A Note on Gandhi

Excerpted from Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, ed., Mahatma Gandhi: Essays and Reflections on His Life and Work. Mumbai: Jaico Publishing, 1998-ninth enlarged edition.



By Aldous Huxley


Gandhi’s body was borne to the pyre on a weapons carrier. There were tanks and armoured cars in the funeral procession, and detachments of soldiers and police. Circling overhead were fighter planes of the Indian Air Force. All these instruments of violent coercion were paraded in honor of the apostle of non-violence and soulforce. It is an inevitable irony; for, by definition, a nation is a sovereign community possessing the means to make war other sovereign communities. Consequently, a national tribute to any individual—even if that individual be a Gandhi—must always and necessarily take the form of a play of military and coercive might.


Nearly forty years ago, in his Hind Swaraj, Gandhi asked his compatriots what they meant by such phrases as “Self-Government” and “Home Rule.” Did they merely want a social organization of the kind then prevailing, but in the hands, not of English, but of Indian politicians and administrators? If so, their wish was merely to get rid of the tiger, while carefully preserving for themselves its tigerish nature. Or were they prepared to mean by “swaraj” what Gandhi himself meant by it—the realization of the highest potentialities of Indian civilization by persons who had learnt to govern themselves individually and to under­take collective action in the spirit and by the methods of satyagraha?


In a world organized for war it was hard, it was all but impossible, for India to choose any other nations. The men and women who had led the non-violent struggle against the foreign oppressor suddenly found themselves in con­trol of a sovereign state equipped with the instruments of violent coercion. The ex-prisoners and ex-pacifists were transformed overnight, whether they liked it or not, into jailers and generals.


The historical precedents offer little ground for opti­mism. When the Spanish colonies achieved their liberty as independent nations, what happened? Their new rulers raised armies and went to war with one another. In Eu­rope, Mazzini preached a nationalism that was idealistic and humanitarian.  But when the victims of oppression won their freedom, they soon become aggressors and im­perialists on their own account. It could scarcely have been otherwise. For the frame of reference within which one does one’s thinking, determines the nature of the con­clusions, theoretical and practical, at which one arrives.  Starting from Euclidean postulates, one cannot fail to reach the conclusion that the angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles. And starting from nationalistic postu­lates, one cannot fail to arrive at armaments, war and an increasing centralization of political and economic power.


Basic patterns of thought and feeling cannot be quickly changed. It will probably be a long time before the na­tionalistic frame of reference is replaced by a set of terms in which men can do their political thinking non-national­istically. But meanwhile, technology advances with undi­minished rapidity. It would normally take two generations, perhaps even two centuries, to overcome the mental iner­tia created by the ingrained habit of thinking nationalisti­cally. Thanks to the application of scientific discoveries to the arts of war, we have only about two years in which to perform this herculean task. That it actually will be ac­complished in so short a time seems, to say the least, ex­ceedingly improbable.


Gandhi found himself involved in a struggle for na­tional independence; but he always hoped to be able to transform the nationalism in whose name he was fighting— to transform it first by the substitution of satyagraha for violence and second, by the application to social and eco­nomic life of the principles of decentralization. Up to the present, his hopes have not been realized. The new nation resembles other nations inasmuch as it is equipped with the instruments of violent coercion. Moreover, the plans for its economic development aim at the creation of a highly industrialized state, complete with great factories under capitalistic or governmental control, increasing cen­tralization of power, a rising standard of living and also, no doubt (as in all other highly industrialized states) a ris­ing incidence of neuroses and incapacitating psychoso­matic disorders. Gandhi succeeded in ridding his country of the alien tiger; but he failed in his attempts to modify the essentially tigerish nature of nationalism as such.


Must we therefore despair? I think not. The pressure of fact is painful and, we may hope, finally irresistible. Sooner or later it will be realized, that this dreamer had his feet firmly planted on the ground, that this idealist was the most practical of men. For Gandhi’s social and economic ideas are based upon a realistic appraisal of man’s nature and the nature of his position in the universe. He knew, on the one hand, that the cumulative triumphs of advancing organization and progressive technology cannot alter the basic fact that man is an animal of no great size and, in most cases, of very modest abilities. And, on the other hand, he knew that these physical and intellectual limita­tions are compatible with a practically infinite capacity for spiritual progress. The mistake of most of Gandhiji’s contemporaries was to suppose that technology and organiza­tion could turn the petty human animal into a superhuman being and could provide a substitute for the infinities of a spiritual realization, whose very existence it had become orthodox to deny.


For this amphibious being on the borderline between the animal and the spiritual, what sort of social, political and economic arrangements are the most appropriate? To this question, Gandhi gave a simple and eminently sen­sible answer. Men, he said, should do their actual living and working in communities of a size commensurate with their bodily and mental stature, communities small enough to permit of genuine self-government and the assumption of personal responsibilities, federated into larger units in such a way that the temptation to abuse great power should not arise. The larger a democracy grows, the less real becomes the rule of the people and the smaller the say of individuals and localized groups in deciding their own destinies. Moreover love, and affection are essentially personal relationships. Consequently, it is only in small groups that Charity, in the Pauline sense of the word, can manifest itself.  Needless to say, the smallness of the group in no way guarantees the emergence of Charity between its members; but it does, at least, create the possibi1ity of Charity. In a large, undifferentiated group, the possibility does not even exist, for the simple reason that most of its members cannot, in the nature of things, have personal re­lations with one another. “He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.” Charity is at once the means and the end of spirituality. A social organization, so contrived that, over a large field of human activity, it makes the manifestation of Charity impossible, is obviously a bad or­ganization.


Decentralization in economics must go hand in hand with decentralization in politics. Individuals, families and small co-operative groups should own the land and instru­ments necessary for their own subsistence and for supply­ing a local market. Among these necessary instruments of production, Gandhi wished to include only hand tools. Other decentralists—and I for one would agree with them—can see no objection to power-driven machinery provided it be on a scale commensurate with individuals and small co-operative groups. The making of these power-driven machines would, of course, require to be carried out in large, highly specialized factories. To provide individuals and small groups with the mechanical means of creating abundance, perhaps one-third of all production would have to be carried out in such factories. This does not seem too high a price to pay for combining decentraliza­tion with mechanical efficiency. Too much mechanical effi­ciency is the enemy of liberty because it leads to regimen­tation and the loss of spontaneity. Too little efficiency is also the enemy of liberty, because it results in chronic pov­erty and anarchy. Between the two extremes, there is a happy mean, a point at which we can enjoy the most im­portant advantages of modem technology at a social and psychological price which is not excessive.


It is interesting to recall that, if the great apostle of Western democracy had had his way, America would now be a federation, not merely of forty-eight states, but of many thousands of self-governing wards. To the end of a long life, Jefferson tried to persuade his compatriots to de­centralize their government to the limit.  “As Cato con­cluded every speech with the words, Carthago delenda est, so do I every opinion with the injunction, ‘Divide the counties into wards.’” His aim, in the words of Professor John Dewey, “was to make the wards ‘little republics, with a warden at the head of each, for all those concerns which being under their eye, they could better manage than the larger republics of the county or State’... In short, they were to exercise directly, with respect to their own affairs, all the functions of government, civil and military. In addi­tion, when any important wider matter came up for deci­sion, all wards would be called into meeting on the same day, so that the collective sense of the whole people would be produced. The plan was not adopted. But it was an es­sential part of Jefferson’s political philosophy.” And it was an essential part of his political philosophy, because that philosophy, like Gandhi’s philosophy, was essentially ethi­cal and religious.  In his view, all human beings are born equal, inasmuch as all are the children of God. Being the children of God, they have certain Tights and certain responsibilities — rights and responsibilities which can be ex­ercised most effectively within a hierarchy of self-govern­ing republics, rising from the ward through the State to the Federation.


“Other days,” writes Professor Dewey, “bring other words and other opinions behind the words that are used. The terms in which Jefferson expressed his belief in the moral criterion for judging all political arrangements and his belief that republican institutions are the only ones that are legitimate, are not now current. It is doubtful, how­ever, whether defence of democracy against the attacks to which it is subjected does not depend upon taking, once more, the position Jefferson took about its moral basis and purpose, even though we have to find another set of words in which to formulate the moral ideal served by democ­racy. A renewal of faith in common human nature, in its potentialities in general and in its power in particular, to respond to reason and truth, is a surer bulwark against totalitarianism than in demonstration of material success or devout worship of special legal and political forms.”


Gandhi, like Jefferson, thought of politics in moral and religious terms. That is why his proposed solutions bear so close a resemblance to those proposed by the great American. That he went further than Jefferson — for ex­ample, in recommending economic as well as political de­centralization and in advocating the use of satyagraha in place of the ward’s “elementary exercises of militia”—is due to the fact that his ethic was more radical and his reli­gion more profoundly realistic than Jefferson’s. Jefferson’s plan was not adopted; nor was Gandhi’s. So much the worse for us and our descendants.