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Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles

Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles

by Ved Mehta
(Viking; $14.95)

 Gandhi and Civil Disobedience
by Judith M. Brown
(Cambridge University Press; $32.50)

The elephant is like a rope, says the blind man. It is like a tree-trunk, says another. No, it is like a snake, says a third. Thus Ved Mehta assembles his idiosyncratic reports on the elephant's epidermis, while Judith Brown meticulously measures it inch by inch.

Appropriately, the elephant is Mohandas Gandhi, whose effects on his associates, his country, and the world are still being sized up while his image, like that of the Indian elephant, has become deified. Neither book purports to give a comprehensive account of Gandhi's life and thought. Some 400 biographies have already tried, and many are no doubt yet to come.

Why then these further efforts? In Mehta's case, it is "both to demythologize Gandhi and to capture something of the nature of his influence on his followers and . . . their interpretations of his life on India." This he does partly through direct recollections of those whom he calls "apostles" of Gandhi. The woman whose words constitute Mehta's first chapter describes Gandhi's daily life in the last of his ashrams, Sevagram—his physical features and habits, his humor and humility. Mehta then goes to Sevagram to get a personal sense of the place—and on to the Gandhi Cremation Ground and Exhibition ("somewhat reminiscent of Disneyland"), to the Gandhi National Memorial Museum and Fund, to the Gandhi Peace Foundation, and to Gandhi's earlier ashram Sabarmati, near Ahmedabad. (There an ancient occupant, prompted to say something about Gandhi, shouts out "Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills! But nobody listens!")

Mehta also visits the Indian Government's department for the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, whose English edition will comprise some 80 volumes. He visits Pyarelal, Gandhi's official biographer who has spent nearly 20 of his 70-odd years recording 31 years of Gandhi's life, with 47 yet to go Mehta peruses two standard bibliographies of Gandhian literature listing thousands of biographical studies, essays, poems and novels, periodicals, even the 253 books Gandhi is known to have read. Mehta reflects how strange it is that "of all people, Gandhi, who lived in such starkly simple circumstances, should be so encumbered after death."

He interviews others who knew Gandhi, who lived with him, supported him, worked and walked with him. He goes back to Gandhi's own autobiographical writings and to those who wrote about him, tracing his childhood and young manhood to London and back, to South Africa and back. Only midway in the book does Mehta begin to describe Gandhi's political involvements which characterized the remainder of his days, a portion of which Judith Brown so scrupulously details. Mehta covers the period of Gandhi's return to India (1915) to his death (1948) in three short chapters—admirably concise but necessarily skimpy. His descriptions of Gandhi's first real satyagraha efforts—in support of peasants in Champaran and Kheda, and of millworkers in Ahmedabad—are straight factual accounts similar to those in other biographies. The period from 1928 to 1934 (encompassing the famous Salt March)—the focus of Judith Brown's 400-page book—is covered by Mehta in about six pages, though with readable grace and accuracy.

In assessing Gandhi's nonviolent philosophy and its origins, Mehta seems most lopsided. Tracing satyagraha— truth- or soul-force—to Gandhi's early guilts and subsequent efforts to control his sexual and other appetites (brahmacharya), Mehta jumps to the period just preceding independence and Gandhi's death, when Gandhi attempts to reconcile Hindus and Moslems after the bloody rioting of October 1946 in Noakhali (East Bengal). Mehta went there to talk with several who had walked with Gandhi, particularly his Bengali interpreter Nirmal Kumar Bose (who later became another of Gandhi's chroniclers). Their conversation apparently dwelt on Gandhi's brahmacharya experiments—notably his practice of sleeping non-sexually with women, sometimes nude and nubile ones. Mehta quotes Erik Erikson (from Gandhi’s Truth to support Bose's contention that Gandhi's brahmacharya— and by implication satyagraha—wasrooted in his "repression of the sexual instinct" as penance for "having proved untrue to his father during the last moments of his life" (his father died while young Gandhi had gone to bed with his pregnant wife). Freud similarly traced Leonardo's energy source to repressed libido; Erikson's lengthy tome, drawing parallels between satyagraha and psychoanalytical insights, gives proportionately less weight to Gandhi's sleeping practices than Mehta appears to. Mehta compares them to Lear's need for reassurances from his daughters, to similar Biblical episodes, and the "maternal solace" which Gandhi so generously gave to others and apparently needed in his own times of sorrow and devastated hopes for Hindu-Moslem unity.

Altogether Mehta's composite picture of Gandhi is alive, colorful, earthy—but mottled with pathos and irony. The "apostles" with whom he talks come through as disheveled and dotty, or—as in the cases of three Constructive Workers whom he calls "Gandhi's real heirs"—weary and out of touch. He asks one of them, Vinoba Bhave—who had joined Gandhi's Ahmedabad ashram in 1916 and after his death led the Bhoodan, or land-gift, movement—why he had given up wrestling with India's overriding problem of poverty. "I'm a very old man, I must prepare to meet my God," Bhave tells him. Mehta goes then to the remote ashram where Satish Chandra Das Gupta tries to restore barren land, and Gupta, "eyes swimming with tears," touches Mehta for his last 20 rupees. In Afghanistan Mehta seeks out Abdul Ghaffar Khan, "the Frontier Gandhi," who tells him with sad and gentle eyes that "in India, Gandhiism is dead. Gandhi is completely forgotten. It's the story of Buddha all over again."

Gandhi's struggle for Indian independence was subordinate to (or, as he saw it, meaningless without) sutyagraha, the struggle for purity and unity manifest in self-reliance and sanitation, in Hindu-Moslem accord, and in the uplift and acceptance of Untouchables whom he called Harijans, children of God. To the end, Gandhi "went on talking about the country's abominable sanitary conditions and exhorting his countrymen to become untouchables and so wipe away the stain of untouchability—now asking soldiers to set aside their arms and take up the urgent work of cleaning the country, now telling the government to spend its money for spades and pickaxes instead of guns and ammunition." Mehta concludes on the bitter note that "Gandhi died without making the slightest dent" in any of this, and that "one of the ironies of history" is the coincidence of Indira Gandhi's name with that of Mahatma Gandhi's.

(That the book was completed during Indira Gandhi's state of "emergency" accounts for some of this bitterness, no doubt. In a recent "letter of amplification" to The New Yorker, where the book was first serialized, Mehta's gloomy outlook had considerably brightened since the elections which toppled Indira Gandhi's tight rule.)

Now comes Judith Brown with her measuring tape. This step by step account of Gandhi's massive civil disobedience campaign which peaked in 1930 somewhat parallels her earlier work, Gandhi's Rise to Power (1972). That first volume focused on the period from 1915, when Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, to 1922 when Gandhi was sentenced to six years in prison for sedition but released two years later for health reasons. He remained in semi-retirement from politics for several years, devoting his recuperating energies to spreading the ideas of swadeshi (self-reliance or home production), spinning khadi, Moslem-Hindu unity, and eradication of untouchability. All of these he saw as essential to the goal of purna swaraj— total independence—and it is on his return to political involvement for this purpose that Brown resumes her second book, Gandhi and Civil Disobedience.

 In the successful Bardoli campaign of 1928 and the Calcutta Congress of the same year, Gandhi re-emerged as a political leader. This time he assured Congress, especially its leading figures Motilal Nehru and his hot-headed son Jawaharal, that neither communal disunity nor individual acts of violence need deter an all-India campaign of civil disobedience. The Congress Working Committee declared 26 January 1930 as Independence Day, and Gandhi and Jawaharal proceeded to work out a Declaration to back it up.

On January 30 Gandhi presented to Viceroy Irwin a list of 11 demands which, if not met—as they were not— would be the basis for launching nationwide civil disobedience. The fourth point, abolition of the salt tax, became the focus of the campaign as Gandhi made his 240-mile walk from Sabarmati ashram down the Gujarat coast to Dandi during March and April 1930. In May Gandhi was arrested, but civil disobedience had caught on and throughout India people began to defy the salt tax laws. Despite tens of thousands of arrests during 1930, Indians continued their salt-ma king, picketing and boycotting of foreign cloth and liquor shops (Gandhi's first demand had been for prohibition), "forest satyagraha" in defiance of rigid forest restrictions, resignations of government clerks, refusals to pay land revenue. Women and children took part in increasing numbers. Cloth boycotts especially spread, partly due to world depression, and Brown notes the "blend of vested interest and ideological enthusiasm which linked men primarily interested in local power into an all-India movement." Still, merchants were required to make sacrifices and they did so as if in time of war, cooperating far more than they had in 1920-22.

In July 1930 the arrest of the two Nehrus lopped off further leadership, and the Working Committee of the Congress was declared illegal. Arrests of more leaders followed, and though the civil disobedience campaign had begun lo lose steam, concessions toward Indian , self-rule (though not independence)  were made at the Round Table Conference in London in November despite the absence of Congress representatives—on the basis of which Viceroy Irwin and Gandhi were hopeful for future negotiations. Early in 1931 when Gandhi and his Working Committee were released, Gandhi and Irwin met to work out a truce which came to be known as the Gandhi-Irwin pact. Neither Gandhi's Congress cohorts nor Irwin's government colleagues were happy about this truce, and from then on things were never again so cordial.

The next two years were replete with arrests and releases and re-arrests, deteriorating inter-communal relations, disintegration of civil disobedience and of negotiations with the British. By March 1934 it was clear that civil disobedience was dead and had only to be formally ended. Gandhi did this in effect through a statement expressing approval of Congress participation in the controversial Legislative elections via the newly-formed Swaraj party which he urged Congress to support—a move which dismayed Nehru, still in prison. In June, Congress was legalized again but the political infighting and preoccupation with electoral processes by now made Gandhi feel he must withdraw from direct political involvement, and at the Bombay Congress he resigned.

We can await now the final denouement in Brown's competent hands. Apart from her sometimes erratic punctuation and the profusion of complex Indian names which often makesher narrative as confusing as a Russian novel, Brown's books are very useful not only for scholars of India and of Gandhi, but also as handy references for anyone generally knowledgable in these crucial periods (and apparently inexhaustible subjects) who may want to check out specific details. Brown's voluminous facts, figures and sources, augmented by the now-accessible British materials, are carefully corroborated in many charts and footnotes. Seeping through al the tightly-packed data are delicately tentative, objectively formulated expressions of Brown’s sensibility and sympathies which raise this narrative above a dry, tedious history to a cautiously positive assessment of this ungainly little man of mammoth spiritual proportions.

Mehta depicts the very human and earthly Gandhi, Brown emphasizes the political Gandhi. So piece by piece do the blind feel their way to palpable comprehension of a man whose efforts at nonviolent fusion of opposing forecsa may be comparable importance in our century to the splitting of the atom.

Vincent Sheean, who reviewed a book on Lenin and Gandhi for The New Republic in 1927 (which, as he later wrote, “probably caused to be printed some rare nonsense on the subject”), asked Gandhi a few days before his assassination what the thought of the atomic bomb. Aware of its destructive force, the antithesis of his life, this simple and astonishing man replied that the dissolution of matter was absolutely certain at some point, and if there were any survivors “they would undoubtedly say ‘What a wondrous spectacle!’”

This article originally ran in the July 9, 1977 issue of the magazine