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

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

This volume of all of Gandhi’s writings, speeches, and statements of which there is a record covers the period from September 16, 1933 to January 15, 1934.

Early on during this period Gandhi is recovering from a fast. Once he has regained his strength sufficiently, he goes on a speaking tour. His public work during this period of his life is devoted almost exclusively to opposing untouchability.

I found this to be one of the duller volumes I’ve read so far. A lot of the correspondence consists of mundane stuff like his congratulating people on their marriages. The second half of the book consists largely of speeches and public statements from his tour opposing untouchability, and since he tends to say the same things from place to place there’s a great deal of repetition.

As covered in the last volume, he considers himself still in effect covered by prison rules (about not engaging in political activity) since he was let out of prison prior to his scheduled release date for humanitarian reasons in connection with his recent fast.

That limitation shouldn’t be overstated though. He still communicates with people engaged in political activity, which would surely be censored under prison rules if he were still in prison. He also notes that working on moral issues always has political implications too—that improving the people morally makes them stronger, more suited to independence, and more likely to insist upon it—yet he doesn’t for that reason refrain from working on moral issues.

So consider this self-imposed limitation to be more of an informal, non-absolute one, which he interprets in his own way that may not match how others would interpret it.

I think to some extent Gandhi likes to step back periodically, to pause and get his bearings rather than feeling obligated to respond to every short term development, and then to re-emerge on the political stage on his own terms when he thinks the time is right for his kind of movement.

Among the things he refrains from doing is taking a public stance against “terrorism,” i.e., anti-government violence. His position is that there is plenty of both government and anti-government violence, with the former being greater. He is limited in how he can condemn and act against the former due to his self-imposed rule of avoiding political activity until the time his prison sentence would have ended in several months, and believes it would be disproportionate and misleading to speak out against the violence of only one side. Certainly when he’s asked a direct question about it he states that he opposes the anti-government violence, on the grounds that he opposes all violence, but for now his focus is on the evils of untouchability.

As Gandhi tours the country speaking against untouchability, a frequent theme in his talks is that what’s objectionable about untouchability is the notion of some people being superior to others, and worse yet superior by birth rather than by the choices they make in life. The sin of untouchability is a subset of the tendency to see groups as “high” or “low.”

For instance, he is a believer in a very idealized version of the Hindu caste system, but condemns the caste system as it exists for this very reason that it treats some castes as higher than others. Whether we’re talking about castes, races, religions, sexes, or whatever, there are differences, but those differences can never constitute fundamental inequalities in his eyes.

When people object that the Untouchables themselves recognize some subgroups of Untouchables as superior to others—where the touch of a lower one pollutes the higher one and all that same nonsense as the way caste Hindus feel about them—he agrees that this is unconscionable, albeit understandable given the example set by caste Hindus.

If one accepts the Hindu theory of reincarnation and karma, then it seems his orthodox (“sanatanist”) Hindu opponents have a quite plausible response to his objections to treating people as unequal from birth, which is that the very fact that a person was born an Untouchable proves that they behaved in a blameworthy fashion in an earlier life and deserve a rougher time of it this time around.

My response is that reincarnation and karma are metaphysical mumbo jumbo that there’s no justification to believe in the first place, and that therefore they can’t ground any kind of conclusions about how people ought and ought not be treated, but of course that response isn’t available to Gandhi since he wants to affirm those basic Hindu tenets.

Instead he says that believing that one’s suffering is a punishment for one’s own misdeeds—in this life or a prior one—is laudable humility, whereas similarly attributing the suffering of others to such karmic justice is presumptuous and inappropriate.

Substantively this makes little sense. If it’s right for me to suffer due to karma then it must be right for anyone else to also. But I understand where he’s coming from in more of a pragmatic sense. It’s a philosophical inconsistency that may well enable a person to be more accepting of their own suffering without making them judgmental about the suffering of others.

So logically I don’t think it’s an adequate response, and I’d still say that in the end the best response instead is to not adopt unprovable metaphysical claims with egregious moral consequences. But I can see how for some people the approach he’s suggesting could be a beneficial attitude to have, kind of like people who insist—contrary to all evidence—that “everything happens for a reason.” It’s more a comforting philosophy of life or attitude that makes them better able to handle misfortune, than a genuine, factual claim about how the universe works.

Gandhi rejects calls by some Untouchables (or “Harijans” as he calls them) to put Untouchables themselves in charge of his movement and turn over all the funds he’s raising for the cause to them. His position is that the Harijan movement is a program for caste Hindus to make amends to those they’ve wronged. It’s a movement to raise their consciousness and get them to chip in funds and labor to help Harijans, and more importantly to permanently jettison any attitude that Harijans or anyone else are inferior to them. Certainly he welcomes advice and input from Harijans, but in a sense this isn’t about them. He compares it to a debtor business working out internally what it needs to do to meet its obligations to creditors.

I’ll mention just a few other things that seemed notable as I read this volume.

Gandhi tends to denigrate higher education. He wants people to learn manual labor instead and be content with that.

In context I can understand where he’s coming from, even if I disagree with him at least in part. What he objects to is the common attitude he sees in India, that for those few Indians (the urban elite) who have the opportunity, it’s worthwhile to get whatever degree or training will enable you to get a civil service job or something that puts you “above” the masses. Obviously someone like Gandhi is not going to buy into this notion that it’s good to go to college in order to secure for yourself a future of shuffling papers in some colonial office and being able to afford more material possessions than the vast majority of one’s countrymen who have to get their hands dirty to survive.

But what he shows insufficient appreciation for is the fact that higher education can mean far, far more than that kind of vocational training for a well-compensated career. Education can also mean studying moral philosophy and critical thinking. It can mean studying history and the social sciences to better understand what kind of behavior has had what kind of consequences in the past and why. It can mean learning languages that enable one to communicate with more people. It can mean gaining a deeper appreciation for the arts and culture, including other cultures. It can mean learning practical skills that can make one more effective in serving the masses.

It’s not like the only options are to be an illiterate peasant who is uninterested in learning anything beyond how to farm and ply the spinning wheel, or to be an effete, intellectual snob who embraces a materialistic lifestyle.

In a letter, Gandhi relates an anecdote that illustrates his indifference to death. His grandson was on his deathbed and wished to see him. He didn’t go, although his wife did. The grandson subsequently died. When he was informed of this, Gandhi reports, he was in the middle of a meal and simply finished it and felt nothing.

To him, notions like non-attachment or the belief that we are more than our bodily life are not just things to give lip service to, but things at this stage of his life he genuinely believes in at a deep level. So he is generally able to treat the life or death of even someone he loves as a matter of indifference.

This is not something I suspect most people would regard as an admirable trait, by the way. I recall in the movie Gandhi, for instance, he is depicted as shedding a tear at the death of his wife. It’s a touching scene intended to show his human side, whereas an anecdote like what he relates in this volume would surely strike most people as disturbingly inhuman.

I’ve wondered in reading previous volumes if his wife Kasturba is illiterate, given that there are countless letters from him to others in his ashram and such, but not to her. (And it’s not because they’re always together and so need not write to each other, since often he’s writing from prison or they are otherwise separated for an extended period.) In this volume, though, there are a small number of letters to her, and references to letters received from her. So apparently she is able to read and write.


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