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Gandhi's Body: Sex, Diet, and the Politics of Nationalism (Critical Histories)
Gandhi's Body: Sex, Diet, and the Politics of Nationalism (Critical Histories)
Joseph S. Alter
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000
216 pp., 64.95

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Gandhi's Way: A Handbook of Conflict Resolution
Gandhi's Way: A Handbook of Conflict Resolution
Mark Juergensmeyer
University of California Press, 2002
186 pp., 18.24

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Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi
Stanley Wolpert
Oxford University Press, 2002
336 pp., 23.99

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By Jean Bethke Elshtain

The Mahatma

Gandhi unvarnished.

There are numerous Mahatmas. There is the saintly Mahatma (or "great soul," as the honorific is often translated) about whom the more that is positively said, the better, and critique of any kind seems churlish; there is the ascetic Mahatma, living and burnishing an ideal of the simple life; there is the political Mahatma, cannily outfoxing the British; there is the ambiguous Mahatma, whose views on the body and on women may be extreme or not, politically correct or not; there is the messianic Mahatma leading the way to social justice and peace, a Mahatma good for all times and places. Each of these Mahatmas makes an appearance in the books under review, to which one must add the intolerant and jealous Mahatma who generated a "cult of personality" that must be scrutinized critically.

Mark Juergensmeyer's Mahatma is a rather predictable figure who shows the way to contemporary political protest and, even more grandly, to peace on both the personal and political levels. Gandhi's Way is not in fact a new book but rather a newly titled reissue of a book previously published as Fighting with Gandhi and Fighting Fair. Tellingly, Juergensmeyer subtitles his book a "handbook" for "conflict resolution." The problem—and it is a pervasive one in Gandhian literature, especially that of a hagiographic tilt—is that Gandhi's approach is not challenged for its possible inapplicability to conflicts between nation-states by comparison to conflicts within nation-states, at least those that have some developed rule of law—as did the British Raj.

The critical distinction posed by Augustine and taken up by Aquinas—that what is incumbent upon the individual may be forbidden to the statesman responsible for the safety and well-being of an entire people—is simply ignored by Juergensmeyer. If I am engaged in the vocation of statecraft, it may be necessary for me to undertake tasks of collective self-defense-protecting the innocent from certain harm. There was a reason that Gandhi refused to become the first prime minister of a newly independent India. It wasn't simply that he opposed the partition (of India and Pakistan) and found himself helpless to prevent it, but because he knew full well the demands upon a state leader were demands he could not live up to and remain "Gandhi."

Thus, when Juergensmeyer compares the "unneighborly hostilities of A and B" as persons to "wars that have plagued Europe in the past several centuries," he confounds situations of an entirely different scope. Inter-state relations are characterized by an aura of wariness, density, and lack of transparency that can be overcome on the personal level but are nigh impossible to penetrate on the level of states—unless centuries of relatively amicable and helpful relations, including allying against common foes, precede whatever is the conflict of the moment. (Like the United States and the United Kingdom, for example. It is almost impossible to construct a plausible scenario that would find the two countries fighting each other openly. This has nothing to do with discovering Gandhianism but, rather, with the cement of common traditions, concerns, and, yes, enemies.)

There is much to commend Gandhian conflict resolution as a method to put into play between persons or within organizations. Upping the ante to include struggles of aggrieved groups against a liberal democratic state is already something of a stretch—but not an impossible one if a sufficiently robust cultural commonality is already present. This was true of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with stress on the "Christian" part of that, could assume and work with appeals to a Christian-formed conscience of the nation as well as to its foundational principles. In the Raj, Gandhi could cannily exploit British principles to challenge British colonial practices. But if that option is not available, then what?

When Gandhi was asked what persons should do facing an Adolf Hitler—he indicated that the Jews would do well to "offer themselves up to be killed" as their unearned and visible suffering might soften the hearts of their tormenters—he did not endear himself to Jewish analysts of the Shoah. That scenario stretched Gandhianism to the breaking point … and it broke. The stunning example of morally courageous action in Nazi-dominated Europe by the villagers of Le Chambon, documented in Philip Hallie's wonderful book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, is no exception to this rule. The villagers united at risk to themselves and their families to save strangers—Jewish refugees. They did this under the noses of the German occupiers of the region. But, as it turned out, the leader of the German forces, who knew what was going on, permitted the Chambonnaise to go forward largely unimpeded. (There were threats—German soldiers tramping into homes, Andre Trocme, the pastor-leader put for a short time in a detention camp, and so on—but no mass slaughter, mass arrests, reprisals.) The protest of the Chambonnaise "worked" not only because of their undeniable courage but because they were extraordinarily lucky, in a then largely luckless surround, in the officer in charge.

One plus of Juergensmeyer's account is his acknowledgment that Gandhi did employ "many pressure tactics." Fine. Gandhi was certainly entitled to avail himself of such methods, which often proved effective. But at the same time, Juergensmeyer seconds Gandhi's motion that "all forms of force" are "coercive" and, therefore, bad. This requires somehow exempting Gandhi's pressure tactics—clearly a "form of force," though nonviolent—from the charge of coercion. The result is that Juergensmeyer becomes tangled in special pleading. If Gandhi did it—whatever "it" was—it couldn't have been coercive, you see.

Stanley Wolpert's Mahatma, too, is one about whom there is not much that is critical to say. But the critiques he does offer are quite vivid and troubling. For example: Wolpert notes Gandhi's praise for Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement, with Gandhi using the occasion to call for "world disarmament" in these words: "I am as certain of it as I am sitting here, that this heroic act would open Herr Hitler's eyes and disarm him." Then there is this:

On July 23, 1939, Gandhi wrote his "Dear Friend" letter to Adolf Hitler. "It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state. … Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success."

Hitler did not respond.

During the war, Gandhi supported neither side. Nor was Gandhi's response to nuclear weapons terribly reassuring. He indicated that, were a bomb about to be dropped, he would stand out in the open, looking to the skies, awaiting the bomb and imploring the pilot to the last moment. There is an individualistic grandeur to such a stance. But one is grateful that statespersons are obliged to think in harder-headed terms about the safety and well-being of the collective. After the war, Gandhi told a Western reporter: "Was not war itself a crime against humanity and, therefore, were not all those who … conducted wars, war criminals? … Roosevelt and Churchill are no less war criminals than Hitler and Mussolini." This awful statement, demonstrating a remarkable inability to discriminate properly and a corrupting naïveté when confronted with such cataclysmic events as World War II, further tarnishes Gandhi's image. One can argue, as I have, that the use of indiscriminate bombing of cities does not pass muster under in bello restraints. But to compare Hitler's atrocities against the Jews, Slavs, gypsies, persons with physical and mental disabilities, on and on, to a war-fighting strategy aimed at ending the conflict as soon as possible, is the sort of thing that would lead a teacher to give a student who pulled such a stunt a requirement to rewrite or face the consequences in a low grade.

Wolpert uncovers a few other warts, embedded like burnt kernels in the popcorn bag of tribute, having to do with Gandhi's troubled relations with his children. Saints are often not that likable to those compelled to live with them, and Gandhi was, in many ways, no exception. Charming to his disciples, he was a harsh disciplinarian to his sons, especially his eldest, Harilal, who received the brunt of Gandhi's authority throughout his life. The breaking point came when Gandhi forbad Harilal to marry a woman he adored, a follower of Gandhi's—one of Gandhi's many rather smitten female disciples, a German woman of great accomplishment who had joined his ashram but could not anticipate having children with Bapu-Gandhi himself. She had agreed to marriage with Harilal, but Gandhi forbade it, demanding sexual continence and renunciation of sex and marriage from his son. Writes Wolpert: "Few things depressed Gandhi as much as the thought of his own children having children of their own." When the beleaguered Harilal embraced Islam in 1936 and changed his name to Abdulla, Gandhi wrote that his "apostasy is no loss to Hinduism and his admission to Islam is a source of weakness to it if, as I apprehend, he remains the same wreck that he was before."

The irony of all this should be lost on no one: a method extolled for all forms of conflict resolution, including personal and familial, fell apart utterly when Gandhi was confronted with dissent from his progeny. Beyond that, and some talk about the harshness of Gandhi's diet and overall regimen and his habit of sleeping naked with a niece in order to demonstrate his resistance to arousal, Wolpert extols Gandhi as an exceptional genius and leader of men and women who rightly deserved the appellation "Mahatma."

Joseph Alter's is the postmodern or at least Foucauldian Gandhi whose body stands as a metaphor for the body of India as a whole. Alter complains that the shelves full of political histories of Gandhi have "drawn attention away from a more fundamentally important level of action, experience, and social, political, and moral experimentation—his body." Correctly, Alter believes one must take "embodied experience seriously when engaged in the analysis of history in general and nationalism in particular." Starting with "the body" helps one to "make sense of the Mahatma in particular and important features of the nationalist project as a whole."

Alter, an anthropologist by training, turns to Foucault's History of Sexuality for his method, a "genealogy of the self as a subject of desire." What insights does this yield? Not as many as Alter appears to think. He introduces his subject many times over, calling portentously for a "history of the relationship among the body, power, and knowledge." Talk about "the body," alas, can easily become as abstract as talk about "the state." There is an interesting book lurking in Alter's text, but to find it he would have to begin by cutting away all the jargon about the way the "matrix of power intersects in the body" and showing us how this intersection cashed out in the case of Gandhi's struggle for Indian home rule. We would have little interest in Gandhi—indeed, the world would know him not—had he not been the leader of an extraordinary mass movement. Alpert may well be right that you cannot understand Gandhi unless you understand his claim that "unhealthy" people could never claim swaraj or self-rule, but it is the self-rule we want to get to—and that self is an entire people, not just a series of discrete individuals, beginning with the Mahatma himself.

Alpert criticizes previous works for spending too much time on symbolic interpretations and psychology and ignoring Gandhi's "biomoral" reforms. It is the "microphysics" of Gandhi's "self-discipline" that concerns him. He argues that even "when writing about national and international events [Gandhi] seems to have been preoccupied with himself, with his subjectivity in the context of dramatic sociopolitical change." But what we want to understand is how Gandhi was critically responsible for creating that context. Gandhi's grand project of a nation of "sober celibates who would embody a new moral order" would, if implemented, be a recipe for collective suicide—universal celibacy would mean no new births, would it not?—but Alpert doesn't spend any time on the implications.

Gandhi's severe criticisms of Western medicine—an aversion that put the life of one of his sons in considerable danger—and his insistence that "addiction" to food and drink was a "kind of slavery" are well known. Gandhi's alternative was a system of therapy and home remedies, radical "self-sufficiency" for persons and villages. He discussed everything from "mud packs" to "friction baths." One had to heal oneself, he argued, to heal a body politic. Part of this healing, as I already noted, involved celibacy. Only personal regeneration one individual at a time would guarantee national regeneration. Gandhi also wanted to so fuse a collective identity that a person would make no distinction between the loss of any one person in the polity and the loss of his only son. A claim that runs so counter to our ordinary moral intuitions requires more explication than Alter gives it.

Still and all, Alter is on to something interesting. As he notes: "A basic difficulty in the study of Gandhi's philosophy is that it is virtually impossible to reconcile his sincere and completely honest claims about the inherently noncoercive, transcendental nature of fasting as something intrinsically good with the brute fact that by threatening to kill himself he put people in a position where they had to conform to his will." This, contra Juergensmeyer, is psychological coercion of a particularly severe sort. It worked for a time—and this is a point Alter should have made clearly—only because Gandhi had indeed become "Bapu," the beloved "grandpa," and one must not be implicated in helping to kill through refusing to bow to his will. But Alter also somewhat detracts from the power of Gandhi's fasts when he shows that Gandhi tended toward a kind of anorexic identity—he was "very ambivalent about the body's need for nourishment."

Alter further contends that Gandhi's cleanliness and purity obsessions had some bearing on his attempt to end untouchability. For Gandhi, the horror of a class of untouchables was that Indian culture had permanently installed "deeply embedded filth." It was not in the language one might expect—of social justice and equality—that Gandhi attacked the structure of untouchability but in and through images of "filth" and "contamination": "If the filth of untouchability is not swept away," he wrote, "it will devour Hinduism."

Here again Alter is gesturing toward a very suggestive revisionist account of Gandhi. But what he has failed to do is to show us the mutually fructifying connections between Gandhi's body-politics and the body politic. To repeat: were it not for the vast movement Gandhi catalyzed, he would appear merely as an extreme—and obscure—example of a certain sort of ascetic.

Finally, to Susan Billington Harper's exemplary work on a relatively unknown chapter in Indian history, the stirrings and fate of Christianity in British India and the role played by a major figure most of us have never heard of, Bishop V.S. Azariah. Harper's is a work of meticulous historic scholarship of the sort that gets called "out of date" and "old-fashioned" nowadays. She believes it necessary to gather all the best information she can get about the historic figure, subject, and epoch she aims to write about, and to put that evidence together in a sustained narrative. Some of us are old enough to remember college injunctions from our professors of history who told us that historians had to anchor their conclusions in the best available evidence, be it in artifacts, shards, skeletal remains, private correspondence, official documents. For our edification and benefit, Harper has done just this, fashioning the evidence together in a satisfying and graceful narrative.

Her protagonist, Vedanayagam Samuel Azariah (1874-1945), "was the most successful leader of grassroots movements of conversion to Christianity in South Asia during the early 20th century. He was the first and only native Indian bishop of an Anglican diocese from 1912 until his death in 1945." Azariah, we are told, was "equally at home with the 'untouchables of rural India and the unreachables of the British empire.' " He was a tireless ecumenist and a humble man who shunned a cult following. Harper speculates that he has been ignored, in part, because so many historians are "innately hostile to religion in general and to Christian missionary activity in particular. But in larger measure, the neglect of Azariah is a by-product of the enormous attention devoted to the rise of secular nationalism and to the charismatic figure of Azariah's contemporary and sometimes opponent, Mohandas K. Gandhi."

With Indian Christians under increasing pressure, and violence against them—and all non-Hindus—on the rise in India, driven by the ascendance of extreme Hindu nationalism (the "faith" that inspired Gandhi's assassin), Harper's book is tragically timely. Given Azariah's equanimity amidst colossal changes, he serves as a "relatively fixed point of reference in the midst of stunning developments."

It is not possible to do justice to the historic detail of Harper's book in a short review. Suffice it to say, she helps us to appreciate the "varied and complex" caste divisions in South India by concentrating on—indeed re-creating—the community of Tinnevelly (Tirunelveli) in Tamil country where Azariah was born. The details are riveting. One group, the Nadars,

were required to stay thirty-six paces away from high-caste Brahmins; their houses were limited to one story; they were forbidden to carry umbrellas and to wear shoes and gold ornaments. They could not milk cows, and Nadar women were not allowed to carry pots on their hips. Unlike the outcastes, however, many Nadars abstained from liquor and beef and disapproved of the remarriage of widows.

The severe moralism embedded in these fine distinctions suggests a crushing cultural weight. It is unsurprising that the Christian message of the equality of believers should prove both enormously attractive and incendiary in such a context, with Christian missionaries—as but one example—playing key roles in preventing routinized abuse of women.

The Scottish missions in the area brought educational benefits that were, Harper avers, "generally welcome." The YMCA promoted Christian ecumenism, and the y's "indigenization program prepared some of the most talented Indian Christians of Azariah's generation" for leadership roles. Harper also alerts us to the complex balancing of Azariah and other Christians in embracing Christianity's universal message but engrafting onto it particular features of Indian culture that were not seen as antagonistic to the irreducible features of the faith. Hindu nationalist charges—common then as now—that Christian missionary work, or the mere existence of Indian Christians—was unpatriotic, were challenged by Azariah and others, who saw their faith as a "form of patriotism." One could be a faithful Christian and a devoted Indian. Christianity did not require "denationalization" or "dependence" on "imperialism."

Harper covers church-state conflicts during Azariah's lifetime; the move to create and to appoint indigenous leaders for Indian bishoprics; the responses by the Indian church to nationalist denunciations; the encouragement of the movement of "oppressed classes into Christianity"; and the importance of a "new and sacramental framework for … [the] depressed and non-Brahmin classes." And it is at this point where we have the first intimations of Azariah's tension-filled relationship with Gandhi, who disapproved of the growth of an Indian-Christian mass movement. As Harper observes, Azariah's ecumenically orthodox insistence that you could not be a faithful Christian by having "little to do with organized forms of Christianity of any kind" ran counter to the "triumphant heterodoxies" of the age, "beginning with Gandhi's idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita and extending to Christian reinterpretation of theology as well." Although Gandhi and Azariah shared an interest in communal life, the importance of villages, "women's uplift," and an end to the stigmatizing of manual work, a rift was in the offing.

Meanwhile, Azariah responded vigorously to the challenge of building an Indian church. Harper rightly points out that Jesus left behind no "simple normative pattern" for relating to cultures, nor did the early Christians. The complex Christian dialectic, poised both with and against the world, demands equally complex responses to different cultural contexts. Unsurprisingly, the relationship between "Christ and culture" was a central problem of Bishop Azariah's life. Its solution required the daily disassociation of the essentials of the Christian faith … from the western cultural accretions imported to India by missionaries … and the evaluation of every aspect of Indian culture in the light of fundamental Christian principles.

Azariah rejected the extremist positions that Christ and culture are "fundamentally in opposition" or "in agreement." His was the "intermediate" position "whereby Christ was both the 'fulfillment' and 'transformer' of culture."

This led, finally, to the conflict with Gandhi and the upshot that Azariah has "been almost entirely excluded from the historical literature on modern India." Once again, the saintly Gandhi beyond resentment and hostility gives way to a Gandhi who demonstrated hostility aplenty to Azariah, with whom he shared a great deal. By the time Gandhi began "his famous train tour of India" designed to reacquaint him with the people, Azariah, notes Harper, had for 20 years been riding in "trains, bullock carts, and bicycles" throughout the subcontinent promoting his message. Gandhi evidently didn't appreciate any competititon—and he saw Azariah as such. And Azariah obviously believed in the freedom to convert, while Gandhi wanted a transformation and cleansing of Hinduism. For Gandhi, Christian missions were all right so long as they dealt with medicine and other "good works," but religious confession and commitment he criticized.

At a meeting between the two and another figure, Gandhi expressed open opposition to "preaching to and making disciples amongst the Depressed Classes.

If you do not [submit to this prohibition], we shall make you." Gandhi's pronouncements "fueled existing Indian Christian fears that Gandhi would restrict the religious liberty of both Indian Christians and Christian missions in an independent India. Particular concern was expressed about Gandhi's threat to use state force to prevent proselytization." Ironically, Gandhi, who was himself seen as a threat to hyper-Hindu nationalism, in turn construed Azariah as a threat to the nation.

He portrayed "Christian evangelism as an anti-nationalistic activity." Throughout, Azariah held steadfast, preaching a message of joy and hope and courage. As Harper reaches the conclusion of this wonderfully written book, the reader finds herself both educated and moved by Azariah's story. Harper writes:

Azariah's contribution has been obscured by the more dramatic political events engulfing his motherland during his career. His legacy and the witness of his church have both been practically obliterated by the rush of events leading to Independence and the widespread hostility of Hindu and secular nationalists to Christian evangelism. But not even the long shadow of the Mahatma has completely eclipsed the bright memories that still survive in the grassroots, among ordinary Indians for whom Azariah provided a powerful and unforgettable example of Christian servanthood in troubled times.

We may hope that those memories, and the force of Azariah's example, will continue to sustain India's Christians in a time of great trial and great promise.

Jean Bethke Elshtain is Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago.

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