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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

In the name of the Mahatma

How strange that we don’t want to read what’s been in the public domain for years

Written by Tridip Suhrud |
April 1, 2011 11:29:41 pm

It is indeed sad that we should ban a book on the life of a man who embodied openness,who invited generations to follow after him to read and interpret his life as that was his message,a man who through his autobiography and other writings on himself and his experiments provided a cultural frame through which the story of a soul in quest of truth could be told and comprehended. Joseph Lelyveld’s book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India has met just that fate. It has been banned on the ground that the book calls Gandhi a “racist” and the author alludes to a possible homosexual relationship between Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach,one of his closest associates during the South African phase. For the record,the author does not describe Gandhi as a racist. Lelyveld,a foremost authority on apartheid and racial politics in South Africa,actually traces the journey of Gandhi’s intellectual development on the racial question. He shows the great “cultural leap” that Gandhi takes on the racial question,a journey that allows him to feel the pain of the Zulus. On the question of alleged bisexuality,the book does not either use that term or invite that reading. Gandhi’s intensely intimate relationship with Hermann Kallenbach has not been a closely guarded secret waiting to be revealed. Gandhi wrote about him in Satyagraha In South Africa as also the Autobiography. It was Kallenbach who provided the 1100 acres of land that they together named as Tolstoy Farm. It was to Kallenbach that Gandhi hurriedly dictated the English paraphrase of his seminal philosophical work the Hind Swaraj. It was Kallenbach who taught Gandhi the art of making leather sandals. Gandhi-Kallenbach correspondence has been part of the public domain ever since the Government of India acquired it in a public auction in South Africa; this correspondence forms part of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG) and is published as volume 96 of the same. The editors of the CWMG describe these letters as “invaluable”. To them Kallenbach and Gandhi were “soul-partners”,who shared a “rare intimacy”. They state that for Kallenbach Gandhi was “friend,companion,mother and mentor”.

A part to the controversy stems from a deep unease with Gandhi’s sexuality and his experiments with brahmacharya. We need to recognise that for Gandhi his experiments with brahmacharya were integral to his quest for truth and Swaraj. Brahmacharya,we need to be reminded,does not only mean control of sexuality or celibacy. It means an attempt to bring all senses in harmony,it is that conduct (charya) that leads to Brahma (truth). As an experiment in truth it was imperative for Gandhi to place it in the public domain like all his other experiments with truth. Gandhi’s writings provide a most detailed and unrivalled modern account of search for perfect brahmacharya,a state that he knew would elude one so long as one was imprisoned in the physical body. Gandhi provided a conceptual and philosophical frame through which one could comprehend and,he hoped,emulate his experiments. Brahmacharya in the limited sense of celibacy and chastity was valuable in itself,but for Gandhi that increasingly became a limited and a limiting notion. Brahmacharya only in its relationship with other vows — of truth,ahimsa,control of palate,non-stealing and poverty — could provide those modes of conduct by which one knows oneself. Self-knowledge for Gandhi is the key to Swaraj and moksha. Thus,brahmacharya in its inter-laced sense is liberating not only from the passions of the body but of the bondage of slavery,as it also makes possible the desire to see god face to face.

Gandhi’s experiments with brahmacharya have been part of autobiographical and biographical reflections. One of the first persons to provide a “thick description” of these experiments during Gandhi’s Noakhali march was that remarkable intellectual Nirmal Kumar Bose. Bose’s My Days

With Gandhi remains a definitive measure for understanding Gandhi’s experiments with brahmacharya. The rare empathy,sensitivity and commitment to truth and to Gandhi are difficult to match. It is not suggested that it is given to all of us to have the rare quality of Nirmal Bose,but we could still aspire to it.

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But,even if one does not have that equanimity and poise,does one have the right to explore Gandhi’s sexuality and his brahmacharya? We would all recognise that this in the final analysis rests on the individual disposition. The more central question for us now is how we as a society and government respond to such attempts,be they full of empathy or motivated by salacious gossip. Do we recognise that our national icons like Gandhi were embodied persons,moved by the desires of the body and the soul in equal measures? Is the embodied nature of human existence a matter to be protected by law and regulation? Probably not. The only control on it can be self-control of the researcher.

Is the only way available to us to respect Gandhi and other national icons is to protect them by law and governmentality? If they were tolerant of criticism,invited discussion of their most intimate impulses,engaged in philosophical and cultural debates about the validity of their thought and conduct,our promptness to muzzle such debate about them is a sign of the lack of our cultural confidence in our icons that they would remain relevant and available despite being subjected to salacious gossip.

The decision to ban or not ban a book or a work of cultural production cannot rest on the ground of the facts and counter-facts. Even a bad book has a right to exist. This decision rests only on one aspect: do we as an open,democratic society remain confident of responding to books by engaging with them or do we wish to surrender that right to forms of governmental control? If our response is the latter,we would do away with the Swaraj that Gandhi,Tagore,Ambedkar together and in conversation imagined as that capacity through which we learn to rule ourselves.

The writer is an Ahmedabad-based social scientist

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