Gandhi: Saint, Human, Complicated

Preface: I’ve recently been reading a ton of Arundhati Roy’s work so if you are intrigued by the things I write here and want to read a real scholar’s take on it: go here or here and especially watch this speech on Gandhi and Dr. B. R. Ambedekar or read its transcript. If you like fiction, you should buy and read Roy’s God of Small Things. I love Roy. She’s big on my new reading list.

Many of my thoughts on suffering and poverty have lead me to reflect on one of my favorite historical figures whose mission was alleviating poverty: Gandhi. Let me introduce you to the Gandhi I have come to know the same way I was introduced to him and his philosophy – in three stages. 

One: Saint

The Mahatma is many things in India. And similarly to our treatment of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States, his history if often rewritten and his image often appropriated. Here’s an example. 


I took this photo two years ago on the India-Pakistan border during a border closing ceremony. On the India side, the barrier’s sign reads भारत, the sanskrit word for India in Hindi, across from the English word along with the portrait of Gandhi. The word भारत (Bharat) comes from the epic Mahabharata, one of the texts fundamental to the Hindu tradition. Reflected on the other side of the border, less than half a kilometer away, is a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the first Prime Minister of Pakistan and friend to Gandhi. I took this photo because flanking either side of our peace-loving saint stand two guards armed with guns, protecting India. Furthermore, Gandhi was vehemently opposed to Partition and now his face is on a literal partition of the two countries. 

My first introduction to Gandhi was when I must have been very young, probably on a playground somewhere and probably more as myth than man. He was probably introduced along side other saints of his era, such as Martin Luther King Jr., as a symbol of peace, rather than a political figure. In fact, I heard Gandhi’s name about a decade before I learned what Partition meant or before I knew the importance of the year 1947. As a person who has always felt a very deep and emphatic pull to do something about poverty and suffering, I have incredible admiration for Gandhi. [Not unique, I think lots of people who feel this way do.] For some of us, it’s Gandhi’s Satyagraha we learn first.  I was introduced to Gandhi’s philosophy when I read excerpts of a book on Satayagraha in high school. Satyagraha, to put it extremely simply, is a particular sect of Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance and is a practical set of ideals which to live by in standing up to a malevolent government. Gandhi’s writings were some of the first texts that sparked my love for philosophy. His ideas were incredibly elegant and the arguments well put. Gandhi’s effortless writing style and calm yet stern hold to his beliefs made his philosophy not only palatable, but convincing. This is obvious. His writing toppled an empire. 

However, most people know Gandhi not through his writings but through media and repeated falsehoods about his writings. The largest example of this is Richard Attenborough’s 1982 movie Gandhi, starring Ben Kingsley. It is in depictions such as Attenborough’s that Gandhi moves further away from himself, from his philosophy, and even from India. He becomes much more than a man, but a legend, a symbol – to be appropriated and used for any and all political causes. I remember watching Attenborough’s film for the first time years ago and being filled with awe and respect. I thought, “This man is more than human." 

Two: Human


The second time I met Gandhi was in Mumbai when I went to his residence in Khotachi Wadi. It was then that I decided to read Gandhi’s autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth for the first time. In this book I met Gandhi, human – really really really weird human. Gandhi was a pretty abnormal person, to be sure. Married as a child, he told his wife when they were in their thirties that he was becoming caste and would never have sex with her again, to preserve their purity. Gandhi had lots of, what we may call, quirks. Except he took these quirks to the extreme. It was probably what made Satyagraha so successful actually. "Let’s burn all British clothes” he said. People were probably like “Yeah, great idea! Burn all of our clothes!” But then Gandhi was like “No I’m absolutely serious this is happening right now.” He steadfastly took his beliefs to the edge and that made him an incredibly powerful leader. For example, Gandhi was very punctual. Here is my favorite excerpt on a biographical article about his punctuality:

[Gandhi] stopped writing and exclaimed: ‘Is it five?’ I replied with a guilty conscience: ‘No, Bapu, it is one minute to five.’ ‘Well, Kanti,’ he said, ‘what is the use of keeping a wristwatch? You have no value of time…Again, you don’t respect truth as you know it. Would it have cost more energy to say: It is one minute to five, than to say It is five o’clock?’ Thus he went on rebuking me for about fifteen to twenty minutes till it was time for his evening meal.

But my all time favorite story about Gandhi comes from the man himself, in his autobiography. It is a story he tells about a stranger coming to his door and asking for help. Instead of shooing him away or giving him money and sending him away, Gandhi welcomes him into his home, gives him food and drink, and lets him stay as long as he likes. The man stays for months and Gandhi never once asks him to leave. I think about this story often. What would I do in this situation? Definitely not let a stranger live in my house for months without an end in sight. I have enough room. I have resources, more resources than many people have, but this is the way we tackle poverty, is it? We tackle it when it’s convenient. When it’s tax deductible. We face poverty and suffering when we want to and criticize others for what their doing wrong in poverty alleviation on our own time. But very few of us are so radical in our beliefs. Or even consistent. The comedian Louis CK has this great joke: 

I have a lot of beliefs, and I live by none of ‘em. That’s just the way I am. They’re just my beliefs. I just like believing them. I like that part. They’re my little believies; they make me feel good about who I am.

It’s so funny because it strikes a chord for the liberal educated world. What I fell in love with in Gandhi’s honest writing and philosophy was that if he had a belief he absolutely lived by it. Which is what makes this next part harder to bear because no one, not even the greatest philosophers in the world, are perfect in their views. 

Three: Complicated

I told my host brother Hrishikesh that I was writing an essay on Gandhi. Earlier that day he had told me about a debate they had in school: “Science: good or bad?” So I told Hrishikesh I would name my essay “Gandhi: good or bad?” He looked at me with intense thought. I got a little nervous for a second; I didn’t mean to be out of place – it was only a joke. But before I could jump in to apologize he says, “Gandhi isn’t good or bad. Gandhi is good AND bad.”

The third time I met Gandhi was over a year ago. And, boy, did he look different. I met Gandhi by reading another author, Arundhati Roy. And this time, he brought a friend. 

Have you ever heard of Dr. Ambedkar? Here he is:


Dr. Ambedkar, often named Babasaheb, is most well-known for his position as chairman of the committee to form the constitution of India. Ambedkar was born into a Dalit, or Untouchable, class and spent his whole life fighting against social discrimination and the caste system. He actually converted to Buddhism (and encouraged other Dalits to do so as well) because of the caste system. He was a model student and achieved a law degree and multiple doctorates despite his poor beginning. He wrote what may be the most famous speech never given, The Annihilation of Caste, and was a fierce debater with Gandhi, whom he thought carried some incredibly backward ideas about caste. Thus Ambedkar was two men at once: a radical and an establishment-toting government official. He wanted a revolution, and achieved a constitution instead. 

Curious about why you’ve never heard of Ambedkar and heard so much about Gandhi? See if this sounds like anyone else in our own history (this is from Roy’s speech):

The reason that [Ambedkar] has been left out of the kind of master narrative history […] is because he was a man who left a complicated legacy. He was a revolutionary […] and eventually he actually helped in the drafting of the Indian constitution. But the way he is valorized in our history books or in our lives generally, not among the Dalit people but amongst the privileged class […] is as a leader of the establishment. But In some way they leave out the passion, the rage, and the anger that drove Dr. Ambedkar and this was a fight against caste.

Which brings us to back to Gandhi and his clash with Ambedkar. For the truth, we have to move beyond Richard Attenborough and delve into observations of Gandhi’s camps in the 1930s for evidence, and in those writings we find a consistently condescending and paternal tone to the most poor, the Dalit class. Ex1: 

Balmiki elders recount tales of Gandhi’s hypocrisy, but only with a sense of uneasiness. When a dalit gave Gandhi nuts, he fed them to his goat, saying that he would eat them later, in the goat’s milk. Most of Gandhi’s food, nuts and grains, came from Birla House; he did not take these from the dalits. Radical Balmikis took refuge in Ambedkarism which openly confronted Gandhi on these issues. 

We have all heard of the concept of Gandhi’s ideal village, a cornerstone of Gandhi’s socialist philosophies on community and living off the land. For India, made by India. Dr. Ambedkar had his own take on Gandhi’s ideal village. Here, a quote from Ambedkar’s speech delivered as Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee on Nov. 4, 1948: Gandhi’s village is “a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism.” Ambedkar and others’ observations of Gandhi’s philosophy reveal something quite different from history’s view. In these writings we see a social worker desperately trying to support the poor, but doing so only by, at its best, condescending to them and, at its worst, endorsing racial and caste stereotypes. 

For example, most people know Gandhi started Satyagraha in South Africa when he was working as a lawyer there. In the first scene of Attenborough’s film we see a young Gandhi being thrown from a train for sitting in the whites only car. We see Gandhi begin civil resistance on the part of the Indian laborers in South Africa, campaigning for the rights of his fellow Indians. However, what history often omits is that when Gandhi campaigned in South Africa, it was not for civil rights as is commonly taught, but to have Indians treated more like the white British than like “savages” and “kaffirs”[racial term for black South Africans] – words he actually used in his writings. The “savages” he is referring to are black South Africans. Reading Gandhi’s writings from these times are painfully revealing. Not only does he repeatedly apology for the caste system, a form of structural violence, but takes a patronizing attitude towards the poor. 

What people find so amazing about Gandhi is that he defied his time. In the 1920s-40s, that was an incredibly hard thing to do. Looking at his own writings on race and caste however, we have to admit Gandhi was more a man of his time than most think. He was human, and humans are products of their surroundings. But is saying he was human enough? And particularly, is it enough to say about a man who held so fully to all of his other beliefs. Again, Roy: 

What do we do with this structure of moral righteousness that rests so comfortably on a foundation of utterly brutal, institutionalized injustice? Is it enough to say Gandhi was complicated, and let it go at that? There is no doubt that Gandhi was an extraordinary and fascinating man, but during India’s struggle for freedom, did he really speak truth to power? Did he really ally himself with the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable of his people?

These thoughts have been stirring in my head for the last couple of weeks, as I am a witness to poverty and think so often of Gandhi, and his commitment to taking action. I have always been obsessed with the crossroad of action and thought. This may be because of studying philosophy and the humanities. What is more important: doing or thinking? Does what Gandhi was able to create outshine the fact that he held these beliefs on caste? Can we really say he was an ally with the poorest of the poor? Does it even matter that he said those things if we have morphed and twisted his philosophy to an almost unrecognizable state anyway? And how do we reconcile Ambedkar’s containment? Ambedkar, an alternative ally to the poor, once told Gandhi, “Gandhiji, I have no Homeland. No Untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land.” Why not study Ambedkar’s philosophy? Why Gandhi? 

Still, something about this man still grabs me. Maybe it was the intensity with which he carried himself. Or maybe it is that he demands that intensity from others. However, I completely side with Roy as well: history should not be hidden – would that not be a complete contradiction to Satyagraha? Had I only met Gandhi once, how little I would have learned about structural injustice and violence, caste, and belief. People fear meeting their heroes because they do not want to know the truth that heroes are human, that they have complicated beliefs and lives, that they are wrong.

In the end, Gandhi has deeply enhanced by thinking on development, poverty, and philosophy – as much in his celebrated philosophy and life as in his irreconcilable mistakes. 

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