His true nature
Keerthik Sasidharan | 13 Aug, 2020
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
Among RK Laxman’s innumerable cartoons that critiqued the private self-deceptions and public lies of Indian life, one that I find particularly instructive is a single frame sketch (see cartoon) involving a husband and wife. The husband is dressed in a dhoti and a shawl draped around him, with a staff in one hand and a jhola in the other, and a Gandhi topi to add to his sartorial flourish. On the right side of the frame, the wife stands in the living room, with her hands clasped and a befuddled concern on her face, and addresses her rather dejected looking husband: ‘What happened to your safari suit, the expensive shoes, the Rolex watch? Mid-term polls soon! Right?’ In the background, Laxman’s ‘Common Man’ sits and watches this scene of a disturbed domestic tranquillity with his googly eyes and bland scepticism. Once the chuckle or smirk of recognition vanishes, the cartoon provokes a question that I have often wondered about, especially during election seasons: where does our laughter emerge from? The obvious and easy answer is that it comes from recognising the naked hypocrisy of the clichéd Indian politician as one who loves all the fancy stuff in private, but continues to present a face of great penury and piety in public. The more obscure, and historically complicated, question is: why do Indian politicians work so hard to master the art of performative empathy by resorting to proxies such as the clothing and food habits of India’s poor?
No group of Indian politicians has taken this marriage of sartorial choices and political symbolism to its logical ends than the ‘Gandhians’. But lest we think the Gandhians are the only ones who indulge in political pantomimes, it is important to remember that other subgroups have similarly followed suit making minor adjustments to this template. Over time, as Gandhi became more of a symbol than an idea worth sustained reflection, the Gandhians have been understandably ignored by a restless India—and on occasion have even been subject to savage ridicule. VS Naipaul famously—and unfairly—wrote about Vinoba Bhave as a ‘foolish parody of Gandhi’. And then, without a mention of the achievements of the Bhoodan Movement which involved peaceful handover of hundreds of thousands of acres of land, Naipaul goes on to summarise Bhave as, ‘He had lived for so long as a parasite, and away from the world, that he had become a kind of half-man, and he thought that Gandhi had been like that too… .’ Despite this ‘peevish sixth-grader’ style assessment by a writer who had himself taken to becoming a ‘conspicuous hermit’ (both quotes come from Derek Walcott’s own trenchant description of ‘V.S. Nightfall’), Naipaul saw through Bhave’s wilfully accreted poverty and the egoism of an all-too-worldly renunciate. Bhave, like legions of Indian politicians, believed that emulating Gandhi was a meaningful way to accrue moral respect.
When we think of emulation, we often end up thinking of mimicry, which in turn is seen as a mere consequence of political expediency. But emulation as a means to sculpt moral perfection has been often used across history and cultures. The Christian monks of the Franciscan order wilfully adopted poverty as a way to be, to emulate St Francis of Assisi. Over centuries, numerous subgroups of Muslims have sought to live in ways—that includes wearing similar dress, applying henna to their beards and so on—that emulate the life of Prophet Muhammad. In each of these cases, emulation is seen as a prerequisite to living with authenticity and fidelity to a monastic order or a textual reading. These acts of emulation hope to arrive closer to men who had communed with God—be it through stigmata as was the case with St Francis or through prophetic revelations in the case of Prophet Muhammad—which in turn makes the very act of ‘emulating’ their ways of life understandably attractive, once you ascribe to the tenets of Christianity or Islam. Their lives and their manners become means, and even portals, to possibly experience God. But when asked the same question about the followers of Gandhi, or even other Indian politicians, who adopt Gandhian piety, the motivations become more obscure the further away we move from the historical Gandhi. There, after all, is no God involved at the end of such Gandhian efforts to reconfigure their selves.
IN HIS sweeping survey titled The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914, the British historian CA Bayly notes, ‘In 1780, the most powerful men in the world were dressed in a large variety of different types of garments which ranged from Chinese mandarin robes, through French embroidered frock coats, to ritualized undress in the Pacific and parts of Africa.’ However, by the early 20th century, in most societies, ‘important men operating in public arenas wore Western-style clothes wherever they lived’. Gandhi, by virtue of his own example, sought to stymie this trend. But if asked why did Gandhi himself abandon his three-piece suits in South Africa and take to dressing—in the words of Winston Churchill—like “a half-naked fakir”, most answers rarely speak to Gandhi’s moral worldview. They range from the emotionally pragmatic: Gandhi wanted to identify with the average indentured labourer in South Africa or the peasant in India; to the psychological: Gandhi wanted to rid the educated Indian of their ‘cognitive enslavement’ to the British and changing the dress was part of the strategy; to the political: by denying the British the opportunity to treat Gandhi as yet another Indian-in-a-suit from the Indian National Congress, he was forcing them to find new ways to describe this political organiser who had just returned from South Africa with a victory to his name. In each of these portrayals, rarely do we think of Gandhi’s choice of dress as intimately linked to his protracted efforts to live life with integrity. And to some of us, living in the early 20th century, there is a theatricality to Gandhi’s parting with of Western clothes which in turn inspires suspicions towards any claims made on behalf of Gandhi’s lifelong tryst with living truthfully.
To understand the importance of truth in Gandhi’s life, it is perhaps useful to return to his writings itself. From November 24th, 1925 to February 3rd, 1929, Gandhi’s autobiographical articles appeared over 166 instalments in the journal Navajivan, wherein he documents with extraordinary scrupulousness about how he prepared the grounds to become who he was then: a politician with permanent aspirations to be a man of God. Eventually, these articles in Gujarati were compiled, edited and ultimately translated by his indefatigable secretary Mahadev Desai and brought out with an earnest but attractive title, Satya Na Prayogo Athva Atmakatha. In English, the order of the title was flipped: An Autobiography with the subtitle The Story of My Experiments with Truth. In the accompanying essay by the scholar Tridip Suhrud that foregrounds the recently published Critical Edition, Suhrud tells us that the term ‘atmakatha’ (literally, self-told-story or, more elliptically, the story of the self) and ‘jeevan vrittant’ (life chronicles) often gets translated as ‘autobiography’, but what Gandhi had always wanted to write was an ‘atmakatha’, not a ‘vrittant’. An ‘atmakatha’ offered him an opportunity to write with self-awareness about his past and explore his idea of the truth contained in every situation and treat it as a test to evaluate his moral progress. From confessionals such as dreaming of making love to his wife while his father lay dying to more bland truths about his genteel radicalism in London’s vegetarian clubs, no meaningful event was seemingly beyond Gandhi’s self-examination.
There is a certain irony, however.
Gandhi wrote his autobiography in a period when he was already the de facto head of the Indian freedom struggle and yet the word ‘freedom’ appears barely 10 times in the text of his autobiography. And when it does appear, ‘freedom’ is merely a minor descriptor or a passing qualifier. ‘Freedom’ in Gandhi’s text appears early when he recognises that political freedoms were intimately tied to ‘strength’ which he assumed meant eating meat; but embedded within this recognition was also his realisation that while political freedoms were important, lying to one’s parents about eating meat merited greater attention. On other occasions in the text, he uses ‘freedom’ to simply describe himself as a via negativa: as one who was respected for his ‘freedom from exaggeration and devotion to truth’. As a grown man and father of young children, the most interesting use of the word ‘freedom’ is when he employs it to describe his recognition that ‘vows’ were a way to enter into freedom and not close it (apropos, the Israeli scholar of Tamil, David Shulman, has a similarly inflected view that he uses to describe the traditional rigours of Carnatic music as a way to ‘break into bonds’). Perhaps the most revealing of use of the word ‘freedom’ is when referring to his vow of brahmacharya—including sexual abstinence—at the age of 36. He wrote: ‘… the freedom and joy that came to me after taking the vow had never been experienced before…’. On occasion, he uses ‘freedom’ to make a social observation such as the joie de vivre of the Burmese women in contrast to the ‘indolence’ of Burmese men; or to make a religious observation that ‘grace’, which he equates with ‘freedom from error’, comes from complete surrender to God and by relying on mantras like Ramanama. On only one occasion, when he describes his speech in Kathiawar, does he explicitly equate ‘freedom’ with his radical innovation called ‘satyagraha’. All in all, ‘freedom’ as a topic worthy of discussion and sustained elaboration is strangely missing in Gandhi’s autobiography.
For John Dewey and his disciples(among them was a young man called Bhimrao Ambedkar), freedom through education and democracy was the means to arrive at unrevealed truths of our public and private lives
In contrast, Gandhi’s autobiography is peppered with ‘truth’: from personal values imbibed through Puranas like the story of King Harishchandra to the substantive questions of how he thought of himself, the word ‘truth’ was both polyvalent and multipurpose. Truth for Gandhi as a category of reality was a tool and a method. He used it to pry open situations that he comes across in life to make it more recognisable. In this sense, Gandhi’s truth was like a Swiss Army knife—many things to him, as and when the situation demanded. And yet, concurrently, ‘truth’ to Gandhi was also a singular end in and of itself and thus considered synonymous with God. This has led many to think that Gandhi’s radical belief of non-violence can be motivated by analysing his approach to truth. To this end, they rely upon a traditional liberal analytics of truth that is perhaps best explained by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill. The argument goes like this: since we now know that many things from our past are not truthful, we must concede with humility that we may be wrong today as well—and so, we must ‘tolerate’ as opposed to impose our views with violence. What this argument does is tie together an epistemological constraint (knowing ‘truth’ truthfully) with a psychological attitude and practical approach towards fellow humans. In an illuminating essay the philosopher Akeel Bilgrami makes a convincing case that this is a misreading of the relationship between Gandhi’s idea of truth and non-violence. Bilgrami argues that what truly matters to Gandhi is that the source of our humility is motivated not by knowledge but by attitude and conduct. Whereas in the Western tradition, the need for humility comes from our inability to ascertain the truth content of the world, in Gandhi’s world, the need for humility comes from his cutting the umbilical bonds between ‘moral judgement and moral criticism’ of others.
For any criticism, according to Gandhi, is inescapably tied to violence. This view, however, poses the obvious problem in a Gandhian framework—for, how are we to get others in society to follow a particular moral action? For Gandhi, there could be no compulsion in the matter of performing an act, however desirable. And so, he relied on the idea of a moral exemplar. He believed that his struggle to turn his own body and life into a site of moral probity and judgement would lead others to voluntarily emulate similar choices. Freedom, as far as the individual was concerned, for Gandhi, was merely the freedom they possessed to choose or discard his own life’s efforts to think and live non-violently.
The perils of this unique and subtle way of motivating the importance of truth through the device of exemplarity is that in absence of integrity—a commitment to truth—the whole exercise goes from simpleminded emulation to unthinking mimicry and cynical acts of signalling. The interiority of Gandhi’s ideas of living truthfully is traduced to empty gesturing that merely colours the political exterior. The role of ‘freedom’ in a Gandhian world is largely therefore dichotomous: it is either that of the political kind—freedom from British masters—or it is a freedom to emulate and struggle to become similar to Gandhi. Rarely does Gandhi ask in his Autobiography, or even less so do his political heirs ask: How is freedom itself born in a society? What are the necessary constituents of that which we identify as prerequisites before an individual’s ‘freedom’ itself emerges? How must we educate our children to ensure they are interested in truth not just for its own sake as an intellectual exercise but also to become truthful individuals? On matters related to the production of these virtues, Gandhi’s refrain is often to outsource right action to an individual’s moral intuition to do the thing after having lived in close proximity of moral exemplars, who would approximate Gandhi’s own example about food and abstinence, non-violence and commitment to truth. In this sense, a Gandhian society lays primacy on socialisation through emulation of the virtuous exemplar. Freedom rarely figures as an end goal. It also doesn’t answer the question of how a moral paragon is to emerge in absence of freedom to experiment and depart from the norm.
For much of post-Independence India, as a society, we have elevated Gandhi every passing year to ever further symbolic irrelevance, all the while paying lip-service to his ideas of truth. The result is the rise of a political culture that is high on thinking itself as an exemplar of truth and virtues while rarely introspecting on the necessary grounds upon which individual freedoms flourish
In direct contrast to Gandhi’s elevation of truth, the American philosopher John Dewey offers a different way to allow for the conditions that would let truth to burble to the fore. To do so, he says, we need to stop thinking about discovering truths that would allow us to map our pet theories to an external reality but instead begin thinking about the freedoms to form and disengage voluntary associations with others. This view makes a case that if we are able to worry about freedoms that individuals experience—through education, voting rights, equality under the law—then we will have arrived at sufficient conditions to let individuals discover private and public truths. In such a society, there will be no need to rely on exemplars as embodiments of truth but instead we will rely on education and democracy as the way to build the preconditions necessary for truth. For Gandhi, truth was singularly important and freedom was at best a political need of the hour and at worst an afterthought and perhaps even an indulgence that lay its snares for the unsuspecting; for Dewey and his disciples (among them was a young man from Satara called Bhimrao Ambedkar), freedom through education and democracy was the means to arrive at unrevealed truths of our public and private lives.
For much of post-Independence India, as a society, we have elevated Gandhi every passing year to ever further symbolic irrelevance, all the while paying lip service to his ideas of truth. The result is the rise of a political culture that is high on thinking itself as an exemplar of truth and virtues while rarely introspecting on the necessary grounds upon which individual freedoms flourish. For 73 years, we have parroted that truth alone triumphs, in the belief that mere restatement of this mahavakya is tantamount to birthing it as a reality. Perhaps it is time to begin asking if there is another way through which truth can rise to the fore. Perhaps it is time to take to heart what the philosopher Richard Rorty used to say: ‘Take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself.’