Rediscovering Gandhi


Tridip Suhrud in Caravan the Magazine:

IN CONVERSATIONS, social theorist Ashis Nandy fondly recalls an exchange between philosopher Ramachandra Gandhi and poet Umashankar Joshi. The philosopher argued that MK Gandhi was inconceivable without his spiritual strivings, while the poet—and one suspects Ashis Nandy too—insisted that Gandhi’s significance lay in his willingness to engage and transform the “slum of politics”.

This divide between the religious, spiritual Gandhi and the political one or, more aptly, the divide between Gandhi the ashramite and Gandhi the satyagrahi has come to shape not only our academic engagement with the life and thought of Gandhi, but also our memory of the man whom we revere, revile or remain indifferent to. The dichotomy is a superficial one. Gandhi saw himself as a satyagrahi and an ashramite. His politics was imbued with spiritual strivings and his relationship with religion was a deeply political one.

A long, rich and diverse biographical tradition, which has deepened our understanding of Gandhi’s life and his strivings, has not escaped this divide either. This tradition has been partial to the satyagrahi Gandhi; whereas the ashram, the ashram community, his striving to see “god face to face”, his fasts and his experiments with brahamcharya remain shadowy. Gandhi’s practices of silence, fasting, walking and spinning, his brahmacharya, and his need for prayer were integral to his self-search and to swaraj and yet we are still casting about for adequate modes of capturing and recounting these practices.

We have few serious studies on Gandhi’s ashrams. There is one by Mark Thompson titled Gandhi and His Ashrams (1993); another major exception is the recent four-volume biography of Gandhi, My Life is My Message (2009), by Narayan Desai. Desai, an ashramite himself, understands that Gandhi’s politics was not possible without the ashram as a site of experimentation, and in the absence of the ashramites who were his co-experimenters.

Our limited understanding of the ashram is also due to our neglect of the diaries of Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s closest associate and secretary. Desai wrote a diary for each day that he spent with Gandhi from 1917 until the former’s death in the Aga Khan Palace prison in 1942. The diaries are not just records of letters sent and received and accounts of all those who visited Gandhi; running to 23 volumes in Gujarati, they are the most detailed accounts of Gandhi’s “experiments with truth”.