Mahatma Gandhi & Salman Rushdie
13 April 1998
(from a contribution to the Tamil.net)
Salman Rushdie's article on Mahatma Gandhi appears to have been written (presumably for a
fee), with a view to entertaining the readers of Time magazine. Rushdie declares somewhat
"These days, few people pause to consider the complex character of
Gandhi's personality, the ambiguous nature of his achievement and legacy, or even the real
causes of Indian independence. These are hurried, sloganize times, and we don't have the
time or, worse, the inclination to assimilate many-sided truths."
But it seems that Rushdie himself falls too easily into the trap of these
'hurried sloganizing times' and his closing reference to Gandhi's 'passive' resistance
serves to underline this propensity. On several occasions in his life, Gandhi took great
pains to explain that to him, non violence was not 'passive' - it was a very 'active' form
of resistance, no less 'active' than violent resistance. Rushdie may have found it useful
to have read and understood the famous article titled the 'Doctrine of the Sword', that
Gandhi wrote in 1920:
"I do believe that when there is only a choice between cowardice and
violence.... I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than
that she should in a cowardly manner become or remain a helpless victim to her own
dishonour. But I believe that non-violence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness
is more manly than punishment.
Forgiveness adorns a soldier. But abstinence is forgiveness only when there is power to
punish; it is meaningless when it proceeds from a helpless creature. A mouse hardly
forgives a cat when it allows itself to be torn to pieces by her... But I do not believe
India to be helpless, I do not believe myself to be a helpless creature...
Let me not be misunderstood. Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from
I am not a visionary. I claim to be a practical idealist. The religion of non violence is
not meant merely for rishis and saints. It is meant for the common people as well. Non
violence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies
dormant in the brute, and he knows no law but that of physical might.
The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law - to the strength of the spirit.
I have therefore ventured to place before India the ancient law of self sacrifice. For
satyagraha and its offshoots, non co-operation and civil resistance, are nothing but new
names for the law of suffering.
The rishis who discovered the law of non violence in the midst of violence were greater
geniuses than Newton. They were themselves greater warriors than Wellington.
Having themselves known the use of arms, they realised their uselessness and taught a
weary world that its salvation lay not through violence but through non violence.
Non violence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering. It does not mean meek
submission to the will of the evil doer, but it means the putting of one's whole soul
against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a
single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honour, his
religion, his soul, and lay the foundation for that empire's fall or regeneration.
And so I am not pleading for India to practise non violence because it is weak. I want her
to practise non violence being conscious of her strength and power...
I want India to recognise that she has a soul that cannot perish, and that can rise
triumphant above any physical weakness and defy the physical combination of a whole world.
I isolate this non co-operation from Sinn Feinism, for it is so conceived as to be
incapable of being offered side by side with violence. But I invite even the school of
violence to give this peaceful non co-operation a trial. It will not fail through its
inherent weakness. It may fail because of poverty of response.
Then will be the time for real danger. The high souled men, who are unable to suffer
national humiliation any longer, will want to vent their wrath. They will take to
violence. So far as I know, they must perish without delivering themselves or their
country from the wrong...."
A story is told of Gandhi and Bhagat Singh, a militant in the Indian
freedom struggle. In the 1930s, Bhagat Singh was charged and convicted for dacoity and
sentenced to death. In prison, awaiting death, Bhagat Singh said that, he
regarded himself as a member of the Indian liberation army, and that he should
not be hung but should be taken before a firing squad and shot. When asked by newspaper reporters for his response, Gandhi
replied: His way is not my way. But I bow my head before one who is ready to
give his life for the freedom of his people.
Gandhi was sentenced to prison for his writings. But Gandhi did not seek to hide and avoid
the sentence passed on him. He was not devious. He was ready to suffer for that which he
believed and that which he said and therein lay his capacity to influence a people.
Without being unkind to Salman Rushdie, he may want to ponder why it is that long after
the likes of him have been forgotten, Mahatma Gandhi will
continue to inspire all those concerned with political change - change for the better,
change so that the essential goodness in each one of us may find settled expression. As
Schumacher (the author of Small is Beautiful) remarks in his later book A Guide for
"In modern times there is no lack of understanding of the fact man is
a social being and that 'No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe' (John Dunne, 1571-1631).
Hence there is no lack of exhortation that he should love his neighbour - or at least not
to be nasty to him - and should treat him with tolerance, compassion and understanding. At
the same time, however, the cultivation of self knowledge has fallen into virtually total
neglect, except, that is, where it is the object of active suppression.
That you cannot love your neighbour, unless you love yourself; that you cannot understand
your neighbour unless you understand yourself; that there can be no knowledge of the
'invisible person' who is your neighbour except on the basis of self knowledge - these
fundamental truths have been forgotten even by many of the professionals in the
Exhortations, consequently, cannot possibly have any effect; genuine understanding of
one's neighbour is replaced by sentimentality, which ofcourse crumbles into nothingness as
soon as self interest is aroused...
Anyone who goes openly on a journey into the interior, who withdraws from the ceaseless
agitation of everyday life and pursues the kind of training - satipatthana, yoga, Jesus
Prayer, or something similar - without which genuine self knowledge cannot be obtained, is
accused of selfishness and of turning his back on social duties.
Meanwhile, world crisis multiply and everybody deplores the shortage, or even total lack,
of 'wise' men or women, unselfish leaders, trustworthy counselors etc. It is hardly
rational to expect such high qualities from people who have never done any inner work and
would not even understand what was meant by the words..."
Rushdie dismisses Richard Attenborough's 'much-Oscared movie Gandhi' as an
example of 'unhistorical Western saintmaking' but fails to recognise that which led
Attenborough to make the film and the influence that Louis Fischer's Biography of Gandhi
had on Attenborough's own life. It seems that Rushdie is writing from the dark bottom of a
bottomless pit into which he has dug himself. He may want to heed Gandhi's words, rather
than dismiss them as 'homilies and nostrums':
"I claim to be no more than an average man with less than average
ability. Nor can I claim any special merit for such non-violence or continence as I have
been able to reach with laborious research. I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man
or woman can achieve what I have, if he or she would make the same effort and cultivate
the same hope and faith. Work without faith is like an attempt to reach the bottom of a
Stephen Covey, the author of the best selling Seven Habits of Highly
Effective People, often refers to a story from Gandhi's life. The parents had brought
their young child to Gandhi. They wanted Gandhi to advise the child against eating sweets.
Gandhi told the parents to bring the child to him the next week. Seven days later, Gandhi
advised the child. The parents then inquired from Gandhi why it was that he had not
advised the child on their first visit. Gandhi replied: "I myself was eating sweets
That Gandhi's words are increasingly quoted by today's management gurus is a reflection of
the deep underlying truths that Gandhi had touched in his own life - deep underlying
truths which have a broad relevance to all human endeavour. For Gandhi, life was a
permanent experiment with truth. He walked his talk - and where his walk did not coincide
with his talk, he changed either his walk or his talk. He once declared:
"I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other
fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough in me to confess my errors and
to retrace my steps. I own that I have an immovable faith in God and His goodness and
unconsumable passion for truth and love. But, is that not what every person has latent in