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Gandhi and the Gita: The art of selfless living and dying

Mahatma Gandhi referred to the Bhagwad Gita as the Gospel of Selfless Action and was often said that it offered him solace in the darkest hours. He referred to the Gita as his ‘eternal mother’, placing it at a position supreme to his earthly mother.

The Gita, according to Mahatma Gandhi, lays down the characteristics of a perfect manPremium
The Gita, according to Mahatma Gandhi, lays down the characteristics of a perfect man

His unwavering faith in high principles both in life and death were shaped by his love for the Bhagwat Gita and is a perfect example for all of us to follow as we commemorate his birth anniversary

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948), also remembered as ‘Father of the Nation’, was the leader of India’s independence movement against British rule. He was conferred with the title of Mahatma (great-soul) Gandhi. His life was dedicated to many other noble causes like poverty alleviation, women’s rights, and eradication of the practice of untouchability, among others. He was the pioneer of the nonviolence philosophy that has inspired civil rights leaders across the world. His birthday, 2 October, is celebrated as Gandhi Jayanti in India and conferred as the International Day of Non-Violence. On the 153rd birth anniversary, we focus on how the Bhagwad Gita shaped his life and helped him sustain an unwavering faith in his principles even in the final moment of his life.

Gandhi’s love for the Gita: The Bhagwad Gita is a sacred Hindu poem in the form of a conversation between Krishna and his disciple Arjuna, believed to be dated back millennia. Mahatma Gandhi referred to the Bhagwad Gita as the Gospel of Selfless Action and was often said that it offered him solace in the darkest hours. He referred to the Gita as his “eternal mother", placing it at a position supreme to his earthly mother. The Gita, according to him, lays down the characteristics of a perfect man. He interpreted and gave discourses on the Gita and imbibed the teachings so dearly that he followed every verse till his last breath.

Gandhi’s Gita—A gospel of selfless action: The Gita, according to Gandhi, teaches us that while man might be embroiled in running after futile material desires (like fame, money, relationship, etc), the only desire worth having is to realize that we are the self (or the soul), aspire to become like Him (God) (i.e., gain his supreme qualities), and gain eternal peace.

This is the process of self realization, which entails understanding that we are the soul (not the body and mind) and are caught in the endless cycle of life and death due to our karma. Karma simply means that any thought, speech, or action undertaken upon others will have a corresponding result in our lives. Usually, the results from karma do not ripen instantly, and when they do, at some distant point in the future, we are unable to connect them with the cause (our actions). Any unripened karma becomes the cause of future life births.

So how does one gain freedom from the endless cycle of birth and death? Giving up action and hence accumulation of karma? No. The Gita acknowledges that for the world to continue running, action (whether mental or physical) needs to be taken. Then how does one free oneself from the bondage of karmas, while acting? The Gita says, “Do your allotted work but renounce its fruits- be detached and work- have no desire for reward and work."

Renunciation of the fruits of one’s actions is the central message in the Gita. Renunciation does not mean indifference to results. But a renouncer is the one who performs his duty with cheerfulness and thoroughness and remains desireless of the fruit of the action. That is, he remains equanimous whether the result is favorable or unfavorable.

Gandhi believed that when one enforces the Gita’s central teaching in life, one is bound to follow Ahimsa and Truth. Nonviolence or Ahimsa as per Gandhi Ji is described as the state to do no harm in thoughts, words and actions to all living beings. It is not just refraining from undertaking violent action but also a whole way of life. Since it extends to all living organisms, it encompasses consuming vegetarian food, a sustainable lifestyle, and the protection of the environment. Because when there is no desire for fruit, there is no temptation for untruth or himsa (violence). The cause of any untruth or himsa will be rooted in the fulfillment of attaining a desire fuelled by ego. For instance, sins like murder, theft, etc cannot be performed without attachment.

But the one who knows that he is the Self (soul) residing in the body and that this Soul is a part of the supreme Soul (God), he will dedicate everything to Him and be freed of ego and the cycle of karmas.

Finally, Gandhi untiringly adhered to another message in the Gita: We should serve God through the service of mankind. To this, he elucidated how the soul’s natural progress is towards selflessness and purity. This is why he was able to effortlessly dedicate his whole life to the freedom and betterment of the lives of the people of India.

Gandhi lived the art of dying: The Gita says: “And he who, at the last hour remembering Me only departs leaving the body, enters into Me, of that there is no doubt.

Or whatever form a man continually contemplates, that same he remembers in the hour of the death, and to that very form he goes, O Kaunteya."

Gandhi truly believed that we will become what we think of in the last moments. By doing so one will acquire the qualities and nature of this God (or revered Gurus) in the next birth. But for this to happen in the dying moment, one has to live a life free of attachment and aversion and have a heart that is ready to love and forgive all. Once we have mustered these skills, the peace we get should be channeled into spiritual practices. Needless to say, Gandhi’s ahimsak (non-violent) nature meant overflowing compassion toward everyone and his spiritual routine is a testament to the highest ideal of living.

India’s independence in 1947, the fruit of all Gandhi’s labour, was fraught with the partition of India and unimaginable savagery that shook his faith in the inherent ahimsak nature of people. To his daughter-in-law he wrote, “With connection to Pakistan [partition]… I have, therefore, lost confidence in my capacity to live for long".

On 20 January 1948, while Gandhi was speaking after his prayers, there was a loud noise causing panic among his small audience. To quieten them, Gandhi resumed his sermon. Later, the assailant was caught, and it was found that he had thrown a bomb 75 feet away from Gandhi with the intention of killing him.

Upon hearing this news, many powerful dignitaries, including Lady Mountbatten came to congratulate Gandhi on his bravery. Gandhi remarked that since he had mistook the noise for firing practice, this was no bravery. He added: “When someone really intending to kill me comes in front of me, and I bear his assault cheerfully, reciting Ramnaam, then alone will I be worthy of congratulations".

Hence even though his faith in the non-violent way of life for other people was wavering, his faith in his life choices and God only got stronger. To the ones who displayed any anger towards the assailant, he would say, “You should not hate the assailant…Let us all pray to God that He gives him good sense". He even took the blame for his failing health on himself and speculated that it must be the result of his decline in devotion to Ram. Such was his resolute faith in living an ahimsak life, he practiced non-violence through his thoughts by never finding faults in others and always exaggerating those in himself.

On 29 January 1948, barely 12 hours before his death, Gandhi uttered these words: “If someone fires a bullet at me and I die without a groan and with God’s name on my lips, then you should tell the world that there was a real Mahatma".

On 30 January 1948, Gandhi was shot with three bullets at point-blank range.

He uttered the name of his God “Hey Ram" twice as he fell.

It is said that so pure was his soul that his death was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even in his dying moments he remembered and followed the teaching of the Gita: to remember only God in the dying breath. Moreover, his death exemplified forgiveness and compassion, even for the man who assassinated him.

From the Gita and Gandhi, we learn the art of dying, and from this, we learn the art of living. Imagine how difficult would it be for us to remember God in our dying time if we are attached to material possessions, and people and unable to let go of our lifelong held grudges. How will we enter into a new life, detached and with the name of God? This is why Gandhi's life is a perfect example for us to learn from. As one commemorates his birth anniversary, one should aspire to practice non-violence, and detachment, and undertake selfless action with compassion.

The author is a PhD scholar at Bennett University

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Updated: 02 Oct 2022, 08:11 PM IST
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