Speech is the most potent weapon and tool that we have in our persons. To help maintain peace in society and among all aspects of human relations, speech has had careful prescriptions, restrictions and safeguards placed upon it, sanctioned some way in all religions, indigenous societies, cultures, common sense, and conscience.
Critically examined, it is clear that Gandhi worked in constant awareness of serving the truth within himself through speech. His talks, writings, even his silence, were all part of his monumental effort to control and regulate the stream of his expression through speech, beginning through thought.
Even in Gandhi’s day, the power of truthful speech in society had long been in decline. He noted:
“In the old days, the word of mouth of illustrious persons was regarded as good as a bond. They concluded transactions involving millions by oral agreements. In fact, our entire social fabric rests upon the sanctity of the pledged word.”i
In his autobiography, Gandhi shared his painful shyness and lack of self-confidence during his youthful London years. He confessed he was often unable to speak publicly, with any sense of ease. Later, he found:
“My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure. Its greatest benefit has been that it has taught me the economy of words. I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. And I can now give myself a certificate that a thoughtless word hardly ever escaped my tongue or pen.”ii
An adroit lawyer, his careful ‘certificate’ clause of ‘hardly ever’ was undoubtedly due to his personal relations. Gandhi kept himself mindful of his use of speech through many means. Of his handful of personal possessions, Gandhi cherished a gift given to him by friends from Japan, a set of three little monkeys, carved into caricatures of `see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ kept upon his desk.
The sound of Gandhi’s voice penetrated the world-mind that had access to its amplification, which radio was to give it in the 1930’s and onward.iii
This first television interview with Gandhi, by Fox News Movietone (archives) on April 30, 1931, was before Gandhi went to the Round Table Conference in UK, and illustrates his method of speaking, as well as some characteristics he hoped new and independent India would exhibit:
Gandhi saw that in each use of speech there is an ethical core which could be honoured or deviated from:
“A Journalist’s peculiar function is to read the mind of the country and to give definite and fearless expression to that mind.”iv
He sought to not only inform the public mind, but to ‘reform’ it, in light of the universally inherent ideals that he was experiencing within himself. He founded his first newspaper in South Africa, Indian Opinion, later on in India he established Navajivan (New Life), and Harijan (Child of God – the name he used to create an awareness in India’s class stratified society of the equality of the down trodden – now known as untouchables, and self-referred to as Dalits, the ‘depressed’). He recognized the ethical role of the press in informing society truthfully, with an eye towards its upliftment:
“The Press is called the Fourth Estate. It is definitely a power, but to misuse that power is criminal.v
While in Europe that winter of 1931, Gandhi went to see the innovative educator Maria Montessori in Italy, to learn about her methods of education. Montessori told her young students and teachers who were assembled to hear Gandhi speak:
“I have a great thing to say to you—the Soul of Gandhi—that great Soul of which we are so conscious, is here with us incarnate in his bodily form. The voice which we shall soon have the privilege of hearing is that voice which sounds throughout the world. He speaks with love and not merely with his voice does he speak but with his whole life. Such a rare thing is this, that when it happens, every ear listens.”vi
Hearing her tribute, Gandhi wept. After meeting Montessori, Gandhi sought to implement aspects of her ideas and outlook into his Basic Education programs: that learning takes place all the time spontaneously; the totality of life – the home, environment, community – are a school, and through unstructured learning and play, community serviced and based, real learning takes place.
Viceroy Lord Reading wrote a letter to his son about his meetings with Gandhi; including observations of Gandhi’s speech:
“I have had many opportunities of judging him… there is nothing striking about his appearance…and I should have passed him by in the street without a second look at him. When he talks, the impression is different. He is direct, and expresses himself well in excellent English with a fine appreciation of the value of the words he uses. There is no hesitation about him and there is a ring of sincerity in all that he utters… Our conversations were of the frankest; he was supremely courteous, with manners of distinction…He held in every way to his word in the various discussions we held.”vii
Vinoba Bhave, who sought to follow Gandhi’s precepts from his days of youth, said of Gandhi’s use of speech:
“It was not Bapu’sviii habit to use exaggerated speech; I can remember no other man who weighed his words with such care. We must therefore understand everything he said in the full meaning he gave it.”ix
“He was always very careful not to utter anything that was untruthful, that was not the fruit of deliberation. He was always engaged in political activity, yet the example he set of discipline of speech remains unique.”x
It was an incredible gift to human culture world wide: Gandhi brought the power of truth back into public expectations of speech.
This anecdote from Vinoba shows how Gandhi’s mindful use of speech had a tremendous social effect in raising the awareness of truth in the environment around him:
“I remember how, during the agitation against the Rowlatt Act, when Bapu was stopped while on his way to the Punjab, it led to widespread disturbances in the Punjab and a wave of anger swept the country. There was violence and sabotage in Ahmedabad. Many houses were burnt. This made Gandhiji very sad. It was all against the tenets of nonviolence. I was at Sabarmati Ashram at the time. I was a young man of twenty-five. A few of us went to the riot-stricken city and the neighbouring villages and tried to persuade people to desist from violence. “Brother,” we said, “You have not done well. Gandhiji does not approve of it. He is distressed by it. Gandhiji does not wish you to act thus. He can never wish that you should indulge in arson and violence. When has he ever told you to do such things?”
People answered, `You are too young to understand. Do we have to learn from you what Gandhiji says? Only Bhima understands what Yudhishthira means. Yudhishthira just speaks out. Bhima knows what the import of the speech is.’xi
Clearly they believed that a political leader’s utterances should be capable of two different interpretations…He should mean one thing and say another…Gandhiji, people thought in the beginning, perhaps did not quite mean what he said about nonviolence. May be he felt that the country was not ready for violent action and had to speak the language of nonviolence so as not to get on the wrong side of the law.
It was only when Gandhiji started on his Fasts to atone for the violence committed by the people, when he took suffering upon himself, that people realized that he was a leader of a special kind. The belief gradually deepened that Gandhiji meant what he said. The power of the word thus began to operate. It was a new phenomenon. Gandhiji’s penance created a new respect for the power of the word. This power of the word is a necessary condition for democracy.”xii
…If the power of the word becomes blunted, the power of arms will take its place. The power of the word springs from immaculate thinking. It does not call for increased outward activity. It is the result of inner cleansing.”xiii
Yet, during Gandhi’s negotiations with Jinnah (Jinnah advocated for India to be divided into India and Pakistan), the trust in Gandhi’s words weakened with the influence of divisive political forces. Vinoba noted:
The public, as also political opponents and the Government, began to suspect that, though Gandhiji said one thing, he had perhaps in his mind something quite different. Just as Jinnah’s word was not trusted by the Hindus, there were Mussalmans who had lost faith in Gandhiji’s word. The power of the word had declined. The outcome was there for everyone to see. What happened in India at the time Swaraj (Independence) came was a direct consequence of the decline of the power of the word.
Gandhiji spent the time in acute suffering. People had ceased listening to him. Nevertheless it is beyond doubt that in public behaviour Gandhiji showed unique truth-minded-ness and made the power of the word gain in respect. I am not aware of anyone else who did as much for the purification of politics…Really speaking Gandhiji never practised politics. What he pursued could only be called service of the people.”xiv
Gandhi’s example outlines an ethical standard for the use of speech; for aspiration and dawning peace.
i Tendulkar, D.G. (1920). Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi. 2:364.
ii Gandhi, M.K. (2007). The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Navajivan, Ahmedabad.
iv Ibid. 36: 369.
v Tendulkar, D.G. (1920). Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi. 7: 375.
vi Gandhi, M.K. (1956–1983). Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. 48: 149
vii Tendulkar, D.G. (1920). Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi. 2:42.
viii Bapu – meaning Father – the endearing term that millions called Gandhi by.
ix Bhave, V. (). Thoughts on Education. Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan, Varanasi: 59.
x Bhave, V. (). Vinoba on Gandhi. Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan, Varanasi: 26.
xi This analogy is taken from two brothers, characters in the epic, Mahabharata. Yudhishthira was known for justice and righteousness. Bhima, his younger brother, for his physical strength and valour. Growing-up with the ethical discourses of any true religion, spawns awareness and reflection on righteousness, right from the cradle.
xii Ibid. 27-29.
xiii Ibid. 95.
xiv Ibid. 29.