Rediscovering Gandhi

What new insights do a slew of recent books on Gandhi reveal of his life and thought?

Gandhi’s practices of silence, fasting, walking and spinning were integral to his self-search. MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE / TIME & LIFE PICTURES / GETTY IMAGES
01 February, 2013

IN CONVERSATIONS, social theorist Ashis Nandy fondly recalls an exchange between philosopher Ramachandra Gandhi and poet Umashankar Joshi. The philosopher argued that MK Gandhi was inconceivable without his spiritual strivings, while the poet—and one suspects Ashis Nandy too—insisted that Gandhi’s significance lay in his willingness to engage and transform the “slum of politics”.

This divide between the religious, spiritual Gandhi and the political one or, more aptly, the divide between Gandhi the ashramite and Gandhi the satyagrahi has come to shape not only our academic engagement with the life and thought of Gandhi, but also our memory of the man whom we revere, revile or remain indifferent to. The dichotomy is a superficial one. Gandhi saw himself as a satyagrahi and an ashramite. His politics was imbued with spiritual strivings and his relationship with religion was a deeply political one.

A long, rich and diverse biographical tradition, which has deepened our understanding of Gandhi’s life and his strivings, has not escaped this divide either. This tradition has been partial to the satyagrahi Gandhi; whereas the ashram, the ashram community, his striving to see “god face to face”, his fasts and his experiments with brahamcharya remain shadowy. Gandhi’s practices of silence, fasting, walking and spinning, his brahmacharya, and his need for prayer were integral to his self-search and to swaraj and yet we are still casting about for adequate modes of capturing and recounting these practices.

We have few serious studies on Gandhi’s ashrams. There is one by Mark Thompson titled Gandhi and His Ashrams (1993); another major exception is the recent four-volume biography of Gandhi, My Life is My Message (2009), by Narayan Desai. Desai, an ashramite himself, understands that Gandhi’s politics was not possible without the ashram as a site of experimentation, and in the absence of the ashramites who were his co-experimenters.

Our limited understanding of the ashram is also due to our neglect of the diaries of Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s closest associate and secretary. Desai wrote a diary for each day that he spent with Gandhi from 1917 until the former’s death in the Aga Khan Palace prison in 1942. The diaries are not just records of letters sent and received and accounts of all those who visited Gandhi; running to 23 volumes in Gujarati, they are the most detailed accounts of Gandhi’s “experiments with truth”. The fact that we are yet to edit and publish the diaries for the years 1938 and 1942 in Gujarati, and that the work of translating the diaries from the other years into English and Hindi remains incomplete and far from satisfactory, is an indication of our scholarly neglect of Gandhi, the ashramite.

Ashrams in our imagination remain a site of habitation not experimentation; the ashramites are all bunched together as associates or disciples. We have very little awareness, even in Gujarati, of the intellectual tradition of the ashram community and the philosophical and literary depths of scholars like Mahadev Desai and Kishorelal Mashruwala—an ashramite and a philosopher who wrote one of the finest commentaries on Gandhi, Gandhi Vichar Dohan.

Despite or, probably more aptly, because of a huge body of rigorous and sometimes quarrelsome scholarship on Gandhi and his influence, scholars are aware of additional gaps in our understanding of the man. The 21 years Gandhi spent in South Africa, during which his intellectual and political ideas developed and matured, remain a black box despite the work of Gandhi’s personal secretary Pyarelal and more recently that of Burnett Britton and Goolam Vahed. Pyarelal’s Early Phase (1965) was the first indication of the transformative journey that Gandhi made in South Africa. Britton’s Gandhi Arrives in South Africa (1999) provides the social and political context for Gandhi’s work in that country. And Vahed through his work on the question of indentured labour and migration has provided us with the setting of the satyagraha in South Africa.

And yet, we have just begun to pay scholarly attention to this period of Gandhi’s life. This is in some measure due to poor archival practices in India. No library in the country has the complete collection of all issues of Indian Opinion, a journal that Gandhi owned, ran and funded, and which was the main organ of the struggle in South Africa. Similarly, most of the works published by the International Printing Press, which Gandhi ran, remain elusive. We also have very little idea about the reception of Gandhi and his ideas in the Indian subcontinent because archives in Indian languages are yet to be compiled, except in those such as Tamil and Bangla. Further, we have no histories of institutions that Gandhi started, such as the Gujarat Vidyapith or the All India Weavers Association.

Gandhi wrote his principal works in Gujarati and supervised their translations. Scholars often express dissatisfaction with extant translations of Gandhi’s works, such as his autobiography. And we have not explored possibilities of reading him in bi- or, more correctly, tri-lingual modes. Finally, there has been some engagement with Gandhi’s economic ideas by scholars like LC Jain, but on the whole the relevance of Gandhi’s insistence on reducing human greed and grounding economics in the ethical universe remains unexplored despite the fact that the philosophy of deep ecology is founded on a similar set of values.

IN THIS CONTEXT, six new studies on Gandhi suggest fresh directions that Gandhi scholarship can take, and to some extent correct the earlier imbalances. Gandhi was reticent about and dismissive of his life as a lawyer. His autobiography paints a picture of a young, shy, hesitant and bumbling man unable to articulate the cases of his clients. That is the image of Gandhi that has largely prevailed despite a captivating and now familiar photograph of a younger Gandhi, with full hair and a striking moustache, in a tie, starched shirt and three-piece suit, seated outside his office, flanked by his secretary Sonja Schlesin and legal associate Henry Polak. Charles DiSalvo’s biography of Gandhi as a lawyer, The Man Before the Mahatma: M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law (Random House), will most certainly change that picture; it will also enable us to understand Gandhi’s life in South Africa in a more complete way and to appreciate how his understanding of both the structural and procedural aspects of law and jurisprudence contributed to his dealings with the Empire.

DiSalvo, through painstaking work in the legal archives of South Africa and in the archives of the Sabarmati Ashram, has written the first account of Gandhi’s life in law. Gandhi’s legal practice in South Africa began in 1893 with carrying bags for Albert Baker, who was an attorney for Gandhi’s employer Dada Abdullah; it ended when he gave up his offices in 1911. DiSalvo shows that Gandhi was a remarkably successful lawyer who with equal ease practised commercial law and litigated for the expansion of legal rights; the former provided the monetary resources for Gandhi’s life as a satyagrahi in South Africa.

Even if the biography had only accomplished this task of chronicling Gandhi’s life as a lawyer, it could still be regarded as a work that created new ways of engaging with Gandhi’s life. But the study is in fact more ambitious. It shows the gradual process by which Gandhi came to comprehend that his task as a lawyer—and the task of all lawyers—was not just to articulate and represent a client’s case as ably as possible; the primary commitment of a lawyer had to be to Truth and not just to evidence as admissible under law. DiSalvo also shows how Gandhi’s cautious excursions into the notion of principled law-breaking were mediated through the courts in the Transvaal. To paraphrase DiSalvo, the courtroom was the original laboratory for Gandhi, preceding the Phoenix Settlement, the first experimental community that he established. The Man Before the Mahatma is without doubt among the finest in a long biographical tradition.

In Gandhi’s Printing Press (Harvard University Press), another first book of its kind, Isabel Hofmeyr further deepens our understanding of Gandhi in South Africa by giving us a history of his International Printing Press. Those who have read the letters between Gandhi and Mansukhlal Nazar, who was for some time the editor and printer of Indian Opinion, have got a peek into the fascinating story of the press. For instance, Gandhi is told by one of his compositors to avoid words which require the first letter of the Gujarati alphabet, ‘A’, as there were fewer of these in the letter press. (English, Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil were among the several languages in which, at different points in its life, Indian Opinion was published.) Gandhi was to later remark that the term ‘economy’ assumed a new meaning for him. His sparse, unadorned, direct prose had much to do with his early training in writing for Indian Opinion and its scant resources. In 1897 Gandhi, returning to Durban from India, was received by a lynch mob that nearly killed him. Many of those who had gathered at the dockside were, in fact, printers. Their passions were aroused by rumours that Gandhi had brought along with him from India compositors and a printing press.

We have often wondered about the significance of the printing press that aroused such murderous passions. Hofmeyr’s work, which draws parallels between print cultures in the subcontinent and those in South Africa, allows us to understand not only the attack, but also the larger story of the Phoenix Settlement. It shows that the Phoenix Settlement was conceived around the press and Indian Opinion, which it published. She demonstrates what a utopia conceived around print culture could mean and do. For the first time, we become aware that the Phoenix Settlement was part of a larger ecology of ventures, which included “a brave new world of evangelical experiment comprising proselytising Trappists, mid-Western Protestants, Zulu internationalists, Bombay Muslim holy men and Punjabi Arya Samajists”.

The book also reflects on various printed forms—the newspaper, the periodical, the pamphlet—and their significance in not just creating a print culture but also in forging a people and sustaining a movement. The most significant part of the work is a theory of reading that Hofmeyr discerns through her examination of Indian Opinion and the Hind Swaraj (1909). Can one actually create modes of writing (and printing) that, while located within the modern realm, can militate against modernity? She shows that Gandhi consciously tried to cultivate a style of writing that required slow, meditative reading; his purpose was to adjust the act of reading to unhurried bodily rhythms not subject to the fast pace that he considered the chief signifier of the industrial age. He even tried to slow down the process of printing by dispensing with the oil machine that ran the press and instead employed manual labour to run it. In this way, Hofmeyr’s elucidation of the manner in which a satyagrahi reads illuminates our understanding of Gandhi’s modes of writing and discoursing.

Peter Gonsalves has long been concerned with Gandhi the communicator, especially the man who could create symbols almost at will and imbue them with deep significance. Gonsalves’s earlier book, Clothing For Liberation (2010), was situated within the European hermeneutic tradition of Roland Barthes, Victor Turner and Erving Goffman. By locating Gandhi within this tradition, Gonsalves was able to demonstrate that Gandhi needed to be understood through the lenses of communication theory. In doing so, he missed out on the bricolage that was Gandhi. His recent book, Khadi: Gandhi’s Mega Symbol of Subversion (SAGE Publications), addresses this concern. It is located in Gandhi’s times—the polyphony that was the national movement. It situates Gandhi and khadi within the sartorial concerns of British and Indian leaders, and also within the larger frame of the colonial extraction economy. The institutional aspects of khadi, represented by the All India Spinners Association and a similar association of weavers, allows us to understand that khadi was not merely symbolic but also significantly addressed the questions of livelihood and debt. In addition, it also examines the relationship between values and performative politics as well as the relationship between swaraj and swadeshi. Read alongside Emma Tarlow’s Clothing Matters (1996) and Rahul Ramagundam’s Gandhi’s Khadi, (2008), Peter Gonsalves’s two books help us understand khadi as a symbol, as a practice, as organisation and also as prayer.

C Rajagopalachari (or Rajaji) and Gandhi were both men of letters in the widest possible sense. Each had a lifelong fascination with letter writing; they mastered the form and explored its possibilities. Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s My Dear Bapu (Penguin Books India) brings together 88 letters from Rajaji to his “Master”—Gandhi who, in turn, regarded Rajaji as his “conscience kipper”—and 25 each from Gandhi to his son Devadas Gandhi and his grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi. This work, like all Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s earlier books, is carefully annotated, and his concern for the provenance of all things is evident. The academic and literary value of this volume is immense, but what it suggests by example about our lack of academic and archival rigour is equally if not more significant. Letter writing is a two-way process; a true appreciation of the import of Gandhi’s letters, published in The Collected Works, will only be possible when we have more well-edited collections of the significant letters he received if not the whole corpus of them.

Gandhi’s spiritual longing and his tense, restless relationship with the scriptural tradition have not been a subject of serious academic study, with the exception of one earlier book—Margaret Chatterjee’s Gandhi’s Religious Thought (1986). Even his competent biographers have resorted to clichés about his fascination with the ramanama and his fondness for the Bhagvada Gita. JTF Jordan’s Gandhi’s Religion: A Homespun Shawl (Oxford University Press) fills this gap. Jordan has deeply engaged with the reformist tendencies in the Hindu religious world. His biographies of Swami Dayananda Saraswati and Swami Shraddhanand inform his reading and explication of Gandhi’s ideas and practices. The appeal of Jordan’s work lies in the fact that he situates Gandhi’s religious strivings in textual, ashramic and political contexts. He is the only commentator on Gandhi’s religious ideas to weave together fasting, prayer, search for chastity, Gandhi’s struggle with untouchability, and his reading and reinterpretation of the textual tradition to create what he calls a “homespun shawl”.

Faisal Devji’s The Impossible Indian (Harvard University Press) is an audacious book. He approaches Gandhi counter-intuitively; instead of foregrounding Gandhi’s non-violence, Devji explores what he calls “the temptation to violence”. His earlier work on jihad and terror gives him insights into the fascination with violence as a legitimate means of politics. He wishes to recast the genealogy of Gandhi’s ahimsa, which he traces not to Gandhi’s childhood and the eclectic belief systems with which Gandhi was raised, but to the violence of the war of 1857. He shows Gandhi engaged with the question of violence inherent in Empire and fascism. Gandhi is concerned about the civil war in South Africa and the possibility of such a war starting in India. Devji convincingly argues that, for Gandhi, sovereignty and its validation lies not in the State but within the ethical self—a self rooted in dharma and engaged in moral negotiations with real and potential violence.

In the course of this argument, Devji also provides a departure from Gandhi’s reading of the Bhagvada Gita as a discourse on detached action. Gandhi saw the Gita as a spiritual guidebook, in the sense that it enlightened him in his quest for the moral agency that lay within. This search for a solitary moral agent committed to ethical action and duty, willing to grapple with modernity as also with violence both of the traditional structures and that of modern civilisation, makes Devji’s Gandhi a political philosopher whose revolutionary potential is yet to be grasped.

Taken together, these works point to the need and the possibility of creating new archives on Gandhi. We not only need to access the archives in South Africa and India, but also create new sets of Indian-language archives and archives of Gandhi’s institutional practices. They also encourage us to examine Gandhi’s practices of fasting, spinning, prayer, silence and even letter writing; his ashramic life; his need to simultaneously be a satyagrahi and a sthitpragnya (one whose intellect is secure or one who is ethically secure); and his need and ability to hear his inner voice and submit to it in order to create possibilities of self-recognition and swaraj.