‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ Socrates at his trial, quoted in Plato’s Apology.
Today, October 2, 2019, is Gandhi’s 150th birthday. It is tempting, in these dark times, to say that we are more distant from him and his teachings than ever before. But one lesson of Ramachandra Guha’s massive biography, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948, is that there is always, even in such a resolutely ‘examined life,’ something inaccessible about Gandhi.
Few people in history have written so much, and had so much written about him – a fact disparagingly commented upon by his great antagonist B.R. Ambedkar. Not only are there the 100 volumes of his own Collected Works, which include an Autobiography, but multi-volume biographies, much larger than Guha’s – for example those by the documentary film-maker Dinanath Gopal Tendulkar (Mahatma, 8 vols, 1951) and by his own secretary Pyarelal Nayar (unfinished, 10 volumes) – began to be published soon after his death, competing with the volume of writing about him while he was alive.
Moreover, Gandhi insisted on making the smallest details of his life and actions available for public scrutiny, commenting on them in letters and conversation, asking for advice (which he rarely followed) from friends and even from the public, and looking back upon them in written recollections. In many ways, Gandhi is a biographer’s dream, but also perhaps her worst nightmare.
What do we really know about Gandhi?
For all this flood of information, what do we really know about Gandhi, and how much closer are we to understanding him? Guha’s biography has all his characteristic gifts as a writer: it is immensely readable, it engages with the everyday humanity of his subject while noting, in equable, matter-of-fact tones, the events and actions that set him irreconcilably apart, and it offers an account of the ideological differences that marked his relations with his greatest contemporaries.
It reveals, above all, the strangeness of Gandhi’s special relation with history, and the ease with which he attracted loyal admirers and followers, whose numbers and support – emotional as well as material – effectively made him what he was. The only word for this personal magnetism, though Guha does not use it, is aura: an odd term for a middle-aged lawyer based in South Africa returning to India with plans of public service. At the same time, because biography sets itself the difficult task of allowing its subject to unfold in history, it must put up with the progressive, unfinished nature of the historical self that appears at any given moment. The biographer has constantly to put Kierkegaard’s observation to the test: ‘it is true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards.’
Gandhi, who tried incessantly to understand his own life backwards, was committed to living it forwards, dedicating himself to courses of action whose outcome he could not foresee. Guha’s book begins with his return to India in January 1915, just after the commencement of the first World War. He contributed to the war effort (by nursing the wounded) during a brief stopover in London, and in the last year of the war, 1918, he toured the Kheda district of Gujarat, where the peasants were refusing to pay taxes after a late and severe monsoon that had damaged their crops. Although he campaigned for them and wrote to the viceroy on their behalf, he also tried (unsuccessfully) to raise recruits for the imperial army, since at this point he believed that India’s claim to Home Rule was linked to its becoming an equal partner in the British Empire.
How different was this from Gandhi’s response, 20 years later, to the second World War, at which point his views on the power of non-violent resistance had hardened considerably? While the Congress party, under Nehru’s leadership, had offered qualified support to the British in its struggle against global fascism – though Britain was itself an oppressor of colonised peoples – Gandhi was not only at odds with his own party on this matter, but wrote letters to Hitler in 1939 and 1940, addressing him as ‘Dear Friend’ and asking him to ‘make an effort for peace’, while he also suggested that the Jews in Europe, whose demands for a separate homeland in Palestine he had opposed, should offer peaceful satyagraha against the Nazis. Attacking the recruitment of Indian soldiers for this war, he initiated a programme of civil disobedience (culminating in the ‘Quit India’ movement of 1942) that put unprecedented pressure on the colonial government.
These are not two Gandhis, nor are they a time-serving Gandhi adjusting his actions to the mood of the political moment. They are, rather, a single Gandhi-in-process, a Gandhi who spent his life attempting to examine and strengthen his beliefs, and to match belief to action, a struggle that repeatedly placed him in contradictory, even untenable positions, and produced ideological disagreements with his friends and colleagues.
Contradictions and disagreements
Guha’s biography engages some of these contradictions and disagreements: most importantly, the ever-deepening rift between Gandhi and Ambedkar on the issue of caste and Hindu society’s treatment of ‘untouchables’; the disputed idea of the nation in his relations with M.A. Jinnah, ending with the failure of Gandhi’s vision of a mature religious pluralism in a single independent country; and the ideal of brahmacharya that Gandhi set himself, with possibly unfortunate consequences for the young women in his entourage (towards whom, as with Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, he appointed himself as ‘law-giver’).
In each of these controversies – social, political, and moral – Gandhi’s personal stand is marked by an attempt to reconcile tradition with radicalism, justice with care, individual experiment with social action. In each, he appears at something of a disadvantage. There is no denying the fierce logic of Ambedkar’s rejection of Hinduism along with caste, nor the traumatic frustration of Gandhi’s hopes with India’s Partition, nor, indeed, the oddness and narcissism of a male cultivation of sexual self-control that uses women as tools.
Yet Gandhi’s disadvantages are also at the root of his strength, which was to postulate goodness in the world and to claim truth as its instrument. This idea of goodness was not (or not primarily) a religious value: it was a political value. It was also, quite uniquely, a personal moral principle, and for Gandhi the personal was the political.
Guha’s unemphatic chronicle, following the documentation where it exists, and refusing to introduce narrative expansions for the sake of history alone, is an invitation to reconsider the tasks of historical biography. Guha reflects on Gandhi’s relevance today in an epilogue, interestingly contrasting Arun Shourie’s attack on Ambedkar with Arundhati Roy’s attack on Gandhi.
Two major events receive brief treatment
But two major historical events that receive brief, even cursory treatment in the book are the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 1919 and the Bengal Famine of 1943. While Tagore returned his knighthood in protest against the Amritsar massacre, Gandhi did not return his medals to the King-Emperor until 1 August 1920, the day Tilak died, in protest against the unjust settlement imposed upon Turkey by the Allies and the failure of the Khilafat agitation. At the time of the Bengal famine, Gandhi was in prison, cut off from the rest of the country: his wife Kasturba died in February 1944, while they were still imprisoned. These two instances are a reminder of the impossibility of fitting a life to history, even if that life ‘makes’ history.
Even 150 years on, Gandhi’s life obstinately perseveres in clinging to its own, unrepeatable shape, its ‘aspiration to truth’ (satyagraha) set against the material contours of India’s struggle for Independence, its end an unhealed wound in the fabric of the nation-state. It is not just India, but the world today that has irreversibly abandoned Gandhi’s hope of a moral foundation for political action, and his belief in religious pluralism as the cement of a stable society.
Supriya Chaudhuri is a professor (emerita) at the department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.