Paul Johnson on Ghandi

One of my current reads in Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, a massive tome which I am massively enjoying. A few days ago, I happened upon a section dealing with Ghandi.  As someone who has never understood Ghandi’s revered status, I found Johnson’s handling of the subject to be both enlightening and amusing. (Reader discretion is advised, due to mature content):

Ghandi was not a liberator but a political exotic, who could have flourished only in the protected environment provided by British liberalism. He was a year older than Lenin, with whom he shared a quasi-religious approach to politics, though in sheer crankiness he had much more in common with Hitler, his junior by twenty years. In his local language, Gujarati, Ghandi means ‘grocer’, and both he and his mother, from whom he inherited chronic constipation, were obsessed by the bodily functions and the ingress and egress of food. This preoccupation intensified when he went to London and moved in vegetarian circles. We know more about the intimacies of his life than that of any other human being in history. He lived in public in his ashram or religious camp, attended by a numerous entourage of devoted women, most of them willing to describe his ways in the most minute detail. By the mid-1970s more than four hundred biographies of him were in existence, and the English edition of his utterances, compiled by fifty researchers and thirty clerks of the Indian Information Ministry, which set up a special department for this purpose, will fill eighty volumes averaging 550 pages each.

Ghandi’s first question, on rising, to the women who waited on him every morning was ‘Did you have a good bowel movement this morning, sisters?’ One of his favorite books was Constipation and Our Civilization, which he constantly reread. He was convinced that evil sprang from dirt and unsuitable food. So although he ate heartily – ‘He was one of the hungriest men I have ever known,’ a disciple said – his food was carefully chosen and prepared. A mixture of bicarbonate of soda, honey and lemon-juice was his drink, and all his vegetarian dishes were assisted with munching quantities of crushed garlic, a bowl of which stood by his plate (he had no sense of smell, a useful attribute in India). In middle age, Ghandi turned against his wife and children, indeed against sex itself. He thought women were better than men because he assumed they did not enjoy sex. He carried out his so-called Brahmacharya experiments of sleeping with naked girls solely for warmth. His only seminal emission in his middle and later years was in his sleep in 1936, when he was aged 66: it disturbed him a great deal.

Ghandi’s eccentricities appealed to a nation which venerates sacral oddity. But his teachings had no relevance to India’s problems or aspirations. Hand-weaving made no sense in a country whose chief industry was the mass-production of textiles. His food policy would have led to mass starvation. In fact Ghandi’s own ashram, with his own very expensive ‘simple’ tastes and innumerable ‘secretaries’ and handmaidens, had to be heavily subsidized by three merchant princes. As one of his circle observed: ‘It costs a great deal of money to keep Ghandiji living in poverty.’ About the Ghandi phenomenon there was always a strong aroma of twentieth-century humbug. His methods could only work in an ultra-liberal empire. ‘It was not so much that the British empire treated him forbearingly’, George Orwell wrote, ‘as that he was always able to command publicity… It is difficult to see how Ghandi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard from again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion but to bring a mass-movement into being… Is there a Ghandi in Russia at this moment?’

All Ghandi’s career demonstrated was the unrepressive nature of British rule and its willingness to abdicate. And Ghandi was expensive in human life as well as money. The events of 1920-1 indicated that though he could bring a mass-movement into existence, he could not control it. Yet he continued to play the sorcerer’s apprentice, while the casualty bill mounted into hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands, and the risks of a gigantic sectarian and racial explosion accumulated. This blindness to the law of probability in a bitterly divided sub-continent made nonsense of Ghandi’s professions that he would not take life in any circumstances. 

Needless to say, my opinion of the man has not improved in the least.

6 thoughts on “Paul Johnson on Ghandi”

  1. Very interesting. I’m not impressed with him either. I wish Christians would stop quoting his “I like your Christ but not your Christians” etc. Given his religious beliefs, Ghandi would hardly be an authority on a biblical understanding of Jesus Christ.

  2. I’ve respected Paul Johnson for awhile now, and his newer edition of Modern Times has a proud spot on my shelf as a handy world history reference. It has proven useful for a handful of college history papers. Reading it cover-to-cover would be a daunting task indeed.


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