“As I stood there I wondered what wise counsel the Mahatma would have given me if he had been alive. I felt sure he would have thrown all his strength of will and character into a peaceful campaign for the freedom of the people of Tibet.”
—The Dalai Lama in his autobiography “My Land and My People,” on his visit to Gandhi’s cremation site in 1956Today, Oct. 2, 2019, the world marks 150 years since Mahatma Gandhi was born. But for those of us in the Tibet movement, it’s perhaps more important to remember when he died.
Gandhi, a revolutionary of staggering political, spiritual and philosophical insight, was shot dead by a Hindu nationalist on Jan. 30, 1948—in other words, the year before the Chinese Communist Party came to power and subsequently invaded Tibet, beginning its ongoing, brutal occupation of India’s historical neighbor.
Though the Mahatma and the Dalai Lama walked the same Earth for about 12-and-a-half years, they never interacted. Instead, a young Dalai Lama visited India years after Gandhi’s death for the 2,500th birthday of the Lord Buddha. While there, on his first morning in New Delhi, he visited Gandhi’s memorial, Raj Ghat. Thus, on one short pilgrimage in the midst of China’s savage conquest of his land, His Holiness came into spiritual communion with arguably the two greatest minds the Indian subcontinent has produced: Gandhi and Buddha.
Three years later, the Dalai Lama was forced to seek refuge in India when Chinese troops forced him to sneak out of the Norbu Lingka Palace in Lhasa to escape likely imprisonment or death. Nearly ever since, His Holiness has been perched in the northern Indian outpost of Dharamsala, from where he continues to guide the Tibetan people to this day.
Though Gandhi did not live long enough to advise the Dalai Lama on his struggle, as His Holiness seems to have wanted, the Mahatma’s imprint can be seen all over the Tibetan movement.
Indeed, one could argue that in exile, the Dalai Lama and his followers have practiced their own form of “swaraj,” one of Gandhi’s core concepts. Swaraj means “self-rule,” and the Mahatma sought to implement it in myriad ways, including “swadeshi,” or self-reliance—which he most famously demonstrated by spinning his own clothes; the image of the spinning wheel now adorns independent India’s flag—health and education programs, and peacekeeping between India’s multifarious religious and communal groups.
While Tibetans’ swaraj has not completely replicated Gandhi’s blueprint, it has deployed several similar strategies. For one thing, Tibetan exiles have shown an astonishing commitment to education. In 1960, the Dalai Lama established the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala. Today, TCV is a network of schools across India that help keep the Tibetan language and culture alive while also introducing young Tibetans to other important academic subjects. No doubt this would impress Gandhi, who once said that swaraj “means national education, i.e. education of the masses.”
In addition, the Dalai Lama has echoed the work of the Mahatma in striving to keep the Tibetan people together. In fact, there is arguably greater unity among Tibetans in exile today than there was in Tibet before the Chinese invasion. During that time, the Dalai Lama was viewed as a spiritual authority across the Tibetan Plateau, but political authority was fragmented among the different regions of Tibet. In India, however, the Dalai Lama has been able to keep Tibetans united so they can present a unified front against Chinese malevolence. The Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, which was formed with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama, includes representation for each of Tibet’s three provinces, as well as its different religious schools. It’s no surprise, then, that the Dalai Lama has written that Tibetans are “one of the most successfully resettled refugee groups in the world” with their own political and cultural institutions.
Like Gandhi, His Holiness has embraced wise reforms for his millennia-old society, and what’s remarkable—but less-often recognized—about both men is not simply their courageous leadership of resistance movements, but rather their deep commitment to community self-improvement and purification.
Many historically victimized peoples have responded to their oppression by seeking to emulate and outdo their oppressors—what Gandhi pithily dismissed as “English rule without the Englishman.” For instance, China, the Dalai Lama’s lifelong antagonist, has strived to prevent a recurrence of the “century of humiliation” it suffered at the hands of European and Japanese imperialists by becoming a mighty imperial power itself, adopting the Western notion of sovereignty (as opposed to the priest-patron relationship it once had with Tibetans) and claiming it over Tibet and East Turkestan (Chinese: Xinjiang) while eyeing the forced integration of Hong Kong and Taiwan with the Chinese mainland.
This kind of modeling of the behavior of one’s bully is understandable, but nevertheless tragic. However, it is largely the opposite of what Gandhi and the Dalai Lama preach. Like other leaders of the colonized, they recognized the need for their societies to self-strengthen, but they sought to do that by preserving and refining the best aspects of their cultural traditions, not by acquiescing wholesale to Western or Chinese ways. Though both Gandhi and the Dalai Lama assimilated the most useful and meritorious ideas of the invaders’ cultures—Gandhi was heavily influenced by the Christian gospels and by Western thinkers like Edward Carpenter—they rejected the militarism and acquisitiveness that brought outside powers to their countries in the first place.
Indeed, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama are most recognizably linked in their devotion to “ahimsa,” or nonviolence. Neither man was willing to accept violence or hatred by the victims toward their victimizers. And both see ahimsa as a crucial part of the ideal society they wish to create. In his Five Point Peace Plan address to the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1987, His Holiness even went as far as to say that Tibet should become a “zone of ahimsa” from which all troops and military installations would be removed. As the threat of violence between India and China looms ever present over border and water disputes, Indians might wonder how much better off they’d be with Tibet as a peaceful buffer state between them and the belligerent Chinese Communists.
I see another surprising connection between the Dalai Lama and Gandhi. For the Mahatma, achieving independence from Britain was insufficient; he was adamant that India should not become a modern state in the vein of England or the United States. (It’s worth noting that several of China’s leading intellectuals at the turn of the last Century believed the same thing, but their voices were swallowed up by the march of the Communist regime.) Instead, he believed the best organization for India was a web of self-sufficient village republics. This concept no doubt seems radical to many modern commentators (though I personally find it very appealing), but it reveals the extent of Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence and equality, as well as the depth and reach of his ideas. (To say Gandhi was merely an independence activist is a bit like saying Buddhism is merely the practice of meditation.)
Similar ingenuity can be seen in the Dalai Lama’s proposal of “genuine autonomy” for Tibet, rather than full-fledged independence. Stopping short of asking for Tibet’s freedom is no doubt at least partly a calculated move by His Holiness, designed to bring the Chinese to the table for a mutually acceptable compromise. But it also shows that, like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama is not limited by modern ideas of the homogenous nation-state and political sovereignty.
For me, this political and ethical imagination is a big reason why I wanted to join the Tibet movement in the first place. It’s not for me to decide whether genuine autonomy or “rangzen,” total independence, is the better option for Tibetans. But witnessing the social upheavals that have roiled the world over the past few years, including in the heart of the progressive West, I feel the need to consider totally different understandings of human life that are more compassionate and more ethical. Gandhi offers that, and while the Dalai Lama differs from him in manifold ways, he carries on Gandhi’s legacy of providing a moral and spiritual voice to correct the waywardness of modern civilization.
As we celebrate “Gandhi Jayanti” today, I am touched by the reminder that the Mahatma died believing himself a failure as he witnessed India descend into horrendous violence following Britain’s unconscionably reckless and hasty retreat from the Subcontinent. “I am in the midst of flames,” Gandhi wrote bitterly toward the end of his life. “Is it the kindness of God or His irony that the flames do not consume me?”
It seems Gandhi would be unsurprised by the rise of strongmen in countries around the world today. As the Indian author Pankaj Mishra notes, “Gandhi predicted that even ‘the states that are today nominally democratic’ are likely to ‘become frankly totalitarian’ since a regime in which ‘the weakest go to the wall’ and a ‘few capitalist owners’ thrive ‘cannot be sustained except by violence, veiled if not open.’” Indeed, China has shown that, contrary to the prognostications of some in the West, authoritarianism and the market economy can fit together hand in hand and fist in glove.
Despite the crushing blows of India’s Partition and bloody nation-building, Gandhi was not defeated. As Dwight Macdonald wrote in a deeply pained but ultimately inspiring obituary after the Mahatma’s assassination, Gandhi “was killed after his most profound ideas and his lifelong political activity had been rebuffed by History,” but “he was still alive and kicking, still throwing out imaginative concepts, still ‘in there fighting.’ Macdonald added: “The ideologue is baffled, but the human being—and by this sentimental phrase I mean the acute intelligence as much as the moralist—is not through; he has plenty of inspirations and surprises in store for us.”
More than 70 years after Gandhi’s death, his work is not yet done. During his life, Gandhi provided the template that numerous other civil rights activists would follow. For example, in 1935, he met in India with the African American minister Howard Thurman and told him, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” Thurman went on to serve as a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. One can only imagine how fruitful a discussion between the Dalai Lama and the Mahatma would have been had the course of time allowed it to happen.
Gandhi’s mission to create a better world continues all around the globe today, including in the person of the Dalai Lama and the cause of Tibet. Today, as we experience the rise of authoritarian china, as well as eruptions of nationalism and neo-fascism in even supposedly liberal societies, not to mention the apocalyptic threat of climate change, we need that mission to succeed more than ever. That’s why I’m grateful to be part of the movement for Tibet, and to be serving the salvational legacy of the Dalai Lama and Gandhi.