Recently I have become aware of some apparently well-documented pieces of evidence suggesting that Mahatma Gandhi was a racist. His accusers cite his fondness of using the word “kaffir”, a racial slur for native Africans used in South Africa.
When I first heard this, it was a damaging piece of information for me. I have over the years come to revere Gandhi as a saint. It goes without saying that I despise racism, and I assumed that if anyone would be a refuge against it, it would be Gandhi.
But I am not writing to argue that Gandhi was or was not racist. I don’t know enough about the usage of the word “kaffir” or about the social climate of South Africa at that time in order to do so in any semblance of an informed manner, though I do think there is plenty of evidence that he was NOT a racist. If you want to read about the issue it is not hard to find information on the subject and form your own opinion.
I am writing to say that I don’t care whether he was or was not.
Before I go further I should state that surely it matters what one’s intentions were. Intention is everything as a good friend of mine would say. But this aphorism would only apply to individual actions taken by Gandhi. Were they guided by racism? If so they should not be taken as example (unless you don’t consider racism to be contrary to dharma). But one cannot argue that Gandhi’s overall body of work was guided by an attitude that he may or may not have held toward the blacks in South Africa.
I do not wish to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” by disregarding all of the good that Gandhi did in all of his work toward social justice. Doing so would be doing a disservice to all of the Vedic truths which he always personified in all of his actions toward social justice.
For instance, his attitudes could never negate the value of ahimsa (non-violence) as practiced by Gandhi. For one thing, Gandhi never said anything like “Practice non-violence, except in regard to the kaffirs.”
This universal disregard for Gandhi’s life of karma yoga would be a lot like what we have done with the swastika. The swastika, for 3,000 years was a symbol of well-being (the term literally meaning “all is well” in Sanskrit) until Adolf Hitler and his band of hooligans came along and robbed Hindu culture of one of its most cherished symbols. And now, at least in America, the symbol, contrary to its origin, is taboo to say the least.
But Hindu culture was not robbed. Because there are many movements still alive to “take back the Swastika” and most Hindus in India never stopped using it Why should they? I am in favor of this movement. Because again, for Hindus to drop the swastika from their heritage would be like disregarding ancient truths expounded by Gandhi because of an (alleged) unfortunate aspect of his persona (which is fleeting, let’s remember).
It is like a recent story I read in which Irish vocalist Sinead O’Connor blasted her countryman, U2 lead singer Bono, for having false motives in his social justice activities. First of all who am I to believe Sinead O’Connor (who, lets face it, has been out of the limelight for a while, and this scathing revelation put her back in it)? And second, Bono’s intentions do not take away from the good he has done, and it does not take away from the fact that my generation has been greatly inspired by his attitude of awareness of the world in which we live. Nothing can take that away. And all of the atrocities of the Nazis and all of their pretenders to this day cannot take away the original meaning of the swastika. And nothing can take away the great inspiration that Gandhi’s humble actions have passed down through the last few generations, and on down through the ages, I am sure.