06 Oct My grandfather, Gandhi, taught me … (ARUN GANDHI)
Many people today have a cartoon image of my grandfather as a saintly man who gave up all material goods and wore as little clothing as possible.
But here’s a surprise: he actually understood the value of money as well as anybody.
On the ashram we had no economic distinctions and lived a radically simple life. We all did chores together, from working in the vegetable garden to cleaning the toilets, and we sat on the ground to eat and study and talk. When we went to meals, nobody served us, and we brought our own plates, bowls, cups, and utensils and washed them afterward. Nobody felt deprived because we all experienced the same conditions.
Bapuji tried to keep his life simple, but he also met with some of the most important people in the world. In 1930 he traveled to London to attend the first Round Table Conference organized by the British government to discuss the future of India. As always, he was wearing the handspun, hand-woven clothes, called khadi, that he encouraged as a way of helping the poorest rural farmers.
The participants at the Round Table were invited to Buckingham Palace, and my grandfather arrived wearing his loincloth and shawl. Royal aides fretted that this wasn’t proper attire to meet the king, but Bapuji just smiled and said that if King George didn’t want him as he always dressed, he wouldn’t attend.
Reporters heard about the story and couldn’t get enough of it. “Gandhi to Go to King’s Party in Loin Cloth!” blared one headline. They loved the idea that he would be walking across the crimson carpets of Buckingham Palace in khadi and well-worn sandals. King George came in wearing the daytime formal dress of a morning coat and striped trousers, while Queen Mary stood by in a shimmering silver tea gown. When he was asked if he felt underdressed wearing a loincloth in the presence of the king, Bapuji famously quipped, “The king had enough on for both of us.”
Bapuji didn’t think it was wrong to want economic success—he just thought it was wrong not to lift others up with you. He didn’t care about money for himself, but he was realistic and knew that his projects needed funding. So he came up with a plan. Whenever he went out, thousands of people asked for his autograph. His prayer services embraced everybody, so there were often throngs of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists in attendance who admired him and wanted his signature. He realized that if he charged the small fee of five rupees (less than a dime today) for every autograph, he could raise money for his social and educational programs.
The first time I went on a trip with my grandfather, I was given the job of collecting the autograph books and money and bringing them to Bapuji in a bundle to sign. I was thrilled! I felt very important to be close to Bapuji and doing something for a bigger purpose.
In those days before “selfies” and cell phone cameras, autographs of famous people were rare and special, and some were quite valuable. So after a few days of collecting, I decided I too wanted to get my grandfather’s autograph. But I had no money, and I didn’t know if Bapuji would make an exception for me. I told myself that because I had been helping him a lot, there was no harm in trying. I collected pieces of colored paper, cut them to the size of an average autograph book, and stapled them together. That evening after prayers, I slipped my little untidy book into the stack I took to Grandfather. Then I stood by as he began signing the books, hoping that in the rush of the moment he wouldn’t notice anything amiss.
No way. Grandfather was absolutely meticulous about every dime he received. He needed money to do his work. When he came to my book and saw no money accompanying it, he paused.
“Why is there no money for this autograph?”
“Because it is my book, Bapuji, and I don’t have any money.”
He smiled. “So you are trying to pull the wool over my eyes? Why do you need an autograph?”
“Because everyone has one,” I answered.
“Well, as you can see, everyone pays for the autograph.”
“But, Bapuji, you are my grandfather!” I pleaded.
“I am glad to be your grandfather, but a rule is a rule. If everyone has to pay, you have to pay too. No exceptions for anyone.”
Though he never gave me his autograph, Bapuji offered a much greater gift. He started spending an hour every day with me, talking and listening. He had such a busy schedule I didn’t know how he could manage to fit me in, but it turned out that with disciplined habits, you can accomplish a lot more than you imagine.
Bapuji had me write out my own schedule—including study time, playtime, ashram chores, and prayer—and put it on the wall to show that each minute in my life too was valuable.
Bapuji helped me see that each person has special value. He exuded love and respect for everyone, young and old, rich and poor. I came to understand how important it is to appreciate our own worth as individuals. We sometimes worry that other people are better than we are, and we forget to see what it is that makes us valuable to the world.
Once we feel confident in ourselves, we can recognize and honor the value of those around us, regardless of social stature or the power attributed to them by worldly standards.
Some scholars of my grandfather’s life have portrayed him as being against progress and money, but that is a misreading of his values. He valued money for what it could do to end misery and help people out of desperate situations. But he didn’t consider money the measure of a person’s worth.
He would never (ever!) think someone wearing expensive clothes and flying first class was more important than someone clothed in rags and sleeping under a bridge. I’ve seen photos of my grandfather in his simple khadi shawl meeting heads of state from around the world.
Bapuji didn’t need an elaborate costume to let the world know of his worth. If you use money and material gain to define your value, you may end up feeling hollow.
I feel sorry for someone who tries to impress me with his premium car or oversized house, because I know that he feels something missing at his core. No amount of acquired stuff is going to fill that emptiness. On the other hand, I too often see people who think of themselves as failures because they got fired from a job or have been struggling to make a rent payment. They fear that wealthier friends look down on them, and they are embarrassed not to have more.
We need to separate our self-worth from the stuff we have acquired. Successful people who earn big salaries have every right to be proud of what they’ve accomplished, but they make a mistake if they think the size of their bank account is a reasonable measure of their worth. In fact it can be just the opposite.
“Materialism and morality have an inverse relationship,” Bapuji believed. “When one increases, the other decreases.” He didn’t mean that it was immoral to earn money or that there was something inherently honorable about being poor. He objected only to focusing on material gain to the exclusion of everything else.
If money means something to you, then go ahead and work hard and make a lot of money. But always remember there is a next step beyond that.
The Gift of Anger