Gandhi’s Dark Night of the Soul (September, 2006)

I’ve been thinking about Gandhi all week, in the way that occasionally other historical figures have visited my imagination, brought to life by art. Wednesday, I contrived a pretext to drive down to Mountain View, where I thought I remembered seeing a Life magazine in a used bookstore with Gandhi on the cover. I felt that acquiring the magazine would bring me closer to Gandhi’s time and place in history, especially since Bourke-White is a character in the film. I recognize this fascination as hagiographic, but as Gandhi “detest[ed] being lionized” (p. 36), he would no doubt equally despise being canonized.

One thing the film depicts that I do not see reflected in his writings (so far) is how he affected people, and that he seemed to understand and use his power to move them. Although he did not aspire to be “bapu” or “mahatma” to the people, he knew that because of their love for him, his hunger strike could help stop the violence on both sides. What the film does not show is exactly how he became their leader: how his personal commitment to God, ahimsa, and truth translated into nonviolent action on a mass scale, and how he won the hearts even of those who would not have joined with him in actions of nonviolent non-cooperation. While eschewing praise for his accomplishments, for our benefit he narrates “experiments in the spiritual field … from which I have derived such power as I possess for working in the political field” (p. 1). So this is what I am looking for in his words: what was the inner work that empowered his leadership for social change, and how could I emulate that work?

An incident comes to mind from early in the book, when he was in South Africa. Anticipating Rosa Parks in his refusal to conform to the segregation of public transport, he sits all night in a cold, dark railway station rather than move to a “van compartment.” The image of Gandhi, sitting alone in the station, suggests a “dark night of the soul.” It is a familiar motif in hero tales as well as in saints’ lives. He does not tell exactly what transpired in his inner landscape, only that he “was in no mood to talk.” I infer from what follows that it must have involved some renunciation or reconciliation of self-consciousness or “ego.” Concluding that the personal insult is “superficial,” he resolves to respond to insults only when doing so would constitute action for social change. “Redress for wrongs I should seek only to the extent that would be necessary for the removal of the colour prejudice” (p. 14). Gandhi’s narrative of his “experiments with truth” moves increasingly from the personal into the social realm from the time of that night.

Who among us will become the Gandhi of our age, one for whose sake enemy combatants the world over will lay down their arms? Even in a diverse global community that seems to preclude the possibility of any one leader’s uniting influence, could collective intentional faith formation ultimately birth the Beloved Community? Suppose each of us resolved to live as if peace and justice for all depended on our own spiritual “experiments”? Let us wager, with Pascal, that they do.