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

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

Volume LVIII of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi covers all that survives of what Gandhi said and wrote from May 1934 to September 1934.

For most of this period, Gandhi is still on his tour of India on behalf of untouchability reform. He speaks mostly about Untouchables (which he calls Harijans) on the tour, with lesser emphasis on other topics such as using homespun cotton (khadi) so poverty-stricken villagers will have a source of income outside the months they’re farming. He undertakes a one-week fast (for reasons I’ll get to below) at the close of the tour.

His one-year, self-imposed ban on addressing matters of politics ends in August. This was a restriction he chose to put on himself when he was released from prison a year earlier than expected, his theory being that he would be censored from addressing politics if he were still in prison but allowed to do things like advocate for Untouchables, so he won’t take advantage of the government’s generosity in letting him out early to engage in activities his imprisonment was intended to prevent.

He interprets the ban to allow him to discuss politics in conversation and correspondence (though surely if he were still in prison he would have been restricted in doing so), and to engage in activities that have significant but indirect political consequences (which he says almost anything does, certainly including his untouchability work), but not to publish anything directly political or make public statements about political matters.

After the expiration of the ban, he gets involved once again in the Indian National Congress, but soon decides to resign from it as the volume comes to an end.

The selections in this volume consist largely of the speeches he gives on tour (a great deal of repetition here, since he makes pretty much the same points at every stop), correspondence (most of it very short, and mostly about personal matters rather than issues of public concern), and articles in his current newspaper Harijan (mostly about untouchability; also repetitious, though not as much as the speeches).

There are a few things I wanted to mention from this volume:

One of Gandhi’s weakest arguments against untouchability that he repeats numerous times on this tour is that if Untouchables really were inferior or deserving of oppression, God would have given them some distinguishing mark so they’d be easy to identify. Aside from being just dumb in its assuming of highly dubious supernaturalism (that there’s a God and that it’s knowable how he would indicate that some people are unequal to others if he were of a mind to), it’s cringeworthy in that it implicitly supports the commonplace defense of African slavery that black skin is the “mark of Cain” that shows who God wants you to treat as cursed.

People routinely hate based on visible differences between groups, racial especially. It irresponsibly implicitly endorses this to say that a reason not to hate is that a specific group is visibly indistinguishable from the general population.

As always, Gandhi consistently rejects the notion that illicit means can sometimes be justified based on the consequences they bring about or are intended to bring about: “[Violence] is not capable of being restricted to what one may call a good cause alone. It is absolutely wrong to say that if the motive is pure, the means are justified whatever they be. For realizing pure end means must be pure too.”

That’s the kind of thing that many people would reject and many others would maybe give lip service to as a noble principle but not try to live by. Other aspects of Gandhi’s ethics are even farther from the mainstream though, and would be almost unanimously rejected.

One is his notion that it is wrong to favor one’s family (friends, tribe, caste, countrymen, whatever). It’s more complicated than that, certainly. He clearly believes that there are pragmatic reasons for, as a rule of thumb, focusing one’s efforts on one’s own people (e.g., in his day-to-day life, he devotes himself far more to the uplifting of Indians than that of people of other nations), but he doesn’t think any one person should be favored over another in the sense that love and personal attachment to individuals alters one’s duty.

This comes out in an incident in this volume that I assume most readers would find appalling and possibly inhuman. One of his sons, Ramdas, is seriously ill to the point that he realistically could die. Apparently in something he writes to Gandhi (you have to infer a lot in these volumes, since they contain what Gandhi writes but not, with rare exceptions, the other side of the correspondence), he tells him that he has been receiving 300 rupees per month, apparently for his medical care. He’s not asking for money from Gandhi—I don’t think—merely stating how much someone or other is giving him.

Gandhi responds that his duty is to reject such a large sum of money and to get by on no more than 100 rupees a month. He doesn’t specify why, though he does note in communication with others that he had to “harden his heart” to tell his son that, as he acknowledges that it could make the difference between his son living or dying. (Well, sometimes he seems to accept that. Other times he implies that such expensive treatment really isn’t needed and that his prognosis would be just as good with 100 rupees if he uses nature cures wisely and considers relocating to somewhere like South Africa, which I guess Gandhi thinks has a more healthful climate for him or something.)

Knowing Gandhi as well as I do after reading untold thousands of pages by and about him, I can take a pretty good guess why he tells Ramdas what he does. Probably the idea is that he realizes whoever Ramdas’s benefactor is who is providing him 300 rupees a month is only doing it because he’s Gandhi’s son. And Gandhi doesn’t believe that he or anyone connected with him should benefit materially—even when it’s a matter of life and death—from his work. I believe he would say that if someone has a spare 300 rupees a month that he wants to use to do good or save lives, that money should go to Untouchables, to victims of the Bihar earthquake, to programs to help the poorest of the poor, etc. The fact that Ramdas is his blood relative, his son, is irrelevant in his mind to who most needs help and should receive help.

Evidently his tour is a success in terms of the size and supportiveness of the crowds. But though he consistently makes the point in his speeches that he doesn’t want people to come to the events and to donate money based on his personal popularity or how they feel about other causes he’s associated with like Indian independence but only if they sincerely agree with him on the issue of untouchability, I strongly suspect that’s exactly why the majority of these people are coming out to see him and cheer and seek darshan (receive blessing from being in the presence of a deity or holy person) from him and such. If a scientific poll had been done among Hindus on the issue of untouchability I don’t know how it would have turned out, but I’ll bet the number on his side wouldn’t have been anywhere close to what you’d expect based on these large and supportive crowds.

I think untouchability reform was still highly controversial to say the least, and a not insignificant proportion of Hindus bitterly opposed Gandhi on this issue. (He generally refers to such opponents as Sanatanist Hindus, which means something like traditionalist Hindus, anti-reform Hindus, believers who think of themselves as the more pure or orthodox Hindus, etc.)

For many Hindus, untouchability is a central tenet of their faith. For Gandhi to tell them it’s a moral excrescence would be like a Christian reformer railing against the notion that you can only get to Heaven by being born again through Jesus Christ. It’s not just something they disagree with on some intellectual level, but something they regard as positively Satanic.

Not that Gandhi’s some big hero to all Untouchables. Ironically a substantial number of them can’t stand him either, since his sometimes eccentric ways of fighting for Untouchable rights don’t always match up with whatever methods and philosophies happen to be current in their own communities.

There’s no denying Gandhi’s popularity among Indians and among Hindus especially, but it’s also important to realize there was also always significant hatred of Gandhi within the Hindu community, especially on the issues of untouchability and his perceived excessive generosity toward Muslims in the endless disputes among India’s religions. This opposition from within Hinduism is what eventually got him assassinated after all.

On this tour, despite the enthusiastic support for Gandhi wherever he goes, there are also plenty of protesters. This leads to a certain amount of unruliness at times as the Gandhi supporters and opponents square off.

Usually the incidents are minor, but not always. There is at least one serious assassination attempt on the tour, when a bomb is thrown at a car the bomb thrower presumably believed Gandhi was in. There were injuries but no deaths as a result.

Gandhi’s reaction is pretty much what you’d expect it to be. He says that such an action should not be used to denigrate his opponents in general, that one person’s actions do not make the Sanatanist Hindus a bunch of assassins. He also says, though, that such an incident should be a reminder to all on both sides of the untouchability issue to tone down the rhetoric, to not make the kind of incendiary public statements that some of his opponents have.

He reiterates that he’s indifferent to the potential loss of his own life, but asks people considering such an act to realize that there would likely be additional victims as well of something like a bomb blast—he was traveling that day in a car with his wife and three other people for instance—whom surely they would not want to harm.

But as far as himself, he accepts it as a part of satyagraha that any positive change in society will require suffering and martyrdom and that by putting himself in a leadership position he is always a prime target. He made his peace with that long ago, and in a way would even welcome martyrdom precisely as a necessary step toward the success of the causes closest to his heart. A satyagrahi can’t let fear and attachment to life cause him to back down any more than a conventional soldier can.

He also says that if the assailant were known he would want him released, because he opposes punishing anyone for attempting to kill him—successfully or not—just as he opposed members of the mob that attacked him in South Africa decades ago being prosecuted.

He treats as a much bigger deal the lesser deviations from nonviolence from his own supporters. After a Sanatanist Hindu protester is roughed up by the crowd at one of the meetings, Gandhi brings him up on stage and allows him to address the meeting, instructing everyone to be quiet and respectful and listen to him

Subsequently, Gandhi announces that in response to that incident and others where opponents were not treated with respect at the meetings, he will atone for his part in stimulating such counterproductive passions with a seven-day fast at the conclusion of the tour.

At this point of his life, since some of his fasts have put his life in jeopardy, and in some cases fairly quickly, any time he announces a fast numerous people implore him to change his mind. He always explains to them that it’s out of his hands, that he only embarks on his fasts when his intuition that it’s the right thing to do is clear and unchanging, which he takes as evidence that it’s from God.

This fast is certainly shorter than some of his fasts in the past, but he doesn’t get through it smoothly. From the little he writes about it after it’s over, it sounds like it was fine most of the way, but that for the last 24 hours or so it got a lot worse. In fact he describes that last day as “torture.” He doesn’t regret the fast though, as his position is that if fasting did not involve suffering then it would not serve its intended purpose.

Gandhi was really a tiny person, by the way. His weight during this fast dipped as low as 94 pounds, which is very low for an anorexic 14 year old girl, let alone a grown man. Even under normal circumstances his weight runs in the 100-110 pound range.

This fast was, like most of his fasts are (and like all of his fasts are supposed to be, according to his philosophy), directed at his supporters rather than opponents. He doesn’t fast to put pressure on opponents to change their ways and come over to his side on an issue; he fasts to grab the attention of those who are already on his side and to inspire them to commit themselves more fully to the cause and especially to keep pure the means by which they pursue their ends.

If you step back and look at his public career as a whole, it’s striking how often his fasts and other decisions he makes are undertaken in an effort to slow things down, to get people to stop and think. I would say he puts more effort into putting on the brakes like that than on accelerating the fight for independence or other causes. Though of course he wants people to work harder and do more for the goals they share, he seems to treat unwise and undisciplined excess in the pursuit of these goals as a more urgent problem than insufficient effort.

Think about how rare that is. What political leaders, religious leaders, revolutionaries, social reformers, etc. constantly put out messages like “Not so fast,” “We’re not ready yet,” or “It’s better not to win than to win the way some of us are fighting”? Almost everyone trying to bring about substantial changes—including, I assume, the overwhelming majority of Gandhi’s allies in India, who surely were highly frustrated by Gandhi’s putting on the brakes (Nehru blasts him along those lines in a letter, albeit a loving and respectful one, reprinted as an appendix in this volume)—is about doing anything and everything it takes to succeed. They want things to move faster, not slower. They want to rouse their followers to action, and acquire more followers.

But Gandhi’s always taking the long view, always urging patience and self-control, always reiterating his message that if you purify the means, the consequences will take care of themselves.

Near the very end of this volume comes Gandhi’s decision to resign from the Indian National Congress. So there’s a little bit about that here, and then there is more in the next volume.

There are multiple reasons for his decision, including an unacceptable level of corruption in the Congress, but he identifies the primary reason as his having concluded that differences of opinion are not being handled in a constructive way. He says that the bulk of the Congress intelligentsia disagrees with him on many important issues, but that out of respect for him they conceal this. They end up sort of doing what they think is right but not really, and sort of going along with him but mostly in a superficial way. He doesn’t want people to half-heartedly follow him—or worse yet pay him lip service and pretend to follow him—if they genuinely disagree with him. But he fears the dynamic they cannot escape is that he’s unquestionable as some sort of symbol or figurehead, so they feel they cannot defend contrary positions to his and openly try to implement them.

He believes that the only way to stop this unsatisfying version of loyalty to him is for he and Congress to go their separate ways. Since he knows they can’t bring themselves to “fire” him, he voluntarily resigns.

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