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

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

Volume XLIX of this collection of all recorded writings and statements of Gandhi covers January 4-May 31, 1932, the entire time of which Gandhi is incarcerated at Yeravda Central Prison following his return from the Roundtable Conference in London. Just about all other significant Congress leaders are imprisoned at the time as well, as much for preventative reasons as anything, some at that facility and some at others. Gandhi shares a cell with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and is soon joined by his long time secretary and assistant Mahadev Desai.

He is eventually granted limited permission to see other prisoners. He also is permitted to have visitors, though that is in some doubt as the volume ends, as Gandhi, objecting to certain limitations the government has put on who could visit him (they disagree over whether Mirabel (Madeleine Slade) is a political or personal visitor; he is not allowed political visitors), is leaning toward refusing to see any visitors at all.

He is allowed correspondence, though all mail to and from is opened and read, and censored if deemed necessary. No political matters may be discussed, as no political visitors are allowed. Well over 90% of the volume consists of his letters from the jail, mostly very short, with the majority being on mundane matters concerning his ashram and such that would hold little interest for a general readership.

He is hampered in his correspondence by the fact that he has much pain in his right hand and can do little writing with it. So he teaches himself to write with his left (his handwriting is pretty atrocious with either), and he dictates some of his letters to Desai.

A good number of his letters are to Narandas Gandhi, a nephew who is running the ashram in his absence. Routinely Gandhi’s advice is qualified with things like “But do what you think is best, as I’m not in a position to judge from in here,” or “Don’t put too much weight on what I say, but follow your own best judgment,” but I wonder if many people in his circle take that to heart, or if they just accept even his most tentative advice as the equivalent of the word of God.

I enjoy some of his letters to Premabehn Kantak, a woman resident of the ashram who is, or goes on to be, a teacher. (I looked up who she was online, and found only very minimal information.) Even though we don’t see her letters to him—the volumes only contain what he said and wrote, with occasional exceptions in the appendices—it’s possible to infer a fair amount from his responses.

She appears to be about the only one from the ashram to consistently challenge him. She wants to know if he was being hypocritical when he did this, whether he violated a vow when he did that, why so much of the people’s behavior at the ashram falls woefully short of his lofty goals and to what extent that’s his fault, etc.

And what I like is he seems to relish it. There’s nothing in the tone or substance of his replies that conveys any kind of “How dare someone like you challenge someone like me?!” He isn’t threatened by it or offended. I suspect if anything he finds it refreshing to be addressed—albeit still with respect—as a person rather than some sort of deity or all-knowing holy man.

He doesn’t go into great detail with her, but he addresses her concerns in letters that on average are longer than those he writes to the others. Always he says things like “If you don’t understand any of what I’ve written, or you still disagree, please follow up and ask me whatever you want.”

Often he acknowledges that he is at fault. He too is dissatisfied with the ashram experiment. He seems to think that he hasn’t figured out how to run the place such that people are committed to the values he wants to see the place embody, but not committed in a blind way where they’re just yes-men who do whatever he says without understanding it and agreeing with it, as that would not be a genuine commitment and would tend to weaken when he’s not there in person to inspire them. And he says the blame lies with him for not solving that riddle.

There’s plenty to challenge him on too. In all the thousands upon thousands of pages I’ve read in these first forty-nine volumes, I’ve yet to see any indication he is a phony, or dishonest, or pretending to believe in things he doesn’t, etc. But at the same time, he routinely puts fanciful interpretations on vows, finds ways to describe bending on matters of principle so that he’s not “really” bending, etc. I think he’s sincere, that at any given moment he’s doing his best to do the right thing and stick to his principles, but I also think he’s deluding himself at times, especially in thinking he’s found a way to back down that doesn’t constitute violating the principles he laid out to fight for, when to me looking at it from the outside, it sure looks like he did just that.

But maybe part of the problem is that there are too few people like Kantak close to him who are willing to call him on any of it, in spite of the fact that, as I say, he seems pretty receptive to questions and honest criticism.

He continues to threaten to fast if the Untouchables are separated into different electorates to elect their own representatives, and I know that’s building to a head shortly in an upcoming volume.

At times Gandhi has a very rational, scientific way of thinking. I was struck by this passage in one of his letters, where he expresses skepticism to a correspondent who had apparently made grandiose claims to having discovered the master-key that would make all spiritual truths clear to the world:

But don’t you think that your claim to have discovered a master-key may be a little exaggerated? What is that key? Do you have convincing reasons for believing that it is a key, and a master-key at that? Are those reasons accepted as convincing by experts?…I am certainly ready to be convinced by you and will weigh your arguments objectively. But I should like you to cultivate the humility which would befit a dedicated seeker after truth….The man who has discovered some new truth remains doubtful about his discovery in spite of the immense evidence he may have in favour of his hypothesis. The result is that, when ultimately he does put his discovery before the world, he has realized its truth with absolute conviction.

Here are elements of the provisional and tentative nature of scientific hypotheses, peer review, even something like Popperian falsification.

Yet at the same time, a significant anti-science streak runs through Gandhi’s thought. He’s skeptical of the “unnatural” method of using vaccination against diseases, and refuses to endorse it.

One of the most moving, perhaps disturbing, passages in the book is when Kantak asks him whether he was acting consistently with his stated principles of accepting death with equanimity in the way that he was so distraught over the death of one of the ashram children.

It turns out she’s referring to one of three ashram children who died of smallpox. Gandhi opposes vaccination but leaves it up to parents to make up their own mind on the matter—rejecting vaccination is not a requirement of living at the ashram. The parents of these three children are among those who went along with his advice and did not vaccinate. He was evidently broken up about it, struggling with whether he did the right thing in giving the advice he did.

To his credit, he never dismisses it with “Well ultimately I left the decision up to them, so it’s all on them.” He knows that because of his influence on people he bears a large part of the responsibility for whatever happens in a case like that.

He tells Kantak that she’s correct that he acted contrary to his principles in not accepting the deaths cheerfully. He says that that’s an indication that he has not completely freed himself of the kind of emotional attachments to individuals that give rise to such feelings.

The black sheep of the family—Harilal Gandhi, his eldest son—makes a rare appearance in this volume. He’s a drunk who’s apparently trying to bum some money at the ashram and trying to regain custody of his child. One can infer that Gandhi wrote multiple letters to him during the time covered in this volume, but only a fragment of one is included. (It’s not that the others have been censored out. Obviously only a minority of the letters Gandhi wrote in his life survived. It’s not likely someone like Harilal would keep all his father’s letters for decades so they’d be available to be included in these collected works.)

Gandhi pretty much tells Harilal that he blames himself for how he turned out, that he had not yet embarked on a more moral, spiritual path early in his adulthood when Harilal was a child, and so made a lot of mistakes and set a bad example. But he tells him that he will never give up hope that he will reform himself. (The implication being that, meanwhile, don’t expect financial or other support from me while you’re pursuing your current lifestyle.)

Consistent with this, he pretty much tells Narandas “I wouldn’t give him anything from the ashram, but you use your own judgment.”

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