Compiled and edited by Gopalkrishna Gandhi
The Oxford India Gandhi: Essential Writings
A grandson sifts through Gandhi's words and explains that by remaining a satyagrahi till his last breath, he transcended death...
Nowadays it has become fashionable to criticise Mahatma Gandhi. We are prone to see India's failures as his failures, and vice-versa. The failure of social equality, the failure of communal amity, the failure of secular inclusiveness, the failure of ecological ethics, the failure of gender justice, the failure of non-violent democracy - it would appear that every value Gandhi espoused so fervently has failed to take root in our polity. Surely this is somehow to be construed as his fault; we suspect it to be the result of a shortfall in the strength of his beliefs.
But Gandhi was nothing if not 'a man of deep conviction' and 'a man of intense passions', writes his youngest grandchild, Gopalkrishna Gandhi. He sifts through hundreds of thousands of words uttered or written by his famous grandfather, in a life that stretched from his birth in October 1869 to his assassination in January 1948.
This in itself is a painstaking task of reading, selection and compilation that took several years of immersion and empathy - a labour of love.
Even a casual perusal of this amazing book of close to 900 pages will give the judgmental reader pause: the blame for India's problems cannot be laid at the door of the "great soul", Gandhi. At every moment of his extraordinary life, he was, evidently, engaged in the pursuit of the truth, satya.
For a figure whose biography coincides with the history of Indian nationalism - indeed, the protagonist par excellence of our modernity - Gandhi's story is oddly reminiscent of the timeless wisdom of India's epics as well as of its medieval bhakti poetry.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi characterises his language - correctly, I think - as bani, the 'voice' of a saint-poet, a distillation of acute moral insight into unadorned, pared-down, direct expression. It changes one's perception of the world and once received, can never be forgotten.
To me, Gandhi's character too, is akin to a lake, a carit-manas, like the one Tulasidas wrote for Rama, into which one must dive again and again to experience the profundity of the human condition. It is no accident that the so-called father of the modern Indian nation and the author of Hind Swaraj also reminds us of older traditions of knowledge and liberation that are as much personal as they are political, poetic as they are historical.
Work in progress
But the editor, meticulous as he is, sounds a note of caution: "How easily one can miss the essential while in search of the great!"
For Gandhi is very far from perfect. He evolves - from a callow youth to a suffering sage, the very conscience of his people; from a tactical politician to a surgeon of the soul; from a leader of mass movements to a frail, persecuted and solitary seeker in search of a higher freedom. He wrongs many people along the way - from his black comrades in South Africa, to the many women who join his ashram; from his own wife Kasturi and son Harilal, to his critics in the Congress and the Muslim League on the eve of independence and partition. He is and remains to the very last, a work in progress.
Gandhi's most unfortunate encounter, perhaps, was with Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.
His letters, diary entries and articles from September and October 1932, when he seemed ready to fight Ambedkar literally to his own death over the matter of untouchability, are difficult to read. They test our faith in the Mahatma. But they also demonstrate that at no point was he motivated by the hunger for power, or proceeding out of a crude sense of upper caste superiority. No matter how irrevocably he alienated Babasaheb, Gandhi genuinely lived by Narsinh Mehta's words: Vaishnavjan to tenekahiye je pirparaijane re, true piety lies in being able to feel another's pain as though it were one's own.
He invokes Narsinh Mehta again in February 1933, writing from Yeravda jail: "Many people have asked me why I have used the name 'Harijans' for people whom we commit the sin of regarding as untouchables. Years ago a Kathiawari Antyaja had written to me that names like antyaja, achhut, asprishya hurt his community. I could appreciate their feelings. ...Narsinh Mehta in one of his bhajans had referred to the antyajas as 'Harijans'. ...'Harijan' means a devotee of God, a beloved of God. It is God's promise that He is the Protector of the oppressed, an ocean of compassion, the strength of the weak, the Refuge of the helpless, the Support of the lame, and the Eye of the blind. One may therefore expect Him to bestow especial grace on the oppressed. Looked at from this point of view... 'Harijan' is appropriate in every way for the antyaja brethren."
From oppression to dignity
Post-colonial India has discarded Gandhi's 'Harijan' in favour of Ambedkar's 'Dalit'. But rather than invite derision, Gandhi's nomenclature has to be read historically as a necessary step in the arduous journey from oppression to dignity - when the final goal of social justice and true equality still eludes us. Gandhi's assassins proved that by remaining steadfast in the truth, a satyagrahito his last breath, Gandhi transcended his own death.
As Gopalkrishna's late older brother Ramchandra Gandhi, the philosopher, said: Bullets did not stop Mahatma Gandhi; rather, he stopped bullets in their track.
Courtesy: The Hindu