Volume LV of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi covers April 23, 1933 to September 15, 1933. At the start of this period, Gandhi remains imprisoned by the British in India.
One of the things that’s most fascinating about this extraordinarily thorough set of volumes is that it’s all in real-time. This isn’t history in the past tense, but events as they’re happening. I feel like as a reader I have to remind myself that the people I’m reading about didn’t have the benefit of our hindsight. We know if and when India gained its independence, whether Gandhi survived a given fast, what kind of reputation Gandhi has had after his death, etc., but of course back then they knew none of that. We know the decisions Gandhi and others made, and what the outcomes were; they’re still deliberating, and in some cases agonizing, about those decisions.
I see Gandhi as more uncertain and indecisive than usual during this period. In 1931 he was highly indecisive about whether to attend the Round Table Conference in London, going back and forth about that multiple times; here I sense more of a general uncertainty of not knowing how to proceed, rather than an uncertainty about one specific decision.
He always tries to express himself with great confidence about the future, at least the long term future, but one wonders if he felt history might be passing him by, that his influence on issues such as Hindu-Muslim unity, Indian independence, and untouchability (again his number one focus in this volume) may have already peaked and diminished considerably.
I think he’s struggling with whether to attempt some grand gesture like the 1930 Salt March to inspire people again. When he leaves prison—more on that shortly—he is alarmed by the India he sees. He tells his friend Charlie Andrews that the situation “is as bad as it can possibly be.”
It appears the British oppression has succeeded, at least for now. Most of the leaders of the independence movement have been imprisoned, Congress has been greatly weakened and reduced to operating in secret (which he disapproves of) to the extent it can operate at all, people have lost their property and livelihoods for daring to stand up to the British, and he perceives the general mood in the country as one of fear and surrender. He is frustrated at how little progress there has been as far as the Indians getting their own house in order on issues like untouchability.
The energy and the hope of recent years seem to have dissipated. The British have made it clear that they intend to continue to call the shots for the foreseeable future, and Gandhi and the Indians seem to have no promising countermove.
So he fasts.
He announces a 21-day fast. This isn’t one of his open-ended fasts “unto death” or until he gets what he wants. It doesn’t have any specific goal, nothing he is directly trying to get anyone to do. It is a prayerful fast of purification and penance, a way to slow himself down and put himself into a contemplative state, to focus on his spiritual side and on his contrition over not being pure enough to successfully influence his fellow Hindus to eradicate untouchability, and his ashram residents to live more moral lives.
In its way I would say it does have a goal though. On the surface it’s a meditative thing that’s about him communing with God, but I think it’s a way of getting the nation also to slow down and focus on the truly important issues at hand. Seeing him show a willingness to physically suffer through a 21-day fast in order to benefit spiritually will hopefully put him and his message of truth and nonviolence back in the forefront of people’s minds.
When people hear of the proposed fast, they become very concerned about his physical well-being and plead with him to call it off. At first that seemed a little bit of an overreaction to me, more fitting perhaps for a fast unto death than for one like this with a scheduled end. But again that may be my being influenced by already knowing he lives another 15 years.
They don’t know that. What they do know is that he’s 64 years old, and that when he fasted the year before it took only a few days for him to be at death’s door until everyone frantically settled on an arrangement agreeable to him on the issue of legislative representation for Untouchables. It isn’t unrealistic at all to think he will die if he cannot be dissuaded from this 21-day fast.
In fact, though, he gets through it with no major difficulty. (He does mention in later correspondence that recovering his strength afterward took longer than in the past, which he attributes to age.) The British release him from prison on the first day of his fast, and he completes the fast at a private home. Seemingly from the moment he decides on the fast he feels a serenity that has eluded him in recent times. It sounds as though the fast has the effect on him that he’d hoped, and I’m sure to some limited extent it also focuses the public’s attention on the sacrifice of their spiritual leader and encourages people to concern themselves a little less with their material self-interest and a little more with their moral selves.
Once the fast is over, he fully expects to be arrested and put back in prison at any time. He isn’t doing anything all that blatantly provocative, but he also isn’t entirely abstaining from political activities.
He meets with Congress leaders to try to work out a plan. Some want to return to aggressive civil disobedience (though not all would limit it to civil), some want to accept the reality that the British have successfully squashed civil disobedience and to instead work within the system to attain whatever degree of self-rule for India the British might be willing to negotiate once the Indians establish that they will now be cooperative.
They decide upon a middle path advocated by Gandhi. Civil disobedience is suspended but not terminated, and in the meantime Gandhi asks for a meeting with the Viceroy to work out a peace that will be honorable for all.
The Viceroy flatly refuses to see him. The British feel they are close to total victory, and they are in no mood to make any concessions. They require full surrender—the permanent termination of civil disobedience—as a condition for a meeting. Gandhi does not give such surrender serious consideration.
Gandhi announces that mass civil disobedience will remain suspended, but that individuals, starting with himself, will offer individual civil disobedience. The idea is that it will be a more potent symbol if a comparative handful of satyagrahis—himself, other prominent Indian leaders, people trained in his values at his ashram, etc.—offer a purer form of civil disobedience of sacrifice, strict nonviolence, and acceptance of suffering, than if the masses offer civil disobedience. A mass movement would be harder to control, as it would involve a huge number of people with varying degrees of understanding of and commitment to a philosophy of nonviolence. With so many people feeling bitter and/or defeated, Gandhi can’t be confident how many would even participate in mass civil disobedience, and of those who did, he can’t be confident they won’t be quick to give up or to resort to violence.
He proposes to begin his own participation in such a movement with a short march to a rural area that had suffered disproportionately in the recent government crackdown. He and a small entourage will travel as mendicants, begging food and supplies as they go, stopping to give talks on untouchability and the evils of alcohol and such, as well as on this next phase of limited civil disobedience.
Because so many Indians have had property confiscated and otherwise been oppressed, Gandhi wants to suffer a similar privation to show solidarity. The problem is he really doesn’t own anything—a dhoti and a pair of eyeglasses and not much else I suppose.
But he wants to give up something of value to him, so he decides to disband the ashram he has led for so many years. He releases the residents into the world, to hopefully live by what he has taught them, and tells the government it is welcome to the land and buildings.
He is even more convinced now that he is on the verge of being arrested, and he is right. He is taken back into custody on the morning he is to begin his march. He has been out for a little under three months.
For a while Gandhi and the British seem unsure what to do with each other. The authorities quickly release him again from prison, on the condition that he leave the area and not engage in civil disobedience or political activities. He tells them he certainly doesn’t agree to that, and that rather than go through the silliness of releasing him and immediately re-arresting him they should just keep in prison. They release him anyway. He hangs around the area, in violation of their condition, and, as he knew they would, they promptly put him back in prison.
He expects to resume his untouchability work from inside the prison the same as he had during his last stint—writing articles for his new newspaper Harijan and such. He makes his usual polite, formal requests along these lines, but the officials take their time responding, and then allow him only some of the liberty to engage in such activities that he had had before. He indicates he is inclined to fast if prevented from doing what he feels he needs to do on the untouchability issue, they negotiate, and they reach a preliminary agreement he is mostly satisfied with, but then the negotiations fall apart after all and he commences a fast unto death.
I really think psychologically there is a big difference for him between the kind of meditative fast for spiritual refocus like his recent 21-day fast, and this kind of protest fast unto death (what critics might call a “hold my breath until I turn blue” fast to try to get one’s way). For just as in the previous year when he fasted unto death over the Untouchable electoral scheme, and unlike in the 21-day fast, he weakens rapidly and there is alarm that he is near death.
The British again quickly release him, declaring that they have no intention of letting him commit suicide while in their custody in a way that they could be blamed for. Whereas he had fully expected to be arrested, the release comes as a total surprise to him. He declares that it is the biggest surprise of his public career.
His health recovers, but clearly this fast is much harder on him than his recent longer fast had been. He tends to report his physical ups and downs matter-of-factly in his correspondence—his weight fluctuations, changes in diet, problems with his elbow from all his writing and hand-spinning, etc.—and after this fast in multiple letters he notes what agony he suffered.
But the unexpected release has him a bit off balance, and in some ways he seems to have returned to a status of uncertainty if not passivity. He takes some time to consider his next move.
He decides that because he was not supposed to be released until August of next year, it would be wrong to exploit the British having released him early on humanitarian grounds by resuming civil disobedience. So he announces that at least until next August he will not be one of the individual civil resisters after all. He explicitly declines, however, to pledge to refrain from advising others or otherwise being involved in civil disobedience as a non-participant.
Perhaps partially stepping back in this way makes sense relative to some strategy, but he seems to think it is the honorable course of action due to principle. But I don’t know why he feels bound by implicit conditions of release this time, when earlier the same summer he felt free to defy explicit conditions of release. Furthermore, if it’s wrong to take advantage of the British releasing him early by engaging in activities they object to that he couldn’t have engaged in if he’d stayed in prison, then presumably he shouldn’t facilitate civil disobedience as a non-participant either.
That’s where the volume ends, with Gandhi recently having been released from prison, focused mostly on Untouchable work, but keeping the door open to political activity, short of taking part in individual civil disobedience at least until next summer.
I’ll make a few final observations that occurred to me while reading this volume.
In response to a correspondent’s question, Gandhi explicitly denies that he’s willing to give up the ashram because he’s unsatisfied with how his experiment in an alternative community has worked out. He insists that giving it up is a major sacrifice.
It’s a plausible notion, though, that he’d have misgivings about it. As with most things in these volumes it’s hard to get a real clear picture of what’s going on since we’re typically only seeing Gandhi’s writings—so the correspondence, for instance, is unidirectional—but I have a dubious impression of the ashram denizens.
The political figures and others in Gandhi’s public life, even someone like Nehru who thinks very highly of him and is very fond of him, seem fully capable of disagreeing with him, but I don’t sense anything like that kind of independence in the people who are close to him in his personal life. They come across too often as worshipful followers. Despite his constant reminders to them that they need to think for themselves, and that anything he advises them to do is just a recommendation that they can and should override when their considered judgment disagrees, I wonder if the ashram experiment doesn’t have some of the sociological trappings of a cult. Just because he doesn’t want to be a cult leader doesn’t mean he’s immune from being treated as one.
In this volume, multiple visitors to or temporary residents of the ashram write to him in prison with criticisms of it, including a doctor. We have to infer the specifics of their criticisms, but I gather they perceive too many of the residents to be following Gandhi’s policies and advice in a mechanical way, not really understanding and agreeing, but just going through the motions of obeying.
The doctor dismisses Gandhi’s nephew Narandas—who manages the ashram when Gandhi is absent—and veteran ashram resident Premabehn Kantak as bossy and more concerned with petty domestic politics than with living by the high moral ideals Gandhi has sought to base the ashram on.
My impression of Kantak from Gandhi’s letters to her is mostly a positive one. I like the fact that she seems to have some sass and seems like one of the few who is indeed willing to criticize Gandhi or disagree with him, which I infer to some extent he likes too, though he also expresses concern about her temper and emotionalism. But if we’re to believe what the doctor says (he refers to her sarcastically as “Her Excellency”), Gandhi’s concerns are understated, as she’s quite the unpleasant bitch.
I’m not sure if Gandhi sees these problems or not. He’s not defensive about the ashram criticisms he receives, but he generally offers some mitigating remarks about possible bias behind them. So he gives them some weight, but not a lot.
I get the impression he’s especially apt to draw unstable, flighty women followers—the sort who join cults and New Age movements and such today. Again, not that he wants to, but I think there’s something about his holy man persona that makes a lot of people want to obey him or just have him pronounce the truth from on high to them, rather than emulate his rationality, awareness of fallibility, openmindedness, and experimental approach to an ethical life.
I’d be inclined to put Mirabehn (Madeline Slade) in that category of kooky women followers, based on the little bit I’ve read about her outside of these volumes, but he seems to take her very seriously and be very fond of her.
His attitude toward her cannot be dismissed as attributable to him being the kind of person who is all about praising everyone and being positive, as he is actually surprisingly frank in his criticisms of some of the shortcomings of these people. I notice his more critical remarks tend not to be addressed directly to the person in question, but not really behind their back either in that he’ll often give his impressions of them in a letter to someone else but then suggest that the recipient share the letter with the person he’s criticizing.
But for example he certainly doesn’t hold back his opinion of a goofy German woman Margarete Spiegel who has traveled to India to become one of his followers and live in the ashram. In one letter he describes her as “mad as a mad-hatter.”
Or another example is his slutty follower identified as simply “N” who he’s trying to help turn over a new leaf and live a life of poverty and chastity. Evidently when he’s not right there in her presence she has a tendency to find some other guru or cause to glom onto. In writing about her instability in this volume, and the way she has suddenly become as gung ho about becoming a Christian as she had been about becoming a Hindu, he says she has “gone off the rails again.”
He multiple times in this volume describes someone as “unintelligent.” Like he’ll tell Narandas not to be offended about some criticism someone had of him, because the person “means well but is unintelligent.”
One of the things that continues to come through to me very strongly about Gandhi is how extraordinarily self-directed he is. (In other words he has just the characteristic that I sense so many of his followers lack.) He works out his principles for himself based on the merits, and he abides by them, come hell or high water.
I find, though, that a lot of his principled behavior is quite idiosyncratic. It’s not like he has some consistent system of articulable principles, and then his beliefs and behavior all follow logically and predictably from these. It’s more that his principles are based to a significant degree on his moral intuitions, so a lot of times his choices can seem odd or inconsistent viewed from the outside.
If someone else were doing and saying some of the same things, you could be pretty confident they’re simply compromising for one reason or another. For most people, if it seems like according to their stated principles—or just according to the prevailing societal norms—they should be doing A and instead you see them doing B, in all likelihood they’re taking the easy way out, being weak, trying to fit in with their crowd, making an exception out of self-interest, letting emotion override their reason, or what have you. They’re deviating from principle, in other words.
With Gandhi though, when based on his philosophy you’d think the way to act most morally would be to do A and yet you see him doing B, in all likelihood there’s no compromise at all. It’s not a strategic choice, a choice made out of weakness, a selfish choice, or any of that. It’s that he—totally sincerely and quite possibly contrary to his self-interest and/or preferred consequences—reasoned and intuited his way through the matter quite differently from how would straightforwardly make the most sense, and came to a different, maybe bizarre, conclusion.
Personally I’d like to see a bit more logical rigor and a bit less intuition, and I suspect there’s more inconsistency to him than he realizes, but you certainly have to admire the strength of character he manifests in remaining (what he sincerely regards as) true to his principles.