The Life & Message of Mahatma Gandhi

Yesterday we celebrated the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji was truly the saint of the century, and as we pay our tribute to him we must never forget the message of his life.

As we reflect on the greatness of Mahatma Gandhiji’s life and the tragedy of his assassination, let us look not only at facts but at meanings.  What was the meaning of his life? What was the message of his death?  What does he have to teach the world of today?

We can answer these questions with the word “yagna.”  Yagna was the spirit of his life and the message of his death.  Every breath of his life, including the last, was an oblation to his country, his principles and his faith in God. The theme of his life was truly sacrifice.

Sacrifice for his country

Mahatma Gandhi could have been a wealthy attorney.  He could have had a life of relative ease and prosperity.  However, he was a man devoted to his country and to Her freedom.  Through his tireless effort and his simple piety he led India to independence. However, in spite of national and international acclaim,  he never lost his humility, his dedication and his spirit of sacrifice. Rather, the flames of his true yagna to Bharat Mata seemed to only grow until he, himself, was the poornahuti, or final offering.

When I was little, a great saint told me that we, as people, always want to be in the center. We always want the focus on ourselves, the recognition for ourselves and the reward for ourselves.  We do not actually work or accomplish anything meaningful, but we expend great effort trying to convince all those around us of our inestimable worth. However, Gandhiji was different. He did everything, accomplished everything. Yet he worked and lived with such humility and such piety that he never put himself in the center. This is a great message of his life: “work, serve with every breath, but remain a simple, humble,  unattached child of God.”

There is a story of a man traveling by train to Porbandar in the same coach as Gandhiji.  However, the man did not know that the old man in his coach was Mahatma Gandhi.  So, all night long this man lay down on the seat, occupied the entire seat in the coach, pushed Gandhi, put his feet on him, and left Gandhiji with barely enough room to sit upright.  However, Gandhi did not fight, nor complain.  How easy it would have been to proclaim, “I am Mahatma Gandhi.  Give me room in the coach.”  But that is not the spirit of yagna.

As the train pulled into Porbandar the man mentioned that he was going to see the famous Mahatma Gandhi.  Gandhiji still remained silent.  As Gandhiji descended from the train to a welcoming crowd of thousands, the man fell at his feet, begging for forgiveness. Gandhiji, of course, blessed and forgave him, telling him only that he should be more respectful of others, regardless of who they are.  This is the spirit of yagna. This is the spirit of India that we must maintain in our hearts.

Another beautiful example of Gandhiji’s humility, his selfless sacrifice for his country is how he “celebrated” his victory.  When India won independence, when Gandhi was the hero of the country,  he could have been in New Delhi receiving boundless honors and appreciation. However, he was not. He was not in New Delhi, nor was he in Bombay, nor in Calcutta. He was nowhere that would shower him with love and esteem. Rather, was in East Bengal where Hindus and Muslims were fighting bitterly.  He was not content to have “fulfilled his mission.” Rather, if humans were still suffering, then he still had work to do. So, while the rest of the country celebrated, Gandhiji continued his tireless work to heal  the wound between Hindus and Muslims.  This is the spirit of sacrifice.  This is the spirit of divinity.. Even when all external circumstances throw you to the center, you remain humble, you remain simple, you remember for whom your yagna was performed. Gandhi’s yagna was for his country, not for his own fame.

Sacrifice for the principles of right living

However, his life was not only a sacrifice for Mother India. It was also a yagna of morality, of dharma, of ethics and of truth.  How easy it would have been to fight with weapons; how easy to kill the enemy. How easy to carry a gun to protect himself. Yet, the flames of Gandhi’s yagna were fueled by non-violence. Wars throughout history had been won with weapons. Gandhi was devoted to proving that peace could only come through peace. People criticized him vehemently for refusing to take up arms; they claimed he was forfeiting India’s fight for freedom. Yet, he simply kept pouring truth, piety, and dharma into the fire of his life yagna, and the flames rose in victory.  This is the true meaning of yagna, for Gandhi sacrificed an easy-win (or at least a quick loss) for India by refusing to engage in armed warfare. He sacrificed his popularity; he sacrificed his status as a fighter. Yet, the truth prevails and he is remembered as one of the greatest leaders — both political and spiritual — that the world has ever known.

Sacrifice to God

Mahatma Gandhi’s life was in service to God. His work for his country and his tenaciously held values were part and parcel of this complete sacrifice to the divine. The Gita was his closest companion, and  his most trusted guide.

So many people today claim that their lives and their work are “God’s.”  Yet, they use this as an excuse to lie, to cheat and even to kill. And, at the end it is clear that they merely used God’s name in the service of themselves. Yet, Gandhiji was pure and his death is the clearest example.  Due to his tenaciously held belief in ahimsaa and his true surrender to God, he refused to employ a bodyguard. Hence, he was gunned down on his way to a prayer meeting.  As he breathed his last, there was no sign of fight, no break from his lifelong dedication to non-violence and to the divine. He did not scream, “Who are you? How dare you? Somebody help me!!” Rather, the only words that escaped from his lips were “He Ram, He Ram, He Ram.”  This is the spirit of yagna.

What can we learn?

So many people come and go in this world. So many people become famous through valiant efforts to “make a name for themselves.”  Yet, how many of these people have really left lasting impressions or have really changed the course of history? Very few.  When we depart this Earth, when we leave our bodies, what is it that remains? It is that which we have given to the world.  It is that for which we have sacrificed. It is the love and the peace that our presence brought to those around us.  Gandhiji’s name will live eternally not only because he brought independence to India.  He will be remembered forever and revered forever because of the way he brought peace, because of the message of his life.

When Gandhiji was in South Africa he was traveling by train and the conductor came and rudely told Gandhi to leave.  “But, sir, I have a ticket,” Gandhi replied.  The conductor threw violently him from the train and yelled, “You do not deserve to ride on this train!”  Gandhi, however, did not raise an arm in his defense.  And today, does anyone know the name of the man who threw him from the train?  Of course not. But, today the name of that train is “Mahatma Gandhi Train”, and the name of the station is “Mahatma Gandhi Station!” That is the spirit of yagna.

Gandhijii would not have wanted to be only remembered in history books. He would not want to be remembered only as the politician who led India to independence.  He would want his message to live on; he would want his yagna to continue burning, to continue bringing light and warmth to all the world. In fact, when someone once asked him for a message, he replied, “my life is my message.”

So, as we remember this Mahatma, this “great soul,” let us take his message to heart.  Let us live our lives as a sacrifice to world peace, as a sacrifice to our principles and as a sacrifice to God. Then, and only then, will our lives truly make a difference.

God bless you all.
In the service of God and humanity,

Swami Chidanand Saraswati

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