The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi: Volume LXIV covers Gandhi’s life from November 3, 1936 to March 14, 1937.
This is during a period of his life when Gandhi is not actively participating in politics or any kind of civil disobedience. He has gone to live in a village called Segaon, on the theory that only by living amongst the villagers and serving them will he and village uplift workers like him gain the villagers’ trust, get to know them and their lives better, see how they can best be helped, and have them be receptive to that help.
But he actually seems to spend little time directly interacting with the villagers or doing the kind of work that he envisioned doing when he decided to withdraw from most of his former activities and devote himself to the poor and the Untouchables in the villages.
There are just too many demands on his time. He conducts a great deal of correspondence, there are always visitors insisting on seeing and speaking with him, he’s putting out the newspaper Harijan and writing much of its material himself, and often he has commitments that require him to temporarily leave the village entirely.
In the months covered by this volume, for instance, he attends the Indian National Congress’s annual convention (held, at his urging, in a village for the first time), and tours the state of Travancore, whose prince has just opened all the public temples to Untouchables by decree.
The writings in this volume consist primarily of personal letters, articles in Harijan, and transcripts of his public speeches while touring Travancore.
Much of what I’m inclined to comment on from this volume concerns matters that also came up in the volumes immediately before this one, so I feel like to some extent I’m repeating myself.
As always, a high percentage of the content of his letters to people consists of him chiding them for any health problems they have, which he sees as evidence that they aren’t properly taking care of themselves. He then always has some dietary suggestion or other to solve those health problems. He’s not opposed to conventional medicine when all else fails, but he’s convinced most ailments can be treated successfully—or better yet avoided—if only you consume a certain quantity of the juice of this fruit, cut up this vegetable a certain way and eat it raw, replace the sugar in your diet with gur, etc.
There’s a little more of the anti-sex and anti-birth control stuff in this volume. Asked about sex education, he concedes that it is appropriate to teach children the anatomical basics but no more, and even this little bit should only be taught by a celibate teacher in the context of gaining control over the sex drive.
He still seems very fond of famous birth control advocate Margaret Sanger though, sending her a nice letter thanking her for some fruit she sent him.
The subject of religious conversion comes up again in this volume. He criticizes Christians and others in India for their proselytizing.
First of all, he says, when you switch religions, or worse yet when you advocate other people switching religions, you deny the important truth that all religions are true in their own limited way, i.e., none have missed the mark so badly that one should abandon them, and none have some uniquely accurate vision such that they are worth switching to.
Beyond that, the Christian missionaries prey on the most ignorant and therefore vulnerable Hindus—the Untouchables. They don’t go after the educated people who have the deepest understanding of their own and other faiths and thus would be best positioned to understand why one is superior to another—if it were—but on those who understand their own faith least well and thus are most willing to abandon it if given the proper inducements.
The only kind of preaching or evangelizing he accepts is that of selfless action. But even that has limits. Asked if someone who does good like that can then explain to people that what enabled him to do so, what gave him the strength and the good will, was that he accepted Jesus as his savior, Gandhi says, no, that crosses the line.
One of his correspondents expresses concern that his sometimes quite frank criticisms of missionaries and their methods violates his own oft-repeated principle that to be verbally antagonistic and hurtful is a species of violence, that one should always seek to avoid violence “of thought, word, or deed.”
This can indeed be ethically tricky. Words can hurt, and when you’re choosing what to say and how to say it, you have to be aware of this. On the other hand, the willingness to speak the truth freely—I would say at times even with some outrageousness or shock value—is part of a life of honesty and integrity. All else being equal it is wrong to say something that offends someone, but all else is not equal. When you become too obsessed with avoiding offense, you end up completely stifling your ability to express yourself and communicate.
(Or at least you would if you were being consistent. What the overwhelming majority of obsessive politically correct types do instead is, one, focus almost entirely on policing the speech of others rather than their own, and, two, carefully limit the offenses that “count.” That is, speech is to be condemned only if it potentially angers, insults, saddens, or otherwise hurts the feelings of members of favored groups such as women, blacks, gays, transgendered people, poor people, etc., but not even all of these—it’s not wrong to say something that pisses off a woman who is a Sarah Palin fan, a poor person who is in the Klan, etc. So it really boils down to: “If anyone says anything that I and people who agree with me don’t like, I’m within my rights to shut down that expression” and not any kind of general principle that speech that offends is wrong.)
Anyway, I think Gandhi’s position on balancing the values of speaking the truth freely and avoiding hurting people’s feelings by what you say is right-headed: “False notions of propriety or fear of wounding susceptibilities often deter people from saying what they mean and ultimately land them on the shores of hypocrisy. But if non-violence of thought is to be evolved in individuals or societies or nations, truth has to be told, however harsh or unpopular it may appear to be for the moment.”
In a piece in his Harijan newspaper, Gandhi disapprovingly cites some appalling passages about women in Hindu holy books—e.g., “The wife should ever treat the husband as God, though he be characterless, sensual and devoid of good qualities,” “That woman who…disobeys the husband should be made by the king a prey to the dogs in the presence of a big assembly of people”—to make the anti-fundamentalist point that as a believer in a certain faith you are not obligated to take literally anything and everything in it: “I have already suggested often enough in these columns that all that is printed in the name of scriptures need not be taken as the word of God or the inspired word.”
Gandhi notes his close relationship with Nehru, while also acknowledging their differences.
He explains that his main difference with Nehru is that Nehru sees class warfare as inevitable, though he hopes he’s wrong and it can be avoided. Gandhi believes it can indeed be avoided because nonviolence can persuade the rich to see themselves as trustees of the people’s wealth. Once workers understand the power they can wield by withholding their labor they will be able to negotiate as at least equals with the capitalists. Also, Nehru sees khadi and village industries and such as temporarily desirable while India is in its present economic state, but believes greater industrialization is inevitable and is to be welcomed if properly managed. Gandhi sees khadi and village industries as crucial far deeper into India’s future.
In one passage, he marvels at Nehru’s charisma and approvingly compares his hold on the masses as being more like that of a great religious leader like Krishna or Jesus than like that of even a very successful politician. (He could have used himself as the comparison point instead—though with all due respect I doubt Nehru’s popularity with the masses ever was as broad and as emotionally and spiritually deep as Gandhi’s—but I’m sure he would have thought that arrogant or in bad taste.)
Always Gandhi defends the Untouchables, and condemns anti-Untouchable sentiments. It is ludicrous, he says, to look down on the people (Untouchables) who collect garbage, clean toilets, etc. Sanitation is crucial to public health. Those who perform these functions are important people. They should take pride in what they do and strive to do it as scientifically and efficiently as possible, and they should be respected as professionals. They work with “disgusting” things, but so do doctors and nurses, not to mention mothers who change diapers and clean their babies. Are all these folks to be disrespected as dirty and inferior? It’s true that they are temporarily, physically, dirty until they wash, but they are not somehow morally or spiritually dirty or inferior. The same is true of a street sweeper or garbage collector or whatever.
As mentioned above, during the time covered by this volume, a Hindu prince opens the temples of Travancore to Untouchables by decree, and Gandhi accepts an invitation to visit the area on a speaking tour.
He is more impressed, more moved than he expected. His impression is that the people of Travancore sincerely accept the change, that they aren’t just going through the motions to comply with what has been imposed on them from above. There is an appreciative solemnity when he speaks. He has come to expect a certain amount of unwanted rowdiness and noise from the large crowds he is routinely called upon to address, but he finds that here the mood is the kind of respectful and devout silence that he much prefers.
He notes that as religious as he is, for most of his life he has not regularly attended temples, and when he has he has typically not felt anything more than when he concerns himself with spiritual matters outside temples. But he is struck by how different it feels now, to enter the temples of Travancore on the occasion of their being opened to Untouchables. It gives him a feeling of reverence he had not anticipated.
A letter to the editor in Harijan asks him if he is not guilty of inconsistency in stepping away from politics after declaring in 1930 that he was committed to the struggle for Indian independence from Britain as a “fight to the finish.”
His response is that everything he does, including his current village uplift work, is directly or indirectly part of the fight for true independence, and so he hasn’t abandoned the struggle and still sees it as a “fight to the finish.”
I think this is half true and half copout. I understand where he’s coming from and how all of his benevolent work is in some sense connected—to make progress in one area is to make progress in all—but when you make a statement of commitment like that, I think it’s reasonable for people to interpret it to mean that you are going to remain focused on that specific area until the stated goal is reached. If I say I’m committed to raising my children until they’re 18, and then I leave them in the care of someone else while I go off to work with lepers in Indonesia, I don’t think it’s sufficient to say, “Well, by working with lepers I’m making the world—the world that my children will live in—a better place, and thus in my own way I am benefiting them just as I would if I were there with them as they grow up.”
Further on the subject of the independence struggle, he has become quite pessimistic. While he sees success as inevitable, he now believes it will only come “in the distant future.” He is not as troubled by this as one might expect, though, perhaps because he’s also a pessimist as far as how well Indians will prove able to handle such independence: “But take it that as soon as India gets Dominion Status the word Ramarajya [God’s rule, or a golden era of ideal government, ideal society] will go. When the authority comes to be vested in Indians the occasion will spark off internecine strife…But the day is far too distant, why need we quarrel about it now?”