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Letter to Gandhi


In the first part of my book, Gandhi’s Truth, I describe the way in which, on a trip to India, my “psycho-historical” interest was aroused by what some surviving witnesses told me about a relatively little known event of Gandhi’s middle years, namely his leadership, in 1918, of a textile strike in Ahmedabad, the capital of his home state. I then review Gandhi’s life before 1914, his childhood and youth, and the decades in South Africa during which he developed the revolutionary technique of militant nonviolence.

Before I follow Gandhi back to India, and to his ascendance to the Mahatmaship, I decide to “settle” with my great subject some controversial matters which he himself raises in his memoirs of the South African years; and I write him the letter here reprinted.

In the second part of the book, I proceed to clarify what Truth-in-Action meant to Gandhi by retelling in detail the history and the technique of the Ahmedabad strike, and by relating the inner conflicts of his middle years to the grand political decisions ahead of him. In the final chapter I discuss the complementary nature of Gandhi’s and Freud’s contemporary insights.


…I am now about midway through this book and as eager as any of my readers to follow you to India and to that period of your life which was shared by my witnesses. But first I must say a word about your account of the period now to be left behind. I will put my critique into words which I hope I would have had the courage to address to you if you were alive. My justification for approaching you would have been the conviction that psychoanalytic insights happen to complement your kind of truth by a strange reversal of the traditional roles of East and West: for you are now a model of activism in our culture, while Western thought has provided a new technique of introspection.

You have given me a perfect opening in a passage of your Autobiography which, on re-reading, I must take very personally. In a chapter called “Intimate European Contact,”1 close to the middle of your book, you suddenly interrupt your reflections, aware of a critical voice other than your “inner voice”:

What things to mention and what to omit regarding the English friends of whom I am about to write is a serious problem. If things that are relevant are omitted, truth will be dimmed. And it is difficult to decide straightaway what is relevant, when I am not even sure about the relevancy of writing this story.

I understand more clearly today what I read long ago about the inadequacy of all autobiography as history. I know that I do not set down in this story all that I remember. Who can say how much I must give and how much omit in the interests of truth? And what would be the value in a court of law of the inadequate ex parte evidence being tendered by me of certain events in my life?

You then turn on an imaginary reader (and that is where I come in):

If some busybody were to cross-examine me on the chapters already written, he would probably shed much more light on them, and if it were a hostile critic’s cross-examination, he might even flatter himself for having shown up [make the world laugh by revealing] the hollowness of many of my pretensions.

But this outburst against unsolicited interpreters does not seem to have alleviated a deeper doubt within yourself:

I, therefore, wonder for a moment whether it might not be proper to stop writing these chapters. But so long as there is no prohibition from the voice within, I must continue the writing. I must follow the sage maxim that nothing once begun should be abandoned unless it is proved to be morally wrong.

You say something about your method of writing which makes a psychoanalyst feel unduly at home, because it seems to resemble the method of “free association” which we use to tap the autobiographic propensities of our patients:

I write just as the Spirit moves me at the time of writing. I do not claim to know definitely that all conscious thought and action on my part is directed by the Spirit. But on an examination of the greatest steps that I have taken in my life, as also of those that may be regarded as the least, I think it will not be improper to say that all of them were directed by the Spirit.

If I did not believe something of this kind, I would not be writing this book. But I must confess that a few times in your work (and often in the literature inspired by you) I have come across passages which almost brought me to the point where I felt unable to continue writing this book because I seemed to sense the presence of a kind of untruth in the very protestation of truth; of something unclean when all the words spelled out an unreal purity; and, above all, of displaced violence where nonviolence was the professed issue.

So far, I have followed you through the gaiety and loneliness of your childhood and through the experiments and the scruples of your youth. I have affirmed my belief in your ceaseless endeavor to perfect yourself as a man who came to feel that he was the only one available to reverse India’s fate. You experimented with what to you were debilitating temptations and you did gain vigor and agility from your victories over yourself. Your identity could be no less than that of universal man, although you had to become an Indian—and one close to the masses—first. Your profession could be only that of solicitor for the masses. Your “house” could be only a hostel for believers, your family only an impoverished religious order, and your “city” only the whole Empire so long as it promised to play host to an all-human identity.

For these very reasons, however, I cannot accept the way you try to dispose, no doubt half humorously, of your moment of doubt:

I am not writing the autobiography to please [satisfy] critics. Writing it is itself one of the experiments with truth. One of the objects is certainly to provide some comfort and food for reflection for my co-workers. Indeed, I started writing it in compliance with their wishes…. If, therefore, I am wrong in writing the autobiography, they must share the blame.

No, Mahatmaji, you could not write for followers alone. But neither—so I now realize—can I interpret your self-revelations only for those who already share my clinical vocabulary.

My task is to confront the spiritual truth as you have formulated and lived it with the psychological truth which I have learned and practiced. This truth, I believe, must supplement your work as it spreads, in many unforeseen ways, beyond India and into the future.

First, then, the passage in which you interrupt your narrative. To experience such a moment is one thing, to describe and publish it, another. In an autobiographical account it becomes a confession to the reader, a testament in the form of a query for future generations. A reader of my generation and my training cannot overlook the fact that the disruption of your autobiographical account follows a chapter which is called “A Sacred Recollection and Penance,” and which relates some of the chagrin with which your wife, Kasturba, responded to your determination to open your house to strangers (including Europeans) sympathetic to your cause.

In this chapter you declare that it required no special effort at tolerance on your part to accept men and women of all races and creeds as part of your “family” in Durban. But it was difficult for your wife to open her house to all the world—and “all the world,” here as elsewhere, meant a motley bunch of stray individuals out of whom only you could make the men they eventually became, and a variety of faddish ideas out of which only you could forge one truth. At any rate, your whole doubt as to what you should and would reveal about your European friends is intricately related to the question of whose house your house was. Yours and Kasturba’s?

The “sacred” confession is an account of how you literally showed your wife to the door. This was, of course, an old habit from the early days of your marriage as children in India, but there she had parents to go to and the excuse of a well-established custom to rejoin her family, for prolonged periods. I do not recount this story in order to draw the nonsensical conclusion which is always greeted with mirth by our intellectuals, namely that Kasturba was “more of a saint” than you were—for what do intellectuals know about saints?

But I would like to get the story straight. I understand that your house in Durban was equipped with chamber-pots; that you wished to do away with any vestiges of the ancient Indian system which considers the handling of human waste a matter for Untouchables only; that most of your “family” understood this and would take care of their own waste, but that, in the case of some uninitiated newcomers, you had to share this task with your wife; and that your wife usually accepted this, although it went against her “grain”—and tradition. On this occasion, however, the waste to be discarded was not only a Christian’s (by religion) but also an Untouchable’s (by caste); and she made a face indicating that this combination was too much. Whereupon you demanded that she do the chore cheerfully. And as she exclaimed almost biblically, “Keep your house to yourself and let me go!” you showed her the gate, and she broke down in despair and righteous anger.

You settle this incident with one of those subdued statements by which you so often express true intimacy:

If my wife could not leave me, neither could I leave her. We have had numerous bickerings, but the end has always been peace between us. The wife with her matchless powers of endurance has always been the victor.2

Such a statement can dispense with the word love because it is pervaded by it.

But there are instances where it would seem to an observer that you use the word love in order to clothe your other propensities. I will, therefore, take issue with you only where I perceive a certain false pedagogic tone pervading the very kind of apologetic statement which you are apt to use in order to explain, for example, your attempts to impose literacy on your child bride:

But I was a cruelly kind husband. I regarded myself as her teacher and so harassed her out of my blind love for her.3

  1. 1

    Gandhi, Autobiography, pp. 206 ff.

  2. 2

    Ibid., p. 205.

  3. 3

    Mohandas and Kasturba were married when they were both thirteen years old. As the Mahatma later relates it, the boy feared that he was debasing their companionship with excessive sexual demands and he tried desperately to elevate it by teaching his wife to read and to write. She never learned either, but became a woman of simple and autonomous stature.

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