National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

The Power of a Holy Man’s Words and Deeds

Richard Attenborough's epic Gandhi explores the private life and public impact of a champion of non-violence

BY John Prizer

August 16-22, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/16/98 at 2:00 PM

 

Throughout history many leaders have tried to fuse politics and spirituality to accomplish their goals. Few have been as successful as India's Mahatma Gandhi, a practicing Hindu. Both his methods and his way of life have become an inspiration to Christian activists. America's civil rights movement, led by Protestant minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., borrowed his tactics of non-violence to overturn segregation in the South.

Gandhi, which won 9 Oscars in 1982, is an epic rendering of his life story. Director Richard Attenborough

(Shadowlands) and screenwriter John Briley focus on the interaction between his public, political acts and his private, spiritual beliefs, dramatizing in broad strokes how one influenced the other.

The movie begins with Gandhi's assassination in 1948 in New Delhi and flashes back to South Africa in 1893 and his initial political activities which were struggles against apartheid on behalf of the Indian community. He begins his career as a lawyer with the look and mannerisms of an English gentleman. But he encounters discrimination in the form of passbook and fingerprinting laws. “It must be fought,” he declares. “We are children of God.”

He builds a coalition which includes Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. One of his closest associates is the Rev. Charles Andrews (Ian Charleson), an Anglican priest, with whom he discusses New Testament ideas as he formulates his guiding principles.

Gandhi and many of his followers live on an ashram, a small agrarian commune which is governed by the same spiritual principles used in his political organizing. It's a quiet, simple life in which the communards grow their own food and weave their own clothes, and everyone, including Gandhi himself, must take turns at the lowliest chores like feeding the goats and cleaning the latrines. These down-to-earth activities give Gandhi an emotional and psychological balance which helps him in his political activism.

Gandhi preaches and practices non-violence, but he is never passive. He believes political demonstrations “must be active and provocative.” He and his followers are willing to break laws and be arrested. When beaten by police, he declares: “We will fight, and we will not comply.”

Favorable press is crucial so journalists are carefully cultivated. The articles of New York Times reporter Mr. Walker (Martin Sheen), place pressure on the South African authorities to back down.

The action moves to Bombay in 1915 where Gandhi is received like a national hero. He's the first person to have successfully defied the British in 200 years. The existing Indian independence movement wants to co-opt him, but he opposes the use of terrorism.

He sets up an ashram similar to his South African experiment. He realizes that economic injustices are as much a part of the problem as colonial role. The non-violent techniques developed in South Africa are used to confront the British landlords who are exploiting Indian workers.

At first the authorities try to ignore him, but when his political movement begins to grow, excessive force is used. Indian troops under the command of British officers fire on non-violent demonstrators at Amristar, resulting in 1,600 casualties. This brings Gandhi's movement favorable international press, and it wins most of its demands. But when his followers begin to respond violently to the British, he stops the demonstrations.

Gandhi next challenges the British salt monopoly, and more than 100,000 are arrested. Out of frustration, police brutally beat non-violent demonstrators. “Whatever moral ascendancy the West once had was lost today,” Walker reports as Gandhi wins another victory through non-violence.

Although often jailed, Gandhi does not oppose the British war effort, and at the conflict's conclusion the British, who've lost the stomach for further confrontations with him, decide to grant India its independence. But the Hindus and Muslims, whom he'd worked hard to keep together, begin slaughtering each other. Gandhi fasts until the two sides stop killing each other. Then he himself is assassinated, and the fighting resumes.

There is much Christian activists can learn from Gandhi's non-violent techniques. But his methods should not be copied in their entirety. He was treated like a Hindu holy man during his lifetime, and Christians need to maintain certain distinctions between the spiritual and the political which he ignored. Nevertheless, the world would be a better place if more leaders adopted his lifestyle of simplicity and humility.

Next Week: Frederico Fellini's 8 1/2.

Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.