Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles, by Ved Mehta

Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles

A good portion of Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles is a pretty straightforward biography. As such it’s quite well done. It hits the major events of Gandhi’s life, is well-written, is intelligent and insightful in its commentary on Gandhi, and is neither unsatisfyingly hagiographic nor revisionist.

One interesting thing I noticed about the biographical material is how much it overlaps with the epic Richard Attenborough movie Gandhi, which came out five years or so after this book. I don’t just mean that in the sense that a biographical movie is bound to hit a lot of the same events as a written biography since they’re about the same life and there is typically some consensus amongst biographers as to the most important events of that life. I’ve read many biographies of Gandhi in my life—most of which were better known, longer and more thorough, more likely to be identified as the “standard” or “definitive” biography of Gandhi, etc.—yet in reading none of those did I have even half as many “Oh hey, that’s just like in the movie!” moments as I had reading this one. It’s as if the screenwriters used this book as their primary source on Gandhi’s life—if so I’d be surprised, as I have no idea why they’d choose this one—or maybe it’s a coincidence.

But anyway, in spite of how much of this book functions as a biography, I really don’t see Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles as primarily a biography. Maybe that’s because I have indeed read so many biographies of Gandhi, and so my attention was naturally drawn more to the parts of this book that don’t go over the same ground I’ve been over numerous times.

There are two ways in which what Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles offers goes beyond the typical biography, both of which make use of the perspective provided by the fact that about 25 years passed between Gandhi’s death and when author Ved Mehta put this book together.

One, Mehta describes the India of the 1970s in terms of whether and how Gandhi’s influence survives. Two, Mehta interviews the (now mostly elderly) people who are still alive who lived and worked closely with Gandhi and obtains their insider reminiscences.

The book does neither of these things at great length—it’s only between 200 and 300 pages, and, again, the bulk of that is taken up by the biography of Gandhi—but mostly these are the things that remain in my mind, the things that made me think and feel the most.

By the way, Mehta is blind. Not that that’s stated or in any way implied in the book, but I read that elsewhere. What’s odd is how unusually visual the book is. For instance, he describes in detail not just what interviewees said, but the visual context—what they looked like, their facial expressions, their body language, etc.—and what one could infer from all that. Maybe he had an assistant with him who then filled him in after the fact on all that was going on visually, but there’s certainly no mention of anything like that. When you’re aware he’s blind as you read it, the book has a kind of surreal feel to it.

Most of the people interviewed and asked to recall Gandhi’s life and to describe his legacy are people who lived in his ashrams (which were communes or “intentional communities”), some of whom were Gandhi’s relatives. These are the people who didn’t just have some political alliance with Gandhi during the independence struggle, but who Gandhi was able to most influence and mold toward the kind of lifestyle and values he sought to spread. They are the “apostles” of the book’s title.

Unfortunately, with a few exceptions these folks aren’t very impressive. Some are the kind of kooks that are all too common in cults and alternative lifestyles—followers by nature, spacey, not very bright. Some have since become depressingly conventional, having made their peace with the mainstream world and its flaws, and are now pursuing typical business and political goals in typical ways.

Or some always were pretty mainstream in their traits and values, even when they were most closely connected with Gandhi. G.D. Birla, for instance, was Gandhi’s ultra-rich businessman benefactor for much of Gandhi’s career, and now he remains an ultra-rich businessman who evidently is every bit as ruthless and amoral as any run-of-the-mill, ultra-rich businessman.

One “apostle” who comes off particularly poorly is the elderly Madeleine Slade, whom Gandhi rechristened Mirabehn and informally adopted as an adult daughter, and who worked closely with Gandhi for decades. Maybe some of it is that she’s senile, but she comes across as a ditz. She doesn’t even want to talk about Gandhi, as now she’s obsessed with Beethoven and is convinced that that’s who she really ought to have devoted her life to all along.

One of the other interviewees notes dismissively that Mirabehn loved to lord it over everyone else in the ashram that she was the daughter of an admiral (as if such a thing would matter to someone who had truly embraced Gandhian values).

Gandhi wanted his ashrams to be the kind of places that would give everyone the best chance of developing into a person with high moral values who could continue, and ideally improve upon, Gandhi’s various life experiments in using nonviolence in the political arena, diet, asceticism, and so on. He was very humble about his own accomplishments, and very aware of his own fallibility, so he hoped that those that came after him could surpass him in inspiring the world onto a path of truth and nonviolence.

But reading this book I think you have to say his attempts failed. Yes, there are the exceptions like Vinoba Bhave who lived the rest of their lives trying to do good in the world in roughly Gandhian ways, but mostly his efforts to intentionally mold people a certain way seems to have resulted not in people with the intelligence, creativity, compassion, strong will, humor, willingness to suffer, and honesty of Gandhi, but in followers, and a follower is precisely what Gandhi wasn’t.

It’s not just that they don’t have Gandhi’s best qualities to the degree Gandhi did—that would be an awfully high standard after all—but that they probably have them to a lesser extent than people picked randomly from the population. As one of the interviewees observes, it’s really the people who were close friends of Gandhi and worked closely with him yet maintained their independence (e.g., Nehru)—as opposed to those who lived with him and came most under his personal influence—who developed into the more impressive people who did the most good in life.

One gets the impression that the ashram denizens spent far too much of their time in gossiping, petty bickering, and competing for Gandhi’s attention. Certainly that’s not the environment he wanted, but despite his best efforts that’s what he got. As his granddaughter Sumitra Gandhi notes, “Everyone under the sun wanted to be known as a secretary to the Mahatma. The moment he died, they were all brought face to face with reality—without him they were nothing.”

I wonder if Gandhi underestimated the importance of education and of logic and critical thinking. He stressed acquiring the practical, life-sustaining skills of the most common working person (farming, making clothes, practicing basic sanitation, etc.) and living a morally pure life of asceticism, and he distrusted formal education and I suppose even rationality since in his observations they were at least as likely as not to push people away from the kind of simple and moral life he advocated. This was a source of conflict with many members of his family, who felt that they were being cheated out of a future by being denied a formal education, and who noted that he himself received such an education up to and including law school before deciding it wasn’t worth others obtaining.

But it may be that the Gandhi-like embodiments of truth and nonviolence that he hoped to create, the people who would carry on his experiments and progress beyond what he had managed, the people who would be leaders in the worldwide moral awakening he dreamed of, needed certain qualities of independent and critical thinking that it’s almost impossible for uneducated quasi-cult members to obtain.

Sumitra Gandhi herself attributes the fact that she’s had a more successful life (conventionally anyway—she’s reasonably well off financially and is a member of Parliament) and didn’t end up as a “nothing” after Gandhi died to the fact that she only lived with him briefly and that even during that time she defied him and insisted on receiving a formal education. (Imagine how hard that must have been for a child by the way, to stand up to Gandhi of all people, in an artificial environment created by him and populated almost solely by his sycophants, and tell him he’s wrong and you are going to follow a different path.)

I mentioned that another theme of the book is how post-independence India has, or has not, been influenced by Gandhi. Based on what Mehta reports, you almost want to say that, to its discredit, India is largely indistinguishable from what it would have been if Gandhi had never lived.

Obviously it’s not the kind of nonviolent, anarchist utopia that would be most in keeping with Gandhian ideals, but that was never going to happen, at least not for a very, very, very long time. But even setting that aside and considering only the more realistic possibilities of what India could have become, it’s hard to see much that’s Gandhian about the country.

Consider a few specifics that one might expect—or at least hope—to see from a country that regarded Gandhi as the “father of the nation”:

Gandhi detested untouchability, regarding it as worse than any other form of racism, religious discrimination, slavery, etc. that he was familiar with anywhere in the world. The eradication of untouchability was as important to him as any of his life goals, I would say more important than political independence from Great Britain.

Mehta reports that if anything untouchability is worse now (or at least when this book was written in the 1970s; bear in mind that when I say things like “now” or “the present” in this essay that’s generally what I mean) than it was during Gandhi’s life. True, it’s not enshrined in law, so those who created independent India abided by Gandhi’s wishes in that respect, but Gandhi wasn’t about top-down reform like that. He was about changing the hearts of the masses and thereby bringing about bottom-up reform. Apparently that has utterly failed to happen with untouchability.

As one of the people Mehta speaks to observes, it’s not even about the efficient use of quasi-slave labor but about the exhilaration of being able to humiliate a whole class of people and thereby feel superior. He illustrates it by noting the Untouchables washing the stairs of public buildings, using filthy water that they’re really just sloshing around pointlessly, making the stairs dirtier if anything, and yet in doing so fulfilling their true function of being very visible reminders that there are people less human than those who see them as they go in and out of the buildings, people who deserve to spend their whole lives in subservient positions doing society’s dirty work.

Speaking of filth, though he’s known in the West for his nonviolent demonstrations and political activism and such, Gandhi spent an enormous part of his life trying to impress upon his countrymen the importance of sanitation and personal hygiene. His “Constructive Program” of uplift of individuals and villages was as much or more a focus of his life as the struggle for national independence, and just getting people to use latrines properly and wash regularly and such was a huge part of that.

But evidently it never took. Mehta reports that as Gandhi tirelessly traveled and advocated hygienic reforms, the people would dutifully change their ways while he was present, and to some extent continue the new ways if he left behind in their village any Constructive Program workers, but once the last of those folks left, five minutes later they went back to living worse than pigs like they always had. None of it was internalized, none of it became habitual. They went through the motions in deference to Gandhi, but they didn’t stick with it. And now they still shit in the road like it’s the 1800s.

Gandhi wanted a multi-religious society that respected all faiths equally, and of course that was out the window immediately when independence brought not a united independent India, but a separate largely Hindu India and an explicitly Muslim Pakistan. Again, the Indian government isn’t formally theocratic (though under some post-independence regimes dominated by right wing Hindus it has had elements of that), but the society itself is not a particularly religiously tolerant and pluralistic one, and post-Gandhi India has had more than its share of religious strife.

Gandhi wanted Indians to be economically self-sufficient at the village level, and to voluntarily forego all but the most modest materialist ambitions. India was to be an example to the world of a society that put people above money.

Instead, India has suffered through some of the worst capitalist excesses of any country in the world, from enormous inequality, to environmental despoliation, to a massive number of people employed by multinational corporations exploitatively generating wealth for foreigners, to a general mindset of acquisitiveness and obsession with all material things the West values.

Some, including Noam Chomsky, even believe that capitalist India has suffered more avoidable deaths from famine than communist China under Mao.

This is assuredly not the India of Gandhi’s dreams. Could it have somehow been even worse had Gandhi never lived? I don’t know. It is a democracy, albeit a flawed, corrupt one. I suppose some post-colonial new nations, including many in Africa, have been hellholes to an even greater degree. But there are so many factors at work in determining why a given country doesn’t rank dead last that it’s hard to say Gandhi had much if any influence at all. After all, how did the dozens of other countries that didn’t have a Gandhi to lead them to independence manage, as awful as they are, to avoid being at the very bottom?

Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles is a sad book in its way. That feeling of failure hangs over it. As Mehta describes, Gandhi himself was aware of it, especially late in life. He saw that things weren’t working out remotely as he had wanted.

Mehta’s account of those last years of Gandhi’s life is poignant, for Gandhi in his way takes all the failures upon himself.

He had a philosophy that the purer an advocate of truth and nonviolence a person was, the greater would be his influence, to where as a person approached total renunciation of the self and total commitment to moral perfection the extent to which he improved the world would similarly approach infinity. And he refused to admit that there was any limit to how devoted to truth and nonviolence he could be.

So as he grimly trudged from village to village in Noakhali in post-independence India, seeing the world seemingly crumbling around him, begging for a cessation of the horrific orgy of religious violence that had engulfed the area (and having—in a very local and very temporary way—miraculous success), he was carrying that enormous weight of “this is all happening because I haven’t done all that I could have done, haven’t made myself as good a person as I could have.”

But think about how extraordinary was the standard he set for himself. He truly did mean to change the world, to inspire us all to utterly shift our moral paradigms and realize that we are obligated to live our lives enormously differently from the habits we have acquired, to drastically change the rules of the game that we have learned to play with at least modest personal success.

At that challenge that he took upon himself, that challenge that required him to be morally perfect so that the world could be, he predictably failed. But did he at least change the world for the better in some more modest way?

Sometimes I’m convinced that he did. Sometimes I think about myself and all the other people in the world who have been inspired by him, who have made life choices based on a moral philosophy that at least overlaps significantly with his, and I infer that since the world that people have created has been created in part by those who have thus been influenced by him, he must have made a positive difference.

But at times reading Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles I pictured those of us who believe in a roughly Gandhian moral philosophy as scattered individuals building sand castles that the relentless tide of human nature then remorselessly and inevitably washes away. Perhaps Gandhian ideals have never and will never be widespread enough to reach the kind of critical mass that would make any difference to our species’s frenzied dash to Hell in a handbasket. I don’t know.


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