The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi is the extraordinary project that brings together in one place everything Gandhi said or wrote in his entire life of which any record survives. (With a few exceptions. The volumes themselves identify certain omissions—usually the names of people who are referenced in some disparaging or potentially embarrassing way in personal letters and such—and I’ve read elsewhere that at least a very small amount of other available material was omitted, I suspect because it would put Gandhi in an unfavorable light or generate some kind of controversy.)
Volume LXIII covers the period from June 1, 1936 to November 2, 1936. During this time, Gandhi remains retired from directly political work, and instead is devoting himself full time to his village uplift work.
Actually, though, he finds a great deal of his time is taken up with other matters. He has much correspondence to get through every day, as well as a steady stream of visitors seeking some sort of help or guidance from him.
The way he envisions his village work, he and his cohorts are supposed to settle in a village and gradually get to know the villagers, to win their trust, and to come to understand their lives and needs better, and so to be better able to influence them in a positive direction. They are to support themselves at the most frugal level by engaging in the kind of labor that would be available to common villagers, and when they are not working for pay in this manner they are to devote themselves to beneficial volunteer work in the village, such as scavenger work to show through their example how to live in a cleaner, healthier manner.
But it appears he—and they—are doing precious little of this, because there are so many other demands on his time. He stepped away from a more public career precisely in order to better be able to devote himself to work such as this, but you sense that it’s not working out at all like he’d hoped.
For he’s really too “big” to ever truly remove himself from public life. Whether he likes it or not, his career is being a “mahatma,” someone whom people want to be around to experience darshan (the spiritual uplift achieved by being in the presence of something holy), someone whom people expect to solve their problems for them and give them the answers they seek in Dear Abby fashion.
The older he got, the more he seemed to go through periods where this bothered him more, periods where he craved to escape from the expectations that people put upon him and to instead live a life of humble, quiet, anonymous service. This is one such period.
I have no heart in this correspondence, no zest in it. I am actually tired of it and feel like asking people not to write to me at all. I long to wander among the villages around us…I have two or three engagements which I accepted long ago and I shall have to keep them, though I would love to find some excuse to put them off or avoid them. I would love to walk out every morning to the villages in our neighbourhood. I am doing practically little physical work now, and I am longing to do it.
One of the themes of this volume is religious conversion. Gandhi’s position is that as a rule of thumb there is no reason for it. All religions, he believes, are flawed but have some truth to them, and the thing to do is to stick with what you know and to keep trying to better understand and interpret it and to live up to its ideals. If there are disagreeable elements to it, then you can basically disregard them—he’s decidedly not a fundamentalist—and work out your own version of your faith. But there’s no point in throwing it aside and starting over with a different religion, as that will also be imperfect and only partially true.
Still, if you don’t see things this way, and you sincerely believe that another religion has more meaning for you and better speaks to your heart, he does not oppose all religious conversions.
But his observation is that religious conversion is more often undertaken for less justifiable reasons. In this and the preceding volume he addresses multiple such conversions in his correspondence, and occasionally in articles in his newspaper.
One is the conversion of his black sheep eldest son Harilal to Islam, which took place earlier but which he comments on further in this volume. As Gandhi sees it, Harilal is a drunk who frequents houses of ill repute and owes heavily to Pathan moneylenders. He infers that as a public relations maneuver, some Muslims likely paid Harilal a significant sum of money to announce he was converting to Islam. Getting the son of a mahatma to renounce his religion and switch to yours could be seen as quite the coup.
Gandhi’s position is that even if you don’t share his beliefs about the general inappropriateness of religious conversion, you still should recognize that when, as in this case, it is done with a motive of financial gain probably mixed with a desire for attention, it does not warrant approval.
Beyond that, there’s the issue of Christian missionaries using all their powers of persuasion, and in some cases material inducements, to get Hindus to convert to Christianity, a practice that Gandhi finds insulting to Hindus and Christianity both.
He also addresses the recent announcement by Untouchable leader Dr. Ambedkar that he was calling on Untouchables to convert away from Hinduism, both for the material and political benefits of being accepted as an equal in another religion, and as a matter of self-respect in rejecting the life of a second class citizen imposed on them by Hinduism (despite the best efforts of Gandhi, et al, to change this). Some Muslims immediately sought to exploit this to gain a massive number of new converts.
Gandhi is appalled by this, citing as an example of how distasteful it had all become a pamphlet distributed amongst the Untouchables by Muslims telling them how if they convert to Islam, they’ll live a life of dining with Muslim princes as equals and such.
He contends that the way for Untouchables to stand up for themselves and safeguard their dignity is not to abandon their faith, but to demand equality within Hinduism, and to be the best Hindus they can be themselves regardless of how others are violating Hinduism by oppressing them.
Gandhi manifests considerable interest in what he calls “snake lore” in this volume. As a proponent of nonviolence, he is bothered by the hatred people exhibit toward snakes and their willingness to kill them, even though only a small percentage are poisonous and thus even potentially dangerous. He admits, though, that he himself developed a fear of snakes when he was younger, and that there are times he’s willing to accept as a necessary evil the killing of harmful creatures such as poisonous snakes, plague-carrying rats, etc.
But he wants to educate people—and himself—about snakes so as to at least minimize the violence directed toward them. He displays live and dead snakes to the villagers, explaining how to tell the poisonous from the non-poisonous ones. He writes articles on “snake lore” in his Harijan newspaper.
Gandhi addresses certain issues of moral philosophy in this volume, including the matter of moral compromises and necessary evils, which is relevant to this issue of whether we are justified in protecting ourselves by killing poisonous snakes and the like.
I’m not a hundred percent clear on what his position is, or just where he draws certain lines. But as best I can interpret it, I’d paraphrase it as something like this: In principle it is possible to adhere to pure nonviolence and not compromise at all. But that takes a strength of character and level of moral enlightenment that no one is likely to ever achieve. The closer you get to that ideal, the less you need to compromise and indulge in violence.
So as imperfect beings, we will have to choose our battles and make little compromises on various things as we go through life. But it’s not correct to say that those compromises are right or justified, only that out of weakness you made the least bad choice you could, and you are always striving to strengthen yourself so that in the future you can instead do what’s right.
He provides examples to illustrate his point. He admits that on occasion he has used an item given to him as a gift so as not to hurt the giver’s feelings, when he should have refused the gift (like if it were foreign-made and there are indigenous Indian alternatives). Again, though, the distinction he makes is that this is not a case where sparing someone’s feelings is more valuable than frankly telling them why their gift cannot be accepted, but a case where out of weakness he chose the less valuable option because he wasn’t willing to pay the cost of hurting someone’s feelings, even though he should have.
But then he contrasts this with matters of principle, which do not permit of compromises like this. This is confusing to me since I would have thought something like using locally produced Indian items instead of imports is a matter of principle for him. But maybe there are different levels of importance of principles?
He says that when he found out that the village barber used a razor that was not manufactured in the village, he should have refused his services and explained why, but he decided not to take a stand on this issue. So by his philosophy, this is an unjustified compromise that someone more advanced than him could have avoided, but an understandable one for an imperfect being like himself. Whereas when he found out that the village barber would not service Untouchables, he did take a stand and refuse his services, as this was a matter of (a more important?) principle, and indeed for such a matter of principle one must even be willing to die.
His position seems to be that as an imperfect being it’s to be expected that you will be inappropriately swayed from morally ideal behavior at times by something like a concern you’ll be insulting the barber by refusing to let him service you until he gets a blade made locally in the village, but it’s not to be expected that you will opt to preserve your life rather than boycott someone who is disrespecting Untouchables. Both are unjustified, but there’s some sense in which the former is excusable maybe (I’m not sure if that’s the right word to use to capture his position) and the latter is not.
I still don’t quite get it.
Still roughly on the topic of moral ideals and compromises, although Gandhi is a strict vegetarian and would not eat meat even if he had to in order to preserve his health and stay alive, he believes that most people have not advanced to where they have fully understood and embraced the principle of vegetarianism, and that therefore for them this is one of those occasions where they should compromise and do what is medically best.
In his correspondence with someone facing this dilemma, it doesn’t sound like he means, “Your obligation is to not eat meat regardless of the consequences, and I hope that is what you’ll do. But due to your imperfections and weaknesses you’ll likely make an exception here. Just try to keep progressing morally so that in the future you can instead make the correct choice.” It sounds instead like he’s saying a compromise of the vegetarian principle would be justified here. Here’s what he says:
Surely you won’t refuse to take meat as medicine. You have not developed that independent conscience. Let the evolution be slow and steady. If I religiously avoid meat even as medicine, it has been a life-long sadhana [a practice requiring self-discipline that fosters spiritual growth] independently and deliberately undertaken.
I mean, I guess at some level I get the gist of what he’s saying, that you do the best you can at any given time, understanding that you still no doubt will fall short of moral perfection, and then you just keep trying to do better. But I don’t think he’s really worked out exactly what that means and how to apply it consistently to specific cases.
Another issue that Gandhi touches on in this volume is nationalism. What he has to say is consistent with what I’ve previously inferred is his position. Of course I’m paraphrasing here, but I think what he would say is that while everyone is of equal moral value and in principle you owe an equal duty of service to all, pragmatically speaking as a rule of thumb you can typically most efficiently serve those closest to you—family members, countrymen, whatever.
So, for instance he routinely receives invitations to come to the United States or other places around the world—I think a tour of speaking engagements is typically what’s envisioned—and he consistently politely declines on the grounds that it is more appropriate for him to focus on doing all he can do to help Indians. Not because Indians are more important, or because each of us owes a greater duty to our own “kind” than to “outsiders,” but because due to his knowledge of their lives and problems, the trust he has built up with them, his understanding of their languages and culture and such from the inside, and so on, he’s more likely to be able to do Indians good than anyone else.
But if through some fluky set of circumstances it turned out to be the case that he could do the most good by going to Belgium and focusing on serving Belgians, I’m sure he’d have no objection to that.
Another point that comes up is that of finding the proper balance being excessive privation and excessive luxury. “Proper” in the sense of most conducive to living a life of service, which Gandhi contends is our moral duty. For if you are having to focus all your time and abilities on bare survival (and probably being tempted into making moral compromises out of desperation), you probably aren’t going to be of much use to anyone. And the same is true if you’re obsessed with acquiring more and more stuff, where your whole life revolves around money and other attachments:
A certain degree of physical harmony and comfort is necessary, but above a certain level it becomes a hindrance instead of help. Therefore the ideal of creating an unlimited number of wants and satisfying them seems to be a delusion and a snare. The satisfaction of one’s physical needs, even the intellectual needs of one’s narrow self, must meet at a certain point a dead stop, before it degenerates into physical and intellectual voluptuousness. A man must arrange his physical and cultural circumstances so that they do not hinder him in his service of humanity, on which all his energies should be concentrated.
Finally, Gandhi in this volume reiterates that, as I noted earlier, he is not a religious fundamentalist in the sense of believing that there is some holy, unchanging, infallible set of claims about the universe and moral rules from antiquity that one is obligated to believe and obey. He admits that the moral philosophy he has gradually been working out throughout his life, while greatly influenced by his religious background and other sources, is of his own creation. Like a scientist he is trying to get ever closer to the truth through open-minded investigation and experimentation. He fully expects the conclusions he tentatively comes to to be consistent with the spirit of the great faiths of the world, but he is not simply obediently following one as it is constituted today or was constituted at some point in an idealized past:
I have admitted in my introduction to the Gita…that it is not a treatise on non-violence nor was it written to condemn war. Hinduism as it is practiced today, or has even been known to have ever been practiced, has certainly not condemned war as I do. What, however, I have done is to put a new but natural and logical interpretation upon the whole teaching of the Gita and the spirit of Hinduism. Hinduism, not to speak of other religions, is always evolving.