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Reflections of Ghandi


Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but
the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in
all cases. In Gandhi's case the questions on feels inclined to ask are:
to what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity--by the consciousness of
himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking
empires by sheer spiritual power--and to what extent did he compromise
his own principles by entering politics, which of their nature are
inseparable from coercion and fraud? To give a definite answer one would
have to study Gandhi's acts and writings in immense detail, for his whole
life was a sort of pilgrimage in which every act was significant. But
this partial autobiography, which ends in the nineteen-twenties, is
strong evidence in his favor, all the more because it covers what he
would have called the unregenerate part of his life and reminds one that
inside the saint, or near-saint, there was a very shrewd, able person who
could, if he had chosen, have been a brilliant success as a lawyer, an
administrator or perhaps even a businessman.

At about the time when the autobiography first appeared I remember
reading its opening chapters in the ill-printed pages of some Indian
newspaper. They made a good impression on me, which Gandhi himself at
that time did not. The things that one associated with him--home-spun
cloth, "soul forces" and vegetarianism--were unappealing, and his
medievalist program was obviously not viable in a backward, starving,
over-populated country. It was also apparent that the British were making
use of him, or thought they were making use of him. Strictly speaking, as
a Nationalist, he was an enemy, but since in every crisis he would exert
himself to prevent violence--which, from the British point of view,
meant preventing any effective action whatever--he could be regarded as
"our man". In private this was sometimes cynically admitted. The attitude
of the Indian millionaires was similar. Gandhi called upon them to
repent, and naturally they preferred him to the Socialists and Communists
who, given the chance, would actually have taken their money away. How
reliable such calculations are in the long run is doubtful; as Gandhi
himself says, "in the end deceivers deceive only themselves"; but at any
rate the gentleness with which he was nearly always handled was due
partly to the feeling that he was useful. The British Conservatives only
became really angry with him when, as in 1942, he was in effect turning
his non-violence against a different conqueror.

But I could see even then that the British officials who spoke of him
with a mixture of amusement and disapproval also genuinely liked and
admired him, after a fashion. Nobody ever suggested that he was corrupt,
or ambitious in any vulgar way, or that anything he did was actuated by
fear or malice. In judging a man like Gandhi one seems instinctively to
apply high standards, so that some of his virtues have passed almost
unnoticed. For instance, it is clear even from the autobiography that his
natural physical courage was quite outstanding: the manner of his death
was a later illustration of this, for a public man who attached any value
to his own skin would have been more adequately guarded. Again, he seems
to have been quite free from that maniacal suspiciousness which, as E.M.
Forster rightly says in A PASSAGE TO INDIA, is the besetting Indian vice,
as hypocrisy is the British vice. Although no doubt he was shrewd enough
in detecting dishonesty, he seems wherever possible to have believed that
other people were acting in good faith and had a better nature through
which they could be approached. And though he came of a poor middle-class
family, started life rather unfavorably, and was probably of unimpressive
physical appearance, he was not afflicted by envy or by the feeling of
inferiority. Color feeling when he first met it in its worst form in
South Africa, seems rather to have astonished him. Even when he was
fighting what was in effect a color war, he did not think of people in
terms of race or status. The governor of a province, a cotton
millionaire, a half-starved Dravidian coolie, a British private soldier
were all equally human beings, to be approached in much the same way. It
is noticeable that even in the worst possible circumstances, as in South
Africa when he was making himself unpopular as the champion of the Indian
community, he did not lack European friends.

Written in short lengths for newspaper serialization, the autobiography
is not a literary masterpiece, but it is the more impressive because of
the commonplaceness of much of its material. It is well to be reminded
that Gandhi started out with the normal ambitions of a young Indian
student and only adopted his extremist opinions by degrees and, in some
cases, rather unwillingly. There was a time, it is interesting to learn,
when he wore a top hat, took dancing lessons, studied French and Latin,
went up the Eiffel Tower and even tried to learn the violin--all this
was the idea of assimilating European civilization as throughly as
possible. He was not one of those saints who are marked out by their
phenomenal piety from childhood onwards, nor one of the other kind who
forsake the world after sensational debaucheries. He makes full
confession of the misdeeds of his youth, but in fact there is not much to
confess. As a frontispiece to the book there is a photograph of Gandhi's
possessions at the time of his death. The whole outfit could be purchased
for about 5 pounds, and Gandhi's sins, at least his fleshly sins,
would make the same sort of appearance if placed all in one heap. A few
cigarettes, a few mouthfuls of meat, a few annas pilfered in childhood
from the maidservant, two visits to a brothel (on each occasion he got
away without "doing anything"), one narrowly escaped lapse with his
landlady in Plymouth, one outburst of temper--that is about the whole
collection. Almost from childhood onwards he had a deep earnestness, an
attitude ethical rather than religious, but, until he was about thirty,
no very definite sense of direction. His first entry into anything
describable as public life was made by way of vegetarianism. Underneath
his less ordinary qualities one feels all the time the solid middle-class
businessmen who were his ancestors. One feels that even after he had
abandoned personal ambition he must have been a resourceful, energetic
lawyer and a hard-headed political organizer, careful in keeping down
expenses, an adroit handler of committees and an indefatigable chaser of
subscriptions. His character was an extraordinarily mixed one, but there
was almost nothing in it that you can put your finger on and call bad,
and I believe that even Gandhi's worst enemies would admit that he was an
interesting and unusual man who enriched the world simply by being alive.
Whether he was also a lovable man, and whether his teachings can have
much for those who do not accept the religious beliefs on which they are
founded, I have never felt fully certain.

Of late years it has been the fashion to talk about Gandhi as though he
were not only sympathetic to the Western Left-wing movement, but were
integrally part of it. Anarchists and pacifists, in particular, have
claimed him for their own, noticing only that he was opposed to
centralism and State violence and ignoring the other-worldly,
anti-humanist tendency of his doctrines. But one should, I think, realize
that Gandhi's teachings cannot be squared with the belief that Man is the
measure of all things and that our job is to make life worth living on
this earth, which is the only earth we have. They make sense only on the
assumption that God exists and that the world of solid objects is an
illusion to be escaped from. It is worth considering the disciplines
which Gandhi imposed on himself and which--though he might not insist on
every one of his followers observing every detail--he considered
indispensable if one wanted to serve either God or humanity. First of
all, no meat-eating, and if possible no animal food in any form. (Gandhi
himself, for the sake of his health, had to compromise on milk, but seems
to have felt this to be a backsliding.) No alcohol or tobacco, and no
spices or condiments even of a vegetable kind, since food should be taken
not for its own sake but solely in order to preserve one's strength.
Secondly, if possible, no sexual intercourse. If sexual intercourse must
happen, then it should be for the sole purpose of begetting children and
presumably at long intervals. Gandhi himself, in his middle thirties,
took the vow of BRAMAHCHARYA, which means not only complete chastity but
the elimination of sexual desire. This condition, it seems, is difficult
to attain without a special diet and frequent fasting. One of the dangers
of milk-drinking is that it is apt to arouse sexual desire. And finally –
this is the cardinal point--for the seeker after goodness there must be
no close friendships and no exclusive loves whatever.

Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because "friends react on
one another" and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into
wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true. Moreover, if one is to love
God, or to love humanity as a whole, one cannot give one's preference to
any individual person. This again is true, and it marks the point at
which the humanistic and the religious attitude cease to be reconcilable.
To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving
some people more than others. The autobiography leaves it uncertain
whether Gandhi behaved in an inconsiderate way to his wife and children,
but at any rate it makes clear that on three occasions he was willing to
let his wife or a child die rather than administer the animal food
prescribed by the doctor. It is true that the threatened death never
actually occurred, and also that Gandhi--with, one gathers, a good deal
of moral pressure in the opposite direction--always gave the patient the
choice of staying alive at the price of committing a sin: still, if the
decision had been solely his own, he would have forbidden the animal
food, whatever the risks might be. There must, he says, be some limit to
what we will do in order to remain alive, and the limit is well on this
side of chicken broth. This attitude is perhaps a noble one, but, in the
sense which--I think--most people would give to the word, it is
inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection,
that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty,
that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly
intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be
defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of
fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol,
tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood
is also a thing that human beings must avoid. There is an obvious retort
to this, but one should be wary about making it. In this yogi-ridden age,
it is too readily assumed that "non-attachment" is not only better than a
full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects
it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human
being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people
genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who
achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be
human beings. If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one
would, I believe, find that the main motive for "non-attachment" is a
desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which,
sexual or non-sexual, is hard work. But it is not necessary here to argue
whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is "higher". The point
is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and
all "radicals" and "progressives", from the mildest Liberal to the most
extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.

However, Gandhi's pacifism can be separated to some extent from his other
teachings. Its motive was religious, but he claimed also for it that it
was a definitive technique, a method, capable of producing desired
political results. Gandhi's attitude was not that of most Western
pacifists. SATYAGRAHA, first evolved in South Africa, was a sort of
non-violent warfare, a way of defeating the enemy without hurting him and
without feeling or arousing hatred. It entailed such things as civil
disobedience, strikes, lying down in front of railway trains, enduring
police charges without running away and without hitting back, and the
like. Gandhi objected to "passive resistance" as a translation of
SATYAGRAHA: in Gujarati, it seems, the word means "firmness in the
truth". In his early days Gandhi served as a stretcher-bearer on the
British side in the Boer War, and he was prepared to do the same again in
the war of 1914-18. Even after he had completely abjured violence he was
honest enough to see that in war it is usually necessary to take sides.
He did not--indeed, since his whole political life centred round a
struggle for national independence, he could not--take the sterile and
dishonest line of pretending that in every war both sides are exactly the
same and it makes no difference who wins. Nor did he, like most Western
pacifists, specialize in avoiding awkward questions. In relation to the
late war, one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to
answer was: "What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them
exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without resorting
to war?" I must say that I have never heard, from any Western pacifist,
an honest answer to this question, though I have heard plenty of
evasions, usually of the "you're another" type. But it so happens that
Gandhi was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer
is on record in Mr. Louis Fischer's GANDHI AND STALIN. According to Mr.
Fischer, Gandhi's view was that the German Jews ought to commit
collective suicide, which "would have aroused the world and the people of
Germany to Hitler's violence." After the war he justified himself: the
Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly.
One has the impression that this attitude staggered even so warm an
admirer as Mr. Fischer, but Gandhi was merely being honest. If you are
not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be
lost in some other way. When, in 1942, he urged non-violent resistance
against a Japanese invasion, he was ready to admit that it might cost
several million deaths.

At the same time there is reason to think that Gandhi, who after all was
born in 1869, did not understand the nature of totalitarianism and saw
everything in terms of his own struggle against the British government.
The important point here is not so much that the British treated him
forbearingly as that he was always able to command publicity. As can be
seen from the phrase quoted above, he believed in "arousing the world",
which is only possible if the world gets a chance to hear what you are
doing. It is difficult to see how Gandhi's methods could be applied in a
country where opponents of the régime disappear in the middle of the
night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of
assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but
to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions
known to your adversary. Is there a Gandhi in Russia at this moment? And
if there is, what is he accomplishing? The Russian masses could only
practise civil disobedience if the same idea happened to occur to all of
them simultaneously, and even then, to judge by the history of the
Ukraine famine, it would make no difference. But let it be granted that
non-violent resistance can be effective against one's own government, or
against an occupying power: even so, how does one put it into practise
internationally? Gandhi's various conflicting statements on the late war
seem to show that he felt the difficulty of this. Applied to foreign
politics, pacifism either stops being pacifist or becomes appeasement.
Moreover the assumption, which served Gandhi so well in dealing with
individuals, that all human beings are more or less approachable and will
respond to a generous gesture, needs to be seriously questioned. It is
not necessarily true, for example, when you are dealing with lunatics.
Then the question becomes: Who is sane? Was Hitler sane? And is it not
possible for one whole culture to be insane by the standards of another?
And, so far as one can gauge the feelings of whole nations, is there any
apparent connection between a generous deed and a friendly response? Is
gratitude a factor in international politics?

These and kindred questions need discussion, and need it urgently, in the
few years left to us before somebody presses the button and the rockets
begin to fly. It seems doubtful whether civilization can stand another
major war, and it is at least thinkable that the way out lies through
non-violence. It is Gandhi's virtue that he would have been ready to give
honest consideration to the kind of question that I have raised above;
and, indeed, he probably did discuss most of these questions somewhere or
other in his innumerable newspaper articles. One feels of him that there
was much he did not understand, but not that there was anything that he
was frightened of saying or thinking. I have never been able to feel much
liking for Gandhi, but I do not feel sure that as a political thinker he
was wrong in the main, nor do I believe that his life was a failure. It
is curious that when he was assassinated, many of his warmest admirers
exclaimed sorrowfully that he had lived just long enough to see his life
work in ruins, because India was engaged in a civil war which had always
been foreseen as one of the byproducts of the transfer of power. But it
was not in trying to smooth down Hindu-Moslem rivalry that Gandhi had
spent his life. His main political objective, the peaceful ending of
British rule, had after all been attained. As usual the relevant facts
cut across one another. On the other hand, the British did get out of
India without fighting, and event which very few observers indeed would
have predicted until about a year before it happened. On the other hand,
this was done by a Labour government, and it is certain that a
Conservative government, especially a government headed by Churchill,
would have acted differently. But if, by 1945, there had grown up in
Britain a large body of opinion sympathetic to Indian independence, how
far was this due to Gandhi's personal influence? And if, as may happen,
India and Britain finally settle down into a decent and friendly
relationship, will this be partly because Gandhi, by keeping up his
struggle obstinately and without hatred, disinfected the political air?
That one even thinks of asking such questions indicates his stature. One
may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may
reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such
claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and
therefore feel that Gandhi's basic aims were anti-human and reactionary:
but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading
political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave

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