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

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

The sixty-first volume of the Collected Works covers April 25 to September 30, 1935. Gandhi was out of prison at the time, but having suspended civil disobedience awhile back he had almost no direct involvement in politics during this period. Instead he is working full time on his Constructive Program to uplift India’s poor, especially the rural poor of India’s villages (which was the vast majority of its population) through his All India Village Industries Association.

Well over 90% of the hundreds of selections in this volume are personal letters written or dictated by Gandhi. The letters are even more often on mundane personal matters than in most of the volumes in this series.

Gandhi didn’t see his constructive work in the villages as being a secondary thing to do when he was taking a break from politics. He insisted it had always taken precedence. “Let me tell you that ever since I learnt the word ‘swaraj’ [self-rule, i.e., Indian independence], I have been interesting myself in work of this kind. Ever since 1893 when my public life began my principal interest has been this kind of constructive work. The fight with the government came at a very late stage in life. But it may be said to be an edifice built on the sure foundation of solid constructive work done through several years.”

Here and there Gandhi addresses economic matters in his letters, so we get a sense of where his economic philosophy was at this point.

He is not a believer in the notion that whatever happens as a result of the workings of the “free” market is thereby good and not to be tampered with. (I put the word “free” in quotation marks, because even the purest capitalism rests on certain theories of property and such that ultimately rest on coercion, and so are no more “free” or “natural” than any other human arrangement requiring coercion.) If it turns out that some people have to pay a little higher prices or what have you in order for the millions in the villages to not starve, then so be it, regardless of whether that is inconsistent with some abstract version of capitalism.

In his view, everyone is morally obligated to do enough labor to support themselves. And this is physical labor only. Intellectual labor—working as a doctor, a lawyer, a professor, etc.—should, like leisure activities, be done in the remaining available time on a voluntary, unpaid basis. (Don’t worry, though, if everyone were really doing their fair share, and they weren’t being exploited and underpaid so that non-workers could skim off the profits, the amount of physical labor each person would need to do would be considerably less than most of us probably would expect.)

The emphasis should be on manufacturing most items locally—making as much as possible in the same village in which it will be used. Thus industries will typically be small and very decentralized.

He recognizes, though, that there will of necessity be exceptions to this—industries that for practical reasons need to be larger and nationwide. These exceptions should be operated by the state. So in that sense, Gandhi is more of a socialist than a capitalist.

But that doesn’t mean that he looks very favorably on the supposedly socialist Soviet Union (though many in the Indian independence movement, and around the world, did back then). “There is great risk in taking Russia as a model to be emulated. For one thing, we have no direct knowledge; secondly, the experiment has not yet lasted long enough; and thirdly, they rely on violence for what they are doing. We should, therefore, leave out Russia when thinking about our problems.”

Will he be returning to the political arena any time soon? It doesn’t sound like it. He’s hesitant about resuming any sort of leadership role in the struggle for independence until he’s convinced Indians have grasped his message and truly embraced nonviolence as a matter of principle, which he certainly is not currently convinced of. “Those Indians who believe in non-violence [must be] able to testify that politically conscious India has no hatred for Englishmen, but that it has nothing but goodwill towards them, if not active love. [We] cannot bear that message today.”

He opposes cinema, stating that he has zero interest in it even after some people urge him to take a look at it to see its potential as an educational tool.

This to me is one of the least appealing aspects of Gandhi’s approach to life. He has a kneejerk reaction against anything “fun,” as he sees it as a distraction from living a moral life of service.

I think enjoyment has at least some independent value on its own, not to mention in some forms, in some contexts, enjoyment can boost your mood and your energy and give you a more positive attitude so as to facilitate rather than hinder acting in a loving and constructive way toward others.

So if all movies were intended solely to entertain people, make them laugh, make them feel good—if they were all “frivolous” like that, like he tends to dismiss them as—I think you could still make a decent case for them, in moderation. But they’re not. As was pointed out to him, they can be educational. And not just “educational” in the sense of some dry documentary film you might see in 5th grade, but educational about life, about the human condition, about war or poverty or any deep or important subject, the way great literature and great art can be educational.

In what I’m sure would be a surprise to many people, Gandhi has some favorable things to say about nudism.

A related topic comes up later in the volume, that is particularly intriguing if you know that later in his life he will reverse himself, or at least change his mind about how to apply his beliefs to his own life.

He has for a time been engaging in the practice of resting his hands on the shoulders of two assistants for support if he is fatigued or weak due to some medical condition when going for his walks. Often these are young women or girls, whom he affectionately refers to as his “walking sticks.”

Some people complain to him about this, saying that regardless of how pure his intentions are, he has to remember that he is a role model and that as such it isn’t just impropriety that is to be avoided, but the appearance of impropriety. He decides that this is a convincing point, and announces that he is giving up the practice. “Whenever respecting popular sentiments does not involve violation of moral principles or loss of self-respect, they should be respected even at some cost to oneself. For instance, if it was not for popular sentiments, I would most probably wear no clothes. I would see for myself in such practice many moral benefits besides benefit to my health. It would strengthen my self-control. But out of respect for popular sentiments I refrain from taking this very desirable step.”

However, years later, as no doubt we’ll discover in later volumes, he not only goes back to using his human “walking sticks” but initiates the enormously more controversial practice of testing his self-discipline and commitment to celibacy by sleeping in the same bed as female teenage relatives.

In terms of human interest—or I suppose the titillation of superficial gossip—one of the more engaging topics that comes up in this volume is the continuing saga of Harilal Gandhi, the black sheep of the family and Gandhi’s oldest child.

Due to the format of the Collected Works, we only get glimpses of Harilal’s deterioration, since with rare exceptions it’s only things Gandhi writes rather than things written to Gandhi that are included. Plus we get only a small fraction of even that one-way communication from Gandhi to Harilal (or from Gandhi to others about Harilal), since much of it was spoken instead of written, and since most of the letters did not survive (plus it’s possible that some that did survive are not included, due to issues of privacy or whatever).

But in various letters, Gandhi comments that Harilal has “Gone off the rails,” that “Harilal is throwing off all self-restraint,” and that “I had a letter from Harilal yesterday. I could understand nothing in it.”

To Narandas Gandhi, Gandhi’s nephew who had run his ashram for him and handled various other administrative tasks during Gandhi’s career, he writes:

This question has become one of very great importance to me, as you will see from my letters to him. Still, even after reading all these letters, you are free to form your own impression of Harilal and act accordingly. If you have to feed him, you may give him any work to do which involves no risk. But this does not mean that you are bound to maintain relations with him or give him work. The bond of blood-relationship also has its limits. It shouldn’t make us violate moral principles. Harilal cannot have greater claims on you than a stranger placed in similar circumstances. We should rather be more generous towards a stranger and more miserly towards Harilal. That is, the more intimate the blood-relationship, the stricter should our attitude be. Only thus can we do pure justice.

To his second oldest son Manilal, Harilal’s brother, who is currently living in South Africa with his wife Sushila, he writes: “Harilal spends the whole day immersed in a tub of liquor, so to say. All our hopes about his having been reformed are falsified. He is now worse than he was. But one keeps on hoping as long as one breathes. Accordingly, let us hope that, if he lives, some day he will reform himself.”

Finally, in another letter to Manilal and Sushila, this time on the topic of how to raise their daughter, there is another reminder of Gandhi’s not desiring blind obedience, but of wanting people to judge his opinions—or anyone’s opinions—on their merits and to do what they themselves conclude is right: “But I attach no value to my views before yours. After all it is you who have to shape her future. You know best your difficulties and aspirations. It would be proper, therefore, that you should do what you yourselves desire after taking my views into consideration and attaching to them whatever importance you may feel inclined to.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s