Commentary Magazine


Gandhi: Self-Realization Through Politics:
The Mystery of Leadership

In much of his recent thinking and writing, Isaac Rosenfeld has been preoccupied with tracing the interrelation of deep instinctual drives, politics, and religion in human personality and social action. Here Mr. Rosenfeld, examining Mohandas Gandhi’s Autobiography, attempts to find the wellsprings of life and philosophy that produced one of the 20th century’s most imposing and enigmatic leaders. 

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There has probably never been another “great man”—that vast, vague, abstract personage which we celebrate in human terms but conceive as a stuffed shirt—who has written so simple and direct a book as Gandhi’s Autobiography (Public Affairs Press, Washington, D.C., 1948). In the name of Truth, and for the purpose of describing his experiments with Truth, he tells us about his character, detail by detail, with a directness and completeness that is astonishing and shocking and that may appear irrelevant even after we have grasped the connection. But irrelevant these minutiae are not; Gandhi merely understood the facts of life better than the rest of us.

This Great Soul, Latter-day Avatar, Architect of India’s Freedom, as he was called, reveals to us his early attitudes toward parents and teachers, his sexual practices, his relations with his wife, his theories on the subjects of diet, medicine, and cleanliness, and his various experiments in these fields; he describes himself ironing collars with the same underlying seriousness and attachment to moral significance as when he tells of nursing the sick and the dying. Often one must laugh, our sophistication demands it; to withhold the ridicule this self-confessed quack frequently deserves, is to refuse to honor the simpleton in him, the plain nudnik, and to violate his unity. He was all of a piece, the man whose desire was “to wipe away every tear from every Indian eye,” the neurotic who regarded sexual intercourse without intent of producing children as a grave crime, the submissive rebel who spent his days confounding authority and meanwhile kept his eye open for a vegetable substitute for cow’s milk. It was all one with him.

Nehru said of this man: “People who do not know Gandhi personally and have only read his writings are apt to think that he is a priestly type, extremely puritanical, long-faced, Calvinistic, and a kill-joy. . . . But his writings do him an injustice; he is far greater than what he writes, and it is not quite fair to quote what he has written and to criticize it. He is the very opposite of the Calvinistic priestly type. His smile is delightful, his laughter infectious, and he radiates lightheartedness. There is something childlike about him which is full of charm. When he enters a room he brings a breath of fresh air . . . which lightens the atmosphere. He is an extraordinary paradox.”

All this appears in the autobiography—the smile as well as the long face. The paradox lies not so much in the conjunction of opposite qualities (this is common enough, and it can be explained) as in the peculiar exception he provides to the rule of reaping what one sows. He emerged uncrippled from the crippling inner life he made himself lead; almost as though he had never led it, and more natural than many a man who is pledged to accommodate the instincts.

“What I want to achieve,” he declared, “. . . is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha [salvation, freedom from birth and death; it was “an unbroken torture” to him that he was still so far from this]. All that I do . . . and all my ventures in the political field, are directed to this same end.” To understand him, one must understand, as he did, the connections among chastity, self-realization in politics, and the belief that a man’s diet should consist only of fruit and nuts.

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Early Life

Gandhi was an extremely shy child. He adored his mother (her strict observance of fasts and of the most rigorous religious vows are of significance for his later life) and loved his father not so well (he speaks of him as short-tempered and “To a certain extent he might have been given to carnal pleasures. For he married for the fourth time when he was over forty.” Gandhi was born of this last marriage). His school days were lonely, “books and lessons” were often his “only companions.” He was punctilious in attendance, but would run home the moment the bell rang, afraid to play with his schoolmates lest anyone poke fun at him. Of his classroom experiences he remembers “nothing more . . . than having learnt, in company with other boys, to call our teacher all kinds of names. . . . [This] would strongly suggest that my intellect must have been sluggish and my memory raw.” It suggests even more strongly that his teachers were no good, but of this, not a word. It was not like Gandhi to criticize authority. Of a later period in his life, when he still considered British rule beneficial to India, he said, “Hardly ever have I known anyone to cherish such loyalty as I did to the British Constitution.” But by that time he was already learning the technique, unavailable to the merely submissive child, of taking a stand against authority and simultaneously assuaging his guilt feelings. The method consisted in inflicting on himself, for every act of insubordination, some hardship, most frequently in religious form—a vow to abstain from certain foods, to give up certain pleasures—as though in punishment for a fault greater than the one he must condemn in the authorities.

At the age of thirteen he married Kasturbai, who was illiterate. For a number of years Gandhi was very jealous and suspicious of her, and he made her miserable by watching her every move and imposing severe restrictions on her social life. He wanted to make her an ideal wife. “My ambition was to make her live a pure life, learn what I learnt, and identify her life and thought with mine” (italics his). But he was “passionately fond of her,” and lust prevented him from devoting himself to her education. She remained poorly educated to the end, having profited so little from his instruction that she could do no better than write with difficulty “simple letters and understand simple Gujarati. I am sure that had my love for her been absolutely untainted by lust, she would be a learned lady today; for I could then have conquered her dislike for studies. I know that nothing is impossible for fare love” (italics mine; this is one of the many indications that pure love, for Gandhi, was often like a pile driver).

Gandhi’s memories of his early life are distorted in the direction typical of ascetics, who endow the past with an extravagance of error and sin. The motive, one must suppose, is to make the rectitude of the present life appear so much the nobler and, in its unconscious part, to quicken the pleasure-starved heart with at least an imagined lust The excesses of which he speaks are perfectly innocent: smoking, a minor theft, the eating of meat; and the rest are attributable, if they are excesses at all, to adolescent sexuality enjoying its first fling, thanks to the institution of child marriage.

But an event of this period—in Gandhi’s system a terrible sin—which confirmed the guilt feelings about sex that he must already have had and proved crucial for his later attitudes, occurred with the death of his father when Gandhi was sixteen. Kaba Gandhi had long been ill and his son Mohandas took turns with other members of the family in nursing him. On the night of his father’s death young Gandhi, relieved by his uncle, went straight to his bedroom to have intercourse with his wife, who, to his “double shame,” was pregnant with their first child. Father Gandhi died while they were having intercourse. Gandhi never forgave himself for this, and all his life remembered that it was sexual desire which prevented him from being at his father’s bedside when he died; he also assumed the guilt for the death of his first child, born of this pregnancy. Taking into account the attitudes toward sex that he later developed—for example, the extreme agitation he showed when a young man and woman of his ashrama (religious order) broke their vow of chastity, and the fast he undertook to punish them—as well as the latent hostility he must have felt for his father, one must suppose that he considered himself a murderer, and the sexual act a murderous one.

At the age of eighteen he underwent a “long and healthy spell of separation” from his wife; he sailed to London to study law. There had been opposition in the family to his going, and technically, Gandhi was out-caste all his life for breaking the prohibition of overseas travel; but he obtained his mother’s consent by taking a vow not to touch wine, women, or meat while abroad. He stuck to his vow and led a poor, lonely, grinding life in England for four years; despite the gentlemanly airs he assumed, silk gloves and top hat, he remained shy and awkward and most of his contacts were with vegetarians. Gandhi’s shyness stood in the way of his legal career on his return to India. He was too bashful and frightened to speak up in court; and also too much the egotist. But that egotism can lie behind failure too, Gandhi never recognized. He was aware of his egotism only on the level of direct contact with the world, never suspecting that the measures he adopted to hold himself back might also have been motivated by it. He was already a perfectionist; and it was the high standard that he set for himself, along with the fear that his performance might not overwhelm the world, that stopped his tongue. Later, when he had mastered the way of satisfying both his extreme egotism and his passion for humility, he proved himself a moving speaker.

The first step toward the resolution of his lifelong conflict over egotism he took in South Africa, where he had gone to make another attempt at the practice of law. He found that a certain measure of satisfaction could come to him through service to others. The more he denied himself the immediate satisfaction of acting on his own behalf and in the interest of his growing family, the more capable he became. The usual income of rewards in fame and money he had always checked because of guilt—a guilt, precisely, over the demands he made of the world; these were his true “excesses.” He learned to detach himself from his ambitions, to ask, while serving others, less and less for himself, letting the rewards accumulate to the credit of his public self (it was his greatest private pleasure to disclaim gratification in his public self). His egotism, which had cut him off from contact with the world, thus diverted, brought him into a growing contact with the world, as he denied himself profit in direct returns. This became the basic operation of his personality.

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Power Operation

It was a power operation, and as he came to perfect it, he established himself as its foremost entrepreneur. He exploited the world’s conscience as ruthlessly as any exploiter, but with the significant qualification that he never spared himself. In fact, he had to drive himself always harder, always one step further than he drove the world, for the essence of his power lay in a clear conscience. “I have the right,” ran his justification, “to demand this of you. Look—I myself have given more!” But asceticism not only gave him contact with the world; it enabled him to conquer. Suffering as much as he did to gain humility, he could overlook the power aspects of his drive; his empire, he could well believe, was not of the world, but of the inner world of his own instincts.

There is a swindle here, which, from the fact that Gandhi conspired in it all his life, suggests that a man can support an exacting conscience on hardly any self-insight at all. The ordinary dishonest man, the good average citizen who meets all the requirements but does so imperfectly, is much more fearful of conscience than the saint. He assigns himself a limit, beyond which he will not go, and he knows his limit (the saint does not); this knowledge seals his mediocrity, it does not allow him to persist beyond it. Yet the ascetic’s hunger for power presupposes a conscience, and an active one; else why should he have to work so hard? Each blow he directs against himself falls to his credit, and this being a gain, it requires another blow, and so on in an infinite regress of pride-in-humility. But somewhere in the course the organism is enfeebled, and when it can endure no more, conscience is satisfied to call a halt. What is saintly in every case, and certainly in Gandhi’s, is that the process is halted at a point which for most men would be well beyond death. Thus the saint enters a real immortality, even in his lifetime.

Such was the mechanism of Gandhi’s powerful fasts. The nearer he approached death, the greater his power became; the nation would beg him to stop and promise to be good and obey. The fear of the Indians may not only have been due to the great guilt of parricide he stirred up in them (“We have killed Bapu!”); at a deeper level it may have been a fear that the basic moral contradiction of the saint’s hunger for, and use of, power would break through to recognition. This would have meant not only the death of “Bapu,” the father, but of “Mahatmaji,” the honored Great Soul, and with him of the whole system of ideals that his moral strategies had created in the New India. It is noteworthy that Gandhi was assassinated not by Moslems, Communists, or any religious or secular outgroup, but by a member of the Hindu Mahasabha, a fanatical orthodox society and the only one in India that could claim sanctity greater than his own.

A man who wields such power does not come by it overnight. Before he left South Africa he had completed the work on the foundations of his character, which included Brahmacharya, “control of the senses in word, thought and deed.” (In thought—one of his great naive insights was the statement: mind is the root of sensuality.) This meant absolute chastity; he would live with his wife as with a sister, and regard all women as the equals and companions of men, and no longer as objects of lust. (Since sexual intercourse must have seemed to him an act of murderous violence, the ban he imposed on himself with Brahmacharya was the symbolic climax to the taboos on eating, destroying, or otherwise injuring flesh.) “Before taking the vow I had been open to being overcome by temptation at any moment. Now the vow was a sure shield against any temptation.” He speaks of the joy Brahmacharya brought him, for all that it was hard work. Having mastered it, he was secure, he had built the last barrier in a system of defenses against the world, which system, at the next remove, was a defense against his own impulses toward the world, and which was finally to give him command of the world. Brahmacharya was a joy because it was the ultimate maneuver in the negotiation of this treaty (such a man must have a genius for politics); it brought the last straggling impulse of life under control, halted the conflict between sexuality and self, and put an end to the struggle between public and private ego. These conflicts, so long as they raged, represented a possible return to direct satisfactions (“temptations”). He was now beyond temptation, and the full price he had asked for the assumption of power, he had himself paid out. Gandhi was now ready to turn his power operation directly on the world with the work of Satyagraha, his self-realization in politics.

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The Extraordinary Paradox

Examination of the self that Gandhi sought to realize can lead one to think that the ascetic need not invent a sinful past; he need only attribute to the past the sins of the present, which the process of acquiring sainthood brings him to commit. Much of him is merely absurd, and this amuses us and endears the great man to us. But much of him is overbearing, insensitive, and even brutal. Our original question—“How can he have emerged uncrippled from the crippling life he led?” becomes, “How can he have been so crippled, seeing that he emerged whole?”

The simpleton in him, wanting to save money, decided to launder his own shirts. “So I equipped myself with a washing outfit. . . . I bought a book on washing, studied the art and taught it also to my wife. This no doubt added to my work, but its novelty made it a pleasure.” He describes the first collar he laundered. He had used too much starch and pressed it with an iron that was not hot enough. “The superfluous starch continually dropped off it.” All the same, he wore the collar to court, to the amusement of his colleagues. He was impervious to ridicule (at the cost of being ridiculous—but that’s actually a saving to a Don Quixote) and was glad of the chance to provide his friends with some fun at his own expense. But even here, charming as this incident is, he was far from innocent, for Gandhi was still engaged in scoring his characteristic point. He wears his collar with a straight face as an example of the “beauty of self-help,” and must feel an increment of humility trickling to his credit. His whole character is here reproduced in miniature.

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One frequently finds him buying a book on some household subject, mastering it, and then teaching it to his wife—for this, one must be a Gandhi. He instinctively believes that the world is authoritarian, run on principles as solemn as his own, and it is respect for authority and desire to conform that make him humble himself in a way that only an idiot or a nobleman can afford. In these small, simple things (as also, for example, with his opinions on handwriting, where he expresses his regret, at the height of his career, that he had neglected to improve his penmanship, and adds, “Let every young man and woman be warned by my example and understand that good handwriting is a necessary part of education”) he surprises us by betraying the kind of mentality at which the self-help ads in the pulp magazines are aimed.

It is otherwise when a moral issue is involved. Then this spendthrift of good name who prospers on ridicule cannot resist a proud show: the temptation to act on principle is the one thing his vanity is not armored against. I imagine him interrupting his practice of sweetness and gentle humility; his favorite prayer to Rama goes dead on his lips, the spinning wheel is abandoned. Still with a sweet smile—which now has the tension of a bird dog on the point—he turns to his old friend and disciple, Kallenbach, during an ocean voyage to London, to persuade him that possession is evil, and that Kallenbach, accordingly, ought to get rid of “the pair or two” of expensive binoculars he brought with him on the trip. The discussion goes on for several days; at last Kallenbach throws the binoculars overboard to put an end to Gandhi’s nagging. And Gandhi is himself persuaded that the power of pure love has again prevailed.

Or the presents that the Indian community of South Africa has given to him and his wife when the Gandhis are about to return to their native land. Gandhi, who as a public servant will accept no reward for his work, returns his own present and argues that Kasturbai is bound to do the same. Her present, some expensive jewelry, has been given not for her work but in recognition of his; her acceptance would therefore constitute his taking payment for his services. Kasturbai replies, with very good reason, that without her toiling and moiling for him, his public work would have been impossible. Besides, she does not want the jewels for herself, but for her sons, who will some day marry; let them have the jewels as a wedding present for their wives. His sons, answers Gandhi, shall not want to marry girls who care for ornaments—“Will you, boys?” The boys, of course, agree with papa, Kasturbai is overwhelmed, the jewels are cashed and the money derived from them is put aside in a trust fund for the Indians of South Africa. Which is no doubt a noble action—but all the same, poor Kasturbai.

Or when his ten-year-old son, Manilal, lies dying of typhoid and pneumonia (the same incident is repeated whenever a member of the family is very ill, and several times with Kasturbai). The doctor, a Parsee, advises Gandhi that medicine can do the boy little good; the only hope is to sustain his strength by giving him nourishing food, which means eggs and chicken broth. Gandhi replies that he is a vegetarian and that his religion does not permit him to use meat or eggs. Had Manilal been of age, Gandhi would have consulted his wishes; but as he has to decide for him, he will not allow his son this sacrilege. He is conscious of the risk; but it is precisely at times like this that a man’s faith is put on trial, and Gandhi prefers to place his faith in God and not compromise his honor. He gives Manilal hydropathic treatments, with hip-baths, and keeps him on orange juice diluted with water. But the boy’s fever rises to 104 degrees, with delirium at night. “I began to get anxious. What would people say of me? What would my elder brother think? . . . What right had parents to inflict their fads on their children?” But Gandhi comforts himself with the thought that God must surely be pleased with his faith. He continues his own kind of treatment and Manilal, such being his father’s luck, recovers. Gandhi rejoices that he has not had to compromise his principles, and fails to observe that he was willing to sacrifice his son’s life to vain honor. This is the same brave man, all of a piece, whom the threat of violence never deterred, and who lived by the Sermon on the Mount.

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Force without Force

Satyagraha or “truth-force” is the non-violent form of struggle to gain an objective without injuring flesh or compromising the truth. Truth, for Gandhi, had a curious connotation; it meant what it means for all, but it was also the name he gave to his own life-process, the conversion of self-denial into power. Satyagraha is the same conversion turned outward, with public objects standing in place of the inner life. It was an act of genius on his part to recognize that politics need be nothing more than the simple extension of psychic economy. Away with governments, legislatures, police; the regime a man follows in conducting his own life is the sufficient model for society. Gandhi’s anarchism is obscured by the stress he placed on moral authority; nevertheless, he always acknowledged his debt to Thoreau and Tolstoy.

That his own character was the model for his politics can be seen from the many parallels between his life-process and his social principles. His famous preference for primitive household and village economies over centralized modes of production, his love of the spinning wheel and hatred of modern machine industry, are symbolic continuations of his inner denial of direct power impulses; and they impose the ascetic form upon society. His opposition to science is of the same order; he saw in it a rationalization of power that threatened his own. From his masochistic identification with the lowest of the low, one may derive his campaign for the abolition of untouchability; and so on, the list could be extended over his whole career. There was hardly a position he held, a gesture he made, which was not the logical outcome of his character structure. And while his actual politics may have been, at times, as inconsistent as any politician’s, it is a blessing to deal with someone like Gandhi, for you know the man is not improvising. The mode is love: he gives himself. So also with the instrument of struggle he made out of truth in Satyagraha; it was the highest paradox of his non-violence, the achievement of force without force.

His softness of approach was deceiving. It concealed, as his violent death made clear, a dangerous force in and about him, for which the British, in their own terms, were quite right to keep Gandhi so many years of his life in jail. While Gandhi meant by Satyagraha, literally, the force of truth, to the British, and even to the masses who followed him, it was more the other way round. The civil disobedience movement had a thrilling, crackling atmosphere of thunderstorm; without this high potential of violence, pacifism is mere church. Yet this force was generated by the same methods that had led, in his own case, to peaceful self-rule. With the peace he had won by repressing all violence in himself, he must have developed a partial blindness; his attitude on the occasions when he called off the civil disobedience movement because of the sporadic bloodshed it caused would suggest that he was not all along aware that he was handling fire.

For his own part, Gandhi relied on the power of truth alone, and he did so neither in sentimentality nor naivety. He came to it experienced and assured. He had already achieved by these means empire over his instincts—an empire to which nothing military can compare; and round this empire he had built an unbreachable defense in depth vegetarianism, non-violence, dietary and medical quackery (the word is his own; it is the most charming aspect of his defense that he can laugh at it, to make it appear light), self-control in word, thought, and deed, overtowering it all with Brahmacharya. Only then did this empire turn its might outward to bring the world under its sway.

The war of Satyagraha began, which he was to wage the rest of his life against war itself, British rule, the subjugation of India by poverty, disease, color and religious prejudice, untouchability. The public self that commanded this war fought joyously, and at the public level we see only the ego’s armament, forged and beaten and polished to shine like love—it is light and mobile, it suggests nothing of the pain and fear and self-abuse of the deprivations, the sickness of life that attended its manufacture. We are amazed that so much satisfaction should lie in war. And the greatest achievement of this emperor is that this was a real satisfaction to him, one that called out a natural smile and laugh. When the world offered itself, surrendering its egotism, its pride and lust, he received it as a child does a toy.

He had long been prepared for the gift of India, having anticipated the surrender by making its masses part of himself, by living and dressing like them, sharing and outdoing their poverty and starvation and religious observances (fortified in these ordeals, especially in the later years, by some of India’s greatest millionaires. A photograph of the entire estate Gandhi left behind at his death—it serves as a frontispiece to the autobiography—shows a spittoon, a prayer book, a pair of eyeglasses, two pairs of sandals, a watch, some eating implements, and a statuette of the three monkeys, “Say No Evil, See No Evil, Hear No Evil”; he was living at the time in Birla Mansion). Now politics, like diet, sex, and medicine, was brought down to the level where he could attack it directly, as empirical a matter as a woman’s cooking. It became an issue, like any other, of character—and as simple. What truth is there in the opponent’s words and in his life? How does he live? How can he be persuaded? How shamed into obedience of the spirit of his own words? How forced into taking advantage of India’s willingness to endure suffering until he himself is worn down by the hardships he imposes? The enemy in this war was an empire, but Gandhi refused to recognize armies, battleships and parliaments, official ranks and dignities. He persisted in fighting it, exasperatingly, man to man: I, Mohandas Gandhi, am a man, and you, Lord Viceroy, are a man. Over and over again he extended his smiling, patient, eager invitation to the battle, until many a representative of abstract power learned in panic that one could take no abstract .measures against so concrete a human being.

Satyagraha worked. For all that might be said in qualification—that the British Empire conspired in its success, having been vulnerable to opinion, or that it yielded not to Satyagraha but to its own internal pressures; that Satyagraha might have worked better without Gandhi who, on at least two occasions, called off the movement, as it was reaching full effectiveness, in punishment for minor infractions of the rule against violence; that Gandhi neither aided nor interfered with the historical outcome, the events of which took place on their own level, without reference to his values—all the same, Satyagraha worked. In a country so device-less as India, this poor device must appear an inspiration; it converted every weakness-ignorance, disease, religious fear and superstition—into a national resource. And much of the credit for its success, however qualified, belongs to Gandhi’s shrewdness as a politician. He had the insight to incorporate a material demand in every one of his spiritual principles (whether in the handy strategy of the Khadar movement for the wearing of homespun cloth, or the heroic “March to the Sea” to break the British salt laws, in principle, the whole struggle for Swaraj, self-rule, had long before been privately carried out by Gandhi); and this was not so much politics as nature, for he had always practiced a kind of materialism in relating his spiritual experiments to daily life. Moreover, the moral success of Satyagraha was assured at the outset. Self-realization through politics—with this desire, Gandhi brought life into a field that stinks of death. For this alone, may the God whom he never succeeded in seeing face to face keep his name alive.

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Self-Realization Impossible in Politics

But who ever heard of such a thing? Politicians have hobbies, they paint, collect stamps; they “go in” for self-realization in the manner of the middle class, home from the office. The self does not exist on the job.

Political realities and the realities of the self are absolutely opposed. From the perspective of the self, politics is unreal, and the more closely it approaches the level of Realpolitik, the more it becomes an illusion. Gandhi’s politics had less than any other man’s to do with bureaucracies, papers, and laws; it consisted of personal realities. Still, this unique practice did not succeed. Politics was not the way of self-realization; it was Gandhi’s defense against knowing himself.

It is remarkable that someone with so high an ego-ideal, and so unsparing of himself as Gandhi, should have remained so blind to the most obvious traits of his own character. But if he had discovered, say, the power aspects of his asceticism, he would have been paralyzed. This must not happen, and to prevent it, he turned to politics. In politics one can always claim objective necessity for the personal act; it is a refuge from introspection and from too much truth. Now a man like Gandhi, committed to self-realization, but in no position to afford complete knowledge of himself, must have had some such reason (among others) for entering politics—to keep intact, and out of consciousness, the power of his ego regime. Self-realization, in the sense of knowledge, is impossible in politics.

But what is self-realization? Gnothi seauton (“know thyself”) has given the West an extraordinary philosophical conceit. Self-realization must concern our deepest desire, and who will say this is to know ourselves? Gandhi, on the sly, bypassed Socrates; and even when he was clear of him, he tried to cover, through faith, a deficiency of knowledge. Politics was for him a branch of religion, and actually in religion he found self-realization, though it was characteristic of him to seek it in every part of life. But before speaking of his religious life, we must consider our psychological assumptions.

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Character and Culture

Thus far we have been examining in Gandhi’s case the operation of a psychological system whose purpose was the aggrandizement of the ego by indirect means, which it achieved by converting self-denial into power. One could go on indefinitely showing the articulation of this system without gaining any new insight. The psychology of the ego has its limits, and once it has demonstrated the particular principle by which experience is made to serve the self, its work is done. Such analysis is exhaustive only when, in the given subject’s life, there is nothing beyond the self and the self-regarding values.

It would be a mistake to argue that Gandhi, or any other man with mystical and religious impulses as deep as his, was such a thoroughgoing egotist. It is far simpler to grant some autonomy to the religious life, freeing it, to that extent, from service to power, and to admit that some of the things a man gives to God may have no strings attached. The difficulty in trying to make the whole world revolve about the ego with its power impulses (the so-called “will to power” philosophies) is that, as in Ptolemaic astronomy, too many complicated epicycles become necessary to account for apparent motion in other directions (e.g., an endless play upon selfless acts to show their selfish motivation, for nothing in this system, not even joy in natural beauty, can be selfless). A new center of explanation is needed if the religious life and related phenomena which do not easily fit the power system are to have any reality of their own; and here it is precisely the psychoanalytic perspective that would release the spiritual from subservience to the practical, by basing it on independent ground in sexuality.

I shall assume that Gandhi’s sexual energy, which found no direct expression after he had taken the vow of Brahmacharya in his middle thirties, did not entirely go to work for his ego. (To assume, with the concept of sublimation, that it did so go to work, is to land once more among the epicycles of ego psychology. Other reasons for discarding the concept in Gandhi’s case, I shall mention later.) Some part of his sexuality must have remained free, and it was this free energy which found mystical expression in his religious life. Here one must follow Freud and Reich in their interpretation of the dominant mystical symbolism, the yearning for union with God, as a sign of sexual longing.

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Instinct and Sainthood

In this hunger for instinctual satisfaction lies the genuine capacity for self-realization beyond the ego, beyond the power principle; the sexual drive is anyway deeper than the ego’s and in some part independent of it—the more so with the ascetic, who has all along given it no place among the activities of the self. But there must be a “descent into hell” in every such life; shamed, despised, and avoided, sex becomes the condition of salvation. Only when denied sexuality breaks through in religious form is it possible for the ascetic to achieve self-transcendence. In posing the mystical ideal of Moksha, for union with God, he has already established contact, albeit roundabout, with the sexual forces. So much of life is restored to him; and as the long repressed sexual desire grows, so grows also its conscious, and only possible, representation: the desire for dissolving union with the divine. Both “hell” and “heaven” have this in common—that there, and only there, is the dissolution of the self accomplished; in the sexual orgasm, and in the standing face to face with God.

The depth of Gandhi’s religious feeling must not be underestimated. Without his religious life, without his submerged sexuality deeply at work, he would indeed have been life-hater and crank, the mere eccentric. But he had his center, the same center round which India’s serious spiritual experiments have always turned. It was his longing for sexual gratification represented by Moksha that connected him with life, and the form this longing took that placed him, whether or not he wanted the honor, among the saints.

It is necessary to remember that Gandhi was a perfectly centered man, directly in the heart of a spiritual tradition. Only so can we rid ourselves of the notion that, in spite of what his contemporaries say, he must have been flinty and severe. His irreducible severities, the arrogant humility, the failure to feel for others stand, and are not to be explained away. But what requires explanation now, as a final contradiction restores to the man all the joy of life he would seem to have sacrificed to the ego-ideal, is the fact with which we began: the delightful smile, the infectious laugh, the radiation of lightheartedness. How does a man who followed such a difficult way of privation and suffering, so far from the course of sexual satisfaction our psychology must prescribe, attain this peace? I take it for granted the smile is genuine, not a mask of bitterness. He could not, wearing a mask, bring a breath of fresh air with him and lighten the atmosphere when he entered a room, nor could he suggest anything childlike and full of charm.

Gandhi’s centrality brings to mind one answer: he did not go his way alone as the neurotics do who deny themselves without reason in an increasing ignorance, misery, and loneliness; he had the Indian solidarity to draw on, of martyrs and religious men, among whom he found a precedent and a reason for each intimate detail of his conduct of life. The smile thus acquires the joy of an accomplished work, a work which has dignity and social value. But how is this acquisition made; how does any way of life in accord with an ideal, and opposed to nature, so secure its values as to seem natural?

This question seems to me the most difficult of all, for it leads us into a direct confrontation with the whole man, Gandhi, with the theme, so to speak, of his life, instead of the partial phrases that are comparatively easy to follow. Every life has a theme, and the theme of the great life raises questions, to answer which one must advance the actual frontiers of knowledge. It is a simple enough matter to follow anyone’s career in the broad, rough encounters with the world that make up the province of egotism; even to go one step further and find in sexuality a principle beyond the ego, applicable to the understanding of the religious life, is no very original accomplishment, as the course had been marked by Freud and in recent years gone over repeatedly. But to go beyond that, in analysis as in life, is as hard as it is rare. It is precisely this in which Gandhi’s greatness lies, and in which he has few peers: that he performed a basic operation on life, converting everything natural to the ideal with such success that in his case one must almost create a special category—this life of artifice and regulation by the will represents a new species of nature. It need not come to this, for the measure of other such wonderful things has always, in time, been found. But we stand too close to Gandhi, and perhaps the knowledge on which we must rely is also too young an instrument. For all the work that has been done in psychology and the various departments of social science, a clear theory of culture and character in their influence upon each other is still lacking. But every day in works of art, particularly in the symbolism of religious productions, and more commonly, in our ordinary intercourse with people we love, we see this connection, a streaming into each other of life and value in a single experience. No hypothesis of social science has yet been worth (perhaps never will be) a single moment of the experience in which this connection is found, however vaguely.

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Man and Culture

We Are bound to look for the contribution a man’s culture makes to his life; and let us suppose a closer continuity between character and culture than has hitherto been imagined, an actual physical contact, in the hope of understanding Gandhi. That India has traditionally been the home of the great ascetics, the fakirs and saints, is platitude, but a fresh truth can be forced out of it. Let us suppose that a special environment can, somehow (but how?), raise man’s pretense to the life of pure spirit to a higher degree of reality (to the degree, at least, that the usual skepticism of spiritual claims as a system of deceits and rationalizations must be abandoned). Now spirituality may have a neurotic as well as a hypocritical connotation; the latter falls away in our supposition, the former remains. Neurotic is neurotic the world over, even where it represents standard behavior: it is a way of life (Gandhi’s is the supreme example) in which sexual satisfaction is impossible. In a culture like our own an unequivocal value cannot be assigned to neurosis, for the culture itself is contradictory with respect to sex, urging its members on in a riot of stimulations, while it upholds conventional and moral restraints and taboos. But in the India at least of Gandhi’s childhood and youth a homogeneous accretion of value to neurosis must have been possible. The mere existence of such a thing in India as Yoga (not that Gandhi was a Yogi, though he may have practiced some of its exercises), and the fact that Yoga enjoyed prestige, was enough to give security to the ascetic’s task and absorb his neurosis into the religious atmosphere.

This relationship between man and culture is not a haphazard one. In India it has worked itself out in a startlingly detailed and organized way, as an illustration from the Yoga system of breathing may show. It has been noted that a disturbance of breathing, with the chest held in a high, fixed, inspiratory position, failing to move with exhalation, is typical of many neurotics (cf. Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis, The Function of the Orgasm). The purpose of this is apparently to deaden bodily feelings, a convenient unconscious device in a society where natural sex behavior meets disapproval. Now in Yoga the same mechanism is consciously developed, for the same purpose—to deaden bodily feelings and prepare the way for disembodiment of spirit, the so-called “perception of immateriality.” The exercises of Yoga would seem to be a training of the nervous system to complete the process of withdrawal from life which every neurotic unconsciously carries out on his own. It is a comment on the culture as a whole that a religious discipline should have such deep insight into the problem of psycho-physical unity, and strike on such an effective way of establishing its values within its adherents. The contact between character and culture is so much more intimate than it is in the West, with our traditional dualism, which has been almost wholly determined by religion.

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The Mystery

The significant point toward the solution of the problem raised by Gandhi’s life is that a culture whose values can find direct, physical representation can be counted on to provide a re-routing of the repressed sexual energies through some form other than mere neurotic symptom formation. Nothing can make a man feel so much at home in the world as to realize that not only the role he has created for himself has value for his time, but that his very being, his whole underground, unconscious, instinctual life also belongs, in its most private aspect, without shame, to the universe of man. There is bound to be joy in this, and an end of the usual loneliness.

Obviously, we are dealing with something far beyond the reach of sublimation; this mechanism would at best account for the appearance of sexual energy in some substitute form or activity, but not for its spontaneous emergence as the joy of life. In Gandhi’s case we may have to consider the possibility of “transublimation,” a sublimation that does return to the original goal—and though this shifts to the second word the difficulty of the first, the suggestion of transcendence is relevant. One may expect that somehow in the life he led, extraordinarily integrated with his culture, the cultural forms—singularly concrete things of body and nerve and sexual representation—poured back into him the energy he spent in quest of Moksha. Certainly this energy undergoes a transfusion as the man becomes one with his ideal; the principles take on life and flow through his veins; the ideal world is conquered by an act of submission, a complete surrender in the body to the claims of spirit. But the remarkable thing is that this energy also remained unchanged. From its first transformation into a spiritual value it ascended through a curving hierarchy to come back to itself: what began with nature returned to nature. This should be sufficient for Moksha.

And perhaps Gandhi did achieve Moksha after all. Part of the definition he somewhere gave of this term was that of a state in which the distinction between action and contemplation disappears; a man who has achieved it and contains all in himself, the contradictions resolved, need only contemplate, and from the contemplation the action will flow of itself. Gandhi’s contemplation was active, it had a tremendous attractive force; so much so, that it may not be stretching a point too far to say he attained the kind of mythical existence the great characters of literature enjoy, whose essence is their whole existence.

But there is time for the myth. The actual man, the physical Gandhi, still confronts us, and his example is strongly persuasive. But of what? Can culture really become nature? How does a man go against life and return to it, distorted but whole, with the satisfactions that failed in the beginning marvelously restored? There is something mythical, nevertheless, about this journey; I cannot explain it; the last step in the transaction between character and culture is missing, at least in my own understanding. What we cannot explain is a mystery. This, the living, childlike smile, so unlike the smile of the Sphinx, and yet of the same enormous silence, is for me the mystery of Gandhi.

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