Gandhi (Left-Reworked archival image) Dalai Lama (Drawn by Mayank Chhaya)
The Gandhi mystique is like a subscription on auto yearly renewal. Every January 30 Gandhi scholars, admirers, antagonists, critics, aficionados or just occasional gapers write about him as if they have discovered a whole new facet which had somehow escaped epic scrutiny.
The passage of 65 years after his assassination has done nothing to diminish the global fascination for Gandhi. For that matter, even the fact that the man himself wrote more than 90 volumes to chronicle his life and times—which is quite apart from hundreds of books, documentaries and films about him—do not seem to be enough appraisal of a single human being.
British writer Patrick French has done a piece in The Telegraph headlined “The truth about Mahatma Gandhi: he was a wily operator, not India’s smiling saint.” It is this particular paragraph in French’s article that reminded me of what I wrote in my 2007 biography of the Dalai Lama: ‘Man Monk Mystic.’ French writes “Gandhi’s genuine achievement as a political leader in India was to create a new form of protest, a mass public assertion which could, in the right circumstances, change history. It depended ultimately on a responsive government. He figured, from what he knew of British democracy, that the House of Commons would only be willing to suppress uprisings to a limited degree before conceding. If he had faced a different opponent, he would have had a different fate. When the former Viceroy of India, Lord Halifax, saw Adolf Hitler in 1938, the Führer suggested that he have Gandhi shot; and that if nationalist protests continued, members of the Indian National Congress should be killed in increments of 200.”
I also talk about the nature of the adversary Gandhi was up against and contrast it with what the Dalai Lama has had to deal with.
The 2007 biography has now been updated with a lot of new material and is expected to come out as a new edition in June this year.
The excerpts juxtapose Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.
“Although from the time when Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, with peace and tolerance still secure in his heart, to the time when the Dalai Lama escaped in 1959, espousing practically the same philosophy, there was a gap of a little over a decade, the prevalent global political climate, both during Gandhi’s time and the Dalai Lama’s early years of exile, was openly hostile to pure pacifism.
The world had barely emerged from the Second World War about a decade and a half earlier and it was divided right down the middle on which ideology to pursue—capitalism as championed by the West or Communism as advocated by the Soviet Union and China. Both sides were convinced theirs was a superior ideology, and they put their military might behind it. What also worked against the Dalai Lama in his early years was his age. A twenty-four-year-old Buddhist monk, chosen as a reincarnation through a bizarre process in an exotic country generally cut off from the rest of the world, was not about to ignite the world’s imagination, caught as it was in vicious political, ideological, economic, and military rivalries. The Dalai Lama was still an obscure curiosity for the world and his cause was one in which no major nation had any immediate stake. His message of peace and compassion was muffled by the saber-rattling among cold war warriors.
If the Dalai Lama truly is Gandhi’s successor, then he would recognize that pacifism is a painfully slow process. Gandhi and his fellow leaders took nearly three decades to dismantle the colonial grip on India. That freedom was won in completely different circumstances where adversaries were sharply defined in terms of ethnography, culture, religion, and language. No one could look at the British rulers in India and claim they were indigenous to India and shared history. In the case of the ethnography of China versus Tibet, culture and to some extent religion and language are often indistinguishable to the ordinary mind.
This seeming lack of difference between the Chinese and Tibetan people is one of the most important factors that has influenced the way the world has approached the problem. Pacifism is also a continuing process that often does not really conclude in anything tangible. Many of the Dalai Lama’s detractors have argued that there is a fundamental difference between what Gandhi had to deal with and what the Tibetan leader is dealing with. In the British colonialists Gandhi dealt with an adversarial establishment that had at its core some fair principles once one overcomes the fact they were subjugators.
It was also an adversary that had mastered the art of appearing to be flexible, having colonized diverse parts of the world and learned to deal with people markedly different from themselves. The detractors argue that in the Chinese government the Dalai Lama is dealing with an establishment that is not inherently fair and is not known to be flexible. So while Gandhi’s pacifism worked because it was directed against an adversary astute enough in statecraft not to be blatantly and overtly unfair, the Dalai Lama’s pacifism is unlikely to work because it is up against a regime that is fundamentally unfair. Of course, such logic is often simplistic and disregards the sheer force of history, which can often bend some of the mightiest empires.
While there are some obvious similarities between Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, the differences are quite overwhelming. Gandhi had the well-defined context of a country to operate in. He did not have to shoulder the burden of an ancient belief system. It was only toward the end of his life that he began to inspire an element of worship among some of his followers. Gandhi also had the support of a galaxy of powerful leaders, who were giants in their own right and helped him create perhaps the world’s single biggest political movement. On Gandhi’s leadership depended the destinies of over 300 million people. And most important, he was up against an imperial power in precipitous decline. The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, has no defined context of a country to operate from, although in his and other Tibetans’ minds Tibet is a real geographical entity. The Dalai Lama is hamstrung by the demands of propping up an ancient belief system. He has been worshipped since he was a child. He remains the only leader of consequence for his cause, unlike Gandhi. The future of some 6 million people rides on the Dalai Lama, although a substantial number of them have resigned themselves to their fate of being under Chinese sovereignty. And most important, he is up against a political, military, and economic power that is steeply rising.
Gandhi justified violence in certain exceptional circumstances. The Dalai Lama does not support violence in any circumstances. Although Gandhi and the Dalai Lama belong to two powerful faiths, Jainism and Buddhism, respectively, which originated around the same time (Mahavir, who was more or less the Buddha’s contemporary, founded Jainism, whose core principle is extreme nonviolence), neither chose to turn his faith into a political weapon to sway public opinion. In many ways, however, the Dalai Lama can be considered Gandhi’s successor insomuch as both represented an unconventional moral force.
“I sincerely believe that tolerance, compassion, and nonviolence eventually prevail,” the Dalai Lama said.”