The binding leadership of Gandhi and Te Whiti across generations

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Dr Pushpa Bhardwaj Wood

Dr Pushpa Bhardwaj Wood

Wellington, October 18, 2021

Long Reading: The Indian leader was more familiar to New Zealanders than others

This story was updated on Thursday, October 21, 2021 at 12 pm (NZT)

The Quit India Movement of Mahatma Gandhi led to the success of a peaceful freedom struggle.


There has been much written by various scholars and alike about Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings, philosophy and contribution to liberation movements worldwide.

Therefore, neither will I be writing about his views on Ahimsa, his practice of Satyagraha or about his endless efforts to change people’s minds through his own example. 

Instead, I have chosen to write about his influence on my life and my understanding of an ‘invisible thread of legacy between Gandhi and Te Whiti o Rongomai (1830-1907), a forerunner to Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) by at least two or three generations, from Aotearoa New Zealand the country, which has been my home for more than 35 years.

Diversity of Faith and Prayers

Are we hardwired to notice differences before similarities?

At a very young age, I was intrigued about the diversity of faiths and various ways of praying in my maternal village. This led to me to ask a blind and illiterate, wandering Sadhu who visited our village.

“My Lord has not blessed this world with only one kind of flower. There are many doors to reach to God and each door is just as legitimate as the existence of its traveller,” he said.

It was very profound for a child of seven years; however his answer stuck with me.  

Later at School and University, my curiosity about the differences encouraged me to investigate the teachings of Gandhi.

Mahatma Gandhi with Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari (Social Media Photo)

The Hindu Dharma

What did I learn from Gandhi that clarified my thinking about religion in general and my own faith Hindu Dharma in particular?

First, Gandhi strongly believed that God had gifted all human beings impartially with the same shape and the same natural desires. Therefore, he never subscribed to any religious sanctions which discriminated between human beings; neither would he tolerate treating any human being inferior. This belief recalled the words of the wandering Sadhu about differences and has had a profound influence on how I see others.

But an even greater influence on my life has been Gandhi’s call to act.

“The Hindu religion is replete with illustrations of great men lifting their unfortunate brethren from their miseries. Will not the modern Hindus copy their own great men, and once for all rub out the bolt of untouchability that so defies Hinduism.”

In Gandhi’s words, “Abstract truth has no value unless it incarnates in human beings who represent it by proving their readiness to die for it” (Young India, December 22, 1921). I confess that I am not sure of my readiness to die but I am committed to act for those truths revealed by my experience and that of others.

According to Gandhi, calming the mind leads to rationality of thought. If one’s thoughts are clear, one is likely to make rational decisions. A person under stress cannot be expected to make rational decisions. This prescription is the one I try to follow in my personal life.

Dr Pushpa Wood with her ONZM Medal (Photo by Eva Kaprinay)

India and New Zealand: Similarities and Differences

I have been living in New Zealand since 1980. In that time, the country and I have changed.

I am still a child of India and retain my connection by visiting my birthplace on an annual basis. However, I am also a citizen of the Pacific, specifically of Aotearoa New Zealand.

If I ignore the size, population, physical distance and the cultural differences of these two nations, there are some similarities between both countries that are striking.

Both India and New Zealand were colonised by the British who left a legacy embedded in the very fabric of both countries but what I find really intriguing is that both countries produced leaders who had a vision for their people which transcended the times in which they lived and, who were willing to work hard, and even to sacrifice their lives, to achieve their vision.

At a time when might was right, these leaders advocated peace and harmony and practiced nonviolent resistance. In the face of great odds, they tried to provide their colonisers a dignified ‘exit strategy’ should they chose to take it up.

Aotearoa, Te Whiti and Gandhi

The Treaty of Waitangi signed by Maori leaders and representatives of the British Crown in 1840 gave Great Britain the right to govern New Zealand and the Maori rights as British citizens protected by the Crown.

In 1854, the New Zealand Parliament met for the first time and by then, settlers from Britain and other European countries were arriving in large numbers and they wanted land. This led to the Maori land wars caused by the wholesale appropriation of Maori land condoned by New Zealand authorities, although the British Crown showed little real interest in this far away little colony.

After the land wars, Te Whiti o Rongomai, commonly referred to as Te Whiti, emerged as a key figure. Already respected for his deep knowledge of both Maori Tikanga (culture, ethic and custom) and Christian doctrines, Te Whiti and his relative and fellow prophet Tohu Kakahi became leaders of an inland settlement later known as Parihaka at the foot of Taranaki, the mountain which gives the region its name.

Te Whiti o Rongomai (left) and Tohu Kakahi (right): Source: The Museum of South Taranaki

Parihaka and the surrounding area became a haven for refuges of the land wars and subsequent land confiscations as well as a centre of peaceful resistance to British rule.

Te Whiti’s fight was not with the mighty British Empire; he was fighting for the right of Maori to live independent lives on their own lands in peaceful coexistence with European settlers.

Government campaign of disruption

In 1879, the then government of Aotearoa New Zealand decided to Survey the confiscated Waimate plains in the Taranaki area (some 16,000 acres from Pukearuhe to Hawera) beginning a campaign of disrupting the surveyors by the ploughing of land by Te Whiti’s followers. Te Whiti objected particularly ‘to occupation of confiscated land which had long left unoccupied by settlers and was believed to have been returned through the quiescence of the native minister, Donald McLean.’

Te Whiti commanded that the ploughers should resist arrest and violence passively, saying “Go, put your hands to the plough. Look not back. If any come with guns, be not afraid. If they smite you, smite not in return. If they rend you, be not discouraged. Another will take up the good work.”

The actions of Te Whiti’s followers infuriated the settlers and thus began a series of arrests.

However, such was the resolve of this Movement that no amount of arrests and warnings deterred them from their plans and in spite of the growing opposition by authorities, Te Whiti continued to urge his followers to restraint from taking up arms.

Pushpa Wood soon after her postgraduation in 1977

Arrest of Te Whiti

Then, on November 5, 1881, Parihaka, which had become a rallying point for peaceful Maori resistance, was invaded by the British settlers. Historical documents note that what the British soldiers found on that day was some 2000 Maori peacefully sitting on ground.

Te Whiti and Tohu were asked to surrender and when they refused, they were arrested, the other people gathered were also either arrested or dispersed. Te Whiti was charged with ‘wickedly, maliciously, and seditiously contriving and intending to disturb the peace’ and imprisoned.

During his imprisonment, Te Whiti continued to demand his right for a trial and a resolution to the injustice that he felt that he and his people suffered at Parihaka. Above all, he rejected all offers of compromise. Two generations later, we saw this same uncompromising stand for justice and self-rule in Gandhi, more than 12,600 kms away from Aotearoa.

Release and Restoration of Parihaka

In March 1883, Te Whiti and Tohu were finally permitted to return to Parihaka; in their absence, the settlement had fallen into neglect. Thus began Te Whiti’s efforts to restore Parihaka which continued until his death in 1907.

Over the years, Te Whiti and his followers endured further arrests and imprisonment as a result of their trademark activity ‘ploughing’. By resisting the surveying of Maori land through the actions of the ploughers and the fencers, Te Whiti advocated for Maori retaining their land for Maori use.

It is not clear whether Gandhi’s strategy of peaceful resistance was inspired by Te Whiti’s philosophy and actions but there is evidence that he had heard about Te Whiti and his philosophy from two Irish visitors who had visited Parihaka before it was invaded.

Gandhi not only believed in total non-violence (Ahimsa), but he was also a strong follower of civil disobedience (Satyagraha).

Familiarity with Gandhi

It is ironic that until recently, the people in Aotearoa New Zealand were more familiar with Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders of peaceful resistance such as  Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela than they were with their own ‘home grown’ peace promoter.

Still today, many in New Zealand know more about Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, his teachings and his works than they know about Te Whiti who brought the approach of non-violence to this world almost three generations ahead of Gandhi.

Dr Pushpa Wood with Sisters of Taita Convent, Lower Hutt in 1980

On a community radio programme marking the anniversary of the invasion of Parihaka, community broadcaster Victoria Quade noted that although the peaceful resistance of the people of Parihaka to violent colonialism is now recognised as the foundation of the modern peace movement in Aotearoa New Zealand, Te Whiti’s passive resistance movement did not get as much attention as Gandhi’s activities in Britain or elsewhere because, not only were international communications more limited in Te Whiti’s time, but also the New Zealand media of the day was either ambivalent or supported the government’s actions.

This brings me back to the modern day.

What if Gandhi returned to this world now?

The Return of Gandhi today

I had a dream recently – Gandhi was visiting the world in 2019 and found himself so much “out of place” because of his philosophy of Satyagraha, Ahimsa, Atmatyaga (self-denial) that he decided to return to his ‘maker,’

It was not his arrival in 2019 that surprised or alarmed me; instead it was his decision to depart without even making an effort to ‘put the world’ to right that sent me into despair! Why? Was it because the despondency that surrounded Gandhi prior to his death was still with him and his sense of eternal hope in the goodness of mankind had not yet returned? Or was it because the notion of self-sacrifice, Satyagraha and Ahimsa has become more and more of a ‘lofty dream’ for millions of Indians thus creating even a greater distance between a common person of India and Gandhian philosophy?

Moral and ethical bankruptcy has become a norm of politicians and business leaders in many countries of the world. Although much has improved since Gandhi’s time, the gap between the rich and the poor is again getting greater in every country. The so-called ‘influencers’ on social media are not much better, encouraging us to consume when we are in the midst of a climate crisis. Perhaps now more than ever we need the spirit of Gandhi.

Dr Pushpa Wood with her Mother-in-Law Frankie Wood and her baby daughter Gayatri

Beyond the Indian context

Roy Walker in his article titled Gandhi’s message to the world, states that “Gandhi is not so much an Eastern as a universal figure; his philosophy and example are essentially valid for all humanity or none because they work at a level deeper than that at which cultural, social and technological variations are of conclusive importance. To judge Gandhian pacifism irrelevant because Gandhi ji was an Indian is not much more sensible than objecting to Marxism at the outset on the score that Marx was a German.”

Walker goes on to explain that “Gandhi’s reference to the world beyond India, and to the West in particular, leave no doubt that he regarded his beliefs as relevant to other civilisations. It is important to realise that his doctrine of Swadeshi, or reliance on and working through the immediate environment, was a discipline that limited him to advice and action within the context of Indian affairs for the greater part of his public life; but he always looked outwards to the horizons of the globe itself.”

So did Gandhi ji really succeed in his mission?

In order to answer this question, it is important to understand Gandhi’s mission or missions. If his mission was to get freedom for India and establish a free, Republic, then he well and truly succeeded; despite its problems, India remains the largest Republic Nation in the word due to mark its 75 years of Independence in August 2022 and 75 years of being a Republic in 2025. However, the country of his birth still requires considerable amount of work and effort to implement this philosophy in their personal, social and political expression.

Leela Gandhi, great granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi with children at Mahatma Gandhi Centre, Auckland on October 2, 2005 (INL Photo by Narendra Bedekar)

The Social Revolutionist

Gandhi called himself a ‘social revolutionist.’ However, it is his social revolution that some believe has failed in modern India and created polarised views about the Mahatma’s relevance today. In ‘The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste, the Debate Between B R Ambedkar and M K Gandhi,’ author Arundhati Roy (2017) indicts Gandhi for his failure to unequivocally condemn the Hindu caste system, calling him a “Saint of the Status-Quo.”

And in their book ‘The South African Gandhi’ (2015), Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed depict Gandhi as a “pro-British lawyer, who worked within the country’s white-supremacist politics to promote his Indian compatriots at the expense of black South Africans.”

Yet, decades before Martin Luther King, Jr held Gandhi as a model for the American Civil Rights Movement, black activists such as Adam Clayton Powell, Sr and Benjamin Mays were enthralled by the phenomenon of an Indian leading people of colour in the campaign against British colonialism in India.

More recently, Nelson Mandela maintained that Gandhi’s tactics offered “the best hope for future race relations” in South Africa.

Relationship with the Divine

To answer his critics, I return to Gandhi’s views on human beings and their relationship with the Divine. He believed that all human beings are gifted impartially with the same shape and with the same natural desires and his rejection of any religious sanctions or behaviour which discriminated between human beings. The stories of his life indicate that he sincerely held this belief and practiced it to the best of his ability.

In this context, the question should not be whether he was a ‘Saint of the status-quo’ as Roy puts it or whether he was a ‘social revolutionist’ as he himself seemed to prefer to be called and remembered; the key question is, did he manage to make a difference?

According to Vinobha Bhave, one of the greatest admirers and promoters of his philosophy, through the principles of truth and love, Gandhi’s aim was to create a social order in India which has no distinctions on the basis of castes, creeds or classes.

If one is to look at India in 2019, I would come to the conclusion that as far as raising awareness towards untouchability, towards rigidity of caste-system, towards discrimination of human beings is concerned, Gandhi definitely left a legacy.

Gopal Krishna Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi at Mahatma Gandhi Centre on November 19, 2012. Ashok Darji, then President of Auckland Indian Association is paying obeisance to Mahatma Gandhi Statue (INL Photo by Narendra Bedekar)

Politics and Ethics immiscible

Where his message has not been so successful is in the sphere of politics.

Gandhi advocated a close relationship between politics and ethics; so much so that he proposed that politics should be a branch of ethics. Here perhaps lies Gandhi’s real relevance in 2019. The youth of this century are not as tolerant as their elders of the games that politicians play to gain power and have already started questioning the policies and practices that are leading to environmental destruction, increasing divide between communities and nations and ever increasing wealth gap.

Given the growing lack of trust many have in politics, perhaps the political leaders of this century need to develop stronger moral and ethical antenna to keep themselves relevant.

As to Gandhi’s philosophies, his message of Ahimsa or non-violence still resonates with millions of people around the globe. According to Gandhi, the universal human value of Ahimsa ought to be cultivated not merely at the personal level, but also at the social, national and international level if we wish to avoid personal, social, national and international conflicts. This is a very powerful means to avoid conflict, since it springs from inner realisation of the equality of all human beings.

Gandhi’ teachings are much more than a meme.

Towards his last days, Gandhi often used the theme of integration, believing that “various constructive activities should become woven like warp and weft. Only then could power be generated.”

His descendant Leela Gandhi persuasively links her great-grandfather’s outlook to an anti-materialist tradition that flourished in the late 19th Britain. She sees him as someone refashioning democracy, in opposition to a widespread striving for the will to power, into a “spiritual regimen of imperfectionism.” Gandhi’s message of peace, equality and conflict resolution by dialogue is just as relevant today as it was when he was alive.

Dr Pushpa Bhardwaj Wood is Director of Fin-Ed Centre of Massey University based in Wellington. Born and raised in New Delhi (the family belongs to Haryana), she received her graduate and postgraduate degrees in Languages from the University of Delhi where she met Jack Matthew James Wood, her future husband. She is a founder of the Wellington Interfaith Council and is involved in many social, cultural and educational initiatives. Fluent in five languages including English, Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Rajasthani, she was the first woman of Indian origin to be appointed by Queen Elizabeth as an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) in her Birthday Honours List in June 2016. Please read our story here. Mr Wood, her husband (a part Maori of Ngai Tahu, Nagai Moemoe decent), writes haiku and other types of short poetry and is involved in charitable projects in New Zealand and Asia and advises community groups on income-generation projects and fundraising ventures. The couple has a daughter, Gayatri Wood who lives and works in the United Kingdom as Marketing Manager for Wow Company (known as the ‘Biggest All Blacks fan in the Office). Dr Wood acknowledge the help provided by Victoria Quade in editing her above Essay.

Editor’s Notes: Leela Gandhi, great granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi and Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari (known as ‘Rajaji,’ India’s first and last Governor General) was a Special Guest of Honour at the unveiling of a full size Statue of the Mahatma at the top of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre of the Auckland Indian Association located at 145, New North Road, Eden Terrace, Auckland. The event was held on October 2, 2005 marking the 136th Birth Anniversary of the Mahatma. Two years later, the Editor of Indian Newslink in his capacity as the Chairman of the India International Foundation of New Zealand (of which the late Abdul Kalam was the International Chairman) donated a brass Statue of the Mahatma which is now in the foyer of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre.

Indian Newslink hosted the visit of Gopal Krishna Gandhi, Grandson of Gandhi and Rajaji to Auckland in November 2012 to be the Guest Speaker at the Indian Newslink Business Awards and the Annual Mother Teresa Interfaith Committee.

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