Like most non-specialist browsers, I have read not more than that “good bit” of Gandhi and not more than some twenty or so book-length studies of him. En passant, let me say, at great risk of injury from Gandhi scholars, that the book that seems to me to understand his enterprises with the most sensitivity and intelligence is Ronald Terchek’s Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy, 1998.
Had Gandhi been merely a figure of attempted piety and saintliness, the job of fixing him might have been tractable. That task may have been achieved by referring to just two statements he made in his write-up on “Hinduism” (Young India, October 6, 1921, rptd in C.F.Andrews, Mahatma Gandhi’s Ideas, London: Allen and Unwin, 1929, pp.35-42): “I do not believe in the exclusive divinity of the Vedas. I believe the Bible, the Koran, and the Zend Avesta to be as much divinely inspired as the Vedas”; and : “I decline to be bound by any interpretation, however learned it may be, if it is repugnant to reason or moral sense.” Thus his abhorrence of untouchability which he regarded as “the greatest blot on Hinduism” (YI, April 27, 1921), and equally his endorsement of the Varnashrama Dharma strictly in accordance with the interpretation he gave to it, namely, that “the divisions define duties; they confer no privileges.” And, “it is, I hold, against the genius of Hinduism to arrogate to oneself a higher status, or assign to another a lower status.”
And when his conviction took the place of reason, he would not be swayed. For example, he would not be persuaded that untouchability demonstrably issued from the logic of the Varnashrama, or that the total schema of that social organization was based inherently in disequalibriums of status. To the extent that Hinduism for him comprised chiefly Ramcharitmanas and the Bhagvatam, did it matter that there was also the Purusa Sukta in the Rig Veda or the Manu Smriti, the most formative Hindu texts on the subject, which made nonsense of Gandhi’s construction of Varanashrama and untouchability.
Such wholly personalized endorsement or rigid resistance to selective historical/textual truths, as Ambedkar was to discover, could only be associated with someone for whom “reason” spanned many categories of perceptions—a dearly-held sentiment, common sense, observable truth. Thus, if on the one hand “Varnashrama is not affected by interdining or intermarriage,” “prohibition against intermarriage and interdining is essential for a rapid evolution of the soul,” even as “a Hindu who refuses to dine with another from a sense of superiority altogether misrepresents his Hindu religion.” (Ibid.,) If all that leaves you scratching the wall, no blame accrues to you. Consistency, Gandhi would agree, is the hobgoblin of small minds. Ultimately, as has been often said, the truth of his pronouncements could only be found in his practice rather than in the strenuous demonstrations of theory. And in his practice he was rarely found wanting.
Gandhi was always, of course, superbly honest; and most of all to his perceptions of himself. As in his acknowledgement that he was a practitioner and a politician first and a saint only after.
Precisely the fact that his experiments with scripture and ethics intertwined with his immersion with one of the most complex and conflictual collective moments of modern history makes any evaluation of him a matter of the utmost difficulty, even of frustration.
For example, in eventually coming to lead one of the most consequential anti-colonial movements of the twentieth century, he was clearly engaged in a “modernizing” project. Yet few practioners of mass politics have problematized the project of “modernity” as Gandhi did. Or, concomitantly, of tradition. To those of us to whom “modernity” unambiguously constitutes a monochromatic episteme, Gandhi offers many hurdles in the ways in which he either endorsed its stipulations or rejected them. No simple answers there as well, either for the modernizers or the traditionalists.
Traditionalists who seek to appropriate Gandhi for an “anti-western,” and rootedly “indigenous” paradigm of historical construction must find it hard to square the following facts with that paradigm:
--that, despite taboo and parental and societal obstructions, he traveled not just to England for studies, but thereafter to South Africa and other lands;
--that he made full use of such modern facilities as the railways, the telegraph, the print media;
--that he “endeavoured humbly to follow Tolstoy, Ruskin, Thoreau, Emerson” and other “western” thinkers, and never explicitly rejected their teachings or practices at any time;
--that he passed on the baton to a modernizer like Nehru rather than choose Patel for the honour;
--that he wholeheartedly subscribed to the notion of “equality”, faulting any aspect of tradition that contradicted the same;
--that like so many “secular Hindus” then and now, he saw the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS as the biggest damagers of the cause;
--that his closest backers eventually came not from the traditional class of landlords but from the scions of the nascent national bourgeoisie;
--that his concern for Muslims seemed to override his concern for his own community, or that his faith project included their scripture and that of other religious “minorities”; or that, being as devoted to Hinduism as he professed to be, he should have given his life for the secular idea;
--or that he should have so unashamedly made sexual experiments upon himself, lying in bed with young women to test whether his abstinence was achieved.
And the “modernists” must stand equally frustrated by another set of facts:
--that, his devotion to “equality” should not have been seen by him to be contradictied by his endorsement of the Varanashrama Dharma;
--that instead of encouraging the “untouchables” to organize and resist, he should have counseled that they live clean lives, bear with the barbarisms inflicted upon them by false prophets, and remember that God loved them especially (which is why he called them “Harijans”); or that he wished to be reborn an “Atishudra” (the casteless untouchable) inorder to suffer what they suffer and to atone for the sins of their oppressors;
--that he should always have preferred a pencil to a type writer, or argued forcefully against the “march of technology”;
--that he should have fetishized the cow as he did, equating Swaraj with cow protection, or propagated vegetarianism as a high moral principle; or denied the injection of antibiotics to his wife on the principle that it would be a polluting exercise;
--that he should have so opposed the notion and practice of a justly violent and, to many Indians, “heroic” opposition to colonial oppression as was undertaken by such young idealists as Bhagat Singh and other “revolutionaries’, or done rather little to persuade the colonial masters not to put them to death (barring a letter to the Viceroy, which, even as it requested mitigation, acknowledged that under the law they deserve to be punished);
--or, that having brought Indian women out of their home and hearth to participate in the freedom movement, the extent of his definition of freedom for them should essentially have remained embedded in different stipulations of “Sanatan Dharma,” holding up Sita as an ideal.
It would seem that any understanding of Gandhi both as an individual and as a leader of men and women must take in a fascinating, even if frustrating, complex of often inseparable contraries. Out of the deepest commitment to some orthodoxies emerged some of his most creative unorthodoxies, be it in the religious, the cultural, or the political sphere of thought and activity.
A modernity that seemed frozen in a moment of western history (the French Revolution) was in part endorsed and in part rejected. The endorsement of equality was in turn sought to be ploughed back into aspects of “Indian” tradition as Gandhi chose to construct them. If technology freed the human agent from soulless labour it was endorsed (the sewing machine); if it threatened to railroad and straitjacket the human agent into automacity, turning freedom and autonomy into mechanistic comfort and slavery, it was rejected. If Nature was objectified and exploited for “prosperity” it was seen as an evil enterprise; understood as an organic and intelligent entity, it could be drawn on for wholesome benefit to humankind. Remarkably, it seemed of little purpose to Gandhi to examine western modernity as a marriage of reason with Capitalism. Or to examine how Capitalism as a particular form of social organization vitiated both reason and equality. He would much rather chide the capitalist for being a “materialist” and appeal to his moral conscience to perform as a “trustee,” given that god had bestowed munificence upon him. All that while also contending that he wanted the same things as did the Bolsheviks, except that their methods did not appeal to him.
Likewise, any aspect of tradition that stultified the ordained equality of all men and women under god’s benign dispensation was abhorrent; or that advocated the supremacy of one religion over another, even as Gandhi’s personal devotion to Hinduism remained tearfully transcendant.
Above all stood the power of example—the courage and preparedness to live one’s convictions regardless of social opinion or the fear of calumny. The one thing that ultimately must explain the influence Gandhi wielded in a matrix void of conviction. All that wedded to a non-acquisitive praxis, enriched by the demonstrated willingness to partake of the meanest chore and lift it thereby to dignity, and to undertake personal suffering on a sustained basis. Only by thus infecting many millions Gandhi believed could a new nation emerge not as a territorial but as a moral entity worthy of emergence.