Easwaran on Gandhi and the Bhagavad Gita

This week we're pleased to share an excerpt from Eknath Easwaran's book Gandhi the Man. In this excerpt Easwaran explains how the timeless wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita was at the core of Gandhi's strength.

Activists and scholars have studied what they call “Gandhian politics” and “Gandhian economics,” but few have asked the questions which really count. How did he do it? From what did he draw his strength? How did such an ordinary little man, an ineffectual lawyer without a purpose, manage to transform himself into someone able to stand and fight alone against the greatest empire the world has known, and win – without firing a shot?

One American journalist who had been following Gandhi’s work for years with mounting admiration finally asked him with the terseness of a newsman: “Can you tell me the secret of your life in three words?”

“Yes!” chuckled Gandhi, who could never resist a challenge. “‘Renounce and enjoy’!”

Gandhi was quoting from the Isha Upanishad, one of the most ancient of the Hindu scriptures. For him the whole of the Bhagavad Gita was only a commentary on these three simple words, which encompass the summit of human wisdom. They mean that in order to enjoy life, we cannot be selfishly attached to anything – money, possessions, power or prestige, even family or friends. The moment we are selfishly attached, we become their prisoner.

In the language of the Bhagavad Gita, detachment is “skillfulness in action.” A person who is worried about the outcome of his work does not see his goal; he sees only his opposition and the obstacles before him. Feeling unequal to the difficulties of his situation, he becomes resigned or resorts to violence out of frustration and despair. But the person who is detached from results and tries only to do his best without thought of profit or power or prestige does not waver when difficulties come. He sees his way clearly through every trial, for his eyes are always on the goal.

“By detachment I mean that you must not worry whether the desired result follows from your action or not, so long as your motive is pure, your means correct. Really, it means that things will come right in the end if you take care of the means and leave the rest to Him.”

Detachment is not apathy or indifference. It is the prerequisite for effective involvement. Often what we think is best for others is distorted by our attachment to our opinions: we want others to be happy in the way we think they should be happy. It is only when we want nothing for ourselves that we are able to see clearly into others’ needs and understand how to serve them.

While he was pursuing his own career Gandhi had no access to the immense storehouse of creativity which lies within. It was only when he began to live for others that he found himself bursting with almost unharnessable power. By the time he was in his seventies his capacity for work was several times what it had been in his twenties, and in periods of intense crisis, which grew more and more frequent as his dedication deepened, he rose to even greater heights of energy and endurance. During the Round Table Conference he never got to bed before eleven at night and he woke up again at two in the morning. On his pilgrimage through the regions of Noakhali and Bihar during the Hindu-Muslim riots, at the age of seventy-seven, the schedule was the same.

But because he had learned not to worry about success or failure he could give all his attention to the work at hand, without feeling the burdens of anxiety or fatigue.

“Mr. Gandhi,” a Western journalist asked him once, “you have been working at least fifteen hours a day, every day, for almost fifty years. Don’t you think it’s about time you took a vacation?”

“Why?” Gandhi said. “I am always on vacation.”

It is the Bhagavad Gita which teaches most clearly this art of living in freedom. Gandhi is first and last a child of the Gita. No amount of study of his work in politics, economics, or nonviolent resistance can reveal the real source of his power. But Gandhi himself tells us with the profound simplicity of a child:

“The Gita has been a mother to me ever since I became first acquainted with it in 1889. I turn to it for guidance in every difficulty, and the desired guidance has always been forthcoming. But you must approach Mother Gita in all reverence, if you would benefit by her ministrations. One who rests his head on her peace-giving lap never experiences disappointment but enjoys bliss in perfection. This spiritual mother gives her devotee fresh knowledge, hope and power every moment of his life.”

It is one thing to translate the Gita into another language and quite a different thing to translate it into daily living. The first is an intellectual exercise on the surface level of the personality, no matter how much talent and scholarship may be involved. The second reaches into the utmost depths of consciousness and leads to the complete transformation of character and conduct.

If we can understand the Bhagavad Gita as a manual for daily living, we can understand Gandhi. But it is not possible to comprehend the Gita in this way without trying, as Gandhi did, to put it into practice.