Recently I came across a picture of the personal items of Mahatma Gandhi that were auctioned in 2009. Many people enjoy the secretive delight of peeping into other people’s lives and handbags, particularly famous and powerful people and Gandhi was both. I wondered what the historians found when they looked into his storage unit.
He was an incredibly active and influential leader in Indian politics from 1915 through to the eventual political emancipation of India in the late 1940s. During this turbulent time his leadership was to earn him the endearment of Bapu (Papa). What does a man of this stature, of this importance own? What iconic luxury items might he flaunt to demonstrate his power? What valuable investments would he hold and what unique mementoes and gifts from a grateful population does he display? In short, what can we learn about modern living from Gandhi’s storage unit?
He’d had a long and successful career in law, travelled the world, met with many famous people. He was a well published writer, a political activist and leader, a family man and a philosopher. He was assassinated in 1948 at the age of 78. This was someone still in his peak, still active and publicly involved in the world, not in a hermitage or in any way winding down his life. Should be quite the haul of cool and amazing things!
Live simply so others may simply live
Famously, he owned very few things. The selection in the picture represents nearly half of his worldly stuff upon his death. No need for a storage unit. In fact he nearly wouldn’t have even needed a bag, most of his belongings were his daily wear. That’s his eating bowl there. He owned one book and a little statue (of the Three Monkeys) and actually, that was pretty much it. He replaced those sandals as they wore out, he had the one outfit. It is radically stark. There’s a wallet and reading glasses and a watch, that much most people have on their bedside table.
But then, nothing else. It is confronting.
Not just the lack of books (libraries were a real option in the 20th century) not just the lack of photos (he and his family were already being publicly documented) there’s nothing that to a modern eye says ‘this is who I am”. No music, no brands, no toys or other discernable displays. No sporting goods or dvds or miniature Eiffel Towers. But of course we know very well what type of man he was, what his beliefs were, how powerful his integrity and focus was. I don’t know if he was deliberately proving a point about stuff, but it sure feels like it.
What might our lives be like if we embraced only those things that were necessary to what we do, how we live our purpose in the world? His may be an extreme example – but what if it isn’t? What if we acknowledged how useful it is to share resources for the many (libraries and kitchens and laundries) and keep our personal items humble? Humble stuff in life obviously does not have to mean humble impact.
Let Gandhi have an impact on you, especially if you’ve ever felt frustrated or smothered by your belongings or debt. He lived in a modern, complex world and he did it meaningfully and successfully without a collection of boxed vinyl figurines from a tv series or even sunglasses. There are seven billion people in the world, and there’s not enough room for us all to have a storage unit.