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Reading Gandhi


 By Tom Weber
TFF Associate



January 28, 2004

The Political Gandhi and the Whole Gandhi

Our knowledge of the life of Mahatma Gandhi, when it does not come from Attenborough's landmark film, is generally provided by popular biographies. The biographies, especially the most recent and best known ones, such as those by Fischer and Nanda, tend to be political biographies. Gandhi is the main player in India's freedom struggle, the eventual "father of the nation." His fight for the rights of Indians in South Africa and his struggle for India's independence are generally the main focus of the story. The central narrative of the India phase of his life focuses on the three main political campaigns that he led: the 1921-22 Noncooperation Movement, the 1930-33 Civil Disobedience Movement and the 1942-43 Quit India Movement.

The lengthy periods between these campaigns spent on self-discovery or anti-untouchability and other social work are glossed over, seen as lulls in Gandhi's life. This however gives a very limited view of the Mahatma and different biographies of Gandhi could be written. How about a spiritual or constructive work biography with the political campaigns being mere extensions to these more fundamental projects which are far from being periods of marking time? A different picture of Gandhi would emerge, and certainly not a less accurate picture. Gandhi's own autobiography, The Story of my Experiments with Truth, is not a political autobiography.


Swaraj - not only political self-rule. Satyagraha - one of three gifts

Gandhi's talk of swaraj, that is independence or freedom, is generally interpreted merely as independence for the Indian nation from British rule. However, for Gandhi political activism had a more elemental role. It was to a large degree educative, helping to train the soul and develop character so as to aid the quest for individual perfection. Swaraj means self-rule and to limit this to political self-rule is to largely miss the point. The three campaigns are not three isolated bursts of political activity, but examples of a lifelong quest for swaraj temporarily focussed at the macro level.

Narayan Desai, one of the few remaining Gandhians who knew the Mahatma intimately (his father was Mahadev Desai, Gandhi's chief personal secretary, and he grew up in Gandhi's ashrams), who was a leading figure in the post-Gandhi Gandhian movement and who is the most recent Gandhi biographer, notes that Gandhi gave three great gifts to humanity and that satyagraha, Gandhi's nonviolent activism, representing the political Gandhi, is only one of them. This however is the one that English language books on Gandhi focus on. With this focus, Gandhi's co-workers, the ones who take on staring roles in the biographies, are Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The political Gandhi, however, is a greatly diminished person and a more complete analysis of the Mahatma would include comprehensive reference to other important co-workers.


The Kingdom of God and the Constructive Program: Gandhi's second gift

Gandhi held before himself, and attempted to place before the masses, a picture of an ideal society that was to be the goal of collective endeavour, as the approach towards Truth was to be the goal for the individual. This vision was summed up in the word "Ramrajya", the "Kingdom of God," where there were equal rights for prices and paupers, where even the lowliest person could get swift justice without elaborate and costly procedures, where inequalities that allowed some to roll in riches while the masses did not have enough to eat were abolished, and where sovereignty of the people was based on pure moral authority rather than coercive power. Political independence for the country may have been a step towards Ramrajya, but was certainly no guarantee of it.

Gandhi firmly believed that all forms of exploitation and oppression to a large degree rested on the acquiescence of the victims. With this in mind he noted that "exploitation of the poor can be extinguished not by effecting the destruction of a few millionaires, but by removing the ignorance of the poor and teaching them to non-cooperate with the exploiters." It was again partly for the educative purpose of pointing this out to the oppressed that he instituted what he called the "constructive program." Although this program was tied to India's independence struggle, it was not merely a tactical adjunct to assist in achieving that seemingly larger and more important goal.

The constructive program involved future leaders in the struggle and put them in contact with the masses (working not just for the people, but with them), helping to bring about the society Gandhi envisaged in a future free India, and indeed a future just world. In fact, Gandhi claimed that the wholesale fulfillment of the constructive program "is complete independence" because if the nation was involved in the very process of rebuilding itself in the image of its dreams "from the very bottom upwards," it would by definition be free.

The program, in its original context, dealt mainly with the problems of communal unity and the uplift of the rural masses. This approach aimed to produce "something beneficial to the community, especially to the poor and unemployed" and provided "the kind of work, which the poor and unemployed can themselves do and thus self-respectingly help themselves."

In situations of social conflict and mass satyagraha campaigns, Gandhi made it a point to couple constructive work to civil disobedience, sometimes seeming to say that constructive work was an aid to the civil disobedience campaign and at other times putting the formula around the other way. In fact civil disobedience "without the constructive program will be like a paralysed hand attempting to lift a spoon". Perhaps it could even be said that large oppositional satyagraha campaigns cannot be fully nonviolent if they are not accompanied by some form of positive constructive program. The constructive program, in Desai's scheme, is the second of Gandhi's great gifts.

For Gandhi this constructive work offered replacement for what the nationalists were opposing at the very time they were opposing it. Without it, because fundamental changes would not have been made, civil disobedience, if it succeeded in overthrowing a set of oppressors, would merely exchange one group of leaders with another similar group. Contrasting himself with the "born politician" Sardar Patel, Gandhi claimed that "I was born for the constructive program. It is part of my soul. Politics is a kind of botheration for me."

Further, during one of his major political campaigns, Gandhi remarked that "the work of social reform or self-purification ... is a hundred times dearer to me than what is called purely political work", and during another, following pressure to launch civil disobedience, Mahadev Desai records Gandhi as having said that "in placing civil disobedience before constructive work I was wrong ... I feared that I should estrange co-workers and so carried on with imperfect Ahimsa [nonviolence]." Gandhi was well aware that political freedom was easier to achieve than economic, social and moral freedom in part because they are "less exciting and not spectacular." Political biographies also seem to be more exciting and spectacular than those focussing on the social and moral aspects of Gandhi's life. The main co-workers he had in his constructive work, who, like Jamnalal Bajaj, are at least as important to him as his political co-workers, tend to disappear from the record.


Gandhi's third gift: the eleven vows

If we look at Gandhi's relationship with his second cousin Maganlal Gandhi and his spiritual heir Vinoba Bhave we realise that there is even more to the Mahatma, something obvious to Desai but that most biographies make far too little of. Desai points out that there was a third gift from Gandhi: his eleven vows, a set of rules which established the code of conduct for his ashram inmates and which are key to understanding Gandhi's religious quest.

Gandhi firmly believed that life could not be compartmentalised, that actions and the reasons on which they are based, whether they be political, economic, social or spiritual, are interrelated, and that these actions have a direct bearing upon the achievement of the ultimate aim of life. Gandhi himself named this aim as "moksha", a liberation of the self, and claimed that his life, including his "ventures in the political field are directed to this same end." Again, although the spiritual Gandhi does not fit too comfortably in primarily political biographies except to set up the Mahatma as the conscience of humanity, without understanding Gandhi's spiritual quest, we do not understand Gandhi. As he is secularised into an understandable actor on the political stage we are left with no easy way of coming to terms with a more whole Gandhi.

For Gandhi the vow was a powerful tool in the spiritual quest because vows enable acts which are not possible by ordinary self-denial to become possible through extraordinary self-denial. Through his eleven ashram vows, Gandhi turned personal virtues into public values. The vows were to adhere to truth, nonviolence, celibacy, non-possession, non-stealing, control of the palate, fearlessness, equal respect for all religions, bread labour (the dignity of manual work), the removal of untouchability (as an institution and from one's own heart), and swadeshi (the favouring of locally produced goods, neighbourliness).

Gandhi spent a lifetime struggling with these vows. And how could he have done otherwise? They constituted the road map of the spiritual quest that was the great endeavour of his life of which even his political activities were in reality only a sub-branch. For Gandhi, applying a set of techniques may have meant that nonviolent political activism was more likely to achieve its immediate political goals. However, living within the rules required for a successful satyagraha campaign as Gandhi understood it, also constituted the type of life that is worth living.


Gandhi and his Ashrams

Reading popular life and times books about Gandhi we get a strong sense of the circumstances of the setting up of his South African community known as Tolstoy Farm and his Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. But the reasons for the setting up of his first intentional rural community in South Africa, known as Phoenix Settlement (that he read a book the day before!), the leaving of Sabarmati and the choice of the town of Wardha as the next headquarters are far less clear. While the setting up of Tolstoy Farm can be understood by reading about the political Gandhi, only an understanding of a more whole Gandhi and the spiritual and constructive work relationships that were part of this, give us worthwhile clues to his comings and goings from the other ashrams.

It was the relatively short full-tilt soul-mate relationship between Gandhi and the youthful Henry Polak, in 1904, that led to the formation of Phoenix Settlement and changed the course of Gandhi's life. Out of the dialectical relationship with "chhotabhai" (younger brother) Henry, Gandhi started his simple life experiments, and that relationship made Gandhi receptive to Ruskin's message in Unto This Last, a book given to him by Polak, that helped set the tone for the constructive program and Gandhi's economic philosophy, and in the more immediate term the founding of Phoenix Settlement.

The second intentional community was Tolstoy Farm. It was to be run on the principles of simple living, bread labour and spiritual practice in keeping with what Gandhi and his next soul-mate, Hermann Kallenbach, saw as the teachings of their spiritual mentor Leo Tolstoy. Kallenbach not only allowed the setting up of the farm through his financial support (in fact, legally, he was the owner of the property), but the bond of love between him and Gandhi and the experimental ferment of their relationship set the climate for the move to Tolstoy Farm and its communal living arrangements.

Phoenix Settlement and Tolstoy Farm, and underplayed accounts of the relationships with Polak and Kallenbach, are commented upon at reasonable length in Gandhi biographies - because they are discussed in Gandhi's autobiography and his book Satyagraha in South Africa, the main sources of information on Gandhi's South Africa years. The founding of Sabarmati Ashram is also well covered for the same reason. However, the abandonment of Sabarmati and the relocation to Wardha came after the period covered in Gandhi's writings and are, consequently, far less well documented.

There is some fairly often cited but poorly thought through rhetoric about why Gandhi left Sabarmati and why he eventually settled in the village of Sevagram near Wardha. Most books tell us that he left Sabarmati when he embarked on the historic Salt March in 1930 vowing not to return until he had achieved independence for India. Gandhi was not politically naive. He knew that he would not achieve independence in a month or a year. In fact it took another 17 years after the dramatic march to Dandi.

He also knew that the campaign he was launching would result in serious sacrifice for many, and he certainly did not want his sacrifice to be any less than that of his followers. They would possibly be stripped of their lands and homes, could he do any less than give up his? On the night before he set out for the seaside to make illegal salt, the Mahatma informed a crowd of 10,000 which had gathered on the sandy expanse of the Sabarmati river bank below the Ashram that he would not return "till Swaraj is established in India. ... We are as good as parting from the Ashram and from our homes. Only with complete victory can we return to this place."

However, at this stage property had not been confiscated and Gandhi could have vowed to make any number of other sacrifices that would cause less distress to those he was leaving behind. It seemed that he was emotionally ready to leave the Ashram and this readiness is not understandable without understanding Gandhi's relationship with Maganlal.

The "spirit of the ashram" had departed with Maganlal's sudden death in 1928 and the decision to leave his home and ashram family became much less difficult for the Mahatma than it seems possible from reading the sections dealing with this in the English sources. Although Maganlal is generally reduced to the young person who helped to coin the term satyagraha as the winner of a competition in Gandhi's South African newspaper in 1907, the relationship Gandhi had with him was one of the most important of his life. Maganlal was the embodiment of Gandhi's ideal of what an ashram should be, however because he was integral to the Gandhi of the eleven vows rather than a fellow politician he disappears from the (at least non-Gujarati) record almost completely.

The same is true for Jamnalal Bajaj. When Gandhi left Ahmedabad he could have set up his headquarters anywhere in India. The Gandhi texts inform us that he chose Wardha because it was the geographical centre of the mother India, implying his own symbolic identification with the country, that the location made it easier for followers and fellow workers from all over the sub-continent to be able to reach him, and because it could provide the stepping stone to settling in an out of the way village. In terms of sacrifice Wardha is ideal, providing a thoroughly unpleasant environment for much of the year. The thought of settling in a village did not come to Gandhi till years after he had made Wardha the centre of his activities. And the symbolic explanation does not seem to be quite adequate to the task. The move is intricately tied up with Gandhi's relationship with Bajaj, a fellow spiritual seeker and leader of constructive work activities who in childhood had been taken from his parents and later adopted Gandhi as a father by asking the Mahatma to adopt him as a son. It was because of Bajaj the "son" who wanted his "father" near him, that Gandhi ended up in this geographical centre, Bajaj's home town. The popular English Gandhi biographies make even less of Bajaj than they do of Maganlal.

At Wardha, as at Sabarmati a few years before, Gandhi became frustrated with the demands made on him, not least by the squabbling, eccentric and dependent people he managed to attract to himself. His nerves were affected and he wanted space, to be alone. The poverty and filth he saw around himself, perhaps exacerbated by the constant demands on his time for articles and interviews, forced him to realise that his political and literary activities were not going to achieve the social changes he so desired. He had been preaching his social message for a long time with precious few indications that he was being listened to.

The answer was to live alone in a village, to be an example of the changes he wanted to see adopted by the masses, by doing scavenging work directly with the downtrodden. In this way he could get away from the constraints that had taken over his life, and live the simple life of service he craved. Bajaj, by the gift of village land, held out the hope that this could be achieved. However, by this time Gandhi had become a victim of circumstances and the actions of his followers in effect conspired to thwart his plans. By the mid-1930s Gandhi wanted to be a simple villager, a simple villager who ended up being followed by his retinue. Gandhi had earlier claimed that ashram life was part of his nature, later he craved solitude and the life of simple service. In Ahmedabad he was consciously founding an ashram, in Sevagram near Wardha, where his last ashram was located, he was trying to escape from one.

Phoenix Settlement and Tolstoy Farm had been early experiments in communal living and stepping stones on the path to building a viable fully-fledged ashram around the Mahatma. In South Africa, Gandhi wanted to finish the political struggle quickly so that he could return to the spiritual life of the commune. In India, Maganlal built such a communal institution as a centre of political, social and spiritual experimentation. Here Gandhi could train his co-workers to be the nonviolent fighters in the cause of the freedom struggle and his constructive program. Although his headquarters at Wardha may have started out as a continuation of the ashram at Sabarmati, gradually Gandhi wanted to leave institutions behind. At the time of his relocation to Sevagram, Gandhi was distancing himself from power politics and Bajaj became instrumental in assisting this move from a concentration on the first to the other two gifts.

Without an understanding of more than the political Gandhi, some of his most important relationships become invisible to us, and without an understanding of these relationships we cannot fully understand the whole Gandhi.


The Influence of the Political Gandhi or the Whole Gandhi?

Gene Sharp, the pre-eminent western theorist of nonviolent activism, started off working with what I have called the "whole Gandhi" but gradually came to the realisation that the satyagrahi political activist Gandhi was the most important given the dangers of war and the imperatives of defence, as well as the desirability of nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns against oppressors and injustice. Satyagraha was an excellent tool to defeat opponents rather than a vehicle for more spiritual ends.

Where Gandhi remained at all, he became relatively one-dimensional, a political actor who, stripped of his more confusing trimmings, became palatable for Sharp's particularly American audience, Gandhi's moral jiu-jitsu having been replaced by a political one where, instead of the moral balance being shifted, the political power of the opponent was undermined. By secularising Gandhi in this way, he mirrors the work of the English language biographers when they write their stories about the father of Indian independence.

Gandhi's method of political struggle is often referred to in writings on the lives of the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kui and others, however Gandhi has also made a substantial contribution, not commonly commented upon, in areas that are outside the narrowly defined political arena. He also had a large influence on important branches of the disciplines of ecology, peace research and economics through his profound influence on leading figures in the disciplines, such as Arne Naess, Johan Galtung and E.F.Schumacher.

Often the connection with Gandhi is played down or overlooked by some of the later promoters of the fields in the way that the founders never did, or, as the founders came to an ever deeper understanding of the whole Gandhi, the promoters tended to maintain their focus on the earlier, more secular and less confusing (or disturbing?) writings of the founders. For example, where there is any awareness of them at all, cow protection and khadi (hand-spun, hand-woven cloth) production may have seemed even more anachronistic and irrelevant (and indeed bizarre) to western audiences than they did to some of Gandhi's English educated political co-workers. Ironically these very practices, or at least the philosophy behind them, were examined rather than discarded out of hand by some and even touched profound chords in western thinkers such as Næss and Schumacher, and went into the formulation of what is now known as "deep ecology" and appropriate technology and human-centred "small is beautiful" economics.

Although Gandhi was something of a charismatic leader and has been characterised as one of the outstanding persons of the last century, he still lives in our collective consciousness and his faults (a poor father, at times intolerant and inconsistent, prone to anger, often unreasonable in his demands and baffling in his arguments etc.) and sense of humour are remembered and they humanise him. Even if we just look at Gandhi the political activist or Gandhi the saint we still see someone with great power to influence others. While George Orwell thought that Gandhi's basic aims were reactionary and that his political methods could not have worked against extremely repressive regimes, he still managed to conclude that, "regarded simply as a politician, and compared with other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!"

If, however, we look at the whole Gandhi, instead of just Gandhi the clean smelling politician or beyond reproach saint, we see a person struggling very publicly to discern the meaning of life, someone who not only knew that there was something more to human existence than the mundane, but had the courage to reach out for it and admit to failure. Perhaps the importance of Gandhi is best characterised by Louis Fischer when he perceptively remarked that it "lay in doing what everyone could do but doesn't", and George Woodcock when he noted that the Mahatma, "with an extraordinary persistence ... made and kept himself one of the few free men or our time", rather than by merely pointing out that he helped to disband the greatest empire ever known and was instrumental in freeing a large section of humanity from colonialism.

In Gandhi's relationships with Polak, Kallenbach, Maganlal Gandhi and Bajaj, we see a very human Mohandas Gandhi, one who struggles with the same existential questions about what it is that constitutes a good and worthwhile life that so many of the rest of humanity at times feels the necessity to confront. And many, including Næss, Galtung, Schumacher and Sharp, have asked (and still do ask) these questions when they try to discern their place in the larger world, or when they ponder the meaning of peace, when they even perhaps dimly perceive that having may not be as important as being, when they see their lives dominated by machines which were supposed to be their servants, when they realise that so-called progress is diminishing the habitability of the planet, their only home, or when they see injustice in the world and ask why it exists. Perhaps this leaves the sneaking suspicion that maybe, just maybe, the person hailed as a mahatma could have been right when he said that "All mankind in essence are alike. What is, therefore, possible for me, is possible for everyone", and in this lies a large measure of the significance and personal challenge of the whole Gandhi, not merely Gandhi the famous Indian politician we so often read about.


Copyright © 2004 TFF & authors



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