Thursday, 31 January 2013

The influence of Greek philosophy on Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi takes his daily walk round his garden with his secretaries and members of his family in 1946. He was shot at point-blank range by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, only five months after India gained independence from Britain
Gandhi died after being shot at point-blank range on this day in 1948 (Photo via LIFE
Today marks the anniversary of the death of a Mahatma Gandhi, an advocate for non-violence, civil rights and freedom whose life has influenced millions across the globe. One little-known fact about this great man is that Gandhi himself was influenced by Greek philosophy.

In fact, Gandhi translated Plato’s Apology into Gujerati.  In 
their book, Reading Gandhi in two tongues, Judy Wakabayashi and Rita Kothari explain why Gandhi chose to translate the Apology at that time in history:
Gandhi was engaged in fighting injustice in South Africa, and in September 1906 he had found a new method of protest. This was called satyagraha…and it involved the acceptance of suffering for the sake of truth. Gandhi had to convince the Indian community in South Africa that it was their duty to undergo suffering, even at the cost of their life, for the sake of truth and justice. Gandhi was looking for historical figures who had so sacrificed their lives for the sake of truth, and Socrates was a natural choice.
Photo by Margaret Bourke-White (Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Gandhi titled the story of Socrates as “The Story of a Soldier of Truth” (PDF). In his translation summary, he described Socrates as a “heroic, extraordinary person with a  fine moral character.” After recounting the trial and death of Socrates for his readers, Gandhi concluded with a call to all to live by Socrates’s values:
Today the world cherishes Socrates’ memory. His teaching has benefited millions. His accusers and his judges stand condemned by the world. Socrates has gained immortality and Greece stands in high esteem because of him and others like him.Socrates’ speech in his own defence was committed to writing by his companion, the celebrated Plato. It has been translated into many languages. The defence is excellent and imbued with moral fervour. We, therefore, wish to translate it, but rather than render it literally, we print only a summary of it.We have much to struggle for, not only in South Africa but in India as well. Only when we succeed in these [tasks] can India be rid of its many afflictions. We must learn to live and die like Socrates. He was, moreover, a great Satyagrahai [pursuer of truth]. He adopted Satyagraha against his own people. As a result the Greeks became a great people.
If, through cowardice or fear of dishonour or death, we fail to realize or examine our shortcomings and fail to draw the people’s attention to them, we shall do no good to India’s cause, notwithstanding the number of external remedies we may adopt, notwithstanding the Congress sessions[we may hold], not even by becoming extremists. India’s good does not lie along that direction. When the disease is diagnosed and its true nature revealed in public, and when, through suitable remedies, the body [politic] of India is cured and cleansed both within and without,it will become immune to the germs of the disease, that is, to the oppression by the British and the others. If, however, the body itself is in a state of decay, then if we destroy one kind of germs, it will be attacked by another, and this will ruin the body [politic] India herself.We argued thus and saw in the words of a great soul like Socrates the qualities of an elixir. We wanted our readers, therefore, to imbibe a deep draught of it, so that they might be able to fight and o help others fight- the disease. It is with this objective in mind that we summarize Socrates’s speech. (Collected Works p. 246-247)
The Death of Socrates, 1787, oil on canvas painting by the French painter Jacques-Louis David
The Death of Socrates, 1787, oil on canvas painting by the French painter Jacques-Louis David
John Evans, professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, has written extensively about the influence of Plato and Socrates on Gandhi’s philosophy (read more from Professor Evans herehere and here).
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