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Gandhi's Challenge Now

By Mark Lindley

The word 'mahatma' means 'great soul'. One might suppose that Gandhi's ideas would no longer have to change after he attained such a status, he'd be right about everything already; but he knew better than to think that. Yet he too was not a philosopher. He was a man of action.

It is appropriate to consider Gandhi in our analysis of good and evil, because he is the closest we have to a worldwide model of a good person from the last several centuries. Westerners, for instance, know what Einstein said in 1945 about him: that 'generations to come' would 'scarce believe that such a man ever in flesh and blood walked on this earth'. Indeed one challenge in writing about him is to describe his moral failings (which he did have, since he was human) and his many mistakes without appearing to be just a pigmy sniping at the giant who invented beautiful political techniques and used them to take away the greatest colony from the greatest empire in history.

However, this problem of how to criticize Gandhi without losing face is a small thing compared to some of the other challenges he sets for us.

The one which you most likely want me to describe is to use only non-violent methods in the pursuit of justice. Perhaps more basic was Gandhi's challenge, first of all to himself, to exercise strong self-discipline. He did it in many ways. He dressed very simply, and shaved his head. He didn't go to concerts or the theatre. One whole day every week he refrained from speaking. He did physical work a couple of hours every day. (And to do that was a condition which he set for every able-bodied person wishing to live in his experimental commune. What a healthy idea that was!) His eating was very disciplined: not only was he a vegetarian, but also on each day he would take only five articles of food, and none after sunset. He and his wife took, at the age of 36 or 37, a vow of chastity, and then kept it. And, with the consent of their four children (but contrary to her wish) he declined to keep any money or material property for them to inherit.

Gandhi thrived on all that discipline; but it was rather puritanical, wasn't it? One suspects and there is some evidence to support thisthat he was naturally so inclined to excess that he needed a lot of self-discipline in order to function well. It seems to me a saving grace that in his later years he would advise his friends not to overdo it but instead to know themselves and to tailor accordingly their undertakings in self-discipline. He would tell them, for instance, not to take a vow unless they were sure they could keep it. One reason, very important to him, why he declined to live like an upper middle-class personwhich he could readily have done, since he had a successful law-practice in Johannesburg and after moving back to India could have had one in Bombayis that it would have alienated him from the millions of poverty-stricken people in India whom he wished to serve and to lead. In 1925, at a time when there happened to be a, famine in the province of Orissa,  he was asked, 'May not ... some artists be able to see truth in and through beauty?'. Notice the concise intelligence of the first three words of his answer:

'Some may, but ... to the millions we cannot give the training to acquire a perception of beauty in such a way as to see Truth in it. Show them Truth first [directly], and they will see beauty afterwards. Orissa haunts me in my waking hours and in my dreams. Whatever can be useful to those starving millions is beautiful to my mind. Let us give today first the vital things of life, and all the graces and ornaments of life will follow.'

Yet that very beautiful concern doesn't justify Gandhi's opposition to the use of contraceptives, on the grounds that the self-discipline of chastity is the only acceptable kind of birth-control. There would be far less dire poverty in India today if he had seen a modicum of self-discipline in their use and had championed it; she might have arrived by now at only twice rather than four times the population-density she had in 1925, I think he made a big mistake there.

I'll discuss later a special aspect of the value today of the Gandhian concern about poverty. For now let me just say that while I think most of us should accept, warmly and gladly, more healthy aesthetic and healthy sensuous satisfaction than Gandhi himself did, it gives us vitality, still we should pay serious attention to part of his challenge of self discipline. We should take seriously his alternative to the consumerist, 'more-is-better' concept of civilization which dominates the modern culture of my homeland, the USA.

Gandhi said: 'Civilization, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary restriction of wants. This alone promotes real happiness and contentment.'

Here the phrase 'restriction of wants' means that a civilized person is one who has progressed beyond the stage of 'wanting'desiringlots of everything but, because of circumstances, restricting the fulfillment of those desires while envying people who take more. According to Gandhi, the civilized person is not the one who would like to eat and drink magnificently, have a lot of sexual partners, or shoes or whatever, and so on, but finds it necessary to settle for less; instead it is the one who has considered these matters thoughtfully and has come to prefer what is reasonable and sensible.

Gandhians see in consumerism a counterfeit of freedom. According to the economist who administered the All-India Village Industries Association, when a factory worker whose routine is so unlike freedom that 'drudgery' is the best word for it becomes habituated to spending his pay on 'games, cinemas' and the like, then: 'These assume the role of necessities without which, he is led to believe, he cannot live. ...Such a standard functions like a nose-string to a bullock.'

One may question whether it is more civilized for a scientist to prefer a modest database to a big one, for a scholar to prefer a modest library, or a musician a modest repertoire. But notwithstanding issues of that kind, I still find a lot of value in Gandhi's concept of civilization, especially now when ever more salient economic inequalities, and an unprecedented rate of ecological degradation, are likely to cause some of humanity's worst problems ever.

Another Gandhian challenge, however, is to prefer moral freedom to authoritarianism. His rationale was Hindu. He called the soul divine and believed (at least until his last years) that it is immortal: that when your body dies your soul will carry on in a different, new-born body. As a Hindu he also believed (he often said so) that the world has an inherent moral order: the cosmos is coherent, and fairness and duty make it so. This cosmic moral order determines, according to the doctrine of inherited karma, that every soul inhabits an animal or human being with a certain natural or social station befitting the moral level attained in its most recent previous incarnation. So if you behave like, say, a crocodile, then your soul will, next time, inhabit a crocodile (the evidence that Gandhi believed this in the 1930s is explicit), whereas if your behavior is quite good, then your soul's next incarnation will be as a Brahmin. Yet since humans in general are spiritually higher than animals (Gandhi had an unorthodox though still quite considerate Hindu attitude toward cows), all currently human souls are morally sensible: it's the human hallmark of their divinity and the most telling difference between humans and brutes. And thus anyone who is doing something unfair or is otherwise neglecting a duty can be persuaded by a clear, that is, pure, persistent, and loving moral appeal, to do the right thing instead. (Love is, according to Gandhi, a very powerful element. He said that even a hardened criminal is likely to heed a moral appeal from his mother because the strength of her love has been clear to him from his infancy when he gave her so much travail and she suffered it so benignly.) But, only 'pure' moral authority can, according to Gandhi, make such an effective appeal to a human soul; any would be authority based on brute force will fall short because its moral impurity vitiates the appeal.

To clarify this last point let's imagine that you and I were two scientists or philosophers proposing mutually contradictory hypotheses at a conference like this one, and that at a certain moment I threatened you because you disagreed with me. At that moment I would lose, wouldn't I, my credibility as a scientist or philosopher seeking the truth. Well, Gandhi's anti­authoritarianism was based on an analogous view of seeking moral truth. This view prompted him to use the word 'reason' in a special way. He would say: 'Every formula of every religion has, in this age of reason [that's an ordinary use of the word, not yet his special use] to submit to the acid tests of reason and universal justice if it is to ask for universal assent.'

And then: 'Every true [religious] scripture only gains by criticism. After all we have no other guide but our reason to tell us what may be regarded as revealed and what may not be. The early Muslims accepted Islam [this clearly means Islam as a way of life based on moral truth rather than as a set of propositions about matters of fact] not because they knew it to be revealed [by God to Muhammed] but because it appealed to their virgin reason.'

Now, I disbelieve in any divinity or cosmic moral order; and yet I think that because humans are social animals; there is validity in Gandhi's belief in the strength of a pure appeal to moral sensibility. The appeal can persuade if it is made with intelligence, patience and spiritual energy, if there is enough effective freedom of communication that virtually everyone in the relevant society (the one to which the other person belongs) can become aware of it, and if the moral issue is potentially capable of stirring them.

By 'spiritual energy' I mean not only a big effort but also a certain kind of creativity which Gandhi encapsulated in a precept to 'magnify the other person's small good quality'. When an astute disciple asked him whether this was compatible with 'observing truth', Gandhi replied that in reading a map we take the inch that we see for fifty miles in reality. It's a nice challenge to find wisdom as well as hyperbole in that reply. The underlying argument seems to me better than Thomas Hobbes's argument in support of the idea that our natural condition is that of a 'war..... of every man against every man'. Hobbes said: 'For the nature of war consists not [only] in actual fighting but in the known disposition thereto. ..let the reader consider with himself, that when taking a journey, he arms himself and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house, he locks his chests. Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions as I do by my words?'

Hobbes's argument is weak because the evidence adduced indicts only some, not all, men.

(Gandhi's way of coping with the danger of theft was to possess nothing which anyone would want to steal. To other people he recommended a modest way of life and that apart from bare necessities they hold their possessions in trust for the benefit of everyone and use them accordingly.)

Perhaps I should mention that Gandhi was sensitive even to the danger that his own exalted reputation since most people in India were saying and believing the kind of thing about him that Einstein, an American, said in 1945could hinder their capacity to think clearly. In 1946 Gandhi said: 'I ask nobody to follow me. Everyone should follow his or her own inner voice. If he or she has no ears to listen to it, he or she should do the best he or she can [and] in no case imitate others sheep like.'

Having touched upon thoughtful self-discipline and moral freedom, I should point out that Gandhi's concept and use of non-violence were more sophisticatedless absolute and more elaboratethan many people realize. Already in his childhood he had known some Jain monks (Jainism is, like Buddhism, an indigenous Indian religion going back some 2500 years) who were so absolutely non-violent that in order to avoid inadvertently killing a mosquito or a worm they would wear veils over their mouths and not walk outdoors at night. Gandhi rejected that mentality just as unequivocally as he did the precept that power comes from the barrel of a gun (or, as Max Weber puts it, that the decisive means for politics is violence). Gandhi said: 'The emphasis laid on the sacredness of sub-human life in Jainism is understandable. But that can never mean that one is to be kind to this [sub-human] life in preference to human life. ....To benefit by others' killing [of sub-human creatures] and delude oneself into the belief that one is being very religious and non-violent... In life it is impossible to eschew violence completely. The question arises, where is one to draw the line?.... [For instance] to allow crops to be eaten up by animals in the name of ahimsa [loving non-violence] while there is a famine in the land is certainly a sin. Evil and good are relative terms. What is good under certain conditions can become an evil or a sin under a different set of conditions. '

He also said that if someone is trying to rape a woman, then for her to persist in hitting and scratching as hard as she can, as well as screaming, until he kills her, is not violence, but only clarity of expression that violence is better than cowardice (he often said that) and that if you suffer from fear then it's perfectly understandable if you strike. (And unlike the anarchists he never objected to the functioning of the government and of the police, he merely refused police-protection for himself and declined to file complaints against people who threatened him or, on two famous occasions in South Africa, attacked him viciously.)

The mistaken idea that he was absolutely non-violent is due to the fact that in extreme casessuch as rape and the occasional but far from rare brutalities of the British and their native agents in Indiahis precept entails an extreme and yet in its way basic form of self-discipline, namely, to overcome one's instinctive fear of death. When Pakistan was being created by ethnic cleansing along religious lines, Gandhi told the Hindus in what is now the largest city in Pakistan.

'Lahore is dying; do not run away from it. ....When you suffer from fear, you die before your death. If the people in the Punjab were all to die, not as cowards but as brave men, I for one would not shed a tear.' This idea of dying bravely is set out in a little more detail in his reply to a man who told him at a public forum in Geneva in 1931 that during the last big war Switzerland would have been ruined if the Swiss army had not defended her eastern frontier. Gandhi said: 'If I had been... president of the [Swiss] federal state, what I would have done would be to refuse passage to the [German] army by refusing all supplies. ... Reenacting a Thermopylae in Switzerland you would have presented a living wall of men, women and children and invited them [the German soldiers] to walk over your corpses. You may say that such a thing is beyond human experience and endurance. Then I can tell you that it was not beyond human experience last year. Women [with] stood 'lathi' charges [a 'lathi' is a club] without showing the slightest cowardice. In Peshawar thousands stood a hail of bullets without resorting to any violence whatsoever. Imagine such men and women standing in front of an army wanting safe passage.

... An army that dares to pass over [their] corpses would not be able to repeat that experiment...

Non-violence ... was never conceived as a weapon of the weak, but of the stoutest hearts.'

Here I should mention, since history has shown to us all that Islam can harbor violence, that those thousands in Peshawar were Muslims, led by a man, Badshah Khan, whose greatness over the years was equal to Gandhi's and whose work shows that certain developments can take place in Islam which most of us outside it don't imagine possible. But I digress. What I wanted to give you with these citations is Gandhi's image of people standing there and saying, in effect, 'You can kill me (we both know it) and I am ready to die; I have thought about it, and it's no problem for me, I'm going to die sometime anyway: it's only 'your' problem if you kill me so monstrously. You are very welcome to be my guest, even my friend. I can give you genuine hospitality, even love, and share everything with you. But we both know that this is my country [or 'my house'] and not yours it's why you have a gun and I don't.' Of course the pillager may kill that person. Gandhi's point is that he would just as likely do it if the protest were violent, but in that case he would have what the behaviorist psychologists call a 'reinforcing' satisfaction of crushing an opposition, and that kind of self-justification would delay the moment when his divine soul might become sick of it all. ( Gandhians offer no opposition to the sinner, they oppose only the sin.) If there is clearly no justification for what he is doing, then to put the issue to him consistently in moral terms soaked in love will bring him around sooner than violence. The consistency is vital to help his own sense of moral truth penetrate through the evil passion of his violence: He will ravage for a while anywaythis is due to causes from the pastbut less after all if it's clearly a matter of one after another innocent and beautiful human beings who are willing to love him and help make his life really better. That's the idea.

Such non-violence is, I say, not absolute, but only extreme in a circumstance where 'something' extreme violent, humiliating or else goodhas to be done. As for the elaborateness of Gandhi's use of non-violence: he wouldn't just stage a political protest and let it go at that. (People sometimes make that mistake when they try to use his method.) In his most telling campaigns he would integrate a carefully chosen, well organized and very well disciplined public gesture of protest (with media coverage, but never mark wellone of those loosely organized rallies where a few people grab the headlines by their violence and discredit the whole thing)he would (I say) integrate the protest into a well deliberated campaign (I say 'deliberated' rather than 'thought out', because intuition was vital to it) of striving to correct something wrong. The campaign would include from the outset a lot of amicable communication with the antagonists; he never made secret plans for a surprise as in a war; the 'surprise' would be gradual and of a kind as to prompt the antagonists to reconsider their way of life. And after his cohorts had shown their mettle, then he would negotiate, he would warm up the friendship, he would settle for rather less, concretely, than had been demanded (which would be a relief to the other side), and he would tell his own people that if they went on behaving well, then their original demands, and more, would in time be met in a natural and amicable way. The modern term for this aspect of Gandhi's invention is 'win-win'.

Just as notable as the elaborate (and often indefatigable) nature of Gandhi's political work was that his sense of moral purity went beyond non-violence. The challenge was to refrain not only from violence but also from deception, hatred, sarcasm (because it might interfere with the essential reaching out into the antagonist's soul) and any extraneous pressure on the antagonist. A classical example of this last point is his decision in South Africa in 1914 to suspend an ongoing campaign of mass civil disobedience, because the railroad workers had suddenly called a big strike and the police would have been overburdened to handle both groups simultaneously. General Smuts's secretary told Gandhi:

'You help us in our days of need. How can we lay hands upon you? I often wish you [Indians] took to violence like the English strikers, and then we would know at once how to dispose of you. But you will not injure even the enemy. You desire victory by self-suffering alone and never transgress your self-imposed limit of courtesy and chivalry. And that is what reduces us to sheer helplessness. '

(Gandhi likened the self-suffering to that of a strong mother.) Of course the method depends on a clear preponderance of moral high ground being developed for the side taking the initiative. I'd like now to use a non-Gandhian distinction between truth and goodness in order to bring out how indispensable that development is. Let me focus on the kind of goodness called fairness (which can be attributed only to a social fact and not to a statement or idea 'per se'), and let me use a correspondence theory of truth and reserve the word 'true' for explicit or implicit statements that correspond to objective reality

I take it that objective reality is in fact only one way and not another, and is for all practical purposes infinitely complicated, but that we have only a limited capacity to know and understand it; so, we cannot hope to attain complete truth; gaining truth is, at best, like approaching a limit which one is mathematically precluded from reaching. And at any stage in the general human process of gaining truth, everyone may regard as true something which is untrue because it contradicts an aspect of reality which they don't know about; but in regard to fairness, it seems to me that if everyone considers something fair (or unfair, as the case may be), then it is fair (or unfair), there's no further test. (Of course they might later change their minds; but by then the social facts of the matter would probably be different.)

In this light it is salient that Gandhi would undertake a campaign only if he sensed intuitively that the antagonists, the people whom he regarded as doing something unfair, were ready to agree with him that it was unfair (and therefore were, because of their divine souls, unhappy about it). For instance, even though he chose on moral grounds to be a vegetarian, he would never mount a campaign to convert the carnivores, because he knew they saw nothing categorically wrong about that aspect of their diets.

This self-limitation of Gandhi activism has two consequences. First, the victories tend to be less troublesome than if they were won against the antagonists' deeper moral sentiments. (Think, for instance, of Winston Churchill, who in 1931 said it was 'nauseating' that Gandhi was allowed even to negotiate with the viceroy, later shedding tears of remorse and joy as he called Gandhi's chosen political heir, Nehru, 'the light of Asia'.)

Secondly, the proximate goals of Gandhian activism are so limited that it seems always to be a matter of striving for reform rather than for revolution. The most that a Gandhian might seek from the carnivores, for, instance, is that they abandon some clearly unsavory aspect of their diet, such as eating meat from animals they know to have been treated in an inhumane way in order to lower the ratio of money to meat. But hey, if a hundred million eat only half as many animals for such a moral reason, isn't that as good as fifty million taking up vegetarianism?

Although this talk is entitled 'Gandhi's Challenge Now', I have described several interrelated challenges (while omitting many that pertained specifically to Indiafor instance, to praise' Allah' in one of the most venerated Hindu prayers, to abolish the doctrine and practice of untouchability, and even (as Gandhi in his last years changed his mind about certain things) by means of intermarriage to promote religious harmony and to dismantle gradually the entire caste system 'root and branch'). Now in conclusion, I would like to single out his idea of civilization entailing voluntary restrictions:

'Civilization, in the real sense of the term consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary restriction of wants.’

The idea is challenging to us because it undermines a basic precept of capitalismthat more overall is always betterwhich we have got in the habit of regarding as vital to our interests.

Many people agree that more guns and more cocaine are not better. I think the argument has to be broadened now, because of macro­ecological problems.

Soon after Gandhi's death the American general whose theatre of war had included Hiroshima and Nagasaki said that Gandhi must have a vital posthumous role 'in the evolution of civilization, if it is to survive'. He probably had in mind only one kind of environmental destruction: bombing cities.

That same danger caused some other brilliant people, such as Bertrand Russell and Linus Pauling, to come to similar conclusions (without necessarily naming Gandhi) in the late 1940s. Yet in those days not even the risk of a 'nuclear winter' had been envisaged, let alone the menaces of super-tough bacteria, viruses and poisons, insidious chemicals in our diet and in the air, running short of potable water, too much vicious weather due to global warming due in turn to burning too much fossil-fuels, the destruction of vast ecosystems, and so on.

Gandhi never used the word 'ecology', but he did suggest that globalized industrialism could become a macro-ecological menace. He said:

'God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [England] is today keeping the [human] world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million [that's what he said and he meant India; but now the USA has that many, and India and China have each more than 1000 million] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts. '

It seems to me that we now have historically unprecedented and still increasing rates of so many kinds of ecological degradation that technological so called 'magic bullets' are unlikely to solve all the ensuing problems, some restriction of wants will be needed in addition to big technological adaptations. But Gandhi said that change comes slowly in social life and that one should let it be 'as quiet and easy as a change in the shape of the clouds'. His patient method has been criticized for yielding too little too late, and it's easy to envisage that it might do so in regard to some of these mounting macro-ecological disturbances. Their consequences accumulate as if by stealth and the longer we put off addressing the problems seriously, the more likely it becomes that some ghastly combination of them might cause humanity, and not just civilization in the sense that the American general meant, to perish within a few centuries. I don't see any wisdom or even sanity in dismissing this possibility with the mantra, 'they'll figure out something, they always have.' The problems are not only unprecedented but also of deadly potential and scope.  

Will humanity pull together to meet them? Perhaps the biggest obstacle today is an internationally widespread belief that the current economic scheme is unfairnot just that there is inequality (people have often tolerated that) but that it is getting more extreme. A well respected American calculation is that the ratio between the total incomes of the richest and poorest 20% of the world's people was about 30:1 in the 1960's, and has recently become 75:1.

It seems to me that the combination of these two conditions1: the unprecedented kind of need to co-operate worldwide, and yet 2: the mounting and ever more obvious economic unfairness worldwide heightens the value of genuine concern about poverty. Here is what Gandhi told his disciples, toward the end of his life, as a farewell talisman:

'Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to 'him'. ... Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore [to] him ... [some] control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to 'swaraj' [self-rule] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?'

If humanity does one day cooperate to meet the menaces faced in common due to macro-ecological degradation, it might be done either by means of harsh government (call it 'Chinese-style', notwithstanding that the Chinese government nowadays is, like the Russian and American ones, disregarding ecological problems); or else by some quasi-Gandhian approach, which would entail in turn the challenge of overcoming the fears and spiritual illnesses engendering greed; or else by some strange combination of these two lines of approach.

I take a hint of that strange, third way from a remark made by the founder of the modern nation where I am currently living and working, Turkey. In order to salvage from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire a home­land for his people, Ataturk forced them to abandon the 'irrational' (his word for it) pan-Islamic ideal and 'rescue the Islamic faith from being a political instrument'.

Unlike Gandhi he was a military man, but like Gandhi he considered national sovereignty a necessary pre­condition (though insufficient by itself) to 'liberty, equality and justice'. In regard to that sovereigntyin regard to governmenthe said:

'Sovereignty should not be built on fear. Sovereignty that rests on guns cannot endure. Such a sovereignty, or dictatorship, most be only a temporary expedient in a time of upheaval. '

Expedient dictatorship? What about human rights? Well, yes: Isn't there now a danger that they too can lead to a hell on Earth unless we become more civilized in Gandhi's sense of the word? That's the challenge.

Source: Sarvodaya,  Vol. 1, No-5, Jan-Feb-2004