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

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

Volume LII of this roughly one hundred volume collection contains everything Gandhi said or wrote of which there’s a record from November 16, 1932 to January 10, 1933. During this entire period he is imprisoned by the British in India, and well over 90% of the contents of this volume is his correspondence from prison, which is all short and is mostly very short.

During this stint in prison, Gandhi is only allowed limited communication with the outside world. He is forbidden to communicate about the political struggle for independence in his correspondence or his meetings with visitors. Aside from the usual mundane matters he corresponds with the people in his ashram about, his writings in this volume are devoted almost entirely to the problem of untouchability.

The British allow him to work on that. A cynical speculation as to why is that it is such a divisive issue. Many religious Hindus are furious with him for challenging them on untouchability, while there is already a sizable portion of Untouchables and Untouchable leaders (Dr. Ambedkar most notably) who oppose him because he doesn’t go far enough.

I still find it appalling that there was and is so much hatred in the Untouchable community toward Gandhi. I can understand disagreeing with him on one or another substantive issue, but to read some of the things Untouchables say about Gandhi is like reading the reaction of African Americans to the Ku Klux Klan.

Gandhi himself, though, doesn’t share my outrage. Whenever someone points out to him how venomous the attacks on him by this or that Untouchable leader are, he responds that all caste Hindus have a collective guilt about the treatment of Untouchables, and he accepts their hatred as understandable.

That’s noble and all, but I think when someone has a proven willingness to die in the fight to eradicate untouchability, some respect is in order.

In this volume, Gandhi is engaged in a theological debate with much Hindu elite opinion, which holds that untouchability is sanctioned by Hindu scripture.

One point he makes is in response to something that’s always seemed troubling to me (as a layperson with minimal background knowledge of the matter) about the doctrines of karma and reincarnation. A Hindu correspondent tells him that if you believe in karma then you have to recognize that anyone born into a class with all the disadvantages of Untouchables must deserve it, and so if you try to change that you’re in opposition to the fundamental moral law of the universe.

He responds that that interpretation of karma would have implications way beyond untouchability, as it would mean you’re doing something objectionable if you attempt to relieve suffering of any kind in life. I agree, and that’s why I’ve never found karma an appealing theory at all, though I think Gandhi would say it’s only a reason to reject this specific interpretation of karma.

He’s definitely not a fundamentalist about Hindu scripture the way we’re used to Biblical fundamentalists nowadays. Granted there’s always a considerable amount of fudging when it comes to literalists about scripture (or the Constitution or whatever) in that what they’re really claiming is not that the written words are infallible but that their particular interpretations of them are infallible, but Gandhi doesn’t even pretend like that to consider the Hindu holy books infallible.

He does indeed make the point that without a lot of implausible, ad hoc interpretations the various writings revered by Hindus taken collectively are filled with contradictions and morally objectionable claims. But instead of saying that therefore we should embrace implausible interpretations, or worse yet endorse monstrous things that the books ambiguously mandate, he says we need to allow our reason and conscience (what he calls his “inner voice”) to guide us, which he claims the Hindu scripture tells us to do anyway:

Whilst I believe in all the Hindu Shastras as such, I am guided by one supreme canon of interpretation provided in the Shastras themselves. It is this. Every rule and every interpretation thereof that is inconsistent with truth or morality (one and the same thing) is to be rejected. Without some such canon in the midst of a multitude of texts and interpretations a man in the street would feel utterly helpless.

So while there are some references to untouchability in some of the holy writings, his take on it is that they’re ambiguous and contradictory, possibly referring more to rules of hygiene concerning people who do certain jobs than some kind of curse from birth that can never be lifted, but in any case we see how horrifically unjust present day untouchability is and how much avoidable suffering it causes, and that should be enough to come to a judgment about it regardless of what the holy writings say.

I agree the point would stand even if the writings were clear and unambiguous (which holy books never are). It’s why even many quite devout theist philosophers recognize that there needs to be some kind of standard of right and wrong independent of God’s will. As Immanuel Kant put it, “Even the Holy One of the Gospels must first be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before we can recognize Him as such.”

Which isn’t the same as claiming that scripture is fallible so it should be replaced by infallible reason and conscience. I think it means recognizing that infallibility isn’t available, and that since fallible is the best we’ve got we’re better off using our rationality and our moral intuitions as best we can rather than going with “It says to do x, y, and z in this book, so we have to do x, y, and z,” or really, “Of the many possible interpretations of this book, the one that happens to be espoused by the group I grew up in is that it says to do x, y, and z, so we have to do x, y, and z.”

Gandhi explicitly recognizes that his reason and conscience are fallible. Many times in this volume he makes the point that he can’t guarantee the “inner voice” comes from God and not a demon. But, like I say, you do the best you can. In his case he believes that through reducing the ego, being willing to accept self-suffering, listening to people and reasoning with them, minimizing desires to an ascetic level, education, meditation and prayer, etc., you maximize the reliability of your moral instincts, so the “voice” you hear is more likely to be that of God than a demon, though you never achieve infallibility.

A common challenge to those who espouse nonviolent activism, and it’s one he addresses many times in his correspondence in this volume, is that it can often cross the line into a subtle violence or coercion after all. Many regard his fasting, for instance, as an example of this. They say that he’s forcing on people the unpalatable choice of sticking to what they believe is right on the merits and thereby being a contributing cause of his death, or reversing their position to keep him alive.

I largely agree with his response that, “It is doing violence to language to use the word ‘coercion’ in this connection. There will always be powers like personal influence and, if we regard them as forms of coercion, there would be no room for determined human effort to achieve anything.” You’re really trivializing a concept like coercion if you expand it to include any intentional influence we exercise over others. Surely what matters is the type of influence.

I wonder, though, if he’s being just a little too dismissive. The criticism at its crudest is indeed implausible, but I think even he himself at other times has recognized that you have to tread carefully as a proponent of truth and nonviolence, as some ways of getting people to do what you want them to do, while not involving violence and deception in any obvious way, might be problematic in subtle ways.

I’m undecided to what extent fasting constitutes a subtle form of violence. Or perhaps I should say I’m undecided in which cases it does and in which cases it doesn’t. I have to think Gandhi would agree it can be a close call, as he often remarks that fasting should be used only by those who’ve trained themselves most meticulously in such methods, and even by them only sparingly.

But I wonder if his multiple fasts and threatened fasts during this period of his life are overdoing it. Are his fasts becoming too routine? He always claims that his fasts are not directed at his opponents, at people whose minds he’s seeking to change (and certainly not at people whose behavior he’s seeking to change without changing their minds), but instead are attempts to rouse his allies to do what they already know is right. Is that still the case now?

Perhaps. His untouchability fasts are typically directed at Hindus who oppose untouchability (which he believes is a substantial majority of Hindus), encouraging them to offer service to Untouchables, to make their views known to the political and religious figures who control access to Hindu temples and various laws concerning untouchability, etc., and not at Hindus who favor untouchability. But when, for example, he seeks to change prison policy through a fast (like when he insists the British jailers allow caste Hindus to do work associated with Untouchables in prison if they choose to), isn’t that directed more at authority figures who are enforcing rules he disagrees with?

Maybe he could say that in their hearts the prison authorities know that untouchability is an abomination, as everyone should, and so he’s really directing his fast against people who at some level recognize he’s right after all, but that renders the distinction nearly trivial. “I’m not coercing you, because you really agree with what I’m trying to get you to do, even if you don’t realize it or wouldn’t admit it” is a dangerous attitude to take.

All this means, though, is that there are occasions when his nonviolence is perhaps not as pure as it should be, or at least when it’s arguable just what does and doesn’t count as nonviolent. That kind of thing is worth pondering and debating, but it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that even if he’s mistaken here and there in his philosophy of nonviolence (and I’m not saying he is, just that it’s possible), for heaven’s sake he’s still ahead of the 99.99999% of people who don’t spend every moment of their lives trying to grasp ideal morality and how to live by it.

I’m struck by how positive and productive he is in prison. It’s pretty much like he’s in an office: he spends all day dealing with correspondence and visitors, just taking care of the same kinds of things he would mostly be dealing with on the outside. Granted it’s not particularly harsh imprisonment as imprisonment goes—as evidenced by the very fact that he has the opportunity to spend his time this way—but he’s amazingly sanguine about this whole lack of freedom thing.

I always like the little bits of playfulness you see in Gandhi in these volumes, the indications that there’s another side to him besides that of the strict moralist. During this stint in prison, for instance, apparently there are some stray cats who hang out in or around the cell he shares with two or three other people. He makes several references to their “cat family” and clearly delights in them and their antics.

Overall this is not one of the volumes of the series that deals with the “major” events of Gandhi’s life. Then again, even this comparatively uneventful period of his life includes multiple fasts or threats of fasts that could kill him, and a great deal of correspondence about the very important issue of untouchability. So really there are no “empty” periods of his life, whichever of these volumes you pick up.

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