Volume LXII of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi covers the period from October 1, 1935 to May 31, 1936. Gandhi was 66 during this time.
In this volume Gandhi remains largely out of the political scene. He still offers his opinion or advice to those who seek it (for instance, urging—successfully—Jawaharlal Nehru, who has just recently been released from prison, to accept the presidency of the Indian National Congress), but he does not think the time is right—or more specifically does not think the people of India are ready—for any kind of mass nonviolent political action such as he has led in the past.
Instead his focus remains on his recently-formed All India Village Industries Association (AIVIA), which involves he and his workers relocating to villages to live amongst the poor and seek to improve their lives, mostly by their example (of using the spinning wheel to be self-sufficient in clothing and possibly make a small additional income, practicing proper sanitation habits—a huge problem in India—limiting themselves to a simple but healthy diet that would be affordable even for most poor people, etc.).
The selections in this volume consist mostly of his personal correspondence and second most of his articles in his current periodical Harijan. I’ll mention a few points that I noted as I read.
There are indications that the village work isn’t going well, that he and his fellow workers have not succeeded in fitting into the flow of villagers’ lives and doing them any good. But he is undiscouraged and sees it as a long term project.
Gandhi commonly says things that show he is not a religious fundamentalist who thinks that all the most important truths were revealed long ago and our duty is simply to believe them. “The interpretation of accepted texts has undergone evolution, and is capable of indefinite evolution, even as the human intellect and heart are.”
Gandhi holds that even if the market constitutes what people’s unfettered behavior in pursuit of self-interest would be, that doesn’t make it right, because that kind of behavior is morally wrong. So when he’s told that his insistence on a minimum wage for spinners and other village workers is inappropriate because the market decrees that they be paid less, he is unfazed: “The law of supply and demand is not a human law, it is a devilish law.”
A fair amount of what he comments on has to do directly or indirectly with sex, and he continues to take a predictably anti-sex stance. (In general, he is against pleasures that distract us, increase our attachments, and lessen our abilities to devote ourselves single-mindedly to lives of moral service to others. Sex is the quintessential such temptation.)
Reproduced in this volume is a personal interview he had with Margaret Sanger, the great birth control advocate. Naturally he is anti-birth control, on the grounds that it will make people even more likely to indulge in recreational sex if you eliminate one of the consequences they prefer to avoid. She brings up the problem of husbands forcing sex on their wives who already have more children than they can support—marital rape basically. Gandhi responds that there’s no way to make birth control available for only limited segments of the population like that, that if you allow it at all then soon enough it’ll be commonly used by undisciplined young people in the cities especially. Furthermore, he says, much of male dominance in marriage is bluff. Women, in fact, tend to be the stronger partner, and when they are willing to stand up to an abusive husband rather than give in because they think they have no choice, they soon find out that such men usually back down.
Certainly I think Sanger has the better of their exchange. What I find interesting, though, is how respectful they are toward each other. The way Gandhi somehow talks about birth control and such as if it were as bad as any sin, you’d think he would regard her as a highly dangerous person advocating evil.
But I’ve said before that whatever he might say I don’t think Gandhi truly opposes some of these sexual or pleasure-based “sins” the way he does out-and-out violence. His attitude toward Sanger and her opinions is consistent with this. I would paraphrase his attitude as something like: “I believe Sanger is misguided in some of her specific beliefs—though I could be wrong—but for the most part she is a well-intentioned person doing a lot of good in the world and I respect her.”
A certain passage in the Hindu scriptures on the topic of brahmacharya (roughly, celibacy) is brought to his attention, and after reflecting on it he announces a change in his views.
Not that it’s any huge change. But I believe his position before was that ideally you shouldn’t have sex at all. It was still acceptable to get married so you’ll have a life partner, but the best married life was where the spouses treat each other like brother and sister and there is no sex. Having sex within marriage purely for procreation and not enjoyment was next best, but still not as good as refraining from sex entirely.
Now his position evidently is that having sex within marriage for procreation and not enjoyment isn’t just less bad than other sex but is equal to celibacy. So it’s OK to do the minimum necessary to keep the species going as long as you don’t like it.
Still on the same broad topic of sex, Gandhi makes a vague reference to having involuntarily violated his vow of brahmacharya while ill, and he is clearly very troubled by it.
Some clarification is offered later in a letter to Premabehn Kantak, a friend and one of the people who lived with him in his ashram. He tells her that he’s always had occasional nocturnal emissions while asleep, but that this was different. Again he’s not real explicit about it, but evidently he had an erection while awake and while having sexual thoughts of some kind, something he hadn’t experienced in decades as he had gradually converted himself to an almost completely sexless being.
Gandhi experiences some significant health issues in the period covered by this volume. There are hints that he is weak, that something is not right with him, and then he collapses from exhaustion. He is diagnosed with dangerously high blood pressure, and there follows a long period where he pretty much shuts down his activities to recuperate and regain his strength.
One consequence of this is that he is unable to follow through with his plan to leave most or all of his “entourage” behind and go live in a village alone to carry out his work.
This is a kind of fantasy he’s had for a while, and from what I understand continued to have—and at times partly lived out—later in life as well, this idea of leaving behind as much as possible of his responsibilities as a public figure, greatly simplifying his life, and disappearing into rural India on his own to serve the people.
On this occasion, since his health does not allow him to follow through on his plan, he sends Mirabehn in his stead. She seems like a little less of a ditz by now than in some of the earlier volumes; certainly there are few other of his followers who would be willing to live alone in poverty amongst strangers in some obscure Indian village. And he seems to think quite highly of her.
On the other hand, reading between the lines of his letters to her, it’s clear she still has a great deal of difficulty functioning when she is physically separated from him. She has always been like a lover who just can’t bear to be apart from her sweetheart.
But returning to the matter of his health, he seems more conscious now of aging and health issues than in the past. I’m used to him being very upbeat about such matters, insisting that he will live well past a hundred because of how well he takes care of himself. (I’d say this care consists of 50% positive thinking and its placebo benefits, 30% nature cures and dietary theories and such that may or may not have any medical validity, 10% alternative medicine stuff that more clearly lacks medical validity, and 10% genuine evidence-based practices that do have, or very likely have, medical validity.) But now, he writes things like “I am old and close to death” (that particular statement referring to his faltering memory, as he has difficulty recalling something he is asked about that he evidently said in the past).
Maybe his consciousness of his own mortality is a factor in why the death of his friend and political colleague Dr. M.A. Ansari seems to hit him so hard. Usually he is better able to take death in stride. Any time a prominent Indian that he has worked with dies, he issues a public statement about how extraordinarily pure and conscientious he was, how hard a worker he was, how committed he was to Hindu-Muslim unity, how he carried no trace of untouchability in his heart, etc.—Gandhi’s commitment to truth apparently was consistent with the most exaggerated and one-sided praise of the dead—and he assures the family and anyone in the dead person’s life that death should never be an occasion for sadness as it is just the passing from one phase of existence to another, and then he moves on. But from several remarks he makes in his correspondence about the death of Dr. Ansari, one can infer that it genuinely upset him.
Whenever I sense something emotional like that in him I think of how to most people that would surely make him seem more human and more appealing, whereas to him it is a form of weakness that he needs to overcome.
I could see it either way. On an instinctive level I’m with those who react favorably to seeing this more human side of him. But intellectually I think there’s something to be said for the stoic ideal of non-attachment that he cultivates in himself.
Maybe the key is to still have the feelings of connection with others, but to be strong enough that they do not adversely alter your behavior.
Speaking of connections, as I read through these volumes I’m struck by the warmth he shows toward Nehru in his correspondence with and about him. He’s friendly toward pretty much everyone, but often there tends to be a kind of formality to it, whereas with Nehru you sense a deep fondness, not to mention a strong respect for him and his judgment even when they disagree (which is not infrequent). “Though the gulf between us as to the outlook upon life has undoubtedly widened, we have never been so near each other in hearts as we perhaps are today.”
One other tidbit from this volume that I found quite interesting is an indication of his willingness to take people as they are.
Consider his remarks in response to a question about what is and is not proper for one of his village uplift workers going to live in a village and opening a store:
If I go to the villages and find that the people cannot do without tobacco and bidis [a type of cigarette], I would sell these, too, even though I consider tobacco worse than alcohol. A habit that has been entrenched for thousands of years [sic: wasn’t it hundreds at most?] cannot go in a day. My work has not been directed towards making people give up smoking. Ideal is one thing, practice is another and what other people can do is yet another.
He is next asked, “Then would you sell liquor also?” and he draws a distinction between harmful things people want to do versus harmful things they do not want to do but sometimes succumb to from weakness or addiction:
No I would not sell liquor. I would not give them something which they hate and which even the drink addicts consider evil. But if I went to England and found that I could not rid people of this habit, I would sell liquor. And if there are people who eat meat or fish and want them clean, I would supply these, too, with my own hands. Let my words not be taken literally and misinterpreted. I shall certainly try to make people give up things which are considered bad. But I would give them those things till I could persuade them to give them up and continue with my work.
Late in the time period covered by this volume Gandhi’s oldest son Harilal announces that he has converted to Islam. No doubt we will learn more about that, and Gandhi’s reaction, in the next volume.