Vol. 9 No. 15 · 3 September 1987

India is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its independence. Stephen Haggard writes about the role of Mahatma Gandhi

2593 words
The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Vol. I: Civilisation, Politics and Religion 
edited by Rhagavan Iyer.
Oxford, 644 pp., £40, February 1986, 0 19 824754 0
Show More
The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Vol. II: Truth and Non-Violence 
edited by Rhagavan Iyer.
Oxford, 678 pp., £50, October 1986, 0 19 824755 9
Show More
The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Vol. III: Non-Violent Resistance and Social Transformation 
edited by Rhagavan Iyer.
Oxford, 641 pp., £55, May 1987, 0 19 824756 7
Show More
Show More

Every morning at dawn for most of his life Mahatma Gandhi would seat himself on the ground and write until lunchtime. His collected writings are a daunting prospect – even the 90-volume set published by the Government of India is incomplete. Gandhi wrote as a political propagandist, original and candid at all times, never insidious. As part of the campaigns he waged in both South Africa and India he founded, managed and edited a number of important journals about current issues, including Young India, Indian Opinion and Harijan. In their pages he would expound his principles, report on their practice, engage in debate with his critics, and publish his speeches and interviews. In addition to this, he conducted a voluminous private correspondence, writing as many as ten letters a day on subjects ranging from family news to philosophical problems. And once a week his daily verbal output was committed to paper: this was the day of silence that he had vowed to observe.

Raghavan Iyer’s three-volume selection is the first serious attempt to present and interpret selectively this enormous corpus. The reasons for the neglect until now of the writings of so famous a man (Mountbatten said that history would place Gandhi on a par with Christ and the Buddha) are worth considering. It has been Gandhi’s fate to prove most memorable as a symbol and as a visual phenomenon. His charismatic attire – a homespun loincloth and blanket, his ‘minus-fours’, as he called them – at the London Round Table talks in 1930 and 1931 is better remembered than his verbal contributions. His remarkable appearance and personal manner are illustrated more effectively in photographs and memoirs by friends and eye-witnesses than in his own writings – which may be what Gandhi intended: he declared that after 1920 his life was public property. Biography of Gandhi tends to hagiography, and for such purposes judgments about him have served better than judgments by him. Second, Gandhi, like Socrates, had trained himself to listen to an inner voice, and he pronounced upon every moral and political issue accordingly. He could respond to a daunting range of issues, often without expertise, but working from simple moral principles. This gives his writings an inconsistency and breadth which make them hard to organise. The sustained movement towards a clear goal which one sees in the writings of Nehru and Jinnah is not present in Gandhi’s work.

Finally, one may note that the centre of gravity for studies of 20th-century India is her struggle for political and economic independence, and that while Gandhi as the quasimythological figure of Attenborough’s film is easily retained in this context, the same cannot be said of his writings. They record a far greater dedication to other concerns, Independence often lying only on the fringes of his activities. Gandhi devoted himself to projects like spinning and the abolition of untouchability on his ashrams, and in the world at large he was concerned with the ‘constructtive programme’ of better sanitation and cow-breeding, the improvement of village life, religious unity and the spread of non-violence. He detested power politics, and involved himself only sporadically and often critically with the political leaders of the day. Of the independence which India sought and achieved, Gandhi said in June 1947: ‘This is like eating wooden ladoos; if they eat it they die of colic; if they don’t they starve.’ For Gandhi, ‘independence’ would have been the eradication of village poverty and unemployment through individual and social self-reliance. The writings show a Gandhi who runs against the Independence-current of modern Indian history.

Raghavan Iyer has approached the writings by presenting them around a number of themes. For better or worse, this separates them at once from the overpowering epic of Gandhi’s life, and also from the struggle for Independence. Volume One of The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi covers Gandhi’s views on civilisation and religion. Volume Two traces the development of his thoughts on human nature under such headings as ‘History’, ‘Truth-Seeking’, ‘Conscience’, ‘Principles’, ‘Heroism’, and also covers the idea of non-violence (which approximates to St Paul’s ‘Charity’). Volume Three, the last of the series, is devoted to the theory and practice of the Gandhian political principles, contrasting his utopianism with the Realpolitik of Independence.

The emphasis throughout is on Gandhi the thinker, rather than the man of action whose idiosyncratic style of leadership by personal example usually attracts our attention. Iyer persuades us that there are great rewards in following the development of particular ideas over the course of Gandhi’s life. The interest of his thoughts is all too often assumed to lie in his straightforward belief in certain principles, and analysis along such limited lines has not proved very illuminating. Presented in this sort of thematic order, the writings offer an insight into how Gandhi modified and expanded his beliefs, creating an original form of moral and political authority founded on the interpretation of these principles.

Gandhi’s principles and ideals were all initially proclaimed in simple and abstract terms – non-violence, self-rule, adherence to truth – yet his followers and critics demanded satisfaction on the most hair-splitting complexities of their concretisation. Gandhi’s legal training enabled him to thrive on this sort of quibbling controversy, and he derived a considerable proportion of his authority from his ability to take part in such debates. Mountains of correspondence were generated by his mercy-killing of a disease-ridden and moribund calf, with Gandhi replying time and again to outraged inquirers, defending his actions in terms of the principle of non-violence. Iyer has included many of the exchanges arising from this incident. On the issue of home-produced cloth, Gandhi supported the spinning movement with an unceasing stream of comment on technical aspects of home-spinning, dyeing, productivity and distribution, as well as on the social value of these occupations. In this way he transformed domestic spinning into a major economic and political force, and homespun cloth has since remained an important industry in India. The strongest impression one gets from reading this book is of Gandhi’s relentless determination in propagating his beliefs and actions. This was the chief source of his power in the Indian subcontinent – not, as is often maintained, the veneration spontaneously accorded in India to those who, like Gandhi, have renounced the world in order to live the religious life.

A complete transformation of the terms of any debate was the key to his approach. Any moral claim that he made or heard had to be borne out with specific instances. Similarly, any action was to be tested against the universal moral law of dharma. Gandhi, like no other leader of India, managed to break through the moral paralysis surrounding the deeply-entrenched abuses of several centuries: the destruction of village life by unemployment, the crippling of India’s agriculture under British rule, and Hinduism’s wooden laws on untouchability or cattle-killing. India exported its emaciated cattle to Australia, to re-import them as fertiliser and shoe-leather, rather than endure contamination from the slaughter of the cow and the handling of its leather. For each such abuse that he perceived, Gandhi would proclaim as the remedy an ideal principle which all individuals should practise. He maintained that ideals could only be interpreted through actions, and so he would first implement the chosen solution in his own life and in his ashrams, only propagating it in his publications when the experiment was complete. On cow-slaughter, for example, Gandhi began methodical cattle-farming on his ashrams, claiming that the greatest veneration for the cow was shown in improving its breeding and making efficient use of all its products, not in the apotheosis of the animal at the expense of human economy. The skill and energy with which he could transform such issues is something which no biography or film of Gandhi can illustrate as effectively as a sequence of his writings.

One should not see Gandhi as a revolutionary simply because he attacked compromise and pressed for radical solutions. In the West new beliefs eventually entail the overthrow of previous doctrines, but it was in keeping with Indian cultural tradition that Gandhi always saw a way forward in the re-invention of ancient cultural institutions. He specialised in breathing new life into stale doctrines, aiming to preserve traditional forms while radically altering the spirit of their application. For this reason he is generally despised by revolutionaries – his statues were defaced during the Naxalite (Maoist) uprisings of 1969 in Calcutta. Gandhi would revive defunct elements of Indian culture and restore the significance which they had lost in ritualisation or oblivion during centuries of foreign rule. These revivals could be as basic as the promotion of communal singing, which Gandhi knew from his experience of Britain and traditional India to be a promoter of group solidarity and resolve. They could be as abstract as his triumphant welding together of a new theory of dharma with the humble spinning-wheel.

Dharma is a crucial element in Indian thought, roughly comparable to the idea of nomos in the West, but not secular or invariant like our ‘law’. In the earliest Indian thought, dharma referred to the correct order of sacrifice as a reflection of the order of the cosmos, but in the sixth century BC the Buddha (described by Gandhi as a Hindu reformer) taught that dharma was wider than this: it required obedience to eternal laws governing righteous action in the world. Although Hindus hold that the ethical implications of dharma are perpetually changing, codification and stasis are inevitable: in the Hinduism of Gandhi’s age dharma all too often amounted simply to a pharisaical compliance with caste laws. The observance of dharma, whatever its form, has always been vital to Hindus, and so when Gandhi secured a new interpretation, he tapped enormous energies formerly expended in ritual propriety. He redirected this potential into social and political activity by proclaiming that dharma is the dutiful concern of the individual for the welfare of all. A political campaign against poverty, injustice or the British Raj was thus a duty enjoined with all the moral force of dharma.

One focus of the new dharma would be the alleviation of crippling seasonal unemployment in the Indian village. Since the textiles for which India had once been famous were no longer being made, the portion of the year formerly spent productively in spinning and weaving, Gandhi noted, was now given to unemployed idleness and chronic poverty. The Raj had suppressed textile production in order to secure the Indian market for British goods: Gandhi saw the revival of the domestic textile industry as the answer to the decay in the quality of village life. He re-introduced hand-spinning, and this created employment, income, and a weapon against the British stranglehold. More than that, the turning wheel – chakra – had been associated with dharma for millennia: the Buddha ‘turned the wheel of dharma’ when he began his ministry, and the dharmachakra (wheel of moral Law) has always been the Hindu symbol of righteousness. In innumerable writings and speeches Gandhi strove to transform and unite the meanings of dharma and chakra, extending the meaning of the chakra to include the spinning-wheel on which it is the dharma of every Indian to spin his own yarn in the interest of the welfare of all. The economic and political consequences were immense.

Successes like this were largely effected by means of speeches and writings – Gandhi’s use of propaganda was inspired – but the more contentious aspects of his career cannot really be documented from these records. For example, his adoption of traditional Hindu values was bound to lead to disagreement with Muslim India. Unfortunately, his writings do not enlarge our understanding of his failure to capture the Muslims’ imagination and win the confidence of their leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. We can only note that he tried hard – he published a collection of Islamic tests in praise of the spinning-wheel – but without inspiration. The writings furnish occasional references to this issue, but nothing to bear out the fact that the Gandhian tendency to redirect and moralise a political discourse could only offend, not transform, the Muslim minority’s growing sense of its own separate destiny. Gandhi was not always sensitive to the limitations of his methods. Sometimes he recognised that his approach might be inapplicable or unheeded: he declined, for instance, to speak on non-violence to warring Europe – ‘I shall not be able to present to them the science of peace in a language they will understand’ – though he did venture to suggest that non-violent resistance by the Jews against Hitler would have been effective. Gandhi never accepted relativistic arguments: pure non-violence would always succeed, and if non-violence failed, it was because it was impure.

Gandhi’s most significant disagreements were with the socialist outlook of the Congress Party which formed the first government of Independent India. Their uneasy relationship is excellently documented in the last volume of this series. The Congress Party’s secular vision of a progressive modern state taking its place among the nations of the world was not Gandhi’s: he saw in such plans the continuation of foreign rule in an ideological form, he saw the villages and the poor left behind in the rush for progress, and he saw India becoming, not his utopian land of non-violence and self-sufficient villages, but a mechanised, urban and materialistic civilisation like that of the West. However, Gandhi had committed himself to the political freedom of India, and he was therefore compelled to work with the Congress Party, the most important Independence platform. The Congress likewise needed Gandhi: he provided a unique religious and idealistic presence, and represented their cause to a world audience. Moreover, many of the poorest Indian people distrusted the Westernised politicians of the Congress, but would pledge their support to a party which seemed to have Gandhi at its head.

When Independence became a certainty, a huge rift between Gandhi and the Congress opened up. In May 1947 he observed that even the people were not behind him: ‘I am being told to retire to the Himalayas. Everybody is eager to garland my photos and statues. Nobody really wants to follow my advice.’ A few days before he had criticised the direction the country was taking and blamed India’s socialists:

I do not fully agree with the idea that it [equality] will happen when we have power in our hands, or that we can do a great deal through power. If you wish to establish socialism, there is only one way in which it can be done: go and live among the poor in the villages, live as they live, be one with the village people, work for eight hours daily, use only village-made goods and articles even in your personal lives, remove illiteracy among the village people, eradicate untouchability and uplift the women ... A time will surely come when nobody will listen to your long speeches; nobody will even attend your meetings, for preaching sermons to the people without following those principles in your own lives does not work long in society.

This eloquence in expressing moral imperatives blossomed in Gandhi’s later years: his early writings from the South African campaigns, though polished, focused more closely on particular issues. But whether using his perfect English, the Hindi language or his native Gujarati (as in the above passage), he always expressed himself with clarity and spartan elegance. Sadly, many of the translations from Indian languages used by Iyer are a little dated: it would have been worthwhile to retranslate them for this major publication.

Recent books about Gandhi include:

Gandhi: Against the Tide by Anthony Copley. Blackwell, 118 pp., £3.25, 12 February, 0 631 145141
The Myth of the Mahatma: Gandhi, the British and the Raj by Michael Edwards.
Constable, 270 pp., £12.95, 29 June 1986, 0 09 466070 0
Gandhi in India: In his Own Words, edited by Martin Green. University Press of New England, 384 pp., $20, October, 0 87451 390 1

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences