Gandhi lived too long. Returning to India from South Africa in 1915, at the age of forty-five, holding himself aloof from the established politicians of the time, involving himself with communities and groups hitherto untouched by politics, taking up purely local causes here and there (a land tax, a mill strike), he then very quickly, from 1919 to 1930, drew all India together in a new kind of politics.
Not everyone approved of Gandhi’s methods. Many were dismayed by the apparently arbitrary dictates of his “inner voice.” And in the political stalemate of the 1930s—for which some Indians still blame him: Gandhi’s unpredictable politics, they say, his inability to manage the forces he had released, needlessly lengthened out the Independence struggle, delayed self-government by twenty-five years, and wasted the lives and talents of many good men—in the 1930s the management of Indian politics passed into other hands.
Gandhi himself (like Tolstoy, his early inspiration) declined into a long and ever more private mahatmahood. The obsessions were always made public, but they were personal, like his—again almost Tolstoyan—sexual anxieties in old age, after forty years of abstinence. This period of decline was the period of his greatest fame; so that, even while he lived, “he became his admirers.” He became his emblems, his holy caricature, the object of competitive piety. Knowledge of the man as a man was lost; mahatmahood submerged all the ambiguities and the political creativity of his early years, the modernity (in India) of so much of his thought. He was claimed in the end by old India, that very India whose political deficiencies he had seen so clearly, with his South African eye.
What was new about him then was not the semi-religious nature of his politics; that was in the Indian tradition. What made him new was the nature of the battles he had fought in South Africa. And what was most revolutionary and un-Indian about him was what he left unexpressed and what perhaps, as an Indian, he had no means of expressing: his racial sense, the sense of belonging to a people specifically of the Indian subcontinent that the twenty years in South Africa had taught him.
The racial sense is alien to Indians. Race is something they detect about others, but among themselves they know only the sub-caste or caste, the clan, the gens, the language group. Beyond that they cannot go; they do not see themselves as belonging to an Indian race; the words have no meaning. Historically, this absence of cohesiveness has been the calamity of India. In South Africa, as Gandhi soon saw, it was the great weakness of the small Indian community, embattled but fragmented, the wealthy Gujarati Moslem merchants calling themselves “Arabs,” the Indian Christians claiming only their Christianity, both separating themselves from the indentured laborers of Madras and Bihar, all subjected as Indians to the same racial laws.
If it was in London as a law student that Gandhi decided that he was a Hindu by conviction, it was in South Africa that he added to this the development of a racial consciousness, that consciousness without which a disadvantaged or persecuted minority can be utterly destroyed, and which with Gandhi in South Africa was like an extension of his religious sense: teaching responsibility and compassion, teaching that no man was an island, and that the dignity of the high was bound up with the dignity of the low.
“His Hindu nationalism spoils everything,” Tolstoy said of Gandhi in 1910, while Gandhi was still in South Africa. It is obvious in Gandhi’s autobiography, this growing, un-Indian awareness of an Indian group identity. It is there in his early dismay at the indifference of the Gujarati merchants to proposed anti-Indian legislation; in his shock at the appearance in his office of an indentured Tamil laborer who had been beaten up by his employer; and the shock and dismay are related to his own humiliations during his first journey to Pretoria in 1893, when he was twenty-three. Gandhi never forgot that night journey to Pretoria; more than thirty years later he spoke of it as the turning point of his life. But the racial theme is never acknowledged as such in the autobiography. It is always blurred over by religious self-searching, “experiments with truth,” attempts at the universal; though for twenty years, until early middle age, he was literally a racial leader, fighting racial battles; and it was as a racial leader that he returned to India, an oddity among the established politicians, to whom “Indian” was only a word, each man with his own regional or caste power base.
Indians were not a minority in India; racial politics of the sort Gandhi knew in South Africa would not have been understood. And at least some of the ambiguities of his early days in India can be traced back to his wish to repeat his South African racial-religious experience, to get away from the divisive politics of religion and caste and region: his seemingly perverse insistence that India was not ready for self-government, that India had to purge itself of its own injustices first, his mystical definitions of self-government, his emphasis on the removal of untouchability, his support of trivial Moslem issues in order to draw Moslems and Hindus together.
He had no means, in India, of formulating the true racial lessons of South Africa; and perhaps he couldn’t have done so, any more than he could have described what he had seen as a young man in London in 1888. The racial message always merged in the religious one; and it involved him in what looked like contradictions (against untouchability, but not against the caste system; a passionate Hindu, but preaching unity with the Moslems). The difficult lessons of South Africa were simplified and simplified in India: ending as a holy man’s fad for doing the latrine-cleaning work of untouchables, seen only as an exercise in humility, ending as a holy man’s plea for brotherhood and love, ending as nothing.
In the 1930s the Moslems fell away from Gandhi and turned to their own Moslem leaders, preaching the theory of two nations. In 1947 the country was partitioned, and many millions were killed and many more millions expelled from their ancestral land: as great a holocaust as that caused by Nazi Germany. And in 1948 Gandhi was killed by a Hindu for having undermined and betrayed Hindu India. Irony upon irony; but the South African Indian had long ago been lost in the Hindu mahatma; and mahatmahood in the end had worked against his Indian cause.
Jamnalal Bajaj, a pious Hindu of a northern merchant caste, was one of Gandhi’s earliest financial backers in India. He gave the land and the money for the famous ashram Gandhi founded at Wardha, a village chosen because it was in the center of India. Bajaj died in 1942; and his window, honoring his memory, gave away a lot of money to cow-protection societies. Ved Mehta recently went to interview the old lady for his book Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles. After Gandhi’s death in 1948, Mrs. Bajaj said, she had transferred her loyalty to Vinoba Bhave, the man recognized as Gandhi’s successor. “I walked with Vinobaji for years,” Mrs. Bajaj told Mehta. “Ten or fifteen miles a day, begging land for the poor. It was very hard, changing camp every day, because I never eat anything I haven’t prepared with my own hands. Everyone knows that Moslems and Harijans [“God’s children,” Gandhi’s word for untouchables] have dirty habits.” And the old lady, who had been chewing something, spat.
But the end was contained in the beginning. “For me there can be no deliverance from this earthly life except in India. Anyone who seeks such deliverance…must go to the sacred soil of India. For me, as for everyone else, the land of India is the ‘refuge of the afflicted.”‘ This passage—which is quoted by Judith M. Brown in her study of Gandhi’s entry into Indian politics, Gandhi’s Rise to Power (1972)—comes from an article Gandhi wrote for his South African paper in 1914, at the very end of his time in South Africa, just before he returned to India by way of England. After the racial battles, the South African leader, with his now developed antipathy to Western industrial civilization, was returning to India as to the Hindu holy land: even at the beginning, then, he was already too various, and people had to find in him what they wanted to find, or what they could most easily grasp.
Judith Brown quotes a letter to a relative, written a few months before the newspaper article: “The real secret of life seems to consist in so living in the world as it is, without being attached to it, that moksha [salvation, absorption into the One, freedom from rebirth] might become easy of attainment to us and to others. This will include service of self, the family, the community, and the State.” This declaration of faith, apparently a unity, conceals at least four personalities. The Hindu dreams of nonattachment and salvation; the man exposed to Western religious thought thinks that the conduct of the individual should also make salvation easy for others; the South African Indian preaches the widest social loyalty (the community, the Indian community); the political campaigner, with his respect for (and dependence on) British law and institutions, stresses service to the state.
It was too much. Something of this complex South African ideology had to go in the holy land of India; and many things went. The racial intimations remained unexpressed; and what was utterly consumed—by holiness, the subjection of India, the lengthening out of the Independence struggle, and the mahatma’s hardening antipathy to the machine, at once the symbol of oppression and the West—what was utterly consumed was that intrusive and unmanageable idea of service to the state.
For Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi’s successor in independent India, the Gandhian ideal is the “withering away” of the state. Or so he said many years ago. What does it mean, the withering away of the state? It means nothing. It means this: “Our first step will be to get Gram-Raj (government by the village): then lawsuits and disputes will be judged and settled within the village. Next it will be Ram-Raj (the Kingdom of God): then there will no longer be any lawsuits or disputes, and we shall all live as one family.” Bhave said that more than twenty years ago (the quotation is from an admiring biography by an Italian., published in London in 1956). And something like that is still being said by others today, in the more desperate circumstances of the Emergency. “Wanted: a Gandhian Constitution” is the title of a recent article in The Illustrated Weekly of India, which, since the Emergency, has been running a debate about the Indian constitution. The writer, a former state governor and ambassador, merely makes the plea for village government; he also takes the occasion to talk about his acquaintance with Gandhi; and the article is illustrated by a photograph of the writer and his wife sitting on the floor and using a quern, grinding their daily corn together in pious idleness.
It is what Gandhianism was long ago reduced to by the mahatmahood: religious ecstasy and religious self-display, a juggling with nothing, a liberation from constructive thought and political burdens. True freedom—and true piety—and still seen to lie in withdrawal from the difficult world. In independent India Gandhianism is like the solace still of a conquered people, to whom the state has historically been alien, controlled by others.
Perhaps the only politician with something of Gandhi’s racial sense and his feeling for all-India was Nehru, who, like Gandhi, was somewhat a displaced person in India. At first they look so unalike; but only twenty years lay between the mahatma and the English-educated Nehru; and both men were made by critical years spent outside India. In his autobiography Nehru says he was infected by the prevailing, and fashionable, anti-Semitism at Harrow School; he could hardly have failed there to have become aware of his Indianness.
The irony is that, in independent India, the politicians who have come up are not far removed from the men whom Gandhi—short-circuiting the established Western-style politicians of the time—began to draw into politics in 1917. They are small-town men, provincials, and they remain small because their power is based on the loyalties of caste and region. The idea of all-India is not always within their grasp. They have spoken instead, since the 1960s, only of India’s need for “emotional integration”; and the very words speak of fracture. The racial sense, which contains respect for the individual and even that concept of “the people,” remains as remote from India as ever. So that even Marxism tends to be only its jargon, a form of mimicry: “the people” so often turn out to be people of a certain region and of a certain caste.
Gandhi swept through India, but he has left it without an ideology. He awakened the holy land; his mahatmahood returned it to archaism; he made his worshippers vain.
Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi’s successor, is more a mascot than a mahatma. He is in the old Indian tradition of the sage, who lives apart from men, but not so far from them that they are unable to provide him with a life support system. Before such a sage the prince prostrates himself, in order to be reminded of the eternal verities. The prince visiting the sage: it is a recurring theme in Indian painting, from both Hindu and Moslem courts. The prince, for all his finery, is the suppliant; the sage, ash-smeared or meager with austerities or bursting with his developed inner life, sits serenely outside his hut or below a tree. There is no particular wisdom that the sage offers; he is important simply because he is there. And this is the archaic role—one or two centuries away from Gandhi in South Africa in 1893, Gandhi in Indian in 1917—that Bhave has created for himself in contemporary India, as Gandhi’s successor. He is not a particularly intelligent man and, as a perfect disciple of the mahatma, not original; his political views come close to nonsense. But he is very old; something of the aura of the dead mahatma still hangs about him; and he is the man the politicians would like to have on their side.
For some time in the 1950s Bhave was associated with Jaya Prakash Narayan, who later became one of the opposition leaders. And there was some anxiety, when the Emergency was declared in June 1975 and Narayan was arrested, about what Bhave would say. But, as it happened, Bhave wasn’t talking at the time. It was the mahatma’s custom, in later years, to have a weekly day of silence. Bhave, in emulation of the mahatma, but always overdoing things, had imposed a whole year’s silence on himself; and there were still some months of this silence to go. Eventually, however, it was reported that various statements had been shown the old man—in the manner of those questionnaires that call for the ticking of boxes—and he had made some signs to indicate his support for the suspension of the constitution and the declaration of the state of Emergency.
When, later, he fell ill, Mrs. Gandhi flew to see him; and her personal physician gave him a checkup. It was Mrs. Gandhi who, under heavy security, spoke at the meeting held in Delhi to honor Bhave’s eightieth birthday; and it was in deference to Bhave—or so I heard it said—that, in all the uncertainty of the Emergency, Mrs. Gandhi reproclaimed the prohibition of alcohol as one of the goals of the government. Six doctors in the meantime were looking after the old sage; thus cosseted, he lived through his year of silence and at last, in January 1976, he spoke. The time had come, he said, for India to move from rule by the majority to rule by unanimity. Which was quite astute for a man of eighty. The actual statement didn’t mean much; but it showed that he was still interested, that India was still protected by his sanctity.
Bhave in himself is nothing, a medieval throwback, of whom there must be hundreds or thousands in India. But he is important because he is now all that India has as a moral reference, and because for the last thirty years he has been, as it were, the authorized version of Gandhi. He has fixed the idea of Gandhianism for India. In spite of the minute documentation of the life, in spite of the studies and the histories, it is unlikely that in the Indian mind—with its poor historical sense, its capacity for myth—Gandhi will ever be more than Bhave’s magical interpretation of him.
When the politicians now, on one side or the other, speak of Gandhi or Gandhianism, they really mean Bhave. By a life of strenuous parody Bhave has swallowed his master. Gandhi took the vow of sexual abstinence when he was thirty-seven, after a great struggle. Bhave took the same vow when he was a child. It has been his way: in his parody all the human complexity of the mahatma has been dimmed into mere holiness. Bhave has from the start looked for salvation in simple obedience alone. But by obeying what in his simplicity he has understood to be the rules, by exaggerating the mahatma’s more obvious gestures, he has become something older even than the mahatma in his last phase.
Gandhi was made by London, the study of the law, the twenty years in South Africa, Tolstoy, Ruskin, the Gita. Bhave was made only by Gandhi’s ashrams and India. He went to the Ahmedabad ashram when he was very young. He worked in the kitchens, in the latrines, and sat for such long hours at the spinning wheel that Gandhi, fearing for the effect of this manual zeal on the young man’s mind, sent him away to study. He studied for a year in the holy city of Banaras. Lanza del Vasto, Bhave’s Italian biographer (Gandhi to Vinoba: The New Pilgrimage, 1956), gives some idea of the magical nature of these studies: “It is…certain that he consulted some hermit on the banks of the Ganges on contemplation and concentration, the suspension of the breath, the rousing of the Serpent coiled up at the base of the spine, and its ascension through the chakkras to the thousand-petalled lotus at the top of the head; the effacement of the ‘I’ and the discovery of the Self.”
At Banaras on day a literature student asked Bhave about Shakuntala, the late fourth-century Sanskrit play by the poet Kalidasa. It was a good subject to raise with someone who knew Sanskrit, because Shakuntala, which in translation reads only like a romance of recognition, is considered one of the glories of Sanskrit literature, and comes from what is thought of as a golden age in Indian civilization. But Bhave was fierce with the inquirer. He said, “I have never read the Shakuntala of Kalidasa, and I never shall. I do not learn the language of the gods to amuse myself with love stories and literary trifles.”
For Bhave’s biographer this is part of Bhave’s perfection. It is how Indian spirituality, taken to its limits, swallows up and annuls that very civilization of which Indians boast, but of which, generally, they know little. Bhave, in the vanity of his spiritual perfection, is more than a decadent Gandhian. His religion is a kind of barbarism; it would return men to the bush. It is the religion of poverty and dust. And it is not extraordinary that Bhave’s ideas about education should be like those of Mr. Squeers. Get the children out into the fields, among the animals: it was, after all, the only education that the god Krishna received.
Bhave’s Italian biographer, holidaying away from Europe, can at times get carried away by the Oriental wisdom of his subject, so suited to the encompassing physical wretchedness; and the book is padded out with the master’s sayings. (Bhave, though he has published, doesn’t believe in writing books; he has to be savored in his sayings.) This is the political Bhave: “The will of the people by itself equals 1. The State by itself equals 0. Together these make 10. Does 10 equal 10 because of 1 or because of the 0?” And this is Bhave (pre-1956) on the wickedness of the machine: “Are the richest crops gathered in America, where the sowing is done from the air, or in China, where all the land is cultivated by hand on miniature allotments?”
It is hard to imagine now, but in 1952, when newly independent India was taken at its own valuation in many countries, Bhave appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The successor to the mahatma, and almost a mahatma himself! This was not long after Bhave had started his “Land Gift” scheme. It was his Gandhian attempt to solve the problem of the Indian landless, and it is the venture with which his name is still associated. His plan was to go about India on foot, to walk and walk, perhaps forever, asking people with land to give some to the landless. The Time cover was captioned with a Bhave saying: “I have come to loot you with love.”
The idea of the long walk was borrowed from Gandhi. But it was based on a misunderstanding. Gandhi’s walks or marches were purely symbolic; they were intended as gestures, theater. In 1930 Gandhi had walked in slow, well-publicized stages from Ahmedabad to the sea, not to do anything big when he got there, but just to pick up salt, in this way breaking an easily breakable law and demonstrating to all India his rejection of British rule. In 1947, in Bengal, he had walked in the Noakhali district, just to show himself, hoping by his presence to stop the communal killings.
These were fairly long walks. But Bhave—as usual—intended his own walk to be much, much longer, to be, it might be said, a career; and he didn’t intend it to be symbolic. He was aiming at nothing less than land redistribution as he skittered through the Indian villages, hoping, by the religious excitement of a day, to do what could (and can) be done only by law, consolidating administration, and years of patient education. It was like an attempt at a Gandhian rope trick: the substitution of spirituality for the machinery of the state. It tied in with Bhave’s avowed Gandhian aim of seeing the state “wither away.” India, released by Gandhi from subjection, was now to regenerate itself by the same spiritual means. All the other “isms” of the world were to be made obsolete. It was an open, breathtaking experiment in Gandhian magic; and the interest of Time magazine, the interest of the West—always important to India, even at its most spiritual—kept the excitement high.
It became fashionable to walk with Bhave. It became, in the words of Lanza del Vasto, “the new pilgrimage.” For a few weeks early in 1954 Lanza del Vasto walked with Bhave; and Vasto—Gandhian though he was, with a best-seller about Gandhi under his belt, and hoping to do something with Bhave too—Vasto found the going rough. Even in his awestruck account a European-accented irritation keeps breaking in at the discomforts and disorder of the Bhave march, the bad food, peppery and oversalted, the atmosphere of the circus, the constant noise, the worshipping crowds chattering like aviaries, easily distracted, even in the presence of the master, Bhave’s own followers incapable of talking in anything but shouts, constantly publicly belching and hawking and farting. Vasto tries hard to understand; a prisoner of his pilgrimage, he tries, by a natural association of ideas, to find in the torment of the nightly camp “the innocence of the fart…the sportings of a lovable people which loves to communicate.”
And every day there is the next village, and the hard clay roads of Bihar. Always, Bhave strides ahead, in the lead. No villager, however worshipping or rapturous, must run across his path or walk in front of him. It is permitted only to follow—sainthood, and the salvation it offers (contained in the mere sight of the saint), has it stringencies. At one stage Bhave, for no apparent reason, seems to have his doubts and seems to be dropping hints of a fast against the “laziness” of some of his staff (which includes a press officer) and the “meanness” of some other people. Clearly things have been going on behind the scenes that Vasto doesn’t know about. But long before then it has occurred to the reader that in spite of all the sermons this walk is just a walk, that nothing, or very little, is being done, that none of those chattering villagers may be either giving or getting land, that everybody is just declaring for God.
In the early days there had been talk of a university to serve the special needs of the movement, and someone had given land for it not far from the site of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. Bhave was asked about the university one day. He said, “The ground is there and I’ve had a well dug on it. The passer-by will be able to draw a bucket of water and drink his fill.” But the questioner wanted to know about the university. “What will be its aims, statutes, and syllabuses?” Bhave said: “The ground is there, the well is there. Whoever wants to drink will drink. What more do you want?”
Even for a saint, this was living dangerously. But Bhave was Bhave, and it was seven more years before he gave up the long walk and settled down quietly as a sage, sinking into the stupor of meditation.
Magic hadn’t worked; spirituality hadn’t brought about land redistribution or, more importantly, the revolution in social attitudes that such a redistribution required. The effect, in fact, had been the opposite. The living saint, officially adulated, preceded by magical reports, offering salvation to all who cast eyes on him, was a living confirmation of the rightness of the old ways, of the necessity for old reverences. Bihar, where Bhave did much of his walking, remains—in matters of land and untouchability—among the most backward and crushed of the Indian states.
Bhave, even if he understood Gandhi’s stress on the need for social reform, was incapable of undermining Hindu India; he was too much part of it. The perfect disciple, obeying without always knowing why, he invariably distorted his master’s message. Once, on the march, he said that untouchables did work human beings shouldn’t do; for that reason they should be given land, to become tillers. This might have seemed Gandhian; but all that the words could be taken to mean was that latrine cleaners were latrine cleaners, that untouchables were untouchables. The whole point of Gandhi’s message was lost.
Hindu speculation can soar high; but Hindu religious practices are elemental, and spirituality for most people is a tangible good, magic. Bhave offered spirituality as just such a good; and he could offer it as a commodity in which, as Gandhi’s heir, he was specially licensed to deal. At a public meeting in 1962—at Shantiniketan, the university founded by the poet Tagore to revive the arts in India—Bhave described himself as “a retailer of spirituality.” At Shantiniketan! Such was Bhave’s security in India; to such a degree had the rational thought of a man like Tagore been chewed up by the cultural primitivism of Gandhian India.
Some years before, in a memorable statement made during the great days of the long walk, Bhave had described himself as the fire. It was his duty simply to burn; it was for others to use his fire. Humility, once it becomes a vow, ceases to be humility, Gandhi said in his autobiography; and Bhave’s interpretation of his function in India is as vain and decadent as it appears. It was a perversion of the Gita’s idea of duty, a perversion of the idea of dharma; it was the language of the magician.
Bhave, with his simplicity and distortions, offered Gandhianism as a kind of magic; and he offered himself as the magician. Gandhi, the South African, was too complex for India. India made the racial leader the mahatma; and in Bhave the mahatma became Merlin. He failed, but that did not tarnish his sainthood. He had failed, after all, only because the times were bad; because, as so many Indians say, offering it as the profoundest wisdom, since the death of Gandhi truth has fled from India and the world. In a Black Age Bhave had virtuously attempted old magic; and on his eightieth birthday he was honored in New Delhi. Paunchy congressmen in crisp white homespun sat on the platform and some made speeches. Mrs. Gandhi, after a little fumbling, carefully garlanded his portrait.
The latest—censored and incomplete—news about Bhave is that in June 1976 he started a public fast. In this fast, which he must have considered his last public act, there is still the element of Gandhian parody. Gandhi, too, did a famous last fast. But Gandhi’s fast—his last expression of pain and despair in partitioned India—was against human slaughter in the Punjab and Bengal. Bhave’s last fast, if the reports are correct, was against cow slaughter.
It seems to be always there in India: magic, the past, the death of the intellect, spirituality annulling the civilization out of which it issues, India swallowing its own tail.
With the dismantling, during the Emergency, of its borrowed or inherited democratic institutions, and with no foreign conqueror now to impose a new order, India for the first time for centuries is left alone with the blankness of its decayed civilization. The freedoms that came to independent India with the institutions it gave itself were alien freedoms, better suited to another civilization; in India they remained separate from the internal organization of the country, its beliefs and antique restrictions. In the beginning it didn’t matter. There were development plans. India industrialized, more effectively than is generally supposed; it more than doubled its production of food; it is now the world’s fourth largest producer of grain. And out of this prodigious effort arose a new mutinous stirring, which took India by surprise, and with which it didn’t know how to cope. It was as though India didn’t know what its Independence had committed it to.
The population grew; the landless fled from the tyranny of the villages; the towns choked; the restlessness created by the beginnings of economic development—in a land immemorially abject—expressed itself in the streets, in varying ways. In this very triumph of democracy lay its destruction. Formal politics answered less and less, became more and more formal; toward the end they had the demeanor of a parlor game, and became an affair of head-counting and floor-crossing. And the Indian press, another borrowed institution, also failed. With its restricted view of its function, it matched the triviality of the politics; it became part of the Indian anarchy. It reported speeches and more speeches; it reduced India to its various legislative chambers. It turned into national figures those politicians who were the least predictable; and both they, and the freedom of the press, vanished with the Emergency.
The dismantled institutions—of law and press and parliament—cannot simply be put together again. They have been undone; they can be undone again; it has been demonstrated that freedom is not an absolute in independent India. Mrs. Gandhi has given her name to the Emergency, and impressed it with her personality. It is unfortunate that this should be so, because it has simplified comment on one side and the other, and blurred the true nature of the crisis. With or without Mrs. Gandhi, independent India—with institutions of government opposed to its social organization, with problems of poverty that every Indian feels in his bones to be beyond solution—would have arrived at a state of emergency. And the Emergency, even with Mrs. Gandhi’s immense authority, is only a staying action. However it is resolved, India will at the end be face to face with its own emptiness, the inadequacy of an old civilization which is cherished because it is all men have but which no longer answers their needs.
India is without an ideology—and that was the failure of Gandhi and India together. Its people have no idea of the state, and none of the attitudes that go with such an idea: no historical notion of the past, no identity beyond the tenuous ecumenism of Hindu beliefs, and, in spite of the racial excesses of the British period, not even the beginnings of a racial sense. Through centuries of conquest the civilization declined into an apparatus for survival, turning away from the mind (on which the sacred Gita lays such stress) and creativity (Vinoba Bhave finding in Sanskrit only the language of the gods, and not the language of poets), stripping itself down, like all decaying civilizations, to its magical practices and imprisoning social forms. To enable men to survive, men had to be diminished. And this was a civilization that could narrow and still appear whole. Perhaps because of its unconcealed origins in racial conquest (victorious Aryans, subjugated aborigines), it is shot through with ambiguous beliefs that can either exalt men or abase them.
The key Hindu concept of dharma—the right way, the sanctioned way, which all men must follow, according to their natures—is an elastic concept. At its noblest it combines self-fulfillment and truth to the self with the ideas of action as duty, action as its own spiritual reward, man as a holy vessel. And it ceases then to be mysterious; it touches the high ideals of other civilizations. It might be said that it is of dharma that Balzac is writing when, near the end of his creative life, breaking through fatigue and a long blank period to write Cousine Bette in eight weeks, he reflects on the artist’s vocation: “Constant labor is the law of art as well as the law of life, for art is the creative activity of the mind. And so great artists, true poets, do not wait for either commissions or clients; they create today, tomorrow, ceaselessly. And there results a habit of toil, a perpetual consciousness of the difficulties, that keeps them in a state of marriage with the Muse, and her creative forces.” And Proust, too, killing himself to write his book, comes close to the concept of dharma when, echoing Balzac, he says that in the end it is less the desire for fame than “the habit of laboriousness” that takes a writer to the end of a work. But dharma, as this ideal of truth to oneself, or living out the Truth in oneself, can also be used to reconcile men to servitude and make them find in paralyzing obedience the highest spiritual good. “And do thy duty, even if it be humble,” says the Aryan Gita, “rather than another’s, even if it be great. To die in one’s duty is life: to live in another’s is death.”
Dharma is creative or crippling according to the state of the civilization, according to what is expected of men. It cannot be otherwise. The quality of faith is not a constant; it depends on the quality of the men who profess it. The religion of a Vinoba Bhave can only express the dust and defeat of the Indian village. Indians have made some contribution to science in this century; but—with a few notable exceptions—their work has been done abroad. And this is more than a matter of equipment and facilities. It is a cause of concern to the Indian scientific community—which feels itself vulnerable in India—that many of those men, who are so daring and original abroad, should, when they are lured back to India, collapse into ordinariness and yet remain content, become people who seem unaware of their former worth, and seem to have been brilliant by accident. They have been claimed by the lesser civilization, the lesser idea of dharma and self-fulfillment. In a civilization reduced to its forms they no longer have to strive intellectually to gain spiritual merit in their own eyes; that same merit is now to be had by religious right behavior, correctness.
India grieved for the scientist Har Gobind Khorana who, as an American citizen, won a Nobel Prize in medicine for the United States a few years ago. India invited him back and feted him; but what was most important about him was ignored. “We would do everything for Khorana,” one of India’s best journalists said, “except do him the honor of discussing his work.” The work, the labor, the assessment of that labor: it was expected that somehow that would occur elsewhere, outside India.
It is part of the intellectual parasitism that Indians accept (and, as a conquered people, have long accepted), while continuing to see their civilization as whole and possessed of the only truth that matters: offering refuge to “the afflicted,” as Gandhi saw it in 1914, and “deliverance from this earthly life.” It is as though it is in the very distress and worldly incapacity of India—rather than in its once vigorous civilization—that its special virtue has now to be found. And it is like the solace of despair, because (as even Gandhi knew, and as all his early political actions showed) there is no virtue in worldly defeat.
Indian poverty is more dehumanizing than any machine; and, more than in any machine civilization, men in India are units, locked up in the straitest obedience by their idea of their dharma. The scientist returning to India sheds the individuality he acquired during his time abroad; he regains the security of his caste identity, and the world is once more simplified. There are minute rules, as comforting as bandages; individual perception and judgment, which once called forth his creativity, are relinquished as burdens, and the man is once more a unit in his herd, his science reduced to a skill. The blight of caste is not only untouchability and the consequent deification in India of filth; the blight, in an India that tries to grow, is also the over-all obedience it imposes, its ready-made satisfactions, the diminishing of adventurousness, the pushing away from men of individuality and the possibility of excellence.
Men might rebel; but in the end they usually make their peace. There is no room in India for outsiders. The Arya Samaj, the Aryan Association, a reformist group opposed to traditional ideas of caste, and active in northern India earlier in the century, failed for a simple reason. It couldn’t meet the marriage needs of its members; India called them back to the castes and rules they had abjured. And five years ago in Delhi I heard this story. A foreign businessman saw that his untouchable servant was intelligent, and decided to give the young man an education. He did so, and before he left the country he placed the man in a better job. Some years later the businessman returned to India. He found that his untouchable was a latrine cleaner again. He had been boycotted by his clan for breaking away from them; he was barred from the evening smoking group. There was no other group he could join, no woman he could marry. His solitariness was insupportable, and he had returned to his duty, his dharma; he had learned to obey.
Obedience: it is all that India requires of men, and it is what men willingly give. The family has its rules; the caste has its rules. For the disciple, the guru—whether holy man or music teacher—stands in the place of God, and has to be implicitly obeyed, even if—like Bhave with Gandhi—he doesn’t always understand why. Sacred texts have to be learned by heart; school texts have to be learned by heart, and university textbooks, and the notes of lecturers. “It is a fault in the Western system of education,” Vinoba Bhave said some years ago, “that it lays so little stress on learning great lines by heart.” And the children of middle schools chant their lessons like Buddhist novices, raising their voices, like the novices, when the visitor appears, to show their zeal. So India ever absorbs the new into its old self, using new tools in old ways, purging itself of unnecessary mind, maintaining its equilibrium. The poverty of the land is reflected in the poverty of the mind; it would be calamitous if it were otherwise.
The civilization of conquest was also the civilization of defeat; it enabled men, obeying an elastic dharma, to dwindle with their land. Gandhi awakened India; but the India he awakened was only the India of defeat, the holy land he needed after South Africa.
Like a novelist who splits himself into his characters, unconsciously setting up the consonances that give his theme a closed intensity, the many-sided Gandhi permeates modern India. He is hidden, unknown except in his now moribund Bhave incarnation; but the drama that is being played out in India today is the drama he set up more than sixty years ago, when he returned to India after the racial battles of South Africa. The creator does not have to understand the roots of his obsessions; his duty is merely to set events in motion. Gandhi gave India its politics; he called up its archaic religious emotions. He made them serve one another, and brought about an awakening. But in independent India the elements of that awakening negate one another. No government can survive on Gandhian fantasy; and the spirituality, the solace of a conquered people, which Gandhi turned into a form of national assertion, has soured more obviously into the nihilism that it always was.
The opposition spokesmen in exile speak of the loss of democracy and freedom; and their complaints are just. But the borrowed words conceal archaic Gandhian obsessions as destructive as many of the provisions of the Emergency: fantasies of Ramraj, fantasies of spirituality, a return to the village, simplicity. In these obsessions—the cause of political battle—there still live, in the unlikeliest way, the disturbance of Gandhi’s blind years in London as a law student and the twenty years’ racial wounding in South Africa. They are now lost, the roots of Gandhi’s rejection of the West and his nihilism; the failure of the twenty years in South Africa is expunged from the Indian consciousness. But if Gandhi had resolved his difficulties in another way, if (like the imaginative novelist) he hadn’t so successfully transmuted his original hurt (which with him must have been in large part racial), if he had projected on to India another code of survival, he might have left independent India with an ideology, and perhaps even with what in India would have been truly revolutionary, the continental racial sense, the sense of belonging to a people specifically of India, which would have answered all his political aims, and more: not only weakening untouchability and submerging caste, but also awakening the individual, enabling men to stand alone within a broader identity, establishing a new idea of human excellence.
Now the people who fight about him fight about nothing; neither he nor old India has the solutions to the present crisis. He was the last expression of old India; he took India to the end of that road. All the arguments about the Emergency, all the references to his name, reveal India’s intellectual vacuum, and the emptiness of the civilization to which he seemed to give new life.
In conquered India renaissance has always been taken to mean a recovery of what has been suppressed or dishonored, an exalting of old ways; in periods of respite men have never taken the opportunity, or perhaps have been without the intellectual means, to move ahead; and disaster has come again. Art historians tell us that the European renaissance became established when men understood that the past was not living on; that Ovid or Virgil could not be thought of as a kind of ancient cleric; that men had to put distance between the past and themselves, the better to understand and profit from that past. India has always sought renewal in the other way, in continuity. In the earliest texts men look back to the past and speak of the present Black Age; just as they look back now to the days of Gandhi and the fight against the British, and see all that has followed as defilement, rather than as the working out of history. While India tries to go back to an idea of its past, it will not possess that past or be enriched by it. The past can now be possessed only by inquiry and scholarship, by intellectual rather than spiritual disciplines. The past has to be seen to be dead; or the past will kill.
The stability of Gandhian India was an illusion; and India will not be stable again for a long time. But in the present uncertainty and emptiness there is the possibility of a true new beginning, of the emergence in India of mind, after the long spiritual night. “The crisis of India is not political: this is only the view from Delhi. Dictatorship or rule by the army will change nothing. Nor is the crisis only economic. These are only aspects of the larger crisis, which is that of a decaying civilization, where the only hope lies in further swift decay.” I wrote that in 1967; and that seemed to me a blacker time.
(This is the last article in a series on India.)
January 20, 1977