National Geographic : 2015 Jul
94 national geographic • july 2015 In the darkness he led a prayer meeting on a patch of ground overlooking the Sabarmati River. Then he was ready. Dressed in a long loincloth, or dhoti, with a shawl around his shoulders, he grasped a bamboo staff and started out the gate. He was leaving his home of 13 years, a commu nity devoted to his precepts of plain living and high thinking. Mohandas Gandhi was not alone. As he stepped onto a dirt road on the outskirts of Ah madabad, the largest city in his native state of Gujarat, 78 men, two abreast, clad in white, fell into a column behind him. Pressing in on the sides of the road, hanging from trees, leaning from windows, tens of thousands of people—sup porters and curious alike—cried, “Gandhi ki jai. Victory to Gandhi.” The date was March 12, 1930. Gandhi and his troops walked for 25 days and 241 miles to the Arabian Sea to defy the unjust British law that prohibited the collection of salt in its colony. Master of the dramatic gesture, Gan dhi bent over near the shore and scooped up a handful of salty mud. As illegal saltgathering spread across the country, arrests and beat ings followed. Gandhi was jailed for almost nine months. What authorities had dismissed as a minor act of political theater swelled into a nationwide cry for independence. A broad array of India’s population—high caste and low, male and female, Hindu and Muslim—for the first time joined in protest against British rule. Now the masses had a leader. From the day he began the Salt March until his death 18 years later, Gandhi infused India with a revo lutionary blend of politics and spirituality. He called his actionbased philosophy satyagraha, or truth force. Gandhi’s impact was indelible. He guided India to independence. He forced his countrymen to question their deepest prejudices about caste and religion and violence. Hours after Gandhi’s death from an assassin’s bullets in 1948, just five and a half months after the new nation was born, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, proclaimed that the light left behind by the Father of the Nation would shine a thousand years. How bright does that light burn today? To find out, I decided to follow Gandhi. “See me, please,” he said, “in the nakedness of my working, and in my limitations, you will then know me.” I would travel his route on the Salt March. The talks he delivered and the articles he wrote speak to issues that still confront India today, and Indians still debate the legacy of the man known as Mahatma, or Great Soul. Prophet or holy fool? Hero or villain? Right path or dead end? No one questions Gandhi’s incandescent influence on the world stage; his philosophy of nonviolent resistance inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama. On home soil the Gandhi effect is hazier. Gandhi is everywhere and nowhere. His bespectacled face looks out from the ru pee note. There are Mahatma Gandhi streets in many cities, statues too. Politicians invoke his name like an endorsement. But the absence of Gandhi is just as evident. Gandhi envisioned an India of selfsufficient villages. Caste and religion would grow faint as identity markers. BY TOM O’NEILL PHOTOGRAPHS BY RENA EFFENDI He woke before dawn, as he did every day at the ashram.