The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi consists of about a hundred volumes of an average of 500 or so pages each, containing everything Gandhi ever wrote that survives and everything he ever said of which a written record was made, from his childhood to his death. There is minimal supplementary material to provide context in footnotes and appendices, but it’s almost entirely Gandhi’s own words.
This 67th volume in the series covers the period from April 1, 1938 to October 14, 1938. Gandhi was born in 1869 and died in 1948, so this period is somewhat late in his life but not real close to the end.
When last we left the Mahatma, he was experiencing significant self-doubt, and struggling with health issues, including blood pressure that occasionally spiked dangerously high.
If anything, his worries are now intensifying. He has always been a humble and self-questioning person, but I don’t recall his self-doubt ever reaching this level.
Actually he always says the right things about being humble and open-minded to new evidence and arguments, etc., but almost always this comes across as a mere formality, like a professional scientist giving a talk to middle schoolers about the scientific method but not really expecting (justifiably) any of them to bring something up that would cause him to rethink anything. But during this period—and it’s kind of appealing—Gandhi seems more genuinely humble and open to advice from others, at least on certain matters.
But there are many indications that he is struggling internally. From a statement to the press:
[F]or causes some of which I know and some of which I do not, for the first time in my public and private life I seem to have lost self-confidence. I seem to have detected a flaw in me which is unworthy of a votary of truth and ahimsa. I am going through a process of self-introspection, the results of which I cannot foresee. I find myself for the first time during the past 50 years in a Slough of Despond. I do not consider myself fit for negotiations or any such thing for the moment.
From a speech on education reform:
When the New Education Scheme was launched I was full of self-confidence in which I now feel I am lacking. My words had power of which they seem to be bereft today. This lack of confidence is due not to things without but to things within. It is not that my senses are paralysed. My intellect gives me good work for my age. Nor is it that I have lost faith in non-violence. That faith is burning brighter than ever. But I have for the moment lost self-confidence. I would therefore ask you not to accept anything from me implicitly. Accept only what carries conviction to you.
Not helping his mood is a general sense that things are falling apart in India. Many Indians in frustration are turning to violence against their rulers. Hindu-Muslim strife appears more intractable than ever.
The Indian National Congress seems not to be rising to the occasion. Under a new constitutional scheme, the British have allowed elections for Indians to run some of their local affairs. Congress members have done very well in these elections in some areas, but the power that comes with the new limited autonomy has brought corruption in its wake. It reminds me of the familiar birth pangs of people not used to self-rule who gained their post-colonial independence in the 20th century—lots of election fraud, bribery, in-fighting, etc. “The violence that I see running through speeches and writings, the corruption and selfishness among Congressmen, and the petty bickerings fill one with dismay.”
There are issues and conflicts regarding the princely states (the parts of India not under direct British rule). The people in some of the states are rising up, with the governments sometimes responding with brutality and even mass slaughter. Congress is trying not to get directly involved because it is an organization limited to British India. But its sentiments, and Gandhi’s as well, are clearly on the side of the rebels in the princely states.
Gandhi is as fond of his dear friend Nehru as ever, but feels a distance even from him:
It hurts me that, at this very critical juncture in our history, we do not seem to see eye to eye in important matters. I can’t tell you how positively lonely I feel to know that nowadays I can’t carry you with me. I know that you would do much for affection. But in matters of state, there can be no surrender to affection, when the intellect rebels. My regard for you is deeper for your revolt. But that only intensifies the grief of loneliness.
Then he is shaken even more by an incident where he ejaculates for the first time in memory. The precise circumstances are not specified. He has had occasional such emissions while asleep, which have become less frequent over the years. Those disappoint him, but this one that occurs while awake disturbs him far more.
From a letter to Amritlal Nanavati:
I was in such a wretched and pitiable condition that in spite of my utmost efforts I could not stop the discharge though I was fully awake. I feel now that the despondency that I had been feeling deep down in me only foreshadowed this occurrence. After the event, restlessness has become acute beyond words. Where am I, where is my place, and how can a person subject to passion represent non-violence and truth? This turmoil goes on in my heart. I keep asking myself: am I worthy of you all who follow me, am I fit to lead you all?
From a letter to Mirabehn:
Of course I have been far away from perfection. But I felt I was progressing. That degrading, dirty, torturing experience of 14th April shook me to bits and made me feel as if I was hurled by God from an imaginary paradise where I had no right to be in my uncleanliness.
Well, I shall feel pride in my being parent to so many children, if any of them will give a lifting hand and pull me out of the well of despair.
From a letter to Amrit Kaur:
Let us all hope that I shall come out of the well of despair stronger and purer. There is as yet no sign of the end of the crisis. Darkness is still there. There is still an unaccountable dissatisfaction with myself. Moodiness is wholly unnatural to me. It creeps over me now and again. I suppress it by constant work. But the body does not respond to it as readily as I want it to. But I have not lost faith. There are signs that I shall get out of the slough. I may be deceived. I have patience. I do not fret over the delay. If it is to be a new birth, a regeneration all round, it must be preceded by adequate travail.
You are not to worry over my present condition. The sexual sense is the hardest to overcome in my case. It has been an incessant struggle. It is for me a miracle how I have survived it. The one I am engaged in may be, ought to be, the final struggle.
This is very much the kind of thing from Gandhi’s life that the overwhelming majority of people would find hilarious or appalling, especially in the context of Gandhi’s practice of allowing himself a great deal of physical contact with women and girls in his inner circle, including their assisting him bathing, massaging him, and sharing the same bed, all while he is naked.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this in connection with future volumes, since it was a controversy for the remainder of his life, but I’ll say a few things here.
First off, let’s dispense with the “Hardy har har, Gandhi slept with teenage girls” reaction, which depends on an equivocation on “slept with.” The implication is that Gandhi “slept with” them in the slang sense of “had sex with” them, which is simply false (unless Gandhi and everyone involved was an out-and-out liar). What’s true is that he “slept with” them in the literal sense of, you know, sleeping.
Which is decidedly weird, but also importantly different from having sex.
So why did Gandhi have people in his bed that he wasn’t having sex with?
Gandhi was an anti-sex fanatic, even more so than most religious anti-sex fanatics. He thought bodily pleasures in general (e.g., eating for taste) were objectionable in that they entice us into increased attachment to the material world and distract us from what should be a perpetual focus on higher moral and spiritual matters, but he railed against sex most of all. He believed that a pure and therefore maximally effective satyagrahi would be free of all sexual desire.
So he practiced a form of what in the Hindu tradition is called brahmacharya, or a lifestyle of celibacy.
Now one possible path for such a brahmachari to take is to avoid putting oneself in situations of temptation so that no opportunity arises for you to behave in a sexual manner that you’ve determined would be wrong. A mild version of this would be Vice-President Mike Pence’s avoiding eating a meal alone with any woman other than his wife. A more extreme version that Gandhi would have been familiar with is a Hindu holy man removing himself from society entirely and living off in the middle of nowhere as a hermit so as not to fall prey to any of the sins that can come from interaction with other people. One can infer from some things Gandhi writes in this volume that Mirabehn and others have suggested to him some version of the “avoidance” strategy.
Gandhi chose a different path, however. Gandhi contended that since the true goal is to extinguish the desire itself rather than just refrain from acting on it, the avoidance strategy misses the point. Furthermore, human interaction, including non-sexual intimate touch, is highly valuable, indeed essential, to living a moral life. “A perfect brahmachari should remain unaffected by passion in any circumstances.” You can’t do much good if you’re a hermit off in a cave, regardless of how pure you are.
So while avoidance might play a role in a sort of transitional phase, ultimately you want to have an absence of sexual desire in spite of having as few restrictions as possible on how you interact with people. Hence his brahmacharya “experiments” wherein he gradually increased his physical contact with the women in his life, up to and including sleeping naked with them, while monitoring himself to make sure he felt no more desire for any of them than, say, a parent sleeping with their two year old child would feel.
So that’s why his body betraying him and ejaculating after all these years in which he felt like he was doing great in feeling nothing sexually was so devastating to him. (Whereas if the whole idea of having these people in his bed was to have sex with them, then, one, ejaculating would be normal rather than something to freak him out with shock and guilt, and, two, he certainly wouldn’t blab about it to the world.)
That’s not all meant as a defense of his philosophy or his behavior, of course. You can understand the situation and realize it has nothing to do with Gandhi having regular orgies with teenage girls or whatever scandalous thing people think they heard from revisionist, iconoclastic historians, and still have objections.
One, there’s the public relations angle. Whether his unconventional ideas and practices in this area are good, bad, or indifferent, they are surely controversial, and it’s plausible to hold that by continuing with them he is damaging his reputation and hence damaging any cause he is associated with.
I personally give this little weight, as I think you should do what you think is right and not be governed by what other people think of it, and let the consequences take care of themselves, and I’d say for the most part that’s in line with Gandhi’s philosophy. But it’s interesting that there was a time years earlier that he did alter his brahmacharya experiments because this very factor was pressed upon him, though the alteration was temporary and he soon resumed what he had been doing.
Two, there’s the potential damage to the other people involved. He seems to almost always analyze the success, failure, appropriateness, etc. of these experiments in terms of how they relate to his quest to be a totally sexless celibate and thereby a more pure tool for doing good in the world, but he’s not the only person participating in the experiments. There are other people sleeping with him, providing support for him on his walks by letting him place his hands on their shoulders, massaging him, etc., there are the spouses and parents of these people, and so on. I don’t know that it did any significant emotional damage to any of them—from what I know of what was later said by the women who shared his bed the answer would be no, at least that they are consciously aware of—but it’s certainly plausible that there could be, so it’s an angle to consider.
Three—and this is the one that I’d be most likely to raise myself—keeping in mind that the whole point is that sex supposedly upsets your peace of mind and emotional equilibrium and draws your attention and energy away from the “higher” things that are truly valuable in life, isn’t that exactly what this quest for sexual purity is doing? I mean, look at the anguish he’s going through in this volume, and look at how much thought and time he has devoted to devising, implementing, analyzing, and critiquing his brahmacharya experiments over the years. Would just having sex once in a while and not worrying about it really be a greater distraction?
I will say, though, that unlike the majority of people, I don’t have an instinctive aversion to people who are “weird,” including sexually “weird.” I’m a non-conformist, and that’s one of the reasons I’m most drawn to Gandhi.
I think most folks believe that conventional values and conventional ways of doing things are pretty much correct, and so for them a heroic or morally admirable figure would be someone within that mainstream who happens to be especially good at living by those values and who can thereby inspire others to do so as well. Whereas I believe that in terms of morality the world needs a radical paradigm shift, and that that is more likely to be brought about by someone with many beliefs and practices outside the mainstream.
Of course I wouldn’t go to the opposite extreme and say that being different is always right, and I don’t necessarily agree with Gandhi’s brahmacharya experiments, but as a non-conformist, something’s being weird doesn’t weird me out.
But anyway, what does he decide in his tortured self-examination after his waking emission incident?
One thing he comes to believe is that it was wrong for him to insist that the rules were different for him than for others, i.e., that he could conduct brahmacharya experiments that he would disapprove others conducting.
I assume when he refers to others that he’s not talking about all people in general but specifically about his fellow satyagrahis, his inner circle, the folks he’s lived with long term in ashrams (communes) or now in the village where he’s trying to do his constructive work. That is, I assume he means he shouldn’t allow himself any more leeway to experiment and such than he allows them.
But even with that assumed qualification, I was actually surprised to read this. As I understand it, he has long maintained that different people are justified in certain behaviors relative to how far advanced they are morally. Most notably, he has always taken the attitude that fasting is a tool that it is appropriate for him to use in very infrequent, special circumstances, but that others should not emulate him in that, because he has spent decades training himself for it in effect by pursuing the kind of morally pure lifestyle he has chosen.
So I took that to be his position on the brahmacharya experiments, that you really only should be messing with stuff like that if you’ve lived the way he has and purified your life the way he has for an extended period, because then you’ve proven yourself ready for such tests.
But I guess he feels like he was overrating how much progress he had made, and thus he no longer trusts his judgment that his co-workers are less advanced on that moral path than he is, so now he’s a lot less sure he deserves to be governed by different rules.
He also decides that it’s time to step back from his experiments until he can rethink things and figure out how to proceed. So he informs people that he’ll no longer use his human “walking sticks” to lean on when he goes on his walks, no longer have people in his bed, etc.
I gather a few people in his circle applauded the decision, but as many or more strongly disagreed, especially the very people who had become used to his non-sexual physical touch. (I also infer that there was a substantial amount of feedback from many of his people that he was making a huge mistake in being so public about all this. So he ends up being semi-open about it rather than as fully open as was his initial instinct.)
He comes across as a bit uncertain of it all, and apt to rework the details based on advice he receives. He soon decides that his wife doesn’t count and Sushila Nayyar doesn’t count because she’s his doctor; he can still be in physical contact with them. It’s interesting that he also explicitly notes that the new limitations apply only to contact with adult women, not minors. Why? I’m guessing it’s because the very notion of being sexually aroused by children doesn’t enter his mind. It would be like saying you shouldn’t let your collie sleep on your bed with you, or to go back to my earlier example that you shouldn’t sleep with your two year old child, because it would be putting yourself in a position of sexual temptation.
In any case, he more or less gets over his distress, and within a few months he has decided that his brahmacharya experiments were not related to his unwanted emission, and so he goes back to what he was doing. He claims not to be happy or unhappy about resuming this physical contact, regarding it simply as his duty in continuing his quest for brahmacharya. (I don’t get the impression, by the way, that he endorses anyone else in his circle conducting the same experiments, contrary to his having earlier said that he thinks he should only allow himself what he allows others.)
In connection with these issues, he makes it clear that he’s not blaming women at all for any failures of his brahmacharya, such as his ejaculation. “It is not the woman who is to blame. I am the culprit. I must attain the required purity.” Which is good, since it’s certainly not uncommon for anti-sex religious fanatics to go on and on about women being temptresses and tools of Satan and such when they have trouble keeping it in their pants.
Moving on to other matters, in essays about other volumes in this collection, I have written about being a little surprised or troubled by his seeming at times to deviate from what he at other times states or implies is an absolutist anti-violence position, or at least being ambiguous about it. I have suggested that maybe when he seems to be allowing exceptions, like for certain forms of state violence such as enforcing law, it’s only in a qualified way, like “It’s best to be completely nonviolent. For people who can’t or won’t do that, it’s less bad to be violent in such-and-such a way than in such-and-such a way,” but all too often he doesn’t say that, and it may be a stretch to assume it’s implied.
In this volume, I think he comes a little closer to saying what I had in mind, though. He doesn’t do so nearly as clearly as I would like, and certainly there’s enough ambiguity to allow for multiple interpretations as to whether he is an absolutist or not (or whether, in the philosophical sense, his moral system is a deontological one), but at least it’s a step in the direction of indicating that his seeming exceptions are intended to be qualified in something like the way I suggested.
One thing that struck me while reading this volume—though it is by no means unique to this volume; it’s how he has been all along—is how he is a lot more apt to address and criticize his allies than his enemies. Not in the sense of Tea Partiers trashing certain Republicans for being RINOs, which is a matter of doctrinal differences, but more for moral failings and for not practicing purity of means.
He’s a Hindu, and he finds way more fault with Hindus (most notably over Untouchability) than he ever does with Muslims or those of any other religion. He criticizes corruption and other flaws of the Congress more often than he criticizes the British. He calls attention to whenever Indians involved in the struggle for independence or other causes he believes in disappoint him by manifesting anger, disrespecting those they disagree with, or resorting to violence. He’s always pointing out imperfections in his closest followers, reminding them that they, like everyone, have enormous room for improvement.
His attitude is, “What matters is that our side cleans up its act. If we follow the path of truth and nonviolence, we’ll prevail; the other side won’t matter. We just have to do everything we can to make sure our efforts are pure, that we’re doing everything right; beyond that the consequences will take care of themselves.”
Which just sounds bizarre (and mostly refreshing) when you’re used to contemporary American political rhetoric. Can you imagine the Chair of the Democratic Party focusing 90% on calling out Democrats for bending the truth, acting hypocritically, supporting a bill out of self-interest rather than on its merits, using overheated rhetoric in a way that might encourage violence, and so on, and only 10% on criticizing Republicans doing so?
It’s certainly true today, and I would think was largely true in Gandhi’s time, that just about anyone who has access to the media, anyone who is taken seriously enough to have any influence on public affairs, plays the game of spinning things however supports their “team.” They don’t criticize their own people in order to encourage them to purify themselves; they say what they need to say—however one-sided, deceitful, or fallacious—to help them to win. Public affairs isn’t a matter of truth seeking and moral self-improvement; it’s a matter of advocacy.
But Gandhi’s never been like that. He’s always concerned about, “But if our side wins by impure means, nothing good will come of it.”
For the most part, Gandhi seems comfortable in his role as an outsider to Congress and other organizations, free to do and say what he thinks is right without formally representing anyone but himself, though he acknowledges it makes his influence quite limited:
Whatever influence I still possess among Congressmen is solely due to my constant appeal to reason and never to authority. But if I had the influence critics attribute to me, I make bold to say that India would have gained her independence long ago and there would be no repression that is going on unchecked in some States. I know the art of winning independence and stopping the frightfulness of which one reads in the papers. If I had my way with the Congressmen, there would be no corruption, no untruth and no violence amongst them. If I had my way with them, they would all be enthusiastic khaddarites and there would be no surplus khadi in the A.I.S.A. bhandars.
Finally, whereas Gandhi rarely takes much note of world affairs outside India, he clearly is pessimistic about Europe’s drift toward war, or its use of inappropriate means of temporarily avoiding war. On the Munich Pact (often interpreted as an “appeasement” of Hitler), in a letter to Nehru, he writes: “What a peace at the cost of honour!”
Soon after, he writes an article about the Pact in his newspaper. Violence leads to dictatorship, he says, because whoever is willing and able to sink lower and fight with the fewest restraints will win in that kind of survival of the fittest situation, and dictatorships are less restrained in that way. But by the same logic nonviolence leads to true democracy. In the short run, though, if people aren’t willing and able to resist nonviolently, then it is better to defend oneself with violence than to submit in cowardly fashion. To give in to a Hitler is a loss of honor, even if it’s understandable that people want to avoid war.