The life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known even to his sworn enemies as the Mahatma, is perhaps the most contemporarily documented life. ‘Gandhi as a Student’ documents his school days in Rajkot. The period in South Africa is recorded through the reportage and his writings in the South African press including his own, the Indian Opinion. Since 1917, his movements day by day can be traced through Mahadev Desai’s Diaries. How many real life characters can withstand such close scrutiny, particularly when his own autobiography, Experiments with Truth mentions his shortcomings more elaborately than his achievements?
The same Gandhi is also perhaps the most powerful person ever to inhabit this earth, even without any monetary or coercive sanction in the traditional sense. He had to devise his own weapons such as fasting and voluntary poverty to dominate the minds of millions who followed him during the period when the mass communication media had hardly developed. He touched nearly every aspect of our lives. Maybe because of the great influence that he wielded, he was also the favourite punching bag for all those who disapproved of his ways. Gandhi and the nation paid dearly by losing him to a murderer’s bullets.
Gandhi and vegetarianism
Vegetarianism is very much associated with Gandhi. While his first encounter with meat was not a pleasant experience, he was fascinated by non-vegetarian food for some time, but was prevented from propagating this view by the vows he had sworn to satisfy his mother. Once he met the members of the Vegetarian Society and read Henry Salt’s work on vegetarianism, he became a staunch proponent of vegetarianism and made experiments with his diet. This, a largely meat and fish eating world may find difficult to digest. His discovery of the principles of Truth and Nonviolence, that he considered ‘as old as the hills’, can be traced to this influence.
To understand this seemingly weird connection, one needs to develop a holistic approach to life. In recent years we have learnt to divide a human being into a social animal, an economic creature, subject to subconscious weaknesses thanks to Herbert Spencer, Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Gandhi had a remarkable capacity to go beyond this analytical approach and perceive the truth behind nearly every decision he took. Scientists now tell us that meat contributes more to global warming than a vegetarian diet.
Many other seeming idiosyncrasies that he developed at that time have been endorsed by later researches. The World Health Organisation and such other institutions talk about breast feeding as a panacea, walking as an essential exercise to prevent diabetes and hypertension, and drinking water as an aid to healthy life – all of which Gandhi followed, including nature therapy, to which Gandhi devoted considerable attention.
Gandhi’s vows of Brahmacharya, fast and silence
Perhaps the most controversial concepts associated with him are Brahmacharya, fasting and observing silence once a week. These were not necessarily his prescriptions for the rest of the world, but his own devices that he believed helped him spiritually to play his part more effectively in public life. For those who want to devote themselves selflessly to public service, he recommended abstinence from sex and procreation, but encouraged companionship. After participation in the 11 September 1906 public meeting in Johannesburg that adopted the Gaol Resolution, and after his poignant experience with the Zulu victims in a senseless war, he felt the need for abstinence to be added to ‘Aparigraha’ (reununciation) and ‘Asteya’(no stealing), the Jain prescriptions that he valued so much. He made a public declaration of his intent and recommended the same approach only to those who he believed had similar objectives. One can look at the Brahmacharya vow in a different light if we recall the havoc played by family attachment in day to day life. Though he observed fast for the first time when he blamed himself for the misbehaviour of his Ashram inmates including his own son, later he discovered that it had a spiritual impact on him. He always warned others that fasting had to be genuinely desired and it required prior preparation, mentally and physically. His wife Kasturba and his close friend Hermann Kallenbach generally followed him, but they had identified themselves with Gandhi wholeheartedly. Fasting was not a part of his mass movement. In a different context, weekly days of silence and fasting were corollaries to his fetish for physical fitness.
Gandhi was a puritan and obviously against consumption of alcohol. This was also one of the restrictions that he had accepted while leaving for England as an 18-year-old student. In India, he came face to face with extreme poverty during his year’s travels, more so during his stay in Champaran in Bihar. One of the results of his first hand contact with rural poverty was the adoption of loin cloth as his everyday clothing, even while visiting the Buckingham Palace to meet the King.
He realised that despite poverty, alcohol has attracted and ruined many a poor in India. With his greater faith in the role of civil society, Gandhi adopted picketing as the most effective way of educating those who abused alcohol. Legal prohibition, mentioned in the Directive Principles of State Policy was adopted by many governments when the Congress party assumed power following the 1937 elections. The Directive principles were, however, drafted after his death. The same governments were later lured by the income and modified or reversed the prohibition policy.
Actually there is hardly any government in the world that can be indifferent to this problem. The measures range from total prohibition as in some Islamic countries, Gujarat and some states in the USA, to strict driving rules and restrictions on timings for liquor shops.
Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj was not just a response to the school of violence, but a work that emphasised ‘self control’ as the basis of self-government. While most Indian leaders equated freedom with sending away the British rulers, Gandhi insisted on self-control and self-rule. Many of his unusual quirks, if we may so describe these, were related to this obsession at a personal level. Before he could tell others what line of action to be followed in the national struggle, he needed to test himself through fasting, Brahmacharya, silence and controlled food intake.
One of his most controversial experiments that revolted his dear ones and followers was his insistence on sleeping with two young girls, naked, while touring Noakhali. What he wanted to test was whether in that situation his mind could remain pure, devoid of any sensuous thoughts. William Shirer, who was close to Gandhi in the 1930’s, and had since gone to Europe and written Rise and fall of the Third Reich corresponded with him on the subject, but found it difficult, like many of us to understand Gandhi’s motivations. One of the questions raised was the fairness to Manu and Abha who were used in the experiments. Perhaps a part answer may be the title of one of Manu’s books, Gandhi My Mother.
The controversial political decisions
There are several political decisions taken by Gandhi that are treated by his critics not as errors of judgment, but as his personal quirks based on his inner voice. Most of these would need a detailed analysis of the situation at that time. He opposed, at one stage, the adoption of complete independence as the demand by the Congress party since he felt the people were not ready for it. A year later, he gave the nation the stellar call.
There are two particular situations that need to be touched upon. His fast unto death to prevent separate electorates for the Scheduled Caste leading to the Poona Pact with Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar is still being resented by the dalit groups. Gandhi’s assertion was simply that dalits are a part of the Hindu society and we should not create a further chasm. The Poona Pact, ultimately proved beneficial to the dalits and even Dr.Ambedkar who drafted the Constitution, adopted an integrated electorate.
The other contentious issue relates to the resignation of Subhash Chandra Bose as Congress President. Bose wanted the Congress to accept all means of carrying on the freedom struggle and not just peaceful means. Earlier, when there was difference between C.R. Das and Gandhi over non-cooperation, it was possible to reconcile the seemingly contrary views by the Congress following the constructive programme, while the Swarajists entered the legislatures with the objective of destroying from within. But peaceful means and armed struggle could not coexist. Gandhi’s followers could not be a party to the policy underlined by Bose who won the presidentship, defeating Gandhi’s candidate. Bose could not run the party. He resigned, founded the Forward Block as part of the Congress. He also led the Indian National Army. But he was also the one to laud the 1942 movement and to address Gandhiji as the ‘Father of the nation’.
Was Gandhi responsible for the Partition? Strangely, it was Savarkar who referred to Hindus and Muslims as two nations in his first presidential address to Hindu Mahasabha in 1937. Jinnah threatened direct action in 1940 and Dr. Ambedkar supported him. Gandhi felt betrayed by Nehru and Patel when they agreed to the partition suggested by the British in pursuance of their divide and rule policy. Gandhi knew he had no time to develop an alternate leadership if he disowned Nehru and Patel. He suggested that India be made independent first and then we could handle the issue of partition. He had, perhaps unrealistically, a vague hope that we would be wiser and responsible, once free. His insistence on India honouring its commitment to the newly created state of Pakistan (by giving its share of ` 55 crores) was based on the belief that the new nation should not start its life by acting dishonourably. And he paid with his life for this. To understand Gandhi it is necessary to appreciate certain concepts such as the relationship between the means and the end, and the need to listen to one’s inner voice which can give a holistic multidisciplinary answer to many intricate questions.