Volume LVII of the Collected Works covers the four month period from January 16, 1934 through May 17, 1934. For the bulk of this time, Gandhi is on his speaking tour of India, spreading his anti-untouchability message and raising money for the benefit of Untouchables (or “Harijans”).
The entries in this volume consist mostly of his speeches during the tour (highly repetitious), some correspondence, and a small number of articles he published in his Harijan newspaper.
In most of his speeches he briefly addresses other matters besides untouchability, including the evils of alcohol. When addressing the latter topic he routinely makes the claim that when a man drinks, he can’t distinguish among his “mother, sister, daughter, or wife.”
I take it the implication is that a drunk can’t control his lust and so seeks to have sex with any female in the household as if the person were his wife. Was that actually a common problem in India at the time: Drunks raping or at least sexually pressuring their mothers and daughters and such?
Gandhi interrupts his Harijan tour temporarily to go to Bihar after it suffers one of the most devastating earthquakes in the region in history.
It is in connection with this event that Gandhi made one of the most criticized claims of his public life, which was that the earthquake was a divine punishment for sin, especially the failure to eradicate untouchability.
I think to understand his response to the Bihar earthquake, you need to put it in the context of his philosophy of karma and such. As I touched on in my discussion of the preceding volume, Gandhi believes it is beneficial to attribute one’s own suffering to cosmic punishment of this kind (because it will motivate one to accept that suffering, and to live a better, more moral, life to decrease future suffering) and objectionable to attribute the suffering of others to cosmic punishment of this kind (because it’s judgmental and encourages one to feel superior to the sufferers and to be less inclined to help them).
Gandhi, as a caste Hindu himself, is saying that “we” are in the wrong (about untouchability and other things) and that in ways we cannot expect to fathom the universe is punishing us for in effect living out of harmony with its moral laws. He isn’t condemning others, saying “you” or “they” are justifiably being punished.
As he puts it, “This occasion has been furnished for scrutiny of our sins and not for finding fault with others.”
In that sense, I think it’s less objectionable than it might appear at first. It’s still silly as a literal claim, certainly, but I can see how taking the attitude that one will be happiest in the long run, including in future lives, by living a good life, opposing injustice, loving rather than hating, serving others, etc., could be a significant motivating factor toward moral improvement, and therefore a beneficial philosophy.
And I think that’s very much how he means it. He’s not being a judgmental religious know-it-all and claiming that the suffering of others proves they’re wrong for disagreeing with him and that God is punishing them for doing so.
However, even though I think he’s sincere in attributing the punishment to “us” rather than “them,”—i.e., humbly including himself in those that are being justifiably punished—it still doesn’t ring true, in the sense that everyone knows he strongly disagrees with untouchability and is devoting a good portion of his life to actively combatting it. He can say, “Yeah, but this just proves I’m not doing enough, that I’m still among those who practice, facilitate, or tolerate untouchability,” but that’s kind of false humility. He may not intend to condemn others without also condemning himself, but implicitly that’s what he’s doing. He’s pointing to the earthquake as evidence that his position—that untouchability is a great sin—is correct.
When challenged on it, he admits his belief may be superstition, and that he can understand anyone choosing not to accept it, but he defends it on the pragmatic grounds that his is a metaphysical belief system that encourages humility and abiding by moral laws.
Certainly it’s less obnoxious than the notion that natural disasters are punishment for violating sexual taboos, following the wrong religion, etc. Superstition to support love is wrong, but less wrong than superstition to support ignorance and hate.
Following the break to visit Bihar, Gandhi resumes his speaking tour, but he changes it to primarily a walking tour. Partly this seems to be kind of a symbolic thing; he thinks there’s something more appropriately humble in traversing great distances on foot to deliver a spiritual message of accepting Harijans as brothers and sisters.
He claims to base the decision mostly, though, on the safety of himself and those around him. Everywhere he went when he was making use of trains and cars people mobbed him and tried to touch his feet.
The thing is, I don’t understand how switching to a walking tour is supposed to help with that problem. How does his being on foot prevent people from mobbing him? Is the idea that the humility and slower pace of a walking tour will generate more of a sense of dignity and solemnity, and so the crowds will be more subdued?
Gandhi tends to be a skeptic about modern medicine, though he can be quite self-deprecating about that, admitting to possibly being a quack or a kook in his attachment to nature cures.
But when you examine more closely what he actually says, it’s not so much that he thinks Western medicine is ineffective, as that it reflects an unhealthy obsession with forestalling death as long as possible, when really you should live your life as best you can, and calmly accept death whenever it happens to come. Thus even as he tends to avoid vaccinations and some other products of modern medicine, he always says that others are perfectly free to make use of them depending on their own philosophy of such matters. He doesn’t claim that they don’t work, and that therefore it’s unwise for anyone to bother with them.
Consider, for instance, how he addresses the matter in a letter:
Five systems of treatment are current in India at present: (1) allopathy, (2) Ayurveda, (3) unani, (4) homeopathy and (5) nature cure. I leave out the use of mantras and magic. I am inclined toward nature cure and, if further help is needed, I would have recourse to allopathy, but within limits. In certain cases surgery is indispensable and some of the drugs, like quinine, are very effective….Allopathic practitioners are comparatively more honest. In the West, they are continually experimenting. Their treatments, therefore, are often found to succeed.
During the time covered by this volume, Gandhi seeks to meet with the guru/philosopher Aurobindo Ghose, but is snubbed. Ghose’s people write back that he does not accept visitors.
As I read these volumes, I continue to be struck by how Gandhi consistently comes across as sincere, something that is extraordinarily rare in a public figure. He might be wrong about various things, at times he might even be crazy, but he really seems to believe everything he says.
There are those who have claimed otherwise, including the Untouchable leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who always contended that Gandhi was a manipulative caste Hindu who only talked a good game, but I am convinced they are wrong. I agree more with the conclusion of George Orwell—a critic, though a respectful one, of Gandhi—who said, “Compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!”
Gandhi certainly sees himself as striving to be as truthful as possible, and is troubled when others don’t read him that way. As he states in a letter to the current Viceroy, Lord Willingdon:
Miss Lester has described to me, under your permission, the conversation she had with you. The impression left on her mind is that you consider me to be insincere. That I am mistaken about the many views I hold may be found to be true. But I know that I am not insincere. Beyond giving you my assurance that I have never in my life been insincere to anybody on earth, I do not know how to prove my sincerity….
One of the more significant political developments during the time covered by this volume is Gandhi’s announcement of a suspension of civil disobedience.
His concern is that civil disobedience is being done too imperfectly, and its impurity is preventing it from having the beneficial consequences it would otherwise have. Too many people misunderstand satyagraha (his term for nonviolent political action) and are treating it pragmatically, rather than as a reflection of moral principles of loving everyone including one’s opponents. He does not believe people are ready yet to fight in the only morally acceptable way.
Specifically he suspends civil disobedience for everyone but himself, but since he has no intention of engaging in civil disobedience for the foreseeable future (certainly for at least the next several months, since he still considers himself bound by a self-imposed obligation to not engage in political activity for the duration of what would have been his prison sentence before he was released early for allegedly humanitarian reasons when he announced his latest fast), in effect it is suspended for everyone.
Of course, as he recognizes, this is only his advice, not something he wants or is able to impose on anyone against their will. Some people will still oppose the British nonviolently—and some violently for that matter—but for the time being it will be without his endorsement.
He also notes that if someone comes along who understands satyagraha better than he does and inspires confidence in people, he will gladly step aside and let such a person lead and decide when the time is right for civil disobedience.
In addition to suspending civil disobedience, Gandhi withdraws his opposition to Indians seeking election to the Imperial Legislative Council (a body that allowed Indians very, very limited elements of self-rule). He still doesn’t believe council entry is a promising route, but he leaves it up to each individual Congress member whether to attempt that means or not. (Again, this is not something he can enforce anyway. He’s only expressing a preference when he endorses, condemns, or takes a position of neutrality on council entry.)