What Gandhi’s Wife Taught Him About Nonviolent Resistance
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because nonviolence, like charity, begins at home.
By Sean Braswell
Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s hit weekly podcast. In Season 3, The Thread charts how a revolutionary idea — nonviolent resistance — changed the course of history. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on Apple or on OZY.com.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Perhaps the single most important political leader of a century dominated by strongmen and mass murderers, the 5′4″ Indian man in a white loincloth took on, and beat, the most powerful empire on Earth without resorting to violence. In helping India achieve its independence from British rule, Gandhi demonstrated just how powerful mass nonviolent resistance was as a tool for political change — a demonstration that would influence millions across the globe in their own struggles for social justice.
Gandhi’s nonviolent inspirations were myriad. He was influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and the teachings of Jesus. He drew from the writings of philosophers like Henry David Thoreau. One prime influence, as we cover in Season 3 of OZY’s hit podcast The Thread — on the history of nonviolence — was the ideas of the Russian novelist turned activist Leo Tolstoy. But one early source of Gandhi’s views on the power and efficacy of nonviolence came from much closer to home: his wife, Kasturba.
Kasturba’s calm, loving resistance to her husband’s misguided ideas made a huge impression upon him.
Born in western India in 1869, Gandhi was the fourth and last child of a politician and a devout Hindu woman. At just age 13, Gandhi wed Kasturba, also 13, as part of an arranged marriage. The two moved in together at age 16, and the young Gandhi had no idea what was expected of him as a husband. “And so he started going to the library and reading books on the subject,” says Arun Gandhi, his grandson and the author of Kasturba: A Life, “and all the books were written by male chauvinists, and they all talked about how the husband should lay down the rules and enforce them strictly.”
So that’s exactly what the impressionable Gandhi did. “I lost no time in assuming the authority of a husband,” Gandhi later reflected of his early marriage. “[Kasturba] could not go out without my permission.” When Gandhi informed Kasturba of his new rules, and her duty to obey, she engaged in what might be called the household version of civil disobedience: She did nothing at all. The next day she continued to do as she had always done, including leaving the house to go to the market.
Later, Gandhi confronted her and angrily demanded to know why she had disobeyed him. Without raising her voice, says Arun Gandhi, she quietly informed her husband that she was simply following the household guidance that his own mother had set out for her and that she was raised to respect the wishes of her elders. But, if her new husband wanted, she could inform his mother that she would no longer listen to her but only him instead. “And of course grandfather couldn’t tell her to do that,” says Arun Gandhi. “And so the whole matter was settled without any fights.”
Kasturba’s calm, loving resistance to her husband’s misguided ideas about how he could best dominate the household made a huge impression upon him. “Grandfather later acknowledged that that was the most profound lesson in nonviolent conflict resolution,” says Arun Gandhi, “the one he learned from his wife at the age of 16.” Kasturba would also spend decades by his side, assisting her husband in his public work. Later on, Gandhi would often reflect upon the women in his life, including Kasturba, and how they shaped his outlook on the world. Such key personal influences, says Kit Miller, director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, “really set the stage for him to become someone who lived nonviolence, not just someone who used it as a political strategy.”
To be sure, Gandhi’s relationships with women, and views on them, were not all inspirational. He loathed, and feared, his own sexual desires, taking a vow of celibacy late in life — one that he tested, and bent, by sleeping with naked young women. Gandhi’s sexual repression spilled over into his views about women and their role in society. He included women in India’s independence struggle but felt that women were often to blame for acts of sexual violence perpetrated against them. “Gandhi was … a puritan and a misogynist,” Michael Connellan once wrote in The Guardian, “who helped ensure that India remains one of the most sexually repressed nations on Earth.”
Kasturba never got to witness the final fruits of the nonviolent campaign that she had helped launch and sustain. After suffering two heart attacks, she died in the arms of her husband in February 1944, just three years before India finally won its independence from Great Britain. As the body of the woman who had been his companion for more than 60 years was placed upon its funeral pyre, Gandhi lost his famous composure, wiping his tears upon his shawl. And as the pyre burned, Gandhi lamented, “I cannot even imagine life without [Kasturba] … without my wishing it, she chose to lose herself in me, and the result was that she became truly my better half.”