I’ve been very interested in Gandhi for most of my life. I wrote numerous papers in college and graduate school on his philosophy and on the philosophy of nonviolence.
The Collected Works consists of a hundred or so volumes—the equivalent of a large set of encyclopedias—wherein is contained everything ever written or spoken by Gandhi of which there is any record. So all the newspaper articles he wrote, accounts in the press of his public speeches and interviews, the personal letters he sent, etc. There’s very little supplementary material included to provide context. About 99% of what is in these volumes is his words. Only about 1% consists of explanatory footnotes, appendices of official documents and letters to him he was responding to, chronologies of events, and other such items.
When I was in my 20s, I obtained Volume I, and since then, every year or two I pick up a handful of volumes and mix them in with my other reading. I don’t know that I’ll get through the whole collection before I die, but I kind of like immersing myself in this material periodically. Of course a lot of it’s pretty dull stuff, and unavoidably there’s a huge amount of repetition, but I feel like it gives me a good sense of who Gandhi was.
On the one hand, because so much of it is so mundane, because so much of it is so redundant, and because this isn’t a cherry-picked “best of” collection that shows him only at his most impressive, it’s hard to be in awe of him as some superhuman figure. He said his share of stupid things, for instance.
On the other hand, it’s really not disillusioning on the whole. He doesn’t come across like some kind of God-man, but he also doesn’t come across as a fraud or as an overrated figure who falls well short of his reputation. He was a remarkable person on many levels. It’s hard to imagine any public figure being more consistently sincere and benevolently motivated. He worked for what he believed in unceasingly and obsessively. Somehow he retained an admirable amount of humility and willingness to doubt and question himself.
Some of his stuff is kooky, but really for someone so frequently thinking outside the box, he had an extraordinarily good batting average, at least in my estimation. So much of what he was doing he was just making up as he went along, trying to put a philosophy of nonviolence into practice in the political sphere, that it’s a wonder he succeeded even to the limited extent he did.
Though I’m not with him in all his particulars, I certainly think he’s correct broadly speaking. As long as we continue using violence and coercion and war and so on to try to counter those doing likewise, it’s hit or miss how long we can remain on the tightrope before plunging into a future like that depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. And even while we’re lucky and clever enough to remain on that tightrope collectively as a species, countless individuals will live and die miserably through the direct and indirect results of our violence.
The end might be in another few days, it might be in a year or two, it might be in twenty years, it might even be in a century or more—it’s unpredictable—but certainly the farther you look into the future, the less likely it is we’ll continue to dodge self-destruction.
The way out—which I have no confidence we’ll take; I’d put the chances at less than 1%—is to move toward a future at least of the general type Gandhi envisioned. It would mean wholesale changes in the attitudes we have toward each other, our values and goals, the way we settle conflicts, and on and on. Which is why it won’t happen. But sooner or later we’re screwed if it doesn’t
Volume XLIII covers March 1930 to June 1930. Though it’s mere chance that this is the first volume I read after starting these essays, it’s probably one of the more frequently consulted volumes, as it contains Gandhi’s reopening of civil disobedience against the British Empire with his “salt march” where he led a march to the sea to make salt in defiance of laws requiring Indians to obtain their salt through official channels and pay a hefty tax on it.
There’s a subtle tension reading through the volumes as Gandhi went back and forth between “We’re not ready for civil disobedience and for independence until we’ve purified ourselves, fully committed to nonviolence, and solved our problems by doing X, Y, and Z,” and “We need to launch civil disobedience and obtain independence in order to gain the strength and confidence and belief in nonviolence to put ourselves in a position to do X, Y, and Z.”
Furthermore, the specifics changed over time. It’s not that he changed his mind and dropped some goals as mistaken or unimportant, but his emphasis changed.
In the period covered by this volume, he hammered home the same message in every speech, every interview, every article—defiance of the salt laws; use of domestic products, most notably clothing made from cloth spun in India, rather than imports; and eradication of alcohol. Hindu-Muslim unity got some mention, mostly when he was asked a direct question about it. Elimination of Untouchability got even less emphasis, and all other issues less still. Whereas if you look at earlier or later volumes, the emphasis was often very different, with, for instance, the Hindu-Muslim and/or Untouchability issues often on top.
So it’s all about what he sensed people needed to hear, what they’d listen to, what they’d act on, what was open to the most progress in the present circumstances, etc.
Again, it’s not so much that there was an inconsistency as a constant shifting of evidence and circumstances, and hence a change in what were the right battles for the right times.
Related to a point I made earlier, because this is almost exclusively Gandhi’s speeches and writings and such, you only get a limited sense of what else was going on, how people were responding, what the other players were doing, etc.—certainly less than you’d get in a conventional work of history.
Late in the period covered in this volume, Gandhi was finally arrested and imprisoned. (The authorities had long since gone after other leaders and the rank and file in response to the civil disobedience and unrest, but had held off going after Gandhi.) The volume ends with Gandhi incarcerated, contentedly spinning, reading the Bhagavad Gita, and corresponding with friends and family about dietary matters and all things non-political. (Correspondence to and from him as a prisoner was not allowed to contain material the authorities deemed political.)
The reason I can’t say it’s 0% rather than a fraction of 1% that we’ll eventually figure out that some philosophy of love and pacifism and nonviolence is the only way out of the mess we’ve created, is that prior to Gandhi there’d have been no way to predict a public figure could come along and show even the modest nonviolent successes that he did. And yet it happened.
So remarkable, unexpected things can happen. A miraculous transformation in human attitudes and behavior is unlikely, not impossible.