Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Holy hell

As I recall, the first serious book I ever purchased was a collection of the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, in a yellow paperback edition at the University of Notre Dame Bookstore. I was a curious undergraduate, experiencing the first awakening of an independent intellectual life.

Of course, Gandhi was every young intellectual's favorite in those days -- the diminutive man with spectacles and loin cloth who led hundreds of millions of people to independence with a philosophy of nonviolence.

I've read a lot about Indian independence since. Right now, my wife is reading Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, which I read some years ago, a fictional account of independence. And I'm reading Alex von Tunzelmann's iconoclastic Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire. There's not a lot that is secret in von Tunzelmann's book, but she tells a terrific story and she's done her research. Gandhi comes off as a saint whose uncompromising moralism delayed Indian independence by decades and set the stage for the horrific violence that accompanied independence and partition.

Of Gandhi's thought, she writes: "Merely driving the British out of India would not serve to make India free. To be free, Indians needed to relinquish violence, material possessions, machinery, discord between Hindu and Muslim, alcohol, and sex." No wonder I was drawn to Gandhi's writing as an undergraduate. I too was a moralistic prig, a budding religious ascetic who put pebbles in his shoes and sand in his bed, racked with Catholic guilt over sex, ready to devote my life to Lady Poverty.

India's best hope in the prewar decades lay not in Gandhi's religious essentialism, suggests von Tunzelmann, but in the secular, pragmatic politics of Motilal Nehru (Jawahar's father) and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The Nehrus, father and son, "saw social and economic hardship as a cause of suffering, and therefore wanted to end it," she writes; "Gandhi saw hardship as noble and righteous, and therefore wanted to spread the blessings of poverty and humility to all people."

We know what happened at the stroke of midnight, August 14, 1947. India and Pakistan became free of British rule, and all hell broke loose as Hindus, Muslims, and assorted other religious sects began to systematically slaughter each other.

Gandhi was undoubtedly a remarkable man who inspired and gave hope to millions, but his uncompromising religiosity may have been instrumental in causing untold deaths and suffering. The well-thumbed book of his writings is still on a shelf somewhere in my house in New England; the young undergraduate who took inspiration from it moved on to a secular scientific skepticism and made his peace with modernity and materialism.