The three pillars of Gandhi’s philosophy of life:
The satyagrahi – who practiced satyagraha – were those who gripped truth with a firm hold. Satyagraha has been translated as “strength through truth and love”. It resonates with the Quaker concept of “speaking truth to power”. It’s at the heart of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance – civil disobedience – as a means of reforming corrupt society.
Ahimsa is described usually as non-violence. That’s a negative term, and ahimsa is a positive thing. It has tenderness. It is the insight that all living beings are members of our family. It lives kindly in the world. It resonates with the beautiful words of the Buddha in the Metta Sutta. This is described as "the Buddha's words on loving-kindness", and that positive description offers a better understanding of Ahimsa than the more negative term "non-violence"; it's more than that. Gandhi’s vegetarianism was part of his practice of ahimsa, and he required it of those who followed him.
Those two aspects of his teaching and practice are the well-known ones: Gandhi, vegetarianism and nonviolent protest, could be a fair summary of what most people know about him. He made the words ahimsa and satyagraha widely known in the West even if not exactly common parlance.
But what about the third pillar, Brahmacharya? Brahma is “God” and charya is “conduct”. Brahmacharya is the renouncement of all worldly things in orientation of one’s life around God. It’s like Jesus said, you cannot serve God and Mammon. You have to choose. Gandhi thought so too. He saw everyday life as religion; “My life is my message,” he responded to a journalist who begged him for a quick statement of his message, as the train he had boarded was starting to pull out of the station. How you live can in no way be separated from what you believe. In a sense, there is no such thing as hypocrisy. How you live simply reveals what you believe in your heart, no matter what persona you may choose to hide behind. Though of course, we all do stumble and fail. Expecting perfection is unrealistic. One has to work patiently with human nature. Brahmacharya also often means “celibacy”, and I believe Gandhi did become celibate as part of his renunciation of the world, but I don’t think he required it as an essential for following him.
As an expression of Brahmacharya, Gandhi insisted on simplicity in his ashrams. He said:
“Whoever joins me must be ready to sleep on plain floor, wear simple clothes, get up early, live from undemanding nutrition and even clean his toilet.”
Well, when I was reading about Gandhi and his philosophy, I was nodding along – yes, yes – everything seemed normal and as expected until I came to that word “even” – as in, “even clean his toilet”.
Why it arrested my attention, startled and intrigued me, is that the word “even” identifies it as, in Gandhi’s view, the most extreme thing on his list. A further reach to attain than sleeping on the floor, getting up early, plain dress and eating veggie.
What’s odd about that, to me, is that cleaning the toilet after you’ve used it is the only thing either you do it yourself or someone else has to do it (assuming it’s a shared toilet – most are). If you get up late and have a penchant for fancy threads, I don’t really see how that has any impact on anyone but yourself. But the toilet you don’t clean is a filthy job passed on.
The other things on Gandhi's list take a bit of work and thinking about for me; but all my life I have cleaned toilets for both myself and other people. If you are a woman, and especially if you are a mother, I bet you have too.
The day Gandhi started cleaning his own toilet was the day someone else could stop. A woman, probably. Though Gandhi did have a big domestic row over this, when he insisted that his wife also take her turn at cleaning the toilet and she cut up rough – because in India it would have been a dalit’s job. It was a huge caste statement for them, an act of humility for which I think we have no true comparison.
So that interested me.
“Even”. A little word can say a lot.