The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi: Volume XLIV, by Mohandas K. Gandhi

The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, 1958-c.1988/1999, 98 vols in one, 47006 pages

Volume XLIV of this collection of books containing everything of which there is a record that Gandhi ever said or wrote covers from July 1 to December 15, 1930. Throughout this entire period, Gandhi was in prison for his acts related to the “salt satyagraha” where he and his followers openly and civilly disobeyed the British laws monopolizing and taxing salt.

Perhaps 80% of the volume consists of his letters from prison (on non-political matters only, by rule), mostly to members of his ashram. (An “ashram” is like a commune, a religious retreat, a “planned community.” It’s where he and various of his followers lived.) About 19% consists of his reworkings of various mostly Hindu prayers and stories and legends that he wrote for the ashram to use in their daily group prayers. The very little bit else is, for instance, some notes he wrote up concerning a rare meeting he was allowed to have in prison with emissaries working (unsuccessfully) to bring the government and the opposition leaders (primarily Gandhi and the Nehrus, senior and junior) together into some mutually agreeable settlement of their differences.

Just to deal with the prayers quickly first, I found that material mostly slow going. When I reflect on it, certainly there’s a little bit of overlap with my own values, and I can appreciate some of the messages he’s trying to get across, but mostly it doesn’t seem all that special or profound to me, or anything that would speak to me the way it would to a certain type of religious person.

It’s mildly interesting just noting where his emphasis was. There’s a lot, for instance, about how unimportant death is, how it is not to be feared, not something to be saddened about when it happens to people close to us, largely because there’s nothing final about it anyway. (For him, in his cultural tradition, he has reincarnation in mind, but really any system of thought that believes in life after death could say the same.)

That gives you a sense of how he could look on, say, the consequences of nonviolent political action with such equanimity. In a way it’s just not that big a deal to him even if the government responds by massacring him and countless others, and certainly not something worth forestalling with violence of one’s own. You just do what’s right and accept the results, up to and including death, which I suppose is a lot easier if you’re convinced death isn’t really death.

As for the correspondence, well, a great deal of it is repetitious and/or on exceedingly mundane topics, but it’s not without its interest at a certain level. It all provides more insight into how his mind worked and what mattered to him.

One thing that always strikes me is the humility in how he expressed himself. He gave advice, but it was always “But I’m stuck in here, not dealing with the situation in person like you are, so you’re in a better position to judge. Only do what I’m suggesting if it coheres with your judgment.”

Which is interesting, because I have to think most people on the receiving end treated such qualifications as just verbal formality.

I say this in part because I’m remembering a book I read by Ved Mehta a long time ago entitled Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles about the author’s journey to find and interview as many of Gandhi’s surviving followers as he could.

What was notable was that for all Gandhi’s emphasis on people thinking for themselves, and only going along with him if what he was saying appealed to their minds and hearts, and how it’s all about truth-seeking and not about him or any other individual, I don’t know that he ever really broke free of the role of the wise, semi-divine guru to be believed in as a matter of faith. What Mehta found, as I recall, is that the vast majority of the people closest to Gandhi were followers of Gandhi, not allies who happened to come to overlapping conclusions about the great truths of life on their own. He wasn’t like a beloved professor that people could learn from but also debate with and grow beyond; he was to most people an invaluable source of darshan. (“Darshan” meaning roughly to benefit from seeing or touching or being in the presence of someone or something holy.)

So even if he was fully sincere in not wanting to be the center of a cult of personality, to a large extent that’s what he became. (I’m not thinking so much of political allies like Nehru, who were significantly influenced by Gandhi but still independent thinkers who went off on their own path, but more the people at his ashram and such who participated in his spiritual and social experiments.) When Gandhi died, most of the people closest to him just drifted away and let the things he’d fought for weaken. Much as he tried, I don’t know that he trained leaders and self-sufficient people; I think his spiritual style pushed buttons in people that made them fall more comfortably into the role of followers.

The one I remember most from Mehta’s book was Mirabehn (i.e., Madeleine Slade, the rich young woman who traveled to India and lived for decades with Gandhi and the others at his ashram). Other than his letters to Narandas Gandhi who was temporarily running the ashram in his absence, Gandhi’s letters to Mirabehn in this volume are by far the longest and most detailed. He took a real interest in her and was very close to her. (I don’t mean in some scandalous way. It’s not like the letters are flirtatious, or hint at some romantic or sexual connection.)

She was still alive in the ’70s, and so Mehta was able to interview her for his book. And frankly she came across as a total ditz. Now maybe she was senile by then or something, but she seemed to have the intellectual capacity and personality type of the kind of bimbo who falls for the latest New Age nonsense and worshipfully latches onto the double-talking guru of some cult. I suspect there were a disproportionate number of people like that close to him, in spite of the fact that, again, I believe he sincerely and actively discouraged that kind of attitude.

I have to chuckle at how routinely Gandhi’s letters chided people (I think mostly children) about their handwriting, especially given that his was pretty atrocious. (Which he cheerfully admitted. He was very aware it was a “do as I say and not as I do” thing.) The vast majority of the letters were no more than a paragraph long, and often about the only thing they conveyed was his admonition that the person needed to work more diligently on improving his or her handwriting.

Spinning was constantly on his mind. He spent multiple hours a day spinning in prison, and in his letters he was always reporting what he liked and disliked about the spinning wheels he’d tried, the adjustments he’d made to them, his need for more cotton to spin, etc. That wasn’t some passing fad for him; he really did everything in his capacity for decades—including using the power of his own example and that of all the other leaders he could talk into spinning—to make it the norm for all Indians down to the poorest village folk to be self-sufficient in clothing themselves.

Though he was very good about wording things tentatively and approaching it all as an experimenter looking at the empirical results, he was almost certainly unrealistic in his dietary beliefs. For every ailment he had some suggested dietary cure—take milk but don’t boil it for this, switch to a fruit only diet for that, fast for seven days to cure this other thing, etc.—and surely 90% or more of that either did no good at all, or provided some benefit only through a placebo effect. I would think anyway.

One also gets a sense from this volume how this whole hundred or so volume set is really just the tip of the iceberg relative to what it’s intended to be. Leaving aside all the things he said, of which of course there can only be a record of the minutest fraction, this set of volumes doesn’t come close to preserving everything he wrote. Often in his letters to Narandas he’ll note “Enclosed are 48 letters,” or “There are 62 letters this time,” but in fact only five or ten or fifteen letters from that week are reproduced on the subsequent pages. So the vast majority of them were never kept, or never turned over to the folks putting together this massive work.

Compared to the average volume I’ve read so far in the Collected Works, I can’t say this is one of the more important or interesting ones. I mean some of it’s interesting to me, just because any of the volumes enables me to connect better with Gandhi and understand him, but this isn’t a volume I’d recommend to the average person who wants to read about the most eventful periods of Gandhi’s life, or wants to read his clearest expositions of his philosophy of nonviolence.

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