The Perils of Discipleship

     In New Delhi, at the last residence of Mohandas Gandhi, there are concrete blocks about the size and shape of a human foot literally marking the hundred or so sandaled steps the Mahatma took from his room to the point of his 1948 assassination. With reverence and admiration, along with that characteristic poignancy of history that comes from standing in the very place where it occurred, I walked that same path during a 1989 trip to India. A little over a decade later I nominated this great man for Time’s “Person of the Century” (he was beaten out by Einstein). But facts—those “stubborn things” as our second president called them—as well as words have a way of illustrating the dangers of deification and the disappointments of true believers.

     Christopher Hitchens, drawn to most forms of iconoclasm as a moth to the flame, reviews Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, and the two of them offer a few object lessons to those prone to the allures of uncritical character apotheosis. No doubt many of Gandhi’s admirers have long qualified that admiration, as I have, with some reservation concerning his undiluted (one is tempted to say “militant”) pacifism, but Lelyveld’s book and Hitchens’ review provide much fodder for consideration of the limits of pacifism and, in the face of an unbridled, genocidal militarism, its dangerously suicidal fatuity. Lelyveld’s book provides a disturbing foundation, in the form of Gandhi’s own words, for the clichéd observation that what worked against British colonialism would have been a mere sandcastle against the tide of German National Socialism. Even allowing for the advantage of historical hindsight, the Mahatma’s disciple may be forgiven if the first crack in his reverence occurs when he reads Gandhi’s 1939 observation that “a single Jew standing up and refusing to bow to Hitler’s decrees” might “melt Hitler’s heart.” Well, yes, that incredibly brave Chinese student did for a few moments stop the tank; but apparently he was soon whisked away into that vast Chinese gulag never to be seen again. Gandhi’s suppositional Jew’s fate could hardly have been any more promising.

     The second crack in the sub-continent’s marble man for the true believer might occur when he reads Gandhi’s personal letter to Hitler in that same year—the year of the invasion of Poland—beginning with the simultaneously sycophantic and condescending “My friend,” and asking the Fuhrer if he would “listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?” One hopes that he could not possibly have been so naïve or other-worldly as to write the same letter two years later. Ever seeming to be oblivious to genocidal intentions, he advises a Chinese guest to “shame some Japanese” by adopting pacifism and civil disobedience, or satyagraha. But Gandhi falls most precipitously from deity to mortal—and a disturbing mortality at that—when one reads that he encouraged the British to allow the Nazis to “take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these but neither your souls nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself man, woman, and child to be slaughtered.” Reading such a chilling formula for ethereal transcendence over worldly materialism and physical survival, one steps back, aghast at seeing evil allowed to triumph so easily and be embraced with such equanimity. Is it reasonable—though reason seems to have nothing to do here with Gandhi’s foray into grim other-worldliness—to think that inviting slaughter and censuring all necessary forms of resistance to it is to preserve one’s own unblemished moral purity, or is it more reasonable to believe that allowing the slaughter is in fact to participate in it? Would the victim in such a case, though now satisfyingly sanctified, be wholly innocent in his own victimization? The essential quality of hubris is self-deception, and while there remains so incredibly much to admire in this great man, it seems not so wild a thought to see his hubris as both the cause and the effect of his chosen life of unrelenting renunciation.

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