Tuesday, July 23, 2013


"Hai, Rama"
-Gandhi's last words

One of the most honored and beloved figures of the 20th century was Mohandas Karamchang "Mahatma" Gandhi, Indian leader.  Gandhi is best known from the Richard Attenborough film by the name which won a ton of awards and prepared viewers worldwide to be utterly shocked and horrified by Ben Kingsley's character in the film Sexy Beast.
Gandhi is almost universally well regarded as a peace-loving leader and figure of great spiritual and moral character.  He is admired for his work in South Africa and India for the rights of minorities, self-rule, and continual stance of loving peace and fellowship of man.
The film Gandhi portrays the man as almost supernaturally peaceful and noble, a saint-like figure of pure goodness and wisdom whose self-sacrifice and life of poverty puts others to shame.  Is it all true, was the man such a paragon of goodness, a flawless figure of ethical stature?
Well, yes and no.  As a human being, Gandhi was a mixed bag, as we all are.
For example, left out of the film, the Wikipedia entry on Gandhi, and most peoples' understanding is that he was a soldier who fought for the British Empire several times.  That's right, non violent Gandhi made war for the British.
His first military effort was in the Boer war with the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps, which Gandhi led.  During the "Kaffir" war, Gandhi was again active as a messenger and stretcher-bearer, and won accolades for valor under fire.  And finally in World War I, Gandhi recruited combat soldiers for England, writing a pamphlet proclaiming "To bring about such a state of things we should have the ability to defend ourselves, that is, the ability to bear arms and to use them...If we want to learn the use of arms with the greatest possible despatch, it is our duty to enlist ourselves in the army."   This prompted his friend Charlie Andrews to say "Personally I have never been able to reconcile this with his own conduct in other respects, and it is one of the points where I have found myself in painful disagreement."  Gandhi himself made sure he would not personally fight against or kill anyone, but was intending to lead these new troops but fell ill and was unable to serve personally.  For his efforts, Gandhi was awarded the War Medal from Queen Victoria.
Initially, Gandhi was not an enemy of or opposed to the British.  He was trained in law in England and became a lawyer at University College London, and adopted English customs there, according to his biographers.
Eventually, Gandhi did end up in South Africa and did take up a fight for the rights of Indians (called "coloreds" in the Apartheid system).  It was there he began to question the British Empire and formulate his ideas on social justice. However, Gandhi was, according to biographers and his writings, loyal to the British Empire until his 50s.
 In South Africa, his efforts led to the blockage of a bill that would have denied coloreds the right to vote and weakened a law that required registration and showing of papers by all coloreds.  However, here it is useful to note what Richard Grenier does in Commentary Magazine from 1983:
In the India in which Gandhi grew up, and had only recently left, some castes could enter the courtyards of certain Hindu temples, while others could not. Some castes were forbidden to use the village well. Others were compelled to live outside the village, still others to leave the road at the approach of a person of higher caste and perpetually to call out, giving warning, so that no one would be polluted by their proximity. The endless intricacies of Hindu caste by-laws varied somewhat region by region, but in Madras, where most South African Indians were from, while a Nayar could pollute a man of higher caste only by touching him, Kammalans polluted at a distance of 24 feet, toddy drawers at 36 feet, Pulayans and Cherumans at 48 feet, and beef-eating Paraiyans at 64 feet. All castes and the thousands of sub-castes were forbidden, needless to say, to marry, eat, or engage in social activity with any but members of their own group
Low-caste Hindus, in short, suffered humiliations in their native India compared to which the carrying of identity cards in South Africa was almost trivial.
Yet until late in his life Gandhi did nothing at all about caste divisions, and as a Hindu, Gandhi would have seen the caste system as proper and reasonable based on his faith and the principles of reincarnation and karma.  Here are some of his thoughts on the caste system:

"If the lower caste people leave their ancestral professions and adopt another profession, their expectations will rise and they will lose their mental balance and ultimately their family’s peace will be destroyed."
"I will oppose the separation of the Untouchables from the caste Hindus even at the cost of my life.  The problems of the Untouchables have no relevance or important before it."
"As the time goes on every day my belief in the Varna System is strengthening that  man has no existence without it.  Therefore, the Moslems and the Christians must follow this system; as it is as mandatory for them as it is necessary for the Hindus, to maintain social harmony."
"I call myself a Samatany Hindu who has deep faith in the caste system."
and so on.  A strong supporter of this system, Gandhi was tied into a more oppressive, humiliating, and controlling system than Apartheid ever achieved in South Africa.  By the 1930s, Gandhi now almost 70 began to change his views, and before his death he was opposed to the system and called for general equality.   However, even then he believed that it was better for everyone to stay in the occupation of their family and not be socially mobile.  His first fast was in opposition to a plan to grant untouchables a separate body in the legislature - a political voice.  Gandhi instead wanted no political voice, but for everyone to stop treating them as outcasts (and for a very short time, it seemed to work).
In fact, while Gandhi was very supportive of Indians, he seemed to care nothing whatsoever for blacks.  In 1903, Gandhi wrote "We believe as much in the purity of race as we think they do, only we believe that they would best serve these interests, which are as dear to us as to them, by advocating the purity of all races, and not one alone. We believe also that the white race of South Africa should be the predominating race."  
In 1905 he wrote "Now let us turn our attention to another and entirely unrepresented community - the Indian. He is in striking contrast with the native. While the native has been of little benefit to the State, it owes its prosperity largely to the Indians. While native loafers abound on every side, that species of humanity is almost unknown among Indians here."
In 1908 he wrote of African prisoners "Only a degree removed from the animal." And, "Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized - the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals."
There is no evidence that his views changed, but he had little or no exposure to blacks while living in India, so perhaps they did and the situation never came up to comment on it.  It should also be understood that everyone is a child of their times, and few rise above that to condemn the ills of their culture.  Gandhi was not unusual in his views of blacks, and compared to some was quite mild.
However his attitude toward the caste system and blacks does contradict much of his teaching and activities.  Especially since both were very strongly held when he was working in South Africa, it is easy to see that Gandhi's concern was not for equality, human rights, or some higher calling of social justice, but rather the benefit and well being of his racial group, Indians.  His argument in South Africa was not based on the worth of all humans and the concept of equal rights, but that Indians were more productive, cleaner, and better than blacks and thus should be treated better by the ruling whites.
Regarding non violence, this is the most consistent theme in Gandhi's life - war record and all, since he was always in a pacifist role personally - and all of his leadership involved non violent resistance.  He even took this principle so far that he encouraged Jews in Nazi controlled Europe to be non violent and simply refuse to go along with their oppressors.  He believed that Hitler would respond the same way as the English to this, apparently unable to conceive of such an evil regime.  Incredibly, he wrote to the Viceroy of England that they should stop trying to fight German invasions: “This manslaughter must be stopped. You are losing; if you persist, it will only result in greater bloodshed. Hitler is not a bad man....”
Incidentally, Gandhi also strongly opposed a Jewish homeland in Israel.  Gandhi said that his sympathies were with the Jews, but he opposed any effort that Jews could take to defend themselves.
Oddly enough during the Calcutta riots, Gandhi gave approval to violence in a moral cause, but for a strange reason: because he believed the contrast with his non-violent approach would show his ideas to be superior.  He also believed that violent riots by Indians were superior to British rule.  Gandhi once said "I would not flinch from sacrificing a million lives for India’s liberty!"
Sadly, once the British pulled out, that's pretty much what happened in horrific riots that left millions dead when Hindu and Muslim fanatics went berserk and began slaughtering old enemies and long-held hates the British restrained them from acting on.
Gandhi did not live a life of poverty.  He established a fund that earned more than a million rupees and while he did not personally spend much on himself, lived comfortably.  Gandhi lived a humble life, but not one of the wretched, horrific poverty experienced by the lower castes of India.
Then there's Gandhi's personal life.  In the 1940s, Gandhi began introducing naked women and young girls such as a grand niece named Manubehn into his bed to "test his chastity" which he has embraced in 1906, despite being a father and husband.  He wrote about these experiments and gave sermons on them, but some of his staff resigned and his family strongly opposed these actions.  By 1947, Gandhi stopped the practice.
This family, incidentally, was refused education, and his own wife was illiterate.  Gandhi refused to allow his wife any penicillin, and she died.  Gandhi's inner voice permitted him the use of quinine, however.
In the end, Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948 by Nathuram Godse who thought Gandhi was too sympathetic to India's Muslims.  By his death, Pakistan was being formed as a separate Muslim homeland and India was facing violence and a very uncertain future.  Gandhi thought of himself as a failure in his efforts to bring a free and peaceful India, but his efforts did end English colonial rule.
Gandhi was not the saint that the film portrayed - since it was funded a full third by the nation of India and subject to editorial control by the Indian government, it was less than fully honest about the man and his times.  Racism is implied to have been a British invention, for example. The film was often misleading or fiction, but that's a separate topic.
Yet at the same time Gandhi did a lot of good, was a very devout Hindu, and worked hard at great personal cost his whole life against violence and oppression.  For all his faults, Gandhi was a good enough man, its just true that he had faults.  Nobody gains from elevating someone to perfection when they were not.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.

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