Gandhi on Gandhi: Lessons Learned From His Grandfather

by Tom Hanlon  /   Mar 13, 2019

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Photo by Jonty Herman

Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, shares memories and life lessons from his grandfather—and has compiled these lessons in a half-semester course offered through the University of Illinois’ College of Education.

The twelve-year-old boy stared at his grandfather, who lay on his back on a thin carpet in his house in New Delhi, his eyes closed, his arms resting peacefully across his chest.

The grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi, had just been shot and killed outside the house as he was preparing to lead an inter-faith prayer meeting. It was a late January evening in 1948, a pleasant breeze wafting through the trees in the surrounding area, many of them flowering, their fruit ripening.

And now the twelve-year-old, grandson Rajmohan Gandhi, continued to fix his eyes on his inert grandfather, believing that the great man would rise up from the dead.

After all, Mahatma Gandhi was the beloved Bapu, the Father of the Nation.

“There was an atmosphere of peace, even though he’d just been killed,” says Rajmohan Gandhi, now 83 and still going strong as a professor in the Education Policy, Organization & Leadership Department in the University of Illinois’ College of Education. “Prayer songs were being sung, flowers were everywhere. In my childlike belief, I thought he would get up and start walking again.”

The elder Gandhi did not, but he left behind impressions and desires that have guided his grandson throughout his life.

“There was no sense in me of wanting to know who killed him, let’s find him, let’s punish him,” Gandhi says. “That thought never entered my mind.”

Online Course on Gandhi

Instead, Gandhi carried forth his grandfather’s ideals of overcoming hatred and injustice with nonviolence—a difficult balancing act, he admits. And one which is explored in depth in his eight-week graduate online course, running from March to May, called “Learning from Gandhi.”

“The course ties in education in the broadest sense, and current reality in the world, where tribalism has become dominant,” Gandhi says. Tribalism, he explains, is when people retreat to their own ethnic and religious tents.

“It’s a global trend,” he says. “But there has always been this push towards common humanity as well. So it is the clash between this trend towards tribalism and humanity’s longing to be understood as a common entity that serves as the context for my course.”

Rajmohan Gandhi is not just the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi; he is a renowned researcher, historian, and biographer. One of his biographies of Gandhi—Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire—won the prestigious Biennial Award from the Indian History Congress in 2007 for the best-researched history book.

Multi-Faith Prayer Meetings

“Justice and reconciliation are common hungers and thirst of humanity,” he says. “Gandhi symbolizes an understanding of this, that you need both justice and reconciliation, that you have to fight and you have to live together. You have very sharp differences with others, and you express those differences sometimes in very stern language, but you have to find ways to live together.”

Rajmohan Gandhi saw firsthand the hatred and violence that ripped at the fabric of Indian society as the country struggled in the late 1940s to achieve its independence from British colonial rule. In August of 1947, that independence was realized. But it was a time of tension and loss.

“India was becoming independent, and India was becoming divided,” he says. “That independence coincided with partition, with the creation of Pakistan. It also coincided with the unfortunate killings involving Hindus and Muslims and also some Sikhs. Half a million to a million people were killed within two months in 1947.”

It was around this time that the young Gandhi was attending the frequent multi-faith prayer meetings that his grandfather conducted—meetings that brought Hindus and Muslims together.

“These prayer meetings were a standard feature in his life for his last 20 to 30 years,” Gandhi says. “He would host them wherever he was in the country—sometimes drawing 100 people, sometimes 100,000 people, depending on where he was.”

Imagine drawing large crowds of Hindus and Muslims together, then reciting verses from both the Koran and from the Hindu sacred texts.

“There were occasionally some protests,” Gandhi recalls. “And understand, because he is seen as Father of the Nation, these meetings were relayed over the radio throughout the nation. When some people protested having verses read from the Koran, he said, ‘Why are you objecting? If you knew the meaning of these verses, you would be very glad to have this prayer also.’”

Life Lessons from His Grandfather

The young Gandhi witnessed the tension and occasional hostility at these multi-faith prayer meetings, and learned a life lesson about how to conduct yourself in such situations. “When people are against you or are attacking you, you respond in a civil and friendly way and you do not give up on your convictions,” he says. “That is the lesson that I absorbed at the time.”

Rajmohan Gandhi learned many lessons from his grandfather, most centered around justice, healing, and reconciliation.

“Wherever there is division, it is the duty of people like me to breach the division, to bring a return to trust and some kind of partnership, and if possible, some kind of healing,” he says. “That has become my life.”

For example, when he writes about historical times, he says it is “not just fact-finding, but finding the roots of disharmony, the roots of hatred, the roots of division, and seeing how those divides can be breached, how the bitterness be healed and trust be restored.”

That work, he says, has informed his life in the 71 years since Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated—as evidenced by his latest book, Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to Our Times, published last year to stellar reviews.

Taking Up the Mantle

You might say that Rajmohan Gandhi took up the mantle that has grandfather left. In that sense, though he was only 12 when his grandfather died, Rajmohan Gandhi has been with his grandfather his entire life. The elder Gandhi, of course, influenced a great many leaders across the world, including Martin Luther King Jr., who learned to use nonviolent ways to fight discrimination and injustice.

“Those who admire Martin Luther King Jr., those who admire Gandhi, they ask, ‘What’s our task now? Whether it’s India-Pakistan, or Palestine-Israel, whether it’s Syria or parts of Africa, what is our role as educators today, how can we educate citizens in the right way?’” he says. “The challenge of an educator and the challenges a citizen faces today, they merge, and I hope to address this joint challenge in my course.

“I want to give people an understanding of what’s going on in the world and an understanding of simple human nature and how deep anger and deep divides and deep resentments have to be first understood and then faced and addressed and, if possible, overcome.”

“I want to see this new world”

Though he officially retired in 2012, he continues to teach a few classes, to write, to blog, to present, because his drive to educate people and bring them together remains strong.

“I want students and educators to be aware of the incredible opportunities they have,” he says. “We have opinions, but we don’t have knowledge, especially about other groups, other people, other races. If the students and educators I work with get inspired to deepen their knowledge, to deepen their scholarship, to understand situations and then respond to what is happening, of course a difference will be made in the world.

“It is this tremendous potential that educators have of influencing reality that excites me. This course that I’m teaching is a wonderful challenge to get to know some future re-makers of the world.”

That new world is something his grandfather longed and worked for, and it has been Rajmohan Gandhi’s beacon that he has steered relentlessly toward his whole life.

“Part of me wants to see, burns to see, a new world, one where ‘common humanity’ is not just words,” he says. “I want us all to recognize we are the same underneath. We have different skin colors, different physiognomies, we belong to different religions, we speak different languages, but there is something absolutely common in all of us. And I want a recognition of this.

“I want to see this new world. I may not see it in my lifetime in every detail, of course not. But one tiny step forward every day is more than welcome.”