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

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

The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi: Volume LIII contains all the surviving writings of Gandhi and reports of his statements and interviews from January 11, 1933 to March 5, 1933. He is imprisoned in British India throughout this period.

He is not allowed to communicate with people outside the prison about matters of politics, including the independence struggle against the British. He is, however, allowed to address the problem of the Untouchables and other religious and moral matters.

The vast majority of the material until late in this volume consists of his correspondence. Much of his time in prison is spent writing letters to the people back at his ashram, old friends and co-workers like Charlie Andrews, public figures in India, people who have written in to him with questions (or random requests like to read and endorse the book they’ve written), and prison officials.

Then during the period covered by this volume he starts another newspaper, called Harijan. Obviously it’s printed and distributed outside the prison, but he oversees it and writes much of the material. For the rest of the volume, then, there are many pieces from Harijan as well as the correspondence.

“Harijan” is a word meaning “children of God.” Gandhi had recently adopted it as his term for the Untouchables, on the grounds that God is especially concerned with the underdogs of the world, the people who are most mistreated. Many people assume Gandhi thought up the idea of using this term for Untouchables, but in fact he got it from a poet who used it with the same meaning. Though some would probably find it patronizing, he prefers it to the inherently insulting “Untouchable.”

Insulting, and inaccurate, he would say. For if you call them Untouchables you’re endorsing the idea that there’s something about them that makes them unfit for human contact. So when he does use that term, he invariably qualifies it as “so-called Untouchables.”

The status of Untouchables, or Harijans, is far and away the most common topic Gandhi addresses in his hundreds of writings in this volume. He is most focused in the short term on having Untouchables allowed into Hindu temples on equal terms with other Hindus.

Still not convinced that Gandhi is what he has always been (extremely principled and honest, and utterly unlike other politicians), many interpret his efforts as a cynical political ploy to cement another large bloc of Indians—the Untouchables—more strongly on his side and the side of the Indian National Congress in the independence struggle. The irony is that, from what I can infer, his efforts are hugely divisive, making him a lot more new enemies than new friends. If he’s pandering to the Untouchables in pursuit of political gain it’s certainly a misguided ploy.

As I noted in writing about the preceding volume in this series, probably this is why the British allow him to lead the anti-Untouchable movement from prison in the first place and don’t allow him to involve himself in other politically sensitive areas. It’s divide and rule; they’ve likely concluded that this actually weakens Gandhi and the independence movement.

Apparently plenty of Hindu leaders are furious with him, as they regard untouchability as a sacred part of their religion. (Sort of. Many of them pay lip service to the notion that the Untouchables deserve a better lot in life in some respects, but they certainly don’t want to do away with untouchability entirely and make Untouchables their equal.)

Meanwhile, not all the Untouchables are thrilled with his efforts either, on multiple grounds.

Some think his emphasis on temple entry—a symbolic matter of respect that many Untouchables care nothing about anyway—is misplaced when what they really need is education and various more concrete varieties of assistance, including greater political power. (He insists the anti-untouchability movement is already doing all it can do in those areas, and in the meantime a victory for equality and respect through temple entry will actually facilitate progress on those issues.)

Some cannot accept what they see as his insulting compromises concerning temple entry. Gandhi has taken the position that for now temple entry should only apply to temples where the majority of the congregation votes to allow Untouchables entry, and furthermore that any temple that does open itself to Untouchables should set aside times that conservative Hindus who sincerely object to this can have the temple to themselves to worship. His vision is that the reform Hindus and the Untouchables will all worship together, and that while initially some minority of traditionalist Hindus will stubbornly want to worship by themselves, over time their number will diminish as they accept that they are on the wrong side of history.

But of course many Untouchables say that if their right, but no one else’s, to enter the temples is put to a vote, and if there are exceptions and special accommodations made for those who refuse to acknowledge their status as equal Hindus and equal human beings, then they would not in fact have the same right of temple entry as other Hindus, that they would still be being treated differently, that is, worse.

Looking back now, you can make a case that these really are compromises with justice, that they are an example of where Gandhi at times could be a bit more of a tactician seeking what’s politically realistic rather than holding out for what his principles require after all. As various liberal legal scholars and pundits like Rachel Maddow remind us in the context of the contemporary gay marriage controversy in the United States, rights are not to be put to a vote. The whole idea of rights is that they exist and must be honored independent of majority opinion.

Naturally he denies that he’s deviating from principle here. In his mind, matters of religion and conscience will only evolve as public opinion evolves, and to try to override that and force people to alter their religious practices before you’ve persuaded them of the rightness of doing so would be a form of violence.

But he’s confident that the majority of Hindus are with him on this issue, and that thus the result will be the same anyway. He believes that they just need to be roused to do what they already know is right, and that if they’re given an opportunity to express themselves on this issue via local referenda, the vast majority of temples will be opened to Untouchables. There are indications that this assessment of public opinion is far from universally held, and even Gandhi himself seems less certain at times. But if he’s mistaken, he says, that just means there’s more work to be done in educating people.

The anti-reform Hindus cite passages from the Hindu holy books that seem to endorse untouchability, but Gandhi dismisses these as referring to matters of sanitation, not someone’s essential status from birth. That is, he holds that the texts are claiming only that when someone has been engaged in unsanitary labor such as cleaning latrines, for reasons of health you should avoid contact with them until they have cleaned themselves.

Again as I noted in writing about the preceding volume, his interpretation of religion is not what we would think of today as fundamentalist. He believes that there are certain core moral principles that pervade Scripture, and that the interpretation of a specific passage should be informed by those principles. So if some part of one of the holy books seems to favor violence, dishonesty, or the kind of essential inequality represented by contemporary untouchability, then it’s not cheating to find some interpretation, metaphorical or otherwise, that avoids this.

His beloved Bhagavad Gita, after all, is a book about the glories of war. But to him, that’s all metaphorical for the war we all must wage within ourselves against our tendencies toward evil.

The anti-reform Hindus, like many Untouchables for other reasons, also reject the notion of determining temple entry by vote. That’s not how religion works, they insist. It’s not a matter of popularity.

But that’s precisely how it works, he contends. True religion is an evolving phenomenon. As the people become more enlightened and develop deeper moral sensibilities, this progress is reflected in their religious beliefs and practices. Maybe it’s typically not by a formal vote, but religions change over time as people change. For an elite to try to prevent that would stifle people’s right to give their religion their favored interpretation. It is the members of a religion, he contends, who have the right to determine matters such as temple entry.

In addition to animosity from plenty of Hindus and even Untouchables, Gandhi’s temple entry efforts also run into a legal difficulty. It seems that British court rulings have held that Hindu temples were opened to the public with the understanding that they’d be run according to certain Hindu precepts, including the barring of Untouchables. Thus even if the Hindu leaders or ordinary members or both wanted to admit Untouchables, that could be challenged in court by anyone who disagreed, and based on precedent they would likely be blocked from admitting Untouchables.

Legislation is introduced, with Gandhi’s support, to eliminate this legal restriction so that Hindus can admit Untouchables or not, according to their choice. Opponents of the bill object that Gandhi and the reformers are calling for government meddling in religion by supporting this kind of legislation. Gandhi’s response, and it seems correct to me, is that it’s the government’s current stance that constitutes putting the force of law on one side of a religious controversy, whereas the proposed legislation would in effect retract that and put the government in a position of neutrality. So the passage of this law wouldn’t mean the government is meddling in religion, but that it is ceasing to do so.

The opposition to Gandhi from within India may be the most vicious it has ever been. There have always been those who refused to buy into the idolization of Gandhi, but now that he’s taking such a strong stand on a matter that some see as inconsistent with their religion, and in so doing is supporting an unpopular group to boot, there is much rage against him. (I’m sure the British are loving this.)

He makes the point numerous times in this volume that he always welcomes honest disagreement, that in fact he’d much rather have people hit him with their strongest arguments against his position than just blindly follow him because he’s Gandhi. But now, he points out, people are just blatantly lying about him, attributing things to him he’d never said, and in general not fighting fair.

That’s what I despise most about politics, and really about public discourse in general. The overwhelming majority of it (even more so that which is from some parts of the political spectrum than others) is intellectually dishonest advocacy. Once you realize—as you should some time in childhood if you have any critical thinking skills at all—that most of the people shouting their opinions at you through the media and such are lying mercenaries and/or ideologues who recognize zero logical or ethical restrictions on how they may seek to persuade, it’s hard not to become as cynical as I have.

Gandhi, though he assesses the situation much like I would, claims not to be demoralized the way I certainly would be. (I’d be a horrible politician, or probably public figure of any kind, since having people lie about me and try to trick others into disliking and disagreeing with me would piss me off to no end.) Of course he disapproves of their intellectual dishonesty of not addressing his positions and arguments fairly and honestly, but to him it’s just another form of violence that as a satyagrahi he must calmly endure, never hating them for it, never retaliating in kind. The truth will win out in the end, he insists.

He says he has no definite plans for another fast over untouchability, but he also doesn’t rule out a fast on this issue. He has issued no specific ultimatum about what has to happen to prevent him from fasting, but always he holds out fasting as an option for the future if sufficient progress is not made.

It won’t be his decision anyway, he says, but that of the voice within him that he interprets as being that of God, and he won’t know he’s to fast until it happens.

I wouldn’t say there are any major surprises in this volume. I was pleased to see him describe himself as being in principle an anarchist, since that’s a position I’ve long held his principles entail. (If you oppose all violence on principle, then you’d have to oppose governmental violence. A group of people could govern themselves by voluntary agreement, but not enforce laws with violence or the threat of violence.)

There’s the usual anti-sex stuff that’s so typical of highly religious folks.

Not that I can’t see any merit at all to the anti-sex position. For Gandhi, it’s part of an overall asceticism (he’s just as opposed to choosing food based on its tasting good to you), with the justification for that being that one of the surest ways of being deflected from the moral straight and narrow is by not controlling one’s desires, by having attachments to things in the material world. When I think of that in terms of something like the way guys bend all kinds of ethical rules about honesty and respect and such to increase their chances of getting laid, I can see his point. Certainly when I was younger and much hornier and more actively seeking sex, I rationalized plenty of ill behavior that I’m confident I otherwise would have never engaged in.

I’ve always found him to have more warmth and humor than I associate with someone so ultra-prudish. Even when he’s taking an anti-sex position in his correspondence, he does it with a real respect and open-mindedness, like he’s just offering his opinion for the person to consider but in no way condemning them. He’s routinely criticizing and correcting people, but there’s generally a surprising humility and lack of harshness to it.

He loves having Sardar Patel as one of his cellmates, because Patel is something of a jester, keeping everyone in good spirits with his humor. Plus—and this always scores points with Gandhi—he isn’t awed by Gandhi and he doesn’t give him the “Mahatma” treatment.

Gandhi tolerates those who disagree with him dishonestly, but he genuinely likes hearing from those who disagree with him honestly. After publishing the first issue of Harijan, he receives a letter from a professor he knows nitpicking every little grammatical or stylistic wrong he considered Gandhi guilty of. Gandhi is so delighted he prints the letter in the next issue, profusely thanking the professor for being so critical of him.

At the close of this volume, he’s still in prison, still working almost exclusively on the issue of the Untouchables, contemplating his next move.

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