March 30, 2007 at 7:10 PM • Filed under India 2007

          Whoever chose the unflattering picture of Gandhi that appears on nearly all Indian rupees (every paper denomination shows the same etching of him looking toothless and befuddled) may have shared the unflattering view of Gandhi that I heard a number of Indians express to me while I was there. From the taxi driver in Aurangabad to the dental student at the Goa train station, these strangers told me that either they or "most" of their fellow Indians hold Gandhi responsible for "the Partition" -- the 1946 decision to turn chunks of India into Pakistan and Bangladesh, lands for India's Muslims. The Indians I spoke with believed that Gandhi was not strong enough in standing up to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Muslim leader who most wanted the Partition to take place. As a result of the separation, they told me, there are still so many problems between Hindus and Muslims -- the latest being the Feb. 18 bombing of a train heading from Delhi to Pakistan, a terrorist act meant to derail the Indo-Pak peace process.
          "But Gandhi got the British to leave India," I said to these strangers, "and nearly perfected the art of non-violent resistance. Isn't he respected for that?"
          They'd all shrug at this, as if it were old news. And indeed, it is. No one below 60 bears any bodily scars from the British Raj -- how can anyone blame younger Indians for basing their opinion about Gandhi on India's more current problems?
          I began to feel as though the rest of the world pays more heed to Gandhi than young Indians do. But this may not be simply because of the Partition. It may also be due to this reason, expressed by a historian in Outlook magazine and reprinted in an article from The Independent: "[Everyone] deified him and buried him in institutions," the historian said of Gandhi. "He was conveniently portrayed as a saint so they wouldn't be threatened by his ideology."
          Isn't it true about our saints. At some point in our collective consciousness they become other-worldly, different from us, and that keeps us, in our "real world," from believing that we have the ability to reach the same depths of experience as they did. We project our goodness onto them and they carry it for us, unable to remind us from the grave that they were once like us and we can be like them. Gandhi was certainly a human being, but when Indians see him daily on the currency, see his dusty picture draped in flower garlands, and see him calcified in statues in almost every Indian city, they are more apt to believe that he was a god and they are not.
          A visit to one of Gandhi's former homes in India can knock the man back into reality a bit. You can see the mud floors on which he slept, see his wire-rim glasses and spinning wheel, even peer into his bathroom. But during my visit to Sevagram, his ashram near Nagpur, in central India, one statement from a tour guide reminded me of how courageous and unique his ideology was.
          I went to Sevagram one afternoon with Prem and Lalita, whose farm is two hours away by car. The word "ashram" for Westerners may conjure images of a place where hippies on year-long stints in India live with their guru and do yoga, but the Sanskrit word simply refers to the residence of a religious community. Sevagram is a collection of adobe-like buildings with small rooms in which Gandhi lived with his followers in the late 1930s and 40s. Aside from the leafy center square in which prayers took place, there is little of note on the property besides the buildings. Yet the feeling of peace within the compound is palpable.
          The building that served as Gandhi's residence features a long, wide porch on which the Mahatma often met with significant Indian and world leaders. Standing on the porch, I realized how disconcerting it must have been for such "important people" to engage in conversations on a dried mud floor in the sweltering Indian heat. (Could Dick Cheney have managed to cross his legs? Do you think he would have liked the dal?) On this porch, it is easy to get shivers from history. On this porch, Gandhi as a person, not just as a politician, makes sense.
          While we were on this porch, an elderly man came up to us, explaining that he was a tour guide and that he lived at Sevagram when he was a boy. (He didn't look old enough for me to believe this, but in India I learned to just go with things.) He began to speak at length in Hindi, with Lalita translating for me, explaining what the various buildings were used for. After some time I asked him, with Lalita's help, what his main impression of Gandhi was.
          "He was considering nothing to be his own," came the thoughtful reply.
          He was considering nothing to be his own. Meaning, he owned nothing. Everything around him was not his. He allowed it all to be used, or taken, by others. Everything. Once he even gave away the cloth he was wearing to a woman who confessed her shame that she had nothing decent to wear in front of him. It is easy to do something like that when nothing is your own.
          I've heard some people say Gandhi was an egocentric man whose demonstrations of poverty were calculated political moves. Maybe so. But does this change the fact that he chose a very difficult way of life that challenged everything he had ever known? It could also be said that he had plenty of followers who could provide him with additional material goods after he'd given "his" away. But he never surrounded himself with more than the bare minimum and he shared it all, unconcerned that others touched what he had, that they used what he was using.
          As we drove back in the van after visiting Sevagram, I felt overcome by the tour guide's statement. What would it be like if we considered nothing to be our own? Our dishes, our clothes, the rugs in our home, even our home itself, our food, our telephone, our bed. If none of it was ours, what would we be compelled to do? Give it to others if they ask for it, Gandhi would say. Share it. Don't be distressed if it is stolen. "But then what would happen to me? I wouldn't be able to eat, I couldn't phone anyone, I would have to sleep on the floor!" Maybe so. But what if life were still ok? And what if life actually improved? How can we predict the outcomes of our actions?
          The van rocked back and forth on the pockmarked road, forcing me to hang onto the window strap. The setting sun seemed eager to blind me. I stared at the Maharashtran countryside that flew by, stunned by how radical Gandhi's philosophy was and how no one prominent in Western society today is saying anything about unequivocal selflessness. Could I ever live the way Gandhi did? I felt the pit of my stomach drop out from under me as I thought about this. Imagine the implications -- both horrifying and exhilarating. Imagine.
          Mohandas K. Gandhi would say we could all live the way he did. He was human, after all, and so are we.