concealment of Gandhi’s determination to free his people from the injustice and cruelty implicit in alien domination. “So long”, he says, “as the Government spells injustice, it may regard me, as its enemy, implacable enemy.” Again, he declares, “I seek to paralyze this Government. Until we have wrung justice from unwilling hands, this is what I stand for.” Still again he asserts, “I deliberately oppose the Government to the extent of trying to put its very existence in jeopardy.” That this is sedition, Gandhi sees as clearly as any one. If he were charged under the sedition section of the Indian Penal Code, he says that he “could not plead ‘not guilty’, …. For my speeches are intended to create disaffection such that the people might consider it a shame to assist or co-operate with a Government that had forfeited all title to confidence, respect or support.”

With all this unbending opposition to English rule, however, there is mingled no hatred against the English people. Gandhi has never at any time been guilty of the sin to which most of us were tempted during the war with Germany, of confusing a government with its people. “I tell the British people,” says Gandhi, “that I love them, and that I want their association;” but this must be on conditions not inconsistent with “self-respect and … absolute equality.”

Secondly, Gandhi’s movement is a revolution which has no place for force or violence of any kind. “Non-violence” is its most conspicuous motto and slogan. For Gandhi, as we have seen, is a non-resistant; and in India as in South Africa, will win his victory by peaceful means, or not at all! “Violence,” he says, “whatever end it may serve in Europe, will never serve us in India.” We must fight our battles with cleaner weapons, on a nobler plane of combat. Thus, “we must meet their untruth by truth; we (must) meet their cunning and their craft by openness and simplicity; we (must) meet their terrorism and frightfulness by bravery and patient suffering.” Further, he says, “We must bring no violence against those who do not join our ranks” — how well were it, if Lenin practiced this rule of conduct! And he adjures his followers to hold “every English life, and the life of every officer serving the Government, as sacred as those of our own dear ones” — think of what it would mean to Ireland if Sinn Fein observed this precept! “As soon as India,” says Gandhi, “accepts the doctrine of the sword, my life as an Indian is finished … Then India will cease to be the pride of my heart.”

In advocating thus the policy of non-violence, Gandhi takes pains to emphasize that he is not doing this because the Indians are weak. On the contrary, he commends non-violence just because India is so strong and thus so well able to meet the hazards involved. “I believe in the doctrine of non-violence,” says Gandhi, “as a weapon not of the weak but of the strong. I believe that man is the strongest soldier who dies unarmed with his breast bare before the enemy.” Again, he says, ” … I want India to practice non-violence because of her strength and power. No arms are required for her. We seem to need it because we seem to think that we are but a lump of clay. I want India to recognize that she has a soul that cannot perish, and that can rise triumphant above every physical weakness and defy the physical combination of the world.”

At bottom, of course, Gandhi advocates and practices non-resistance because he thinks it right. “The true thing,” he declares, “for any human being on earth, is not justice based on violence but justice based on sacrifice of self.” Again he says, “Non-violence is noble and right …. Forgiveness is more manly than punishment. Forgiveness adorns a soldier.”

Mahatma Gandhi and followers

Mahatma Gandhi and followers.

It is from this point of view, I take it, that Gandhi refers to his movement as “this religious battle!” He is insistent, however, that non-resistance is not only right but expedient. It is the one sure way of attaining a triumph that will endure. “The condition of success,” he says, “is to ensure entire absence of violence.” Again, “India might resort to destruction of life and property, but it could serve no purpose. You need but the one weapon of suffering.” Such truth is obvious to anyone, says Gandhi, who understands the laws of a universe which is spiritual. “If we would realize the secret of this peaceful and infallible doctrine, we will know and find that we will not want to use even an angry word. When they lift the sword, we will not want even to lift a little finger.”

Non-violence, however, is not enough. Non-resistance means something more than mere acquiescence in suffering. It must have a positive or aggressive policy – and it is this which Gandhi provides in what he calls “non-co-operation.” To all his followers, Gandhi recommends refusal to co-operate in any of the political or social functions which are essential to the continuance of British rule in India. He urges that the Indians boycott everything English, and thus paralyze the whole English system of control. Thus, he advises that his countrymen refuse to sit on the local Councils; that native lawyers refuse to practise in the courts; that parents withdraw their children from the schools; that titleholders give up their titles. On the occasion of the recent tour of the Prince of Wales, he urged all Indians to refuse welcome or recognition to the royal visitor. Even a boycott of English goods is under consideration, but of this Gandhi voices his disapproval. Such policy, of course, if effectively carried out on a large scale, would destroy English rule in India; it would little by little bring paralysis to the government as the hemlock brought inch by inch the chill of death to the limbs of Socrates. “The peacefullest revolution the world has ever seen” would be triumphant.

Lastly, as the crown of his great movement, Gandhi seeks the moral and spiritual regeneration of India on the lines of Indian thought, Indian custom, and Indian idealism. This means the exclusion, so far as possible, of the influence of the west, with its industry, trial slavery, its materialism, its money-worship and its wars. The first step in his endeavour is to wipe out the barriers which divide the Indians from one another, and make them one great united brotherhood. Thus, he seeks the obliteration of caste distinction and religious differences; Mohammedan must live peaceably with Hindu, and Hindu with Mohammedan. Then must come a leadership of mankind in ways of peace and amity. “I believe absolutely,” says Gandhi, “that India has a mission for the world.” His idealism, therefore, transcends the boundaries of race and country, and seeks to make itself one with the highest hopes of humanity. “My religion” he cries, “has no geographical limits. If I have a living faith in it, it will transcend my love for India herself.”

Such is Mahatma Gandhi! In this great spirit, he lives among the people. As he moves from city to city, crowds of thirty and even fifty thousand people assemble to hear his words. As he pauses for the night in a village, or in the open countryside, great throngs come to him as to a holy shrine. He would seem to be what the Indians regard him — the perfect and universal man. In his personal charac­ter, he is simple and undefiled. In his political endeavours, he is as stern a realist as Lenin, working steadfastly towards a far goal of liberation which must be won. At the same time, however, is he an idealist, like Romain Rolland, living ever in the pure radiance of the spirit. When I think of Rol­land, as I have said, I think of Tolstoi. When I think of Lenin, I think of Napoleon. But when I think of Gandhi, I think of Jesus Christ. He lives his life; he speaks his word; he suffers, strives and will some day nobly die, for his kingdom upon earth.

Do you recall how it is told of Jesus, that one day, as he was journeying, he heard his disciples quarrelling? And he said, “What were ye reasoning on the way?” And they said they had disputed, who was the greatest. And Jesus said, “If any man would be first among you, let him be the servant of all.”

Endnotes – “Who is the Greatest Man Alive Today?”

Editorial notes by Haridas Muzumdar in The Enduring Greatness of Gandhi, An American Estimate Being The Sermons of Dr. John Haynes Holmes and Dr. Donald S. Harrington, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1982

1. This is an error. The young Mohandas actually arrived in England on September 29, 1888.

2. This is not true. Actually, the young barrister failed to establish satisfactory practice as a lawyer both in Bombay and in Rajkot. The only success he achieved professionally was writing briefs for clients in Rajkot.

3. Here the author’s chronology is wrong, even though the substance is correct. Actually, Gandhi adopted the simple life in South Africa after 1903, as a result of reading Ruskin’s Unto This Last. The Phoenix Settlement, near Durban, in the Province of Natal, South Africa, founded in 1904, became Gandhi’s first Ashram where he and his followers, European as well as Indian, practised the simple way of life. – Haridas Muzumdar

4. Here there is a slight error in dating. Gandhi’s South African sojourn encompasses the years 1893-1914. We find him leaving the shores of South Africa by steamer on July 18, 1914, for England. On the outbreak of World War I, he orga­nised an ambulance corps of resident Indians; however, his ill-health compelled his Doctors to order his return to the sunny clime of his homeland. We find him landing in Bombay on January 9, 1915. I remember the year distinctly, because as a High School student I had been invited to deliver the wel­come address in honour of “the great man who had twisted the British Lion’s tail in South Africa,” when he passed through our city of Surat.

During his South African sojourn (1893-1914), Gandhi had intermittently travelled to England on deputations in behalf of his compatriots in South Africa, and to India for brief periods. Thus the first phase of Gandhi’s public career belongs to South Africa (1893-1914), the second phase to India (1915-1948).-Haridas Muzumdar.

5. The number mentioned by Dr. Holmes is an exag­geration. There were, in the early nineties of the last cen­tury, actually no more than 80,000 Indians in South Africa, most of them in Natal, as indentured labourers. – Haridas Muzumdar.

6. This generalization by Dr. Holmes is based on a violent “patriotic” mob of whites that greeted Gandhi as he step­ped off the boat from his trip to India, on January 13, 1897. The mob howled: “We must have Gandhi!” “Hang old Gandhi on the old crab-apple tree!” The timely intervention of the Superintendent of Police saved the day for Gandhi. Even so, by and large, excepting for “indentured” Indian labourers who would be cruelly beaten by their white masters now and then, there was no organized mob violence as such. The violence that rankled most to Indians was the violence of legal disabilities and chronic discrimination. – Haridas Muzumdar.

7. This is an error. In 1893, Gandhi, the young raw bar­rister, was invited to South Africa not by the Indian commu­nity but by a Muslim Indian business firm for legal assis­tance in a law suit. Later, as he was about to establish him­self professionally in India in 1896 and again in 1901, the invitation did go out to him from the entire Indian community.-Haridas Muzumdar.

8. July 1914, not 1913. – Haridas Muzumdar.

9. Here Dr. Holmes confuses the work of Tolstoy Farm, the second Ashram, founded in 1910, which did train approxi­mately a hundred members in the technique of Satyagraha, with the work at Phoenix Settlement (near Durban) which had been a training ground for simple living. Still, it must be recognized that these two Ashrams did serve as light-houses beckoning Indians to steer to the shore of self-respect and pride, away from the shoals of degradation and the badge of inferiority fastened onto them.-Haridas Muzumdar.

10. The British-Boer War lasted from 1899 to 1901. The Indian Ambulance Corps, led by Gandhi, was in active ser­vice from December 1899 to March 1900, and was indeed mentioned in official dispatches by the British government and publicly thanked for bravery under fire. Gandhi himself was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind gold medal for his services to the Empire. – Haridas Muzumdar.

11. The reader must make allowances for Dr Holmes’s extravagant statements, since he saw in the Mahatma the suffering Christ of our day. (A) For instance, during the South African Satyagraha campaigns, Gandhiji was imprisoned four times: (1) January 10-30, 1908, (2) October 13-December 12, 1908, (3) February 25-May 24·, 1909, (4) November 11-Decem­ber 18, 1913. Only twice was he handcuffed — once during the second imprisonment and another during the third term of imprisonment, each time while he was being led from the prison to the courthouse to give evidence. At one time he was isolated from other Indian prisoners for a few days. Whether this would constitute solitary confinement is a semantic problem over which some Gandhi students are divided. (II) Gandhiji had been mobbed by an unruly white crowd as he was stepping off the boat on his return from India on Jan. 13, 1897; the intervention of the wife of the Superintendent of Police calmed the mob somewhat, and the timely arrival of the Superintendent of Police, averted what might have been a major tragedy. (C) Gandhiji had been assaulted by one of his compatriots, a Pathan, who objected to the compromise worked out by Gandhi with General Smuts. And, indeed, he had been left for dead on the street at that time. It was Rev. and Mrs. Joseph J. Doke who nursed him back to health in their home. Much against the entreaties of the police, Gandhi refused to file a complaint against his assailant. (D) As for Gandhi having been insulted in public, mortified and humiliated, let us recall that the lot of the Asian as of the African in South Africa was constant rebuffs, a series of insults, hu­miliation and mortification. For his part, Gandhi never complained of any insult to himself personally. But Pyarelal men­tions at least two instances of public humiliation to Gandhiji: (I) Once Gandhi was pushed off the footpath in front of President Kruger’s house. An Englishman, named Coates, who saw the incident, pleaded with Gandhi that he should file a legal complaint against the ignorant Boer sentry. But Gandhiji had already forgiven his assailant and refused to take legal action against him. (2) The second instance of public humiliation was the Natal High Court Presiding Judge’s order asking the newly sworn-in advocate (1894) to remove his turban in court. On an earlier occasion, Gandhi the barrister had walked out of Court when ordered to remove his turban. But on this occasion in 1894, as an officer of the Court Gandhi felt it his duty to obey the court’s order.

In spite of some critics’ demurrer, I incline to the view that Dr. Holmes’s graphic description of persecution inflicted upon Gandhi in South Africa is not exaggerated.-Haridas Muzumdar.

12. Public opinion in Great Britain and India having been aroused by the last phase of Satyagraha in South Africa and liberal opinion in South Africa having been sympathetic to Gandhi and the Indian grievances, General Smuts could no longer hold Indians in prison. As a gesture of goodwill and reconciliation, Smuts ordered the release of Gandhi and his European co-workers, Hermann Kallenbach and H. S. L. Polak, on Dec. 18, 1893. Lord Hardinge, the Governor-General of India, unequivocally backed up the Satyagrahis’ stand. Thus, Smuts was compelled to appoint a Commission to settle the matter once for all, especially in view of the impending Euro­pean crisis involving Britain and Germany. It must be noted that the Commission was appointed by the government of the Union of South Africa, not by the Imperial Government of Great Britain.-Haridas Muzumdar.

13. This is a typographical error. The date ought to be 1915, not 1913.-Haridas Muzumdar.

14. As a broad generalization, this statement is correct, but it must be pointed out that national leadership devolved upon Gandhi only in 1919-20.So far as details are concerned, in accordance with the promise given to Mr. G. K. Go­khale, his political Guru, Gandhi devoted the first year after his return to the Motherland to travelling and studying con­ditions in India first-hand-before realizing his dream of laun­ching Satyagraha either regionally or nationally. Having spent all of 1915 travelling all over India, Gandhi established his Satyagraha Ashram at Sabarmati, near Ahmedabad. On the Dandi Salt March, he told me that he worked behind the scenes to help formulate the Congress-League Scheme for Home Rule (1916). But the mantle of national leadership fell on his shoulders only during the agitation against the Row1att Bills, which culminated in the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre of April 13, 1919.-Haridas Muzumdar.

15. In a general survey of conditions in India one cannot be too precise about minor details. But the reader needs to be reminded that in spite of the outrages inflicted upon the Punjab, at the Amritsar Congress Sessions (Christmas week, 1919), Gandhi adopted a non-belligerent attitude towards the Montagu-Chelmsford Reform Scheme. Soon thereafter, however, he began to losefaith in the bonafides of the British government of the day, and launched his first nationwide non-violent non-co-operation movement on the First of August, 1920, for the threefold purpose of (a) redeeming the wrongs done to the Punjab, (b) redeeming the wrongs done to the Khilafat, (c) attaining Swaraj.-Haridas Muzumdar.