Gandhi: Too Saintly for the Good of Others?

From Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Emperor, by Alex von Tunzelmann (Picador, 2008), pp. 40-41:

Few political figures have been so widely misunderstood as Gandhi, in his own time or today. He emerged at a time when monarchies were falling and communism loomed; he was contemporary with Lenin. To many listeners, aware of the march of events in Russia, Gandhi’s speech sounded like a rallying cry to Indian socialism, with its talk of the casting off of jewels and the power of the workers. This was, indeed, the reason that young radicals like Jawahar [Nehru] were so attracted to him. But a closer examination of Gandhi’s words reveals something different, and much more profoundly religious. He had confronted the moral behavior of society, not its structure. Gandhi called for the princes to stop wearing their finery and instead “hold it in trust” for their subjects. This is not the same thing at all as telling the masses to rise up and seize it. Gandhi was not challenging the princes’ right to hold wealth, nor even their right to reign. He was asking for a change of heart.

Gandhi’s condemnation of princely luxury was part of a much broader preoccupation with returning India to what he supposed had been a prehistoric “golden age” of godliness, simplicity and humility. He had begun to reject Western ideals of progress and technology, and insisted that India’s future lay in a return to simple village life, not industrialization. As a symbol of this, he adopted hand-spinning on a wooden wheel and used only khadi—hand-spun—textiles. He developed a distaste for the synthesized drugs and surgery which he associated with Western medicine, describing them as “black magic.” Doctors, he believed, “violate our religious instinct” by prioritizing the body over the mind and curing diseases that people had deserved by their conduct. Lawyers, meanwhile, had propped up British rule by espousing British law and were like “leeches” on the people, their profession “just as degrading as prostitution.”

This position had fueled continual conflict in his own family life. Unsurprisingly, he was far from supportive of his sons’ ambitions to pursue careers in medicine or law. “I know too that you have sometimes felt that your education was being neglected,” Mohandas wrote to his third son, Manilal. But, he contended, “education does not mean a knowledge of letters but it means character building. It means a knowledge of duty.” His eldest son, Harilal, fared worse. After Mohandas denied him a legal scholarship to London, he ran away from home, married a woman without his father’s consent, was disinherited and ended up unemployed, destitute and bitter. When Manilal tried to lend Harilal money, Mohandas was so furious that he banished Manilal from his presence for a year. Manilal ended up homeless, sleeping on a beach.

It is not easy being a saint, and it is perhaps even less so to live with one. “All of us brothers have been treated as a ringmaster would treat his trained animals,” Harilal wrote to his father in the course of a twelve-page letter deploring Mohandas’s treatment of his wife and sons. And yet, to a wider audience beyond his immediate family, Gandhi’s charisma, determination and fearlessness were inspiring.

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Filed under democracy, economics, education, India, religion

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