Saintly characters in fiction are said to be less interesting than wicked characters. But in real life, it is good people who are more interesting. I recently finished reading Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, the new biography by Joseph Lelyveld. This book shows Gandhi to be much more complex and interesting than an Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin.
He did not begin his career as an ascetic old man in a loincloth with his spinning wheel, abstaining from meat and sexual intercourse. Rather, as the photographs in the book show, he began as a dapper, well-dressed youth South African lawyer angered because he was not treated in the manner to which his education and social class entitled him.
His transformation into the elderly “half-naked fakir” (as Winston Churchill described him) reflect a long evolution, as well as many trials and errors.
He sought to merge his personal struggle for personal peace and unity with India’s national struggle for peace and unity, and there always was a tension between Gandhi the religious leader and Gandhi the political leader. Through his asceticism, he captured the imagination of the Indian masses as no other Indian leader of his time did. His methods of non-violent struggle helped prepare India’s masses for self-government, and won India’s independence with a minimum of bloodshed and hatred between Britons and Indians. But the masses did not necessarily follow his other teachings, particularly on equality for the Untouchable caste and on Hindu-Muslim India.
Gandhi’s beliefs and methods were formed during his 21 years in South Africa. Five of the book’s 12 chapters deal with those years. It was in South Africa that Gandhi developed his system of non-violent struggle. It was there that he became an advocate for unity of Indians across Hindu-Muslim lines and caste lines, in part perhaps because most white South Africans ignored these distinctions.
He is regarded as one of the fathers of post-apartheid South Africa, although he separated the struggle of Indians in South Africa from that of native Africans. Lelyveld described his respectful but arms-length relationship with John Langalibele Dube, the Zulu leader. Gandhi may have been a bit racist at that stage of his life, but his reluctance to get involved in the African liberation struggle was probably more a matter of practical politics. His whole political life reflected the tension between what the sociologist Max Weber called the “ethic of responsibility” for practical success and the “ethic of ultimate concern.”
My view of Gandhi for many years followed George Orwell in his 1949 essay “Reflections on Gandhi.” Orwell wrote that Gandhi’s saintliness was not an attainable or desirable human ideal. It meant loving humanity, but not committing yourself to any particular human being—something Orwell regarded as an evasion of human life. Gandhi demanded self-sacrifice from his family and followers as he did from himself. He renounced sexual intercourse without considering how his wife felt about it; he expected followers to be willing to die rather than engage in violence.
Gandhi renounced industrial civilization. He believed in village self-sufficiency. He would not have approved of the modern India of call centers, nuclear weapons, and Green Revolution crops. And his methods of non-violent struggle, Orwell wrote, while admirable, would not have worked except with democratic countries such as Britain in which the public opinion had an influence.
Like Orwell, I am unwilling to renounce the comforts of ordinary life, the blessings of industrial civilization or the right to self-defense, or to deny these things to others. I think Gandhi himself said somewhere—although I can’t find the quote—that while nonviolent struggle is better than violent struggle, it is better to fight violently than to submit to injustice out of cowardice.
While I still basically agree with Orwell, I have come to a greater appreciation of Gandhi over the years. Non-violent struggle often fails, but in the 20th century, its results compare well with violent struggle. The protesters in Cairo were influenced by Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action, which was inspired by Gandhi’s methods. I wouldn’t venture to guess the outcome; it could be that the Army and the old regime will hang onto power in the end. But the possibility of a good outcome is better than from regime change by military force in Libya.
I want our industrial civilization to survive, but there is a possibility that it is not sustainable. If so, Gandhi’s spinning wheel may be the path to the future after all.
The quest for sainthood is always hard of the family and friends of the would-be saints, but Lelyveld’s book shows it was not an evasion. Gandhi struggled as hard to overcome himself as to overcome his adversaries.
One of Gandhi’s major concerns was village sanitation, which was directly tied in with Untouchability. Upper-caste Hindus felt free to defecate wherever they liked because Untouchables were there to clean it up. Gandhi taught in effect that it is everyone’s responsibility to clean up their own shit, literally as well as figuratively He set the example, and demanded his followers follow their example.
His first “fast unto death” was a protest against separate representation for the Untouchables in the Congress Party, which Gandhi saw as a form of segregation. He made little impression on the Brahman leaders. They argued that the position of the Untouchables were simply a working out of the karma of their previous lives, and so there was nothing unjust about their position. The Untouchables meanwhile produced their own leaders, who disputed Gandhi’s claim to speak for them.
Gandhi strove for Hindu-Muslim understanding throughout his political career. Many of Gandhi’s early speeches in South Africa were in mosques. After World War One, Gandhi in India was a strong advocate of the restoration of the Caliphate as a way of identifying the Indian National Congress with the concerns of Indian Muslims. His last “fast unto death” was directed at ending Hindu-Muslim violence, and his murderer was a Hindu nationalist who thought Gandhi soft on Muslims.
In his own eyes, Gandhi was a failure. But, as Lelyveld said, Gandhi’s example of courage, persistence, identification with the poorest, striving for selflessness still has a power to inspire, both inside and outside India. “… Compared with the other leading political figures of our time,” Orwell wrote, “how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!”
Click on Reflections on Gandhi for George Orwell’s essay in full.
Click on Mahatma Gandhi for an essay by Bertrand Russell. [Added 10/11/11]
Click on In ‘Great Soul,’ Joseph Lelyveld Reexamines Gandhi and How Gandhi Became Gandhi for articles on Lelyveld’s book in the New York Times.