Mahatma Gandhi and His Quest for Self-Realization

An Indian youth with his face painted with the Indian tricolor takes part in a peace rally on the 60th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination, in Mumbai, Jan. 30 2008. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi—called Mahatma or "Great Soul"—spearheaded a nonviolent campaign against the British Raj that finally saw India gain its independence in 1947. Gandhi was shot death by a Hindu hardliner on Jan. 30, 1948, at a prayer meeting in New Delhi. (Photo: Pal Pillai / AFP-Getty Images)

I always wondered why an international political leader like Gandhi was addressed as Mahatma, an honorific frequently used for a spiritually elevated soul. To find an answer, I think it is essential to review his life not in parts, but as a whole.

In the introduction to his autobiography, Gandhi has written, "My experiments in the political field are now known. But I should certainly like to narrate my experiments in the spiritual field, which are known only to me and from which I have derived such power as I possess for working in the political field." Indeed, he relentlessly pursued truth all through his life and achieved Self-realization. It is an anomaly that he is remembered and evaluated only for his political achievements. Little attention has been paid to the spiritual force within him from which he derived power to work in personal, social, and political fields.

Gandhi received good Samskaras pre-dispositions) by virtue of his birth in a religious Vaishnava family of Gujarat, particularly from his mother, who left an indelible impression of her saintliness on his tender mind. He imbibed truthfulness from the characteristics of the hero of the play "Harishchandra." He wondered, "Why should not we be truthful like Harishchandra?" The question haunted him day and night. The king Harishchandra became the ideal hero of his dream and the paragon of truth.

Gandhi's endeavors for Self-realization were through strict observance of truth. He molded his actions on the basis of truth, only the truth that he perceived within. The word truth ordinarily connotes not to tell lies. But for Gandhi it implied much more. Even hiding the truth from someone was deemed as untruth by him. He considered that the narrow implication of the term had belied its magnitude. Defining truth he writes, "The root of Satya [Truth] lies in Sat. Sat means 'Being' and Satya—the feeling of the Being. Everything is perishable except Sat. Therefore, the true name of God is Sat, thereby implying Satya. So, instead of saying 'God is Truth,' it is better to say 'Truth is God.' "

A question may now arise whether the realization of Truth and the realization of Self were one and the same for him. We get the answer from Ramana Maharishi, "What is Satya except Self? Satya is that which is made of Sat. Again Sat is nothing but Self. So Gandhiji's Satya is only the Self."

It is now clear that what Gandhi meant by Truth was in fact the realization of Self. He writes, "What I meant to achieve—what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years—is Self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha [Salvation]."

How to realize God is a complicated question. The realization of God can be attained by purity of mind and heart, and by Sadhana (constant practice). The Bhagavad Gita, the dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna in the epic Mahabharata, is regarded as a sacred Hindu scripture and an infallible guide of daily practice. Gandhi held the Bhagavad Gita in high esteem. He writes, "Those who will meditate on the Gita will derive fresh joy and new meanings from it every day. There is not a single spiritual tangle which the Gita cannot unravel." He found an answer to the above question (of how to realize God) in the Gita—Vairagya (non-attachment) and Abhyasa Yoga (practice).

Vairagya means total indifference to worldly things and concentration only on the Absolute. Lord Krishna says in the Gita: "Fix thy mind on Me only, place thy intellect in Me; then thou shalt no doubt live in Me alone hereafter" (Chapter XII: Shloka 8).

And further says he, "If thou art not able to fix thy mind steadily on Me, then by yoga of constant practice [Abhyasa Yoga] do thou seek to reach Me" (Ibid: 9).

Gandhi was born to serve humanity. He was a householder living among people. He was a practical man; he chose the path of practice and the path of renunciation of the fruits of action. Absolute faith in God and surrender to His Will became his object of observance (Niyama); and the constant thought of the Truth, his practice (Abhyasa Yoga). His mind was always occupied with truth in all walks of life—personal, social, or political.

Gandhi was a seeker and introspection was the method of his Sadhana. He writes, "I have gone through deep introspection, searched myself through and through, and examined and analyzed every psychological situation." The study of the Gita and the process of self-introspection brought him face to face with the true meaning of Ahimsa (nonviolence)—no violence in thought, speech, and act. He came to the conclusion that the realization of Truth was impossible without adherence to the supreme conduct of man- Ahimsa. In his opinion Truth and Ahimsa were as intermingled as the two sides of a coin. For the achievement of one or the other, complete control over the senses of action (Karmendriya) and those of perception (Jnanendriya) is essential.

Lord Krishna also says in the Gita, "Control raga–dvesha [attachment–aversion], obstructions on spiritual path; do your duty well. Control desire and anger-the enemies of wisdom. Master first the senses. Kill this enemy desire by restraining the self by Self and by knowing Him who is superior to intellect."

Gandhi regarded Ahimsa as means (Sadhana) and Truth as the ultimate goal (Sadhya). It is said that Ahimsa is the super-most religion (Ahimsa Parmodharma). Truth for Gandhi was the Almighty God. He, therefore, strived for and adhered to perfect Truth in thought, speech, and act all through his life and thereby achieved the realization of Self. It is most likely that he practiced also the Kriya Yoga he was initiated in by Paramhansa Yogananda, who visited him in Wardha Ashram in 1935. Although lean and frail in appearance, he was strong in body and mind and glowed with spiritual health.

According to Ramana Maharishi, Adhyatmik Shakti (Spiritual Force) was working within Gandhi and leading him on. He always listened to his inner voice and took decisions accordingly. His inner self prompted him to serve the wounded in the Boer War and Zulu rebellion in South Africa. He was always in the frontlines and fearlessly led people in Satyagraha and noncooperation movements. Undaunted he walked unarmed without any protection through the riot-hit areas at the time of partition of India, giving a message of faith, love, and peace.

Gandhi was a Nishkama Karma yogi with no aspiration for any recognition or reward. He had limited his desires and needs to the bare minimum. Whatever he did, he did with right intention, right spirit, and conviction, and worked for the benefit of others irrespective of caste, creed, or religion. Notwithstanding the power he wielded over the Congress Party and the masses, he never aspired for or accepted any kind of office. Had his name been proposed as the first president of India in recognition of his services to the nation, I am sure none would have opposed it but himself. He was such a great and magnanimous person. Rabindranath Tagore, a poet and visionary, recognized his greatness and spirituality and called him Mahatma ("great soul"), an attribute Gandhi aptly deserved.

Gandhi stood for Truth, Ahimsa, Compassion, and Service, all through his life. "To serve humanity is the service of God" was the principle of his life. He was a social savior of the oppressed and downtrodden people and fought for their right of equality and justice. That is not all; he was the political savior of nations in political turmoil. The leaders of many subjugated races and countries drew inspiration from him for their rights. Like Jesus Christ, he was forgiveness personified. He had no feeling of malice toward anyone in his dying moments, and breathed his last remembering his chosen Deity "Rama." Paying a glowing tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein has written, "Generations to come, it may be, will scarcely believe that such one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon the earth."

Today, we are passing through a crisis—a crisis of identification of values. The world is entrapped in gross materialism. Man has become as selfish as to have utter disregard for others—whether individuals or a societies or nations. It is high time to create a balance between materialism and spiritualism. In the chaotic circumstances prevailing all over the world today, we are looking for peace as elusive as the mirage in a desert. I think Mahatma Gandhi's life and his teachings can serve as beacon-lights to guide us and lead us to steady peace.

A noted Indologist and the former vice chancellor of Meerut University, Dr. Ravindra Kumar has been associated with a number of national and international academic, cultural, educational, social, and peace organizations and institutions. He is the editor of Global-Peace-International Journal.