The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi: Volume LX, by Mohandas Gandhi

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

The 60th of the volumes of The Collected Works that reproduce all that survives of what Gandhi said or wrote in his life covers December 16, 1934 to April 24, 1935.

In terms of the flashy stuff that people would mostly come to such a collection to learn more about—the nonviolent civil disobedience struggles, the high stakes negotiations with the British, Muslims, and others, the death-defying fasts, the trials and imprisonments, the interactions with other world-famous figures, etc.—this is one of the deadest volumes. That’s not to knock it or discourage people from reading it; this just happens to have been a period when Gandhi wasn’t doing a lot of headline-generating things.

During this period, Gandhi is trying to get his All India Village Industries Association (AIVIA) off the ground. Of course the uplift of poor people, rural people, Untouchables, etc. has been a focus of his for decades, but this particular organization, with its mission of improving the lives of the greater than 90% of Indians who live in the country’s villages (as opposed to the less than 10% of Indians who normally receive virtually all the attention—the educated, English-speaking, city dweller types), has just come into being.

So this is one of the periods of his life when Gandhi has almost entirely stepped away from overtly political activities. (I qualify it like that, since as he and others recognize, everything has direct or indirect political consequences. To render life for the Indian masses less economically disastrous, and to instill in them a greater capacity for self-confidence and self-sufficiency, can’t help but alter such things as how politically aware and active they will be, when independence from Britain will come and in what form, etc., all of which the British themselves certainly recognize, as they are suspicious and antagonistic toward Gandhi’s village uplift efforts and seek to sabotage them.) But unlike now, during some such periods he was still kind of hovering along the edge of politics, being frantically urged by others to resume a leadership role and pursue this or that policy, and going through intense and painful self-examination and self-doubt, sometimes accompanied by fasting, to ascertain if stepping away really was the right thing to do.

During the current period, he seems much more sure of the path he has chosen, throwing himself into his work for the poor, villagers, and Untouchables with great relish and determination.

The overwhelming majority of the several hundred items in this volume are letters and telegrams he wrote, mostly about the AIVIA and related matters, though there is also a fair number that address personal matters concerning the correspondents’ health issues, family drama, and other travails. The second most common item are articles he writes for his current periodical Harijan, and then there are a smattering of public speeches and such, again with almost all these having to do with his village uplift efforts.

Always he seeks to provide opportunity and encouragement for villagers to be productive and earn their way out of poverty during the months when they are not occupied with agricultural work. Mostly this means the spinning wheel, augmented by various other occupations and crafts.

In addition to economic uplift there is also considerable emphasis on matters of health. (As he points out, all the issues the AIVIA deals with are related.) This includes increasing the villagers’ access to doctors and medicine, but really that’s a very small part of it. Gandhi is convinced that far more health benefits can be obtained through public sanitation, nutritional education, and other forms of prevention.

In other words, getting people to stop shitting at random wherever they happen to be and then refusing to clean it up on the grounds that such work is beneath them will do a lot more good than will bringing in folks to hand out 20th century medicines as charity to those who are already ill.

As far as nutrition, Gandhi is convinced—and a lot of this is consistent with what many people have insisted in more recent decades, and I would say on the whole with mainstream medicine for that matter—that processing certain foods greatly reduces their nutritional value. He emphasizes especially how rice should not be polished into white rice, how genuine whole wheat is vastly superior to the processed flour that they had by then already become used to, and how people would be much better off replacing refined white sugar with gur (a less processed sugar that I think is the same or similar to what is now more commonly called jaggery in that part of the world).

So a lot of this volume consists of Gandhi lecturing people about what they eat and what they excrete.

As I read, I noted a few things I wanted to comment on, but certainly a lot fewer than for most of these volumes.

At one point he makes an interesting but to me not entirely clear distinction between a compromise (bad, at least if we’re talking about matters of principle) and a realization and acknowledgement of your own imperfections (good).

It comes up in the context of a question about whether after it gains its independence India will have an army. His response is that it’s highly likely it will, because their nonviolence is imperfect. It would be better if their nonviolence were sufficiently pure that they would not have an army, and it’s not completely impossible that that will happen since the future cannot be predicted with certainty, but realistically it’s a much better bet to anticipate that independent India will have an army just like any other country.

So I guess the idea is it’s fine to realistically assess the likelihood of falling short of an ideal while still acknowledging that doing so is wrong, but it would be objectionable to rationalize falling short of an ideal as somehow justified under the circumstances. So: Bad = “This is a dangerous, imperfect world, and as long as it is we’re justified in having an army, regardless of how nonviolence would be better in principle if everybody practiced it,” and Good = “We’re too weak to go without an army in such a dangerous, imperfect world, so it’s predictable we’ll have one, but we’re wrong to, and we’re obligated to continue to try to improve our courage and commitment to nonviolence until we are indeed willing to go without one.”

At least that might be what he means. As I say, it’s not at all clear to me what he’s getting at with the distinction he draws, so I’m mostly speculating.

Gandhi’s views on birth control are predictably unfortunate. I can sort of see how his position follows from his philosophy of nonviolence, but it’s a strain. I still contend that his views on all these sex-related matters are about 20% justified by an ideal of nonviolence and 80% the usual creepy, judgmental discomfort that hard core religious folks routinely feel about sex.

At one point in his correspondence he is challenged from something of a feminist position, by someone who defends birth control as protection of married women whose husbands force themselves on them sexually and force them to bear more and more children whether they wish to or not, to their physical, mental, and financial detriment.

Gandhi’s response is that this greatly underestimates the power of women and makes them out to be helpless when in conflict with men. In fact, he says, women tend to have the upper hand in most marriages, and so they should be encouraged to say no and mean it, and not assume that saying no will be ineffectual.

He doesn’t go into it in much detail beyond that, but I suppose he would say further that in the minority of cases where actual physical coercion is used—i.e., where the woman saying no is raped—this should be addressed directly by the moral and criminal law like any form of unjust violence rather than addressed indirectly by preventing one of the consequences.

To him such cases are very much the exception, and it’s far more common that the motive for using birth control will be to facilitate having recreational sex. I’d say he’s almost certainly right about that, but since I’m not as ascetic as he when it comes to recreational sex (or enjoying food or any other of the bodily pleasures he opposes), I’m OK with that motive.

One of his correspondents challenges him on the notion of non-attachment, wondering why someone whose goal is to be indifferent to his own pleasure or pain, freedom or imprisonment, health or illness, and even life or death should spend his life trying to improve the lot of other people. Shouldn’t one be unattached to their ups and downs and accept their suffering just as one is to accept one’s own?

His response is that the key is indeed to treat what happens to others the same as what happens to oneself, but that this does not mean ceasing to serve them or improve their lives:

Our attitude towards other people should be the same as towards ourselves. Though we may remain unattached to things concerning ourselves, we shall certainly feel cold and heat and try to relieve cold with heat and heat with cold. If we don’t succeed, however, we shall not sit down and start crying. That is non-attachment. Our attitude to others shivering with cold should be the same. We must try to relieve their suffering. Seeing them shivering, we will give them or share with them what we have. If they still continue to shiver, we will suffer with them but will not lose our patience and resort to violence or untruth. That will be non-attachment on our part.

Kind of related to this, in this volume he has multiple interesting encounters with a former inmate of one of his ashrams who has gone on to become an extreme ascetic, and who treats it as kind of a corollary of that that one should withdraw from the world entirely and be as indifferent as possible not only to one’s own lot but to that of others. Unlike Gandhi, who spends every waking moment trying to serve others in some capacity or other to the best of his ability, this man is more like a hermit from a fairy tale or something, a true extremist who doesn’t lift a finger to bring comfort to others just as he doesn’t seek it for himself.

Their mutual fondness is obvious, and Gandhi is clearly tickled by the man and impressed by the extent to which he has achieved non-attachment. Still, he lovingly explains to him why he believes he is mistaken to have ceased all efforts to serve others. The man is not at all resentful of this and indeed welcomes Gandhi’s efforts to persuade him of the error of his ways, but after thinking about it he returns to say that whether he can properly defend it or not he feels he must continue on his present path.

One gets the impression that this is less about the merits of that path than about how hard it would be to acknowledge that it was the wrong path all along after decades of almost superhuman efforts—largely successful—to advance upon that path. They part on good terms, with the man promising to continue to reflect on all that Gandhi has said.

Finally, I thought this quote in Gandhi’s letter to British friend Carl Heath nicely stated his philosophy, and where he is at this point in his life:

I want, in my voluntary isolation, to explore the yet hidden possibilities of non-violence. Every action I am taking, no matter in what department of life, is being taken with that end in view. The only axe that I have to grind on this earth is to try to understand the ultimate truth of things which, at present, I seem to see only dimly. And after a laborious search I have come to the conclusion that if I am to see it in any fullness I can only do so by non-violence in thought, word and deed. What this search will lead me to, I really do not know myself, nor have I the slightest desire to see it before its time. For me, therefore, it is an incessant waiting upon God to show me the next step, and I shall be grateful if any of you friends can, with your full hearts, help me in that search.

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