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.”

After Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in 1968, a cartoon by Bill Mauldin ran in the Chicago Sun-Times showing Gandhi talking to King. The caption read, “The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you!” By the time of King’s death, it was obvious that the Hindu who had ended Gandhi’s life twenty years before, an assassin whose name was already largely forgotten, had failed to end the role in the world of the man whom the Nobel Prize–winning writer Rabindranath Tagore had dubbed Mahatma, the “great soul.”

My nomination for the most influential political leader of the twentieth century would be Mohandas K. Gandhi. The first thing that seems slightly jarring about this proposal is that many people do not customarily think of Gandhi as a political leader. There is a tendency to think of him as a religious or spiritual leader. This is the odd thing about political assassinations: they tend to turn political leaders into spiritual ones, even into saints—it makes them less threatening. King has suffered the same fate. But Gandhi, like King, was first and foremost a man of political action. He profoundly believed in the moral obligation to act. To Gandhi, the greatest sin was the failure to act. ‘‘Violence is any day preferable to impotence,” he wrote. “There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no hope for the impotent.”

Who, if not Gandhi, might be the most important political leader of the twentieth century? Political leaders, on the whole, are not an imaginative lot. Now that we live in an age of film and recordings, the tendency is to openly imitate successful predecessors. American leaders cannot do Lincoln impressions, but they can try to sound like Roosevelt or Kennedy. British prime ministers do their Churchill, and French presidents flirt with de Gaulle mimicry. Indians leaders try to sound like Gandhi, though unfortunately they do not think or act like him. But among all these political leaders, both the originals and the imitations, there is very little that is new. Only Gandhi represents a completely different way of pursuing political objectives.

As with most successful political leaders, confidence and optimism were among his most powerful attributes. The tendency is to say that Gandhi’s ideas are noble but impossible. This misses the entire point. In 1931, Gandhi wrote, “Whether mankind will consciously follow the law of love, I do not know. But that need not perturb us. The law will work, just as the law of gravitation will work whether we accept it or not. And just as a scientist will work wonders out of various applications of the laws of nature, even so a man who applies the law of love with scientific precision can work great wonders.”

Because Gandhi was a pragmatist, not a dreamer, he then proceeded to prove his point. Armed with “the law of love,” he overthrew the British Empire in its most coveted colony. There are those—and predictably, most of them are British—who claim that Gandhi was only successful because his adversary was the kindly British and not some brutal power. But the kindly British did not hesitate to shoot children point blank in a public square, to spray crowds with machine-gun fire. In a 1949 essay, George Orwell expressed this idea that Gandhi’s actions would only work against the British, and even stated that they would never work against the Soviet Union. Less than half a century later, Central European dissidents such as Vaclav Havel proved Orwell wrong.

But the Central Europeans might never have hatched their nonviolent resistance to the Soviet Union if they had not had the example of Gandhi, which they studied. Most of the many successful nonviolent campaigns of the late twentieth century were in some degree influenced by Gandhi’s success. Richard Gregg, an American disciple of Gandhi, informed the work of radical leader A. J. Muste, who taught James Farmer and Bayard Rustin. Rustin in turn instructed young Martin Luther King, Jr., on the ways of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was part of the inspiration in South Africa that turned a failed campaign of violence against apartheid into a successful nonviolent one. And it is extremely likely that future movements faced with oppression will study Gandhi and learn to “work great wonders.” The important point is that, like gravity, nonviolence works.

ONCE ASKED WHAT he thought of Western civilization, Gandhi mischievously replied, “I think it would be a great idea.” But in truth, Gandhi was fascinated by Western thought and religion. His religious views took in not only his own Hinduism, as well as Buddhism and Jainism; Christianity was also a strong influence. He studied the New Testament and corresponded with novelist Leo Tolstoy, who demanded that Christians return to the nonviolent teachings of Jesus Christ. Henry David Thoreau was another source of inspiration to Gandhi. As Thomas Merton wrote, “he was an alienated Asian.” Like many middle-class Indians of his generation, Gandhi was an anglicized Indian, the product of a British education. Even his vegetarianism did not, as is commonly supposed, have Hindu roots. As a child of a Hindu family, he had defied his parents and eaten meat so that he could be as strong as the large and carnivorous British. But while studying in England, he learned from the British, not the Hindus, the rigid vegan raw food diet of sprouted wheat that became his austere sustenance. He was to state that by avoiding cooking he was removing fire from food preparation, thus making his diet himsa-free, without violence. These ideas traced back not to India, but to the circle of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his good friends J. F. Newton and William Lambe, whose ideas Gandhi found in The Ethics of Diet by Howard Williams.

Freud believed that just as the human superego is a voice seeking to curb the unsocial urges of the ego, society has a superego that tries to curb its unsocial behavior. This societal superego, Freud maintained, came from “the impression left behind by the personalities of great leaders, people who were endowed with immense spiritual or intellectual power.”

Gandhi was such a person. He imbued culture with a sense of nonviolence, and his impact is permanent. Freud wrote, “There are some individuals that are venerated by their contemporaries, but whose greatness rests on qualities and achievements that are quite foreign to the aims and ideals of the many.” If a filmmaker wanted to give visual expression to this idea, a camera could be moved through government offices in India: pictures of Gandhi hang in rooms where the militarized Indian state is guided and the Indian nuclear weapons programs nurtured.

How India has turned out, or for that matter how Gandhi turned out, is not relevant. The fact that the Indian state that Gandhi so brilliantly struggled to create has not lived up to his ideals by no means marks Gandhi’s life as a failure. To think so is to completely misunderstand the significance of the man. India had in Gandhi a founding father of enormous ambition, someone who sought to change the nature of human beings and the nature of society. That he did not succeed in doing so is not surprising. He often commented that he did not think the Indian population was suitably prepared for his plans to succeed.

The significance of Gandhi, the reason why he was the single most important political leader of the twentieth century, is that he demonstrated by his nonviolent overthrow of British rule that the most natural human urge, aggression, directed by that equally natural impulse to take charge of one’s own destiny, could be effectively—in fact, far more effectively accomplished without the use of violence.

That he was engaged in an unnatural struggle with human nature, Gandhi, and for that matter Freud, might have agreed. They both believed that the purpose of civilization was to engage in such unnatural struggles, which make life better. To Freud the struggles of the individual psyche do not work together but independently, like the earth orbiting and at the same time spinning on its axis. To Freud the personal struggle of the man Mohandas K. Gandhi to make himself better and purer would not be relevant to the struggle of Mahatma Gandhi, the great leader, to make the world better. But to Gandhi it was very relevant. He wrote, “Non-violence implies as complete a self-purification as is humanly possible” and “If one does not practice non-violence in one’s personal relations with others and hopes to use it in bigger affairs, one is vastly mistaken.” He struggled with his own imperfection, frustrated that he could never attain the level of saintly purity which others now ascribe to him. “Imperfect as I am,” he wrote, “I started with imperfect men and women and sailed on an uncharted sea.”

He charted that sea for us all.

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