I know this must sound like I’m doing a series dissing famous people. I wrote an article “Going off Austen” which to my surprise but pleasure was picked up by the official Austen magazine for a guest article. Not sure the Gandhi society will want this for their news letter, and I’m not writing to be rude about famous people for the sake of it, although I know I have also critiqued Shakespeare, the films Inception, Batman and generally like going against the grain.
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Like Janey, Gandhi began as someone I admired, also in my teens. It began with seeing the 1982 film starring Ben Kingsley, which so impressed me that I chose the scantily clad Indian for my school research project. I am pleased to see that even as a fifteen year old with narrow Christian views that I admired an inclusive Hindu and foreigner; and that I called myself a pacifist as soon as I heard the word – during that course.
But discussing my view of pacifism leads to why I soon parted company with the Mahatma, and why, until I found the project whilst tidying a cupboard, I have not thought about him or watched the film in 20 years.
One of Gandhi’s most distinctive ideals was what is translated as “truth weapon”. The Attenborough film has many disturbing scenes of Gandhi and his followers being repeatedly hit without hitting back. As the teenage me quoted, Gandhi saw that the hurt should be taken by us, not the opponent. I do not like this.
Ever since Gripper bullied Rowland on school TV series Grange Hill, I have hated to see victims not stand up for themselves, whatever the situation. My pacifism is not to take up arms in war, rebellion, or revenge. It is not to never defend.
Self suffering is another theme I have always rejected, which includes asceticism. I wonder how his wife felt about the decision to have no sex anymore. A sexual guilt that parallels St Augustine’s (father of Christianity’s Original Sin) came from Gandhi being in bed with his wife whilst his father died in the same house. Understandable, but it is sad to think that Gandhi saw this act as giving into carnality and letting his father down. Gandhi, the same age then as I was when I wrote the project, had spend many hours massaging his ill father’s feet. My view now would be that not only had Gandhi cared well for his father, but that his father chose his time of departure when his son was close but otherwise engaged in a positive act, not something unspiritual and undisciplined to feel shameful about.
What most stuck with me is the related subjects which I did not put in that project, but that I clearly recall, two decades on. To prove his lack of attachment to earthly desires, Gandhi would sleep naked with young pretty virgins to show his control. Recalling the elderly King David’s young human bedwarmers, this is gross and arrogant and abusive. There is a cult around him, with women flocking to his exposed though wrinkled body. Gandhi is strangely sexual and taunting, giving off a mixed message of abstinence and temptation, perhaps a little distorted by the thin aging body he sported. It also makes me think of the disgraced Sheffield vicar I deliberately won’t name who was put in prison for his posse of massaging women, as an abuser.
I was also struck by the cult status around Gandhi when he twice threatened to starve himself to death to quell his angry followers. At once it is a shrewd move, knowing his importance and death would stop the riots; but it’s a also egocentric and a form of masochistic blackmail, typically putting the suffering onto himself but demonstrating his truth weapon that you can make others suffer for what’s going on in your body. It is not overcoming through love but subjecting your opponent to an inverse torture until they too give in – like the show down with Wonder Woman and the Japanese relocation camp victim, to see whose willpower gives up first.
The possessionless leader is something I have thought about with other Hindus and societies, and may form a post in itself (I have written a sermon on it – the Wisdom of the Smurfs). Living without a home expects others to finance you, that those in the system allow you to stay out of it. And Gandhi’s ashrams do not appeal – a life of sewing, toilet cleaning and other practical tasks. You can clean toilets, Gandhi as a spiritual exercise – I shall find something else!
I can see why Gandhi fell off my list of favourite films and favourite or influential people, though it is good to be reminded of him and to work out my own spiritual and political beliefs in contrast to his. However, I do remain inspired that a man could head a movement to achieve so much, and rightly allow India to become free.
One thing did resonate – the story of how he confessed something to his father and instead of remonstrations or punishments, his father cried, and that moved Gandhi more than any chastisements could. Now, there is a sermon in that…