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

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

The fifty-ninth volume of the massive Collected Works covers all that has been preserved of Gandhi’s writings and speeches from September to December 1934. During this time he turns 65.

The previous volume ended with Gandhi’s decision to resign from the Indian National Congress. There is more on his reasons in this volume.

Gandhi believes that too few Congress members are truly committed to nonviolence as a principle or creed the way he is. Instead, if they turn to it at all it is for pragmatic reasons; they think in certain circumstances it may work, just as in other circumstances violence may work. (Much like, say, Nelson Mandela from a later generation.)

But to Gandhi, that’s self-defeating. Paradoxically perhaps, to use nonviolence out of motives of pragmatics makes it less effective. People who are always striving to embody nonviolence in the purest form of thought, word, and deed regardless of consequences, will incidentally bring about the best consequences. The impure form of nonviolence has only resulted in the government becoming ever more oppressive and in the rebels or terrorists who are more frank in their refusal to disavow violence engaging in greater violence than ever. Only pure love and nonviolence can convert such people, but Congress is not committed to that.

Even prior to this decision he had already announced that he would endorse no civil disobedience by anyone other than himself until further notice, and that he had no immediate plans to engage in any himself. In his eyes, events had shown that his countrymen had not developed far enough in the direction of loving their enemies and believing in nonviolence as a principle to have earned the right to selectively disobey the law.

As I read, I made note of several quotations from this volume that nicely express what was on his mind and in his heart at this point of his life, and where he saw Congress and the country:

“But when I find some of my best companions, who have believed in truthfulness and non-violence with all its implications, are filled with doubt and feeling of helplessness, when I find that I am not able to touch them with my faith, I see all around me an impenetrable darkness. I see no ray of light. I see I cannot infect them with the faith that is in me.”

“Civil Disobedience cannot be taken up until there is the atmosphere for it…And if you prove that you are non-violent, then whether I am on Mount Everest or have gone down to the bowels of the earth, I shall appear and lead you to your goal and we shall march in perfect safety.”

“If violence breaks out after my death, you may conclude that my ahimsa was very imperfect or was not real at all—but not that the principle of ahimsa was wrong. Or it may also be that we shall have to cross the river of blood in which the wicked suffer for their sins before we reach the goal of ahimsa.”

Congress, under his guidance as he’s on the way out, creates the All-India Village Industries Association, which he will devote himself to for the foreseeable future. (So in that sense he hasn’t fully left the Congress. He won’t participate in the organization’s political activity, but he’ll be working with an entity affiliated with it.)

Of course this isn’t something new for Gandhi. The “Constructive Program” has been a part of his movement for decades, and assisting rural Indians (which is the overwhelming majority of Indians) in finding productive and remunerative activities for the months they’re not farming has been a key part of the Constructive Program. It’s just that different things receive the most emphasis in different periods of his career. Now it’s the uplifting of villages. At other times it’s Hindu-Muslim unity, abolition of Untouchability, or the independence movement against the British.

He hasn’t lost his zeal for homespun cloth, or khadi, and remains convinced that it is the most promising way for villagers to avoid extreme poverty. But it sounds like it has been largely a flop. He would say that’s because people aren’t committing themselves to it and giving it a chance; others would say that that’s just it, people aren’t going to spin every day themselves in order to set an example for the poor, and they aren’t going to buy inferior cloth to be charitable, so better ways must be found to alleviate poverty.

Gandhi believes he is on the verge of being sent back to jail. He isn’t currently breaking the law, but perhaps he foresees imprisonment because he is considering defying the government’s express wishes that he not travel to the Northwest Province. (His purpose in wanting to go there is to see if the Pathan people have truly embraced nonviolence under Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s leadership as reported. Ghaffar Khan, nicknamed the “Frontier Gandhi,” was an extraordinary fellow who inspired the warlike Pathan Muslims to be among the most committed and effective Gandhian nonviolent warriors in British India.)

Ghaffar Khan is arrested in this volume while visiting with Gandhi, but Gandhi himself is not arrested.

Much of this volume, as is true of many of them, consists of Gandhi’s correspondence, at least the letters from him, not the letters to him. I’ll mention a few things that caught my eye in these letters.

There are letters to two well-known figures outside of India—Dietrich Bonhoeffer (German theologian and anti-Nazi who was later executed for participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler) and muckraking American journalist and political activist Upton Sinclair. Both letters are supportive and encouraging.

Gandhi’s oldest son Harilal, the black sheep of the family, claims that he has turned over a new leaf and seeks his father’s guidance and assistance in living a better life from here on out. Gandhi is accepting but wary. He tells Harilal that his words are nice, but that he’ll be judged by his actions. He warns him that if he backslides, Gandhi will fast for at least seven days.

I speculated in writing about earlier volumes that perhaps Gandhi’s wife Kasturba was illiterate, but concluded that that was probably not the case since there were things he wrote that seemed to imply otherwise. Now I’m back to thinking she probably is illiterate. There’s a letter to her in this volume where he mentions an article he has enclosed with the letter, telling her to have someone read it to her. So presumably someone is also reading his letters themselves to her because she cannot read them herself. Unless maybe the article is written in a different language that she cannot read. So I’m still not sure.

Finally, this letter from Gandhi to a man in Palestine, which I quote in its entirety, gives an indication of the strange kind of letters Gandhi sometimes receives: “I have your letter. India is a very big place and unless I have much fuller particulars about your father than you have given it is impossible to trace him.”

So evidently this guy wrote a letter to Gandhi of all people saying something like, “I believe my father, whose name is so-and-so, is in India. Could you find him for me and put me in touch with him.” What did he imagine, that Gandhi is going to ask around for him? (“Hey, any of you guys know a so-and-so? Palestinian fellow? His son’s looking for him.”)

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