Sunday, October 02, 2005


Seeing as it is (or was, depending on your time zone) October 2nd, I figured I might as well put a post about Gandhi.[1]

On the whole, I've always admired Gandhi. I recognise how pivotal a role he played in the struggle for India's independence, and I have nothing but respect for his courage, his integrity, his clarity of purpose. His legacy as a revolutionary is unquestionable; as the leader of a political movement of the kind of subtlety and scope that the Indian freedom struggle required he has few equals. The fact that one man could wield such power, command such authority, and all on the strength of nothing but ideas, inspiration and personality is truly awe inspiring. As a case-study of inspirational leadership, as well as an examination of the power of spin, Gandhi is essential to political and sociological theory, as well as to History.

My problems, then are not with Gandhi so much as with the Mahatma. It is the myth, not the man, that I object to. In some sense, of course, Gandhi's status as a quasi-god was inevitable, all political movements need their symbols to survive on. But the line between considered appreciation and unquestioning reverence is a thin one, and in becoming the Mahatma (or being made one) Gandhi stepped over that line.

The most pernicious fallout of the Mahatmisation of Gandhi was the belief in his omniscience. Let's face it - Gandhi had no economic or social ideology worth speaking of. In many ways, he was a narrow-minded, petulant and puerile man, whose vision for the new India, such as it was, was bankrupt, incoherent and backward looking. That anyone would even try to lay the foundation of an economic and geo-political superpower on a foundation of Gandhian principle seems, in retrospect, ludicrous.

The problem was not simply that Gandhi's Mahatma status got his more bizarre ideas taken seriously, it's also that it made it impossible to engage in a healthy debate about them (although, of course, this wasn't necessarily Gandhi's fault). This, I think, was the reason that Gandhi had to be assassinated - a human being you can question and debate with, a Mahatma you can only kill. It is in this sense that Godse's act is primarily a religious one - it is the repudiation of a wilful and increasingly irrelevant God by a tortured, existential conscience (and how could the consciousness of a newborn nation not be prey to existential doubt) - an act not so much of bad faith as of no faith at all, of the denial of faith entirely. Gandhi had to be killed because he could not be sidelined.

(The parallel I've always found interesting is between Gandhi and Caesar. Very different men, of course, but there is a sense in which Brutus' quandary is also India's - the narrative forces that demand the destruction of our greatest generals are the same)

It is unfortunate, therefore, that the legend of the Mahatma has survived much beyond the legacy of the man. Ironically, it is the very idealisation of Gandhi that has made him irrelevant. Because we refuse to consider Gandhi's role in its proper historical, social and political context, because we choose instead to believe in an image of Gandhi as the Mahatma, a figure so pious and impeccable as to rival the avatars of God himself, and insist on feeding this sugar-coated Mahatma to all our schoolchildren, we are left with a 'Father of the Nation' whose ideas are far too impractical too live by and serve as little more than polite platitudes. Pragmatism was never Gandhi's strong suit anyway, a large part of the reason he succeeded the way he did was the mix of compassion and uncompromising idealism he brought to the table (this, by the way, is one of the key reasons I feel he should have retired after 1947 - idealism is critical in revolution, but dangerous in politics). But the last fifty years have ensured that every possible virtue has somehow been heaped on Gandhi's head, so that the way of the Mahatma is now the path to ascetism. Hardly a credible value system for one billion people to follow. If it were possible to constructively and critically discuss Gandhi in a modern context, some more reasonable version of his ideology (or parts of it) may well be found, but the brooding presence of the Mahatma ensures that to even begin to question or criticise Gandhi is to commit a kind of sacrilege (as many people will doubtless believe this post to be), so that intelligent debate is strangled at birth.

The person this deification does the greatest disservice to is Gandhi himself. If there is one thing that Gandhi can teach us, it is that one ordinary human being can, with patience and integrity and a little bit of luck, make a difference to the world he / she lives in. To label him a Mahatma is to plead special circumstance, to deny him his humanity, to create an easy way out for everyone else. When the definitive history of the twentieth century is finally written, Gandhi will have pride of place as an important revolutionary and national leader. That is the real Gandhi. The Mahatma is just a fairy tale told to a childish people to make them behave. It is time we outgrew him once and for all.

[1] I am aware that some people might consider this post offensive or arrogant (let me make that opinion worse by saying that I am by no means an expert on the subject of Gandhi - I am sure there is much about him I don't know). While that reaction itself is, in a sense, the subject of this post, let me say that it is not my intention to offend anyone. I am simply stating my (admittedly uninformed and probably irrelevant) opinion on the matter.


Jabberwock said...

Nothing offensive or arrogant about this at all - it's about as objective an analysis as anything I've read on the man. Most people either deify him or go to the other extreme.

Anyway, as you (and others) have pointed out, it was actually quite convenient that he didn't live long enough to play an active role in policymaking in independent India - there would have been serious friction between him and Nehru if that had happened. Modern India, even as it continued revering Gandhi as a God, would have had little practical use for his ideals.

Was watching bits of Attenborough's misguided film again last night btw - embarrassingly simplistic about the whole non-violence-as-a-tool-to-stand-up-against-your-adversary thing.

Anonymous said...

By assasinating him, don't you think Godse contributed hugely to the Mahatmaisation? Much easier to argue with a living person than a martyr, especially in the rather melodramatic society we come from.

Also, not sure about your claim on Gandhi's pragmatism. As I understand it, Gandhi took himself out of the administrative aspect and delegated the politics to Nehru anyway.

Had he not been assasinated, I suspect he would have been a leader of the masses whose impact would have gradually waned as he became older (given that he was 78 when he was shot).

Veena said...

Finally something balanced on Gandhi. So refreshing to read this after a series of Gandhi Jayanthi articles equating the poor man to either God or the Devil.

Falstaff said...

Jabberwock: Thanks. Agree about the Attenborough film - it had about as much to say about Gandhi as Troy had to say about Homer.

Anonymous: I don't entirely disagree with your point about Godse (I wasn't suggesting that what he did made sense, btw - just that you could see where he was coming from). The only trouble is I don't think we actually knew in concrete terms what Gandhi wanted on public policy - so it was a lot easier to pay lip-service to Gandhian 'philosophy' while implementing practical policy, rather than coming up against an actual living person who had specific input on important issues.

Veena: Thanks.

Jabberwock said...

Not sure about that analogy - Attenborough's film was expressly intended as a Gandhi biopic, while Troy (which I alone, among everyone I know, thought was an underrated film) never tried to pass itself off as a Homer interpretation.

But maybe we can discuss that on a different post :)

Quizman said...

Nice post. Incidentally, Gandhi's contribution to other movements is captured here..

Falstaff said...

Jabberwock: You're not going to suddenly start taking me seriously are you? Also, I'm not sure about Troy not being a Homer interpretation - I mean okay, so it claimed to be only loosely inspired, but that doesn't change the fact that for a lot of people it was the only exposure they had to Greek myth, so that there are people out there (trust me, I've met them) who think the entire Trojan war lasted a little over a week and ended when Brad Pitt sneaked his way into Troy in a big wooden horse and was killed at the main temple by an elf with a bad haircut.

Quizman: Thanks for the link - that's precisely the kind of homage I think we should be paying Gandhi.

Jabberwock said...

Oops, sorry for taking you seriously - cardinal sin, and I'm always chastising other people about that myself. But again *temporary seriousness here* it's pointless to judge a film by the effect it has on people who were born stupid and will in all likelihood die stupid.

Karthik said...

This says something along the same lines as you do.

Falstaff said...

Jabberwock: Agree.

Karthik: You're comparing me to a ToI editorial! A TOI editorial! I should just kill myself now. Elisa, where the devil is my ceremonial sword?

meditativerose said...

One thought that kept coming to me when reading Gandhi’s autobiography was how he was at the core, an ordinary, somewhat weak man with eccentric ideas – but with a very determined belief in those ideas. The whole idea of ‘experiments with truth’, was just that – experiments … the eating nuts and berries, not believing in medicines, the sexual experiments and so on. While with anyone else, you would dismiss all this as being the eccentricities of a conservative, religious old man and be done with it, since this was Gandhi, all this acquired more legitimacy and tolerance than it would have otherwise. While I’m all for tolerance for anyone’s personal beliefs, what I have issue with is the deification, and at a personal level, the way he forced these ideas on his family. That apart, the weakness of character he showed when living off his brother in England, and yet not taking his studies etc. seriously, various incidents when he was a kid … all this makes it tough for me to respect him as an individual. So while I respect his contributions to the freedom struggle (and how he showed how an ordinary person could make a real contribution), I don’t particularly think I’d want Gandhi as *my* father.

Anonymous said...

Well, the article was not too offensive or highly critical. but definitely needs more understanding on the myths of Gandhi that is purported through decades.

Here is another article debunking the concept of "Mahatma"

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