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

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

Volume LIV of the Collected Works includes all Gandhi’s writings from March 6, 1933 to April 22, 1933. There is a great deal of similarity between this volume and the volumes immediately preceding it, especially Volume LIII. Gandhi remains incarcerated by the British, and he continues to devote the bulk of his time and effort to the Untouchables issue, which is the one thing the British will allow him to communicate about from prison.

Most of his writings in this volume are correspondence—the majority of which is with people in his ashram—and articles in his current newspaper Harijan.

It occurred to me while reading this volume that perhaps his wife Kasturba (called “Ba” for “mother” as he is called “Bapu” for “father”) is still illiterate, as there never seem to be any letters to her. She is also incarcerated at this time, in the same facility as Mirabel, whom Gandhi corresponds with regularly.

They married as children, and Kasturba didn’t have anything like the education he did.

There is the occasional mention, though, of a letter to her. Most often such references are in Gandhi’s letters to Mirabel, something along the lines of “a letter for Ba is enclosed with this one.”

Did none of his letters to her survive? Was an editorial decision made not to include letters to his wife on the grounds that they were too personal (even though the premise of the collection is that it contains all surviving writings of Gandhi, however trivial)?

Also, the fact that such letters were written doesn’t quite settle the matter of whether she is illiterate. Perhaps Mirabel or someone reads them to her. As far as letters from Kasturba to Gandhi, I don’t recall any such being mentioned. Occasionally he makes some reference to something that was passed along to him through someone else, again most often Mirabel. So maybe they always communicated through a third party like that when separated because she couldn’t read or write.

During the period covered in this volume, there seems to be even more than the usual soap opera stuff going on in Gandhi’s personal life and at the ashram. Much of it has to do with deviations from his anti-sex rules.

For stuff like that, this collection omits names or uses the first letter of a name only. So for example, there is someone Gandhi writes to and about referred to simply as “N.” One can infer that N is a white woman who has come from Europe. I think she is in her 20s. She is a single mother with a son about 5 (referred to as “S”).

Evidently N is something of a slut, or at least has been. Gandhi consistently refers to her past with horror, as something terribly sinful in a sexual way. I suppose that implies some degree of promiscuity (which could easily be a pretty modest degree, given how easily he’s horrified of sex). Or maybe she was a prostitute or some kind of sex worker.

Anyway, she has in effect turned her life over to Gandhi, and they agree that her only chance at redemption is to go to the opposite anti-sex extreme and live a nun-like life of chastity and poverty. But rather than live in a convent or somewhere isolated like that, she is to work with Untouchables, living like the lowest of them in their communities.

He’s rooting for her, and she seems to be committed to such a life, but there are enough false steps and apparently there is enough uncertainty about her strength of character in his mind that he is guarded in his praise and in his optimism. Basically he just tells her what he thinks she needs to do, but he doesn’t assume she’ll do it (nor cynically assume she won’t). He tries to steer her away from temptation, as when she reports she’s getting attention from certain men, or when she seems to be falling under the influence of some local guru or potential con man. As he suggests, she wears only very modest (and cheap) clothing, and cuts off her hair to desex herself as much as possible.

Meanwhile, at the ashram two young people are apparently caught in some kind of inappropriate relationship. Though I believe from what he says it has not reached the stage of being sexual, he treats it as a huge deal and writes about how disillusioning it all is, as they are two people he believed in most strongly at the ashram. Evidently they have been writing love letters to each other, or maybe sex fantasy letters or something, but in any case he is appalled at their manifesting such carnal desires regardless of whether they have acted on them yet.

There’s a finality to it, like it’s not some kind of youthful indiscretion they can get past. It’s more like “we’ve failed with them.” That’s probably not how he really feels, given his belief that even N can be redeemed, but the fact that they were doing whatever they were doing right under his nose when he was so convinced of their purity seems to have wounded him deeply.

It’s not just the sexual desire or whatever limited sexual behavior, but as much or more the associated lying and secrecy about it that offends him.

Really though, as I’ve commented in writing about other volumes, his anti-sex, anti-fun fanaticism seems overdone to me. I understand that the idea is that if you’re caught up in desires and attachments of the body—sex, eating for pleasure, material wealth—you are much more susceptible to compromising on moral matters of truth and nonviolence when doing so increases your chances of satisfying those temptations. It’s not that I see zero reason for his concern, or zero justification for his suggested ascetic solution to the problem, but surely it’s just a rule of thumb that pleasure will entice you away from acting with love and nonviolence, and surely the degree to which it has that result and the best way to counteract it can vary from person to person and situation to situation.

Before you get all outraged about something, shouldn’t you ascertain whether it is in fact causing a person to make moral compromises in the particular case at hand? Isn’t it possible that partaking of life’s enjoyments can in some circumstances render someone better able to abide by principles of truth and nonviolence (or at least have a neutral effect on one’s moral character)?

I mean, how far do you want to take it? He makes no secret of the fact that he enjoys certain things in his life, such as the company of family and friends. He delights, for example, in Sardar Patel’s sense of humor, and the way the Sardar’s joking around keeps their spirits up in prison. Is appreciating the Sardar’s humor distracting him from the ethical straight and narrow, or is it OK to enjoy it? If it’s OK, then isn’t it at least possible it’s OK for me to derive pleasure from admiring a hot chick showing plenty of cleavage?

Gandhi continues to come across as very open-minded in principle. He always insists that people need to do what they think is right rather than blindly follow him, and that he is open to being persuaded by those who disagree with him. In practice, however, he rarely if ever changes his mind. Even when he does say or do something that seems inconsistent with his past pronouncements, he generally contends that there’s really no inconsistency, that at some level it all hangs together quite coherently (though his arguments for this are as often as not unconvincing).

I suspect in this regard he’s a lot like the majority of scientists and academics. The principles of their profession obligate them to judge everything on its merits and to alter their positions whenever the evidence warrants doing so, and verbally they assent to such ideals and to some degree probably believe they live by them, but in reality it’s disappointingly rare for even such people who allegedly put such a high value on intellectual honesty to ever acknowledge that they’re mistaken about something and that they’ve now changed their minds about it.

One thing you pick up from his correspondence is that Gandhi puts almost no value on secrecy or privacy. Indeed, he usually doesn’t even regard it as neutral, but instead as something to be avoided. He seems to be of the school of thought that if there’s something you’d rather people not know about you then in all likelihood it’s something bad, you know, the “why are you so concerned about your privacy unless you have something to hide?” thing that government snoops and such always fall back on. This is another aspect of his philosophy where I can see where he’s coming from, and I can see that there’s some merit to it, but mostly I don’t go along with him.

He’s always chiding his correspondents to write to him more often, to tell him more about themselves and what they’re doing, even if it might seem like uninteresting minutiae. This is especially true of the people who live in his ashram, the people he has a personal relationship with. I suspect this is connected to his distrust of privacy. The feeling I get from it is that he thinks it’ll be beneficial to the people in his life to know that there is someone they respect who is genuinely interested in them and the choices they make, because the more one feels obligated to keep someone like that informed about one’s life, the more incentive one will have to make that life something one can be proud to report about. I think his position is that if we lived our lives like they were open books, we’d live better lives. (I sort of agree and sort of think that’s creepy, like the religious idea that we’ll behave better if we think God—or Santa Claus—is always looking over our shoulder.)

He makes an odd point against multi-tasking in one of his letters. He contends that you should avoid conversing while you’re eating, reading while “answering a call of nature,” etc. I don’t see that this follows in any direct way from a philosophy of truth and nonviolence; I think it’s just his empirical observation that anytime we try to do two or more things at once we end up doing them half-assed, and that it’s better to focus on one thing and do it right.

I don’t find this plausible as any kind of an absolute. I think you’d have to look on a case-by-case basis to determine when it is efficient and when it is inefficient to multi-task. I almost always read while I’m eating, for instance, and nothing I’ve read of what he said convinces me I should change that habit.

He spends a fair amount of time addressing the Hindu caste system in this volume. He seems to think his position is quite simple and obvious. He’s willing to go over it again when asked, but always with the attitude that he has fully explained it all before and that if people wanted to they could just consult what he has already written.

To me, though, it’s not obvious at all what his position is. I can piece together a good portion of it from various things he says, but he seems to think he has laid it all out in some clear, logically organized fashion, but I don’t see it that way. I’ll do my best to summarize it though:

The caste system—but only in its original, pure version—is not only a good guide to the best way to organize society but is the single most positive and insightful thing that Hinduism has to offer humanity. The present day thing we call a caste system in India, though, is a horribly corrupt version of that ideal.

The corrupt caste system has hundreds or thousands of different castes, sub-castes, sub-sub-castes, etc. Not to mention many people treat the phenomenon of untouchability as part of the caste system. Extreme emphasis is placed on things like not dining and especially not marrying outside your caste. Other than that, caste doesn’t mean much in most people’s lives. Instead of pursuing whatever life, whatever career, would supposedly fit their sub-sub-caste, almost everyone just pursues whatever they think will be most in their material self-interest.

The single worst thing about the present day phony caste system is that it’s based on an assumption of higher and lower. This is most apparent, and most offensive, insofar as it endorses untouchability, but even aside from that people think of some castes as higher than others, and the bans on interdining and intermarriage are mostly motivated by a desire not to rub shoulders with those “beneath” you.

The ideal caste system, on the other hand, has just four castes—the intellectuals/clergy, the warriors (which for Gandhi would be those who defend society nonviolently, not conventional soldiers), the merchants/traders/businesspeople, and the laborers/craftspeople. No caste is higher or lower than another, and certainly there are no Untouchables outside the system.

The caste you are born into determines, in broad terms, how you will live your life. It is a question of duty, not of privilege. It’s how you will serve society, not how you will have an opportunity to serve yourself or be served by others.

Having your career largely determined in advance eliminates a lot of the uncertainty and indecision of modern life. You don’t have to try to figure out your place in life or try to create a place in life; you already have one. The other members of your family and the bulk of the people you encounter and socialize with are on roughly the same path, thus you can learn from them and help each other.

Interdining and intermarriage would be rare for that same reason, because almost everyone you’re around and are most comfortable with are others on the same life path.

But no one is to be forced to follow the career path implied by their caste membership, and no one is to be forced not to interdine or intermarry with people from other castes. You just typically wouldn’t want to, given the environment in which you were raised. (It’s not clear if Gandhi thinks these things would be obligatory but like everything else in an ideal Gandhian world would not be enforced coercively, or if he thinks they wouldn’t be obligatory.)

That’s the ideal caste system. People are slotted into four main categories from birth, and are trained and socialized to best serve society within their category.

However, modern India is so far from the ideal caste system, with virtually everyone ignoring their duty to society and simply pursuing wealth and their selfish interests, that at least for now the best thing is not to try to immediately shift to the ideal system of four castes (though I’m pretty sure he thinks that’s still the best long term arrangement), but instead for everyone to voluntarily consider themselves to be of the worker caste. Everyone should regard it as obligatory to do sufficient manual labor—farming, making clothes, building and maintaining dwellings, etc.—to equal what they consume in their lifetime. Beyond that—since if everyone did their share it really wouldn’t take a huge amount of anyone’s time—they would be free to pursue other ways of growing and serving society, including those of the other three castes.

So, for now, there should be just one caste, and everyone should work with their hands and do a certain amount of the manual labor necessary to sustain life, and then on a part time basis they can be a priest, artist, whatever. At some indeterminate point in the future, when the habit of selfishness has been broken, the ideal four-caste system should be reintroduced. Of course there’s to be no untouchability now or in the future.

OK, that’s it as I understand it. But for a lot of that I’m taking educated guesses to fill in gaps. He really doesn’t spell it out in even this thorough and coherent a manner. I could easily be wrong in attributing these ideas to him. He certainly seems to think he’s spelled it out fully and clearly, but as I say, if he has I missed it.

As far as the merits of it, I can see why people who are used to a traditional society, or who have been taught to value such traditions from a remote—and possibly mythical—past, would find it appealing to imagine an arrangement where everyone is in their place and working in the most efficient manner for the betterment of society, without the sloppiness and unpredictability of everyone having to try to figure out what they want to do. But, as I would guess is normal for people raised in the modern world like myself, it seems like a stifling kind of thing. I value the liberty of choosing one’s own path in life.

I think of it as being like arranged marriages. If that’s all you know, it probably doesn’t feel any more coercive or unnatural to not be able to pick your own spouse than to not be able to pick your own parents or siblings. But if you have any experience at all with liberty in this area of life, it likely sounds nightmarish to not be able to fall in love with and marry the person of your choice. (Well, if they’ll have you that is.)

But anyway, just like the “don’t multi-task” rule he came up with, I’m not convinced objectively there’s anything superior in this Plato’s Republic-style caste system he’s talking about. Nor does it follow in any obvious way from a philosophy of truth and nonviolence (beyond the trivial sense that if it’s true that this is the best arrangement, then a philosophy of truth would endorse it).

I think it’s more that his ideas about the caste system reflect that he isn’t always able to think outside the box, even though in other respects he is extraordinarily able to do so. To him, (an idealized version of) his local Hindu cultural norm seems a self-evidently wonderful thing that the whole world should adopt, but to me it’s no better or worse than having one day a week you’re not supposed to work, or any other cultural or religious norm like that.

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