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Gandhi's Debt: Family Obligation and the Greater Good
By Thomas Weber*
There is often a dilemma is deciding where an obligation to assist others should be directed. Many insist that “charity begins at home”, while others may agree that it should be aimed at most needy. Gandhi was a member of a joint family who saw their future prosperity linked with his success as a lawyer. Yet eventually Gandhi ceased contributing to the family coffers and put his income at the disposal of the Indian community in South Africa, to the great displeasure of his immediate family. Gandhi justified his actions by adopting a broader than usual definition of family. This came at the cost of alienation from his siblings but it was also at least partially responsible for creating the Mahatma.

In his book How are we to live?1 eminent philosopher Peter Singer argues that living an ethical life gives meaning to our existence in an age that seems to celebrate self-centredness. This may well be true, but this principle alone doesn't tell us as to what is ethical and offer us guidance when seemingly different ethical paths appear to be at odds. Self-centredness can erode a sense of community. It may also lead in a more immediate sense to what is called the 'Tragedy of the Commons'.2 The selfish act of an individual may initially benefit only himself at the expense of community as a whole. As more and more individuals attempt to maximise their gains, the whole community ends up worse off. But even selfless actions can lead to ethically problematic choices, e.g. to provide for the family by killing endangered animals or by stealing medicines. It is worthwhile to consider cases where there is a clash between seemingly selfless interests, or between ethically praiseworthy actions. Examples could include where fulfilling one would mean the failure to fulfil another. This raises the question: In the quest for an ethical life, do our primary obligations reside in the self? And if not there, then where? Are they to family, tribe, nation, planet, to present or future generations?
Singer points out that virtually all societies “place the ethical obligation to look after one's own children ahead of obligations to strangers”. However he also notes that this has been questioned by some philosophers and social reformers as merely a way of passing on inherited advantage and is thus a “barrier to the creation of a more egalitarian society.”3
Singer notes that 'sadly', it seems unlikely that many of us come into the world with any inherited tendency to sacrifice our own interests, or those of our kin, for the good of all human beings.4 Like the rest of us, Gandhi probably did not have such an inherited tendency. However, the dilemma in the family needs and a greater moral obligation presented itself in his life in so concrete a way that led to family disaffection. How Gandhi dealt with this may be instructive for those facing similar predicaments. It may also give us better insight into the Mahatma's personal development.

The Family Obligation
Following his autobiography,5 some documentary material and some chronicles written by Gandhi with regards to South Africa Satyagraha,6 we learn some things about his family. His father is stern but fair, a Diwan of Porbandar and Rajkot, and Putalibai as his kind, religiously orthodox mother. The death of the family patriarch plunged the family into economic hardship. Further, Mohandas, intellectually most promising of the children, was chosen to travel to London to become a lawyer and to secure a financial future of the family. His mother was hesitant for this, although the family circumstances required such drastic course of action. She worries that his religious purity would be compromised and only acquiesced when Mohandas, her youngest son, took a vow not to touch women, eat meat or partake or intoxicating drink.
Gandhi's overseas trip costed then an incredibly large sum of almost 13,000 rupees. As the eldest male, his brother Laxmidas had to bear a large part of the family. But there was an another huge price to pay. Because of defying his caste elders, who forbade the trip to black water”, Mohandas was an outcaste, in effect, an untouchable in a very hierarchical society. His family and kins were subject to a fine punishment if they as much as saw him off at the dock. Mohandas noted that 'even the chosen few who had supported them through thick and thin left me alone'.7 Nevertheless, Laxmidas, as head of the family understood clearly why the family needed to Mohandas to go to London and maintained his support. At the time of departure, his brother-in-law8 refused to hand over the entrusted travel money for fear of losing his caste status. In the end, Mohandas had to borrow from someone else who was repaid by his brother-in-law who technically managed to retain his purity.9 When he finally sailed, he left not only his wife but also their first born son, Harilal, in the care of extended family in Rajkot.
Mohandas, 19, having arrived in London did not want to be conspicuous and tried to live like an English gentleman, staying in a first class hotel and dressing in fashionable finery. Of course his finance could not sustain his shameless spending and he regularly had to ask for more money from his family in India. Again most of the cost fell on Laxmidas. This added to the expectation that when Mohandas returned to India, he would not only pay back his debts but also pool his income with that of the rest of the joint family.
On his arrival back in Bombay, Laxmidas informed him of the death of their mother some months before. Laxmidas had hoped for big things from his returned British-trained lawyer brother and had spent lavishly to bring the family's standards up to those that matched his aspirations. For over an year, Mohandas' legal practice at home was not successful. He was shy to argue in court and his theoretical legal knowledge was of very little practical use. He eventually closed his costly Bombay office and went back to Rajkot. Against his better judgement, he acceded Laxmidas' request to use his influence with the British political agent for Kathiawar states in Rajkot, Charles Ollivant, to clear his name from some minor court intrigue. Although Ollivant was acquainted by Gandhi in London, he resented Gandhi's currying of faviour and asked the young man to go through proper channels. Gandhi kept insisting and was eventually ordered out. Although Ollivant's actions were extreme and displayed racial arrogance, in this case Gandhi has put family expectations ahead of his own understanding of correct procedure.10 He would cease doing this in future.
This time was of a great despondency for Gandhi and his family. His salvation came with an offer to assist in a commercial case in South Africa. While away, he made a conscious decision to dedicate his life to community service. By the time he returned to India in 1915, as a Mahatma, both of his brothers were dead. It may be instructive to examine what happened to his obligations to repay the sacrifice his family had made, and what happens when these are in conflict with those for greater good. Should influence be used for family interests or is this just a milder form of nepotism? Could the answers be different for members of a traditional Hindu joint family that for those of a less traditional nuclear family? And at an abstract level, what is family? How far do its borders extend?

The Greater Good
Jean Paul Sartre provides us with a dilemma similar to Gandhi's. A young Frenchman wants to take part in war for defeating Nazis, but that would mean deserting his mother who depends on him. He is confronted by two modes of action one concrete, immediate, but directed towards only one individual, and other to an end infinitely greater, a national collectivity, but for that very reason ambiguous and liable to be frustrated on the way.11 Sartre concludes that where there is no certainty about the importance of competing values, one must trust one's instincts.12
Of course, Gandhi was not a lone individual with the concern of an elderly mother. His social context was that of a family, a Hindu joint family, encompassing several generations living under one roof where the younger generations are controlled by the elders with the ultimate power vested in the patriarch. There is a pattern of mutual dependence where individualism is subordinated to the collective. Property is held jointly and income and expenditure go into or come out of a common pool. When a member moves to a city, children often spend lengthy period with families of their father's brothers. Gandhi's wife and children stayed in the household while he went overseas and various members of his family accompanied him to South Africa.
When Gandhi returned to India because of his deceased mother's wish and Laxmidas' urging, he underwent a purificatory ceremony to mollify his caste elders. This appeased most, but not all of the Modh Bania community. They demanded a fine, which bucking convention, Gandhi refused to pay. His sister Raliat and her husband were not allowed to offer Gandhi even a glass of water in their homes.13 Regardless of these, when she was widowed, Gandhi took her only son Gokuldas with his immediate family when they accompanied him back to South Africa in 1896.
Gandhi, once again left his family behind in the care of Laxmidas when he accepted the position in South Africa. He was offered a first class return fare and a sum of 105 pounds. He gave the entire sum to his brother for the family's household expenses. He remained in South Africa for three years, returning home in 1896. After half an year, he went back with his wife, children and other relatives. They remained there until the end of 1901. Following a year in India, he returned to South Africa at the end of 1902.
Gandhi's legal practice flourished. But his outlook to life was changing, and as he tried to simplify his life, his income and savings diminished and he could no longer keep up the regular remittances to his large ancestral family in Rajkot. By 1902, Gandhi had remitted 60,000 rupees to Laxmidas, far in excess to 13,000 that had been spent on his London education. He informed his brother of his decision to hold his wealth and property as a trustee for the South African Indian community. Laxmidas was not very happy that his younger brother had chosen that distant community over family and the relationship was cut off. Gandhi later explained, “I remained in banishment... for fourteen years.14 Year after year he sent me curses by registered post. I rejoiced in his courses. His curses were so many sparks of love- I won him, Six months before his death, he saw that I was in the right.”15

From Respected Brother' to 'Respected Sir'
Gandhi's family stayed behind when he returned to South Africa in 1902. In 1904, he requested his immediate family to join him. 16 year old Harilal stayed behind in India to further his studies.
After a long silence, Laxmidas wrote to Mohandas “to chide him for neglecting his obligation to the family”.16 In his reply, Gandhi commented on their “wide divergence in views” while noting that different approaches to financial arrangements did not constitute a separation from the family. However, the differences were enough for Gandhi to arrange for Harilal to stay with other family friends. He remarked to his brother that he had already paid his family accounts in full and did not want to subsidise extravagant customs such as lavish marriages. He added:
I have never wished to resign from what many have told you... but owing to the change in my views I have used my money as a way that did not appeal to you. I do not feel I have done anything wrong in this as I have not spent anything on enjoyment for myself or for my children... I am eager to please you and serve you, but (unfortunately my engaging in public work has caused you this distress. This   makes me unhappy but I cannot give it up... No matter how wide the differences in our views may be, the bond of blood that unites us will never be surrendered: my devotion to you will abide for ever.17
In 1906, Laxmidas again wrote an accusing letter to Gandhi reminding him of his neglect for their joint family. In his reply, addressed to 'Respected Brother'18, Gandhi responded that Laxmidas was prejudiced against him, and that there was no cure for prejudice. He informed his brother that he had no intention of separating from him and laid no claim to family property. He noted that all of his possessions were being used for public purposes and added that 'I could have satisfied your desire for money if I had not dedicated my all for public use.’ He promised Laxmidas that he could rest assured in the knowledge that he would support the Gandhi family if his older brother dies before him, but was not currently in a position to spend more funds. Nanabhai (younger brother)19 Mohandas spelled out the turn that his life's journey had taken by informing his brother that 'my aspirations are higher and I have no desire for worldly enjoyments of any type whatever. I am engaged in my present activities as I look upon them as essential to life. If I have to face death while thus engaged, I shall face it with equanimity. I am now a stranger to fear.'20
The context was that Mohan's eldest son Harilal was rebelling against his father's changing lifestyle and against the personal slight he perceived in his father's relationship with him,21 was determined to marry his love Gulab. Mohandas tried to dissuade him, arguing that he was young, instead suggested that he return to South Africa for a while. Harilal was keen and Laxmidas, the traditional household head agreed. He arranged an expensive wedding and asked his brother for reimbursement. Mohandas, the father of the groom, refused.
In a response to another accusing letter by Laxmidas, Gandhi tried to justify his actions by expressing his understanding of the terms 'family' and 'service'. Arun and Sunanda Gandhi spell out the position:
Laxmidas was a patient, conscientious, upright man who took his family obligations very seriously, and expected others to do likewise. Monetary responsibilities among family members are rigidly defined. After the head of the family dies, the oldest male child is expected to assume responsibility... But if older brother runs into bad luck (as Laxmidas had), and the younger brother is lucky and prosperous (as Mohandas had) then the younger brother is obligated to support financially.22
Narayan Desai, the son of Gandhi's secretary Mahadev Desai and a recent biographer of the Mahatma, sums up thus:
During his first year in South Africa, Gandhiji was not able to send much money to his home in Rajkot. But once he established himself, ... he regularly sent substantial sums... Gandhiji had maintained an account of the money that his elder brother had spent on his education and also the    money that was spent on Kasturba and the boys during his absence, and had sent his brother almost double that account. Laxmidas must have hoped that with his increasing income, the younger brother would bring prosperity back into the family.23
When Gandhi came to the realisation that he had to renounce his wealth to further his social and spiritual concerns, he wrote to Laxmidas that he felt he had long settled all debts. Given the deep-seated traditions, the very foundation of Indian family life, Laxmidas was shocked and deeply hurt.24 After all the family had made many sacrifices to get the youngest sibling educated and taking care of his family while he was away. In any case, this was not only an issue of book-keeping of who owed who how much: Mohandas' attitude was not only a betrayal of the family but humiliation. Mohandas, it seemed, was abandoning his obligations. The brothers were suspicious that his vow of poverty was a cover for personal greed, and given the tradition in which they grew up, it may have been difficult to understand their younger brother's baffling actions as anything else.
Gandhi's reply must have been heart-breaking to Laxmidas. It was formally addressed to 'Respected Sir',25 rather than the far more intimate 'Respected Brother'. It pointed out that Gandhi was doing exactly what their father had done, with the exception that he had enlarged the idea of a family to encompass the whole of humanity: “I am afraid our outlooks differ widely and I see no possibility, for the present, for their being reconciled. You seek peace and happiness through money. I don't depend on money for my peace.”
Laxmidas had apparently accused his brother of turning his back on religious tradition; Gandhi countered by pointed out that this was just a cover for attachments and the maintenance of relationships 'for selfish ends'. He also spelled out his view of the meaning of family and his duty to them:
I fail to understand what you mean by the word 'family'. To me, the family includes not only the two brothers but the sister as well. It also includes our cousins. Indeed, if I could say so without arrogance, I would say that my family comprises of all living beings...
He responded to issues concerning his obligation to the family, which he seemed to interpret at least partially as a debt which he had already repaid:
As to your demand for a hundred rupees a month. I must say that I see neither the means at present nor the need of meeting it... If, however the condition here improves... I shall try to send you the money... with the sole intention of pleasing you.
And further, with a hint of criticism:
I do agree that you and Karsandas have (a right to) a share in my income. But I spend much less on my personal enjoyment than you do (on yours)...My object is staying here was not to make money but to serve the people; hence I deem it my duty to use for the benefit of the people whatever is left over after meeting the expenditure on the family here. So please don't think that I am making money here...
He admitted to his elder brother that, “the object of sending me to England was that we... might thereby maintain the status of our father more or less, be well off and enjoy good things of life.” and that the risk of this course of action was great as all had been staked on his education. He also conceded that those who had promised to help the family had not kept their word, forcing his brother to work hard 'even at the cost of your health' and that his brother had ungrudgingly managed to provide all the money that the young law student had asked for. This was what could be expected in a joint family, but Mohandas added that “this shows your magnanimity and your affection for a younger brother.”
Nevertheless, even in a joint family there were boundaries and these did not include indulging in worldly pleasures: “I must say with deep sorrow that, on account of your extravagant and thoughtless way of life, you have squandered a a lot of money on pleasures and on pomp and show...”. And this was specially troublesome given that Gandhi had no earnings to share: “I am not spending your share (on myself); but I use all the money that God gives me for the public good. If anything is left over after what has been used for this purpose, I would like to send you all of it, not just your share of it.”26

The Meaning of 'Family'
For Gandhi, the idea of family had by now taken on broader dimensions: “If I regard all living beings as equal both from the practical and the moral points of view, it is in the fitness of things that those who are more dependent on me have a greater claim on me. That is to say, I should help my wife and sons first and then those who are helpless and have therefore a claim on me. If, on the other hand, my wife and my sons find their means of living independently of me, they may be left alone and others who are helpless and depend on me will have precedence.” Towards the end, he provides a religious justification for his actions: “I revere you as you are my elder brother. Our religion bids us treat our elders with veneration. I implicitly believe in that injunction. But I have greater regard for truth. This too is taught by our religion.”27
After the death of Laxmidas, Gandhi became the head of his joint household. He wrote to his South African German soul-mate Hermann Kallenbach that his brother was probably thinking about him up till his last breath and how much he wanted to be reunited with his younger brother. He added that he “was hurrying everything on so that I could go to India with the quickest despatch and fall down at his feet and nurse him.” He was now to take care of the his sister, wife, widows of his two dead brothers and that of his sister's son.28
On his final return to India, he went to Rajkot and Porbandar to see his relatives before joining South Africa ashramites at Rabindranath Tagore's Shantiniketan campus. Despite all that had happened, members of the family still saw him as being responsible for their well-being. Even after he went on to become a leading political figure, there were family requests for his assistance. Gandhi's sister kept up the compalints that he did not look after her adequately. Gandhi suggested that she come and live with him in his newly founded Ahmedabad ashram. However, as it contained an 'untouchable' family, his sister felt that she could not live in such defiling conditions.29 Gandhi eases the burden of her sister by writing:
but where am I to find more money? I can only obtain it from a friend. With what face can I approach one? He will also say that my sister should be living with me. What am I reply, then? The   world does not regard me as defiled. I am so to you, however. ... I don't live in greater comfort than you do and so your hardships do not seem unbearable to me. I am not in the least ashamed that you have to find the extra money you need by grinding corn for others. I only pray,... that you come over and live with me and join me in my work. You will then cease to feel that you will have no brother and will find not one but many brothers and be a mother to many children. This is true Vaishanava dharma. And till you see that it is, we cannot do otherwise than endure separation.30
Although accepting obligations to his family, Gandhi had moved to a position where he felt a duty to the common good. He wrote to Kallenbach soon after Laxmidas' death that “You cannot attach yourself to a particular woman and yet live for humanity. The two do not harmonise.”31 Writing about social responsibility and the family, Gandhi noted that, “if a man gives his love to one woman, or a woman to one man, what is there left for all the world besides? As a faithful wife must be prepared to sacrifice all for the sake of her husband, and a faithful husband for the sake of his wife, it is clear that such persons cannot rise to the height of Universal Love, or look upon all mankind as kith and kin. For they have created a boundary wall around their love. The larger their family, the farther they are from Universal Love”.32
Gandhi was not merely interested in looking after a large family but now concerned with universal love.

Conclusion: From Nanabhai to Mahatma
In discussions of social responsibility, the case is often put that 'charity begins at home'. This seems to be the argument Laxmidas had stressed. Of course, generally people have special relationship with blood relatives and there is a benefit in looking after families looking after their own. Ties of affection and personal relationship must count for something, and without them, large impersonal bureaucracies, the type Gandhi would certainly have been against, would be needed to fill the gap. And this argument will be all the stronger in a joint family setting where members would have had a more direct call on the main money provider's funds than would those of a sibling in a system based on a more individualistic societal model.33
Nevertheless, the question remains as to how far preference for family should go. Singer replies that if the family “really need the money, in anything remotely like the way those living in extreme poverty need it, it would be going too much against the grain of human nature to object to giving to them before giving to strangers.”34 But Gandhi was not making a choice to allow his extended family to sink into poverty in order to alleviate the financial and social condition of the greater community. Probably in his view, and in the language of Peter Singer, he was not asking his family to make a greater comparable sacrifice than the broader goal he was achieving. Although members of his family resented, he had come to the conclusion that the ethical proprietary of attachment to his family was not going to be a barrier to the creation of a more egalitarian society. Laxmidas and the large family were not living in poverty and the South African Indians were no longer strangers.
It must have been difficult for Laxmidas to see things this was. He was a traditionalist who had sacrificed considerably and for whom matters of prestige were important. Even if he was a conscientious patriarch who took his family responsibilities seriously, Singer's arguments surely would not have been quite as appealing to him. However, from Gandhi's wider, and now more westernised, perspective it made complete sense. He was not shirking his responsibilities, they had merely broadened.
To quote Singer (who though refers to children, could be taken as 'joint family' in Gandhi's context), there is always a clash between being an ideal parent and acting on the idea that all human life is of equal value.
The two will always be in tension. No principle of obligation is going to be widely accepted unless it recognises that parens will and should love their children more than the children of   strangers, and, for that reason will meet the basic needs of their children before they meet the needs of strangers. But this doesn't mean that parents are justified in providing luxuries for their children ahead of basic needs of others.35
While it must have been difficult for Laxmidas and the family to swallow the bitter pill of Mohandas' seemly desertion of the family, it must have been equally difficult for Mohandas. Like all of us, he was a product of his faith, his traditional upbringing and the customs of his society in which he grew up. The period in London introduced him to different ways of thinking and friends from different culture. In South Africa, at least for a while, he became a westernised lawyer who was deeply influenced by his Christian, Jewish and Theosophist friends and the literature they gave him.36 This was a period of significant spiritual and ethical development, but the painful estrangement from his elder brother, the head of the family, meant that it was not without cost. His misgivings over the Ollivant affair merely foreshadowed more troubling times ahead.37 One can only guess at his anguish as he wrote the 'Respected Sir' letter to his brother Laxmidas. What would his conventional Hindu mother, who so wanted him to make peace with his caste community, have thought about his abandonment of a seemingly God-given obligation? What did his wife think? She probably interpreted his actions as a less than justified refusal to put the welfare of their own children and family ahead of those of others (but as a traditional Hindu wife she would have followed his wishes). We know what his con Harilal thought. This episode reveals how Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a fairly well-to-do Indian emigre in South Africa, who happened to have an above average sense of justice had his head turned and became something of a traitor to his joint family. It also gives a clue as to how a Mahatma evolved.

  1. Peter Singer, How are we to live? Ethics in an age of self-interest 1993
  2. Garrett Hardin, “The tragedy of Commons”, Science, 1961, vol.1962, pp.1243-1248
  3. Singer, How are we to live p.95
  4. Singer, How are we to live p.99
  5. M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or the story of My Experiments with Truth, 1940
  6. M.K. Gandhi, Satyagrah in South Africa, 1928
  7. “Interview to The Vegetarian”, The Vegetarian, 13 June 1891
  8. Arun and Sunanda Gandhi, The forgotten woman: The untold story of Kastur, wife of Mahatma Gandhi, 1998; Rajmohan Gandhi, Mohandas: A true story of a man, his people and an empire, 2006; Narayan Desai, My Life is my Message, vol.1 Sadhana (1869-1915)
  9. Arun and Sunanda Gandhi, The forgotten woman, pp.38-39
  10. Rajmohan Gandhi, Mohandas, pp. 58-60. See also Autobiography pp.70-72
  11. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, 1973, pp.35-36
  12. Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, pp.49-50
  13. Rajmohan Gandhi, Mohandas, p.54
  14. Note (see the original article in Gandhi Marg)
  15. Gandhi to V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, 20 Sep 1932
  16. Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi, vol.III, The birth of Satyagraha- From petitioning to passive resistance, 1986, p.361
  17. Gandhi to Laxmidas Gandhi, 12 May 1905, quoted in Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi, vol.III, p.362
  18. Note (see the original article in Gandhi Marg)
  19. Note (see the original article in Gandhi Marg)
  20. Gandhi to Laxmidas Gandhi, 27 May 1906
  21. Harilal Gandhi: A life, 2007, pp.127-145
  22. Arun and Sunanda Gandhi, The forgotten woman, p.131
  23. Desai, My life is my message, vol.1, p.298
  24. Arun and Sunanda Gandhi, The forgotten woman, p.131
  25. Gandhi to Laxmidas Gandhi, about 20 April 1907. For note (see the original article in Gandhi Marg)
  26. Gandhi to Laxmidas Gandhi, about 20 April 1907
  27. Gandhi to Laxmidas Gandhi, about 20 April 1907
  28. Gandhi to Chhaganlal Gandhi, 11 March, 1914
  29. She was not alone. See Thomas Weber, Gandhi as disciple and mentor, 2004, pp.87-88
  30. Gandhi to Raliyatbehn Gandhi, 11 Feb 1918
  31. Gandhi to Hermann Kallenbach, 12 April 1914
  32. M.K. Gandhi, From Yervada Mandir, 1932, p.7
  33. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, p.172
  34. Peter Singer, The life you can save: Acting now to end world poverty, 2009, p.40
  35. Singer, The life you can save, p.139
  36. Martin Green, Gandhi: Voice of a new age revolution, pp.79-184; James Hunt, Gandhi and the Non-conformists: Encounters in South Africa, 1986; Weber, Gandhi as disciple and mentor, pp.19-45
  37. Note (see the original article in Gandhi Marg)
Source: An adapted version of the original article which appeared in Gandhi Marg, Vol.33, No.4, Jan-March, 2012, pp.463-480

* Thomas Weber is an honorary associate in the School of Social Sciences at Melbourne's La Trobe University. His research interests focus on Gandhi's life and thought, and non-violent theory and practice. Email: