Gandhi’s Truth, or the Origins of Militant Nonviolence
“Whence, however,” the Mahabharata asks, “does Hope arise?” For twenty years, since his Childhood and Society announced the Freudian vocation to be the empowerment of the ego, Erik Erikson has been asking the same question. His whole career has proceeded from a settled determination to turn psychoanalysis away from fascination with weakness toward detection of strength, to dissolve its hospital odor and connect it up with the public aspirations of men. In modern India, where despair is more than an emotion—a quality of the landscape, a dimension of the weather—hope arose most eloquently with Gandhi. In addressing himself to the question of whence, in the convolutions of the Mahatma’s life, that hope came, what it consisted in, and why, at least for a while, it caught most of India in its grasp, Erikson has found a most appropriate subject. But he has found as well a most refractory case.
A man who claims to be a saint, as Gandhi did, if not in so many words, certainly in almost every action he took after his return from South Africa in 1915 (he arrived at the banquet, with which Bombay high society greeted him, in peasant dress and announced that he would rather have been received by indentured servants), demands, above all, a moral response. Rather like the little girl who did not know whether she wished to see the dinosaur in the museum until she found out whether it was good or bad, we have to decide how to feel about him before we really understand him, and coming to understand him does not actually help very much in deciding how to feel about him.
Indeed, when it is a dinosaur like Gandhi one is going to see, coming to understand him only makes the problem worse. The deeper the labyrinth of his personality is penetrated the higher rises the tension between admiration and outrage, awe and disgust, trust and suspicion, until the encounter with him becomes as painful and disaccommodating as he wished to make it. It is the triumph of Erikson’s book that in uncovering the inner sources of Gandhi’s power it does not dissolve but deepens his inherent moral ambiguity, and in so doing extends the intent of his career: to make of himself an exemplary prophet, a man who recommends his character to the world as a saving revelation.
The more prominent features of Gandhi’s character are only too well known. His sexual and dietary asceticism, his hatred of filth, his shyness, his restlessness, his penchant for self-inflicted suffering, his moralism, his romanticism, his vanity, have all been described over and over again in what is by now a fairly sizable hagiographic and anti-hagiographic literature both inside India and out. Erikson inspects these familiar traits and traces their roots in Gandhi’s childhood and adolescence. But it is to a less noticed aspect of Gandhi’s character that he turns as the psychological axis of his religious genius—his ironic …