I AMUSE MYSELF speculating what Sigmund Freud would have made of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, had he gotten him on his couch. The two lives did overlap in time, if not in geographic or intellectual space. Gandhi seems like a Freudian feast, starting with his lifelong guilt over having been engaged in sex with his wife at the moment of his father’s death. His life was a constant illustration of Freud’s thesis that we cannot be happy because our inherent nature is contrary to the demands of our conscience or, as Freud put it, our ego is at war with our superego.

Engaged in this struggle, Gandhi chastised and denied himself in a variety of ways. His meager vegetarian diet of only raw food was justified because his nourishment was taken “in its vital state even as animals do”—but, of course, he meant only herbivorous animals. Carnivorous beasts were far too indulgent for his taste. He even regularly fasted from this uncooked, unseasoned, diet. At the time of his famous Salt March—when he rallied common Indians against British restrictions on making salt—he was personally eliminating salt from his diet. He persuaded attractive young women to sleep next to him so that he could practice refraining from touching them (certainly this would have gotten Dr. Freud’s attention). He also rejected earthly possessions and at his death owned a pair of glasses, a pair of sandals, a bowl—few enough items to be gathered in two hands. The closest he had to a frivolous possession was a set of statues of the “three wise monkeys”—Hear No Evil, See No Evil, and Speak No Evil, a Buddhist motif from Japan.


Untitled, Sheng Qi, 2006

It seems certain that Freud would at the least have found Gandhi either ignorant of, or willfully ignoring, the nature of the human psyche. For Freud opined:

The commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is the strongest defense against human aggression and an excellent example of the unpsychological manner in which the cultural superego proceeds. It is impossible to keep this commandment; such a huge inflation of love can only lower its value, not remove the problem.

Yet Gandhi also knew the commandment was impossible to keep. He wrote, “There will never be an army of perfectly nonviolent people. It will be formed of those who will honestly endeavor to observe nonviolence.”

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