The Founder of the Society of African Missions and Mahatma Gandhi shared a common vision on the issue of the Indian caste system, particularly pertaining to those deemed to have been cursed from a previous existence and condemned in this life to be ‘untouchables’. Both men struggled against powerful cultural, religious and institutional forces, with deep historical roots, that resisted change.
Gandhi tried to alter perceptions and attitudes towards the ‘untouchable’ caste by renaming them ‘Children of God’. And, that indeed, is exactly how the Servant of God, Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac saw them and desired, therefore, to free them from the limitations of the heavy burden of shame and prejudice imposed upon them.
Gandhi, himself, experienced the sting of racial superiority as a young man studying law in London. Perhaps this is what sensitized him to fight for systemic change both against racism and the prejudice of the caste system. In his autobiography ‘My Experiments with Truth’, he writes: “It has always been a mystery to me how men can think themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.”
Humorous anecdotes of Gandhi’s time in London and how he dealt with prejudice and racism have survived. They contain simple but powerful lessons on how intelligent wit will always trump anger. Here are a few to ponder:
When Gandhi was studying law at University College, London, a British professor, whose last name was Peters, disliked him intensely and always displayed prejudice and animosity towards him. Because Gandhi never lowered his head when addressing Professor Peter’s, as he expected, there was friction between them.
One day, Mr. Peters was having lunch at the dining room of the University, when Gandhi came along with his tray and sat next to the professor. The professor said,
“Mr. Gandhi, you do not understand. A pig and a bird do not sit together to eat.”
Gandhi looked at him as a parent would a rude child and calmly replied, “You do not worry professor. I’ll fly away,” and he went and sat at another table.
Mr. Peters, reddened with rage, decided to take revenge on the next test paper, but Gandhi responded brilliantly to all questions. Mr. Peters, unhappy and frustrated, asked him the following question;
“Mr Gandhi, if you were walking down the street and found a package, and within was a bag of wisdom and another bag with a lot of money, which one would you take?”
Without hesitating, Gandhi responded, “The one with the money, of course.”
Mr. Peters , smiling sarcastically said, “I, in your place, would have taken wisdom, don’t you think?”
Gandhi shrugged indifferently and responded, “Each one takes what he doesn’t have.”
Mr. Peters was, by this time, beside himself. So great was his anger that he wrote on Gandhi’s exam sheet the word “idiot” and gave it to Gandhi.
Gandhi took the exam sheet and sat down at his desk trying very hard to remain calm while he contemplated his next move. A few minutes later, Gandhi got up, went to the professor and said to him in a dignified but sarcastically polite tone:
“Mr. Peters, you signed the sheet, but you did not give me the grade.”
Yes, indeed, in such circumstances, wit always wins over anger.