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Respect

Excerpted from

Character Is Destiny : Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember

By ,

He was a shy, awkward child, the youngest of four children in a middle-class Indian family. It would have been hard to see any greatness in him as a boy or even later as an English-educated lawyer, practicing a profession without the necessary skills to impress anyone as an advocate or, for that matter, to make any impression at all. His first appearance in court was a disaster. His shyness was so extreme that he couldn't open his mouth to argue his case. Yet he would find his voice, a voice like no other, a voice so compelling-not for its resonance or eloquence, but for the decent convictions it expressed-that he would become one of the most important figures of the twentieth century, and an inspiration to countless crusades for justice on all the continents of the earth.

The life of Mohandas K. Gandhi was too consequential and involved in the important world events of his times to be described in detail in this one brief chapter. The significant episodes of his life were many, each offering a testament to the virtues essential to good character, certainly to the most essential virtue of all-love. Anyone of them will do as an example of the principal character attributes recommended in this book. I can't offer you an informed explanation of Gandhian philosophy; it is too rooted in his religious devotion, derived mostly from Hindu beliefs, for me to fully comprehend, much less explain, even though his beliefs were influenced by the traditions of all major religions, including mine. T cannot even claim to share all of his convictions, even those I do understand.

I will only share my admiration for one quality of Gandhi's character that has impressed me as indispensable to a sense of honor: respect for all human life, which begins with self-respect.

Long before he became the Mahatma (Great Soul), before he became Bapu, the father of his country in its struggle for independence from British rule, Mohandas Gandhi was a young, unknown lawyer, with poor prospects for success, on his way from India to British-ruled South Africa in 1893. Educated in the law in London, where he dressed the part of an English gentleman in top hat and tailored suit, a gold chain fastened to a watch in his vest pocket, he looked like any other aspiring young colonial subject who had embraced the style and manners of his foreign rulers. Having made little progress in Ills practice in Bombay, he eagerly accepted an offer of a year's employment by an Indian company operating in South Africa. He left his wife, whom he had married at thirteen, and young son behind.

From the moment he reached Durban, South Africa, he realized that although in his own country he was a subject of the British crown, Indians, at least in the upper and middle classes, were accorded some respect. It was their country, after all, despite the conceit that the British had come to civilize a backward culture. In South Africa, Indians were politely referred to as "coloreds"; less politely, and more often, they were "coolies" or "Sami." The majority of Indians in South Africa were laborers and servants. Many were successful merchants and businessmen, teachers, and even a few doctors and lawyers. But in Durban, to the British and Dutch settlers, Gandhi wasn't a London-trained, English-speaking lawyer, he was a coolie lawyer, and entitled to little more respect than the coolie who worked in the mines or waited on tables or swept the floors of their houses.

At his first appearance in a Durban court, dressed in an English suit but now wearing an Indian turban rather than a top hat, Gandhi was instructed to remove his headgear, for Indians were forbidden to wear turbans in court. Gandhi refused and angrily left the court, feeling humiliated. Afterward, he discussed the incident with his client, a Muslim Indian merchant, Abdullah Seth. Gandhi was inclined to stop wearing a turban rather than suffer any further insults, but Seth argued that were he to submit to this prejudice, he would discourage other Indians who insisted on wearing their turbans. Gandhi accepted the advice, and wrote to a Durban newspaper, defending his right to dress in the custom of his countrymen. "The question was very much discussed in the papers," he recalled, "which described me as an 'unwelcome visitor.'" The shy, awkward Gandhi had begun to find his voice, and his calling: a lifelong campaign for justice based, as all the justice must be, on respect for the natural rights and dignity of all human beings.

Several days later, Seth sent Gandhi to Pretoria with a first-class train ticket. A white passenger who entered the first-class compartment was displeased to discover a coolie in English clothes comfortably sharing the ride with Europeans. He complained to the conductor, who promptly ordered Gandhi to move to the third-class car. Gandhi refused. Moments later he was shoved off the train, his luggage confiscated, and left to shiver through a cold winter night in the stations waiting room.

The next day he boarded another train without incident. But he suffered a worse insult on the part of his journey that required travel by stagecoach. The conductor ordered Gandhi to ride on top of the coach next to the driver, while the conductor sat inside the coach with die white passengers. Gandhi did not argue, and did as he was instructed, not wishing to be again refused transportation. But when the conductor ordered Gandhi to move to the coach's footboard, so that he could smoke a cigar in Gandhi's seat, Gandhi refused. The infuriated conductor began to beat him severely, and would have seriously injured him had not the other passengers intervened, and insisted that he be allowed to sit with them.



Tags: Parenting and Families