| It doesn't stop|
at the water's edge
| The dreams of man|
|Disturbing your sleep|
|—Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything|
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi beat John Lennon to the iconic glasses. He is best known for waging a long campaign against British Imperialism in India through primarily non-violent means and a series of mass campaigns that included his famous "salt march".
It is, however, unknown if any of this would have worked on its own if not for the Indian Army and Navy mutinies, or without the significant armed insurgency scaring the British into supporting a moderate for fear of revolution.
Gandhi showed how religious beliefs could be used in a positive way, giving an intellectual framework within which to pursue social and political change. In the end, he was assassinated by Hindu Nationalist Nathuram Godse, who felt that Gandhi's promotion of religious tolerance and nonviolence was making Hindus weak and he was "giving too much" to the Muslims.
Cranky views, questionable behavior
However, Gandhi was also was a little on the odd side, and certainly not a flawless saint, but rather a hardened criminal, a repeat offender and an habitual jail-bird. A number of his views have deservedly come under fire.
A notable example of fostering this trend was the 2005 Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode Holier Than Thou, which explored a select number of his views — some of which are examined in greater detail below.
Though Gandhi took a vow of celibacy, close associates of his reported that he didn't take it seriously as he often claimed. Gandhi reportedly experimented with all manner of strategies until his death to repress his sexual urges. This led to him issuing some highly questionable directions to his followers and even more questionable practices by him.
This was a policy Gandhi first began from when he ran an Ashram, where wives would not be permitted to sleep beside their husbands (but required to sleep in the same bed as Gandhi).
Gandhi himself claimed though, despite this eyebrow-raising behavior, that he didn't have sex with them.
Which leads to a very coincidental case in point. Gandhi's celibacy tests have been cited, specifically by Indian feminist Rita Banerji of the blog 50 Million Missing, as a major influence in the trend of Indian spiritual figures engaging in sexual misconduct with their female followers. So even if Gandhi didn't sleep with his nieces, he did help get the ball rolling on really terrible behavior that still continues in India today.
Speaking of women, despite supporting some empowerment for them, Gandhi did not think very highly of women or consider them on equal footing with men. Despite holding that women did deserve more freedoms, he still urged them to relegate themselves to remaining childbearing housewives.
He also held even more disturbing views than that - most especially regarding sexual freedom, due to his militant dislike of birth control which stemmed from his militant pro-life stance, viewing sex as exclusive for married couples only and only to serve for reproduction.
This led to Gandhi infamously stating (in an essay published in 1939 by Liberty Magazine) that women, as well their male partners, who used methods to avoid pregnancy commit a "criminal folly" against God and humanity. Such a blasphemy warranted the punishment of having the offending people "be dispossessed of what they have been given" for refusing to reproduce.
This view didn't go unchallenged. Margaret Sanger famously took Gandhi to task on this issue for years after the two first met in India in December 1935 Incidentally, one of her most famous responses to him was published the same year and in the same magazine as Gandhi's aforementioned essay.
The worst view Gandhi held in regards to women can be found in chapter 56 of his book My Non-Violence in which he is asked how to defend women from rape. This was his answer.
“” She [the woman] is not really helpless when she is really pure. Her purity makes her conscious of her strength. I HAVE always held that it is physically impossible to violate a woman against her will. The outrage takes place only when she gives way to fear or does not realize her moral strength. If she cannot meet the assailant’s physical might, her purity will give her the strength to die before he succeeds in violating her.
In a nutshell: if women get raped, it's not only their fault but also their fault for not doing a better job at fighting back against their attackers. So they might want to think about dying quickly before their attackers get done with them.
Again, as with his infamous celibacy tests, Gandhi's negative views regarding women has been cited specifically by The Guardian as playing a major role in why women's rights still remain very underdeveloped in India.
Race and politics
Gandhi displayed bigotry toward the native black population in South Africa during his early life, though he reversed these views in the early 1900s after encountering African bravery in war and reading Jean Finot's Race Prejudice. During his first decade in the region, Gandhi wasn't at all ashamed to admit his dislike of having to co-exist with the local South African population. He was vocal in saying that they were to be treated with less civility than Indians like himself.
This is evidenced by the numerous articles and correspondence he wrote during the early portion of the period he spent in the region from from 1893 to 1914. These writings confirm that Gandhi spent a great deal of time and effort in actively supporting the racial separation of Indians from the region's native black South Africans. His reasoning for this in a nutshell: Indians should not be "dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir".
The use of the word "Kaffir" is a dead giveaway to Gandhi's bigotry, as the word itself is the South African equivalent of the term nigger. Gandhi used the term approximately half-a-dozen times in his pre-1907 writings when describing the local native black population. Gandhi explained his reasoning in a letter of grievance dated August 14, 1896.
“” I may further illustrate the proposition that the Indian is put on the same level with the native in many other ways also. Lavatories are marked "natives and Asiatics" at the railway stations. In the Durban Post and Telegraph Offices, there were separate entrances for natives and Asiatics and Europeans. We felt the indignity too much and many respectable Indians were insulted and called all sorts of names by the clerks at the counter. We petitioned the authorities to do away with the invidious distinction and they have now provided three separate entrances for natives, Asiatics and Europeans.
However, Gandhi transformed these views later in life, abandoning belief in racial hierarchy during the period of 1907-1909 and adopting a position of solidarity with all races downtrodden under imperialism. By 1911 Gandhi had begun regular correspondence with revolutionary Black figures such as W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, John Dube, and S.S. Tema, and began to associate his own quest of freedom for Indian peoples with freedom for all races.
“” It may be that the English temperament is not responsive to a status of perfect equality with the black and the brown races. Then the English must be made to retire from India. But I am not prepared to reject the possibility of an honourable equality. The connection must end on the clearest possible proof that the English have hopelessly failed to realize the first principle of religion, namely, brotherhood of man.
Speaking of the Black races who “are ground down under exploitation,” he proclaimed, “Our deliverance must mean their deliverance. But, if that cannot come about, I should have no interest in a partnership with Britain, even if it were of benefit to India.” and declaring that if Indian rights conflicted with African “vital interests”, he would “advise the forgoing of those rights.” This shift away from his racist past and move towards solidarity with African and African-American interests helped lead to Gandhi becoming a role model for Black freedom fighters, most famously Martin Luther King Jr. but also Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, and others.
Gandhi was also a bit of a Hitler apologist during his rise. He is documented specifically as being supportive of Hitler and his regime, as evidenced in a letter addressed in May 1940 to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (later the Health Minister in the Indian Cabinet):
“” The war is taking an ugly turn. Let us see what happens. Somehow or other I do not feel the same way as you do. I do not want to see the Allies defeated. But I do not consider Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted. He is showing an ability that is amazing and he seems to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed.
His views on this matter did change after observing that Hitler had a violent dislike of people different from him. Even then he's recorded as having made weird comments about the Holocaust, showing that pacifism, just like any other ideology, can be taken to an extreme.
Gandhi also engaged in smallpox vaccine denialism. His most notable condemnation of vaccines can still be found in chapter 6 of the second part of his book A Guide to Health, which he dedicates entirely to pseudoscientific criticisms of the smallpox vaccine and pushing Ayurveda woo in its place (continuing the practice from chapter 5).
“”We are all terribly afraid of the small-pox, and have very crude notions about it. We in India even worship it as a deity. In fact it is caused, just like other diseases, by the blood getting impure owing to some disorder of the bowels; and the poison that accumulates in the system is expelled in the form of small-pox. If this view is correct, then there is absolutely no need to be afraid of small-pox. If it were really a contagious disease, everyone should catch it by merely touching the patient; but this is not always the case.
Gandhi gets Hitchslapped
In the context of the above, Christopher Hitchens relates the development of (and essential downside to) the whitewashed Gandhi narrative, writing:
After the critical weakening of the British Empire by the First World War, and most particularly after the notorious massacre of Indian protestors at the city of Amritsar in April 1919, it became apparent even to the then controllers of the subcontinent that rule from London would come to an end sooner rather than later. It was no longer a matter of "if" but of "when." Had this not been the case, a campaign of peaceful disobedience would have stood no chance. Thus Mohandas K. Gandhi (sometimes known as "the Mahatma" in respect for his standing as a Hindu elder) was in a sense pushing at an open door. There is no dishonor in that, but it is exactly his religious convictions that make his legacy a dubious rather than a saintly one. To state the matter shortly: he wanted India to revert to a village-dominated and primitive "spiritual" society, he made power-sharing with Muslims much harder, and he was quite prepared to make hypocritical use of violence when he thought it might suit him.
The whole question of Indian independence was interleaved with the question of unity: would the former British Raj be reborn as the same country, with the same borders and territorial integrity, and yet still be called India? To this, a certain rugged faction of Muslims answered "no." Under British rule they had enjoyed some protection as a very large minority, not to say a privileged one, and they were not willing to exchange this state of affairs for becoming a large minority in a Hindu-dominated state. Thus the sheer fact that the main force for independence — the Congress Party — was dominated by a conspicuous Hindu made conciliation very difficult. It could be argued, and indeed I would argue, that Muslim intransigence would have played a destructive role in any case. But the task of persuading ordinary Muslims to leave Congress and to join with the partitionist "Muslim League" was made much easier by Gandhi's talk of Hinduism and by the long ostentatious hours he spent in cultish practices and in tending his spinning wheel. This wheel — which still appears as the symbol on the Indian flag — was the emblem of Gandhi's rejection of modernity. He took to dressing in rags of his own manufacture, and sandals, and to carrying a staff, and expressing hostility to machinery and technology. He rhapsodized about the Indian village, where the millennial rhythms of animals and crops would determine how human life was lived.
Millions of people would have mindlessly starved to death if his advice had been followed, and would have continued to worship cows (cleverly denominated by the priests as "sacred" so that the poor ignorant people would not kill and eat their only capital during times of drought and famine). Gandhi deserves credit for his criticism of the inhuman Hindu system of caste, whereby lower orders of humanity were condemned to an ostracism and contempt that was in some ways even more absolute and cruel than slavery. But at just the moment when what India most needed was a modern secular nationalist leader, it got a fakir and guru instead. The crux of this unwelcome realization came in 1941, when the Imperial Japanese Army had conquered Malaya and Burma and was on the frontiers of India itself. Believing (wrongly) that this spelled the end of the Raj, Gandhi chose this moment to boycott the political process and issue his notorious call for the British to "Quit India." He added that they should leave it "To God or to Anarchy," which in the circumstances would have meant much the same thing. Those who naively credit Gandhi with a conscientious or consistent pacifism might wish to ask if this did not amount to letting the Japanese imperialists do his fighting for him.
Among the many bad consequences of the Gandhi/Congress decision to withdraw from negotiations was the opening it gave to Muslim League adherents to "stay on" in the state ministries which they controlled, and thus to enhance their bargaining positions when the moment for independence arrived shortly thereafter. Their insistence that independence take the form of mutilation and amputation, with western Punjab and eastern Bengal hacked away from the national body, became unstoppable. The hideous consequences endure to this day, with further Muslim-on-Muslim bloodbaths in Bangladesh in 1971, the rise of an aggressive Hindu nationalist party, and a confrontation in Kashmir that is still the likeliest provocation for a thermonuclear war.
There was always an alternative, in the form of the secular position taken by Nehru and Rajagopalachari, who would have traded a British promise of immediate postwar independence for a common alliance, on the part of both India and Britain, against fascism. In the event, it was in fact Nehru and not Gandhi who led his country to independence, even at the awful price of partition. For decades, a solid brotherhood between British and Indian secularists and leftists had laid out the case for, and won the argument for, the liberation of India. There was never any need for an obscurantist religious figure to impose his ego on the process and both retard and distort it. The whole case was complete without that assumption. One wishes every day that Martin Luther King had lived on and continued to lend his presence and his wisdom to American politics. For "the Mahatma," who was murdered by members of a fanatical Hindu sect for not being devout enough, one wishes that he could have lived if only to see what damage he had wrought (and is relieved that he did not live to implement his ludicrous spinning-wheel program).
- Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, pages 181-182.
- Kurlansky, Mark, Salt: A World History, Walker Publishing Company, Ny, NY, 2002, p. 343-53
- See the Wikipedia article on Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
- Maḥmūd, Jafar (2004). "20: Jail-bird". Mahatma Gandhi : A Multifaceted Person. New Delhi: APH Publishing. p. 75. ISBN 9788176486545. https://books.google.com/books?id=perjuTpvhn0C. Retrieved 2017-02-23. "Gandhi preached rebellion, launched mass civil disobedience and was repeatedly jailed. [...] He was jailed eleven times. Once he was arrested thrice within four days. If he had a complete[sic] all his jail terms, he would have spent 11 years and 19 days in jail. Occasionally, his punishment was reduced and altogether he spent 6 years and 10 months in prison. At the age of 39, he first entered a jail. He came out of the prison gates for the last time when he was 75."
- See our article detailing the episode.
- Gandhi, Mohandas, Letter dated November 23, 1920, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi Vol 19, p. 14
- Gandhi, Mohandas, Young India, November 19, 1931 Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi Vol 48, p. 261
- Gandhi, Mohandas, Harijan, July 1, 1939, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi Vol 69, p. 377
- Anil Nauriya, Freedom, Race and Francophonie : Gandhi and the Construction of Peoplehood https://www.codesria.org/IMG/pdf/Anil_Nauriya.pdf&sa=U&ved=0ahUKEwig_9mG3OXcAhUQJHwKHVBnBEkQFggUMAA&usg=AOvVaw042jNowAesMcOVaalZrM_s
- Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, pages 182-184.