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

It is this cruel love which is in need of clarification. As Tendulkar reports, you once told a theosophists’ gathering in Johannesburg that if

they were to analyze their minds, they would find that they had very little reason to think ill of others, and would begin to think ill of themselves; for they would find that they harboured within themselves robbers and murderers—terms used by them so glibly in connection with others.4

But it is not enough to counter such self-deception with a moralistic exhortation to think ill of themselves, for there is, as we now know, a clear connection between the murderousness with which righteous man attacks his enemy and the cruelty with which moralistic man views himself. Too long, in fact, has man excused his cruelty to others with the claim that he does not spare himself.

Here, I submit, the future of Satyagraha5 is at stake, and this not because you “pretend” a love which you do not feel, but rather because you seem either unaware of—or want to wish or pray away—an ambivalence, a co-existence of love and hate, which must become conscious in those who work for peace. Your sadism sometimes comes through in those utterances in which your revulsion against sensuality turns, for example, against women as a source of evil, against food intake as no better than defecation, and against milk as a “dangerous substance.” If you have said (to a friend of mine) that one should steer away from beautiful women as a driver steers away from a gutter, the “association” between woman and gutter may be indirect. And if you recommend a well-known co-worker by praising the fact that she is beyond childbearing, you mean to honor her.

But for the future it is important to affirm unequivocally that what you call Satyagraha must not remain restricted to ascetic men and women who believe that they can overcome violence only by sexual self-disarmament. For the danger of a riotous return of violence always remains at least latent if we do not succeed in imbuing essential daily experience with a Satyagraha-of-every-day-life. It is in daily life and especially in the lives of children that the human propensity for violence is founded; and we now suspect that much of that excess of violence which distinguishes man from animals is created in him by those child-training methods which set one part of him against another.

It is not enough any more—not after the appearance of your Western contemporary, Freud—to be a watchful moralist. For we now have detailed insights into our inner ambiguities, ambivalences, and instinctual conflicts; and only an additional leverage of truth based on self-knowledge promises to give us freedom in the full light of conscious day; whereas, in the past, moralistic terrorism succeeded only in driving our worst proclivities underground, to remain there until riotous conditions of uncertainty or chaos would permit them to emerge redoubled.

What you suspect that busybodies like me might call pretensions, however, we simply consider unavoidable and mostly unconscious ambivalences, the propensity for which is part of the human equipment. Ambivalence means, of course, that an act which is seemingly guided by one conscious emotion is, at the same time, unconsciously co-determined by the opposite emotion: an act of love by hate, an act of kindness by vindictiveness. To recognize ambivalence in such pious phrases as “cruel kindness” and “blind love,” by which you characterize the long story of your remaining a forever frustrated teacher in your own house, is, today, easy; and to take it for granted almost too easy. But for the sake of Satyagraha, we must take a good look at the formulation with which you conclude the story of Kasturba’s failure as your student:

I am no longer a blind, infatuated husband. I am no more my wife’s teacher. Kasturba can, if she will, be as unpleasant to me [scold me] today as I used to be to her before. We are tried friends, the one no longer regarding the other as the object of lust…. The incident in question occurred in 1898 when I had no conception [“no command” in the original] of brahmacharya. It was a time when I thought that the wife was the object of her husband’s lust, born to do her husband’s behest, rather than a helpmate, a comrade, and a partner in the husband’s joys and sorrows.6

This statement seems to seal the dogmatic assumption that a wife can be “a helpmate, a comrade, and a partner” in the husband’s joys and sorrows only if she is not joined with him in a sexual relationship. And a doubter may, indeed, consider it a strange fruit of ascetic comradeship that you must confess:

It is likely that many of my doings have not her approval [liking] even today. We never discuss them, I see no good in discussing them. For she was educated neither by her parents nor by me at the time when I ought to have done it.

Does this not make it only too clear that you took revenge on her for her illiteracy by deciding unilaterally what she would and would not be able to discuss with you? In fact, this confessional statement covers a by no means rare vindictiveness toward Kasturba, who would not become your “intellectual” equal. And yet did she not (and did not even your destitute son, Harilal7 ) also represent an important part of yourself, namely an unwillingness to learn from anybody anything except what was approved by the “inner voice”?

However, with the phrase, “the one no longer regarding the other as the object of lust,” you win: for wherever one considers the other a mere “object” of anything, there, of course, truth in any sense is excluded from the relationship. And here is the point: not once, in all of your writings, do you grant that a sexual relationship could be characterized by what we call “mutuality.” This is by no means a capacity easily developed or sustained without self-control and sacrifice, but, as an approximation and a goal, it describes the only kind of sexual relationship in which the other person does not become a mere object either of sexual or of aggressive desire.

I say “mere object,” for I am not so delusional as to think that there is any healthy sexual relationship in which there is not also a reciprocal sadism for the sake of satisfying such desires “on” each other, as are usually expressed in four-letter words; nor is there a healthy sexuality which does not also include a certain pleasure in the closeness of the sexual function to the evacuative organs and their modes. The point is that mutuality and artful interplay truly disarm what debasement and violence there is in merely taking sexual possession of one another. Nor do I deny that the highest forms of joint involvement in public—not to speak of religious—service may, under certain conditions, induce an enlightened couple to forego sexual relations for the sake of another form of joint affirmation. There is an old principle, not easily discarded, in your statement:

I hold that believers who have to see the same God in others that they see in themselves must be able to live amongst all with sufficient detachment.

But I submit that “sufficient” detachment on both sides is possible only where the renunciation, too, was chosen by both—and not based on the vindictive insistence of one partner. In your life, apparently, three extreme circumstances came together: Your precocious sexual life, combined with your moral scrupulosity, could not contain and, in fact, aggravated a sense of sadism in your sexuality. Your aspirations and your gifts (fed by the historical situation) led you to envisage a life of service to humanity, on a level which called for a self-discipline of a rare order. And, finally, Kasturba’s strength of renunciation was, if anything, more consistent than yours. In your own life, therefore, it makes supreme sense that you should have resolved your sexual conflicts by making it a matter of will, sealed with a vow, that as you would not attack an inimical person with weapons, you would not attack a loved one with phallic desire; and that you would not cause new beings to be born where you had decided to take upon yourself the responsibility of self-aware existence.

Kasturba was an adult who could take care of herself, and your relationship to her is a modern saga just because you did not hesitate to reveal the way exalted issues became tragicomic bickerings in the daily life of your marriage, too. So I have written to you about your marriage only because you yourself refer to that “sacred recollection” in the very context of your sudden doubts.

A second incident reported by you is not an accident on the way to Satyagraha, but one committed (I have no other word for it) during the period in which you remember your faith and your courage to have been at their highest—that of the establishment of Tolstoy Farm.8 And this incident concerns very young people.

Here I must quote you in full:

This was my experiment. I sent the boys reputed to be mischievous and the innocent young girls to bathe in the same spot at the same time. I had fully explained the duty of self-restraint to the children, who were all familiar with my Satyagraha doctrine. I knew, and so did the children, that I loved them with a mother’s love. The reader will remember the spring at some distance from the kitchen. Was it a folly to let the children meet there for a bath and yet to expect them to be innocent? My eye always followed the girls as a mother’s eye would follow a daughter. The time was fixed when all the boys and all the girls went together for a bath. There was an element of safety in the fact that they went in a body. Solitude was always avoided. Generally I also would be at the spring at the same time….

…One day one of the young men then made fun of two girls and the girls themselves or some child brought me the information. The news made me tremble. I made enquiries and found that the report was true. I remonstrated with the young men, but that was not enough. I wished the two girls to have some sign on their person as a warning to every young man that no evil eye might be cast upon them, and as a lesson to every girl that no one dare assail their purity. The passionate Ravana could not so much as touch Sita with evil intent while Rama was thousands of miles away. What mark should the girls bear so as to give them a sense of security and at the same time to sterilize the sinner’s eye? This question kept me awake for the night. In the morning I gently suggested to the girls that they might let me cut their fine long hair. On the Farm we shaved and cut the hair of one another, and we therefore kept scissors and clipping machines. At first the girls would not listen to me. I had already explained the situation to the elderly women who could not bear to think of my suggestion but yet quite understood my motive, and they had finally accorded their support to me.

After you speak of cutting the girls’ hair, you conclude:

This act of mine was not without its effect on the entire life of the settlers on the Farm. As we had intended to cut down expenses to the barest minimum, we changed our dress also.9

Call me a busybody, but I cannot overlook this sequence of “cutting off” and “cutting down”; for to pluck out what offends one—and to pluck it out in others—is so often the impulse of a despairing moralism. But the “noble girls,” you continue, eventually “came around after all,” and as you put it so self-consciously, “at once the very hand that is narrating this incident set to cut off their hair.” Having then explained your act to the children, you say you never “heard of a joke again.” Who would not believe that?

It does not take much to see, Mahatmaji, that there is some violence in this. But I would like to explain why I think that here, in one brief episode, you illustrate what remained an existential conflict, if not at times a curse, in your whole understanding. It concerns the relation of earthly progeny to divine truth—always a central issue in religion, but multiplied in a life like yours where pedagogical and political care were directly associated with religious transcendence. That your words (from “as a mother’s eye would follow a daughter” to “the very hand that is narrating this”) seem to betray some pretension may be partly attributable to the translation. My job is not to pierce the pretension but to ask why it is necessary at all. Permit me, then, to review some of the content, for there are good reasons to believe that the themes of this story continued to haunt you to the bitter end of your long life and will haunt your image in the eyes of many, even the friendliest, critics.

That an educator must become, in varying combination, both father and mother to his students is obvious. This situation, however, is so natural when it is present, and so complex when it is absent, that an act of will or penance cannot enforce it. How any man can make his eyes follow some young girls going down to the spring with strictly “maternal” eyes, that—at least to a Westerner—seems hard to comprehend and rather unnecessary to pretend. Is it because you feel a father might be aware of a daughter’s attractiveness as a female? Would not the father or teacher who is aware of young curves but devoted to the growth of the person be better equipped to guide and protect his daughters than the one who “sterilizes” his own eyes?

The whole first part of the story can only impress the modern reader with the probability that here a guardian was following the “mischievous” boys and the “innocent young girls” to the spring with the moralist’s secret hope that they would show some of the interest which had aroused the guardian’s all-too-hungry curiosity. And, indeed, some unspecified boys “made fun” of two girls who henceforth remain the focus of the guardian’s scruples and plans, although they are described as the mere victims of the boys jokes. The news makes the guardian tremble—with what? Rage? Anxiety? Instinctual tension? Whatever the mixture of emotions, he emerges with an astonishing wish which is in no way explained:

I wished the two girls to have some sign on their person as a warning to every young man that no evil eye might be cast on them, and as a lesson to every girl that no one dare assail their purity.

The question which kept him awake all night, then, was “what mark should the girls bear to sterilize the sinner’s eye?” But note that it is now one sinner’s eye which must be “sterilized”—a word with any number of connotations, not the least that of preventing progeny. So you suggested “gently” and pleaded persistently that the girls’ hair must go “by the very hand” which, in writing about it twenty years later, still feels strange, almost depersonalized, like the instrument of something terrible, or sacred, or both.

Experiments such as I have placed on record,” you now remember to explain, “are not meant for imitation.” One could thank God for that, were it not that cutting off women’s hair is an age-old ritual which receives its very meaning from “imitation”—imitation, that is, as a ritual. Throughout history, such a ritual might be judicial, and the denuding of the head could mean a punishment decreed by some form of ritual or popular sentence—as was true, for example, of the girls who had sinned with enemy soldiers. Or the ritual might be religious, in which case a whole class of women, having offered their prayerful consent, are shorn by the representatives of a church or dogma so that whatever individual perversity there may be in the act of cutting or being cut would be contained in a communal setting and be given a symbolic meaning. Thus did St. Francis cut off the hair of St. Claire, a symbolic act which sealed a spiritual friendship.

Your act, then, was not only personally idiosyncratic but it was also an abortive monastic ritualization: for you, Mahatmaji, have always tried, and sometimes desperately, to tie together the loose ends of your restraints and restrictions in a communal pattern which would provide a new kind of “order.” If in this you often seem to a Western observer to have acted arbitrarily and in a fragmentary manner, he should remember that your religious tradition always permitted a perplexing multiplicity of petty rules and small rituals. Yet your own criterion for the moral soundness of many of your edicts became a communal one: you were right wherever you could give to your arbitrary decisions a pervasive meaning enhancing Satyagraha and involving others in a clear and self-chosen mutuality, and you were dangerously wrong where you indulged in perverse arbitrariness. Here the vital pedagogic question arises as to whether an act like the one described here would make young people better Satyagrahis in the long run, or only serve to convince them of the self-righteous folly of those who usurp spiritual power.

The incident itself remains inconclusive. You do not say, Mahatmaji, who the older women were who finally consented to your intention: was Kasturba one of them? And as you dismiss the boys, so you ignore the men, although males were much in the majority in your community, and being Satyagrahis and having committed themselves to self-suffering, they surely should have had a voice in selecting the method by which male eyes were to be “sterilized.” Nor do you wonder what the girls’ parents would have said. But then, throughout your life you appropriate other people’s children unconditionally for your way of life, with a truly dictatorial combination of maternalism and paternalism. Yet nowhere do you indicate that you cared to understand what your usurpation of motherhood meant to the children—or, indeed, to the mothers. Now, I do not know what happened to the young people whom you brought up, and I know very well that one incident alone almost never harms young people unless it is prototypal for repeated traumata. Young people for the most part tolerantly accept the spirit in which a mistake is committed by their elders, or they can sovereignly forgive and forget even an occasional lapse of spirit. After all, God is with them, too. So the question is only what may be the long-range meaning of this publicized incident. You remembered it, Mahatmaji, and you recorded it; you above all must have wondered about it.

Truth, you once said, “excludes the use of violence because man is not capable of knowing the absolute truth and therefore is not competent to punish.” This is the crux of Satyagraha, whereby daily living becomes an “experiment in truth.” For what you call the relative character of truth, or what I, as a post-Einsteinian and post-Freudian, would call the relativity of truth, reveals itself from generation to generation above all in the meeting of adult and child, and teacher and student—both trusteeships, as you would put it. But trusteeship means a mutuality between leader and led, in which the leader is guided by the actuality of the led. I can see in your example little, if any, of that mutuality which would have arisen from true persuasion—and certainly no “self-chosen” suffering.

Demonstrative self-suffering on the part of adults is always a dubious weapon to use against children, and your own mother may well have gone to the very limit with it. You have given it more dignity in those examples where you dealt with transgressions in the younger generation by your own fasting: once, on a later occasion in Phoenix, by fasting for a week, you brought to the attention of three “sinners” (a girl and two boys) “how much you were suffering and how deep they had fallen.” The girl fasted with you and had her hair cropped short (not by you, it seems). But she was twenty years old. On another occasion your twenty-year-old son was “assaulted” by “a married woman” (according to Fischer’s strange phrasing).10 Here you fasted for two weeks, and again the woman had her hair cropped.

As far as propriety or pedagogies are concerned, these occasions, I feel, were your business as well as that of the young people and of the community. But as to the dynamics involved, such acts could contain an ambivalence as wide and swampy as the Great Rann of Kutch (to match your own reference, in another context, to your “Himalayan miscalculation”). The ambivalence would arise with the possibility that here self-suffering could harbor the despotism of a cruel (if “cruelly kind”) father who, by his self-suffering, hurts ever so much more vindictively, and ever so much more unfathomably, than an outright angry one; whereupon the children feel punished, if not “crushed”—but by no means persuaded.

That living progeny carry with them the curse of procreation—that association is often suggested in your utterances. During the very year when your took the vow of Brahmacharya, or chastity, you also wrote to your brother that “for the present, at any rate, I have ceased to think of [Harilal] as a son,” and this, because Harilal wanted to get married.11 Harilal was then in India, and you could expect your threat to reach his ears, but how can a son cease to be a son “for the present, at any rate”? And to rub it in, you—not untypically—refer in the same letter to somebody else’s son as one “like Prahlad in spirit. He is therefore dearer to me than one who is a son because so born.” And here, as so often, the figure of Prahlad assumes a central symbolic position. You, Mahatmaji, love the story of that boy prince who would not accept the claim of his father, the Demon King, to a power greater than God’s, not even after the boy had been exposed to terrible tortures. At the end he was made to embrace a red-hot metal pillar; but out of this suggestive object stepped God, half lion and half man, and tore the king to pieces.

You call that prince the first Satyagrahi. His often-exhorted example, it would seem, put your sons in a terrible predicament, because you (acknowledging neither their natural ambivalence nor your own) exhorted them to be truthful like Prahlad but repeatedly threatened to disavow and to disown them when their truth meant rebellion against you. Would it be too farfetched to say that what was activated in you and (maybe dimly) perceived by the young in such moments of wrath was, in fact, a facsimile of the very Demon King whom Prahlad resisted?

Some of your outbursts are, of course, just patriarchal bad manners. They merely signify how much you were inclined to treat those closest to you as possessions and whipping-posts. Those of us who have ourselves become fathers in a patriarchal era which only now is reaching its demise in universal unrest, dissent and violence have a right to single out your acts only where you rationalize them with ambivalent phrases and principles. And even then, we must admit that you could not possibly have known of the power of that ambivalence which we have now learned to understand in case histories and life histories—and, indeed, through the painful analysis of our own symptomatic behavior as parents, having ourselves resisted such guilty insight as long, as illogically, and as meanly as we could. It is, therefore, not without compassion that I must point out that your lifelong insistence on the “innocence” (meaning sexlessness) of children is matched only by your inability to recognize the Demon King in yourself.

This must be pointed out because the demons triumph in all hidden and disguised ambivalences: however and wherever we let our children down, we become their demons. If, then, in order to fathom the truth we must hold on to the potential of love in all hate, so must we become aware of the hate which is in all love. Only if we accept the presence of ambivalence in the most loving human encounters does truth become just what you mean by it, namely that which supports evolving humanity in the antagonisms of divided function, be it in inequalities of race, size, age, sex, or power. For all these inequalities call for conscious insight rather than for moralistic repression. It is here, I feel, that your attempts at enlarging human awareness, and Freud’s complement each other.

Sigmund Freud was, in fact, the only other man in our time who offered to the reading world such candid descriptions of small events in his life as you revealed in yours, and this not in the now-fashionable form of literary self-exhibiting, but strictly for the sake of a theory and a technique of truthfulness. In discussing the pedagogic incident at Tolstoy Farm, I applied what I have learned from him to one of your free confessions. Now I should like to point out in all brevity why I believe that the psychoanalytic method itself, by dint of always being a self-analysis paired with an attempt to understand another man’s inner conflicts, is a counterpart to your Satyagraha, because it confronts the inner enemy nonviolently. Both you and Freud knew (as did other great confessors who expanded man’s awareness) that human insight begins in oneself: and as you in your “Experiments” probed your own motivations, so Freud began by dealing “scientifically” with his own dreams as well as those of his patients.

In studying your method of Satyagraha, I have become increasingly convinced that psychoanalysis, not if judged by its physicalistic terminology and theory but if understood as it is practiced and lived according to the rules and the intentions of its originator, amounts to a truth method, with all the implications which the word truth has in Satyagraha. This, I submit, is more than a vague analogy; it is a correspondence in method and a convergence in human values which may well be of historical, if not evolutionary, significance.

Let me tell you briefly what the Viennese doctor refused to do to his patients and what he chose to do instead. Dr. Freud was approaching middle age when he faced the probability that his hysterical patients, far from being degenerates as his colleagues believed, suffered from an oppressive education and a resulting inner repression: they had developed a mortal prejudice against themselves in order to internalize the edicts of their Victorian parents. Furthermore, he concluded that the very doctors who were to free these patients from their inner repressions added to their unfreedom by imposing on them authoritative suggestions often given under induced conditions of dependence or hypnosis. This, Freud felt, did violence to what alone can free a man from inner compulsion, namely the conscious acceptance of certain truths about himself and others. And this doctor in his consultation room made a decision analogous to the one you made in your South African proving ground, namely that the instrument of enlightenment to be forged by him would have to include self-analysis, that is, the acceptance of himself as a person who shared his patients’ inner mechanisms: the truth could cure the patient only in so far as the doctor had faced the corresponding truth in himself.

He decided, then, on a method which would permit the patient to relax his resistance to his own thoughts and feelings and, instead of censoring them, learn to let his repressed ideas and affects come to word. At the same time, the doctor would learn to relax both his condemnation of the patient and the condemnation of feelings aroused in himself by the patient’s “free association.” But in doing so, he replaced moral suppression with the belief that truth has enough force to make the patient reveal what he had repressed, and that this, in turn, would permit the doctor to recognize and to interpret what the patient could not understand by himself.

Freud thus called for a strict equality between patient and doctor, with the dictum that only so long as this nonviolent equality is maintained can the truth emerge. Given the probability that the patient could abide by a contract of truthfulness, the doctor would protect him from such slurs as inferiority or dishonesty and would deal with all inner hindrances in the process of truth-finding as “natural” resistances to be explained, not condemned. But the “basic rule” imposed on the patient, to say what comes to mind without censoring it, also called for some disciplined self-suffering on the part of the therapist.

To give you an example of how we earn our right to be busybodies in other people’s lives, let me point out in passing that the patient’s resistances often take the form of accusations and suspicions of the doctor, who is obliged to accept and explain them without anger or argument. In fact, he must encourage their verbalization once they have entered the patient’s mind—an encouragement sacrificing all traditional protection of customary propriety. For the most part, of course, such attacks are transparently irrational, seasoned as they are with the ambivalence of a dim past which can and must be recognized as the primal “cause” of the patient’s pathology. Yet there is a disconcerting propensity in even the sickest patients on occasion to see through their doctor with almost vicious poignancy, laying bare what he himself neither had seen before nor can quite deny now. Yet the doctor’s exposure to self-suffering does not end here. The same patient on other days may passionately adore and glorify him; where-upon the doctor would not be permitted to let himself assume that these flattering reports reveal the truth any more rightly than do the critical ones. For the only truth that matters is the unconscious origin and meaning of the patient’s affects, symptoms, and distortions. Maybe all this will convince you that the doctor has amply earned his license—and, within reason, his fees.

There was, in the early days of psychoanalysis, even an element of Brahmacharya in the method. Freud at first felt that a psychoanalytic treatment was best conducted under the conditions of total sexual abstinence—the patient’s to be sure, and yet in part also the doctor’s, for whatever sexual tension was aggravated in therapy, whatever sexual imagery or temptation revealed in detail, the doctor had to be prepared to understand rather than to act upon his own reaction, whether it consisted of self-indulgent indignation, inadvertent sexual response, or mysterious guilt.

It is interesting that in the world’s early evaluation of psychoanalysis, as well as of Satyagraha, the passive aspects were the first to be emphasized; and compared with the patriarchal methods of the clinicians of the day, the psychoanalytic technique did, indeed, look more like morbid comeditation than a manly professional activity. The training analysis, in which the therapist tasted patienthood, seemed to be a strangely masochistic undertaking, especially in view of the fact that it trained the doctor to confront and understand his own unresolved conflicts, of all places, in his work—a man’s usual reserve and escape from his private weaknesses. No wonder psychoanalysis began as a scientific underground movement and for decades had to flourish outside the medical schools.

But all of this only begins to indicate the nature of the psychoanalytic process. Only the full story of a psychotherapeutic event—as detailed as this psycho-historical study of a historical Event—could convey a sense of how an interpretation emerges as the joint experience of a truth which relieves and restores as it enlightens, and how the truth thus revealed could emerge, and can be contained only in a joined effort marked by a new kind of ascetic discipline—ascetic not in the repudiation of the erotic facts of life, but in the insistence on a rigorous truthfulness toward them. Thus—and this is my main point—we are somehow joined in a universal “therapeutics,” committed to the Hippocratic principle that one can test truth (or the healing power inherent in a sick situation) only by action which avoids harm—or, better, by action which maximizes mutuality and minimizes the violence caused by unilateral coercion or threat.

On some occasions of despair and illness you too, Mahatmaji, unknowingly came to join the Freudians in the conclusion that you should stop terrorizing yourself and approach your own body with nonviolence. Indeed, in many ways you were always very undogmatic and, in fact, antidogmatic in your judgment of various moralisms; the Old Testament with its violently “jealous” God did not suit you at all. Up to a point (namely the point at which your own moralism won out), you understood that dogmatism induces the fanatic religionist to split himself into a cruel judge and a hopeless sinner, and to derive from this the license to view and to treat others as if they were no better than the worst in himself—whether these others are his own children or such classes of dependent men and women as he judges to be “no better than children.”

I have counterpointed your pedagogical examples with our insights, then, because we have learned to see, in the encounter of adult and child, the terrible challenge to anyone who wants to cure man of any of his irrational violence. For this cure it is essential—in your context and in ours—that the moral adult, so easily given to moral vindictiveness, should learn to educate without violence, that is, with a recognition of the inviolacy of the counterplayer even if, and especially when, that counterplayer is a child. But the mere avoidance of physical cruelty as such is not enough; it can, in fact, lead to a parental self-inhibition that abrogates all indignation as it pretends to sacrifice all force: this, we have learned, is little progress. We also “do violence” to children and arouse inner rage in them wherever we withhold from them a guidance without which they cannot develop fully—or force on them decisions for which they are not ready. No life history has ever illustrated this better than your own, for your early marriage did violence to you. But you, Mahatmaji, were one of the rare men who could overcome the impotent counterviolence aroused in their childhood by combining tradition and personal fate, religion and politics, in a method scrupulously—and sometimes tortuously—nonviolent.

Pedagogically speaking, I should say that ahimsa—avoiding harm to human beings—must come to include, beyond the insurance of another’s physical inviolacy, the protection of another’s essence as a developing person. It is, then, because one loves another for his potentialities as a person that one sacrifices some momentary consummative impulse or fantasy, not because the impulse or fantasy is wicked or forbidden. Only in this way can self-abnegation become self-affirmation and a tool of truth rather than a weapon of revenge. I know these are high-sounding words of the kind one should not use unless one has seen these phenomena occur quite wordlessly and un-selfconsciously in the ethicality of everyday life—as I think I have. Then one also knows how much of what we used to ascribe to the Devil’s wiles or to the id’s inexorable demands can be tolerated, if absorbed by love rather than negated by violent moralism.

Somewhere, Mahatmaji, you report with stark suddenness that a Protestant minister once asked you whether you believed in original sin and that you answered, “Yes, I do.” To that question I would give the same answer in the improbable case that anybody would care to ask me the same question. But as a psychologist I would add, “Yes, I am sorry to say I do,” for I believe it is part of man’s curse that he cannot believe otherwise. For that very reason, however, I should ask the questioner immediately whom and what he may have specifically in mind. For few men can envisage the problem for very long in its existential enormity. Most people (more or less consciously) believe that all men bear a share of original sin, but that others bear more than they do. Thus Mr. Kruger, the President of the Transvaal, would unhesitatingly tell a deputation of your friends:

You are the descendants of Ishmael and therefore from your very birth bound to slave for the descendants of Esau.12

It is obvious, then, that this question, too, must be faced in its psychological as well as its religious dimensions, for it, too, makes killers of us. To kill sinners for a “just cause,” to become a hero in taking the chance of being killed in the act of so killing, and to venerate such heroism as absolute in the eyes of God—all this frees us from the common human burden of living guiltily and absurdly. And yet we cannot become one species without assuming, together, that burden.

Clinically, so to speak, there can be little doubt that ideas of basic sin may be very much aggravated by personal fate and historical circumstance, and are rarely faced existentially. I have indicated (“in all modesty,” as you would say) that at times such was the case with you. That moral absolutism which at times you found to be a necessary weapon against your own instinctuality made you see an irreversible curse in any and all instinctual indulgence. And so you do not hesitate to call “sources” of evil those items which become evil only by man’s thoughtless exploitation; nor do you hesitate to claim, with a clear reference to Harilal, your oldest son, that a child may be doomed by having been conceived in an embrace which did not deliberately intend him. To even the score, let me say that this kind of thinking is so universal that in clinical work, too, we always find ways to blame a curse in early childhood—if not a constitutional “cause”—for man’s neurotic inferiorities.

Yet, none of us has a right to foreclose as evil, sick, or doomed what we have not confronted in a radical spirit of risk and experiment: for this, in fact, you have offered the model of Satyagraha for some areas of life, as Freud offered psychoanalysis for others. Yet the sternness sometimes displayed in your letters to your children bespeaks an appalling sense of doom, as if they, as the product of your sin, had no chance for salvation except as partners in your renunciation.

Here I must admit that we clinicians have cultivated an analogous curse in that our “genetic” approach led us to reconstruct a child’s development as if it were nothing but the product of his parents’ virtues or vices. But I think that we, too, would be more true, as well as more helpful, if we would admit that each child is potentially a new person as well as a product of others, and that we have no right to burden him with an abstract curse, unless the clinical data clearly point to a concrete defect. In regard to the procreative act, however, the important question is whether Satyagraha will remain irretrievably tied to such ascetic idiosyncrasies as your followers cultivate, or whether it will prove valid anew in a future in which a better knowledge of the role of sexuality and sensual pleasure in the energy house-hold of men and women (and this with an advanced technology of planned parenthood) will, perhaps, incline more people to true peacefulness. Whether it will also incline them to be willing to suffer in defense of the right of others also to live a livable life—that, I admit, I do not know.

In fact, if you, Mahatmaji, could reply, you could well remind me of some sexual and hedonistic excesses which have spread over some of the most civilized parts of the Western World, often in the name of Freud. I must concede this; and it is not for a cheap comeback in such tragic matters that I remind you, in turn, of the riots which followed your nonviolent campaigns, although only remotely in your name. The point is that excess and riot follow repression and suppression when the moral restraints are lifted, precisely because of the autocratic and blind nature of these restraints. Here, too, I can only re-state my original point: nonviolence, inward and outward, can become a true force only where ethics replaces moralism. And ethics, to me, is marked by an insightful assent to human values, whereas moralism is blind obedience; and ethics is transmitted with informed persuasion, rather than enforced with absolute interdicts. Whether the increasing multitudes of men can ever develop and transmit such an ethical attitude I do not know; but I do know that we are committed to it, and that the young are waiting for our support in attempting it.

Satyagraha in social conflict, however, we can say with assurance, will have little chance to find its universal relevance unless we learn to apply it also to whatever feels “evil” in ourselves and makes us afraid of instinctual satisfactions without which man would not only wither as a sensual being but would also become a doubly destructive creature. For man can find what peace there is in this existence only in those moments when his sensual, logical, and ethical faculties balance one another: this all cultures, at their best, have striven to achieve, and this a world-wide technological culture must help make universal, at least as an ideal to be envisaged in a spirit of faith and realism. There is no doubt, however, that in the world of today a severe disbalance of sensual, logical, and ethical experience is upon us.

But as we now follow you back to India, in the year 1914, I cannot hold back a question, which I know has been asked vindictively and contemptuously by some of your countrymen. Was not Hinduism at its best rather free from the Calvinist sense of sin? And did it not for that very reason offer a logic of the life cycle which permitted gradual detachment after a full involvement in life? If “nonattachment to the fruits of action” is the central theme of the Bhagavad Gita, was it not wedded to the other theme, namely, that the fruits themselves must first ripen? When Krishna convinced Arjuna that he had to live out the dharma of the warrior, Arjuna was not about to “act out” some impulsive aggression: he was an expert warrior and a man. To the extent to which men remain inexperienced and incomplete in any stage of life or in the craftsmanship implicit in their technological identity—do they not to that extent also forfeit their chance of “detachment” and existential freedom? I may not understand this; but without such fulfillment, would a man not, to some extent, vindictively transmit the curse of unlived potential to coming generations?

Here it seems of utmost significance that you, in attempting to be both spiritual and political, detached and activist, create an impossible dilemma with your implicit vilification of procreation. For without an alliance with the Hereness of women as the guardians of an earthly order dedicated to an optimal hospitality toward planned progeny, man would have to re-create Satyagraha, ever again, out of conflicts so morbid (because so crudely male) that only crime, riot, and war could relieve the unbearable pressure. And because I have, in my clinical work, endeavored to recognize in the suffering of the young their parents’ distance from truth, I cannot help concluding (what I know you later recognized) that such passionately suicidal sufferers as your son, Harilal, in the perverse way of a world not mythological but generational, are, in fact, the Prahlads of their parents.

At the end, your candid revelations about your temper, in relation to your wife and children, only express concretely and nakedly an ambiguity inherent in all genius and, maybe, especially so in religious genius. For a religious genius, even more than other originators, faces not only the problem of whose son he is but also whose father. For even as he was originated by one earthly man and was born out of one woman’s womb in a defined place and moment, and even as he cannot act without advancing or destroying the actuality of living, his soul is ever jealous in its search for the father and the son who might match the enormity of existence. In the meantime, your involvement in the life of your people brings it about that, in protesting “namelessness,” you come to be a name on everybody’s lips; in being zero, you aspire to be everything for everybody; and, by the same token, in trying to be free of all familial bonds, you usurp motherhood along with fatherhood.

But all this, God help me, is not meant to be an accusation or even a clinical judgment. I can only view with awe a man who (making himself more transparent than any of the saviors and saints of the mythologized past) improvised every item in the inventory of saintliness—nakedness, poverty, silence, chastity, and charity—without being baptized or ordained in any traditional investiture; and who attempted to apply the power of that position in every waking minute to the Here and the Now as lived by the masses of men. The sacrifices which you imposed on yourself and on others devoted to “national service” made you, on your return to India, ready for the masses in India as no man in history had been or has been since. So I can only humbly accept what you wrote on your return to Mr. Lazarus,13 your and the miners’ long-suffering host in Newcastle:

Games…may have their place under certain circumstances. But I feel sure that for us who are just now so fallen, they have no room.14

Having told you all this, I can now simply narrate, without argument or discussion, the years of your ascendance to the job of a prophet in his own country. And I can conclude this letter more truthfully: with abiding and affectionate respect, yours as ever.


…One must try to envisage what has become of man as a military, or maybe one should say as a policing mind, in the possession of mechanized weapons. Not that one could entertain the idea of a society altogether without police or should indulge in treating policemen as a separate species, like henchmen. They are only the willing puppets serving an overwhelming propensity of human nature, namely, brutal righteousness. I cannot make this point any stronger than by reminding the reader that, in my open letter to the Mahatma, I had reason to accuse him, too, of implicit violence in his policing and sentencing of the bathing children in South Africa. For we all have become obedient to the policing mind; and once we have learned to reduce “the other”—any living human being in the wrong place, the wrong category, or the wrong uniform—to a dirty speck in our moral vision, and potentially a mere target in the sight of our (or our soldiery’s) gun, we are on the way to violating man’s essence, if not his very life.

Gandhi’s Truth


Truthforce October 9, 1969

Truthforce October 9, 1969

  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.

  4. 4

    D. G. Tendulkar, Mahatma, Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (8 vols.), Second edition, Delhi: Government of India, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, The Publications Division, 1960, 1, 72.

  5. 5

    Satyagraha was the Sanskritic combination Gandhi later chose as a name for his way of life and of action—”Truth” and “Force,” in literal translation. Yet for quite some time Gandhi continued to use what was easily the most unsuitable rendition of his term in English, namely, “passive resistance.” This dilemma has never been resolved: “Truthforce” as a term has nowhere come close to having the power of a slogan in the West. “Militant nonviolence” (the term, I think, preferred by Martin Luther King) is at least descriptive of the attitude and the action of the Satyagrahi, but it fails to suggest the spiritual origin of nonviolent courage in Gandhi’s “truth.” I will speak of the “leverage of truth” when, in addition to truth and force, I want to suggest the skillful use of a sensitive instrument. For it must be obvious that it is the challenge of our generation to understand, as far as psychological assumptions permit, what Gandhi calls truth as an actual force in mental life, the kind of force that “moves mountains.”

    A lever, I admit, is a hopelessly primitive analogy in an electronic age. But whatever we will do with it in future settings, Satyagraha did have its origins in a technological imagery in which the body was still part of the tool; and it will be seen that even today the more direct uses of Satyagraha always include the body and the meeting of bodies: the facing of the opponent “eye to eye,” the linking of arms in defensive and advancing phalanxes, the body “on the line”: all these confrontations symbolize the conviction that the solidarity of unarmed bodies remains a leverage and a measure even against the cold and mechanized gadgetry of the modern state.

  6. 6

    Gandhi, Autobiography, p. 205.

  7. 7

    Gandhi’s oldest son became over the years thoroughly estranged from him. He turned Muslim, and eventually became a derelict. Within a year of the Mahatma’s assassination, he was found dead in “some locality.”

  8. 8

    A settlement for the Satyagraha “family” outside Johannesburg.

  9. 9

    Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa, pp. 244-246.

  10. 10

    Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, p. 207.

  11. 11

    Letter to Lakshmidas Gandhi dated May 27, 1906. Reprinted in CWMG, V. 334-335.

  12. 12

    Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa, p.33.

  13. 13

    It was from this Christian Indian’s home that in 1913 hundreds of striking Indian mineworkers set out on the “great march” over the forbidden Transvaal border.

  14. 14

    Undated letter written from Madras some time after April 17, 1915. Reprinted in CWMG, XIII, 49.