Gandhi’s life, his powerful and indomitable adherence to his ideals reverberated throughout the Earth in his lifetime. Whenever a human being strives with their utmost courage and integrity to embrace their ideals through every means at their disposal, they have an atmospheric effect. In that effort, his intention towards the ideal marks the atmosphere he identified himself within. His contemporaries, as Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, and posthumously, Dr. M.L.King, Jr., Mandela, Galtung, and many more, felt that twang. World wide, the possibilities of living a life of truthfulness, simplicity, human caring, came to the global platform of daily awareness for 100’s of millions. Gandhi’s example was to globally popularize non-possession, voluntary poverty, trusteeship, and local self-reliance. He was great leavening for the genuine advancement of the human race.
Besides his conscious use of speech, Gandhi also explored no-speech – keeping silence. Gandhi loved the practice of silence. It was in silence that Gandhi could touch the forms of speech – his thought, feeling, awareness, that was often drowned out through other forms of speech. Silence provides inner physical stillness from the vibratory effects of the voice in the body. People in ill health can easily attest to the strain and exhaustion that normal speech causes to the bodily system.
As a purposeful act, keeping silence, stilling our tongues, our verbal reactions, simultaneously stills our thoughts, and creates our own portable cave of peace and quiet within us. Keeping silence is natural to us, profoundly simple and powerful.
Gandhi’s every minute was jam-crammed with activity and demands for his communication. There were times in jail when he wrote over 80 letters a day, going on and on with his right hand, and then switching to his left when those muscles ached. The stream of unending visitors, political and otherwise, wearied and exhausted him.
Through deliberately and consciously keeping silence Gandhi sought mental solitude and as far as possible, social solitude, along with physical restitution.
Gandhi found in keeping silence, that his ability to commune harmoniously with the totality of his environment was enhanced. He told friends:
“The Divine Radio is always singing, if we could make ourselves listen to it, but it is impossible to listen without silence.”i
Gandhi became uncompromising in keeping silent for one full day each week. The entire world became aware that it was on Monday. He found those days to be beneficial physically and spiritually. To a friend who was urging him to speak to him on a Monday, he gently rebuked in a hand written note:
“My silence gives me peace of mind. It helps my sadhana [spiritual effort]. If I broke my silence to please you, I would have to break it for others also. So please understand and stop urging me to speak.”ii
For Gandhi, observing silence in the later years of his life became an increasing psychological and physical necessity. He cited the following reasons why silence was also physically important to him:
“There is a perceptible drop in blood-pressure when I observe silence; medical friends have therefore advised me to take as much silence as I can.
There is no doubt whatsoever that after every silence I feel recuperated and have greater energy for work. The output of work during silence is much greater than when I am not silent.
The mind enjoys a peace during silence which it does not without it. That is to say, the decision to be silent itself produces a soothing effect on me. It lifts a burden off my mind.
My experience tells me that silence soothes the nerves in a manner no drugs can. With me it also induces sleep.
To produce the effect I have described, silence has to be liked. No one, therefore, need be silent out of love or imitation or merely for the knowledge that it produces on me or the effect described by me. The best thing would be to take silence on medical advice.
Needless to say, that here I do not refer to the spiritual need and effects of silence.”iii
Gandhi advised others to consider taking silence for its spiritual benefit:
“The vow of silence helps in the search for truth. To keep it, one should refrain from speaking or from communicating anything by writing, or do it only for immediate practical purposes.”iv
When Gandhi attended the Indian Round Table conference, of the Federal Structure Committee in UK (1931), an observer, Rt. Hon. Vincent Sankey shared his observation notes about Gandhi’s use of speech and silence:
“The first meeting of the Committee was held at St. Jame’s Palace, London, on September 14th. It was Mr. Gandhi’s silence day, and he did not utter a single word. On Tuesday, the 15th, he made his first speech, the following note was made at the time:
‘Mr. Gandhi spoke very slowly and deliberately, 57 words a minute. He spoke for nearly an hour without a note. He put his hands together and seemed to pray before he began. He sat next to me. He wore sandals, a loin cloth, and a large white shawl or cape. He asked for independence for India and control of army and finance.’
How Mr. Gandhi managed to stand the physical and mental strain of that Conference has always been a marvel to me. Without fail, he was there at the beginning and he remained till the end of the day’s work. A note made at the time tells me that on some days as many as 87,000 words were spoken.”v
Sankey’s observations also indicate the keen interest that people all over the world had for “all things” Gandhi.
During May 14–29, 1944, Gandhi took 15 days of silence as his health was bad. He rejoiced in it. In a prepared speech at a community evening prayer meeting (these were open to the public), he shared the ways silence helped him to experience harmony within himself:
“What a good thing is silence! I have personal experience of it. The joy one derives from silence is unique. How good it will be, if everyone observed silence for some time every day! Silence is not for some great men; I know that whatever one person is able to do can be done by everyone, given the effort. There is a saying amongst us that through silence everything can be achieved. There is much truth in this saying.”vi
Closely intertwined with oral silence is also physical and mental solitude. For people busily entwined with community life, physical solitude is a real treat once one develops a taste for it. Gandhi advised friends and co-workers who were followers of the Vishnu sectvii to experience the joys of it of keeping silent for some hours each day, or more:
“One who cultivates solitude will never be unhappy anywhere, for he sees only Vishnu in all places…With some effort, everybody can cultivate such love of solitude…Try and cultivate it.”viii
It is in silence, that the subtle forms of speech, our thoughts, and the movements behind them, take place. Gandhi was to eventually see that the things we think are exceedingly powerful in both their inward and outward effects upon ourselves, others, and our environment.ix His yearnings for humanity and situations manifested itself most poignantly to him in prayer. He noted:
“My greatest weapon is mute prayer.”x
Gandhi’s disciplined regard for speech in his lifetime, reaffirmed to millions, their own inherent ethics; his personal example awakened millions to the necessity of revitalizing and moving towards this ideal. He saw that by themselves, the opportunity for people to become aware of the ethical use of speech needed the support of not only culture, but governance:
“Teaching of fundamental ethics is undoubtedly a function of the state.”xi
As individuals we are challenged by his example to hold public media as well as governance accountable for the actualization of ethics in social and political life, to come to our aid in developing societal and personal ethical understanding and awareness.
Encouraging an Indian public besotted with colonialism’s velvety dreams, Gandhi goaded individuals to make their own inquiry, to their own conscience, and start their own quests for harmony:
“Man is the maker of his own destiny, and I therefore ask you to become makers of your own destiny.”xii
Gandhi demonstrated through his life an acute awareness of the ethical role of speech, and clearly observed his own penance of speech and silence.
The questions we face now are, how can we help a youthful generation exposed to the abuse of speech through innumerable licenses? How can we help them to know the inner and outer sanctity, cleanliness, and peace that comes from thought and speech striving ever for harmony with truth within themselves? How can we impart an appreciation of silence?
The cord between the generations has been frayed if not broken, and almost made irrelevant by technology’s advances, particularly by increasing technological advancement of communication devices, means, and methods of using them. This has made the skills of one generation almost useless to the next. The inner passing down of knowledge, of how to live and be, is most affected.
Our own awareness of speech and its counterpart, silence, is perhaps one of the ways. Once we start and are able to engage our social and political institutions to observe ethics in speech, peace will begin to unfold. Individual recognition of our own inherent longing for peace through the ethical use of speech, and the healing elixer of silence, is our first step.xiii
i Gandhi, M.K. (1955). Truth is God. Navajivan: Ahmedabad: 60.
ii Gandhi, M.K. (1956–1983). Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. 72: 112.
iii Ibid. 70: 286.
iv Gandhi, M.K. (1956–1983). Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. 31: 528.
v Radhakrishnan, S. (2005). Mahatma Gandhi: Essays and Reflections. Jaico, Mumbai: 266.
vi Gandhi, M.K. (1956–1983). Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. 83: 44.
viiGandhi always tried to appeal to the highest ideal of the different religious persuasions in the followers and people around him. For Muslims, he would speak of the Koran, to Sikhs of Guru Nanak or the Granth Sahib, to Christians, of Jesus and Christian ethics, etc.
viii Gandhi, M.K. (1956–1983). Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. 57: 36.
ixThat our thoughts affect us, our bodies and our environment is now born out by both psychological and physical sciences, and the new movement in physics. Numerous articles by medical and research professionals attest to the growing awareness of the role of our thoughts to physiological development, and much more: Dr. Gladding, MD – https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/use-your-mind-change-your-brain/201305/is-your-brain-meditation, the work of Dr. J. Dipenza, DC, and many more ably unites physical science and its dawning awareness of our awareness, perception and physiology as being both influencing and influenced by intangible realities. http://www.drjoedispenza.com
xTendulkar, D.G. (1920). Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi. 5:21.
xiGandhi, M.K. (1955). Truth is God. Navajivan: Ahmedabad: 151.
xiiGandhi, M.K. (1956–1983). Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. 26: 294.
xiii Photographs courtesy to author by Sri Amrut Modi, Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India.