The Real Mahatma Gandhi

June 14, 2011

Questioning the moral heroism of India’s most revered figure.
By Christopher Hitchens

"JOSEPH LELYVELD SUBTLY tips his hand in his title. The word Mahatma (often employed in ordinary journalistic usage without any definite article, as if it were Mohandas Gandhi’s first name) is actually the Sanskrit word for “Great Soul.” It is a religio-spiritual honorific, to be assumed or awarded only by acclaim, and it achieved most of its currency in the West by association with Madame Blavatsky’s somewhat risible “Theosophy” movement.."

Read More (The Atlantic)


Michael Dawson said...

Another ugly little Manichean dropping from Hitchens. If Gandhi was "a friend of poverty," who and what are Hitchens' pals?

Anonymous said...

This piece reminds me of the line in Saturday Night Fever: "Now you're a c---"

1st Lt. L. Diablo said...

look, it's a fine point Mike- hitchens is a bourgeois fat-man. But Gandhi was a little religious nutcase worm and his 'advice' to the UK to let the Nazis have their way with them is horrific and evil. So fuck Gandhi -- for the record.

C.R. said...

Well, Mr Dawson, perhaps it would be better to say that Gandhi was indifferent to he was to all the good of this world. As Orwell said in his essay on Gandhi, "Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is
probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much
temptation to be human beings." Since you don't like Hitchens, check for Hitchens, he is in favor of people making the best of this world. You may, of course, disagree with him on how achieve that or you may believe, as Gandhi did that this world is of little import...

Anonymous said...

Gandhi, like Tolstoy before him, should be held to account by many more people for their reprehensible attitude that pacifism in the face totalitarianism or even genocide was the right thing to do. No, pacifism in the face of such injustice is absolutely immoral.

Michael Dawson said...

I'm not arguing that Gandhi didn't have serious flaws, and is very arguably over-rated. But Hitchens elides his obvious positive contributions and makes no mention of the importance of satyagraha as the weapon of choice, if not always last resort.

As for Gandhi's views on wealth and society, Hitchens is an extremely poor summarizer, and again elides all the interesting things Gandhi said there.

And is Hitchens really willing to stake his own legacy on his side of his simple dichotomy between Gandhi and present patterns of industry/civilization/wealth? The latter is hardly looking like a permanent pillar of maximum human decency.

Again, the obvious explanation for Hitchens Manichean treatment of Gandhi is his ongoing effort to burnish his own endorsement of lawlessness and militarism and unaccountable privilege/waste.

Rodney Ulyate said...

"Gandhi also instructed a Chinese visitor to 'shame some Japanese' by passivity in the face of invasion, and found time to lecture a member of the South African National Congress about the vices of Western apparel. 'You must not … feel ashamed of carrying an assagai, or of going around with only a tiny clout round your loins.' (One tries to picture Nelson Mandela taking this homespun counsel, which draws upon the most clichéd impression of African dress and tradition.)'

One doesn't have to try. This is how Madiba showed up at his Rivonia trial:

Anonymous said...

very well said, Michael Dawson

C.R. said...

I suggest a look at Hitchens contrast between Dr. ML King and Gandhi in "God is Not Great". Hitchens appreciates moral suasion. Gandhi made Indian independence a Hindu movement feeding the fears of Moslems and abetting their separatists...his intent doesn't matter. A secular approach would have gotten India independence with the chance of avoiding the millions slain as a result of a 'non-violent' religious crusade. As far as satyagraha as a 1st principal, Orwell asks where the Korean Gandhis are (under the Japanese). Anyone care to guess?

Gary said...

I love you Hitch! You are the man, BUT this was basically uncalled for. No one is arguing that you are lying or stretching the truth but there are a few more important things in the world we need to tackle 1st man!

I will say it again, I love you Hitch but this article was nothing more than attempt to get a few conversations started with you at the center of them.

We could just as easily judge your ENTIRE LIFE by calling your writings a lame attempt to crown yourself litery king while taking cheap shots at people that to make a difference in the world for the better, their core philosophies may have been wrong (religion)but we will all be wrong from time to time when we choose to get off our asses and do something in the world.

We a only evolved primates, we will try to control, make mistakes, lie, look for power for ourselves, etc... Maybe you could accept that for one fucking day and write something nice, polite, and optimistic about our future. Each moment doesn't have to be an insult to someone else.

It hurt to write that by the way... I really didn't want to but I felt it was neccessary to get it out.

I love ya Hitch! I hope you can be part of the 5% that live longer than 5 years after diagnosis! The world needs you because like I said above, you (like anyone else) are just someone that actually gets off your ass and does something in the world. You make mistakes too man, and I forgive you for some of your cheap attacks on other people and how it sometimes offends me. You brought me to atheism Hitch but you will never bring me to constant negativity.


Michael Dawson said...

So, C.R., you're hanging the entire problem of religious sectarianism in India on M.K. Gandhi? That's preposterous.

As to satyagraha, the fact that it's not always possible has nothing to do with whether it is always preferable. Hitchens throws out the baby with the bathwater, for rather obvious reasons, given his continuing advocacy of illegal wars.

C.R. said...

We will never know whether a purely secular approach to Indian independence would have prevented bloody partion and nuclear Pakistan...but it is clear that Gandhi's priority was 'holy India'...essentially Hindu India. Satyagrapha for Gandhi was not a tactic, it was an absolute...because this world and life in it was less important to him than being 'holy'...this is a fit with his saying that India would be better off without railroads and doctors. He didn't care about the death and suffering this would occassion as long as it left India more 'god centered'. you can worship at Gandhi's feet if you want; Hitchens and current conflicts are irrelevant to the validity of Orwell's critique, yes, and of Hitchens, too.

Michael Dawson said...

C.R., who is advocating worship of Gandhi? Nobody.

Meanwhile, who is writing pieces, in this age of continuing lawless war, dismissing Gandhi for his weaknesses? Hitchens.

Why do you keep mentioning Orwell? One thought is that Hitchens is unthinkingly repeating Orwell's prior dismissal. But we know Hitchens is too smart to do that.

At least Orwell had the advantage of not knowing for sure how important Gandhi's legacy would be going forward.

I love Orwell, by the way. But,like all thinkers, he stepped in some turds. His endorsement of Kipling. His rips on Gandhi.

Hitchens has stepped in much more toxic flops than Orwell ever did.

Funny. He's now again writing something to make himself look like he's still on the left, as he did with his recent endorsement of Hochschild's fantastic book.

C.R. said...

I don't see a positive Gandhi legacy at all...MLK would have gone the HD Thoreau route without Gandhi. Gandhi in his rejection of secular modernity was a Satygraha Taliban. The world would be better off without the injection of extremist religion (West Bank settlers, the Taliban, the BJP, Al Qaeda, and the right wing in this country) in political discourse. Gandhi was a religious extremist. The romantic embrace of such extremism with its rejection of human suffering is not a positive legacy. Do actually read Orwell on Gandhi...where is he wrong?

C.R. said...

For those interested in Orwell on Gandhi:

Michael Dawson said...

C.R., have you yourself read Orwell here? Read the closing paragraph again. It's a helluva lot more nuanced and thoughtful than Hitchens on this topic.

Meanwhile, you are simply in error about Gandhi being a fundamentalist. You are certainly aware that he was shot by a Hindu fundamentalist.

As for the connection to MLK and the civil rights movement, you seriously claim what you claim, that Thoreau was Gandhi's equal as a tactician, and that a white man could have equally inspired King and the movement? Thoreau went off and pouted in his cabin. Gandhi organized and fought back.

C.R. said...

Yes, Orwell is very kind in his final assessment of Gandhi...and yes, Gandhi was shot by a more militant fundamentalist. You have a problem with Hitchens; I have one with Gandhi. If you can't call someone who thinks that millions of deaths are OK to fit the criteria of being holy a fundamentalist (we won't get into his attitude towards sex), well, we use the word differently. I take Gandhi at his word. He wanted a primitive, religion-centered India (he said so) regardless of the (millions of lives)human cost. If you think that's OK, we have nothing to talk about...btw: your white man comment is just weird; King was beyond that (I heard him speak in the year before his death). btw: I am not a fan of interventionist foreign policies or of religious nut-cases, two different issues. said...

Another daring piece from Mr Hitchens! Even though I disagree with Mr Hitchens almost completely on his description of Mahatma Gandhi yet I do admire the courage and clarity with which he writes. Gandhi never claimed himself Mahatma and he did not plan to be known as Mahatma either. Reading his book 'My Experiments with Truth', you would realize that he had his own fears about being able to achieve success using this approach. Yet, he believed in Truth completely had decided to rely on the weapon of 'Truth' for life. He spent each and every ounce of his energy in sticking to that concept. At times he had successes and he failed at some other times. But it could not make him choose violence on others over truth. There is a lot to learn from him and we can still solve a lot of our problems using that approach. Granted that it cannot solve each and every problem we have but in that case what can? The same could be told about the use of violent force that can resolve only an extremely small set of our issues. The brilliance lies in knowing the right approach for the problem you are trying to solve. Gandhi is obviously the pioneer of the concept of 'Satyagrah' that translates to 'Insistence on Truth'. It assumes that above all we all are human and thus the truth will be appreciated eventually. The courage required to preach ‘Satyagrah’ at the time when the whole world was mired with violence, is of Himalayan proportion and Gandhi dwarves each and every historic figure on this subject.


Christopher reads from Hitch-22: A Memoir