Gandhi's Uncertain Legacy

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 10, 2003 | Destinations: India / New Delhi

The idea that if we were all a little more like Mahatma Gandhi the world would be much improved continues to hold sway over the popular imagination. As just one example of many, Harper's magazine recently ran an extended essay by Jonathan Schell in which he argued that since Gandhian tactics got the British out of India (they didn't, or at least not by themselves) then similar tactics could be used to, say, avert nuclear annihilation. The question that usually arises is whether Gandhi would have advocated nonviolent resistance to the machinery of the Holocaust, given that this probably would have implied the complete extinction of German Jewry. In his oft-quoted essay "Reflections on Gandhi", Orwell writes: "Gandhi's view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide" in order to awake a slumbering world. "After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly." One would have thought that Gandhi would not have approved of suicide, being violence against oneself. And anyway, once the dramatic appeal had been made, what would have been the proper response to it? Although the malleability of human nature is becoming increasingly obvious, the instinct for self-preservation is inviolate if anything is. To make everybody into Gandhis would require coercion of a very non-Gandhian kind.

Or would it? Gandhians believe that there is a force more powerful than physical force: Love or Truth or God or what have you. And Arun Gandhi, grandson to the Mahatma and the author of the present volume, presents himself as an example of how Gandhi's teachings can transform an immoral person into a moral one. He also presents numerous other examples of people seeing the light; unfortunately no number of examples will prove that anyone can be reformed through love. Inexplicable meanness (as apart from "evil", a word now virtually meaningless) has a way of showing up all over again, even despite less overtly political prophets like Jesus or the Buddha. No sensible man, if struck hard enough on one cheek, would turn the other. If he were a man and not simply a brain or a heart, he would either run or fight back. That Gandhi would have done neither says only that he had an unnaturally low regard for his own life, and, for that matter, the lives of his fellow Indians. What is so awe-inspiring about this? It is one thing to say that we should be kind to one another, even though on an individual level we do this most of the time anyway. But what if a stranger is holding a knife to your throat? Compassion is probably not the first thing you would feel.

These are realities with which the present author does not grapple. Instead we find statements like: "Societies are torn asunder today not because violence is human nature but because excessive materialism and capitalism have made people self-centered and territorial." To say that it did not occur to humans to be territorial until the maturation of capitalism is every bit as foolish as saying that violence is not part of human nature. The difference between the Crusades, say, and World War II is one of degree. Both were territorial, violent, materialistic. Both tore societies asunder. Violence today may be more destructive, but only because humans have become more powerful, not because they have become more self-centered. The problem with the Nazis was not that they were self-centered but the opposite: they annihilated their selves in the service of a destructive ideology.

So Gandhi's teachings leave something to be desired, when it comes to both geopolitics and immediate struggles for survival. But what is still remarkable about the man is that he practiced what he preached and demanded that others do the same. As his grandson has it, Gandhi said that "we must be the change we wish to see in the world." This is admirable. But only if one wishes that everybody become saintly. If one wishes that all people own Rolexes, or go to the moon, or have sex on demand, then once again Gandhi's maxim can be applied toward ends he would have abhorred.

Arun Gandhi's "memoir", as he calls it, is as incoherent and unsatisfying as Gandhi's autobiography, which both Orwell and Naipaul dismissed as a literary nullity. In both cases the retelling of noble acts pales in comparison to the acts themselves. What is needed is not another book about Gandhi, but another Gandhi. Yet I believe it was Einstein who said that once Gandhi was dead, one could scarcely believe that he had ever lived. For his part, Orwell disliked Gandhi precisely because he seemed "inhuman" and that this was hardly something ordinary people could, or should, aspire to become. At least Martin Luther King Jr., whose name is often uttered in the same breath with Gandhi's, had obvious human failings.

Arun relates that on eight separate occasions someone attempted to have his grandfather killed. And that these attempts were made not by Hindus disgruntled with Gandhi's supposed coziness with India's Muslims, as is commonly believed, but by high-caste Indians outraged by his efforts to dismantle the caste system. "They conspired," writes Arun, "to make a martyr of Gandhi so that they could exploit his image, while no longer having to deal with his interference in affairs of State." Arguably in the long run the ploy did not work, as the lower castes have become increasingly powerful, especially in India's provincial governments. Caste has become to India what race is to America. And the divisions will take as long to resolve as they took to establish.

Nietzsche was among the first to suggest that the so-called "ascetic ideal" usually had psychological causes. In Gandhi's case, the main cause may have been, as Arun puts it, "his strong sense of guilt at not being present at the death of his father and, later, at the death of his mother." In the first case, his absence was a result of his sudden demand that his young wife have sex with him. It seems quite natural to counter death with sex, but for Gandhi his act was abominable, and may be why he would renounce sex altogether later in life. His grandson does not make this connection, for that would surely diminish the Mahatma's stature. Instead Arun turns it into a lesson about the importance of filial piety. Hagiography cannot admit explanations of a saint's behavior, for that would make the saint only human. And in a world bereft of heroes, that is inadmissible, however true.

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Review of Arun Gandhi's Legacy of Love: My Education in the Path of Nonviolence, North Bay Books, 2003.

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