Gandhi in question.
(Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004); 355 pp. including illustrations, bibliography, and index; cloth $32.00. ISBN: 1-57392-998 0.
Gandhi As We Have Known Him by Gora Lavanam and Mark Lindley (New Delhi, India: National Gandhi Museum, 2005); 301 pp. plus index; paper $18.00. ISBN: 81-212-0863-7.
THESE DAYS THE STATUS of cultural heroes is always in doubt. Whether in the arena of sports, politics, or peace, once put on a pedestal they become targets of debunkers and deflators, eager to show the hero's mere humanity. The higher such a person is held in public esteem, the seemingly greater the satisfaction of bringing that person low.
Perhaps no one has flown higher in public regard than Mohandas K. Gandhi, who became the living embodiment of activist Humanist ideals: selfless sacrifice, principled nonviolence, and unwavering commitment to social justice. His name is still cultural shorthand for such values. But it's important to recognize the realities behind the myth. The rhetorical uses of Gandhi's celebrity can obscure complex truths about the person and about his philosophy and its limitations. Being realists about Gandhi, we can build on that portion of his legacy that withstands debunking while retaining the mythic ideal of his boundless concern as a model to emulate in our pursuit of social justice.
The two books reviewed here seek to penetrate the myth of Gandhi in quite different ways; one is constructive, the other not. G. B. Singh's Gandhi: Behind the Mask of Divinity subjects Gandhi the saint to death by a thousand cuts. The man is portrayed as an impostor who harbored racist attitudes toward South African blacks and whose efforts on behalf of Hindu "untouchables" were misguided half-measures, designed merely to build his own reputation and political influence. Using dozens of quotes from newspapers, letters, and biographies, most of which actually show Gandhi in a positive light, Singh aims to deconstruct what he calls Gandhi's pseudo-history. A topic of particular interest to Singh is Gandhi's service as the leader of an Indian stretcher-bearer corps during the 1906 "Zulu rebellion" in South Africa. The generally accepted account is that Gandhi acquitted himself honorably, helping to bring desperately needed medical attention and transport to wounded Zulus who would otherwise likely have perished. Not so, says Singh: the laudatory accounts of Gandhi's service are lies. According to Singh, Gandhi really had no concern or sympathy for blacks but, rather, sought military service for Indians alongside white Africans simply to advance the status of the Indians. More generally, Singh's evidence for Gandhi's racism is largely the fact that Gandhi never took up the cause of black liberation in South Africa, instead concentrating his efforts on behalf of his fellow Indians. What some might see as a forgivable sin of omission, Singh interprets as equivalent to racism.
At one point in the book, it appears as if Singh might have the goods on Gandhi. Imprisoned with black convicts for his activism, Gandhi wrote in a newspaper account of his experience: "They are troublesome, dirty, and live almost like animals." This hardly seems the Mahatma (Great Soul) who later in life claimed solidarity with all oppressed peoples, and indeed many of his Indian compatriots in South Africa were deeply prejudiced against blacks and made no secret of it. But in the same article Gandhi also said, "It was, however, as well that we were classed with the Natives. It was a welcome opportunity to study the treatment meted out to Natives, their conditions and habits." Here we have evidence of an empathetic, inquiring individual, someone who would eventually come to epitomize universal compassion, not racism. For Singh, this sort of evidence doesn't count, which makes his claim that Gandhi harbored lifelong prejudice against blacks far-fetched--a product of animus rather than a balanced reading of the record.
Singh also offers an unsubstantiated hypothesis that Gandhi, in cleaning out files, deliberately destroyed some incriminating documents sometime after 1906. But he has no evidence as to what the missing documents contained. That their content was racist and their destruction part of a coverup is simply speculation on his part.
For those who relish the debunking of religious impostors, Singh's contentious litany of Gandhi's real and imagined faults may provide some satisfaction, but for most readers his conclusion that Gandhi was a "thug" no better than Stalin or Hitler (pages 308-309) will seem overwrought and unnecessarily inflammatory. B. R. Ambedkar's 1945 classic, What Gandhi and the Congress Have Done to the Untouchables, offers
a far more substantial and balanced account of some of Gandhi's shortcomings.
Quite different in tone and intent from Singh's book is Gora Lavanam and Mark Lindley's Gandhi as We Have Known Him, which seeks not to destroy Gandhi but to trace the historical evolution of his thought. The authors (both forthright atheists) show that in many respects Gandhi was deeply conservative in his views, constrained by his Hindu heritage. Quoting him extensively, Lavanam (who some readers might remember from his July/August 1988 Humanist article, "The Atheist Center: Humanism in Practice") and Lindley describe Gandhi's gradual, albeit incomplete, movement toward a secular, progressive Humanism. The picture emerges of a man, immersed in a spiritual quest to save the downtrodden, who discovers his humanitarian instincts at war with the dictates of his hierarchical cultural tradition. Over the course of the philosophical evolution described in this book, we see the development of an increasingly humanistic Gandhi.
The authors' analysis is direct, insightful, and well written. And since Gandhi was a tireless publicist for his causes, they have a wealth of material to draw upon in documenting what changed and what didn't in his views. They point out that he was an inveterate self-critic, always willing to reexamine his philosophy in the pursuit of truth and to engage in continual give and take with his many correspondents and associates. Among these was Lavanam's father, Gora, a progressive atheist and social activist who was well ahead of Gandhi in advocating a complete dismantling of the caste system. In their meetings and letters, Gora challenged Gandhi's conservatism in regard to caste and thus played a role in Gandhi's liberalization and secularization during his later years.
Lavanam's and his family's personal encounters with Gandhi are recounted in an early chapter ("Reminiscences"), giving us a sense of both the man and his personality. Next comes a historical overview of Gandhi's lifelong concerns: moral truth, religion, self-discipline, nonviolence, Indian self-rule, the mitigation of poverty, and the quest for moksha (spiritual enlightenment). For readers unfamiliar with Gandhi's life and work, this chapter provides a useful introduction, told largely in Gandhi's own words but with helpful commentary interspersed. In the heart of the book, however, are the three subsequent chapters that focus on on Gandhi's Hinduism, his attitudes toward other religions, and his thinking on theism, atheism, and secularism. Here too the authors often let Gandhi speak for himself, with the quotes dated and numbered sequentially to simplify cross-referencing. As their choice of topics might suggest, the authors' focus is on what they argue was Gandhi's gradual evolution toward Humanism. Although he never disowned his Hindu roots, and remained spiritual in a way that readers of the Humanist might find overly theistic, the authors show how his worldview gradually became more ecumenical, less supernaturalist, and more explicitly secular. This evolution seems to have been closely linked with an increasingly progressive stance on a number of social issues.
In the 1920s Gandhi rejected unequivocally the caste-based principle of untouchability but still upheld the Hindu varna precept of four inherited kinds of vocations (priest/ sage, soldier/administrator, merchant/landowner, servant/ laborer). Although he argued that this precept could coexist with equal social status for all, the reality was that varna perpetuated class divisions and economic inequality. Eventually, influenced by Ambedkar, Gora, and other progressives, Gandhi in his last years favored an altogether casteless India, realizing that his humanitarian ideals could never be achieved in the context of varna. The authors' detailed narrative of this development shows Gandhi's openness to change in controversies where lesser minds might have sought refuge in dogma.
Lavanam and Lindley trace a similar evolution in Gandhi's views on religion, atheism, and secularism. Wanting to unite his country, and having witnessed Hindu-Muslim violence, Gandhi became less sectarian in his own spirituality, and the authors conjecture that at the end he "would not be satisfied to die merely a Hindu-Moslem, but would die instead a universal humanist." Pressed by Gora on the virtues of atheism, Gandhi ultimately accepted atheists as his moral peers in the fight for social progress, and indeed his own conception of divinity became increasingly abstract, ending up in the aphorism that "God is Truth." During the year before his assassination in 1948 he took a strong stand for a secular Indian state, with religion to be left as a strictly private matter. Gandhi As We Have Known Him gives us fresh insight into the development of the thought of a man many called Mahatma but who would accept that name for himself, leaving us with a picture of a man perpetually in quest of moral truth. Ultimately, Gandhi arrived at a largely Humanist understanding of the basis for human rights and, as the authors point out, this makes him especially relevant to secularists working for social justice. Merely a man, his extraordinary tenacity and dedication to the ethical life, informed by an open and self-critical mind, confirms Gandhi among the great Humanists of the twentieth century.
Thomas W. Clark is director of the Center for Naturalism (www.naturalism.org), a nonprofit educational organization in Massachusetts. (Gandhi As We Have Known Him can be obtained by sending a check for $18, made out to "Humanist Association of Massachusetts," to H.A.M., Box 381225, Cambridge MA 02238-II 25. Massachusetts residents must send $18.90 to cover sales tax. The entire $18 will go to the Humanist Association of Massachusetts, which subsidized Dr. Lindley's work on the book.)
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|Title Annotation:||Gandhi: Behind the Mask of Divinity; Gandhi As We Have Known Him|
|Author:||Clark, Thomas W.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2006|
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