Orwell on Gandhi

Perhaps it is the calcification of my sympathy in old age (21 summers), but whenever I see the bumper sticker (more often on the bar of a bicycle than an actual bumper) reading “Be the change you want to see in the world,” I cannot but entertain the suspicion the driver (or, more often, cyclist) has only read that one sentence of Karamchand Gandhi’s, or that one and another (“Eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”), and maybe seen the fawning Ben Kinsley film. Most are probably ignorant of the not insubstantial body of writings including his own autobiography, Hindu apologetics, politics, methods, and the Ahimsa discipline that informed the actions of his public life. Therefore, in the common Western imagination, Gandhi is not so much an individual with a biography and opinions so much a symbol of sacrifice, peacefulness, and ineffable “Oriental” wisdom or “Eastern” profundity. The details of the prescriptions Gandhi saw necessary for moral living would likely be a jarring surprise to many of his Western admirers. The most extreme were detailed in a laudably even-handed essay by another one of the 20th century’s great voices of democracy and decency, George Orwell:

Gandhi himself, in his middle thirties, took the vow of brahmacharya, which means not only complete chastity but the elimination of sexual desire. This condition, it seems, is difficult to attain without a special diet and frequent fasting. One of the dangers of milk-drinking is that it is apt to arouse sexual desire. And finally – this is the cardinal point – for the seeker after goodness there must be no close friendships and no exclusive loves whatever.

Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because “friends react on one another” and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true. Moreover, if one is to love God, or to love humanity as a whole, one cannot give one’s preference to any individual person. This again is true, and it marks the point at which the humanistic and the religious attitude cease to be reconcilable. To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others. The autobiography leaves it uncertain whether Gandhi behaved in an inconsiderate way to his wife and children, but at any rate it makes clear that on three occasions he was willing to let his wife or a child die rather than administer the animal food prescribed by the doctor. It is true that the threatened death never actually occurred, and also that Gandhi – with, one gathers, a good deal of moral pressure in the opposite direction – always gave the patient the choice of staying alive at the price of committing a sin: still, if the decision had been solely his own, he would have forbidden the animal food, whatever the risks might be. There must, he says, be some limit to what we will do in order to remain alive, and the limit is well on this side of chicken broth. This attitude is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which – I think – most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.


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