(A ridiculously long essay about a man I think is overrated
First written in October, 2018 by Sidharth Vardhan
as a review of ‘My Experiemnts with Truth’ or ‘An Autobiography”
by M.K. Gandhi.)
Gandhi is hands down one of the most overrated people in the world. It might be true for most people tagged as ‘great’ but the way people in India obsesses for Gandhi either considering him really great or awesome on one hand or calling him wicked on other without being willing to see any shades of grey in him is really too much.
To be honest there are two Gandhis – one is the real Gandhi and the other is the idea of him that is attached to an almost ridiculous faithfulness to non-violence and truth which features in movies like ‘Lage Raho Munna Bhai’. The idea Gandhi is more popular of course, I wonder how many of us have ever imagined Gandhi as a young man, This later idea Gandhi is something I like because it doesn’t have to suffer from limitations of the original person who is, after all, a human.
Gandhi the god
The problem is that, even in his own time, this idea Gandhi raised him to the level of God who was frequently troubled by ‘darshan seekers’. The stupid habits Indians have of making people into Gods is something Mr. Ambedkar warned the country against it in his famous speech while presenting Constitution of India and Bhagat Singh warned against in his essay ‘Why I am an atheist?’ , both to no advantage as it different times Indians have raised Indira Gandhi, Sachin, and Modi to the level of god besides a long and ever-widening of saints to the level of God. Calling someone a God, of course, means that you put him or her beyond all criticism (which was Bhagat Singh’s main objection). Rama is the best example in this context. He is God and so incapable of mistakes. As long as you think of Rama as a human being, Ramayana makes a very fascinating piece of literature IMO. Make him God and the book is hijacked by moralists trying to justify his actions.
Gandhi himself hated God-like status. Those like Bhagat Singh, S. C. Bose, B.R. Ambedkar and Jinnah (and to comparatively less extent Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru) who had a bit of personal intelligence of their own soon grew to oppose Gandhi but most of the country still carried that blind devotion in them.
And speaking of a Gandhi capable of mistakes, most of his loved values can be traced to a single incidence of his childhood. The time he secretly from his father and (shock! Shock!!) ate meat and his father punished him by being in pain. His strong conscience must have traumatized him and thus born are an inclination towards three things that he later justified as values driven from his ‘experiments’ and study of religious literature – truth (he confessed his crime), non-violence (his father punished him by being in pain himself) and vegetarianism.
Vegetarianism and Brahmacharya
There are more chapters devoted to vegetarianism than to other two values. We get chapters on chapters on how he experimented with his diets, how his wife and one of the four children almost died because of how they share his obsession for vegetarianism.
Later his obsession for vegetarianism got attached to his love for self-help (which might as well be defined as opposite of ‘division of labor’ – to quote an example, he thinks that instead of engaging domestic help and putting their time to more productive use, the lawyers should wash their own clothes), distaste for sexuality (this might seem hypocritical given that how he abused his child-bride during their adolescence, but remember people change) and cleanliness (a value I admire. Refer Modi for more details, though unlike him, Gandhi wasn’t just pulling a political stunt) to result in his obsession for brahmacharya.
I don’t get the appeal of this brahmacharya thing – you give up food, sex and almost everything sweet, sexy and beautiful to get a few more years of life. I mean why would you need them? What is the fun of such a life anyway? Both Gandhi and his prose seem so dry of life. He has no love for books (other than self-help or religion) and art, the rare chapters where he talks about his family, it is either a confession to something he did and now considers wrong or in relation to his ‘experiments’, there are never any stories where a kid was just so cute and he couldn’t help mentioning it through the book is alternatively titled ‘an autobiography’.
One of his last ‘experiments’ with Brahamchariya that happened too long after the book was finished is something getting a lot of ridicule. It involved sleeping (figuratively ) in the same room with girls to test whether he feels sexual instincts – not caring about how traumatic the experience might for these girls. Of course, the girls afterward declared that there was nothing sexual between them Gandhi and them, but one wonders if Gandhi considered the possibility that his experiment might actually fail?
He somehow derived his love for non-violence from Geeta which was, really, a very long justification of the bloodiest war of its time. But really those religious justifications for ideas of vegetarianism and non-violence are redundant, he just couldn’t stand the idea of violence, even against animals ….. or rather, couldn’t stand aggression – because that is what he really meant by ‘non-violence’. He would probably call an act done in self-defense violence too when even Buddhists who are similarly obsessed with non-violence have developed self-defense arts. Like any other ideal, it suffers from many practical disadvantages.
Of course, this love for non-violence doesn’t stop him from asking youth of the country to fight for Britain in World War I. What else can an imperial government ask? You won’t get any aggressive revolts, but you get soldiers ready to die for you. Gandhi’s argument that it is wrong to betray empire in the hour of its need is foolish in the fact that first world war was just a wrestling match among European Imperial powers who turned on each other because there were no other territories left to conquer.
His letter to Hitler is the childish thing the idealist goody two shoes are prone to do seeing the world in their own image. It is cute but his advice to Jews in concentration camps to commit suicide in protest against cruelties done to them is plain disgusting.
What I can’t understand is why he called his methods of non-violence ‘Satyagraha’ (thus confusing Satya or truth with non-violence). He does have a ridiculous obsession for truth too though. One of those values you can admire. But the methods that go by name of Satyagrahas of his, despite having a poetical name is nothing more than methods a stubborn child would use to gets its demands fulfilled by its parents (I won’t eat till my demands are fulfilled, I won’t cooperate or listen to you till my demands are fulfilled and so on).
It is only at the time of civil disobedience movement that his methods appealed a little to me and the time of independence when he was able to prevent a lot of bloodshed in riots to a great extent by making tours to Bengal and asking people to give up arms (which they did) but the book was written several years before those times. One of the arguments against aggressive methods is that it can often be a slippery slope but the same seems to be true for Gandhi’s non-violent tools. The strikes, fasts etc continue to be popular among Indians even when more democratic methods are available – another thing Ambedkar warned against in speech mentioned above. (The third and last warning, if you are interested, was to make India a social democracy and not just settle for political equality – something else ignored by Indians to their own disadvantage)
A man of boxes
To me personally, Gandhi lived in certain kind of box (or boxes) which he couldn’t think out of despite his having traveled three continents. He couldn’t think beyond religions (he learned much from religions. Christ’s quote ‘turn the other cheek’ is often attributed to Gandhi in India’) – in fact, he believed that everyone should have his or her thinking confined to box of religion he or she were born in and respect other boxes.
Much of what is intellectual in him is limited to the range defined by Hinduism. He is untouched from writers like Dostoevsky or political philosophers like Marx, the only famous writer he refers to is Tolstoy (and again it is the later religious parables of Tolstoy that Gandhi is interested in and not Anna Karenina or War and Peace).
The other box he takes a lot of time to break is probably created by the education system he was raised in – which made him believe that British rule is overall for good of colonies. No obviousness of racism in South Africa, the famines of India, the drain of wealth from India would make him see the truth of British rule for most of his life. He demanded domainian staus not seeing that it was sort of respect British government gave to only those countries that had a white population in far more significant percentage of the population than ever could be the case with India. When he withdrew non-cooperation, he argued India was not ready for independence – as British were ever ready to rule India.
There is the box of traditionalism. His go-to tools like Charkha and handicrafts are pre-industrialisation. And he seems to show no interest in industrialization. The schools need not care much about textbooks. All his philosophy about studies while focusing much on the study of languages, religion, moral values, and physical exercises has little to tell about teaching sciences and arts (a craft which can be useful is different and gets attention).
There is also focus of his own circles in as far as the South African part is concerned (more than half of book is devoted to his life in South Africa), there is almost no mention of black Africans.
Consistency of Politicians
None of us is same forever – same as we were years ago, at least no one who is constantly learning can be. Yet we assume that politicians should be the same. A politician who says something different from what he/she said in past is subjected to ridicule and called a hypocrite. That might be why politicians are least willing to admit their mistakes and wish to be thought of perfect. Maybe it is because whole people have to pay for mistakes of politicians
The idea-Gandhi, whom most of the westerns and politicians love, supposedly had this consistency – he was always nonviolent and was always wise about right and wrong. The real Gandhi was more vulnerable to mistakes. In fact, that is why the book is called ‘experiments’.
He was successful in uniting India in a single national movement because of that idea-Gandhi who appealed to a people that had for centuries been devoted to saints – but still, it was a great achievement and probably wouldn’t have been achieved easily otherwise. Before his arrival, Congress was a just a party of lawyers with no Pan-national appeal. But after Indians got that national consciousness, he was more of an obstacle. Indians might easily much earlier have got freedom of it wasn’t for his decision to take non-cooperation movement in 1919. I don’t think he really helped India’s case after that, Orwell was of this opinion too. And if India got in 1947, it wasn’t because of Gandhi. The British government had put a good Vs evil script on second world war and the British rule over India wasn’t consistent with the value of ‘good’ Britain was supposed to have – democracy, liberality, and co; something they could no longer hide from their own people (politicians and consistency, right?). Moreover, there wasn’t much wealth left in India to drain.