S. Radhakrishnan (essay date 1939)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6073
SOURCE: An introduction to Mahatma Gandhi: Essays and Reflections on His Life and Work, edited by S. Radhakrishnan, George Allen & Unwin, Ltd. revised edition, 1949, pp. 13-39.
[In the following excerpt, Radhakrishnan discusses the religious basis of Gandhi's politics.]
The greatest fact in the story of man on earth is not his material achievements, the empires he has built and broken, but the growth of his soul from age to age in its search for truth and goodness. Those who take part in this adventure of the soul secure an enduring place in the history of human culture. Time has discredited heroes as easily as it has forgotten everyone else; but the saints remain. The greatness of Gandhi is more in his holy living than in his heroic struggles, in his insistence on the creative power of the soul and its life-giving quality at a time when the destructive forces seem to be in the ascendant.
Gandhi is known to the world as the one man more than any other who is mainly responsible for the mighty upheaval of the Indian nation which has shaken and loosened its chains. Politicians are not generally reputed to take religion seriously, for the values to which they are committed, such as the political control of one people by another, the economic exploitation of the poorer and weaker human beings, are so clearly inconsistent with the values of religion that the latter could not be taken too seriously or interpreted too accurately. But for Gandhi, all life is of one piece.
To see the universal and all pervading Spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means!
I have no desire for the perishable kingdom of earth, I am striving for the kingdom of heaven, which is spiritual deliverance. For me the road to salvation lies through incessant toil in the service of my country and of humanity. I want to identify myself with everything that lives. In the language of the Gītā, I want to live at peace with both friend and foe. So my patriotism is for me a stage on my journey to the land of eternal freedom and peace. Thus it will be seen that for me there are no politics devoid of religion. They subserve religion. Politics bereft of religion are a death-trap because they kill the soul.
If man as a political being has not been much of a success, it is because he has kept religion and politics apart, thus misunderstanding both. For Gandhi there is no religion apart from human activity. Though in the present circumstances of India Gandhi happens to be a political revolutionary who refuses to accept tyranny or acquiesce in slavery, he is far from the uncompromising type of revolutionary whose abstractions force men into unnatural and inhuman shapes. In the acid test of experience he remains, not a politician or a reformer, not a philosopher or a moralist, but someone composed of them all, an essentially religious person endowed with the highest and most human qualities and made more lovable by the consciousness of his own limitations and by an unfailing sense of humour.
Whatever opinion we may hold of God, it is impossible to deny that He means something of supreme importance and absolute reality to Gandhi. It is his faith in God that has created in him a new man whose power and passion and love we feel. He has the feeling of something close to him, a spiritual presence which disturbs, embarrasses and overwhelms, an assurance of reality. Times without number, when doubts disturb his mind, he leaves it to God. Was there a response from God? No and Yes. No, for Gandhi does not hear anything said even by the most secret or the most distant of voices; yes, because he has a sense of reply, the appeased, satisfied feeling of one who has received an answer. It is indeed from the nature of the reply which is so eminently rational that he recognizes that he is not the victim of his own dreams or hallucinations.
There is an indefinable, mysterious power that pervades everything. I feel it though I do not see it. It is this unseen power which makes itself felt and yet defies all proof because it is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses. It is proved not by extraneous evidence but in the transformed conduct and character of those who have felt the real presence of God within. Such testimony is to be found in the experiences of an unbroken line of prophets and sages in all countries and climes. To reject this evidence is to deny oneself. [Young India, October 11, 1928]
It can never be a matter for argument. If you would have me convince others by argument, I am floored. But I can tell you this—that I am surer of His existence than of the fact that you and I are sitting in this room. I can also testify that I may live without air and water but not without Him. You may pluck out my eyes, but that will not kill me. You may chop off my nose, but that will not kill me. But blast my beliefs in God and I am dead. [Harijan, May 16, 1938.]
In consistency with the great spiritual tradition of Hinduism, Gandhi affirms that when once we rise from the grossness to which the flesh is prone into the liberty of spirit, the view from the summit is identical for all. We have to climb the mountain by different paths, from the points where we happen to be, but that which we seek is the same.
The Allah of Islamis the same as the God of the Christians and the Īśvara of the Hindus. Even as there are numerous names of God in Hinduism, there are many names of God in Islam. The names do not indicate individuality but attributes, and little man has tried in his humble way to describe mighty God by giving Him attributes, though He is above all attributes, Indescribable, Immeasurable. Living faith in this God means equal respect for all religions. It would be the height of intolerance—and intolerance is a species of violence—to believe that your religion is superior to other religions and that you would be justified in wanting others to change over to your faith. [Harijan, May 14, 1938.]
His attitude to other religions is not one of negative toleration but of positive appreciation. He accepts Jesus' life and work as a supreme illustration of the principle of nonviolence. "Jesus occupies in my heart the place of one of the great teachers who have made a considerable influence on my life." He appreciates the character of the prophet Mohammad, his fervent faith and practical efficiency, the tender compassion and suffering of Ali. The great truths emphasized by Islam, intense belief in God's overruling majesty, puritanic simplicity of life, ardent sense of brotherhood and chivalrous devotion to the poor are accepted by him as fundamental to all religions. But the dominating force in his life has been Hinduism with its conception of truth, its vision of the soul and its charity.
All religions, however, are means to religion.
Let me explain what I mean by religion. It is not the Hindu religion which I certainly prize above all other religions, but the religion which transcends Hinduism, which changes one's very nature, which binds one indissolubly to the truth within, and which ever purifies. It is the permanent element in human nature which counts no cost too great in order to find full expression and which leaves the soul utterly restless until it has found itself, known its Maker, and appreciated the true correspondence between the Maker and itself.
There is no other God than Truth, and the only means for the realization of truth is love or ahimsā. Knowledge of truth and the practice of love are impossible without self-purification. Only the pure in heart can see God. To attain to purity of heart, to rise above attachment and repulsion, to be free from passion in thought, word and deed, to be redeemed from fear and vanity, the inconsistencies of our flesh and the discursiveness of our minds must be overcome. Disciplined effort, austere living, tapas is the way to it. Suffering rinses our spirit clean. According to Hindu mythology, the God Siva undertakes Himself to swallow the poison which comes up when the ocean is churned. The God of the Christians gave His Son in order to save mankind. Even if they are myths, why should they have arisen if they did not express some deep-seated intuitions in men? The more you love, the more you suffer. Infinite love is infinite suffering. "Whosoever would save his life shall lose it." We are here working for God, called upon to use our life for carrying out His intentions. If we refuse to do so and insist on saving our lives instead of spending them, we negate our true nature and so lose our lives. If we are to be able to follow to the farthest limit we can see, if we are to respond to the most distant call, earthly values, fame, possessions and pleasures of the senses have to be abandoned. To be one with the poor and the outcast is to be his equal in poverty and to cast oneself out. To be free to say or do the right, regardless of praise or blame, to be free to love all and forgive all, non-attachment is essential. Freedom is only for the unconfined who enjoy the whole world without owning a blade of grass in it. In this matter, Gandhi is adhering to the great ideal of the safññyāsins who has no fixed abode and is bound to no stable form of living.
There is, however, some exaggeration when the ascetic code in all its fullness is prescribed, not merely for the safññyāsins but for the whole of humanity. Sexual restraint, for example, is essential for all, but celibacy is only for the few. The sexual act is not a mere pleasure of the body, a purely carnal act, but is a means by which love is expressed and life perpetuated. It becomes evil, if it harms others or if it interferes with a person's spiritual development, but neither of these conditions is inherent in the act itself. The act by which we live, by which love is expressed and the race continued is not an act of shame or sin. But when the masters of spiritual life insist on celibacy, they demand that we should preserve singleness of mind from destruction by bodily desire.
Gandhi has spared no pains in disciplining himself to the utmost possible extent, and those who know him will admit his claim that he has "known no distinction between relatives and strangers, countrymen and foreigners, white and coloured, Hindus and Indians of other faiths, whether Muslims, Parsees, Christians or Jews." He adds:
I cannot claim this as a special virtue, as it has been in my very nature rather than a result of any effort on my part, whereas in the case of non-violence, celibacy and other cardinal virtues, I am fully conscious of a continuous striving for the cultivation of them. [Mahatma Gandhi—His Own Story]
Only the pure in heart can love God and love man. Suffering love is the miracle of the spirit by which, though the wrongs of others are borne on our shoulders, we feel a sense of comfort deeper and more real than any given by purely selfish pleasures. At such moments we understand that nothing in the world is sweeter than the knowledge that we have been able to give a moment's happiness to another, nothing more precious than the sense that we have shared another's sorrow. Perfect compassion untouched by condescension, washed clean of pride, even of the pride of doing good, is the highest religious quality.
It follows that the mark of spirituality is not exile from the natural world but work in it with love for all. Yasmin sarvāni bhūtāni ātmaivābhūt vijānatah. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ātmaiva. The condition is absolute. There must be freedom and equality of status. Such a demand makes for the establishment of a universal community of free persons and requires those who accept it to overcome the artificial barriers of race and creed, wealth and power, class and nation. If one group or nation attempts to make itself secure at the expense of another, Germans at the expense of the Czechs, landlords at the expense of tenants, capitalists at the expense of workers, it is adopting an undemocratic method and can defend its injustice only by the force of arms. The dominant group has the fear of dispossession and the oppressed stores up just resentment. Only justice can terminate this unnatural condition, the justice which means the recognition of the equal claims of all human beings. The movement of humanity all these centuries has been towards human brotherhood. The various forward thrusts that have become manifest in different parts of the world, the ideals of justice, equality and freedom from exploitation of which men have become increasingly conscious, the demands they have come to feel are all risings of the common man against the perversions and compulsions that were perpetually developing to restrain him and hold him back. The progress of the consciousness of freedom is the essence of human history.
We are inclined to give too much importance to exceptional incidents by seeing them in distorted perspective. What we do not sufficiently realize is that these setbacks, blind alleys and disasters are only a part to be viewed in relation to the background of the general tendency at work over the centuries. If we could only get a detached view of the continued effort of mankind, we would be amazed and profoundly moved. Serfs are becoming free men, heretics are no longer burned, nobles are surrendering their privileges, slaves are being freed from a life of shame, rich men are apologizing for their wealth, militant empires are proclaiming the necessity of peace, and even dreams of the union of mankind are cherished. Yes, we have even to-day the lust of the powerful, the malice of knaves, the lies of the hypocrites and the rise of arrogant racialism and nationalism; yet one would be blind if one did not see the great tradition of democracy which is universal in its sweep. Unceasing is the toil of those who are labouring to build a world where the poorest have a right to sufficient food, to light, air and sunshine in their homes, to hope, dignity and beauty in their lives. Gandhi is among the foremost of the servants of humanity. He is not comforted by the prospect of the distant future when faced by the threat of immediate disasters. He joins forces with men of fixed convictions to work by the most direct means possible for the cure of evils and the prevention of dangers. Democracy for him is not a matter of phrases but of social realities. All his public activities in South Africa and India can be understood only if we know his love of the common man.
The civilized world has been stirred deeply by the Nazi treatment of the Jews, and liberal statesmen have solemnly expressed their disaproval and sorrow at the recrudescence of racial prejudice. But the strange though startling fact is that in democratically governed countries of the British Empire and the United States of America many communities suffer political and social disabilities on racial grounds. When Gandhi was in South Africa he saw that Indians, though nominally free citizens of the British Empire, were subjected to grave disabilities. Both Church and State denied equality of rights to non-European races, and Gandhi started his passive resistance movement on a mass scale to protest against the oppressive restrictions. He stood out for the essential principle that men qua men are equal and artificial distinctions based on race and colour were both unreasonable and immoral. He revealed to the Indian community its actual degradation and inspired it with a sense of its own dignity and honour. His effort was not confined to the welfare of Indians. He would not justify the exploitation of the African natives or the better treatment of Indians on account of their historic culture. While the more obnoxious of the discriminatory legislation against the Indians was abolished, even to-day Indians are subjected to humiliating restrictions which do not reflect credit on those who submit to them or add to the prestige of the Government which imposes them.
In India it was his ambition to rid the country of its divisions and discords, to discipline the masses to self-dependence, raise women to a plane of political, economic and social equality with men, end the religious hatreds which divide the nation, and cleanse Hinduism of its social abomination of untouchability. The success he has achieved in removing this blot on Hinduism will stand out as one of his greatest contributions to the progress of humanity. So long as there is a class of untouchables he belongs to it. "If I have to be re-born, I should wish to be born an untouchable so that I may share their sorrows, sufferings and the affronts levelled at them, in order that I may endeavour to free myself and them from that miserable condition." To say that we love God as unseen and at the same time deal cruelly with people who move by His life or life derived from Him is a contradiction in terms. Though Gandhi prides himself on being a conservative Hindu, there has been no more vigorous critic of the rigours and disabilities of caste, of the curse of untouchability, of the vice in temples, of cruelty to cattle and the animal world. "I am a reformer through and through. But my zeal never leads me to the rejection of any of the essential things of Hinduism."
To-day his opposition to the autocracy of the Indian princes is based on his love for the millions of their subjects. Not even the most generous observer can say that all is well with the States. I may perhaps quote a few sentences from the Statesman of Calcutta, a paper which represents British interests.
It is no reflection upon individuals but only upon human nature to say that in many of the States appalling conditions prevail. The bad landlords as well as the good ones are subject to no laws, they have the power of life and death, there are no obstacles to their greed or lust or cruelty, if they are greedy, vicious or cruel. If the treaties which protect petty tyrants are never to be revised, if the Paramount Power is for ever to have an obligation of honour to defend the indefensible, then some day an irresistible force will encounter an immovable object, and according to the classic answer to this problem something will go to smithereens.
The slowness of evolution is the cause of all revolutions. Gandhi, with the utmost friendship for the princes, is asking them to wake up and set their houses in order. I hope that they will realize, before it is too late, that their safety and survival are bound up with the rapid introduction of responsible government, which even the Paramount Power with all its strength was obliged to concede in the provinces.
Gandhi's main charge against the British Government in India is that it has led to the oppression of the poor. From the beginning of her history India has been known for her wealth and possessions. We have vast areas of the most fertile soil, material resources in inexhaustible abundance, and with proper care and attention we have enough to go round and feed every man, woman and child. And yet we have millions of people who are the victims of poverty, who are under-nourished and under-housed, whose lives are an unceasing struggle from youth to old age, until at last death comes to their rescue and stills their aching hearts. These conditions are not due to pitiless nature, but to the inhuman system which cries out to be abolished, not only in the interests of India but of the whole of humanity.
In the broadcast address which he gave from London to America in 1931, Gandhi referred to the "semi-starved millions scattered throughout the seven hundred thousand villages dotted over a surface nineteen hundred miles long and fifteen hundred miles broad." He said:
It is a painful phenomenon that those simple villagers, through no fault of their own, have nearly six months in the year idle upon their hands. Time was, not long ago, when every village was self-sufficient in regard to the two primary human wants—food and clothing. Unfortunately for us, when the East India Company, by means which I would prefer not to describe, destroyed that supplementary village industry, then the millions of spinners—who had become famed through the cunning of their deft fingers for drawing the finest thread, such as has never been yet drawn by any modern machinery—these village spinners found themselves one fine morning with their noble occupation gone, and from that day forward India has become progressively poor, no matter what may be said to the contrary.
India lives in the villages, and her civilization has been an agricultural one which is becoming increasingly mechanical. Gandhi is the representative of the peasant, the producer of the world's food who is fundamental in society, and is anxious to maintain and fortify this basic bias of Indian civilization. He finds that under British rule the people are giving up their old standards and in spite of many admirable qualities they have acquired, such as mechanical intelligence, inventive skill, courage and adventure, they are worshipping material success, are greedy for tangible gains and are governed by worldly standards. Our industrial cities have lost all proportion to the landscape out of which they have grown, have swollen to meaningless dimensions, and their people caught in the entangling apparatus of money and machinery have become violent, restless, thoughtless, undisciplined and unscrupulous. For Gandhi, industrialized humanity has come to mean women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives, babies who are doped with opium so that they shall not cry and disturb their working mothers, little children who are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are forced into industrial works, and millions of unemployed who are dwarfed and diseased. We are being snared and enslaved, he thinks, and our souls are conquered for a mess of pottage. A spirit and a culture which had soared up in the rishis of the Upanisads, the Buddhist monks, Hindu safifiyasins and Muslim fakirs, cannot be content with cars and radios and plutocracy. Our vision is dimmed and our way lost. We have taken a wrong twist which has dispossessed, impoverished and embittered our agricultural population, corrupted, coarsened and blinded our workers, and given us millions of children with blank faces, dead eyes and drooping mouths. Beneath our present bafflement and exasperation the bulk of the people retain a hunger for the realization of the old dream of genuine liberty, real self-respect; of a life where none is rich and none is poor, where the extremes of luxury and leisure are abolished and where industry and commerce exist in a simple form.
Gandhi does not aim at a peasant society which will forgo altogether the benefits of the machine. He is not against large-scale production. When he was asked whether cottage industries and large-scale production can be harmonized, he said,
Yes, if they are planned so as to help the villages. Key-industries, industries which the nation needs, may be centralized. Under my scheme nothing will be allowed to be produced by cities which can be equally well produced by the villages. The proper function of cities is to serve as clearing-houses for village products. [Harijan, January 28, 1939]
His insistence on khadi (or homespun) and his scheme of popular education centring round the handicrafts are devised to resuscitate the villages. He repeatedly warns that India is to be found not in its few cities but in its innumerable villages. The bulk of India's population must get back to the land, stay in the land, and live primarily off the produce of the land so that their families may be self-supporting, owning the implements they use, the soil they cultivate and the roof that shelters them. Not an uprooted, shiftless class of factory workers, not an unsound, rapacious, money-lending business community, but a responsible agrarian population and the stable, level-headed people of small agricultural market-towns must dominate the cultural, social, economic and political life of the country, give it morality, tone and noble objectives. This is not to become primitive. It is only to take up a mode of existence that is instinctive to India, that supplied her once with a purpose, a faith and a meaning. It is the only way to keep our species civilized. India of the peasant and rustic life, of village communities, of forest hermitages and spiritual retreats has taught the world many great lessons but has wronged no man, has injured no land and sought no dominion over others. To-day the true purpose of life has been perverted. How is India to get out of this slough of despond? After centuries of subjection, the people seem to have lost the will or the wish to lift themselves out of it. The forces against them seem to be too strong. To give them confidence, a prouder self-respect, a more erect carriage, is no easy task. Yet Gandhi has tried to re-kindle a torpid generation with the fire that burns in his soul, with his passion for freedom. In freedom men and women reveal their best; in slavery they are debased. To liberate the ordinary human being from the restrictions, internal and external, which warp his nature has been the aim of freedom. As a great defender of human liberty, he is struggling to release the country from foreign control. Patriotism, when it is so pure, is neither a crime nor bad manners. To fight against the present unnatural conditions is one's sacred duty. He employs spiritual weapons and refuses to draw the sword, and in the process is training the people for independence, making them capable of winning and holding it. Sir George Lloyd (now Lord Lloyd), the then Governor of Bombay, said of Gandhi's campaign: "Gandhi's was the most colossal experiment in world history and it came within an inch of succeeding."
Though he has failed in his attempt to move the British Government, he has liberated forces in the country which will not cease to act. He has stirred the people from their lethargy, given them a new self-confidence and responsibility and united them in their resolve to win freedom. To the extent to which there is to-day an awakening of a new spirit, a preparedness for a new kind of national corporate life, a new social attitude in dealing with the depressed classes, it is largely due to the spiritual energy and dynamic of Gandhi's movement.
Gandhi's outlook has nothing sectional or provincial about it. He believes that the heritage of India can help the culture of the world. A prostrated India can give no hope to humanity; only an awakened, free India can give help to a groaning world. Gandhi affirms that if the British are earnest about their vision of justice, peace and order, it is not enough to put down the aggressive powers and preserve the status quo. Our love of liberty and justice must exclude the passive violence of refusing to reform a situation which is contrary to the professed ideals. If greed, cruelty and contempt of man have gone to the making of empires, we must change them before we call upon the world to rally to the forces of freedom and justice. Violence is either active or passive. The aggressive powers are now actively violent; the imperial powers who persist in the enjoyment of unjust advantages acquired from past violence are as much guilty of violence and are inimical to freedom and democracy. Until we act honestly in this matter, we cannot secure a better world-order and the world will be in a chronic state of uncertainty, full of wars and threats of wars. Self-government for India is the acid test of British honesty. Gandhi is still observing his twenty-four hours' fast every Monday to indicate to all concerned that self-rule is unattained. And yet his is the restraining influence on an impatient India, torn between the legitimate aspirations of the people and the obstinacy of the British ruling classes. He has been the greatest force for peace in India.
When he landed in England after the South African struggle was over, he found that war against Germany had been declared. He offered to enlist unconditionally for the whole duration of the war in order to undertake ambulance work at the Front. His offer was accepted and he was placed in a responsible post with an Indian unit. But owing to over-exposure while on duty, he was taken ill with pleurisy and his life was suspected to be in danger. On recovery he was ordered by the doctors to leave for the warm climate of India. He actively encouraged recruiting in the war—a thing which has puzzled even many of his friends. At the end of the war the Rowlatt Act was passed against the unanimous opposition of Indians. Things were done in the Punjab under martial law which shocked the country. Gandhi was one of the authors of the Congress Inquiry Report on the Punjab disturbances. In spite of it all, he recommended to the Congress at Amritsar in December 1919 that the Reforms should be accepted and worked in a constitutional manner. When in 1920 the Hunter Commission Report wavered in its criticism of official action, when the House of Lords declined to condemn General Dyer, he made the great decision of his life to refuse to co-operate with the British Government, and in September 1920 the Congress adopted the resolution of non-violent non-co-operation.
It will be well to quote his own words in a letter to the Viceroy, written on August 1, 1920:
Your Excellency's light-hearted treatment of official crime, your exoneration of Sir Michael O'Dwyer, Mr. Montagu's despatch and, above all, the shameful ignorance of the Punjab events and the callous disregard of the feelings of Indians betrayed by the House of Lords, have filled me with the gravest misgivings regarding the future of the Empire, have estranged me completely from the present Government, and have disabled me from rendering, as I have hitherto whole-heartedly rendered, my loyal cooperation.
In my humble opinion the ordinary method of agitating by way of petitions, deputations, and the like is no remedy for moving to repentance a Government so hopelessly indifferent to the welfare of its charge as the Government of India has proved to be. In European countries condemnation of such grievous wrongs as the Khilafat and the Punjab would have resulted in a bloody revolution by the people. They would have resisted, at all cost, national emasculation. Half of India is too weak to offer violent resistance, and the other half is unwilling to do so. I have therefore ventured to suggest the remedy of non-co-operation, which enables those who wish to dissociate themselves from Government, and which, if unattended by violence and undertaken in an ordered manner, must compel it to retrace its steps and undo the wrongs committed; but, whilst I pursue the policy of non-cooperation, in so far as I can carry the people with me, I shall not lose hope that you will yet see your way to do justice.
While he maintains that British rule in its present form has made India "poorer in wealth, in manliness, in godliness and in her sons' power to defend themselves," he hopes that it can be altered. Even while he continues his campaign against British control, he is not opposed to the British connection. In the heyday of the non-co-operation movement he fought stoutly against the movement for complete severance from Britain.
While he was willing to work with the British as friends and equals, he was firm that no improvement in the Indian situation was possible so long as the British adopted an unnatural attitude of patronage and superiority. Let us remember that even in moments of the greatest excitement he did not harbour ill-will to the British. "I will not hurt England or Germany to serve India."
When by some stupid or ill-conceived measure, such as the Amritsar massacre or the appointment of the Simon Commission, India lost patience and self-control and became aflame with wrath, Gandhi was there leading the discontent and indignation into safe channels of love and reconciliation. In the Round Table Conferences, he showed his indelible affection for the British and his faith in a commonwealth based not on force but on reason, and the will to promote the general good of mankind. A halting measure of self-government in the provinces was the result of the Round Table Conferences, and when the majority of the people were against the acceptance and working of the Constitution, it was Gandhi again, more than any other, who persuaded the Congress to work the reforms for what they were worth. His sole concern is peace with Britain, but peace rooted in freedom and friendship. India to-day is represented by a leader who has no trace of racial bitterness or personal rancour; he has no faith in the use of force and restrains his people from resorting to violence. He does not desire to separate India from the British Commonwealth if only it means a fellowship of free nations. His Majesty the King in his speech to the Canadian Parliament on the 19th of May said that the unity of the British Empire "finds expression to-day in the free association of nations enjoying common principles of government and a common attachment to the ideals of peace and freedom, bound together by a common allegiance to the Crown." Gandhi demands the application of these "common principles of government" to India. He claims that the Indians should be masters in their own house, and that is neither unreasonable nor immoral. He is keen on bringing about better relations between the two camps through the cooperation of men of good will.
It is tragic that his appeal avails no more than the whistling of the wind. After years of unwearied labour and heroic struggle his great mission remains unfulfilled, though his vision and faith are still alive. For myself I shall hope that British public opinion will assert itself and compel its Government to set up a free, self-governing India, without bartering or niggling, without hesitation or delay, with a fine, open gesture of faith, though it may involve a little risk: for I am persuaded that, if it is not done in response to Gandhi's appeal for justice and fair play, the relations of our two countries will get worse, the breach will widen and bitterness grow to the detriment and danger of both.
Whether it is the South African Government or the British Government, whether it is the Indian mill-owners or the Hindu priests or the Indian princes who are the objects of Gandhi's criticism and attack, the underlying spirit is exactly the same in all these different activities.
I recognize no God except the God that is to be found in the hearts of the dumb millions. They do not recognize His presence; I do. And I worship the God that is Truth, or Truth which is God, through the service of these millions. [Harijan, March 11, 1939]
John Middleton Murry (essay date 1939)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2928
SOURCE: "The Challenge of Gandhi," in Mahatma Gandhi: Essays and Reflections on His Life and Work, edited by S. Radhakrishnan, George Allen & Unwin, revised edition, 1949, pp. 424-33.
[Murry is considered one of the most significant English critics of the twentieth century. Anticipating later scholarly opinion, he championed the writings of Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Paul Valéry, D. H. Lawrence, and the poetry of Thomas Hardy through his positions as founding editor of the Adelphi, editor of the Athenaeum, and as a longtime contributor to the Times Literary Supplement. In the following essay, he discusses Hind Swaraj.]
I do not think that any serious student of Gandhi's teachings would deny that Hind Swaraj is the fundamental document. It is a strangely lucid and impressive little book which, one feels, was the outcome of some profound experience of illumination such as seems to have been the common destiny of all great religious teachers. And, in particular, it has a marked affinity in the vehemence of its repudiation of Western "civilization," with the Discourse which was the outcome of Rousseau's illumination on the road to Vincennes. The place of Rousseau's natural man, uncorrupted by "civilization," is taken in Gandhi's mind by the Indian peasant, who has the advantage over Rousseau's conception of being a reality. Not, of course, that, as shallow critics pretend, Rousseau's natural man was a mere romantic fiction: he was a normative ideal, which is a very different thing. But, for Gandhi, the normative ideal of the man uncorrupted by "civilization" actually existed. There were hundreds of millions of them in the villages of India living lives of communal fraternity, of frugality, of simple duty deeply rooted in an enduring religious faith, for whom the Westernization of a thin stratum of Indian intellectuals was a remote happening which did not really concern them. And Gandhi's conception of Hind Swargj (Indian home-rule) was, in essence, a spiritual reconquest of the corrupted Westernizers by the great body of this truly self-governing people—a reconquest to be achieved by a spiritual regeneration of the Westernizers themselves, through a recognition of their own corruption, and a humble re-identification of themselves with the true civilization of the Indian villager. "Civilization," said Gandhi, "is that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty." That path was being followed, and had been followed for centuries, by the Indian peasant.
In other words, Gandhi conceived it as his function to become the explicit consciousness of the wisdom that underlay the ancestral life of India, and to convert to it that thin upper stratum of "educated" Indians who had, from motives good or bad, suffered themselves to be perverted by the achievements and the values of Western civilization. In the traditional economic organization and the "folkways" of India he saw the actual working of the "soul-force" which he desired consciously to use at once as a spiritual discipline for the individual and as a means of liberating India from the alien industrial civilization which Britain, with the connivance of her own "educated" classes, had imposed upon her. It is important to realize that, in Gandhi's philosophy, the "soul-force" is nothing recondite.
Thousands, indeed tens of thousands, depend for their existence on a very active working of this force. Little quarrels of millions of families in their daily lives disappear before the exercise of this force.… History does not and cannot take note of this fact. History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or the soul… History, then, is a record of an interruption of the course of nature. Soul-force, being natural, is not noted in history.
That is a profound and illuminating saying, though the usual difficulties about the conception of "nature" may be raised. But it is perfectly clear from the context that, for Gandhi, a "natural" society is one based on a deep-rooted religious tradition which, over long centuries, has shaped a tenacious pattern of daily life. This he found preeminently in India. Indian civilization was stable, in contrast to the essentially unstable industrialized civilization of the West.
At moments, in Hind Swaraj, Gandhi, perhaps intoxicated by his own rediscovery of his own great country, romanticizes it. He will not convince the critical reader when, for example, he declares:
It was not that we did not know how to invent machinery; but our forefathers knew that, if we set our hearts after such things, we should become slaves and lose our moral fibre. They, therefore, after due deliberation, decided that we should only do what we could do with our hands and feet.
The notion that the sages of India, after due deliberation, at some remote period of time, consciously and purposefully rejected the technological achievements which were afterwards to be discovered and exploited by the men of Western Europe is certainly mythical; but if we take the statement in the spirit and not in the letter, it does convey an important truth, namely, that the supremely conservative civilization of India, in spite of all its aberrations and deformities, is based on a religious wisdom which has made a deliberate choice, and chosen spiritual rather than material things. The contrast, in this respect, between India and Western civilization is deeply impressive, and Gandhi is fully justified in driving it home even at the cost of violence to historical truth. Although at no point in history was India actually capable of the technological discoveries made in the West, and refused to make them, she did make a religious and metaphysical choice which rendered her incapable of those discoveries. Behind this fact undoubtedly lies a profound difference between the ethos of Christianity and Hinduism, on a discussion of which we forbear to enter here.
But Hind Swaraj makes it crystal clear that Gandhi's rejection of Western civilization is quite radical, and that it is completely mistaken to regard his repudiation of the applied arts and sciences of Europe as a quirk of temperament. He is entirely serious about it, for it is an integral part of his whole religious philosophy. Western civilization is, for him, the outcome of a rejection of spiritual truth, and a consequent concentration on material things, which cannot but be disastrous. When he peremptorily declares that "Machinery represents a sin," he intends the word "sin" to be taken with the utmost rigour.
There is, therefore, at least a superficial paradox in Gindhi's having become so deeply involved in a movement of national liberation after the European pattern of the nineteenth century. His leadership of that movement had its justification, for him, in that the removal of British control was the indispensable condition of the return of India to her own natural and traditional life. It was primarily as the imposers and disseminators of the sinful Western civilization that the British had to be ousted. But such a motive was radically different from that of a majority of Congress members who only desired to be masters in their own house, while retaining all the techniques of the Western civilization. The two purposes were antithetical and their alliance adventitious. Hence Gandhi's unique position. He was essentially a great religious reformer, a renovator of Hinduism, but by no means a revolutionary one, but rather a teacher of a new path to spiritual perfection that branched off from a familiar road. The enormous strength of his position as a politician lay in the fact that in the eyes of the Indian peasant he was a saint. He and not the largely Westernized Congress had the masses of India behind him. Though it would be unfair to many of his brilliant and devoted supporters among the Congress politicians to represent them as restive under his leadership, for they also recognized his spiritual authority as well as his incomparable influence over the Indian people, it is necessary to emphasize the fundamental divergence of aims and values that existed between a majority of Congress and himself.
Were the aims and values of Gandhi practicable, or were they romantic: an example of what Toynbee in his Study of History calls "archaicism"—that impossible effort at reversion to the past whose effects, Toynbee shows, are only the more revolutionary? I doubt whether any Indian would feel capable of answering that question with any confidence; and it would obviously be ridiculous for me to attempt to do so. Nevertheless, the question is of such importance for an estimate of Gandhi's eventual status that one cannot refrain from speculating upon it.
But, first, we need to be clear as to the path along which Gandhi wanted to lead India. His rejection of Western civilization was fundamental to his religious and philosophical position. Nevertheless, it would be a caricature of his views to represent him as determined, if and when he gained the power to do so, to root out the railways from India and destroy the cotton mills, even though that seems to follow directly from his doctrine when it is taken literally. But, in the first place, it follows from his doctrine that he could not even aim at power in that sense. The dictatorial power of a Stalin or a Hitler was completely alien to him; but hardly less alien was the constitutional political authority of a Nehru. Gandhi sought and achieved only the power of the wise man, the sage, the religious and spiritual leader, who persuades people by his teaching and example of what it is right for them to do. Being absolutely convinced that the pursuit of material goods is wrong, that frugality and austerity is right, he rejected entirely the idea that the problem of India was to raise "the standard of living" by industrialization. He was thus implacably and equally opposed to Capitalism, Socialism and Communism, because he denied the spiritual validity of the end which is common to all those types of economic and political organization—namely, an increase in the production and consumption of material goods.
Not that he acquiesced in the great poverty of the Indian masses. He regarded that as something to be remedied, as soon as possible and by practical means. But it is of cardinal importance to realize that a condition of life which would by Western standards be still one of abject and deplorable poverty was to Gandhi the rightful standard of human living. Thus, his practical aim was to raise the standard of Indian peasant living from grinding and wasteful poverty to decent, happy and holy poverty. He believed that that had been the condition of the peasant in the old days but that the former equilibrium had been destroyed by the British conquest: and, above all, by the imposition of Lancashire cotton upon India. Hence came his insistence on the revival of village spinning and weaving, as a precursor to the general improvement of the village hand-economy.
It seems to me that it is impossible even for the professional economist, who is not entirely enslaved to abstractions, to deny that the Charkha movement was inspired by great practical wisdom. From the strictly economic point of view the most urgent problem of India is the universal under-employment of the peasant. Because of the climatic conditions and the smallness of his holding (which is estimated to average under 3 acres) it is reckoned that for about four months in the year the peasant has nothing to do. To provide him with useful work that calls for a minimum of capital outlay is a crying need; the hand-spinning of cotton would provide it. Even though the end-product is more expensive in terms of money than the machine-made fabric, that is not an objection to the method as a means of enabling the under-employed peasant to use his wasted time in clothing himself. Similarly, comparisons between the cost in "man-hours" of khaddar and the machine-made cloth are totally irrelevant. Millions of "manhours" are running to waste in the villages: the problem is to make them immediately productive with the minimum of capital outlay.
From this point of view it seems to an outsider that the Charkha movement is abundantly justified, and deserves all the stress that Gandhi placed upon it. But the question to be answered is whether it is to be regarded as a short-term expedient, or the foundation of a permanent policy? Though it is clear enough that in Hind Swarij Gandhi regarded the return of India to a hand-economy as a spiritual and moral good, and was indeed contemplating as desirable a complete rejection of machinery and, indeed, of Western science, it is doubtful whether he had fully thought out his position. Thus he made a famous exception to his indictment of machinery in favour of the sewing-machine, probably because it was hand- or foot-driven; and he seems to have envisaged the manufacture of such machines in national factories, under good conditions. Generalizing from this instance, we may perhaps conclude that Gandhi would have accepted such machines as would strengthen and not disrupt the village-economy. Negatively, therefore, they must not be power-driven; positively, they must not create or prolong underemployment. It is a difficult economic conception to work out in theory; but, providing one accepts as fundamental the idea of a self-subsistent and fully employed village-community as the vital organic unit of the distinctive Indian civilization, it is probably capable of realization by a people for whom ethical conceptions rooted in a living religious traditiori are decisive. It should permit a certain, but strictly limited, raising of the material standard of living, and it might well achieve a degree of simple human happiness—of "joy in widest commonalty spread"—on which Western civilization seems to have turned its back for ever. What it would not permit is that a nation, even if, like India, it were of continental size, should become "a great power"—or, indeed, any kind of power, except a spiritual one.
Gandhi's economic conception of India is pacifist through and through. Thus Gandhi's pacifism differs totally from the pacifism that has developed in Western civilization in the main as a corollary of economic individualism. Gandhi's pacifism, being based on an explicit renunciation of the pursuit of material goods, is much more impressive and respectable than Western pacifism which expects at once to maintain and even increase its standards of material living and to escape the obvious consequences of that preference of material to spiritual ends.
That is not to suggest that Gandhi's thought is innocent of Western affiliation. The influences of Thoreau and Tolstoy in particular are manifest, and were openly acknowledged by him. But whereas those prophets are quite eccentric to the main direction of Western thought, as assimilated by Gandhi they are linked to the age-old and continuous religious tradition of India. Voices crying in the wilderness of America and Russia are transformed in Gandhi into the utterance of the soul of a vast people. It is by no means inconceivable that Gandhi, after his heroic and symbolic death, may become the central figure and guiding spirit of a spiritually renovated India, which will, in a spirit of contented renunciation, pacifically oppose to the material values of the industrial civilization its own spiritual life-mode. It is very hard for a Westerner to contemplate such a possibility, though it is certainly not alien to his own nominal religion of Christianity. Unfortunately, his own religion really is nominal. It has long since ceased to have any control over the automatism of material progress and material disaster: it merely endorses the one and deplores the other. This is not intended as a criticism. The question whether a technological civilization is really compatible with any religion at all is one that requires even in its Christian members an almost superhuman detachment to ask with the necessary rigour, and an almost superhuman wisdom to answer. It is a question which obviously undercuts the conspicuous and alarming antitheses of the present time: those between Capitalism and Communism, and Democracy and Communism. These are antitheses within the technological civilization itself: on both sides of which it is taken for granted that technology is a good and necessary thing which bestows material benefits which are, self-evidently, the summum bonum for the vast majority of human beings. Thus, it is axiomatic for the statesmen of the West that the attack of Communism can only be successfully repelled by raising the material standards of the West to a point which Communism cannot practically achieve. This may be true, and the material achievement may be possible. But, if and when it is achieved, will Western humanity be out of the wood, or further lost in it? Will it be even less capable than it is today of contentment and peace?
Gandhi had a plain and forthright answer to this question. Peace is radically incompatible with the fundamental restlessness—sometimes called the "divine discontent"—presumed and inspired by technology. For peace is an attitude, a way of life, of the individual human person based on a religious choice—a renunciation of material things in favour of spiritual things—a renunciation that must be made in fact by the vast mass of the people to whom he belongs, in virtue of a living and all pervasive religious tradition. I do not know whether Gandhi was right or wrong. Still less can I conjecture whether India will follow him. But I have no doubt that the challenge he made to the West was that of a very great soul indeed, in whom the metaphysical and religious genius of India spoke with new authority.
George Orwell (essay date 1949)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3639
SOURCE: "Reflections on Gandhi," in Partisan Review, Vol. VI, No. 1, Winter, 1949, pp. 85-92.
[An English novelist and essayist, Orwell is chiefly remembered for his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), one of the most influential books of the twentieth century. An attack on totalitarianism, it warns that absolute power in the hands of any government can deprive a people of all basic freedoms. Orwell's prose style has been praised for its precision, clarity, and vividness, and many of his essays, which combine observation and reminiscence with literary and social criticism, are considered modern masterpieces. In the following essay, Orwell reflects on Gandhi's moral teachings and nonviolent political stance in a review of The Story of My Experiments with Truth.]
Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases. In Gandhi's case the questions one feels inclined to ask are: to what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity—by the consciousness of himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying-mat and shaking empires by sheer spiritual power—and to what extent did he compromise his own principles by entering into politics, which of their nature are inseparable from coercion and fraud? To give a definite answer one would have to study Gandhi's acts and writings in immense detail, for his whole life was a sort of pilgrimage in which every act was significant. But this partial autobiography [The Story of My Experiments with Truth], which ends in the nineteen-twenties, is strong evidence in his favor, all the more because it covers what he would have called the unregenerate part of his life and reminds one that inside the saint, or near-saint, there was a very shrewd, able person who could, if he had chosen, have been a brilliant success as a lawyer, an administrator or perhaps even a business man.
At about the time when the autobiography first appeared I remember reading its opening chapters in the ill-printed pages of some Indian newspaper. They made a good impression on me, which Gandhi himself, at that time, did not. The things that one associated with him—homespun cloth, "soul forces" and vegetarianism—were unappealing, and his medievalist program was obviously not viable in a backward, starving, over-populated country. It was also apparent that the British were making use of him, or thought they were making use of him. Strictly speaking, as a Nationalist, he was an enemy, but since in every crisis he would exert himself to prevent violence—which, from the British point of view, meant preventing any effective action whatever—he could be regarded as "our man." In private this was sometimes cynically admitted. The attitude of the Indian millionaries was similar. Gandhi called upon them to repent, and naturally they preferred him to the Socialists and Communists who, given the chance, would actually have taken their money away. How reliable such calculations are in the long run is doubtful; as Gandhi himself says, "in the end deceivers deceive only themselves"; but at any rate the gentleness with which he was nearly always handled was due partly to the feeling that he was useful. The British Conservatives only became really angry with him when, as in 1942, he was in effect turning his non-violence against a different conqueror.
But I could see even then that the British officials who spoke of him with a mixture of amusement and disapproval also genuinely liked and admired him, after a fashion. Nobody ever suggested that he was corrupt, or ambitious in any vulgar way, or that anything he did was actuated by fear or malice. In judging a man like Gandhi one seems instinctively to apply high standards, so that some of his virtues have passed almost unnoticed. For instance, it is clear even from the autobiography that his natural physical courage was quite outstanding: the manner of his death was a later illustration of this, for a public man who attached any value to his own skin would have been more adequately guarded. Again, he seems to have been quite free from that maniacal suspiciousness which, as E. M. Forster rightly says in A Passage to India, is the besetting Indian vice, as hypocrisy is the British vice. Although no doubt he was shrewd enough in detecting dishonesty, he seems wherever possible to have believed that other people were acting in good faith and had a better nature through which they could be approached. And though he came of a poor middle-class family, started life rather unfavorably, and was probably of unimpressive physical appearance, he was not afflicted by envy or by the feeling of inferiority. Color feeling, when he first met it in its worst form in South Africa, seems rather to have astonished him. Even when he was fighting what was in effect a color war, he did not think of people in terms of race or status. The governor of a province, a cotton millionaire, a half-starved Dravidian cooly, a British private soldier, were all equally human beings, to be approached in much the same way. It is noticeable that even in the worst possible circumstances, as in South Africa when he was making himself unpopular as the champion of the Indian community, he did not lack European friends.
Written in short lengths for newspaper serialization, the autobiography is not a literary masterpiece, but it is the more impressive because of the commonplaceness of much of its material. It is well to be reminded that Gandhi started out with the normal ambitions of a young Indian student and only adopted his extremist opinions by degrees and, is some cases, rather unwillingly. There was a time, it is interesting to learn, when he wore a top hat, took dancing lessons, studied French and Latin, went up the Eiffel Tower and even tried to learn the violin—all this with the idea of assimilating European civilization as thoroughly as possible. He was not one of those saints who are marked out by their phenomenal piety from childhood onwards, nor one of the other kind who forsake the world after sensational debaucheries. He makes full confession of the misdeeds of his youth, but in fact there is not much to confess. As a frontispiece to the book there is a photograph of Gandhi's possessions at the time of his death. The whole outfit could be purchased for about £5, and Gandhi's sins, at least his fleshly sins, would make the same sort of appearance if placed all in one heap. A few cigarettes, a few mouthfuls of meat, a few annas pilfered in childhood from the maidservant, two visits to a brothel on each occasion he got away without "doing anything"), one narrowly escaped lapse with his landlady in Plymouth, one outburst of temper—that is about the whole collection. Almost from childhood onwards he had a deep earnestness, an attitude ethical rather than religious, but, until he was about thirty, no very definite sense of direction. His first entry into anything describable as public life was made by way of vegetarianism. Underneath his less ordinary qualities one feels all the time the solid middleclass business men who were his ancestors. One feels that even after he had abandoned personal ambition he must have been a resourceful, energetic lawyer and a hardheaded political organizer, careful in keeping down expenses, an adroit handler of committees and an indefatigable chaser of subscriptions. His character was an extraordinarily mixed one, but there was almost nothing in it that you can put your finger on and call bad, and I believe that even Gandhi's worst enemies would admit that he was an interesting and unusual man who enriched the world simply by being alive. Whether he was also a lovable man, and whether his teachings can have much value for those who do not accept the religious beliefs on which they are founded, I have never felt fully certain.
Of late years it has been the fashion to talk about Gandhi as though he were not only sympathetic to the Western leftwing movement, but were even integrally part of it. Anarchists and pacifists, in particular, have claimed him for their own, noticing only that he was opposed to centralism and State violence and ignoring the otherworldly, antihumanist tendency of his doctrines. But one should, I think, realize that Gandhi's teachings cannot be squared with the belief that Man is the measure of all things and that our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have. They make sense only on the assumption that God exists and that the world of solid objects is an illusion to be escaped from. It is worth considering the disciplines which Gandhi imposed on himself and which—though he might not insist on every one of his followers observing every detail—he considered indispensable if one wanted to serve either God or humanity. First of all, no meat-eating, and if possible no animal food in any form. (Gandhi himself, for the sake of his health, had to compromise on milk, but seems to have felt this to be a backsliding.) No alcohol or tobacco, and no spices or condiments, even of a vegetable kind, since food should be taken not for its own sake but solely in order to preserve one's strength. Secondly, if possible, no sexual intercourse. If sexual intercourse must happen, then it should be for the sole purpose of begetting children and presumably at long intervals. Gandhi himself, in his middle thirties, took the vow of bramahcharya, which means not only complete chastity but the elimination of sexual desire. This condition, it seems, is difficult to attain without a special diet and frequent fasting. One of the dangers of milk-drinking is that it is apt to arouse sexual desire. And finally—this is the cardinal point—for the seeker after goodness there must be no close friendships and no exclusive loves whatever.
Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because "friends react on one another" and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true. Moreover, if one is to love God, or to love humanity as a whole, one cannot give one's preference to any individual person. This again is true, and it marks the point at which the humanistic and the religious attitude cease to be reconcilable. To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others. The autobiography leaves it uncertain whether Gandhi behaved in an inconsiderate way to his wife and children, but at any rate it makes clear that on three occasions he was willing to let his wife or a child die rather than administer the animal food prescribed by the doctor. It is true that the threatened death never actually occurred, and also that Gandhi—with, one gathers, a good deal of moral pressure in the opposite direction—always gave the patient the choice of staying alive at the price of committing a sin: still, if the decision had been solely his own, he would have forbidden the animal food, whatever the risks might be. There must, he says, be some limit to what we will do in order to remain alive, and the limit is well on this side of chicken broth. This attitude is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which—I think—most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco and so forth are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid. There is an obvious retort to this, but one should be wary about making it. In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that "non-attachment" is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find that the main motive for 'non-attachment" is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or nonsexual, is hard work. But it is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is "higher." The point is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all "radicals" and "progressives," from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.
However, Gandhi's pacifism can be separated to some extent from his other teachings. Its motive was religious, but he claimed also for it that it was a definite technique, a method, capable of producing desired political results. Gandhi's attitude was not that of most Western pacifists. Satyagraha, first evolved in South Africa, was a sort of non-violent warfare, a way of defeating the enemy without hurting him and without feeling or arousing hatred. It entailed such things as civil disobedience, strikes, lying down in front of railway trains, enduring police charges without running away and without hitting back, and the like. Gandhi objected to "passive resistance" as a translation of Sa tyagraha: in Gujarati, it seems, the word means "firmness in the truth." In his early days Gandhi served as a stretcher-bearer on the British side in the Boer War, and he was prepared to do the same again in the war of 1914-18. Even after he had completely adjured violence he was honest enough to see that in war it is usually necessary to take sides. He did not—indeed, since his whole political life centered round a struggle for national independence, he could not—take the sterile and dishonest line of pretending that in every war both sides are exactly the same and it makes no difference who wins. Nor did he, like most Western pacifists, specialize in avoiding awkward questions. In relation to the late war, one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: "What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without resorting to war?" I must say that I have never heard, from any Western pacifist, an honest answer to this question, though I have heard plenty of evasions, usually of the "you're another" type. But it so happens that Gandhi was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer is on record in Mr. Louis Fischer's Gandhi and Stalin. According to Mr. Fischer, Gandhi's view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which "would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler's violence." After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly. One has the impression that this attitude staggered even so warm an admirer as Mr. Fischer, but Gandhi was merely being honest. If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be lost in some other way. When, in 1942, he urged nonviolent resistance against a Japanese invasion, he was ready to admit that it might cost several million deaths.
At the same time there is reason to think that Gandhi, who after all was born in 1869, did not understand the nature of totalitarianism and saw everything in terms of his own struggle against the British government. The important point here is not so much that the British treated him forbearingly as that he was always able to command publicity. As can be seen from the phrase quoted above, he believed in "arousing the world," which is only possible if the world gets a chance to hear what you are doing. It is difficult to see how Gandhi's methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary. Is there a Gandhi in Russia at this moment? And if there is, what is he accomplishing? he Russian masses could only practice civil disobedience if the same idea happened to occur to all of them simultaneously, and even then, to judge by the history of the Ukraine famine, it would make no difference. But let it be granted that non-violent resistance can be effective against one's own government, or against an occupying power: even so, how does one put it into practice internationally? andhi's various conflicting statements on the late war seem to show that he felt the difficulty of this. Applied to foreign politics, pacifism either stops being pacifist or becomes appeasement. Moreover the assumption, which served Gandhi so well in dealing with individuals, that all human beings are more or less approachable and will respond to a generous gesture, needs to be seriously questioned. It is not necessarily true, for example, when you are dealing with lunatics. Then the question becomes: Who is sane? Was Hitler sane? And is it not possible for one whole culture to be insane by the standards of another? And, so far as one can gauge the feelings of whole nations, is there any apparent connection between a generous deed and a friendly response? Is gratitude a factor in international politics?
These and kindred questions need discussion, and need it urgently, in the few years left to us before somebody presses the button and the rockets begin to fly. It seems doubtful whether civilization can stand another major war, and it is at least thinkable that the way out lies through nonviolence. It is Gandhi's virtue that he would have been ready to give honest consideration to the kind of question that I have raised above; and, indeed, he probably did discuss most of these questions somewhere or other in his innumerable newspaper articles. One feels of him that there was much that he did not understand, but not that there was anything that he was frightened of saying or thinking. I have never been able to feel much liking for Gandhi, but I do not feel sure that as a political thinker he was wrong in the main, nor do I believe that his life was a failure. It is curious that when he was assassinated, many of his warmest admirers exclaimed sorrowfully that he had lived just long enough to see his life work in ruins, because India was engaged in a civil war which had always been foreseen as one of the by-products of the transfer of power. But it was not in trying to smoothe down Hindu-Moslem rivalry that Gandhi had spent his life. His main political objective, the peaceful ending of British rule, had after all been attained. As usual, the relevant facts cut across one another. On the one hand, the British did get out of India without fighting, an event which very few observers indeed would have predicted until about a year before it happened. On the other hand, this was done by a Labor government, and it is certain that a Conservative government, especially a government headed by Churchill, would have acted differently. But if, by 1945, there had grown up in Britain a large body of opinion sympathetic to Indian independence, how far was this due to Gandhi's personal influence? And if, as may happen, India and Britain finally settle down into a decent and friendly relationship, will this be partly because Gandhi, by keeping up his struggle obstinately and without hatred, disinfected the political air? That one even thinks of asking such questions indicates his stature. One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi's basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!
E. M. Forster (essay date 1949)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 863
SOURCE: "Mahatma Gandhi," in Mahatma Gandhi: Essays and Reflections on His Life and Work, edited by S. Radhakrishnan, George Allen & Unwin, revised edition, 1949, pp. 386-88.
[Forster was a prominent English novelist, critic, and essayist whose works reflect his liberal humanism. His most celebrated novel, A Passage to India (1924), is a complex examination of personal relationships amid the conflicts of the modern world. Although some of Forster's critical essays are considered unsophisticated in their literary assessments, his Aspects of the Novel (1927), a discussion of fictional techniques, is regarded as a minor classic in literary criticism. In the following essay, Forster offers a memorial tribute to Gandhi.]
The organizers of this meeting (of Cambridge Majlis) have asked me, before I call on the principal speakers, to pay a short tribute [to Gandhi] myself. In doing so I do not desire to emphasize the note of grief. Grief is for those who knew Mahatma Gandhi personally, or who are close to his teaching. I have neither of those claims. Nor would it be seemly to speak with compassion and pity of him, as though it were on him rather than on India and the world that the blow has fallen. If I have understood him rightly, he was always indifferent to death. His work and the welfare of others was what mattered to him, and if the work could have been furthered by dying rather than living, he would have been content. He was accustomed to regard an interruption as an instrument, and he remarks in his Autobiography that God seldom intended for him what he had planned. And he would have regarded death, the supreme interruption, as an instrument, and perhaps the supreme one—preferable to the full 125 years of life for which in his innocence he had hoped. The murder seems so hideous and senseless to us—as an English friend of mine put it, one would have liked the old Saint to fade away magically. But we must remember that we are looking at it all from outside; it was not a defeat to him.
But although neither grief nor pity are in place this evening, we may well entertain a feeling of awe and a sense of our own smallness. When the news came to me last week, I realized intensely how small I was, how small those around me were, how impotent and circumscribed are the lives of most of us spiritually, and how in comparison with that mature goodness the so-called great men of our age are no more than blustering schoolboys. Read the newspapers to-morrow, see what they advertise and whom, observe the values they imply and the actions they emphasize. Then think anew of the career and character of Mahitma Gandhi, and the feeling of awe will return with a salutary shock. We, to-day—we are inventive and adaptable, we are stoical and learning to bear things, our young men have acquired what may be termed the "returned warrior" attitude, and that is all very well. But we are losing the sense of wonder. We are forgetting what human nature can do, and upon what a vast stage it is set. The death of this very great man may remind us, he has indicated by his existence possibilities still to be explored.
His character was intricate, and this is not the place to analyse it. But all who met him, even the critical, have testified to the goodness in it, a goodness irradiated by no ordinary light. His practical teachings—the doctrine of nonviolence and the doctrine of simplicity, symbolized by the spinning-wheel—proceeded from that goodness, and it also inspired his willingness to suffer. He was not only good. He made good, and ordinary men all over the world now look up to him in consequence. He has placed India on their spiritual map. It was always on that map for the student and the scholar, but the ordinary man demands tangible evidence, spiritual proofs of moral firmness, and he has found them in the imprisonments, the fastings, the willingness to suffer, and in this death. The other day I passed a taxi-rank, and heard the drivers talking to one another about "Old Gandhi" and praising him in their own way. He would have valued their praise. He would have valued it more than any tribute the scholar or the student can bring. For it sprang from simplicity.
"A very great man" I have called him. He is likely to be the greatest of our century. Lenin is sometimes bracketed with him, but Lenin's kingdom was of this world, and we do not know yet what the world will do with it. Gandhi's was not. Though he impinged upon events and influenced politics, he had his roots outside time, and drew strength thence. He is with the founders of religion, whether he founds a religion or not. He is with the great artists, though art was not his medium. He is with all the men and women who have sought something in life that is neither chaos nor mechanism, who have not confused happiness with possessiveness, or victory with success, and who have believed in love.
Arthur Koestler (essay date 1969)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11197
SOURCE: "Mahatma Gandhi—Yogi and Commissar: A Re-valuation," in The Heel of Achilles: Essays 1968-1973, Hutchinson of London, 1974, pp. 221-54.
[A Hungarian-born English novelist, journalist, and popular philosopher, Koestler was a respected figure in twentieth-century intellectual life. In the following excerpt, which was originally published in 1969, he discusses what he calls the "disastrous aspects of Gandhi's life and philosophy. ']
'It takes a great deal of money to keep Bapu living in poverty …' Bapu means 'father' in Gujerati, and was used all over India as a title of respect and affection for Gandhi. That flippant remark was made by Mrs Sarojini Naidu, poet, politician and one of Bapu's intimates (she sometimes called him Mickey Mouse); but she could hardly have been aware at the time of the almost prophetic significance of her words. They actually referred to her loyal efforts to collect money for Gandhi's campaign for khadi, homespun cloth. Like all his crusades, it was intended to serve both practical and symbolic purposes. Its practical aspect was the boycott of foreign goods, primarily of English textiles, combined with the fantastic hope of solving India's economic problems by bringing back the handloom and the spinning-wheel. At the same time, on another plane, the spinning-wheel became an almost mystical symbol of the return to the Simple Life, and the rejection of industrialization.
The call of the spinning-wheel, Gandhi wrote in Young India, is the noblest of all. Because it is the call of love… The spinning-wheel is the reviving draught for the millions of our dying countrymen and countrywomen … I claim that in losing the spinning-wheel we lost our left lung. We are therefore suffering from galloping consumption. The restoration of the wheel arrests the progress of the fell disease …
The wheel was a lifelong obsession which reached its climax in the late 1920s between two imprisonments. It spread among his followers and ran through the successive stages of a fashion, a cult, a mystique. He designed India's national flag with a spinning-wheel in its centre. He persuaded Congress to resolve that all its members should take up spinning and pay their membership dues in self-spun yarn; office-holders had to deliver 2000 yards of yarn per month. When Congress met in session, its seasoned politicians would listen to the debates while operating their portable spinning-wheels—tricoteuses of the nonviolent revolution. Schools introduced spinning courses; the plain white cloth and white cap became the uniform of the Indian patriot; Nehru called it 'the livery of freedom', while Gandhi praised the wheel as 'the sacrament of millions' and 'a gateway to my spiritual salvation'. At the same time he organized public bonfires of imported cloth, threw his wife's favourite sari into the flames, and got himself arrested.
One of the few Indian intellectuals who dared to protest against the khadi mystique was the poet laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. He was a lifelong admirer of Gandhi, fully aware of his greatness, but also of his crankiness. I shall quote him at some length, because he seems to have realized in a single intuitive flash the basic flaw in Gandhian leadership. In 1921, after a prolonged absence, Tagore had returned to India full of expectations 'to breathe the buoyant breeze of national awakening'—and was horrified by what he saw:
What I found in Calcutta when I arrived depressed me. An oppressive atmosphere seemed to burden the land … There was a newspaper which one day had the temerity to disapprove, in a feeble way, of the burning of foreign cloth. The very next day the editor was shaken out of his balance by the agitation of his readers. How long would it take for the fire which was burning cloth to reduce his paper to ashes? …
Consider the burning of cloth … What is the nature of the call to do this? Is it not another instance of a magical formula? The question of using or refusing cloth of a particular manufacture belongs mainly to economic science. The discussion of the matter by our countrymen should have been in the language of economics. If the country has really come to such a habit of mind that precise thinking has become impossible for it, then our very first fight should be against such a fatal habit, the original sin from which all our ills are flowing. But far from this, we take the course of confirming ourselves in it by relying on the magic formula that foreign cloth is 'impure'. Thus economics is bundled out and a fictitious moral dictum dragged into its place… If there be anything worse in wearing a particular kind of cloth, that would be an offence against economics, or hygiene, or aesthetics, but certainly not against morality …
The command to burn our foreign clothes has been laid on us. I, for one, am unable to obey it … Where Mahatma Gandhi has declared war against the tyranny of the machine which is oppressing the whole world, we are all enrolled under his banner. But we must refuse to accept as our ally the illusion-haunted magic-ridden slave-mentality that is at the root of all the poverty and insult under which our country groans.
Tagore had smelt a holy rat in the khadi mystique. The boycott of English textiles could be justified as a measure of economic warfare in a nation's struggle for independence. But this did not apply to other countries, and to call all foreign cloth 'impure' was indeed an appeal to magic-ridden minds. If it were advantageous for India's economy to forsake foreign imports and produce all the textiles it needs, that would still leave the question open whether a return to manufacturing methods predating the industrial revolution was feasible—even if it should be deemed desirable in the name of an idealized Simple Life. But this problem, too, was bypassed by calling the wheel a 'sacrament' nd a 'gateway to salvation'. In his reply to Tagore, Gandhi went even further in what one might be tempted to call sanctimonious demagogy—if one were not aware of the pure intentions behind the muddled thinking. Rejecting Tagore's accusation that the khadi cult was begotten by mysticism, not by reasoned argument, Gandhi wrote:
I have again and again appealed to reason, and let me assure him that if happily the country has come to believe in the spinning-wheel as the giver of plenty, it has done so after laborious thinking… I do indeed ask the poet to spin the wheel as a sacrament … Hunger is the argument that is driving India to the spinning-wheel … It was our love of foreign cloth that ousted the wheel from its position of dignity. Therefore I consider it a sin to wear foreign cloth … On the knowledge of my sin bursting upon me, I must consign the foreign garments to the flames and thus purify myself, and thenceforth rest content with the rough khadi made by my neighbours. On knowing that my neighbours may not, having given up the occupation, take kindly to the spinning-wheel, I must take it up myself and thus make it popular.
Khadi did indeed become a fashionable cult among his ashramites and among active members of Congress—but never among the anonymous millions for whom it was intended. The attempt to make the half-starved masses of the rural population self-supporting by means of the spinning-wheel as a 'giver of plenty' proved to be a dismal and predictable failure. The spinning-wheel found its place on the national flag, but not in the peasants' cottages.
A few years ago, a Member of Parliament in New Delhi said to me wistfully: 'Yes, I do wear khadi, as you see—a lot of us in the Congress Party feel that we have to. It costs three times as much as ordinary cotton.'
It took a great deal of money, and an infinitely greater amount of idealism and energy, 'to keep Bapu in poverty'. It is impossible to dismiss the khadi crusade as a harmless folly. On the contrary, the wheel as an economic panacea and the gateway to salvation was a central symbol of Gandhi's philosophy and social programme.
His first book, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, was written in 1909, when he was forty. He had already achieved international fame as leader of the Indian community in South Africa and initiator of several non-violent mass movements against racial discrimination. The book was reprinted in 1921 with a new introduction by Gandhi in which he said: 'I withdraw nothing of it.' In 1938, he requested that a new edition should be printed at a nominal price available to all, and wrote yet another introduction, in which he affirmed: 'After the stormy thirty years through which I have since passed, I have seen nothing to make me alter the advice expounded in it.' Hind Swaraj may thus be regarded as an authoritative expression of opinions to which he clung to the end, and as a condensed version of Gandhian philosophy. It extols the virtues of Indian civilization, and at the same time passionately denounces the culture of the West.
I believe that the civilization India has evolved is not to be beaten in the world. Nothing can equal the seeds sown by our ancestors. Rome went, Greece shared the same fate, the might of the Pharaohs was broken; Japan has become westernized; of China nothing can be said; but India is still, somehow or other, sound at the foundation. The people of Europe learn their lessons from the writings of the men of Greece or Rome, which exist no longer in their former glory. In trying to learn from them, the Europeans imagine that they will avoid the mistakes of Greece and Rome. Such is their pitiable condition. In the midst of all this India remains immovable and that is her glory … Many thrust their advice upon India, and she remains steady. This is her beauty …
India, as so many writers have shown, has nothing to learn from anybody else, and this is as it should be … Indian civilization is the best and the European is a nine-days wonder … I bear no enmity towards the English, but I do towards their civilization.
His rejection of Western culture in all its aspects was deeply felt, violently emotional, and supported by arguments verging on the absurd. The principal evils of the West were railways, hospitals and lawyers:
Man is so made by nature as to require him to restrict his movements as far as his hands and feet will take him. If we did not rush about from place to place by means of railways and such other maddening conveniences, much of the confusion that arises would be obviated … God set a limit to a man's locomotive ambition in the construction of his body. Man immediately proceeded to discover means of overriding the limit … I am so constructed that I can only serve my immediate neighbours, but in my conceit, I pretend to have discovered that I must with my body serve every individual in the Universe. In thus attempting the impossible, man comes in contact with different religions and is utterly confounded. According to this reasoning, it must be apparent to you that railways are a most dangerous institution. Man has gone further away from his Maker.
If this line of argument were accepted, not only the Great Indian Peninsular Railway would stand condemned, but also Gandhi's favourite book, the Bhagavad Gita. For its hero is the noble Arjuna, who drives a chariot (with Vishnu as his passenger) in flagrant transgression of God's will that he should only move as far as his own feet will take him. Gandhi himself had to spend an inordinate proportion of his life in railway carriages 'rushing from place to place', faithful to the tradition that the leader should remain in touch with the masses. It was not the only paradox in his life; in fact, every major principle in Gandhi's Back-to-Nature philosophy was self-defeating, stamped with a tragic irony. (Even as President of Congress, he always insisted on travelling third-class; but he had a special coach to himself.)
Lawyers fare no better in Gandhi's programme than railways:
Men were less unmanly if they settled their disputes either by fighting or by asking their relatives to decide them. They became more unmanly and cowardly when they resorted to the Courts of Law. It is a sign of savagery to settle disputes by fighting. It is not the less so by asking a third party to decide between you and me. The parties alone know who is right and therefore they ought to settle it.
It should be remembered that Gandhi's first step towards leadership was achieved by his successful settling of a lawsuit as an attorney in Pretoria; and his successes in negotiating with the British were as much due to the charisma of the 'naked fakir'—to quote Churchill—as to the legal astuteness of the 'Middle Temple lawyer'.
Perhaps the main asset in the complex balance-sheet of the British Raj was the introduction of modern medicine to India. But in Gandhi's accounting, hospitals fare worst:
How do diseases arise? Surely by our negligence or indulgence. I over-eat, I have indigestion, I go to a doctor, he gives me medicine. I am cured. I over-eat again, and I take his pills again. Had I not taken the pills in the first instance, I would have suffered the punishment deserved by me, and I would not have over-eaten again …
I have indulged in vice, I contract a disease, a doctor cures me, the odds are that I shall repeat the vice. Had the doctor not intervened, nature would have done its work, and I would have acquired mastery over myself, would have been freed from vice, and would have become happy.
Hospitals are institutions for propagating sin. Men take less care of their bodies, and immorality increases.
And in a letter to a friend, also written when he was forty:
Hospitals are the instruments that the devil has been using for his own purpose, in order to keep his hold on his kingdom. They perpetuate vice, misery and degradation and real slavery.
He tried to live up to his convictions by experimenting all his life with nature-cures, ayurvedic remedies, and an endless succession of vegetarian and fruitarian diets. But he was assailed at various times by fistulae, appendicitis, malaria, hook-worm, amoebic dysentery and high blood-pressure, and suffered two nervous breakdowns in his late sixties. Each time he was seriously ill he started on nature-cures, refusing Western medication and surgery; each time he had to capitulate and submit to drugs, injections, operations under anaesthesia. Once more his principles proved to be self-defeating in the most painful way. Yet while his belief that diseases are caused by 'negligence, indulgence or vice' was naive to a degree, its correlate, the belief in the power of mind over body, was a source of strength which carried him through his heroic fasts.
About schools and 'literary education' in general he was as scornful as about hospitals, railways and law courts.
What is the meaning of education? It simply means knowledge of letters. It is merely an instrument and an instrument may be well used or abused … We daily observe that many men abuse it and very few make good use of it; and if this is a correct statement, we have proved that more harm has been done by it than good …
To teach boys reading, writing and arithmetic is called primary education. A peasant earns his bread honestly. He has ordinary knowledge of the world. He knows fairly well how he should behave towards his parents, his wife, his children and his fellow villagers. He understands and observes the rules of morality. But he cannot write his own name. What do you propose to do by giving him a knowledge of letters? Will you add an inch to his happiness? Do you wish to make him discontented with his cottage or his lot?
Now let us take higher education. I have learned Geography, Astronomy, Algebra, Geometry, etc. What of that? In what way have I benefited myself or those around me? …
I do not for one moment believe that my life would have been wasted, had I not received higher or lower education … And, if I am making good use of it, even then it is not for the millions …
Our ancient school system is enough … To give millions a knowledge of English is to enslave them. The foundation that Macaulay laid of education has enslaved us … Hypocrisy, tyranny, etc., have increased; English-knowing Indians have not hesitated to cheat or strike terror into the people …
Gandhi tried to live up to his principles, and never sent his sons to school. He intended to teach them himself, but did not find the time. They never had a chance to learn a profession. In his own words:
I will not say that I was indifferent to their literary education, but I certainly did not hesitate to sacrifice it in these higher interests, as I regarded them. My sons have therefore some reason for grievance against me… Had I been able to devote at least one hour to their literary education, with strict regularity, I should have given them, in my opinion, an ideal education. But it has been my regret that I failed to ensure for them enough training in that direction … But I hold that I sacrificed their literary training to what I genuinely believed to be a service to the Indian community … All my sons have had complaints to make against me in this matter. Whenever they come across an M. A. or a B.A., or even a matriculate, they seem to feel the handicap of a want of school education. Nevertheless I am of opinion that, if I had insisted on their being educated somehow at schools, they would have been deprived of the training that can be had only at the school of experience, or from constant contact with the parents …
I shall return presently to the effects this contact had on Gandhi's sons. In the public domain, his hostility to intellectuals with an English education who 'enslaved India' id not prevent him from adopting as his political successor young Jawaharlal Nehru, a product of Harrow and Cambridge. If Western civilization was poison for India, Gandhi had installed the chief poisoner as his heir.
From his early thirties, two ideas of overwhelming, obsessive power were uppermost in Gandhi's mind and dominated his life: satyagraha and brahmacharya. Satyagraha means, broadly, non-violent action; brahmacharya, sexual abstinence; but both terms, as we shall see, had for him much wider spiritual implications. The two were inextricably interwoven in his teaching, and more bizarrely in his private life. Significantly it was in the same year—1906, when he was thirty-seven—that he took his vow of chastity for life, and started his first non-violent campaign.
Gandhi's negative attitude to sex was reminiscent of, and partly inspired by, Tolstoy's, but was more violent and baffling. A partial explanation of its origins may perhaps be the famous episode, related in his autobiography, of his father dying while he had intercourse with his wife. He was sixteen then (having married at fourteen), and had spent the evening, as usual, ministering to his sick father—massaging his feet—when his uncle relieved him. What could be more natural than that he should join his young wife? A few minutes later, however, a servant knocked at the door, announcing the father's death—which apparently nothing had presaged:
I ran to my father's room. I saw that, if animal passion had not blinded me, I should have been spared the torture of separation from my father during his last moments. I should have been massaging him, and he would have died in my arms …
This shame of my carnal desire even at the critical hour of my father's death … was a blot I have never been able to efface or forget … It took me long to get free from the shackles of lust, and I had to pass through many ordeals before I could overcome it.
How much this episode contributed to Gandhi's attitude to sex is a matter of speculation. But the effects of that attitude on his own sons are on record. He refused to send them to school because he wanted to mould them in his own image; and since he had renounced sex, he expected them to do the same. When Harilal, the eldest son, wanted to marry at the age of eighteen, Gandhi refused permission and disowned him 'for the present'. Harilal had the courage to marry nevertheless—he had achieved a degree of independence from his father by living with relatives in India while Gandhi still lived in South Africa. When his wife died in the influenza epidemic of 1918 Harilal, who was now thirty, wanted to remarry; but again Gandhi objected. From that point onward, Harilal began to disintegrate. He became an alcoholic, associated with prostitutes, embraced the Moslem faith and published an attack on his father under the pen-name 'Abdullah'. When he became involved in a shady business transaction, a solicitor wrote a letter of complaint to Gandhi. Gandhi published the lawyer's letter in his paper, Young India (18 June 1925), together with his own reply, which amounted to placing Harilal on a public pillory:
I do indeed happen to be the father of Harilal M. Gandhi. He is my eldest boy, is over thirty-six years old and is father of four children. His ideas and mine having been discovered over fifteen years ago to be different, he has been living separately from me … Harilal was naturally influenced by the Western veneer that my life at one time did have. His commercial undertakings were totally independent of me …He was and still is ambitious. He wants to become rich, and that too easily… I do not know how his affairs stand at the moment, except that they are in a bad way … Men may be good, not necessarily their children.
Father and son hardly ever met again. On her deathbed, Gandhi's wife, Kasturbai, asked for her first-born. Harilal came, drunk, and had to be removed from her presence; she wept and beat her forehead'.
He was also present at Gandhi's cremation. Although it is the duty and privilege of the eldest son to light his father's funeral pyre, he kept, or was kept, in the background. He died a month later in a hospital for tuberculosis. His name is rarely mentioned in the voluminous Gandhi literature.
Harilal may have been a difficult case under any circumstances, but the second son, Manilal, was not; he remained a loyal and devoted son to the end. Nevertheless, the way Gandhi treated him was just as inhuman—there is no other word for it. At the age of twenty, Manilal committed the unforgivable sin of losing his virginity to a woman. When Gandhi discovered this he made a public scene, went on a penitential fast, and decreed that he would never allow Manilal to marry. He even managed to persuade the guilty woman to shave her hair. A full fifteen years had to pass until Gandhi relented, on Kasturbai's entreaties, and gave his permission for Manilal to marry—by which time Manilal was thirty-five. But in the meantime he had been banished from Gandhi's presence and ashram, because he had lent some money, out of his own savings, to his disgraced brother Harilal. When Gandhi heard about it, he made a scene accusing Manilal of dishonesty, on the grounds that the ashrimites' savings were the property of the ashram. Manilal was sent into exile with instructions to become a weaver's apprentice, and not to use the name Gandhi. 'In addition to this,' Manilal later told Louis Fischer, 'Father also contemplated a fast, but I sat all night entreating him not to do so, and in the end my prayer was heeded. I left my dear mother and my brother Devadas sobbing … After a year as a weaving-apprentice and a publisher's assistant, Gandhi ordered him to Natal to edit Indian Opinion. Apart from visits, Manilal remained an exile to the end of Gandhi's life.
In fairness, Gandhi's treatment of his two eldest sons must be seen in the context of the traditional Hindu joint family household, over which the father holds unrestricted sway. To go against his decisions is unthinkable; as long as Bapu is alive, the sons are not regarded as having attained fully adult status. But even against this background Gandhi's relentless tyranny over his sons was exceptional—he rode them like the jinn of the Arab legend, whom, in the guise of an old man, his young victim cannot get off his shoulders. 'I was a slave of passion when Harilal was conceived,' he was wont to say. 'I had a carnal and luxurious life during Harilal's childhood.' Quite clearly he was visiting his own sins on his sons. By his efforts to prevent them from marrying, he was trying to deprive them of their manhood, convinced that he had a right to do so, since he had voluntarily renounced his own. Their crime, which he could never forgive, was that they refused to follow him on the lofty path of brahmacharya.
This becomes even more evident by comparing the way he treated them with the favours bestowed on a young second cousin, Maganlal. 'Maganlal is dearer to me than one who is a son because so born,' Gandhi wrote to his brother. And while his own sons were not allowed to go to school, he sent Maganlal (and another young second cousin) to study in England. Why this contrast? When Maganlal died at the age of forty-five, Gandhi explained the reason in his obituary: 'He whom I had singled out as heir to my all is no more. He closely studied and followed my spiritual career, and when I presented to my co-workers brahmacharya as a rule of life, even for married men in search of Truth, he was the first to perceive the beauty and necessity of the practice.'
Gandhi almost invariably refers to the act of love as an expression of man's 'carnal lust' or 'animal passion', and to woman's role in the act as that of a 'victim' or 'object'. He did know, of course, that women too have a sexual urge, but had a simple answer to that: 'Let her transfer her love… to the whole of humanity, let her forget she ever was or ever can be the object of man's lust.' Intercourse, he taught, was only permissible for the purpose of procreation; if indulged in for 'carnal satisfaction', it is a 'reversion to animality'. Accordingly, he unconditionally rejected birth-control, even within the limits permitted by the Catholic Church. When Dr Margaret Sanger, the pioneer of family-planning, visited Gandhi in 1936, she talked about the catastrophic consequences of the population explosion in India and elsewhere, and appealed for his help, pleading that 'there are thousands, millions, who regard your word as that of a saint'. But throughout their conversation 'he held to an idea or a train of thought of his own, and, as soon as you stopped, continued it as though he had not heard you … Despite his claim to open-mindedness, he was proud of not altering his opinions …He accused himself of being a brute by having desired his wife when he was younger, and classed all sex relations as debasing acts, although sometimes necessary for procreation. He agreed that no more than three or four children should be born to a family, but insisted that intercourse, therefore, should be restricted for the entire married life of the couple to three or four occasions.'
As a solution to India's population problem this was about as realistic as the return of the spinning-wheel. Yet it was deeply rooted in Gandhi's religious beliefs. If khadi was the gateway to salvation, brahmacharya was 'the conduct that leads to God'—which is what the word literally means. Thus, to quote his secretary and biographer Pyarelal, 'Brahmacharya came to occupy the place of honour in Gandhiji's discipline for satyagraha … It was the sine qua non for those who aspire to a spiritual of higher life'—and thus for all ashrimites, married or not. How deeply he felt about this is illustrated by an episode in Gandhi's first ashram—Phoenix Settlement in South Africa:
Once when I was in Johannesburg I received the tidings of the moral fall of two of the inmates of the ashram. News of an apparent failure or reverse in the [political] struggle would not shock me, but this news came upon me like a thunderbolt. The same day I took the train for Phoenix. Mr Kallenbach insisted on accompanying me. He had noticed the state I was in. He would not brook the thought of my going alone, for he happened to be the bearer of the tidings which had so upset me. On the way my duty became clear to me. I felt that the guardian or the teacher was responsible, to some extent, at least, for the lapse of his pupil… I also felt that the parties to the guilt could be made to realize my distress and the depth of their fall only if I did some penance for it. So I imposed upon myself a fast for seven days and a vow of having only one meal for a period of four months and a half. Mr Kallenbach tried to dissuade me, but in vain. He ultimately accepted the propriety of the penance and insisted on joining me … Thus considerably relieved, I reached Phoenix. I made further investigation and acquainted myself with some more details I needed to know. My penance pained everybody, but it cleared the atmosphere. Everyone came to realize what a terrible thing it was to be sinful.
This episode—including the reaction of the unfortunate Mr Kallenbach—gives one a foretaste of the curious atmosphere that prevailed in Gandhi's later ashrams. Whereas in politics Gandhi always tended towards compromise, in the matter of brahmacharya he became more fanatical as the years went by. He used his proverbial fascination for women to persuade them to take the vow, whether their husbands agreed or not, wrecking several marriages in the process, and causing lasting unhappiness in others (among them is the sad case of a personal friend). One might say that the young women who came under his spell were seduced by Gandhi into chastity.
The consequences were described by one of Gandhi's intimate collaborators, Professor Nirmal Kumar Bose—one of the few who dared to talk to him in plain words on this subject.
'When women love men in normal life,' he said to the Mahatma, 'a part of their psychological hunger is satisfied by the pleasure which they derive in the physical field. But when women pay their homage of love to you, there can be no such satisfaction, with the result that when they come close to you personally, their mind becomes slightly warped. Of course, all of us are neurotics to a more or less extent. But the effect of your contact has an undoubtedly dangerous influence upon some of your associates, whether male or female.'
Sexual abstinence may procure spiritual benefits to communities of monks or nuns segregated from the opposite sex and carefully sheltered from temptation. But Gandhi had designed for himself a very special and arduous road to brahmacharya; he felt compelled to expose himself to temptation in order to test his progress in self-control. He regarded these tests—which continued to the very end when he was nearly eighty—as a pioneering venture, another 'Experiment with Truth' (as he called his autobiography). The experiments started with his own wife after he had taken the vow, and were then continued with other, younger women. In a letter to Bose, justifying these practices, Gandhi wrote:
I am amazed at your assumption that my experiment implied any assumption of woman's inferiority. She would be, if I looked upon her with lust with or without her consent. I have believed in woman's perfect equality with man. My wife was 'inferior' when she was the instrument of my lust. She ceased to be that when she lay with me naked as my sister. If she and I were not lustfully agitated in our minds and bodies, the contact raised both of us.
Should there be a difference if it is not my wife, as she once was, but some other sister? I do hope you will acquit me of having any lustful designs upon women or girls who have been naked with me. A or B's hysteria had nothing to do with my experiment, I hope. They were before the experiment what they are today, if they have not less of it.
The distinction between Manu and others is meaningless for our discussion …
The Manu mentioned in this letter was the granddaughter of a cousin, the last of the guinea-pigs in the quest for brahmacharya. She had lost her mother in childhood, and Kasturbai had looked after her. On Kasturbai's death Gandhi took over. 'I have been a father to many, but only to you I am a mother,' he wrote to her; strange as this may sound, he meant her to take that literally—so much so that Manu actually wrote a book with the title Bapu: My Mother. As a 'budding girl of eighteen', in Gandhi's words, she claimed to be free from sexual feelings. However, as Pyarelal explains in his biography:
Gandhiji had come to have an uneasy feeling that either she did not know her own mind or she was deceiving herself and others. As a mother' he must know … girls often conceal their real feelings from their fathers but not from their mothers. Gandhiji had claimed that he was mother to her and she had endorsed the claim. If the truth of it could be tested, it would provide a clue to the problem that baffled him. Incidentally, it would enable him also to know how far he had advanced on the road to perfect brahmacharya—complete sexlessness … He did for her everything that a mother usually does for her daughter. He supervised her education, her food, dress, rest and sleep. For closer supervision and guidance he made her share the same bed with him. Now a girl, if her mind is perfectly innocent, never feels embarrassment in sleeping with her mother.
To paraphrase Sarojini Naidu: it took a great deal of derring-do to keep Bapu in chastity.
Manu apparently did not feel any embarrassment. She returned his ministrations by nursing him through illnesses and fasts; in her diary she recorded, in between two political messages, the effects of the enema she had administered to him, and the admonitions he addressed to her from his bathtub: 'While bathing, Bapu said these words to me with great affection, and also caressed my back'. But in view of the traditional lack of privacy in India, and in particular among ashramites, such intimacies could be exchanged in relative innocence.
For Gandhi it was a crucial experiment. If it succeeded 'it would show that his quest for truth had been successful. His sincerity should then impress itself upon the Moslems, his opponents in the Moslem League and even Finnah, who doubted his sincerity, to their own and India's harm.' The italics are by the faithful Pyarelal who knew more intimately than any other contemporary the ways and twists of his Master's thought. Gandhi sincerely believed that he was an instrument of God, who 'gives me guidance to react to the situations as they arise'. But the instrument must be pure, free from carnal desire; and to attain that freedom he had to go through his experiment in brahmacharya. It 'put him in touch with the infinite'; at the same time it was to solve the Hindu-Moslem problem, put an end to the mutual massacres, persuade the Moslem League of his bona fides, and make them renounce their claim for an independent Pakistan.
From the Mahatma's point of view all this was perfectly logical. In his own mind, his public, political activities and his intimate Experiments with Truth were inseparable; satyagraha and brahmacharya were mutually interdependent. For satyagraha means not only non-violent action, but action powered by an irresistible soul-force or truth-force (sat—truth, agraha—firmness). At the stage he had reached in the last two years of his life everything depended for him on the crucial experiment with Manu; and this may explain why he so stubbornly insisted that she share his bed, in defiance of everybody's advice.
It also explains why, while the fate of India was being decided in the dramatic months June-July 1947, Gandhi chose to treat the Indian public to a series of six articles—on brahmacharya. He had been touring the Moslem villages of east Bengal, attempting to quell the riots by his personal influence. Most of the time, his only companions on the pilgrimage were Manu, Bose and a stenographer. Several of his collaborators, including intimate friends, protested against the Manu experiment (though they must have known of previous ones), expressed their disapproval to Gandhi, and some of them actually left him. A public scandal was avoided, but Gandhi felt deprived of their unconditional admiration, utterly lonely and dejected. Even Bose left, after long discussions in which he had in vain tried to convince Gandhi of the psychological ill-effects of the experiment on both parties concerned—without ever doubting the sincerity of their motives; but he returned to serve Gandhi a few months later. The ill-timed Harijan articles, which made the public gasp, were Gandhi's reply to the dissidents.
He also wrote to Acharya Kripalani, the President of Congress: 'This is a very personal letter, but not private. Manu Gandhi, my granddaughter … shares the bed with me … This has cost me dearest associates … I have given the deepest thought to the matter. The whole world may forsake me, but I dare not leave what I hold is the truth for me …I have risked perdition before now. Let this be the reality if it has to be.' And he requests that the Acharya discuss the matter with other Congress politicians—in the midst of the negotiations about independence.
I have dwelt at some length on Gandhi's struggles to attain chastity for two reasons; because it provides an essential—by his own testimony, the most essential—key to his personality; and because it became a part of the Gandhian heritage which had a lasting influence on the social and cultural climate of the country.
After Gandhi's death, however, the Indian Establishment attempted to suppress the facts of his last Experiment with Truth. An example of this conspiracy of silence is the story of the book by Nirmal Kumar Bose, My Days with Gandhi, which I have repeatedly quoted. Professor Bose, a distinguished anthropologist and expounder of Gandhi's philosophy, had written two earlier books, Studies in Gandhism and Selections from Gandhi. He had been the Mahatma's companion during the pilgrimage in East Bengal, and in My Days with Gandhi devoted a chapter to the repercussions of the Manu experiments, without going into details about the experiment itself. It is a discreet, affectionate and respectful work; yet not only was it rejected by all publishers whom Bose approached, but strenuous attempts were made 'from very high quarters in the country' to prevent its publication.
Five years after Gandhi's death, Bose decided to publish the book on his own. It is unobtainable in India, and the most recent biographer of Gandhi, Geoffrey Ashe, remarks: 'It has become common knowledge that one important memoir was partly suppressed. I had some difficulty in locating what may be the only copy in England'. Not even the British Museum has a copy of it. A book of my own, in which I quoted Bose, was also banned in India on the grounds that it contained 'disrespectful remarks about Gandhiji'. (As a reaction to the ban, an Indian reader sent me a complete xerox copy of Bose's book.)
Ironically, three years after Bose, the first volume of Pyarelal's monumental, authorized biography of Gandhi was published, confirming all the facts that Bose had mentioned (but without mentioning Bose). The following passage from My Days with Gandhi is relevant in this context:
There are many who were close to Gandhiji and who knew about these happenings, but who, out of a fear of misrepresenting him, have thought it wiser to leave out this portion of his life from any critical consideration at all. But the present writer has always felt that such an attitude is not justified. Perhaps away at the back of our minds there is a lurking belief that what Gandhiji did was not right; and, in an apparent effort of avoiding injustice to his greatness, we may perhaps decide to draw a veil over certain events of which we have personal knowledge. But this can only be achieved by sacrificing what I believe to be one of the most important keys to an understanding of this unique personality of our age.
… We can only bear testimony to what we have witnessed; and, in a spirit of utter truthfulness, describe it with the utmost fidelity possible … So that when our age has passed away and many of the values for which we stand have been relegated to the lumber-heap of history, men may have the means of knowing all that is possible about a man who once stood towering like a mountain above those who lived beside him.
In the Western world Gandhi's obsession with brahmacharya could have been shrugged off as a harmless personal quirk. In India it struck deep, archetypal chords. There is a hidden message running through Gandhi's preaching of chastity—hidden that is from the Western reader, but obvious to every Hindu. It relates to the physiological benefits of sexual restraint. According to the doctrines of traditional Hindu (ayurvedic) medicine, man's 'vital force' is concentrated in his seminal fluid. All his powers, both mental and physical, derive from this precious secretion—a kind of elixir of life—variously called bindu, soma-rasa or 'vital fluid'. Every expenditure of 'vital fluid' auses physical weakening and spiritual impoverishment. Conversely, the storing up of bindu through continence provides for increased spiritual powers, health and longevity (Gandhi hoped to live to the age of 125). It also produces that smooth skin with a radiant glow which all true saints were said to possess—including the Mahatma. Various semi-secret Hatha Yoga practices are designed to preserve the vital fluid even during intercourse.
Gandhi was a firm believer in ayurvedic medicine, and himself practised it on his family and intimates. Numerous passages in his writings show that he also believed in the crucial importance of preserving the 'vital fluid'. Thus in his pamphlet 'Key to Health' he wrote:
It is said that an impotent man is not free from sexual desire … But the cultivated impotence of the man whose sexual desire has been burnt up and whose sexual secretions are being converted into vital force is wholly different. It is to be desired by everybody.
Ability to retain and assimilate the vital liquid is a matter of long training. Once achieved, it strengthens body and mind. The vital liquid capable of producing such a wonderful being as man cannot but, when properly conserved, be transmuted into matchless energy and strength.
Hinduism has a notoriously ambivalent attitude towards sex. On the one hand, the cult of the lingam, the erotic temple carvings, the Kama Sutra and the 'Sex Pharmacies' with their flowering trade in aphrodisiacs; on the other, prudery, hypocrisy, lip-service to the ideal of chastity combined with anxiety about the loss of the vital fluid and its debilitating effects. 'Spermal anxiety' appears to be common among Hindus; and with it goes unconscious resentment against Woman who is its cause. The Hindu Pantheon has no Eros and no Cupids—only Kama, the prime force of lust.
Typical of this attitude is a correspondent's letter to Gandhi complaining that he was unable to live up to the ideal of chastity, 'although I often say to myself why enter the muck-hole at all?' Equally typical is Gandhi's reply: 'I can only detect ignorance in likening women to a muck-pot. The very thought is insulting to both men and woman. May not her son sit side by side with his mother, or the man share the same bench in a train with his sister?' His defence of woman is confined to her role as mother and sister, but not as a wife; by implication Gandhi shared his correspondent's view. 'If women only knew how to resist their husbands all would be well,' he remarked bitterly to Margaret Sanger. 'I have been able to teach women who have come in contact with me how to resist their husbands. The real problem is that many do not want to resist them
Gandhi's lifelong struggle to overcome his own 'carnal lust' and 'animal passion'; his public mea culpa when he confessed to a 'lust dream' followed by a penance of six weeks' silence; his endorsement of the power of the 'vital fluid'—all this made him the living symbol of the guilt-ridden Hindu attitude to sex, and encouraged the worshipful masses to persist in it. As a result, the trade in aphrodisiacs is thriving as before, surrounded by the odour of sanctimonious hypocrisy.
A minor but significant feature of the Gandhian heritage is the widespread hypochondria about diet and digestion. In a country riddled with amoebic dysentery, hook-worm and other scourges, this is not surprising. But Gandhi's lifelong preoccupation with experimental diets was again primarily linked with the quest for chastity. When he took the vow, he wrote: 'Control of the palate is the first essential in the observance of the vow…The brahmacharya's food should be limited, simple, spiceless and if possible uncooked … Six years of experiment have shown me that the brahmacharya's ideal food is fresh fruit and nuts.' ven milk he thought was an aphrodisiac to be avoided—which seems difficult to reconcile with the pamphlet he wrote on 'How to Serve the Cow'.
One of Gandhi's biographers, Louis Fischer, called him a unique person, a great person, perhaps the greatest figure of the last nineteen hundred years'. Others compared him to Christ, Buddha and St Francis. The claims to immortality were based on his use of non-violence as a political weapon in a world sick of violence. The partial success of his early passive resistance, civil disobedience and non-co-operation campaigns; the unarmed marches against armed police and troops; the first sit-downs, the cheerful courting of imprisonment, the public fasts—all this was something completely new in politics, something unheard of; it was a message of hope, almost a revelation; and the amazing thing was that it seemed to work. The lasting merit of Gandhi was, not that he 'liberated India'—as John Grigg and others have pointed out, independence would have come much earlier without him—but to have made the world realize that the conventional methods of power-politics are not the only conceivable ones; and that under certain circumstances non-violence—ahimsa—might be substituted for them. But the emphasis is on the limiting clause; and the tragedy of Gandhi was the narrow range of applicability of his method. It was a noble game which could only be played against an adversary abiding by certain rules of common decency instilled by long tradition; otherwise it would amount to mass suicide.
Like most inventors of a new philosophical system, Gandhi at first believed in its universal validity. The earliest shock of disappointment came in 1919, when the first nation-wide civil disobedience campaign degenerated into violent rioting all over the country. Gandhi suspended the action, went on a penitential fast, and confessed to having committed a 'Himalayan blunder' by starting the campaign before his followers had been sufficiently trained in the spirit and methods of satyagraha.
The next year he launched a new non-co-operation movement, jointly with the Moslems. Again it led to nationwide riots, culminating in the massacre of Chauri Chaura; again he suspended the campaign and went on a fast.
His most successful movement was the civil disobedience campaign in 1930-31 against the salt laws, highlighted by the spectacular 'march to the sea'. This time, too, there was widespread rioting, but the campaign was allowed to continue until a compromise settlement was reached with the Viceroy.
The later satyagraha movements (1932-4, 1940-41 and 942-3) ended inconclusively. In terms of tangible results this was not an impressive record. But the general impact on politicians, intellectuals and the world at large was momentous; it turned Gandhi into a living legend. It was further dramatized by his eighteen public fasts and altogether six-and-a-half years of detention—the first in a black hole in Johannesburg, the last in the Aga Khan's palace.
But Gandhi's methods of using non-violence had their Himalayan inconsistencies, and the advice he proffered to other nations was often quite irresponsible by any humane standard. Although he repeated over and again that only people far advanced on the spiritual trail were able to practise non-violent resistance, he did not hesitate to recommend it as a universal panacea, even in such tragically inappropriate situations as that of the German Jews under the Nazis. In December 1938, after the first nation-wide pogrom, he wrote: 'I make bold to say that, if the Jews can summon to their aid soul-power that comes only from non-violence, Herr Hitler will bow before the courage which he will own is infinitely superior to that shown by his best stormtroopers.' And in 1946, when the incredible news of six million gassed victims became known: 'The Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher's knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs … It would have roused the world and the people of Germany.'
There was only one mitigating circumstance to utterances like this: Gandhi's notorious ignorance of international affairs.
At the outbreak of the Second World War he declared his moral support for the Allied cause. After the fall of France, he praised Petain for his courage to surrender, and on 6 July 1940 published an 'Appeal to Every Briton' to follow the French example (on his insistence, the text of this appeal was transmitted by the Viceroy to the British War Cabinet):
… I do not want Britain to be defeated nor do I want her to be victorious in a trial of brute strength … I want you to fight Nazism without arms or with non-violent arms. I would like you to lay down the arms you have, being useless for your humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.
It would have taken a great deal of corpses to keep Bapu in non-violence.
He had similar advice to offer to Czechs, Poles, Finns and Chinese. On the last day of his life, a few hours before he was assassinated, a correspondent of Life magazine asked him: 'How would you meet the atom bomb… with nonviolence?' He replied:
'I will not go into shelter. I will come out in the open and let the pilot see I have not a trace of ill-will against him. The pilot will not see our faces from his great height, I know. But the longing in our hearts—that he will not come to harm—would reach up to him and his eyes would be opened.'
This statement, and many earlier ones on similar lines, give the impression that Gandhi's faith in non-violence was absolute ('I know of no single case in which it has failed,' he wrote in his 'Appeal to Every Briton'). In fact, however, on a number of critical occasions he betrayed his own principles in a quite blatant way. There was the episode, not to be taken too seriously, when, in 1918, he acted as a recruiting sergeant for the British Army. In a speech in the Kheda district he said:
To bring about [Dominion status in the Empire] e should have the ability to defend ourselves, that is, the ability to bear arms and to use them … If we want to learn the use of arms with the greatest possible despatch, it is our duty to enlist ourselves in the army.
Three years later, he asserted:
Under Independence I too would not hesitate to advise those who would bear arms to do so and fight for the country.
Later on he explained these lapses by saying that they did not imply any lack of faith in non-violence, but merely that 'I had not yet found my feet… I was not sufficiently sure of my ground.' But this excuse can hardly be applied to the climactic events in the last two years of his life—the Hindu-Moslem massacres which led to Partition, and the fighting in Kashmir which signalled the ultimate shipwreck of non-violence. During his pilgrimage through the terror-stricken villages of East Bengal when he saw 'only darkness all round', he confessed to Bose that 'for the time being' he had 'given up searching for a non-violent remedy applicable to the masses'. A few days later, he wrote: 'Violence is horrible and retarding, but may be used in self-defence.' But another few days later, in a letter: 'Nonviolent defence is the supreme self-defence, being infallible.'
He was at the end of his tether.
In one of the devastated villages he received the visit of a Moslem divine who had saved the lives of several Hindu families by persuading them to go through a mock ceremony of conversion to Islam. 'Gandhi told them that it would have been much better if, as a religious preceptor, he had taught the Hindus to lay down their lives for their faith rather than give it up through fear. The divine continued to argue that such false conversion for saving one's life had the sanction of religion, when Gandhiji grew impatient and in an almost angry tone said if ever he met God he would ask him why a man with such views had ever been made a religious preceptor. The divine became silent and after an exchange of courtesies left.'
Gandhi had strenuously opposed Partition; he called it the vivisection of India which would mean the vivisection of myself'. At the historical meeting of Congress, on 4-15 June 1947, which was to decide for or against Partition, the President, Acharya Kripalani, Gandhi's lifelong friend, made a memorable speech which signified the future Indian Government's farewell to the ideals of nonviolence. Unlike Mark Anthony, he started by praising Gandhi, and then proceeded to bury him. He expressed his appreciation of Gandhi's pilgrimages in Bengal and Bihar, trying to bring about Hindu-Moslem reconciliation as an alternative to Partition, but denied the efficacy of the method: 'Unfortunately for us today, though (Gandhi) an enunciate policies, they have to be in the main carried out by others, and these others are not converted to his way of thinking. It is under these painful circumstances that I have supported the division of India.'
To everybody's surprise, Gandhi in his speech suddenly urged acceptance of Partition on the grounds that 'sometimes certain decisions, however unpalatable they may be, have to be taken'. Three months later, independent India and independent Pakistan were confronting each other in Kashmir. Gandhi commented in one of his after-prayer speeches that he had been 'an opponent of all warfare. But if there was no other way of securing justice from Pakistan, if Pakistan persistently refused to see its proved error and continued to minimize it, the Indian Union would have to go to war against it. War was no joke. No one wanted war. That way lay destruction. But he could never advise anyone to put up with injustice.'
'My affection for Gandhi,' Kingsley Martin wrote after his last visit to India, 'and my knowledge that he was a great man were not impaired by the discovery that he was still a Hindu nationalist and an imperfect disciple of the Mahatma.' I am not at all sure whether he would have supported an Indian version of the movement for unilateral nuclear disarmament. He had been lavish with his advice to Britons, Frenchmen, Czechs, Poles, Jews, to lay down their arms and surrender to injustices infinitely more terrible than those committed by Pakistan. As on earlier critical occasions, when the lofty ideal clashed with hard reality, realism carried the day and the Yogi succumbed to the Commissar. He had believed in and practised nature medicine, but when critically ill had always called in the practitioners of Western science which he held in such contempt. Ahimsa and satyagraha had worked like magic on the British, but did not work on Moslems. Was it really the panacea for mankind as he had thought? A fortnight before his death, commenting on Deputy Premier Sirdar Patel's decision to send troops into Kashmir, Gandhi confessed to Bose:
When power descended on [Patel], he saw that he could no longer successfully apply the method of non-violence which he used to wield with signal success. I have made the discovery that what I and the people with me termed nonviolence was not the genuine article, but a weak copy known as passive resistance. Naturally, passive resistance can avail nothing to a ruler.
To another interviewer—Professor Stuart Nelson—he repeated that 'what he had mistaken for satyagraha was not more than passive resistance, which was a weapon of the weak … Gandhiji proceeded to say that it was indeed true that he had all along laboured under an illusion. But he was never sorry for it. He realized that if his vision had not been clouded by that illusion, India would never have reached the point which it had done today.'
Yet that, too, may have been no more than an illusion. India had reached the point of independence not because of ahimsa, but because the Empire had gone into voluntary self-liquidation. The spinning-wheel was preserved on its national flag, but the Gandhian mystique played no part in the shaping of the new state, though it continued to pay lip-service to it. The armed conflicts with Pakistan and China produced outbreaks of chauvinism and mass hysteria which suggested that the Mahatma's pacifist apostolate had left hardly any tangible effects; and the repeated, bloody riots between Maharatis and Gandhi's own Gujeratis added a bitterly ironic touch to the picture. When Gandhi's adopted spiritual heir, Vinoba Bhave, 'the marching saint', was asked whether he approved of armed resistance against the Chinese frontier intrusion, he replied in the affirmative, using Gandhi's erstwhile excuse that the masses were not yet ripe for non-violent resistance. To paraphrase St Augustine: 'Lord, give us nonviolence, but not yet.'
Gandhi himself foresaw this development in moments when his vision was not 'clouded by illusion'. On the day Independence was proclaimed, 15 August 1947, when the whole world awaited his message on this historic occasion, he refused to send one. Emissaries of the newly formed government pointed out to him that his silence would create a bad impression. He replied: 'If it is bad, let it be so …' Bose noted in his diary: 'He said, there was a time when India listened to him. Today he was a back number. He was told that he had no place in the new order where they wanted machines, navy, air force, and what-not. He could never be party to that.' Towards the end, attendance at his prayer-meetings dwindled appreciably, and the after-prayer speeches 'failed to evoke the same enthusiasm as formerly. His voice seemed to have lost its magic quality.'
Pyarelal was another witness of the final agony. 'One sentence that was constantly on his lips was, "Don't you see, I am mounted on my funeral pyre" … Sometimes he asked himself whether he had not become a dead weight on his colleagues and on the country, an anachronism and a misfit in the new era that was shaping around him, and which he had done more than anyone else to shape … I watched day after day the wan, sad look on that pinched face, bespeaking an inner anguish that was frightening to behold.'
The principles by which he hoped to shape India, laid down forty years earlier in Hind Swaraj, had turned out to be self-defeating. In the midst of the celebrations, their—and his—defeat was complete. It was sealed by an assassin, who was not one from the enemy camp, but a devout Hindu.
J. F. Horrabin has described a meeting with Gandhi at St James's Palace where the Round Table Conference of 1931 was held:
We chatted for some minutes in a small anteroom. Then, catching sight of a clock, he remembered another appointment, apologized, and hurried away. I watched him disappear down one of the long corridors of the Palace; his robes tucked in, his slippers twinkling as he ran. Dare I say it?—I am sure, at least, that no friend of his will misunderstand me if I do—I was irresistibly reminded of one of those Chaplin films which end with the little figure hurrying away to the horizon, gradually lost to sight in the distance.
That remark, far from being disrespectful, leads straight to the secret of Gandhi's immense power over his countrymen, and the love they bore him. Chaplin was the symbol of the little man in a bowler hat in the industrialized society of the West. Gandhi was the symbol of the little man in a loincloth in poverty-stricken India. He himself was fully aware of this. When J. P. Patel once asked him 'what it was in him that created such a tremendous following in our country', he replied, 'It's the man of our country who realizes when he sees me that I am living as he does, and I am a part of his own self.'
Nehru, the westernized progressive, often regarded Gandhi as a political liability, but he was nevertheless under his spell, precisely because Gandhi to him was, in his own words, 'the soul of India'.
The soul and the loincloth went together; they were inseparable. When Gandhi had tea with George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace, wearing sandals, loincloth and a shawl on his shoulders, it was more than just showmanship. It was an event which instantly turned into legend, spreading to the remotest villages of India. One version of it was given years later by the Vice-Chancellor of Poonah University, who accompanied Gandhi to the gates of Buckingham Palace: 'He went to see the King dressed in a poor man's costume, with half his legs visible. The King said, "Mr Gandhi, how is India doing?" He said, "Look at me and you will know what India is like."' very villager with naked legs who felt that Gandhi was a part of his own self', thought himself for a moment equal to the King of England. Perhaps Gandhi's greatest gift to his people was to arouse in them, after centuries of lethargy, the first stirrings of self-respect.
But he also gave his blessing to their attitudes, derived from a petrified tradition, to sex, food, paternal authority, medicine, industry and education; and he confirmed them in that 'illusion-haunted, magic-ridden mentality' which Tagore has castigated as 'the original sin from which all our ills are flowing'. Even where he opposed tradition, he did it on the traditional principle of the identity of opposites: the Untouchables became Harijans, Children of God; the sources of defilement were turned into objects of worship, and latrine-cleaning became a sacrament for all pious ashramites—though for nobody else.
Gandhi exerted such a powerful influence over the minds of the masses that many believed him to be an Avatar, a reincarnation of Krishna. One cannot help feeling that had he crusaded for family-planning instead of the impossible demand for married continence, India might be a different country now. He was most eloquent about the poverty-stricken life of the Indian villager and his inability to feed the exorbitant numbers of his offspring; but the only remedy he had to propose was chastity and the spinning-wheel.
He was unwilling to listen to the reasoned arguments of critics. In the words of T. A. Raman, a distinguished Indian journalist: 'Almost the most marked trait of Gandhi's character is that evidenced by the virtual impossibility of reasoning with him. By definition he is a man of faith, and men of faith have little use for the slow processes of reasoning … This, and the unshakable conviction of his own rightness, make arguments with Gandhi pleasant (for he is a good listener) but futile.'
It is equally pleasant but futile to argue with intellectuals who adhere to the Gandhi cult and pay lip-service to a philosophy easy to eulogize and impossible to realize. It is this attitude which lends the contemporary Indian scene its twilight air of unreality, muddleheadedness and sanctimonious evasion of vital issues. Bapu still casts his saintly-sickly spell over it, but its power is waning as more people realize that, whether we like it or not, spinning-wheels cannot compete with factories, and that the most vital fluid is the water from large, modern irrigation dams for the country's parched fields.
When all is said, the Mahatma, in his humble and heroic ways, was the greatest living anachronism of the twentieth century; and one cannot help feeling, blasphemous though it may sound, that India would be better off today and healthier in mind, without the Gandhian heritage.
Nirmal Kumar Bose (essay date 1971)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3468
SOURCE: "The Theory and Practice of Sarnodaya," in The Meanings of Gandhi, edited by Paul F. Power, The University Press of Hawaii, 1971, pp. 79-89.
[In the following excerpt, Bose discusses the development of Gandhi's principle of Sarvodaya and its continuing application in Indian society.]
It was in South Africa that Gandhi first read Ruskin's Unto This Last. The book led to an immediate transformation in his way of life. Later he prepared a paraphrase of the book in Gujarati and published it in Indian Opinion which he had founded in South Africa to help the cause of satyagraha. The Gujarati version bore the title of "Sarvodaya." Literally, the word means "the welfare of all" in contrast to the concept of "the greatest good of the greatest number." To bring out the distinction clearly, Gandhi wrote in 1926:
A votary of ahimsa cannot subscribe to the utilitarian formula. He will strive for the greatest good of all and die in the attempt to realize the ideal. He will, therefore, be willing to die so that the others may live. He will serve himself with the rest by himself dying. The greatest good of all inevitably includes the good of the greatest number, and therefore he and the utilitarian will converge in many points in their career, but there does come a time when they must part company, and even work in opposite directions. The utilitarian to be logical will never sacrifice himself. The absolutist will even sacrifice himself.
One of the lessons which Gandhi drew from his reading of Ruskin is that the value of all socially useful work is or ought to be the same. He held that the lawyer and the barber should have the same right of earning their livelihood from their work. This would imply an equality of wages, although Gandhi did not make that point specifically. Gandhi also held that a life of manual labor is the best life. Later he developed the idea still further when he began to say that every man should earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, an idea he may have borrowed from Tolstoy.
What would be the place of an intellectual worker in the Gandhian scheme? Gandhi's answer was:
Intellectual work is important and has an undoubted place in the scheme of life. But what I insist on is the necessity of physical labour. No man, I claim, ought to be free from that obligation. It will serve to improve even the quality of his intellectual output.
The question remains, how was the Gandhian ideal of economic transformation actually going to be achieved? In this regard, Gandhi held very clearly that those who subscribed to the idea of an exploitation-free economic order should begin with a reordering of their own lives. But this was clearly not enough. Institutions had also to be changed. Just as new institutions had to be built up, so any institution which came in the way of the practice of the New Life should also be resisted by means of nonviolent non-cooperation. He was especially concerned to reform capital and labor so that the divisions of society into antagonistic classes would end and be replaced by a commonwealth of harmony.
One special question arises out of Gandhi's view: if a small or a large band of people try to build a nonviolent, exploitation-free economic order, will there be no internal or external opposition to it? How will the community practicing a New Life deal with possible challenges? As a practical idealist, Gandhi recognized the difficulties and developed his own answer to the question of defense. He was often asked: what can be defended by nonviolence? His usual answer was that a community which tried to equip itself for such defense should, first of all, get rid of all illegitimate possessions. It must surrender all the gains of violence and, beyond that, share its resources, both natural and human, with the rest of mankind.
Once while describing his ideal for a nation, he said:
I want the freedom of my country so that other countries may learn something from my free country, so that the resources of my country might be utilized for the benefit of mankind.… My love therefore of nationalism, or my idea of nationalism, is that my country may become free, that if need be, the whole country may die so that the human races may live.
Gandhi firmly held that if a small community began to rebuild its life of work and sharing, and if the facts became duly known to their neighbors, the community would gain a degree of moral stature which would help to spread the good news all over the world. If, even then, there was aggression from within or without, the community would try to defend itself by means of nonviolent noncooperation. They would refuse to treat the so-called aggressor as anything other than an erring brother and refuse to strike back in self-defense.
The willingness of the nonviolent non-cooperator to share whatever he has with anyone who is genuinely in want, and his quiet courage in the defense of the new order of life, will eventually touch the heart of the aggressor and pave the way for his conversion. Once Gandhi was asked if he really believed that the heart of a tyrant could ever be touched by means of satyagraha. His reply indicated his knowledge, gained through bitter experience, that he himself might fail. But a tyrant acts only through the cooperation of a million soldiers who are no better and no worse than any of us. If their hearts are touched, the tyrant will become isolated, and that would be the utmost that we can hope for. Then, if all the satyagrahis die in the defense of their cause without any visible effect upon the aggressor, that very act of sacrifice will awaken the conscience of the world, and the satyagrahis will have done all that it is possible for them to do.
Even if we accept that the Gandhian method ensures the good of all, sarvodaya, the question remains: how do we begin our task? Shall we try to bring about perfection in individuals and small communities and hope that the existing institutions which foster inequality will eventually wither away and fall down like dead leaves in autumn? Tolstoy, whom Gandhi regarded as one of the great teachers of mankind, was undoubtedly of such an opinion. He said that every individual should go on perfecting his own life by living in accordance with the true precepts of Christianity. One should not resist evil. One should totally disregard the state which is altogether an evil. But Gandhi differed from him in one very important respect. Although he wanted individuals, in combination, to try to build up the New Life, yet Gandhi also held that we must resist evil institutions to preserve our own. The resistance should be by moral and faultless means.
Even in the midst of the stiffest of nonviolent campaigns in India, Gandhi took great pains to remind those who were in the thick of the fight that our war was not against communities but against institutions to which they wrongly subscribed. Our object was to wean them from error and, in the same process, to be weaned from our own errors, if there were any. Gandhi held that it was in this way that we should refuse to surrender our sense of brotherhood even in the midst of a struggle, for it was only in this way that we could ensure and promote the good of all.
All through his life in India, Gandhi practiced and propagated the ideal and the method described above. Although for him nonviolence was a creed and a passion, yet when he led the nation in its battles against political or social wrongs, he always recommended formulas of action for the masses which were in conformity with their temper and strength.
In 1921, Gandhi began his constructive program with the promotion of manual textile industries and the establishment of inter-communal amity. His political movement in those days did not rise to a high pitch of militancy. He appeared to be drilling the masses for more difficult battles to come. During the decade of the 1930's he raised the pitch of his constructive activities, adding to the original base such items as craft-centered primary education and efforts for economic equality. The political action of 19302 and of 1942 was more challenging. Men and women were then called upon to face the assassin's dagger or bullet without flinching while they were at their appointed task. Thus, India slowly progressed in her exercise of collective nonviolence, until, through historical circumstances, the transfer of power took place from British to Indian hands in mid-1947.
Obviously, Gandhi welcomed British withdrawal. But he was not happy, for partition came with freedom and the swaraj, or self-rule of the masses, still remained a distant goal. The constructive program which should have laid the foundation of economic and social emancipation had not been given due attention. It was this, therefore, to which he asked the political workers to turn their minds. In January 1948, Gandhi took one of the most decisive and revolutionary steps in his entire political career. He recommended that the Congress dissolve itself. He asked its members to spread over the seven hundred and fifty thousand villages of India and Pakistan to educate and organize the villagers in their new rights and duties. In effect, the Congress was to be transformed into a Lok Sevak Sangh or Organization for the Service of the People. To complement the change in the party system, economic production and political power were to be decentralized and regulated through panchayats which would embrace one another in ever-widening circles of cooperation.
But the fates seem to have ordained otherwise. Gandhi had overcome the feeling of disillusionment which had cast its shadow over him during the months immediately after independence. But just when he had decided to take a bold step, he was stricken by the hand of an assassin who believed that he had weakened India by his lessons of nonviolence.
The blow stunned the nation. But thanks to the efforts of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Government took a very firm stand to curb further communal disturbances and to govern effectively. After Gandhi's death many people realized that national integration should be fostered with greater care. As part of that objective, the division between Hindu and Moslem as well as between the rich and the poor had to be healed as quickly as possible. The Five-Year Plans of development came one after another to raise the productive capacity of the nation and to elevate the standard of living. These goals had to be achieved through the democratic process, not by totalitarian methods.
One of the unexpected results of governmental action was that the whole country began to lean more and more heavily upon legislative and administrative measures for the achievement of the goal of democratic socialism. The self-reliance which had been an outstanding feature of the nation's activities during three decades of Gandhian leadership appeared to be in retreat. There was hardly any fresh endeavor to build up democracy from the base. Even when local self-government was promoted through Panchayat Raj, and a large part of the community development program was entrusted to it, critical observers discovered that at the local district or village level the class of landed proprietors and moneyed men retained or came into power through the elections. Clearly, this result was the opposite of what Gandhi had wanted through his constructive program and his suggested rule of the panchayats. As a result, many of the political and social workers, who had committed themselves to the Gandhian ideal, suffered from a deep feeling of frustration. They did not have the awareness or the skill to reverse the process which had led the country to an increasing reliance upon the state and the political party for attainment of economic and social goals.
While the developments outlined above were taking place, Vinoba emerged as a new force in another corner of India, far from Delhi. A fellow worker with Gandhi since 1916, he had dedicated himself without reservation to the cause of nonviolence. Soon after Gandhi's death, in March 1948, there was a meeting of constructive workers in Gandhi's establishment at Wardha. There, on the suggestion of Vinoba, the Sarvodaya Samaj, the Society for the Promotion of Sarvodaya, came into existence. A year afterwards, the first annual conference was held in Indore where the Sarva Seva Sangh, Association for Service in the Cause of Sarvodaya, was formed. The third conference was held in a village near Hyderabad city in 1951. In the meanwhile, Vinoba had sponsored the idea that the constructive workers, as well as people in general, should be freed from their reliance upon money. The vow of freedom from money, Kanchanmukti, was taken. When Vinoba went to the conference in Hyderabad, he walked all the way from near Wardha to the place of conference, a distance of 315 miles. Out of this experience came Bhoodan, the Land-Gift Movement.
The State of Hyderabad had land problems peculiarly its own. Earlier there were popular risings against the ruling class and a large measure of counterviolence. Eventually, the Government of India intervened, and the Nizam was deposed. Under these disturbed conditions, the Communist Party entered the arena. Their strategy was to seize land from landlords. In the process a reign of terror came to the countryside.
During his journey through the disturbed area, Vinoba came to realize the nature of the problems. To educate himself he had an exchange of views with the Communists. It was then that he decided that the redistribution of land should be brought about in a peaceful way. During a walking tour through the Telengana area, Vinoba reached a village named Pochampalli, inhabited mostly by landless laborers, members of the so-called untouchable castes. When asked by Vinoba as to how their problem could be solved, these laborers consulted one another and said that, if they could secure 80 acres of land for cultivation, they would be satisfied. At the village meeting Vinoba asked if anyone could make this amount of land available. A farmer named V. R. Reddy came forward and donated 100 acres for the use of landless laborers. This was on April 18, 1951.
This event opened up a new concept in Vinoba's mind—Bhoodan, the Land-Gift Movement. He believed that other donors like the one at Pochampalli would not be wanting in the country. Indeed, in the fifty-one days of his tour through nearly two hundred villages in the Telengana area, Vinoba secured a gift of 12,201 acres from farmers, both big and small. Month after month, Vinoba proceeded on his walking tour through Hyderabad, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Kerala and other states. His program began to unfold. With a shrewd, practical sense Vinoba did not ask for more than one-sixth of the land which any one possessed. His appeal to those who had no land was that they should contribute a number of days in labor or a certain fraction of their earnings every month to be used, on their own initiative, for communal service. The last came to be known as Sampattidan, Gift of Property.
News of Vinoba's mission spread widely throughout the country, and many social and political workers responded to the attraction of the movement. In Orissa, Land-Gift was elevated to Gramdan, Village-Gift. In Bhoodan, the owner retained title to the land which he had not given away. But under Gramdan, when nearly three-fourths of the villagers were ready, they surrendered their personal right of property and transferred it to the community organization of the village, Gramsabha, Village Association. The Association, formed by the villagers themselves, was to redistribute the land to the needy. A part of the donated land was to be set aside for communal purposes. Everyone had to contribute his labor for its cultivation, and the produce, or the money obtained from sale, was to meet some of the common needs of the village.
From Land-Gift to Village-Gift, the process has now developed into sub-movements of Prakhandadan, Block-Gift, and Zilladan, District-Gift. As of April 30, 1969, there were just over 100,000 villages in the Gramdan category, 700 Blocks and seventeen Districts.
An account of the Land-Gift movement would not be complete without mention of J. C. Kumarappa and J. P. Narayan. Trained in economics, Kumarappa led the village industries' organization for several years. A firm believer in decentralization as a means of attaining economic justice and peace, Kumarappa has become, since Gandhi's death, a spokesman for a "Third Order" whose purpose is to ensure equality of land distribution and the adequate development of the land. Some of the Land-Gift workers pin their faith on building up Kumarappa's Third Order. Others believe that dissemination of the concept of Land-Gift is sufficient and that the inhabitants of the donated villages can be left alone to establish their new society.
Jayprakash Narayan is one of our most outstanding leaders. He began his career as a Marxist-Leninist, drifted through Democratic Socialism and since Independence has become one of the most ardent champions of the sarvodaya movement. His statement, From Socialism to Sarvodaya, is one of the best expressions of the contrast between what Marxist Socialists seek and what Gandhi desired for India. In the course of his passage through Democratic Socialism to Sarvodaya, he progressively shed his reliance upon parliaments and parties until he propounded the idea of a party-less democracy. But his major stress is on creating economic democracy from the bottom as proposed by Vinoba. Jayprakash feels confident that the Land-Gift Movement will be able to solve the problem of land through voluntary endeavor much faster than any governmental program can reach a solution. Already, a very large number of workers have been assembled to work in all the states.
In the interim, the central regime and the state governments have passed measure after measure which profoundly influence ownership rights to land. Among the important steps taken have been the abolition of the zemindar system, the recognition of the rights of refugees to lands which they have forcibly occupied, and the enactment of special laws regarding land held or formerly possessed by tribal communities in parts of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. On the other hand, several branches of the Communist Party have given priority to the capture by violence or otherwise of land belonging to absentee landlords or owners of tea or coffee plantations. This program is also being extended to landowners who, in the opinion of the Communist Party, hold more land than they require. Cases of liquidation of such land-owning farmers are not rare in the country.
One pressing problem in implementing the Land-Gift Movement is that there is a lack of a sufficient number of workers who can cover all the donated villages to help the people organize their economic life in a new way. Moreover, very few in the movement seem to accept the responsibility of implementing the well-intentioned laws of the state which would be to the advantage of the villagers. Some workers seem to fear contamination by political power. This is not a healthy sign. Another problem is the lack of resistance to land laws which might eventually prove detrimental to the interests of the peasantry. In contrast, Gandhi helped the people to work at both ends. While he promoted reconstruction through non-official agencies, he encouraged the people to take advantage of whatever power had come to them through elections. If resistance to law were indicated, he would not hesitate to urge disobedience in the name of justice.
All the thinking in connection with the Land-Gift Movement seems to have become centered around Vinoba and a handful of his close associates. When Gandhi lived and worked, he was the source of programs and guidance for India. There did not develop any intellectual movement to support, modify or critically examine the Gandhian movement. As a result, when he was no longer there, India drifted towards economic and political models which had little relevance to the actualities of life. Results were produced which were far from what was anticipated. The programs grew out of books, not from the soil.
If today there continues to be an excessive reliance upon one man or even half a dozen men, and if there is no critical assessment of anticipated and actual results, there is ground for fearing that the Land-Gift Movement may gravitate into a routine performance when Vinoba or Jayaprakash Narayan are no longer there to maintain a creative level. In their despair, the masses of India may be driven to other remedies which may eventually lead them to new forms of subordination. Perhaps an enlightened intellect can save us in time from such a predicament.
Glyn Richards (essay date 1982)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5688
SOURCE: "The Concept of Truth," in his The Philosophy of Gandhi: A Study of His Basic Ideas, Curzon Press, 1982, pp. 1-16.
[In the following excerpt, Richards focuses on truth as the central concept of Gandhi's philosophy.]
The concept of Truth (Satya) is fundamental to the thought of Gandhi. It is not without significance that the sub-title of his autobiography is 'The Story of my experiments with Truth', and his whole life might well be interpreted as an attempt to live in accordance with or an existential quest for Truth. Followers of Gandhi explicitly maintain that he was essentially a practical man with no concern for metaphysics or philosophical speculation, yet it is clear that whenever he attempted to explain what he meant by Truth he was involved in metaphysical speculation whether he or his followers realized it or not. My contention is that the unity of Gandhi's thought and the interrelatedness of the various aspects of his teaching spring from firmly-held metaphysical beliefs and that the nature of these beliefs become very much apparent when he expounds what he means by Truth. I am not suggesting that he arrives at the meaning of Truth as the result of philosophical or metaphysical speculation in a vacuum. He is not a neutral observer who first learns to define Truth and then applies it to different aspects of life. Rather he is a participant in a form of life and the meaning of Truth for him is made apparent from the way in which it is used in that form of life.
Gandhi is faithful to the traditions of Hinduism when he affirms the isomorphism of Truth (Satya) and Reality Sat). He refers to reality as Truth and by the use of the term he preserves the metaphysical and ethical connotation of such traditional Hindu terms as dharma, universal law or duty, and rta, the cosmic moral law. For him nothing is, or nothing exists, except Truth, and where Truth is there also is true knowledge, (cit), and where true knowledge is, there also is bliss, (ananda). Truth then is Saccidananda, being, consciousness, bliss. This may be one of the reasons why Gandhi has no difficulty in describing himself as an Advaitin or non-Dualist, though to what extent it is accurate to regard Gandhi as an Advaitin is another matter. It is evident that he has no difficulty either in describing himself as a Dvaitin or Dualist, or as a follower of Vigiqddvaita or qualified non-Dualism, namely, non-Dualism with distinctions. But his claim to be able to represent the three major philosophical schools of the Vedanta does not prevent him from regarding Truth Satya) as the most correct and most fully significant term that could be used for God. On the face of it the statement God is Truth' seems to imply that Truth is an attribute or description of God, and in the first instance Gandhi was content to allow the phrase to be used in this way although it did not accurately reflect his position. Later, however, he came to realize that it was more accurate for him to say Truth is God than it was to say God is Truth. That is, he considered the term God to be an appellation for Truth rather than the term Truth to be a description or attribute of God. The statement 'Truth is God', which Gandhi instinctively felt to be a more accurate expression of his basic position, is not inconsistent with his description of Truth as Being itself, as eternal, or with his reference to Truth as that which alone is, all else being momentary. While in his view Truth need not assume shape or form at any time, yet when it is made to do so in order to meet specific human needs it is called Iśvara or God and assumes a personal connotation.
For Gandhi, however, the primary connotation of the term 'God' is not personal. He describes God as a force, as the essence of life, as pure, undefiled consciousness, as truth, goodness, light and love, and as the atheism of the atheist since the latter also seeks truth. He rejects the suggestion that Buddhism can be considered atheistic on the grounds that God is really the dharma or teaching of the Buddhists. He sees God as the unseen power pervading all things, the sum-total of life, the indefinable, the formless, the nameless. What these descriptions present us with is the concept of an impersonal Absolute or Ultimate and this is exactly what Gandhi wishes to convey for he has no hesitation in expressing a preference for the idea of God as formless Truth. Yet his expressed preference for the worship of the formless does not prevent him from recognizing that God is personal to those who need to feel his presence and embodied to those who desire to experience his touch. In his view it makes no difference whether the devotee conceives of God in personal or in impersonal terms since the one class of devotee is not inferior to the other. His readiness to acknowledge that God is all things to all men enables him to support the Dvaitin or Dualist, and Vigistadvaitin or qualified non-Dualist positions as well as maintaining his own preference for Advaita or non-Dualism. His acceptance of what he calls 'the doctrine of the manyness of reality', by which he probably means that reality can be conceived of in many different ways, makes it possible for him to approve of the noncreative aspect of God as propounded by the Jains, and the creative aspect of God as propounded by Ramanuja the foremost exponent of the Vigistidvaita position. That this tolerant attitude should have resulted in his being called an Anekantavadin, or a believer in many doctrines, is not surprising, but it did not disturb him in the least. His position is such, however, that it does produce the paradox that God is described in the same context as an impersonal force and the essence of life, and also as omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent. Gandhi moves from impersonal to personal descriptions of God without difficulty and while he expresses preference for an impersonal God he is not averse to describing God in personal terms. This might be interpreted as an indication that it is not his purpose or intention to present a systematic, coherent and consistent Advaitin account of the concept of Truth or God after the fashion of Sankara, the principal exponent of non-dualism, and that what could be said concerning the metaphysical basis of his thought is that although it purports to be Advaitin it does not preclude the possibility of Dvaita, or Dualist, and Vigistidvaita, or qualified non-Dualist interpretations of the nature of reality. On the other hand, it might be argued that when he moves from the concept of impersonal truth to the concept of a personal God, he is distinguishing, in traditional Advaitin fashion, between higher and lower levels of truth or reality. But acceptance of this argument involves acceptance of the superiority of the higher, impersonal level of truth over the lower personal level of truth and the acknowledgement of two levels of knowledge. Gandhi, as we have seen, sees no superiority in conceiving of God in impersonal rather than personal terms so it is difficult to see how the traditional distinction between higher and lower levels of truth can be applied to him. The fact that he uses both personal and impersonal descriptions of God supports this point. If the question is asked whether Gandhi is not aware of the dangers of contradiction in his use of personal and impersonal terms to describe God, the answer might be that it would depend whether the personal use of the term God refers to an entity, or being, in the form of an extra-mundane person, whether or not a contradiction is involved. Gandhi, however, does not conceive of God in this way even when he uses the term in a personal sense. He insists that 'you labour under a limitation when you think of a being or entity who is beyond the power of a man to grasp', so it can be maintained that he is aware of the problems involved in his personal-impersonal uses of the term God. It might also be maintained that the elasticity of the concept of Satya in Indian philosophical thought may well account for these apparent contradictions.
The foregoing argument may be supported by what Gandhi says about the names and forms of God. He is able to refer to God by such names as Rama and Ksfia, which are specifically Hindu names, and as Ahuramazda, which is the Zoroastrian name for the God of light. These names have a personal connotation and, according to Gandhi, are simply man's attempt to define the mysterious, invincible force that pervades all things. In his youth he was taught, in accordance with Hindu custom, to repeat the thousand names of God, but he realized that the thousand names of God were not exhaustive and that while God has many names and many forms he is also nameless and formless. In fact the power that is called God is beyond definition; it is, as is stated of Brahman, 'neti, neti,—not this, not this', and in our attempts to define it we are seeking to describe the indescribable. According to Gandhi, if it is at all possible for man to describe this power then it ought to be called Truth (Satya), which is a derivative of Sat, which literally means that which is or exists. All the names and forms attributed to this indefinable power are, in Gandhi's view, symbols, and attempts to personalize God. Some clearly feel the need for the Ultimate to be expressed in symbolic, personalized form, and image worship can be regarded as part of the desire of human nature for symbols. Personifications of the Ultimate in such forms as Rama and Krsina have to be regarded as symbols which manifest man's craving for the Unseen for what suits one man does not necessarily meet the needs of another.
I have accepted all the names and forms attributed to God, as symbols connoting one formless omnipresent Rama. To me, therefore, Rama … is the all-powerful essence whose name, inscribed in the heart, removes all suffering, mental, moral and physical.
[In Search of the Supreme]
When it was suggested to Gandhi on one occasion by a Roman Catholic priest that if Hinduism became monotheistic Christianity and Hinduism could serve India in cooperation, Gandhi's reply was that Hindus were not polytheistic. While it is undoubtedly true that Hindus say there are many gods they also declare that there is but one God, Iswara, Devadhideva, who is God of gods. Gandhi himself professed to be a thorough Hindu yet not a believer in many gods.
If it is insisted that image worship is nothing but a form of idol worship, Gandhi's response to this accusation is that image worship is simply indicative of man's need for symbols. Hindus do not worship their images of stone or metal. They worship rather God as symbolized or personified in those forms. If a worshipper were to make a fetish of his stone or metal image, however, then that might correctly be construed as idolatry, but such an attitude has to be distinguished from the element of sacredness that worshippers often attribute to temples, churches and mosques or to books such as the Bible, the Koran or the Gītā. Gandhi illustrates his rejection of the charge of idolatry by stating [in In Search of the Supreme]: 'Every Hindu child knows that the stone in the famous temple in Banaras is not Kashi Vishwanath. But he believes that the Lord of the Universe does reside specially in that stone.'
The stone referred to here is clearly a symbol of God rather than an embodiment of God, but at the same time it has an element of sacredness, which is what Gandhi may be implying when he maintains that God resides in the stone in a special way. Or to put it in another way, for Gandhi the stone partakes of the nature of that which it represents.
By the use of the last phrase I have indicated a comparison that may possibly be drawn between Gandhi and Paul Tillich. Gandhi's teaching concerning the symbolic nature of personifications of Truth in a variety of different forms seems on the face of it to correspond to what Tillich has to say about the symbolic nature of Christian terminology. Both maintain that there are symbolic representations of the Ultimate whether the Ultimate be depicted as Truth or as the Holy. For Gandhi, symbols manifest man's craving for the unseen and intangible; for Tillich they are necessary because the Ultimate or Holy could not maintain its unconditional character without them. The difference between the practical approach of Gandhi and the more systematic, theological approach of Tillich is evident from these descriptions. Tillich holds that symbols in themselves cannot be equated with the Ultimate nor can they be regarded as fully expressing the Ultimate. He refers to symbols as pointing beyond themselves to the Ultimate while at the same time partaking of the nature of that to which they point. By this he means that they possess a certain sacred connotation or depth dimension. They open up levels of reality not easily accessible to the more literal approach and relate to elements within the depth of man's soul. Symbols, for Tillich, do not wholly contain the Ultimate and, in his view, there can be no finite particularization of the Ultimate or Holy. To maintain that the Ultimate can be fully expressed in finite particulars can only result in what Tillich calls the demonization of the Holy. Symbols, according to Gandhi, are a necessity for the religious life of some people but he insists that there is nothing inferior in conceiving of God in personalized terms. Furthermore, different religions may need different symbols, and it is only when they are treated as fetishes, or when they become the means whereby one religion claims superiority over another, that they cease to be of value and are fit only to be discarded. In other words, while Tillich maintains that when finite particulars are given the status of ultimacy it is detrimental to true religion and a form of demonization, Gandhi insists that symbols which become fetishes are idolatrous and fit only to be discarded. Presumably what he means is that at that point they will have lost their representative character and become embodiments of the divine. Tillich would call this practice demonization, or the elevation of a finite particular to the status of ultimacy. Gandhi would regard it as a failure to preserve or maintain the function of symbols and a degeneration of their purpose. Tillich's tendency to hypostasize the Ultimate in the concept of Ground of Being does not appear to be shared by Gandhi. True he expresses a preference for the impersonal concept of Truth (Satya), which etymologically is a derivative of Being (Sat), in contemplating the Ultimate, but this does not preclude other more personal concepts of God. The reason he gives for adopting this stand-point is that reality can be conceived of in many different ways all of which are equally valid. It follows that Gandhi's view of symbols differs somewhat from that of Tillich in the sense that they do not point to a hypostasized Ultimate. For the latter, the term God is the main religious symbol for the Ground of Being while, for the former, God is the name we give to the mysterious power that pervades the universe and not a symbol in the Tillichian sense. The manifestation of God in the Indian tradition would take such forms as Brahma, Visinu and Siva, the trimulrti of the Hindu way of life, and innumerable other gods and goddesses, the veneration of which, in Gandhi's view, is sometimes inaccurately and insensitively described as idol worship. According to Tillich, the way in which God is filled out with concrete symbols in the Christian tradition is by the use of certain aspects of man's finite experience. For example, he is referred to as Father, as Person, as One who acts and who shows love, power and justice. The essence of idolatry for Tillich is when these concrete, finite symbols are accorded the status of the Holy or Ultimate Concern; this is the demonization of religion. According to Gandhi, it is when symbols become fetishes and embodiments of the divine, that they might be construed as idols. At that point they cease to serve their purpose and then are fit only to be discarded.
Gandhi claims to be simply a seeker after Truth, ceaselessly searching for it, occasionally having glimpses of it, yet not finding it. It is as if he glimpses absolute Truth in and through particular instances of truth. He does not equate absolute Truth with particular instances of truth but that does not prevent him from recognizing that particular instances of truth, while not embodying absolute Truth, are nevertheless necessary to convey the meaning of absolute Truth. His existential quest for Truth is in fact the key to his understanding and interpretation of the Bhagavad-Gïta. He sees the main aim of the Gita as a call to action. But since, according to Hindu teaching, actions of themselves bind man to the empirical, samsaric world, the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth, there is need of disciplined action or desireless action, that is, action where there is no hankering after the fruits of action, if liberation is to be achieved. Gandhi would describe such action as selfless, detached, sacrificial and non-violent. It is, in his view, action on behalf of others or action in the service of others. This is the kind of action, he maintains, that results from devotion to Truth, but it is also the means whereby one is enabled to see Truth more clearly. This two-way movement is illustrated by the relation Gandhi envisages between ahimsa, or non-violence, and Truth.
'Ahimsa is my God, and Truth is my God. When I look for Ahimsa, Truth says, "Find it through me". When I look for Truth, Ahimsa says "Find it through me"' [Truth Is God]. It is Gandhi's contention that the only inevitable means for the attainment of Truth is ahimsā. Ahimsa is the means and Truth the end. But since ends and means are convertible terms for Gandhi, Truth and ahimsa are intertwined. The practice of ahimsa inevitably leads to Truth. Conversely, the practice of ahimsa can never lead to Truth. What Gandhi may be indicating by this reference to the convertibility of the terms means and ends in his thought is that our religious and ethical ideals not only inform the ends we aim at and endeavour to attain, but also the means we employ to reach them. What could be said is that the same moral demands apply to the means as to the ends in the quest for Truth, and that often difficulties arise because of these demands. That is, ethical or moral considerations 'impose a limit on our purposes and their execution which the distinction between means and ends cannot account for, since means and ends alike come under moral scrutiny' [D. Z. Phillips, Some Limits to Moral Endeavour].…
When asked on one occasion what he considered Truth to be, it would seem that Gandhi interpreted the question as a request for information as to how he came to know Truth. In his reply he defines Truth as 'What the voice within tells you'[Truth Is God]. It is tempting to interpret this statement as a self-authenticating, subjective principle which Gandhi is able to resort to, namely, the voice of his conscience. But the point is that the inner voice, or the voice of conscience, is not self-authenticating. There are criteria which determine the way in which a man thinks and acts, and in Gandhi's case they are the religious and ethical ideals of his own form of life. And to attribute knowledge of Truth to the voice of conscience in this way, or to the religious and ethical criteria of a particular form of life, inevitably brings Gandhi face to face with the problem of the relativity of truth and with the question whether under the circumstances one is justified in talking about absolute Truth at all. That is, there are criteria which determine the way in which others also think and act which may be completely contrary to those of Gandhi. Gandhi actually recognizes the problem of relativity and acknowledges that what may be truth for one may be untruth for another. His proposed solution to this problem is that before one claims to speak of his inner voice, or the voice of conscience, he should recognize his limitations, and discipline himself to cultivate truthfulness, humility, purity and non-violence and embrace the twin ideals of poverty and non-possession. Put in another way the proposal is that a man should seek to know and fully understand the criteria which determine his thoughts and actions. Gandhi speaks also of the need for abhyasa, or single-minded devotion, and vairagya, or indifference to worldly life. He maintains that: 'If you would swim on the bosom of the ocean of Truth you must reduce yourself to a zero' [All Men Are Brothers].
The question is whether this can really be regarded as a solution to the problem of the relativity of truth. Does not a human cypher or zero have to be capable of hearing the inner voice and, to the extent that he does hear it, is he not then a human being with the defects and failings that one normally associates with a human being? If so, it follows that his apprehension of Truth will of necessity be partial and relative and that absolute Truth will be forever beyond his grasp. Gandhi actually acknowledges this fact; he is above all a practical idealist. He accepts that it is impossible for mortal man to lay claim to attain, or to possess, perfect Truth. Similarly, it is not possible for him either to give a hard-and-fast definition of Truth. As Gandhi points out: 'We can only visualize it in our imagination. We cannot, through the instrumentality of this ephemeral body, see face to face Truth which is eternal. That is why in the last resort one must depend on faith' [All Men Are Brothers].
His reference to faith may explain how it is that he is able to conceive of the notion of absolute Truth which he calls God. It is an affirmation of faith. When he says Truth is God he is really making a confession of faith rather than a statement in the indicative mood. Such a confession of faith requires to external verification in the same way as statements of fact. So when he maintains that because we are, Truth or God is, or that God is the sum total of life, it could be argued that he is not presenting us with some kind of cosmological argument for the existence of God and that it is not his purpose to argue from the world to God. It is his contention rather that there can be no proofs for God's existence which are acceptable to human reason since God is beyond reason. He admits that it may be possible to use reason to a limited extent, but he insists that ultimately the existence of God defies all proof and has to be based on faith which transcends reason. In the tradition of Advaita or non-Dualism he refers to the soul, (ātman), and God, (Brahman), as knowers rather than objects of knowledge and claims that it is not possible for mortal beings by the use of reason alone to know the knower of knowing.
Perfect or absolute Truth, which is known by faith, is beyond our empirical grasp which means that we must act in the knowledge that we are holding on to such truth as we are able to apprehend in this world.
That relative truth must, meanwhile, be my beacon, my shield and buckler… Even my Himalayan blunders have seemed trifling to me because I have kept strictly to this path… I have gone forward according to my light. Often in my progress I have had faint glimpses of the Absolute Truth, God, and daily the conviction is growing on me that He alone is real and all else is unreal.
[Truth Is God]
Without relative truth to hold on to it could be argued that absolute Truth, which is a matter of faith, would be nothing but empty utopianism. The point is that since we have here no abiding city the particular instance of truth cannot be identified with absolute Truth. Yet it is only through particular instances of truth that we can come to understand what it might mean to speak of absolute Truth. So relative truth is necessary to convey the meaning of absolute Truth which we affirm in faith. Relative truth, as Gandhi states, is our 'beacon' in the sphere of the empirical. So when he claims to have had glimpses of absolute Truth, it may be reasonable to assume, not that he has caught a glimpse of some kind of hypostasized Ultimate or extra-mundane entity, but rather that through his participation in a particular form of life he is made aware of the need to live and act in accordance with certain religious and ethical criteria and is informed by the spirit of what might be called dharma (law), or rta (moral law), or tao (way) but which he prefers to call Truth (Satya) or God.
In addition to the need for humility, discipline and single-minded devotion in the quest for Truth Gandhi lays stress on prayer. His concept of prayer, however, requires analysis and clarification in view of his expressed preference for an impersonal and formless Absolute. It could be said that to understand what he means by prayer is to understand what he means by talking to God. If we were to insist that prayer involves some form of dialogue then it would presuppose that we already know what is meant by the concept of God. To adopt this kind of approach would be to make the meaningfulness of prayer contingent on the acceptance of a particular concept of God. Such an approach would preclude an understanding of what Gandhi means by talking to God.
Prayer for Gandhi is the essence of religion and the core of a man's life. It requires no words; it is not the repetition of an empty formula. While it can be petitional, in its widest sense it is inward communion, and in both cases it cleanses the heart of passion and produces peace, orderliness, and repose in daily life. It would appear that for Gandhi prayer is a form of meditation, which has as its aim self-purification and knowledge of the Truth. The form of prayer is unimportant; whatever the form its aim is to bring us into communion with the divine. It may be interpreted as a spiritual discipline necessary to preserve our humanity and to promote the service of others. Basically, however, it is a means of self-purification and a call to inward searching. As Gandhi understands it, by means of petitionary prayer man invokes the divinity within himself; he petitions the real, higher Self. But the petitionary aspect of prayer is not as important to Gandhi as the communion aspect. He calls prayer 'a longing of the soul' and an admission of one's weakness'. As he explains [in In Search of the Supreme]: 'The Deity does not need my supplication, but I, a very imperfect human being, do need his protection as a child that of its father.' This exceedingly personalistic reference to God is paralleled by an impersonal description of the Deity as Truth when Gandhi states: 'This God whom we seek to realize is Truth. Or to put it in another way Truth is God. This Truth is not merely the truth we are expected to speak. It is That which alone is, which constitutes the stuff of which all things are made, which subsists by virtue of its own power, which is not supported by anything else but supports everything that exists.'
Plato draws a distinction between telling the truth and being a truthful man. The man who tells the truth is not the same as the truthful man. Gandhi distinguishes between speaking the truth and Truth. The Truth, which presumably Plato's truthful man, like Gandhi himself, feels the need to live in accordance with, to abide by, to hold fast to, and to uphold, is that which determines the way in which he lives and the spirit in which he travels.
The personal-impersonal nature of Gandhi's descriptions of God is clearly illustrated here but the point already made earlier can be reiterated, namely, that it is not important to him whether God is conceived of in personal or impersonal terms since neither superiority nor inferiority of expression is implied in either case.
When Gandhi maintains that by means of prayer he invokes the divinity within himself it is evident that he draws no hard-and-fast distinction between the Self or ātman within and god or Truth. This could be considered consistent with Advaitin teaching concerning the Brahman-itman identity, namely, that the Soul within is at one with the essence of the universe. Gandhi in fact does conceive the purpose of life to be to know the Self, which for him is equivalent to realizing God or knowing the Truth. The Self or ātman, released from the bonds of darkness and ignorance or avidyā, is at one with God, and when this unity is realized by means of prayer, bhakti or devotion is transformed into jn̄āna or knowledge. According to ācārya Kripalani the Rāma invoked by Gandhi with his dying breath was not the historical Rāma or the mythological Rāma, but rather the highest Self. Gandhi himself refers to Rāma as the all powerful essence whose name is inscribed in the heart. Hence the formless, omnipresent Rāma in Gandhi's thought is at one with the highest Self which in turn is identical with Truth.
Gandhi's quest for Truth or God involves not only bhakti yoga, that is the discipline of prayer and devotion, but also karma yoga, that is, the discipline of action. This is evidenced not only by his insistence on self-discipline but also by his insistence on the realization of Truth through the service of others, and by means of ahimsā. We have already noted that he interprets the Gītā as a call to action and it is not without significance that he has been described as one of the foremost activist theoreticians and as a karmayogin. We can leave for the time being, however, the implications of his activist approach to Truth in order to look again at his concept of Truth as hitherto elucidated.
As we have seen, he claims to have had glimpses only of absolute Truth and we have interpreted this to mean that he is often made aware of the need to live and act in accordance with certain ethical and religious principles and to travel in a certain spirit. But there have been other claims to knowledge of absolute Truth. The majority of Christians, for example, would claim that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God and the fullness of Truth. Muslims on the other hand would consider Truth to be the revelation vouchsafed by Allah to his prophet Muhammad. When divergent truth claims of this kind confront us the question that arises is what independent criterion of truth can be produced to determine which claim to truth is the right one? How do we distinguish between divergent truth claims? An appeal to the Bible could be countered with an appeal to the Koran, and an appeal to the verification of the Christian claim in the lives of believing Christians could be countered with an appeal to the verification of the Muslim claim in the lives of believing Muslims. If it is maintained that there has to be an independent criterion of truth, then the difficulty we are confronted with is determining precisely what that criterion might be. Gandhi's tolerant attitude to religions … is an indication that he does not consider any religion to have a monopoly of Truth and that includes Hinduism. Yet it has to be acknowledged that his glimpses of absolute Truth came to him through his understanding of, and his faith in, the specific content or the essential teaching of his own religious tradition despite its imperfections. It was within his own mode of religious discourse that he was made aware of the need to travel in a certain spirit and to think and act in accordance with specific religious and ethical criteria to which he gave the name Truth. That is, he acquired his understanding of Truth as a participant in the Hindu way of life.
Margaret Chatterjee (essay date 1983)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7643
SOURCE: "The Impact of Christianity on Gandhi," in Gandhi's Religious Thought, University of Notre Dame Press, 1983, pp. 41-57.
[In the following excerpt, Chatterjee examines the influence of Christianity on Gandhi's religious thought as well as the differences between Christianity and Hinduism .]
Gandhi's first impressions of Christianity were shaped by the aggressive evangelical style of missionaries of a bygone era in his home town. Several decades were to pass before this style was replaced by something more kindly, less arrogantly self-righteous. During his student days in London, Gandhi studied the New Testament and met a number of fine people among Quakers and others and began to make a distinction in his mind between Christianity, Christians and Christ. The impact of the Sermon on the Mount on his mind was to remain with him all his life. The extent to which Hindus and Muslims of Gandhi's generation associated Christianity with the imperial connection and an alien pattern of life (including food and dress) in pre-Independence days needs to be appreciated by the sympathetic reader today. First impressions take some getting over. In London, Gandhi was exposed to many influences which left their mark on him in later life, vegetarianism, free-thinking (the two were often conjoined), and a homespun brand of genuine piety which was less aggressive than what he had previously encountered simply because it was on home ground and dissociated from the flag. The friends he made in London were fired with a moral earnestness which he could understand and appreciate. About the same time, he encountered the teaching of Lord Buddha and found much in common between the spirit of renunciation and compassion expressed in the lives of both Lord Buddha and Christ. His questing spirit was awakened on religious matters and, student as he was, new ideas fell on fertile ground. He was not greatly troubled by theological problems at this stage in his career.
His experience in South Africa brought him into close touch with, once more, the evangelical brands of Christianity and there were plenty of friends to take him along to prayer meetings, and, from the best of motives no doubt, try to 'save' his soul. His correspondence from South Africa with Raychandbhai, his Jain mentor, includes questions about the nature of God which are rather strange questions to put to a Jain. The questions seem to reflect thinking on some of the matters he would have heard his friends speak about at their services and prayer meetings. While he could respect their sincerity of belief and was a close friend of men like the Rev. Joseph Doke who showed him great personal kindness, he was put off by dogmatic theological stances and confirmed in his earlier conviction that each man must work out his own salvation in the tradition in which he was rooted. Hinduism is non-credal in character and Gandhi failed to see why a man's salvation should depend on 'accepting Christ as one's "personal Saviour",' formal 'communicant' membership of a Christian church and so forth. His mind and heart could not be contained in any kind of formal straight-jacket, and … his attitude to his own tradition also bears the stamp of a man whose dwelling place has all its windows and doors open. In a tropical climate, to press the metaphor, in a multi-religious society, this makes good sense. Gandhi had not been a member of a family where men of many faiths were frequent visitors, for nothing.
It may be useful now to see what Gandhi's theological difficulties were, for some of these are not unlike the difficulties which many who live in the west have today. These stumbling blocks did not arise in his mind all at once, but over a period of time, and there is evidence of them in conversations recorded by others and in printed statements. To take them all together will give us a picture of a man who has reflected in depth on religious matters and adopts a very definitely rational approach in spite of being alive to the fact that religious stances in the last analysis depend on faith. I shall present the difficulties in the form in which they appeared to Gandhi and, as it were, from his point of view.
Christians (the evangelical ones he came across) speak of being saved' as if this is a once for all event, as if it were something highly personal. Now liberation for the Hindu is not from sin, but from the cycle of births and deaths. Gandhi's position was not identical with the orthodox one, but it was certainly a matter of continual striving, not a 'crisis' experience of a Kierkegaardian kind, still less an emotional conversion at the penitential bench. Just as the Christian awareness of the sinfulness of man goes beyond an insight into the contingency of reason, Gandhi's understanding of human imperfection goes beyond an insight into the extent of human ignorance. For him it is the Buddhist and Jain list of human weaknesses, hatred, anger, cowardice and the rest that are to be brought under control by the twin agencies of inner discipline and Divine grace. Moreover, for Gandhi as for the Mahayana Buddhist, there can be no individual liberation without liberation for all. Gandhi's own personal religious style seems to have been devoid of the kind of ecstasies experienced by some of his friends, and who thought he was missing a great deal by not having such experiences. He was also put off' by the haranguing style of non-conformist sermonising (in which the call to 'being saved' was the focus) since for him religion was not a matter of talking but of doing. The petitionary type of prayer, moreover, which predominated in Christian services, was not something which was echoed in his own experience. Petitionary prayer for Gandhi was, if one could put it in this way, in the language of a different tradition, at the lowest rung of spiritual ascent.
Next comes the problem about the Divine sonship of Jesus Christ. The notion of avatdr in Hinduism is not the same as the concept of the incarnation in Christianity. There can be any number of avatdrs, for God reveals Himself in many ways according to man's needs, and especially in times of crisis on a world-scale, when He may appear as Lord to his devotees. (That I am not sure if I should use the upper case 'H' here is perhaps significant). In addition to going along with this ingrained Hindu acceptance of the plurality of revelations, Gandhi also held the Jain position that any particular view of the truth we may have is necessarily partial and incomplete. It is false only if taken to be exclusively true. Added to this, in connection with Gandhi's own interpretation of the Gītā, we have already noticed Gandhi's personal opinion that the avatdr idea witnesses to the human desire to be godlike. With such a background a man is not in a position to accept any extraordinary uniqueness about the person of Christ. The Indian tradition (which includes the Jain and the Buddhist) accommodates a plurality of great souls, just as it has room for a plurality of holy men.
The idea of the vicarious suffering of a single being who atones for the sins of all, including those born before his time and those of generations to come, does not make sense on the Hindu view. If we are on separate karmic tracks, so to say, no man can relieve another of the burden of his own particular karmic defilements. This is a strict view, belonging to the Jain stream of thought rather than, say, to the Vaishnava. The task of penance is an endless one. No other man can undertake on my behalf the working out of my own path of self-purification. When Gandhi undertakes a penitential fast, he does so not to atone vicariously for what others have done but because he believes there has been some failing in himself which has brought about an untoward event (e.g. a breach of ashram discipline, an outbreak of violence, a communal disturbance). If we are all sons of God, no special case can be made out for a particular man being a son in some supervenient sense. The Hindu sees the barrier to a liberated life not in sin, (which he conceives in a particularistic manner rather than as a generalised condition to which all men are heir) ut in bondage, a bondage from which men can gain release through a large variety of ways including japa (repetition of the divine name), pilgrimages, the singing of bhajans, vows, ritual practices, fasts, discriminatory knowledge (being able to distinguish the Self from the empirical self) and so forth. According to some schools of thought divine grace is essential in all this. But in any case the idea that salvation can be brought about at one go through confession of belief in a personal saviour strikes an alien note.
A comment on the connotation of sonship and other associated concepts may be pertinent at this stage. Although there are references to a primal progenitor in the Hindu scriptures, e.g. in the Gītā, the concept of the Fatherhood of God cannot be said to be by any means a central one in Hinduism. Sonship, of course, could be derived, logically, from the concept of a mother goddess, a concept which is present in folk traditions in several parts of the country. In fact, however, this derivation has not been made. When Gandhi speaks, as he often does, of all men as brothers, the implication which comes naturally in Judaeo-Semitic traditions that God is the divine Father cannot be taken as read. The image of brotherhood itself is not free of overtones if one thinks of Cain and Abel. We need to look elsewhere for the source of the brotherhood idea. The words for 'brother' and 'sister' are added as a matter of course to the names of those who are addressed in Gujarati conversation, and all over India there are parallel honorific terms indicating relationship which enter into ordinary usage without any theological resonance coming in. That God can appear in various forms is something that the Hindu takes in his stride. The question that the Hindu asks is 'What is special about this particular man?' If we drop the word 'sonship' and retain the notion of 'divinity' his will be an attribute that, potentially, cannot be denied of any man. Hindus will say, and Gandhi speaks for them, that we all share a common humanity and as such share a divinity which is yet to be 'realised' or brought to full consciousness. This can only be done through a process of self-purification. It is easier, that is to say, for Gandhi to see Christ as the Son of Man than as the Son of God. It is Christ the Son of Man that he meets in the Beatitudes and before whom he bows his head. Throughout his long pilgrimage Gandhi draws a distinction between Christ and what theologians have made of Christianity, a distinction which is a very valid one in the opinion of the present author.
Let us continue with some more of Gandhi's theological difficulties. His reaction to the 'examplar' concept has already been touched on in the discussion of the Gītā. A divine Being cannot be an examplar for man. Man progresses towards perfection essentially through a mdrga, a path, and not through imitation of God or the gods. This ties oddly with certain strands in early Greek thought, but for different reasons. The dwellers on Mount Olympus mirror the follies of men in their own behaviour. Epic figures are often warnings rather than exemplars. In the Hindu tradition both gods and men are subject to a cosmic law which transcends both. The question for Gandhi turns on the idea of the most perfect man. That God or the Ultimate (Gandhi wisely does not attach great importance to which word may be used) is all perfect is taken for granted. There is even an Anselmian element in his thinking, as we shall discover in discussing Truth, which identifies supreme existence with the very nature of the Ultimate. But what of the notion of a 'perfect man'? Such a phrase is for Gandhi self-contradictory. To speak of 'the most perfect man ever born' not only raises invidious comparisons—and in any case, who is in a position to compare any one man with all the rest who have ever existed or might exist in the future?—, but ignores what for Gandhi is a fundamental truth, that it is in the nature of man to pursue perfection. No single being can claim to be the way, the truth and the life. The Truth is the life and since we all have fragmentary views of Truth, there can be no one life which is superior in a paradigmatic form. The following quotation is revealing:
To say that he was perfect is to deny God's superiority to man.… Being necessarily limited by the bonds of flesh, we can attain perfection only after the dissolution of the body. Therefore God alone is absolutely perfect. When he descends to earth, He of His own accord limits Himself.
Now in the Hindu and Jain tradition it is more common to speak of certain outstanding individuals in terms of God-realisation' or sometimes 'self-realisation', than of perfection. Perhaps there was a rationale behind this. The language of attributes (which includes the attribute perfection) can be extended ad infinitum. Spinoza wisely pointed out that our knowledge of attributes was strictly limited and that there can be an infinite proliferation of attributes in the case of the Supreme Being. (Leibniz would add, positive compossible attributes). Unlike the Muslim, the Hindu does not make a big thing of the 'names' of God. God is, par excellence, what is nameless, formless, what is, if you like, beyond our conceptual nets. The 'realised' an (he who has reached a certain state of awareness, and perhaps a state of goodness, beyond the ordinary) is spoken of as guñātīta. Here one is 'freed from pairs of opposites'. Gandhi's comments on Discourse XIV of the Gītā which deals with the three gunas are illuminating in this connection. We are, in the pilgrim's progress of the soul, to rise to a state where we are governed predominantly by the sattva principle. The mark of the sattvika is to be able to see unity in diversity. To rise beyond the three gunas is to become the 'perfect man'. He brings in an analogy:
Take water, which in its solid state remains on the earth; it cannot ascend until it is rarefied into steam. But once it is rarefied it rises up in the sky where at last it is transformed into clouds which drop down in the form of rain and fructify and bless the earth. We are all like water, we have to strive so to rarefy ourselves that all the ego in us perishes and we may merge in the infinite to the eternal good of all. [Young India, 12 January 1928]
Gandhi's religious life was not as Pelagian or as Advaitic a peculiar and doubtless incompatible combination!) as this quotation would suggest. Self-realisation is becoming like unto God'. To be Godlike is not to be God.
There is also another clue in the Indian tradition. The great soul is not seen as an incarnated divine being, or a mediator, but often as bandhu or friend. Krishna comes to Arjuna's aid in his time of distress, as a friend. The Vaishnava tradition describes in great detail the gradations of friendship or love which become more powerful symbols, for those in this tradition, than the symbols of sonship, brotherhood etc. The Christian will not find it difficult to find a parallel.
Although some enthusiasts speak of Gandhi as if he had attained the Brdhmi State, Gandhi's own assessment of himself was as a seeker after sthitaprajña, a humble seeker after truth. The thing to fasten on to in this context is Gandhi's conviction that to be human is to be imperfect. To stress the humanness of Christ, therefore, brings him down to our level, not as Canon Quick once put it, by 'a mysterious self-limitation' on the part of the Creator, but four-squarely on the ground, in the world of human finitude. Gandhi was not well enough versed in the Old Testament to be able to grapple with the idea of Messiahship. He seems to have again been 'put off' Judaism, almost Zaehner-fashion, by hitting upon only the earliest conception of Yahweh, associating the Old Testament with the doctrine of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, which he thought the Boers followed scrupulously, and missing the beauty of the Psalms, their at times Vedic lyricism, and the infinite compassion of a Hosea.
It has already been maintained that Gandhi, in line with the religious thinking of his countrymen, does not set much store on historicity. Whether Krishna or Ram actually lived is not a matter which has bearing on the verdict of a religious imagination which could project figures of such sublime proportions. Whether brahmins had in ancient times actually done X, Y or Z, whether or not it was recorded in the Shastras, was subordinate to the question of what they should be doing now. As for historical Hinduism it contained 'untouchability, superstitious worship of stocks and stones, animal sacrifice and so on'. This he would say to a Hindu audience which he was lovingly chastising, because their need was to recognise the necessity of a thorough reformation of the tradition.
To a missionary audience in Bangalore he used different language:
I may suggest that God did not bear the Cross only 1900 years ago, but He bears it today.… Do not then preach the God of history, but show Him as He lives today through you.… It is better to allow our lives to speak for us than our words. [Young India. 11 August 1927]
A Christian today, whether in India or anywhere else, could echo the same sentiment. But the following would give him pause: Even if 'the man called Jesus never lived… the Sermon on the Mount would still be true for me'. To Gandhi God appeared in action, not as a person. This was what was at the core of his own experience. How else, he once said to Dr. Mott, the missionary, could a man account for deliverance in his darkest hour? The inner voice which addressed him in the thick of his non-violent battles, and when the world was too much with him, was an indwelling spirit and not a person (or Person) encountered.
His dislike of the whole idea of conversion, as stressed by missionaries seeking to augment their flock, can be seen both in his personal letters, for example to Mirabehn, and in his addresses. To a Baptist congregation in Cuttack he said the following:
if a person discards his country, his customs and his old connections and manners when he changes his religion, he becomes all the more unfit to gain a knowledge of God. For a change of religion means really a conversion of the heart. When there is a real conversion, the man's heart grows.… In my view your object in changing your religion should be to bring about the prosperity of your country.
The turning point experience in Gandhi's life was not a religious experience as such but the traumatic occasion in Maritzburg, the capital of Natal, when he was pushed out of the train at night in the severe cold of a South African winter. Throughout his life he was to look upon South Africa as 'that God-forsaken Continent where I found my God'. If conversion made a man's heart narrow, that is, if it made him believe that those who were not of his persuasion were 'unsaved', or worse, cast into outer darkness, this was no conversion at all. The metabasis eis allo genos needed (I am recasting Gandhi's thought in more philosophical language) was the turning away from selfishness and self-righteousness to 'the spirit of service'. This introduces one of Gandhi's most seminal contributions to the understanding of spiritual growth—the sense of expansion it is characterised by. It was an idea he thought out for himself. It is also linked, it seems to me, with the oceanic circle idea he uses in his social thinking, and about which more will be said later, a gradually expanding area of participation, with the individual at the centre. The Jains spoke in terms of spiritual progress, and the Hindus in terms of the removal of the Kośas (sheaths) of egoity which veil the soul. The image of growth would have found an answering echo in a philosopher, much neglected these days, H. W. B. Joseph, who never tired of stressing the helpfulness of biological analogies to the metaphysician.
Hindu tradition witnesses to a strange tandem of nostalgia for the infinite and a domesticating of the gods. Gandhi was a man of the soil. It came naturally to him to think of conversion not in terms of credal allegiance but of putting down roots, reaching out, providing shade to the weary, and shedding a fragrance which, to continue the metaphor, is recognised by the observer, but of which the tree is itself unaware. Gandhi had no patience with self-conscious piety and his breath was sometimes almost taken away (but not quite, for his large heartedness and sense of humour would come to his rescue) by the arrogance of the evangelically twice-born. Here was the same kind of brahminical stiff-necked attitude that he found in the upper castes of his own community. In short Gandhi was all for a change of heart, in fact the whole technique of satyagraha was based on this, and he believed the humblest peasant to be perhaps more capable of it than the intellectual or any other member of what he called 'the classes'. For Gandhi, a change of heart is seen in changed relationships, for example between employer and employed, between Hindu and Muslim, between caste Hindus and the so-called untouchables. But this was a very different matter from changing one's label, turning one's back on the traditions of one's forefathers and giving intellectual assent to a set of alien concepts which could find no answering chord in the hearts of those whose traditional symbols were of a very different kind. It is a token of Gandhi's sympathetic response to the New Testament and to its central figure that he did not dwell on the things in it which strike an alien note to anyone steeped in the Indian tradition, including in this the Jain and the Buddhist streams (for example, the Gadarene swine episode). He singles out the inacceptability of once for all atonement, of vicarious suffering, of conversion (in the light of following one's own swadharma), of a single God-man, and the belief that there is 'none other name' through whom man can be saved. He had a soft corner for Christian friends with theological difficulties, for C. F. Andrews, his brother in the spirit who had misgivings over some of the Thirty-Nine Articles, and for Verrier Elwin who at one time fell foul of ecclesiastical authority and to whom he wrote comfortingly: 'Your church is in your heart. Your pulpit is the whole earth. The blue sky is the roof of your church.' Could it be that in answer to the thundering evangelical battering which he patiently endured on many a day in South Africa, 'There is power in the Blood!'—something which is quite offensive to anyone with imagination, let alone to a man with Jain roots and who was to react with revulsion to Kali worship—he thought out his own rejoinder, the power of soul-force, an inward strength which would grow through discipline, be fed through fellowship and fortified by grace? His last word to the theologians is epitomised in his advice to a correspondent, that God is not 'encased in a safe to be approached only through a little hole bored in it', but that He can be approached through billions of openings by those who are humble and pure of heart'. God is not to be captured in theological nets. Those who come nearest to Him are indeed, for Gandhi, those of whom it is written in the Sermon on the Mount. This brings us to the positive part of Gandhi's response to the New Testament.
Gandhi records in his Autobiography that the understanding of Christianity 'in its proper perspective' would not be possible for him unless he knew his own religion thoroughly. His study of the New Testament and of the Gītā went on simultaneously, not only in London, but in South Africa and throughout his life. He seems to have started reading the Old Testament and got as far as the Book of Exodus! He listened to famous preachers in London and attended Dr. Parker's Thursday midday talks in the City Temple. Joseph Doke, who wrote the first biography of Gandhi (their number is now legion), and knew his friend well, notes that, in his reading of the Bible, when Gandhi came to the Sermon on the Mount, his reaction was not that this was something new but that surely there was no distinction between Hinduism as represented in the Bhagavad Gītā and 'this revelation of Christ', concluding that both must come from the same source'. He found the message of renunciation and living service in both. A Gujarati poem he had learned in school went something like this: 'If a man gives you a drink of water and you give him a drink in return, that is nothing; Real beauty consists in doing good against evil.' It is Doke too who makes one of the most perceptive remarks about Gandhi's response to Christianity:
I question whether any system of religion can absolutely hold him. His views are too closely allied to Christianity to be entirely Hindu; and too deeply saturated with Hinduism to be called Christian, while his sympathies are so wide and catholic that one would imagine he has reached a point where the formulae of sects are meaningless. [M. K. Gandhi—An Indian Patriot in South Africa]
The years 1909-10 were memorable for Gandhi's correspondence with Tolstoy. His understanding of the New Testament deepened through reading Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is within You and Tolstoy's interpreting of this Kingdom as the reign of 'inward perfection, truth and love'. Both Tolstoy and Gandhi looked forward to a new order where a transformed inner life would find natural expression in a transformed community. Both great men found in the message of 'Resist not evil' not a passive principle but the positive power of soul-force, 'the infinite possibilities of universal love'. He was to meet another great-souled and kindred spirit a few years later.
Gandhi first met C. F. Andrews on the quay at Durban on 1 January 1914 and the latter bent to touch his feet. The influence that started then was to work both ways. The basis for friendship was their mutual faith in the power of love and their concern for the dispossessed of the earth. In early March, C. F. Andrews wrote to Rabindranath Tagore a letter in which he confessed that:
We might see in the world's higher religions a branching family tree.… It will mean a lonely pilgrimage for me, for it means giving up claims for the Christian position which everyone in the West whom I know and love could not conceive of doing.
Not only C. F. Andrews and Romain Rolland, but Sir George Rainy, a member of the commission of inquiry in Champaran, compared Gandhi with St. Paul because of his passion for self-discipline. (Andrews also compared him with St. Francis of Assisi) There is something ironic about the Pauline comparison because Gandhi was not particularly attracted to St. Paul. He wrote in 1928: 'I draw a great distinction between The Sermon on the Mount and the Letters of Paul. They are a graft on Christ's teaching, his own gloss apart from Christ's own experience.' And yet when he was in Motihari in connection with the Champaran campaign he wrote to his nephew Maganlalbhai, sending him as a 'gift', Paul's famous passage in I Corinthians, Ch. 13: 'Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels.… But the greatest of these is charity.'
At his prayer meetings Gandhi sometimes gave discourses on the Bible and there were often people who voiced objection to this practice. In November 1926 he ran a series of articles in Young India on the Sermon on the Mount, concluding 'Thus Jesus has given a definition of perfect dharma in those verses.' But he was worried over Matt. Ch.5, v. 22, 'Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of judgement', and he comments: These words are inconsistent with the ahimsa of Jesus'. All this, the reader may note, was interspersed in the same article, with discussions on the practical problem of dealing with mad and stray dogs about which Jains were exercised. 1926 was a year of retirement from public life for Gandhi and withdrawal to the ashram in Sabarmati. It was during the same year that he gave special discourses on the Bible. But he left for Wardha on 3 December 1926 nd the discourses were incomplete. He had, however, already made clear that the Sermon on the Mount contained yamas (cardinal spiritual exercises) and that the Lord's Prayer 'contains everything that the few letters of the Gayatri Mantra mean … one whose ideas can be reproduced in the language of every religion'. In this way he turns the tables neatly on those who later were to speak of the unknown Christ of Hinduism. In a significant statement made towards the end of his life he is reported [in Harijan, 26 January 1947] to have said the following: 'He added that Jesus Christ might be looked upon as belonging to Christians only, but he did not belong to any community, inasmuch as the lessons that Jesus Christ gave belonged to the whole world.' This echoes what he had said to Mrs. Polak decades earlier, that to be a good Hindu was to be a good Christian and that there was no need to 'become' a Christian in order to be 'a believer in the beauty of the teachings of Jesus or to try to follow his example'. Orthodox Christianity, he wrote to a Swiss friend in 1936, had distorted the message of Jesus. As was stressed by some of the leaders of the Bengal Renaissance, Gandhi too saw in Jesus an Asiatic. A series of empires, beginning with the Roman and ending with the British, had so overlaid his message, to say nothing of superstructures created by theologians, that it had become almost unrecognisable. Gandhi here shows a trait common to twentieth century interpreters of their own respecting traditions, a desire to get back to an Ur-message and a claim that it is this Ur- message which is most relevant to man's present condition.
But perhaps the most interesting question of all still remains. What did Gandhi think of the person of Christ? At first sight, and from what has already been referred to under 'theological difficulties', the answer may seem to be inevitably negative. But the position is not so simple. Romain Rolland writes in his Diary that on his way back from the Round Table Conference in 1931, when he visited the Vatican Museum:'…he sees on the altar a fourteenth - or fifteenth-century crucifix, very stiff and harsh; this is the one thing which moves him'. The documentary film on the whole tour has recorded this moment, and Gandhi is seen as deeply moved by the sight of Christ crucified. On the way home, as S. S. Pilsna neared Bombay, Gandhi was asked to give a Christmas message. It was 4. m. on Christmas morning and dawn was yet to break. A group of Catholics, Protestants, and Gandhi's own Hindu entourage sat on the floor round Gandhi's shawled figure. It was his customary prayer hour. The message was this. When peace shone in individual and collective life then only could we say that Christ is born. Christ's birth would then be a perennial happening, illuminating the life of each man. Christianity had not yet been achieved. When we could love each other completely, and harboured no thought of retribution, only then would our life be Christian. Had not Gandhi, a man of peace, of reconciliation, seen into the heart of the teaching of the Prince of Peace?
But there is also evidence of a different kind. Commenting on a letter of Raj Kumari Kaur's published in Harian in 1937, Gandhi says: 'There is in Hinduism room enough for Jesus as there is for Muhammed, Zoroaster and Moses. For me the different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden, or they are branches of the same majestic tree.' This can be interpreted in more than one way. Hinduism is infinitely hospitable. Another way is to find in the quotation a sense that Jesus is different from Muhammed etc. But then, different in what way? We have to approach this in a roundabout manner, as Gandhi gives no straight answer. To missionaries in Calcutta he says in 1925:
I do not experience spiritual consciousness in my life through that Jesus (the historical Jesus). But if by Jesus you mean the eternal Jesus, if by Jesus you understand the religion of universal love that dwells in the heart, then that Jesus lives in my heart—to the same extent that Krishna lives, that Rama lives. If I did not feel the presence of that living God, at the painful sights I see in the world, I would be a raving maniac and my destination would be the Hooghli (river). As, however, that Indweller shines in the heart, I have not been a pessimist now or ever before.
The Christian theologian finds this promising at one point, and then in the next breath what seems to have been conceded is taken away. But let us take another look.
Gandhi makes a distinction between the historical Jesus and the eternal Jesus. The historical Jesus was born and died on a cross. I have not been able to trace any explicit opinion on the resurrection in Gandhi's writings. But the material is so prolix that this is not to say that a reference may not be there. The one reference I have located is rather a funny one. Arguing with Christian vegetarians who claimed that Jesus was also a vegetarian, he reminded them that there is a reference to his having eaten broiled fish after the Resurrection! The Hindu in any case does not require' a special 'event' to convince him that death is not the end. There is a cycle of births and deaths.… Does Gandhi mean, by the next point (it is not a stage in an argument, but a phase in his confessional statement) that the eternal Jesus is the eternal Krishna or the eternal Rama? r does he mean that each lives in his heart, each with his own savour, so to say? One cannot push Gandhi into a corner in this way. What Gandhi finds in Jesus is the embodiment of universal love. He is ready to speak of eternal events and includes among these 'the miraculous birth' nd 'the Cross' as such.
Gandhi has commented on many of the leading events in Christ's life to a far greater extent than has any other modern Hindu. In fact he brings to the understanding of these events a Hindu insight which adds a new dimension to the interpretation of the relevant passages in the New Testament even for a Christian. On the temptations of Christ he writes:
When he (a man) conquers the first temptation of hunger), he gains mastery over his senses. That endows him with strength. That strength itself is the second temptation.… When a man thus gains mastery over strength, he becomes a master of siddhis (miracle-working powers). These siddhis are his third temptation.
His Hindu insight again makes him regard Christ's baptism by John as initiation by a guru and say that he 'received baptism purposely from one who could be no more than his servant in spiritual standing'. The guru idea has been explored in recent years by Christian theologians in India, but not too successfully, for the guru in Hindu tradition is preceptor, but not mediator. The tables can even be turned and guru and disciple reverse their roles. Gandhi goes on to speak of Jesus as 'a servant of the people or a spiritual aspirant'. If one takes up the initiation by a guru idea then the notion of being a spiritual aspirant naturally follows. Christ he sees as entering on a life, a new life, which the Christian does speak of as 'ministry'. The passage is so illuminating for its picture of Christ through Gandhi's eyes that I quote it in full:
He was a servant of the people or a spiritual aspirant. The first lesson He took through baptism at the hands of John, was that of humility and self-purification. He thought of aligning himself with the millions by taking baptism and a bath in the Jordan.
To equate being a servant of the people and being a spiritual aspirant came naturally to Gandhi since for him the spiritual quest is equated with greater and greater identification with the suffering masses. The sequence of baptism, fasting and then temptations is readily intelligible to Gandhi. He sees it as a successive discipline, a progressive process of self-purification, the testing to which every man must submit. The reader must be told, however, that all this discussion (which no doubt can provide cues for further theological probing) was interspersed with talk about khddi, the homespun cloth which for Gandhi was his own particular symbol for identification with the poor.
Gandhi, then, does think in terms of the 'universality' of Christ. But this can mean different things. What Gandhi means by it is formulated by him thus:
Jesus expressed, as no other could, the spirit and will of God. It is in this sense that I see Him as the Son of God. And because the life of Jesus has the significance and the transcendency to which I have alluded, I believe that He belongs not solely to Christianity, but to the entire world, to all races and people. [The Modern Review, October 1941]
But this is not to say that those who have not heard the name of Christ Jesus cannot do the will of the Lord. The following year (1936) he refers to Jesus as 'a great world teacher among others', saying that 'He affects my life no less because I regard him as one among the many begotten sons of God', and the year after that, states that 'Jesus preached not a new religion but a new life.'
Writing to his Christian friend J. C. Kumarappa, he says that 'For me Jesus was preeminently a man of unshakeable resolution, i.e. vows. His yea was yea forever'. That Jesus by his death and by his blood redeemed the sins of the world was not something his reason could accept. His death on the cross was an example to the world, but that there was some mysterious or miraculous virtue in it his heart' could not accept. Christ was 'the prince of satyagrahis' because his only weapon was the weapon of love. Was it not ironical that the man who swept away the distinction between Jew and Gentile should become a cult figure for a community who regarded themselves as being the privileged recipients of a special revelation?
Even so, the example of Christ's suffering was throughout his life, as Gandhi put it, 'a factor in the composition of my undying faith in non-violence', and it was this faith which ruled all his actions. It was our duty to multiply the bonds of love between man and man. Jesus was prepared to die on the cross and every man should be so prepared. The goal of Gandhi's life was the founding of a non-violent society. This is far closer to the Christian idea of the Kingdom of God than it is to the moksa concept of the Hindu tradition. But each community must put its own house in order. Nothing is to be gained by changing labels. The divine powers within us all are infinite. In some these are seen in a paradigmatic form, as in the case of Christ and the Buddha. But the new Jerusalem must be built brick by brick from below. It would not descend from Heaven. The city of God for Gandhi was no doubt the village of God. Gandhi's lifework consisted in wrestling with principalities and powers. But he had a very special sense of kinship with the Son of Man who collected dust on his feet on the rocky path to the Mount of Olivet, who went about doing good, and who fell foul of the authorities, including the leaders of his own community. It was Jesus the Son of Man that Gandhi could greet as a brother. In reminding his friends and associates that Christ was not the exclusive possession of Christendom, but belonged to all men, Gandhi reminded the world of something that had been forgotten and, as Romain Rolland never tired of pointing out, he quickened the conscience of men of goodwill professing a variety of traditions and faiths, reminding them of the path of self-sacrifice and love.
As a footnote I may add the following. In 1932 Rabindranath Tagore sent C. F. Andrews a letter which was very appreciative of the latter's What I Owe to Christ. The friendship between Gandhi, Tagore and Andrews was like a brotherhood of kindred souls in spite of the differences of temperament between them. In that letter Tagore wrote:
The mode of self-expression in a Christian life is in love which works. In that of a Hindu it is in love which contemplates, enjoys the spiritual emotion as an end in itself.… My idea of the divine has concentrated in Man The Eternal, and I find that in your own religious experience. You have the same idea centred in a concrete historic personality.
How does Gandhi stand in relation to Tagore's characterisation of the Christian and Hindu ways of life? Gandhi discovered in the Hindu tradition, if we have been on the right track so far, a non-contemplative activist strand which he strengthened till it was capable of being a lifeline for the toiling millions of his country. Tagore, an artist in life, witnessed to his own artist's vision of a world to be exulted in, an infinity which beckons unfurled wings. Tagore and Gandhi were one in their confidence in Man The Eternal, man who is endowed with potential divinity. If the phrase 'love which works' is a singularly happy one for describing the mode of self-expression in a Christian life, it is no less a singularly appropriate description of what Gandhi believed being human involves.
But Gandhi could see that as yet we were mere beginners in the working of love. Towards the end of his life he wrote that 'Spiritual force is like any other force at the service of man'. In a sense this is true and in a sense untrue. Although the power of love has been well known to man perhaps ever since his first appearance on the earth, its full potential as a force which can transform both the individual and society has scarcely begun to be explored. To Gandhi it was a power which could be best set to work in voluntary organisations, in groups where two or three are gathered together. Hinduism is not an institutionalised religion. Christendom as a blanket term had also accommodated humbug, hypocrisy and exploitative structures such as colonialism, against all of which he had set his face. But what could be a finer vision for man to have before him than that of a life in which love is an operative force? through Tagore's insightful comment we come a little closer to what for Gandhi was his heart's desire.
Raghavan Iyer (essay date 1986)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4364
SOURCE: An introduction to The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. I, edited by Raghavan Iyer, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1986, pp. 1-12.
[In the following excerpt, Iyer presents an overview of Gandhi's teaching.]
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was too modest to be comfortable with the title of 'Mahatma', and too candid to be readily understood by his contemporaries. Throughout his life he saw himself and his ideas distorted or oversimplified by others. Patiently, he kept on affirming and amplifying his ideals so that those who cared might comprehend. Politically, he sought to touch people's hearts so as to awaken their faith both in themselves and in his abiding vision of social transformation. At the same time, he was able to sidestep those contentious pundits who prefer verbal combat to patient assimilation or courageous experimentation. Through his remarkable capacity for self-criticism, his freedom from the complex reactions of others, and his firm insistence on essentials, he nurtured an enormous strength and moral toughness. Revered as a saint and reviled as a demagogue, Gandhi made so powerful an impact that we are still not ready to assess it. If he has already suffered the fate he was anxious to avoid—being lionized at a safe distance, only to be overlooked in daily practice—he none the less left mankind a challenging, and even haunting, image of the nobility of self-conquest. This memory will grace the corridors of history for centuries to come. It will long serve to disturb the complacency, and to question the unspoken assumptions, of modern life.
Within the tangled worlds of both politics and religion Gandhi moved freely; challenging sacrosanct dogmas about the limits of the possible, he explored daringly simple alternatives. Owing to his early experience of the meretricious glamour of modern civilization, he could at once declare that its influence was insidious, and deny that it was inescapable. Rather than retreat into stoical aloofness, he lived insistently in the world to show that even an imperfect individual could strive to purify politics and exemplify true religion—thereby restoring the lost meaning of humanity. By holding out at all times for the highest potential in every person, he raised the tone and refined the quality of human interaction.
An unsuspecting reader might be rather surprised at the range of Gandhi's writings. Although he recognized the power of the written word (his collected works fill ninety large volumes), he wrote no extensive treatises, devised no definitive theories, and refused to cultivate a written style in the usual sense of that word. A remarkably pellucid thinker, he was always a man of action, a karma yogin devoted to the moral transfiguration of mankind. For himself he asserted, 'Action is my domain, and what I understand, according to my lights, to be my duty, and what comes my way, I do. All my action is actuated by the spirit of service [Harijan, March 3, 1946].
As a thinker, Gandhi was more resilient than rigorous. Having laid down the foundations of his thought during the pioneering days of his campaigns in South Africa, he elaborated upon its diverse applications as problems arose in his eventful life. With his superb sense of occasion and his assured faith that God provides what is needed by the aspiring soul, he used the enquiries of correspondents, speaking engagements, and the demands of day-to-day business to set the pace and scope of his pronouncements. Convinced that he should never take the next step until he was ready, Gandhi preferred to lead when persuaded, without claiming any messianic mantle. He would not be prompted or pushed; instead he waited for his inner voice to show the way, and often halted large-scale movements because that voice was silent. On one such occasion, when many were clamouring for his counsel, Gandhi simply explained his reticence by saying: 'I am trying to see light out of darkness, [Amrita Bazar Patrika, November 7, 1924]. He was unerring in perceiving opportunities without becoming an opportunist, serving as an effective leader without recourse to expediency.
Gandhi was more inclined to underrate than to overstress the significance of his written words, largely because of his deep distaste for fathering a sectarian cult. Just as he disdained the title of 'Mahatma', he also disowned the notion of anything like 'Gandhism'. Leaving The Story of My Experiments with Truth to stand as his sole account of himself, he unwittingly invited readers to imagine him as an unusually honest, but self-absorbed, individual. In his pathbreaking social experiments, Gandhi saw himself as an ethical scientist conducting an incomplete laboratory study of an imperfect specimen. He was, he stressed, an ordinary man who evolved by setting himself extraordinary, seemingly impossible, standards. As he wrote in more than one place, The Story of My Experiments with Truth was never intended to serve as an autobiography. It originated, rather, as a series of short notes on his life, written in gaol during the twenties, and subsequently issued in book form. By themselves, these fragments portray a deeply sensitive personality, but they do not, of course, touch upon the last twenty-five years of his life. As this three-volume series testifies, a thoughtful reader can gain a more rounded perspective of Gandhi by consulting his wide-ranging correspondence, his significant speeches, and his weekly essays.
Gandhi's moral and political insights grew out of a coherent set of concepts, the nuances of which he explored over six decades. Even the claim that he was a man of action rather than of introspection could be misleading. Gandhi worked from within outwardly. Through praying each day, repeatedly consulting his 'inner voice', probing his own motives, he would reach general conclusions. Then, after carefully considering the views of others, he would decide upon a course of action. This elusive and indefinable process, which he called 'heart churning', itself arose out of his unwavering conviction that constructive thought and timely action are inseparable. If skill in action can clarify and correct thought, soul-searching deliberation can purify action. Gandhi stressed fidelity to the greater good even when it remained hidden from view, together with the perseverance that springs from trust. Maintaining such faith was for Gandhi true bhakti. He also demonstrated that this practice need involve neither indecisiveness nor ineptitude in worldly matters. A keen alertness to detail can, he showed, be accompanied by a cultivated disinterest in immediate results. Upon a basis of unalterable conviction, one can confidently refine thoughts and redirect action. For Gandhi, this bedrock was spiritual truth gained through intense search and deep meditation; a developed art of fundamental commitment to satya and ahimsa, a moral dedication to self-chosen vows and sacrificial action.
Gandhi did not think that all human beings are alike, but he did fervently believe that all humanity originates in the same transcendental godhead. Recognizing that he could not define that sacred source, he found in satya or truth its best expression. God is Truth, and Truth is God. Since every human being can know and exemplify some truth—and indeed cannot live otherwise—every human being participates in the Divine. From this conviction, one is compelled to affirm universal brotherhood while attempting to enact it through authentic tolerance, mutual respect, and ceaseless civility. If Truth is God, man, who cannot exist without some inward truth, must at some level be sincere. Each individual enjoys both the ability and the sacred obligation to grow in Truth whilst acknowledging disagreements.
Gandhi could say without exaggeration that his all-absorbing goal in life was to seek and to serve God as Truth. Longing to obtain moksha, spiritual freedom, he maintained that it could not be won through great learning or preaching, but only through renunciation and self-control (tapascharya). Self-control was to be won through action, and the course of action to which Gandhi gave his life was the service of the downtrodden. Service of humanity alone could generate the disinterested self-control essential to spiritual emancipation. Through the selfless embodiment of ahimsa and satyagraha, Gandhi believed theophilanthropists could ameliorate human misery whilst freeing themselves from worldly hopes and fears.
Freedom, he felt, lies in anasakti, selfless service. He was certain that he could never be a votary of principles which depended for their existence upon mundane politics or external support. While even social work is impossible without politics, political work must ever be judged in terms of social and moral progress, which are in turn inseparable from spiritual regeneration.
Gandhi viewed civilization as that which assists moral excellence, moving individuals and society to truth and nonviolence. True civilization aids self-realization and nurtures universal brotherhood. Gandhi decried modern civilization because he felt that it is less an instrument for soul-growth than a supposed end in itself. Its vaunted intellectual and technological achievements deflect it from any authentic concern with moral welfare. Its 'isms' and social structures, sciences and machines, are not evil in themselves—though in a true civilization many of them would not exist—but they actively participate in the contagion of corruption that pervades it. Modern civilization is diseased in the Socratic sense because it blinds the soul and eclipses the truth. It is, as Tolstoy also thought, bondage masquerading as freedom.
Gandhi contended that the earth has enough resources to provide for human need, but not human greed. He held, therefore, that every man, woman, and child would eat adequately, clothe and shelter themselves comfortably, if there were a greater sharing of wealth in all parts of the world. Spurning equally the insatiable acquisitiveness of capitalism and the mechanistic materialism of communism, Gandhi condemned the very basis of modern civilization. In his notion of authentic civility, a sense of spiritual and social obligation is fused with a spontaneous sense of natural reciprocity. He further upheld the belief, steadily undermined since the eighteenth century, that social institutions and political actions are by no means exempt from ethics. For social institutions are, he felt, the visible expression of moral values that mould the minds of individuals. It is therefore impossible to alter institutions without first affecting those values. Since modern civilization is one complex tissue of intertwined evils, no plan of partial and gradual reform from within the system can produce a lasting remedy. Gandhi sought to destroy systems, not persons; but he argued that the 'soulless system' had to be destroyed without its reformers themselves becoming soulless.
Holding that one should repudiate wrongs without reviling wrongdoers, Gandhi could not bring himself to condemn the British for their mistakes and even their misdeeds in India. They too, he felt, were the hapless victims of a commercial civilization. The theme of Hind Swarj was not just the moral inadequacy and extravagant pretensions of modern civilization, but its treacherously deceptive self-destructiveness. 'This civilization is irreligion', he concluded, 'and it has taken such a hold on the people of Europe that those who are in it appear to be half mad.' et, he added, 'it is not the British that are responsible for the misfortunes of India but we who have succumbed to modern civilization.' For Gandhi, the villain is hypocritical materialism, the judge is he who frees himself from the collective hallucination, and the executioner is the Moral Law (Karma) which inexorably readjusts equilibrium throughout the cosmos.
Gandhi did not preserve his feeling for common humanity by remaining conveniently apart from it. He knew poverty and squalor at first hand; he knew too the desperate violence found in those who have lived on the edge of starvation. Yet he could still extol the Indian peasant with ringing authority:
The moment you talk to them and they begin to speak, you will find wisdom drops from their lips. Behind the crude exterior you will find a deep reservoir of spirituality… In the case of the Indian villager, an age-old culture is hidden under an encrustment of crudeness. Take away the encrustation, remove his chronic poverty and his illiteracy and you have the finest specimen of what a cultured, cultivated, free citizen should be. [Harijan, January 28, 1939]
Gandhi's longing to transform contemporary civilization was mirrored in his political thought and action. No more than civilization is politics an end in itself. Gandhi invoked Indian tradition in rejecting the modern dichotomy between religion and politics, but he went much further than most classical Indian thinkers in dispensing entirely with notions of raison d'état and in hoping to counter the propensity of politics to become corrupt. Even if all wished to shed their pretensions and nurture the 'enlightened anarchy' of an ideal world community, politics would be necessary since human beings differ in their perspectives, needs, and desires. Accepting, then, that politics cannot simply be abolished, Gandhi sought to purify politics by showing that its sovereign principle is neither coercive nor manipulative power, but moral and social progress.
Gandhi rejected collectivist theories of both State and society. He argued that only the individual could exercise conscience, and, therefore, morally legitimate power. Refusing to hold political office himself or to endorse those compatriots who did, he saw power as a by-product of social activity at the family and community level. Through satyagraha he sought to introduce religious values into politics by extending the rule of domestic life into the political arena. Ascribing the underlying continuity of mankind to the sacrificial exercise of soul-force within families, he was convinced that the same energies could be brought to bear self-consciously in the larger sphere of life. For the satyagrahi, the individual committed to Truth, the only power that can be legitimately exercised is the capacity to suffer for the errors of others and on behalf of the welfare of all—whether it be the family, the nation, or the world.
The individual is therefore always to be treated as an end in himself, while social institutions are always to be treated as corrigible means to some greater end. The satyagrahi should be active in politics if he can stand firmly for social justice and initiate constructive change. Where he cannot, he must practise non-co-operation. One can at least refuse to participate in evils that one cannot directly alter, even if the satyagrahi soon finds that he can alter more than he previously supposed. Far from denying the existence of conflicts of interest, Gandhi evolved ahimsa so as to resolve such conflicts by limiting, if not wholly removing, their himsa (violence). Gandhi further advocated voluntary poverty as an essential prerequisite for any social or political worker who wished to remain untainted by the wasteful greed of power politics. He even maintained that possessions are anti-social: it is not enough to continue possessing goods in practice under the sincere illusion that one has given them up in spirit. Possessions, he believed, should be held in trust at the disposal of those who need them. Furthermore, those who trusted the community to provide for essential needs could come to experience true freedom.
Firmly believing in the fundamental unity of life, he rejected any distinction between public and private, between secular and sacred, and ultimately, between politics and religion. Religion, for Gandhi, signifies a spiritual commitment which is total but intensely personal, and which pervades every aspect of life. Gandhi was always concerned more with religious values than with beliefs; more with the fundamental ethics that he saw as common to all religions than with formal allegiance to received dogmas which hinder, rather than aid, religious experience. He staunchly refused to associate religion with sectarianism of any kind. 'Isms', he thought, appeal only to the immature; through religion he sought nothing less than the Truth itself. In his vision, each soul resembles a drop of water from the ocean of divinity, fallen into a muddy pool. To experience consanguinity with God it must cleanse itself of the mud. Whatever its tenets, assumptions, or practices, every true religion holds out this hope of self-regeneration. All true religions are therefore equal in Gandhi's estimation. He regularly advised enquirers to discover the true meanings of the faiths they were born into under Karma. The seeker pledged to Truth must, however, abstain from proselytizing others. He should rather encourage, or inspire, others to elevate the inner and outer practice of their own faiths. Different religions and sects emerge only because no tradition and no individual can be the exclusive receptacle for boundless Truth.
Gandhi found no difficulty in accepting his own religion, while also acknowledging that he was at heart a Christian, a Jain, a Muslim, and a Buddhist. He thought that accepting the Bible did not require rejecting the Koran, just because one scripture speaks more directly to an individual than another. The Bhagavad Gita was Gandhi's 'spiritual dictionary', but his continued recourse to it did not negate any other sacred texts. He thought that the Bhagavad Gita was the most accessible text in the Indian tradition. As it affirmed that God represents perfect Truth, and that imperfect man, whatever his path, can follow its precepts and come closer to God, the Gita has universal application. Gandhi felt that enduring help could come only from within, from what one learns through tapascharya.
For Gandhi, religions and religious concepts grow through human experience just as individuals mature morally, socially, and spiritually. No religion can claim to be complete in time. No formulation is final. He could thus say, without condescension, that Hinduism included Jainism and Buddhism, while freely criticizing Hindu sectarian disagreements and dogmatism; he praised Islamic brotherhood, while decrying the intransigence of some Muslim zealots; he upheld Christianity as a 'blazing path of bhakti yoga' and the Sermon on the Mount as a model, while dismissing most theology because it invidiously tends to explain away what should be taken to heart and applied. Gandhi's radical reinterpretation of Hindu values in the light of the message of the Buddha was a constructive, though belated, response to the ethical impact of the early Buddhist Reformation on decadent India.
Given such beliefs, religion is ultimately priestless, because the capacity for prayer lies latent within human nature. Prayer and all devotion (bhakti) are, for Gandhi, a kind of petition. The noblest and purest petition is that one should become outwardly what one is inwardly—that one's thoughts, words, and deeds should ever more fully express the soul's core of truth and non-violence. Prayer is to God as thought is to Truth, but since God and Truth are beyond all limiting conceptions, they cannot accommodate egotistic petitions. Prayer is truly an intense supplication towards one's inmost ineffable nature, the source of one's being and strength, the touchstone of one's active life. Just as politics and religion should endeavour to reduce the gap between theory and practice, so too prayer must narrow the gulf between one's real being and one's manifest appearance.
Gandhi's heartfelt reverence for all religions and for their spiritual founders and exemplars, together with his restraint in attributing to any of them uttermost divine perfection, arose from his concept of Deity. God is alien to no human being, not even the atheist who risks sundering himself from his own source. 'To deny God', Gandhi believed, 'is like committing suicide [Mahadevbhaini Diary, Vol. I]. Since the divine is reflected within every individual as his inalienable core of Truth, God will appear in as many forms and formulations as there are possibilities of human thought. There are, at least, as many definitions of God as there are individuals, and God transcends them all. Beyond the boundaries of reason and imagination, God is ineffable, indescribable, without form or characteristic. Gandhi thought that the concepts and images used to express the divine, including his own formulations, were at best derived from glimpses of immense but partial truths. As aids, these images may assist human growth; but as dogmas, they tend to breed sectarianism and violence. As aids, they may foster the universal religion of duty and detachment (dharma and vairagya); but as dogmas, they tend to reinforce a harsh insistence upon rights and privileges. For Gandhi, all conceptions of God are merely means to be used in the service of Truth.
Gandhi knew that his ideas and ideals were difficult to instantiate precisely because of their inherent simplicity. He recognized, therefore, that he could only clarify and illustrate them to all who sought his counsel. Those others would, through taps, have to assimilate and apply them for themselves. But the hero and villain jostle in every soul. The morally sensitive individual must learn to detect self-deception with firmness and forbearance, mellowness and maturity. He must come to know the obscuration of light within before he can ferret out evil at its roots. Eventually, a man with intense spirituality may without speech or a gesture touch the hearts of millions who have never seen him and whom he has never seen [Young India, March 22, 1928]. Through meditation, man can attain a noetic plane on which thought becomes the primary and most potent mode of action. Gandhi unwaveringly affirmed that living this conviction would bring sacrificial suffering, as well as an inner joy which cannot be conveyed in words.
On his seventy-eight birthday in 1947, when well-wishers showered him with lavish and affectionate greetings, Gandhi thought only of the violence and suffering of his recently independent and hastily partioned homeland:
I am not vain enough to think that the divine purpose can only be fulfilled through me. It is as likely as not that a fitter instrument will be used to carry it out and that I was good enough to represent a weak nation, not a strong one. May it not be that a man purer, more courageous, more far-seeing, is wanted for the final purpose? Mine must be a state of complete resignation to the Divine Will.… If I had the impertinence openly to declare my wish to live 125 years, I must have the humility, under changed circumstances, openly to shed that wish.… In that state, I invoke the aid of the all-embracing Power to take me away from this 'vale of tears' rather than make me a helpless witness of the butchery by man become savage, whether he dares to call himself a Mussalman or Hindu or what not. Yet I cry, 'Not my will but Thine alone shall prevail.'
By upholding vows, any person, Gandhi held, can align his conduct to the motionless centre of the wheel of life. But the individual must first adopt stern measures to control the mind in its everyday vagaries, monitoring or even selecting his every thought. Only in this way can one become single-minded and so incarnate one's beliefs in one's sphere of dharma. Gandhi felt that conscience is kept alive not by a preoccupation with intention, but by concern for rectitude of action. He deliberately shifted emphasis from the spiritual emancipation of the individual to the collective benefit of all.
Gandhi's fundamental convictions constitute a worldview of far-reaching dimensions. They cannot be proved, for 'truth is its own proof, and non-violence is its supreme fruit. [Navajivan, October 11, 1925]. But Gandhi never doubted that if these ideals were practised with sincerity and humility, aimed not at the applause of the world, but at the support of the soul, they would gradually prove to be self-validating, helping the individual, painfully but assuredly, to mature into a joyous state of spiritual freedom and self-mastery. It is awe-inspiring, but hardly surprising, that upon receiving his assassin's bullets, Gandhi made a final gesture of forgiveness and whispered, 'Hey Ram! Hey Ram!'
Gandhi did not wish to be considered an inspired prophet. His metaphysical presuppositions only deepened his disarming faith in a human solidarity that admits of no degree. He persisted in seeing himself as a somewhat unworthy exemplar of his exacting ideals. And yet, by his lifelong fidelity to his vows, Gandhi demonstrated the liberating and transforming power of any attempt to fuse metaphysics and conduct, theory and practice, through an enormous effort of the will. A few months before the assassination, Sarojini Naidu, the poetess who had played a leading role in the Salt March, tried to capture something of the enigma of Gandhi in the context of the twentieth century:
With Christ he shares the great gospel that love is the fulfilling of the law. With the great Muhammad he shares the gospel of brotherhood of man, equality of man and oneness of man. With Lord Buddha he shares the great evangel that the duty of life is not self-seeking but to seek the truth, no matter at what sacrifice. With the great poets of the world, he shares the ecstasy of the vision that the future of man is great, that the future of man can never be destroyed, that all sin will destroy itself, but that love and humanity must endure, grow and reach the stars. Therefore, today, a broken world ruined by wars and hatred, a broken world seeking for a new civilization honours the name of Mahatma Gandhi.
In himself, he is nothing. There are men of learning, greater than his, and there are men of wealth and power, and men of fame, but who is there that combines in one frail body the supreme qualities of virtue enshrined in him: courage indomitable, faith invincible, and compassion that embraces the entire world? This transcendental love of humanity that recognizes no limitations of race, no barriers of country but gives to all, like a shining sun, the same abundance of love, understanding and service. Every day—today and yesterday and tomorrow—every day is the same story of the miracle of Gandhi in our own age.
Who said that the age of miracles is past? How should the age of miracles be past while there is such a superb example of embodied miracle in our midst? … He was born like other man, he will die like other men, but unlike them he will live through the beautiful gospel he has enunciated, that hatred cannot be conquered by hatred, the sword cannot be conquered by the sword, that power cannot be exploited over the weak and the fallen, that the gospel of non-violence which is the most dynamic and the most creative gospel of power in the world, is the only true foundation of a new civilization, yet to be built [quoted in D. G. Tendulkar, Mahatma, Vol. 8].
Mark Juergensmeyer (essay date 1987)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7060
SOURCE: "Saint Gandhi," in Saints and Virtues, edited by John Stratton Hawley, University of California Press, 1987, pp. 187-203.
[In the following essay, Juergensmeyer considers Gandhi's lasting public image within the traditional Christian and Indian views of saintliness.]
In a reminiscence entitled "Saint, Patriot and Statesman," Henry S. L. Polak writes that when he first visited Gandhi he felt that he was "in the presence of a moral giant, whose pellucid soul is a clear, still lake, in which one sees Truth clearly mirrored." Writing in the same anthology, Gandhii as We Know Him, published in 1945, the Indian poet Sarojini Naidu unleashes a burst of adjectives likening the Mahatma to the Buddha and the Christ. In her mind they are each
richly endowed with the loftiest and loveliest qualities of the human mind and spirit: an exquisite courtesy of heart, a wisdom at once profound and luminous, an unconquerable courage, an incorruptible faith, a surpassing love of suffering and erring humanity.
Was Gandhi worthy of all these superlatives? When confronted with such adulation, he responded with a delicate modesty. "It is too early … to clothe me in sainthood," he wrote. "I myself do not feel a saint in any shape or form." Elsewhere he assured his admiring followers that he was "not perfect," and was "only a humble seeker."
Some of Gandhi's less admiring observers have felt that such protests were warranted. They have argued that he was morally arrogant, that he yearned for attention from Westerners and pandered to their tastes, that he slighted his family, and was less than successful in maintaining his vows of chastity. Others have remarked that it took a lot of money to keep Gandhi in poverty; they have claimed that, despite his image as a friend of the poor, the Mahatma was really the savior of the rich and an advocate of capitalist development. Still others argue that Gandhi was inconsistent—perhaps even hypocritical—in applying his ethical principles. According to some observers, Gandhi's conduct of satydgraha, a technique of fighting that requires the renunciation of coercion, was little more than a mask for moral manipulation.
Yet somehow the facts of Gandhi's life and his apparent inability to live up to the moral expectations of those who revered him seem not quite relevant to the matter of Gandhi's sainthood. Saintliness, like beauty, exists largely in the eye of the beholder, and the point of view is as interesting as the object of attention. The fact that Gandhi was extravagantly revered presents us with a phenomenon worth considering in its own right, regardless of whether or not we feel that the man deserved it. Such adulation shows that sainthood is far from dead, even in the present day and even, perhaps, when the "saints" themselves—Gandhi included—disavow it.
It takes a great deal to qualify as a modern saint. Citizens of this century do not easily attribute extraordinary power and moral perfection to their fellows. Yet Gandhi's saintly image has captivated the attentions of educated people from a variety of backgrounds, both religious and nonreligious, and seems to have gained in popularity over the years. My primary material for reconstructing the Gandhian hagiography has come from the vast literature produced by an international group of admirers in the 1930s and 1940s. I will try to recreate that image and then compare it with traditional Christian and Indian views of saintliness, with the more recent portrayals of Gandhi such as one finds in Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi, and with Gandhi's own depiction of himself in his Autobiography and other writings. In doing so, I will try to understand, not just what was involved in Gandhi's saintliness, but the urge to sanctify in general, and why it persists even in the modern day.
By using the term saint to describe the Gandhi of popular veneration, I mean to suggest that his image carries with it the two characteristics that have defined saintliness in the Christian tradition: the possession of extraordinary power and the ability to convey that power to others. At the root of the word saint is the Latin word sanctus, indicating the power of holiness that the first saints, the Christian martyrs, were thought to possess, and that they demonstrated by their ability to give their lives to the faith. The saints' power could be witnessed and received by those who venerated them. One accessible residue of saintly potency was to be found in the bones and relics of saints who died. And not only in Christianity was this the case: relics of holy persons have been revered in such disparate settings as traditional China, Southeast Asian Buddhism, and North African Islam. In the Europe of Late Antiquity the very names of saints were thought to be purveyors of strength. Parents would give their children names of saints with the hope that the very appellation would provide the child with a saintly guardian spirit.
To my knowledge, Gandhi's bones are nowhere venerated: They were incinerated and the ashes have long ago floated down the River Jumna into the Ganges. And the number of Mohandases among the population of male children has not risen appreciably in India or abroad. Yet the underlying characteristics of saintliness—the possession of a purifying power and its transmission to others either by emulation or by a more direct transfer of gifts—may be detected in the several images of the Mahatma that Gandhi's disciples have projected. A look at these images will tell us something about the modern search for power and the way in which people of our generation think power can be transmitted.
The canonization of Gandhi by those who admired him occurred rather early in his public life, but it would be difficult to assign it a definite date. One milestone, certainly, was the moment when he was first called a mahātmā, a "great soul," but it is not clear exactly when that was. The title is often said to have been granted him by Tagore when Gandhi arrived in India in 1915. A letter from Tagore to Gandhi in February of that year would seem to provide the evidence substantiating that legendary event. The curious thing about the reference, however, is that the letter in which it is found was written several months before Tagore actually met Gandhi. It was Tagore's welcoming letter, so it is probable that he had heard the Mahatma being given that name on an earlier occasion by someone else. Much of what Tagore knew about Gandhi came from a mutual friend: C. F. Andrews, the former Anglican missionary who for some time had been a disciple of Tagore's and had met Gandhi in South Africa early in 1914. Andrews quickly became as much a devotee of Gandhi's as of Tagore's, for both Andrews and his traveling companion, Willy Pearson, were struck with the sanctity of the man on their very first meeting. Pearson, in an article he wrote for The New Republic in 1921, recalled the moment that he met the one whom he came to know as "an Indian saint": "I remember my first glimpse of him.…He was dressed in simple homespun, had no hat on his head and was barefoot. He is not striking in appearance … but I was forcibly reminded of St. Francis of Assisi."
The term mahātmā was by no means a specifically Gandhian coinage. Before Tagore took it up and applied it to Gandhi, the name had been used to characterize other saintly figures in India, and in Britain and America the term had been adopted by the Theosophists, who used it to describe mysterious masters of wisdom from the East. It is a matter of record that before 1914 members of the Theosophical movement in South Africa, including Hermann Kallenbach, who befriended and supported Gandhi, had used the word to address Gandhi himself. Andrews and Pearson may well have reported this fact in letters they wrote to Tagore while living in Gandhi's ashram near Durban in the early months of 1914. Naturally enough, even as sheer politeness, Tagore may have repeated the name when writing to Gandhi a year later.
The term was to stick with Gandhi for the rest of his life, and it probably does not make a great deal of difference how it was originally applied, or by whom. Yet it is interesting that the first recognition of Gandhi as a saint, and even the epithet in terms of which he was canonized, may have come not from his compatriots but from Westerners. Perhaps this should occasion little amazement. The intellectual and spiritual circles of which Gandhi was a part in England and South Africa prior to his return to India at age forty-five were composed largely of Westerners. Although he did take part in the movement to protect the rights of the Indian community in South Africa (but was not the sole leader of it, as is often supposed), Gandhi was largely surrounded by Westerners in the two communities that he founded, the Phoenix Farm and the Tolstoy Farm. To some of these Westerners, including those with Theosophical leanings, Gandhi must have appeared a mysterious Indian sage, and to his Christian admirers he was apparently even more. To Charlie Andrews and Willy Pearson he was a saint, and from them the rumor spread to the wider world.
Andrews's writings about Gandhi were circulated in England, and in 1918 the Oxford classicist, Sir Gilbert Murray, made brief references to a remarkable Indian named Gandhi in an article he published in the Hibbert Journal on the concept of the soul. This article provided an American clergyman, John Haynes Holmes, with his first knowledge about Gandhi, and stirred Holmes to search out a pamphlet containing a selection of the Indian activist's writings. Reading Gandhi had an enormous impact on Holmes, as he recalled in a subsequent reflection:
Instantly I seemed to be alive—my vision clear, my mind at peace, my heart reassured. Here was the perfect answer to all my problems.… Something clicked within me, like the turning of a lock. Before I knew it, the supreme moment of my life had come. [My Ghandhi]
At the time he discovered Gandhi, Holmes was the pastor of the Community Church of New York City and one of the leaders of the liberal Protestantism of his day. So when he announced that he would give a sermon in the Lyric Theater in New York on 10 April 1921 on the topic "Who is the Greatest Man in the World Today?" it aroused a fair amount of public curiosity. Who would it be? Lenin? Sun Yat-sen? Lloyd George? Woodrow Wilson? The overflow crowd that attended the lecture heard Holmes indeed extol the merits of Lenin, but he soon passed on to other luminaries. Next among his candidates for greatness was the novelist Romain Rolland, but the name that crowned the list was one that most members of the audience had never heard: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Holmes said that Lenin may have been his generation's Napoleon, and Rolland its Tolstoy, but, said Holmes, "when I think of Gandhi, I think of Jesus Christ. He lives his life; he speaks his word; he suffers, strives, and will some day nobly die, for his kingdom upon earth."
Tarak Nath Das, a professor at Columbia, and other Indian nationalists living in the United States were eager to use this unexpected publicity for their own political purposes and saw to it that Holmes's sermon was quickly reprinted and circulated throughout the country. It received much attention in India as well. Thus was launched a lifetime career for Holmes, who became dedicated to interpreting and advertising Gandhi for American audiences; he is sometimes credited with being "the discoverer of Gandhi." Holmes's efforts to spread the gospel of Gandhi took him beyond his own publication, however. In 1924, he arranged for an entire issue of the influential pacifist journal The World Tomorrow to be devoted to Gandhi. It included articles by C. F. Andrews, E. Stanley Jones, and, of course, Holmes himself. Although Holmes had no personal acquaintance with Gandhi until 1931, when they met in London, he held a clear image of the Mahatma in his mind. Gandhi was an example of moral integrity that gave him "incalculable help and guidance" as he faced life's trials.
Holmes, perhaps more than any other person outside India, was responsible for broadcasting the saintly image of Gandhi throughout the world, but there were also other admirers. The rather sizeable American circle included Richard Gregg, Kirby Page, and Clarence Marsh Case, all of whom kept a stream of articles and books flowing throughout the 1930s and 1940s. This Gandhian coterie had much in common with a similar English circle that included Henry Polak and, when he was not in India, C. F. Andrews. Both groups had as prominent members leading liberal Christians who had been outspoken pacifists during World War I and whose political sympathies were with rapid social reform—in some cases, with socialism. Gandhi appealed to liberal Christians such as these because he presented in the political arena what seemed to many of them a perfect combination of religion and social concern. As one Christian pacifist writer put it, Gandhi like Jesus demonstrated "the political power of love."
Liberal Christianity, with its promise of creating the kingdom of God on earth through love and social service, had reached a high water mark in the later decades of the nineteenth century with the hopeful theology of Walter Rauschenbusch and the Christian socialism of such religious visionaries as Tolstoy—who had, incidentally, a powerful influence on Gandhi during his years as a student in London. But exponents of the religious path to social progress had trouble finding a hearing in the years that followed World War I, when much of the optimism of the previous decades vanished. Christian theologians such as Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr began to discover instead the biblical exposition of the darker side of human existence—everything associated with the notion of original sin, and especially the self-serving and destructive character of human pride. The pessimistic view of human nature that lay at the heart of their so-called neo-orthodox theology increasingly put the pacifist liberal Protestants on the defensive, and made them keenly receptive to the example of someone whose piety and moral power seemed to work, and who was actually able to effect social change by evoking the brighter side of human nature.
"What we have under Gandhi's leadership is a revolution," Holmes explained in his 1921 sermon, "but a revolution different from any other of which history has knowledge." Here was a man who was "shaking the British Empire … to its foundations." Whatever imperfections Gandhi's revolution and its leader may have had were blurred in the distant vision of their American admirers. To Holmes and his circle, Gandhi was a citadel of moral power.
The image of moral force that Gandhi projected was not one that appealed exclusively to religious people, since it fit well with a certain strand of pragmatic idealism that has always been attractive to the secular American mind. For example, in an article that appeared in Asia magazine in 1924, the columnist Drew Pearson found it possible to compare Gandhi with Henry Ford. Pointing out that both members of this unlikely pair were "practical idealists," Pearson concluded that Gandhi and Ford were essentially 'on the same road."
Many Christians, however, compared the Mahatma with a more exalted figure, for Gandhi provided something that the aniconic heritage of Puritan Protestantism could never supply: the image of a saint, or to some pious minds, a vision of Christ himself. The emotion that Holmes reported experiencing at his first reading of Gandhi, which he likened to the feeling that Keats had when he first read Homer, was like a conversion experience. And for C. F. Andrews, to know Gandhi was tantamount to knowing Christ. As he observed Gandhi during the Mahatma's twenty-one day fast in 1924, Andrews described a "frail, wasted, tortured spirit" on the terrace by his side, a man who bore "the sins and sorrows of his people." For Andrews the comparison was obvious: "With a rush of emotion," he said, "I knew more deeply … the meaning of the Cross."
For liberal Protestants like Holmes who would have been embarrassed by the superstitious trappings and cultural parochialism of Christianity's own complement of saints, Gandhi served as the consummate exemplar: "a perfect and universal man." In a reminiscence entitled My Gandhi, Holmes described the Mahatma as "my saint and seer." Gandhi's impact on Holmes—rationalist Unitarian though he was—was enough to make him sound like a pious Baptist speaking about his Lord. "I carried Gandhi in my heart," Holmes proclaimed. And Holmes was not the only one inspired to such language. When Gandhi encountered difficulties with the British, the liberal Protestant press reported the events in words taken straight from the gospels. One headline in The Christian Century depicted the event as "Gandhi Before Pilate." "Gandhi Lifts the Cross," proclaimed another. The fact that this second coming did not manifest itself in an overtly Christian form seemed to matter little. E. Stanley Jones dismissed the discrepancy this way: "Just because Gandhi is a Hindu it does not mean that he could not be Christian in the very springs of his character."
Actually, the cultural distance between India and America was of great help in fitting Gandhi to his biblical role, and many American writers emphasized the disparity by beginning their descriptions of Gandhi with his clothes, or lack of them. The fact that he wore "simple homespun" or appeared "unclad but for a loin cloth" made him look a great deal like what many Americans expected in a Messiah. This image was enhanced by the dark (yet not Negroid) skin that made him, as the title of one book put it, "that strange little brown man." And behind his wizened appearance was the awesome cultural backdrop of India, which seemed to Gandhi's American admirers as distant from the modern age as Jesus' Galilee. Richard Attenborough's recent film about Gandhi capitalizes on just such preconceptions, and his image of a white-robed Gandhi radiating calm in the center of a restless mob has more than a little to do with the Christs who moved through biblical epics in films produced in the decades preceding Gandhi.
What made Gandhi truly a Christ figure for Westerners from Andrews to Attenborough, however, was not just that he looked the part. He acted the part, too—or at least his actions were amenable to that interpretation. He was regarded as a man who exhibited saintly qualities, and it is a matter of some fascination to see just what qualities were singled out for praise. They indicate the sort of Messiah that Gandhi's modern observers would have welcomed.
The descriptions of Gandhi that flooded European and American books and journals in the 1930s and 1940s were often based on firsthand visits to Gandhi's ashram near Wardha, which was as much an international guest house for Gandhian pilgrims as it was the experimental community that it has usually been portrayed. In books such as A Week With Gandhi [by Louis Fischer, 1943] and My Host the Hindu [by M. Lester, 1931], these visitors recorded the seemingly idyllic existence of the Mahatma in his meticulously constructed Indian village, carefully blocking out the fact that the number of foreign admirers in residence there often rivaled the number of Indians.
The focus of these accounts, however, is not so much the life of the ashram as the life of Gandhi. Almost all of them refer to his social and political power—either obliquely, by describing him as a "leader" or "statesman," or more directly, by describing his ability to sway the masses. Long before he had met Gandhi, Holmes was impressed that "great throngs come to him," and Kirby Page, in answering affirmatively the question "Is Mahatma Gandhi the Greatest Man of the Age?" reported an American bishop as having observed that Gandhi "appeals to the hearts of the Indian people as no other man has done, probably since the days of Buddha."
Invariably reports of Gandhi's popular and political strength were balanced with observations of what seemed to be a contradictory fact: his weak and ineffectual physical appearance. "The majestic personality of the man," Henry Polak explained, "overshadows his comparatively insignificant physique." Kirby Page seemed almost to dwell on the Mahatma's physical imperfections, noting that "with wretched teeth, large ears, prominent nose and shaved head, he is physically one of the least impressive of men." Robert Bernays, a British member of Parliament who regarded Gandhi as "the true Messiah," nevertheless observed that he did not have "the traditional appearance of a Messiah." In fact, Bernays thought he was "ugly to the point of repulsion."
How could someone so homely and unimpressive be so powerful? In 1933, an English physician, Dr. Josiah Oldfield, puzzled over the paradox and supplied an answer:
What is it that has raised a man of comparatively obscure birth, of no family influence, of small financial means, of no great intellectual capacity and of delicate constitution to such a pinnacle as Gandhiji has reached? My answer is character, and again, character.
Unfortunately, Oldfield was wrong on virtually every count. There was nothing obscure about the family line into which Gandhi was born—they were prime ministers in the princely state of Porbandar—nor did they lack any influence in the region. Gandhi's own salary as an attorney in South Africa came to some six thousand pounds a year by 1902, which amounted to a small fortune by the standards of the day; he was bright enough to secure a law degree at London; and his health was sufficient to weather the most bizarre diets and abusive schedules over a seventy-seven-year life span. Character he may have had, but it was only in Oldfield's imagination that this moral strength contradicted the putative weaknesses of other aspects of Gandhi's existence. Oldfield and the others clearly wanted Gandhi to be weak in worldly terms, and so they skewed the facts a bit to make it possible. The question is, why?
One answer is obvious: Gandhi was portrayed as weak so that his moral power would appear all the grander by contrast. But Gandhi's weakness was also consonant with a specific strand in Christian messianic expectation. As Jesus' own sayings on the subject proclaim, "the last shall be first" and "the Son of Man will come at the time you least expect him." It is in fact quite appropriate for a Messiah to lack "the traditional appearances of a Messiah," if one means by that a regal mien. Messiahs should surprise. So it is understandable that Oldfield wanted Gandhi to be born in something approximating a Palestinian stable and to live like a simple carpenter, even if history had ample evidence to the contrary. Of course, to many Western eyes any specific efforts to weaken and impoverish Gandhi would have been beside the point. For them, all of India is a stable, and the mere fact that Gandhi came from a land of poverty, wore that culture's skimpy clothing, and boasted a physique no sturdier than that of the average Gujarati was enough to strip him of "the traditional appearances of a Messiah."
The last becoming first, David defeating Goliath—such reversals of roles, in which worldly weakness is countermanded by supernatural strength, are the stuff of myth and legend, and occupy a central place in the saintly icon that has been superimposed on Gandhi. In many religious traditions the logical dilemma presented by such paradoxes—apparently weak persons doing powerful things—is often resolved in an almost miraculous way. What makes it possible for weak constitutions to produce strong deeds is the ability to tap into a power that exceeds the normal sources of supply. Just as Moses' shyness indicated that his leadership skills came from above, and Muhammad's illiteracy seemed as proof that the Qur'an was written by a divine hand, so Gandhi's alleged weaknesses are to his admirers clear manifestations of the extraordinary character of the moral power that gave him the social and political strength he possessed.
To have access to such a special source of strength is to be freed from the need to rely on mundane powers, and freed from the temptation to misuse and overindulge such ordinary agents of potency as food, sex, money, material goods, status, dependent relationships, and the like. So one would expect a saint to be in some significant measure an ascetic, a renunciant—and that not so much by choice but as in consequence of a saintliness already attained. Gandhi's famous acts of self-abnegation were not requirements he had to fulfill before he could be perceived as a saint but expressions of a saintliness already affirmed. And for that reason the marks of his renunciant personality were often cited with an enthusiasm and repetition that exceeded what the realities of the situation would have warranted.
Take sex, for example. Celibacy is not such an awesome achievement, even in the West. Thousands of Roman Catholic priests and members of religious orders practice it to no great public acclaim. And Gandhi's celibacy seems on the face of it rather less heroic than theirs. He chose it somewhat late in life—at age thirty-seven—after he had fathered four children and after he had lived what Gandhi himself reports to have been an enjoyably sensuous existence. Yet Gandhi's vow of celibacy is often reported in the most hushed of tones and offered as certain proof of his sanctity. C. F. Andrews proclaimed that Gandhi's "body and soul" were thereby "kept clean from all sensual passion," and Robert Bernays believed that his sexual abstinence "mortified the flesh." Andrews offered Gandhi's absence of sexuality as evidence that his love was "pure," and Bernays found in it proof that Gandhi had "that abundant love for humanity of the true Messiah." For a variety of reasons, then, Gandhi's victory over sexual desire was something inspiring awe.
Much the same sort of admiration was shown for Gandhi's attitude toward food. It is true that Gandhi was obsessed with diets, and that his normal eating habits were spartan, but to many Western observers even a typical Indian meal would seem evidence of gastronomical stringency. For instance, Robert Bernays believed that "Gandhi's sainthood was perfectly genuine" because, among other things, "the naked faquir" he admired refused to "dine out." The fact that Gandhi ate regularly at a vegetarian restaurant in London seems to have escaped Bernays's notice, as did the knowledge that in Hindu India, where prohibitions against commensality are strong, the custom of dining out is practically nonexistent. The important point, for Bernays, was that a saint like Gandhi had no need of such frills and easy pleasures as might have occupied a British gentleman.
Money and material possessions were also the sorts of things a saint should not require, and Gandhi was praised for his simplicity and parsimony. Again, however, the facts of the matter make one wonder how much praise was justified. It is true that he abandoned gainful employment rather early in what promised to be a lucrative career, and that he relied on donations from well-wishers to supply his needs. He showed no interest in amassing wealth for the pure pleasure of it. He even disdained life insurance. But for all that, he never lacked sufficient funds for food, travel, shelter, secretarial staff, or postage. His telegraph bills alone must have cost a small fortune, judging by the number of cables and telegrams reproduced in Gandhi's Collected Works. And compared with the millions of hungry, penniless poor in India, Gandhi's much-touted poverty seems a comfortable life indeed. Nonetheless one often hears it cited as another indication of his sanctity: "He embraced poverty," Mr. Bernays reported, "as deliberately as did the Carpenter of Nazareth."
According to Herryman Mauer, who wrote a book-length tribute to the man just after Gandhi's death in 1948, the external features of his life—that he "dressed poorly," "renounced material wealth," and was "not smart philosophically"—were all to be expected of a "Great Soul" who "knew the presence of Truth as sharply as if it were something he could touch and see and hear." And Marc Edmund Jones, in a similar eulogy written in the same year, concluded that Gandhi's frailty and poverty were entirely appropriate to "the greatest figure since Jesus."
There seems little doubt by now that Gandhi satisfied criteria for saintliness that were widely shared by Western Christians of his own day and that have continued to have their proponents in the years since. He was a prime example of divine power acting through a seemingly weak and faulty human vessel. But we should not assume that this Western point of view was universally shared, and that Gandhi's Indian admirers saw him in the same light. Gandhi was and is greatly admired in India: he is seen as a hero, a legend, a father of the country, even as something of a holy man. But in India Gandhi is not quite a saint.
This failure to elevate Gandhi in his homeland did not come about because Indians hesitate to find saints in their midst. On the contrary, they easily embrace saints of all shapes and sizes, accepting it as axiomatic that certain persons are endowed with a spiritual weightiness that ordinary people do not possess. Such godly people are not just confined to mythology. Almost every village in India contains the bones of saints, or, better yet, the saints themselves, sitting beneath banyan trees and dispensing blessings. Ardent devotees of such holy men and women place pictures of these gurus on the family altar and offer them prayers and praise.
There are rumors that some people in India have treated Gandhi's picture this way, but I have not seen it myself, nor is there any evidence that the practice is widespread. A taxi-driver in Delhi told me that he had attended the movie version of Gandhi's life in order to receive his darian—the power that is conveyed through seeing a holy image—but this is usually as pious as the veneration gets. It is not much different from the awe that was accorded Indira Gandhi by the masses that crowded to receive darian from her. No shrines have been erected for either Gandhi—Indira or Mohandas—nor are rituals or offerings performed in front of their pictures, and in India that is the sort of thing one would expect for those who are regarded as saints.
The prominent Indian admirers of Gandhi—Indian counterparts to John Haynes Holmes, Robert Bernays, and C. F. Andrews—seldom mentioned Gandhi's supernatural powers, nor did they dwell on his physical infirmities or efforts at self-abnegation. Rather, they laid emphasis on his moral qualities. One of Gandhi's first Indian supporters, the great Indian nationalist leader G. K. Gokhale, proclaimed to the Lahore seio n of the Indian Congress in 1909 that Gandhi was "a man among men" and that he was "without doubt made of the stuff of which heroes and martyrs are made." Rajendra Prasad, in his reminiscence, At the Feet of Mahatma Gandhi, written after Gandhi's death, praised Gandhi as an exemplar: "not only helping us in our material well-being by showing us the way to political independence, social justice and economic prosperity, but also [helping us] to catch a glimpse of the moral and spiritual heights." Even the most fawning tributes to Gandhi, such as those crafted by Sarojini Naidu, the Indian poet who likened Gandhi to Buddha and Christ, emphasized Gandhi's human virtues rather than his ascetic and saintly ones. It was his worldly wisdom, courage, love, and humor—"the loftiest and loveliest qualities of the human mind and spirit"—that most impressed her, not his other-worldly asceticism.
To Hindus there was nothing strange about what Westerners regarded as Gandhi's acts of renunciation. What impressed the Indians was that someone like Gandhi, who appreciated and acted out the traditional Hindu roles and virtues, was also such a modern man—well educated and articulate in English, and at ease with politicians and journalists and Protestant pilgrims from the West. In the opening pages of his published correspondence with Gandhi, G. D. Birla, the wealthy industrialist, praised the Mahatma as a social reformer—not a saint but a "real man" who had a religious vision of a just and egalitarian society. Birla credited Gandhi with bringing Hinduism into the twentieth century; and it is true that he did much to reconcile Hindu concepts with the egalitarian values shared by many in the urban, mercantile, and administrative class from which Gandhi himself came. So to his fellow modern Hindus, Gandhi was widely respected as offering a model for progressive Hinduism and helping to achieve "the modernity of tradition," as Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph have described it.
Gandhi himself seemed to be content with this view of him and was willing to be seen as an example of someone who seriously attempted to live a righteous life in the modern world. In his remarkable Autobiography, written in 1925, which amounts to a sort of gospel of Gandhi according to Gandhi, he lays out his moral successes and errors in dispassionate terms, describing them as "experiments with Truth." Most of these "experiments" concern what may appear to be trivial matters—how he dealt with the temptation of being offered a cigar by boyhood friends, or yielded to irresponsibility in the face of obligations to his parents—and are trials with which all of us can easily identify. The interesting thing, however, is that Gandhi saw them as more. He lifted the minutiae of everyday life—from eating to making love—into the realm of serious moral discourse, and made it appear that the moral life is not a general attitude but a constant daily struggle.
The Autobiography portrays Gandhi as being morally powerful, but that power was attained only with a great deal of effort and testing. According to Gandhi's own testimony, he achieved moral awareness only gradually, only by practiced attention. His was not an inborn, intuitive saintliness. It was, as he implied in the title of his book, a science, not a gift, and because it was learnable, it was available to all. For that reason, it was something not to be admired but practiced. Elsewhere I have argued that Gandhi's most enduring contribution to the annals of saintliness has very little to do with the image projected on him by his admirers. It is rather his devotion to moral experimentation and his technique of satydgraha, both measures that can be adopted by anyone who wishes to bring a measure of saintliness into his or her own life.
Yet for many Westerners neither Gandhi's view of himself nor the view of him held by his Indian admirers was enough. Gandhi as an exemplar of a socially conscious, progressive Hinduism or as an advocate of a technique of moral experimentation fell far short of the messianic expectations they had in mind. Dr. Josiah Oldfield, writing in 1933, proclaimed that "there is no saint that has been placed in Christian hagiology since the time of the Apostles who could be invoked to mould men's actions today to the extent that Mahatma Gandhi can." And the author of the introduction to the volume in which Oldfield's remarks appeared went so far as to suggest that "perhaps Gandhism may one day be a recognized religion." Oldfield, as if in anticipation of the reaction such excesses of piety might earn, explained: "The idea of a man being worshipped in his lifetime seems almost ludicrous to the Western mind. But why not?"
Yet we might well turn Oldfield's question around and ask: why? Why did the Oldfields and the Holmeses of the 930s and 1940s need to worship a man like Gandhi?
Any answer we give to this question will be based on speculation more than on irrefutable evidence, but several answers immediately come to mind. One is that the image of Christ and the saints that Christian tradition has supplied is inadequate for the global, rational, modern point of view. The old portrayals are culture-bound, and since they seem more mythical than real, they lack credibility. Yet, as Robert Bellah has said, even modern persons need symbols of transcendence that "integrate the whole, known and unknown, conscious and unconscious." Gandhi, the English-speaking, London-trained Hindu is intercultural in his appeal—"a universal saint," as Holmes put it—and enjoys the credibility that comes from being a present day political actor as well as a religious mentor, someone whose multifaceted social and spiritual interests appear to have "integrated the whole" as few other people are perceived to have done. For these reasons many Christians, especially those of a liberal theological bent who shy away from an other-worldly view of Christ, feel that Gandhi fills that role as adequately as Jesus did.
Like Jesus, Gandhi was a symbol of power. The characteristics of the Gandhian image that we earlier observed indicate what diverse kinds of potency he was thought to possess: on one hand, he laid claim to social and political power, and, on the other hand, he had the power to renounce worldly things. These powers may seem to be contradictory, but both features of the powers ascribed to him testify to his ability to command the elements around him rather than be subject to them. Gandhi the social organizer and Gandhi the ascetic have in common the ability to assert control over those forces—external and internal to the self—that buffet the best intentions of ordinary folk. In society at large and in many personal lives the fear of disorder is a deep and terrifying reality. So it is no surprise that some of Gandhi's contemporaries should want to put on a pedestal a man whom they perceived to have mastered the social and personal forces, someone who, as Andrews said, was propelled solely by "inner self-discipline and a desire for purification."
The themes of mastery and self-control that inspired witnesses of Gandhi in his own time remain central features in the heroic image one finds in the enormously popular film of Gandhi's life that was produced by Richard Attenborough in 1982. The appeal of the movie—which must have been one of the most watched films in history, considering its combined Indian and Western audiences—came, not simply from a moving story, richly filmed, but from the image that it projected of an extraordinary human being. In short, the movie was an advertisement for a global saint, and it succeeded for a time in rekindling the flame of Gandhiolatry.
Attenborough's film was an authentic recreation of the hagiography of Andrews, Holmes, and Oldfield. Like them, Attenborough fastened onto Gandhi's Christ-like charisma and his masterful actions. On the social plane we see Gandhi commanding vast and potentially unruly crowds, and challenging the authority of the organizational might of the British Empire with all its bureaucratic panoply. On a personal level we see the ever-disciplined Mahatma abjuring sex, food, and possessions, and creating around himself a simple and orderly allocation of time and space. He spins, for example, to utilize the idle moments of the day.
This image of mastery has great appeal for anyone who feels debilitated by indiscipline and the absence of self-control, which is to say, just about everyone. Anyone who has felt lost and pushed around in a crowd, or powerless and dehumanized after an encounter with some massive, insensitive bureaucracy, is apt to applaud Gandhi's apparent powers of social control. Anyone who has felt demoralized and numbed by an easy access to pleasurable things, enslaved by passionate desires, or frustrated by the untidy indiscipline of daily life will be impressed by Gandhi's display of control over himself and the events with which he was surrounded.
The film Gandhi presents a picture of someone who lives a full, simple, integrated, intentional existence, a life quite unlike the messy, complicated ones that most of us lead. For that reason, its image of Gandhi has the potential to judge us and make us wonder why we cannot live up to the standard that he achieved with such apparent ease. Why, then, doesn't this image of Gandhi make us feel inadequate and guilty? The answer lies, I think, in Gandhi's alleged sanctity. Because he is portrayed as essentially different from us, endowed with a spiritual power to which ordinary mortals are not privy, we can laud his moral achievements without feeling the necessity to live up to all of them ourselves. Gandhi's peculiarities, especially from a Western point of view, heighten this distance and make it even less likely that viewers of the Gandhian film—or readers of Andrews, Holmes, and Bernays's literary tributes—will feel challenged to emulate such a life or castigate themselves for falling short. They might be impressed by Gandhi's renunciation of sex, food, clothes, and other material things, but they will not expect such extreme virtues to serve as guides in the quandaries of ordinary life.
Reinhold Niebuhr observed some years ago that the virtues of Jesus are dazzling precisely because they are not emulable. They are extremes of selfless love that provide ordinary Christians with a noble but ultimately unobtainable goal. Gandhi's saintliness is similar: though close enough to reality to be credible, it is ultimately unattainable. And in Gandhi's case there is an additional element. Although it does not come across in Attenborough's idealized portrait of a sober and lonely leader, there was in many people's perception a sort of sublime wackiness that set Gandhi apart from others of his station and from other human beings generally. This too played a role in protecting Gandhi's admirers from condemning themselves too much for not measuring up to the master's example. He was so obviously different, his admirers thought—even odd.
Regardless of what Gandhi's real virtues may have been, the saintly role that was and still is thrust upon him demands a more powerful, a purer, and perhaps even a more idiosyncratic person than we encounter in daily experience. The Gandhi of faith is necessarily different from and more luminous than the Gandhi of history. He has taken on "subtler and more lasting shapes," as Forster put it, in the saintly image that endures.