The Thing About Gandhi…Jad Adams’ Biography

A review of Jad Adams’ biography of Gandhi, with quotes

Gandhi, the controversial biography
Gandhi, the controversial biography

Jad Adams’ biography of one of the most iconic figures of the twentieth century is impossible to put down. It’s a fresh look at the man through his own writings and the testimony of those closest to him, though some consider it one-sided and negative.

One aspect of the book, unsurprisingly, dominated the reviews: Adams tells how Gandhi had two young women regularly sleep naked with him in his bed, and who also gave him massages and baths. The claim is that their presence was necessary in order to test the purity of his commitment to Brahmacharya (celibacy), and to preserve his ‘life force’ for the benefit of others.

This was known during Gandhi’s lifetime, and, although it led to internal strife within the Gandhi camp, he claimed he wasn’t trying to conceal it, and was eager to emphasise the importance of celibacy. His affectionate admirers today consider any suspicion of wrongdoing to be disrespectful; merely another example of a ‘dirty mind’. But, interesting though that discussion may be, it’s not my main focus here.

Adams, by studying in detail the primary sources (he read all 100 volumes of Gandhi’s own writings, correspondence etc) and those of his closest associates, has given us a portrait of Gandhi which highlights what was important to the man himself: his own spiritual development (including his attempts to master sexual temptation and his use of fasting), his heart for the poor, the example of his servant-hearted leadership, and, of course, his growing political influence which was developed in South Africa and culminated in India’s independence from Britain.

And while the picture we have is undoubtedly that of the key figure in India’s struggle for independence, Adams includes Gandhi’s eccentricities, contradictions and political clumsiness – even a little craziness.

Adams has been criticized for aspects of the book, although not, as far as I could find, by historians.

And he is a well-researched historian, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and an Associate Research Fellow of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London. And, through studying the mountain of Ghandi’s own writings, he has tried to get to the primary drivers of Gandhi’s passion.

Adams gives us not only the political hero but also the fallible Gandhi: a real person, growing, changing, through experience and experiments with Hindu spirituality, and influenced strongly also by Christian thinkers, and adapting towards the iconic figure that is fixed in our minds.

There were numerous moments when I was genuinely surprised by what I was reading. I repeat here some of the ‘I never knew that!’ moments. Most are quoted verbatim but I’ve included the page number for each as in some instances I’ve shortened a sentence or two. My additions are in [].

There are moments in Adams’ narrative when one questions his wisdom. Is this or that comment absolutely necessary? Any biographer has the option of showing their subject’s worst side but some of the comments about Gandhi’s estranged children were tough to read and quotes from their angry letters to Gandhi are clearly one-sided. We don’t get Gandhi’s response.
So, I am excluding comments from his children as well as the several statements on his experiments with chastity.

As this is a controversial book I add here some links to reviews from various sources, as well as two interviews with Adams himself. Then we’ll get straight into some quotes from the book. All references are from Jad Adams, Gandhi (London: Quercus, UK paperback edition, 2011).

Indian Reviews of the book
– By Khushwant Singh for the Indian publication ‘Outlook’ here
– By Salil Tripathi for the UK’s Independent newspaper here
– An interview with Adams in DNA of India here

Jad Adams being interviewed
An interview with Jad Admas in Kirkus Reviews here

A BBC Documentary
‘In Search of Gandhi’, a journey along the route of Gandhi’s famous Salt March to find whether Gandhi’s principles still have an influence in the cities and villages of India.

Formation of Gandhi’s religious beliefs
Gandhi’s ‘core beliefs remained entirely Hindu.’ 5
Gandhi’s Hinduism was monotheistic: all the gods of the pantheon were aspects of a single divine entity. 9

Gandhi in Western clothing
Gandhi in Western clothing

Gandhi was introduced to the original Sanskrit version of the Bhagavad Gita [in London] by two members of the Theosophical Society, Bertram and Archibald Keightley. 35
[In West London] The Keightley’s introduced Gandhi to Madame Blavatsky. He read Blavastsky’s ‘Key to Theosophy’ which strengthened his attachment to Hinduism. 35

Gandhi and South Africa
[In South Africa] he immediately noticed the contempt with which Indians were treated by Europeans. [Something he hadn’t experienced in Britain] 43
Gandhi: ‘I realised that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder.’ 48

Gandhi the young lawyer
Gandhi the young lawyer

[In South Africa] Gandhi was creating a network via the law and his Christian friends that would prove invaluable in his work for the Indian community. 49

Gandhi enjoyed an enthusiastic reception by workers in England
Gandhi enjoyed an enthusiastic reception by workers in England

Defender of the Poor
A theme of his life was that of caring for the poor. Gandhi had previously, in Kathiawar, London and South Africa, been concerned with the middle class – first public servants, then lawyers, then merchants. ‘Service of the poor has been my heart’s desire,’ he remarks, not obviously relating this to any time period. He tells in His autobiography of how in 1894 as a twenty five year old lawyer he received a visit from a Tamil indentured labourer who had been severely beaten by his employer who had broken his two front teeth. Gandhi sent the wretched man to a doctor who certified his injuries, then took him to a magistrate who issued a summons. Armed with this, Gandhi went to the man’s master, a leading European citizen of Durban, and gave him his options: to be prosecuted or to release the indentured servant from his employ. The European, doubtless amazed at Gandhi’s temerity, took the latter course and Gandhi found a decent European with whom the man could serve out his term. The incident shows Gandhi’s commitment to taking the moral course of action in the public sphere – and his confidence that the British authorities would support him in a just case, which was an important part of his advocacy. 54

The young Mohandas Gandhi
The young Mohandas Gandhi

Not initially anti-British
The Indians of Natal and the Transvaal sent an address to Queen Victoria on her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, drafted by Gandhi, which began, ‘We are proud to think that we are your subjects…’ 55
Kruger’s forces attacked Cape Colony and Natal in September 1899. Gandhi had a personal sympathy for the Boers out of respect for their independent spirit, but he sided with the British for a number of reasons. He had a genuine affection for them, and a belief in their generally benign influence. Despite instances of injustice the rule of law and a belief in common decency were integral to the imperialists’ notions of themselves and their mission in creating and ruling the Empire. With the British, he could appeal to a common standard of fairness. He also felt that demanding rights as a British Citizen involved obligations in times of war, and that accepting those obligations strengthened the Indians’ right to remain in South Africa. Further, he believed that India could achieve independence within the British Empire, so it was his duty to his people to stay friendly with them. 69

Gandhi in 1910
Gandhi in 1910

Gandhi and Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy’s didactic works influenced Gandhi particularly. He read ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ which discussed the Sermon on the Mount and presented Jesus not as the figure of divine ransom for man’s sins but as a seer offering practical guidance on the way to live a spiritual life. Tolstoy was a significant model especially in the development of non-violence in his thinking. 67

The Indian National Congress was founded by a Brit
The Indian National Congress had been set up to give political representation to the middle class that was emerging in Indian society in the late nineteenth century. It was started by Allan Hume, a British theosophist who had worked for the Indian Civil Service until he resigned, irritated at being denied promotion because he was too pro-native. 74
With a declaration of loyalty to Britain and a statement that their objective was not political independence but a better deal for Indian professionals, the Congress quickly took on the aspirations of educated Indians. 74
Though Congress aimed to represent all educated Indians…Muslims tended to view the organization skeptically because of its Hindu majority…Orthodox Hindus, on the other hand, were suspicious of the westernized outlook – they would have preferred a Hinduised discourse that put the preservation of their tradition at the centre of political life. Nor was the Congress in its early years of any interest to the common people; it made no attempt to address issues such as poverty…Over the years Gandhi was to struggle with all these issues. 74

The US edition of Gandhi by Jad Adams
The US edition of Gandhi by Jad Adams

Gandhi and personal hygiene
Gandhi’s strategy to help rouse Indians to a sense of their duty in South Africa was threefold: Their responsibility to be truthful was all the greater in a foreign land because the conduct of a few Indians was the measure. Secondly, they needed to clean up: he drew their attention to the Indians’ poor sanitary habits ‘as compared with those of the Englishmen around them’; and finally he urged them to learn English, offering his services to those few young men who wished to do so. 49
[When Gandhi went to his first Congress meeting in Calcutta] he made his customary inspection of the sanitary arrangement and as usual found them disgusting. He complained to the volunteers who had come to help with the meeting but they were not interested, considering such work to be fit only for untouchables. Gandhi asked for a broom and cleaned a latrine. Later he invited volunteers to help him clean faeces from the veranda outside the dormitory where they were staying, where delegates had defecated during the night. They declined, so he found a broom and did it himself. 75
Gandhi had travelled both third and first class in Europe and found little difference between the basic amenities. In India Gandhi was appalled at the indifference of the railway authorities to the comfort of third-class passengers, and at the dirty and inconsiderate habits of the passengers themselves which included smoking, spitting and throwing rubbish on the floors. Gandhi’s idea of improving matters was to propose that ‘educated men should make a point of travelling third class and reforming the habits of the people.’ 77
‘Indian Opinion [Gandhi’s newspaper] contained uplifting features on the lives of great Western reformers such as Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, Abraham Lincoln and Leo Tolstoy. Gandhi also gave helpful social tips such as ‘Avoid, as far as possible, blowing your nose or spitting on the street or paved walks or in the presence of others…One should not belch, hiccup, break wind or scratch oneself in the presence of others…if one’s spittle gets blown on to others, it annoys them…’ 84

Christian influence on Gandhi
In a quest for spiritual perfection Tolstoy had divested himself of his estates and wealth and endeavoured to live the simple life of a peasant, much to the consternation of his wife and family. It was this Western (and Christian) influence rather than anything specifically Indian that informed Gandhi’s progress over the next ten years. 84
In South Africa, Gandhi had found his constituency; many of his closest disciples were and would continue to be Christians and Jews. The people he got on well with were Western seekers after spiritual truth. 123
Astute Indian observers noted the roots of Christian thinking in the redemption through suffering promoted in [Gandhi’s book] Hind Swaraj. 129
Gandhi approved of the elevation of suffering in Christianity: he had his Indian followers learn the words of the hymn, ‘When I survey the Wondrous Corss’; he was always moved to tears by such lines as ‘See from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down’. 130
[Speaking of his book Hind Swaraj Gandhi wrote] ‘It teaches the gospel of love inplace of that of hate. It replaces violence with self-sacrifice, it pits soul-force against brute-force.’ 134
He was not calling on the peasantry to overthrow their masters, but on the masters to realise their moral responsibilities to the poor.’ 143

Gandhi and white rule in South Africa
He wrote in September 1903: ‘We believe as much as in the purity of race as we think they do, only we believe that they would best serve the interest, which is as dear to us as it is to them, by advocating the purity of all races and not one alone…We believe also that the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race.’ 85

Gandhi in India
Gandhi in India

Gandhi as a servant-leader
Gandhi now had upwards of four thousand strikers [Indian miners] and dependants…and from 28 October 1913 they marched with Gandhi at their head. Gandhi himself took part in all the necessary operations of the ‘army’ [of strikers]: overseeing the sanitary arrangements, cooking and serving food. As a leader he was not only always visible to his followers, he was there taking part in the same activities that were expected of them. Such empathy was one of his finest leadership qualities. 119

South African Government
The Supreme Court [of South Africa] ruled in March 1913 that only Christian marriages were legal in South Africa; Hindu, Muslim and Zoroastrian (Parsi) marriages were void – an unconscionable insult to Indians. Now the women supported of Gandhi, who had not previously courted jail, started joining the struggle actively…’ 116
In Natal, where trainloads of marchers had been taken, they were tried and sent to jail. Now the government had a problem: imprisoning the strikers meant they could not go back to work even if they wanted to. The coal mines would have to close down, which would cripple the nation’s industry. The government now did the worst thing it could in the eyes of the world: it declared the mines to be prison outposts, their European staff to be warders, and forced the labourers [back] under ground. This was not, therefore, even indentured labour – it was slave labour. Gandhi’s strategy had forced the government to use its utmost power, to behave with extreme brutality to defend an unjust law with yet further injustice. [But] the suffering of the labourers was being played out on a world stage. 120
On 18 July 1914, aged almost forty-five Gandhi gathered up his closest supporters and left South Africa for India after more than twenty years. 124

Gandhi not anti-Caste
Gandhi: ‘I have devoted much thought to the subject of the caste system and come to the conclusion that Hindu society cannot dispense with it, that it lives on because of the discipline of caste.’
‘The caste system is a perfectly natural institution…I am opposed to the movements which are being carried on for the destruction of the system…’
‘We do not associate with members of other communities for eating or enter into marriage relationships with them.’ 179
Ambedkar on Gandhi’s view of caste and untouchability (1932): ‘How can they believe him to be their friend when he wishes to retain caste and abolish untouchability, it being quite clear that untouchability is only an extended form of caste and that therefore without the abolition of caste there is no hope of abolition of untouchability.’ 206
A few years later, in 1935, he moved towards the abolition of caste, but again made it a matter of conscience rather than of policy. 207

Gandhi in England
Gandhi in England

Gandhi in England
The composition of the Folkstone welcoming committee [in 1931] showed where support for Gandhi lay in England: in the churches, in the women’s organisations and with the political left…’ 197

Gandhi in London
Gandhi warmly received in London

London 1931: Sometimes irreverent East End children would shout after him: ‘Gandhi, where’s your trousers?’ 198

Gandhi not a good listener
Sanger on Gandhi: ‘While you were answering a question of his, he held on to an idea or train of thought of his own, and as soon as you stopped, continued as though he had never heard you…In fact, despite his claim to openmindedness, he was proud of not altering his opinions. 214 [He may have been trying to correct that by his vow of keeping silent every Monday]

Gandhi rejected foreign goods and wanted Indians to spin their own cloth
Gandhi rejected foreign goods and wanted Indians to spin their own cloth

Gandhi and Hitler
Gandhi on Hitler: ‘I do not consider Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted. He is showing an ability that is amazing and he seems to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed.’ 221
Hitler on Gandhi: ‘All you have to do is to shoot Gandhi. If necessary shoot more leaders of Congress. You will be surprised how quickly the trouble will die down.’ [Hitler to British foreign secretary Lord Halifax.] 221
Gandhi’s failure to comprehend the orchestrated evil of state-inspired violence had already been apparent in his inability to acknowledge the genocide committed by the Turkish amry against the Armernians when he was proclaiming the moral validity of the Khilafat…[it] reveals a persistent, underlying failure to understand radical evil. His vision of the calamities of the twentieth century would culminate, horrifyingly, in a metaphysical conceit that welcomed a chaos out of which supposedly would come order as India moved towards the disaster of partition. 222

Gandhi and the bombing of London
1939: Gandhi said he felt tears welling up at the thought of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament being bombed…[I was] ‘sorry to find myself alone [amongst members of Congress] in thinking that whatever support was to be given to the British should be given unconditionally.’ 226

Gandhi’s advice to Churchill
In July 1940, at the time of the Battle of Britain, Gandhi wrote: ‘I appeal to every Briton, wherever he may be now, to accept the method of non-violence instead of that of war for the adjustment of relations between nations…Your soldiers are doing the same work of destruction as the Germans. The only difference is that perhaps yours is not as thorough as the Germans…I want you to fight Nazism without arms or, if I am to retain the non-violent terminology, with non-violent arms…You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered but you will refuse allegiance to them.’
HM Government replied: ‘We do not feel that the policy which you advocate is one which it is possible for us to consider.’ 229
Lord Linlithgow cabled Churchill that Gandhi was ‘the world’s most successful humbug’. 236

Gandhi on the Salt March, 1930
Gandhi defying an unjust law, on the Salt March, 1930

Adams claims the British had already conceded Independence
In the case of India [Gandhi] was operating in a situation where the British had already conceded the principle of ultimate independence; the question was when it would take place. There was no comparison to life under a totalitarian state. 277

Marching with Gandhi
Walking with Gandhi

As I say, these were the surprising aspects of Gandhi’s life.
Feel free to use the comments section to air your opinion and to suggest further reading.

© 2014 Lex Loizides / Church History Review


One thought on “The Thing About Gandhi…Jad Adams’ Biography

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