TRUTH: Gandhi’s, Freud’s and Erikson’s Book Review by Om Prakash Deepak

 Published in Mankind, New Delhi, September, 1970

Reading Prof. Erikson's book (Gandhi's Truth: Erik Erikson) is quite an exasperating experience. Once you start reading it, you get engrossed, even involved in some ways. Often enough, you know, or feel, that the author is providing you with fresh insights into Gandhi's life and work. But more often, you realise, sometimes quite suddenly, and with a certain amount of shock, that Erikson has his own fixities, and indulges in as much myth-building and myth-destroying as any of the Western authors or Indian acquaintances whom Erikson chides, though mildly, for the same crime.

One of Erikson's fixities is the British Empire. So, I suppose, now it’s the West, for the Empire is no more. He thinks Gandhi was right when he supported the Empire, even when he was fighting to secure freedom, democratic rights, and a better and fuller life for his people, for the Empire provided India with a wider and moreover, a modern identity. By the time Gandhi started his salt satyagraha he understood fully that the British would fight to the end to preserve and protect their economic interests in India, and the real question was, how to build a counter-force that would free India from this death-embrace. In Erikson's opinion. the only harm the Empire did to India was through a cultural assault that led to a loss of identity. Gandhi, with his total opposition to the Empire in later days (when the British, according to Erikson, were correcting their mistake and were modernising India through industrial investments at a good pace) came to be considered the greatest obstacle to India's modernisation, and the growth of democratic fraternalism, while his charkha became a symbol of reaction. On the other hand families like the Nehrus and Tagores symbolised a new renaissance, combining in themselves the culture of India and the modernity of the British Empire. One is almost tempted to say that Gandhi deserves this sort of vilification though it is vilification, there is no question about it.

Another of Ericson’s fixities is “Mutuality", a limitation that he imports from his own particular discipline - he is a Freudian psychiatrist. He thinks non-violent action can be meaningful and effective only if it is mutual. If the counter-player fails to respond, it can lead to loss of face, prestige, power, even life. Of course, prof. Erikson deals mainly with Gandhi’s early life but when he lays down principles, you can draw your conclusions easily.  

So now we can evaluate Gandhi. Of course he was a great man. He was the originator of militant non-violence. And at least initially, both in South Africa and India, he fully realised the vital importance of mutuality in non-violence, but he lost his way later. As his opposition to the Empire became more militant and total, the Empire too became unresponsive. Gandhi lost his way, by giving up mutuality, and so was destroyed - it was not merely physical death, it was the total, dismal failure of a great life mission.

We can blow our tops off, but that would he meaningless. One almost despairs about the possible unity of mankind, but well, we can console ourselves with the fact that Prof. Erikson is not a political historian, he is a psycho-analyst.

Even as a psychologist, when he says that the sense of white superiority and black inferiority with regard to skin colour is right there in the very 'psycho-genetic development' of mankind, one feels like using some unprintable words but here again, it would be meaningless. According to Prof. Erikson, Gandhi's insistence on personal hygeine and cleanliness, was basically an attempt to transform the symbolic uncleanliness of dark skin. He has written quite a lot about Indian culture and dharma in this book, but nobody seems to have told him that most of our mythological heroes (particularly those who are supposed to epitomise male beauty) and many of our most beautiful women, both in history and mythology, are dark-skinned, if not exactly black. And if equivalents of words like 'black law', 'black day' are still current in Indian languages, they are among the numerous vestiges of Prof. Erikson's greatly admired 'Empire', the most despicable of them being a band of imbecile, witless apes who always remind me of those apes in some Western 3005 who dress impeccably in-clothes of the latest cut, whose table manners are faultless and who like smoking. Some of the Indian apes are likely to tell you in all seriousness that their zoological counterparts in the West are more cultured than the average Indian, and the gentleman saying so may be India's diplomatic representative in one of the Western capital. So, when you come to think of it, Prof. Erikson is not so much to blame after all.

Still his book is so full of irritants, minor and major, that I often felt like throwing it at somebody. But then, there is also the fact Prof. Erikson is among the few Western scholars who could see the element of bi-sexuality in India's culture, and also that this bi-sexuality is an important aspect of Gandhi's mind. I would not like to quarrel with Erikson's treatment of Indian culture, for he has perforce to be brief, and there is bound to be valid ground for differences on many questions, or the felt need for elaboration. But even Prof. Erikson can't help remarking that by 1918, Gandhi had slowly begun to discard one of the main threads of India's extant socio-cultural fabric - caste. There are enough indications in the book to give one the feeling that as Gandhi proceeded from mere eradication of untouchability to a total opposition of caste, he not only deviated from mutuality in Erikson's opinion (some of Gandhi's disciples felt he was asking too much of them), he also tried to perform some sort of a cultural 'operation', (comparable one feels, to the cultural 'assault' by the British and the Christian missionaries).

I could go on writing like this, I could almost write a book. But then, again, that would be an almost futile essay. Here I would like only to add that Erikson, like other Western scholars, began from the wrong end - Birla House and Ambalal Sarabhai's Ahmedabad mansion. It's an old, tiresome, stupid tale. Every Western scholar coming to India is either a guest of the Government, or one of our millionaires, or stays in a four star hotel, spending money provided by some foundation. And he finds that everybody around him can speak English-even if the style is at best archaic, and in most cases the language spoken is scarcely intelligible. But it saves these gentlemen the trouble of learning a 'native' language - you can write on Gandhi without learning Hindi, or even Gujarati. Then it becomes almost inevitable that you come out with a lot of trash.

Take, for example, what Erikson has called 'The Event', the strike in 1918 in the textile mills of Ahmedabad, and Gandhi's five days' fast in that connection. There is no indication that Erikson even tried to meet anyone who was among the striking mill-workers in 1918. He met the Sarabhai family, some of Gandhi's middle- class upper-caste lieutenants, and the than Vice-President of India (what the hell had he to do with Erikson's subject?) and was content. The gaps he tried to fill up with documents. Of course you can write like that, but it would be a little naive to think that you can comprehend the significance of important historical events in this manner.

What then makes Erikson’s book one of the most significant contributions to Gandhians uptodate? One factor of course is that most writings on Gandhi are either tendentiously selective documentation, or equally tendentious and superficial commentary. In the West, as Prof. Erikson remarks, Gandhi is mostly taken as a man who gave the world a new way of action, and Western activists or scholars have taken up particular aspects of Gandhi, relating to their own fields of action or intellectual discipline. Herein precisely is the significance of Erikson’s book – his careful, painstaking and methodical tracing of the growth of little Monia into Mahatma Gandhi. And here Erikson is so good that one feels like forgiving and forgetting all his faults. May be he appears to me better than he may really be because he is the first one to make the attempt, and he is quite well equipped.

Gandhiji himself wrote fairly extensively about the influence of his parents on his personality, particularly that of his mother. Erikson recreates for us the milieu in which little 'Monia' grew, including not only his parents, but various uncles and aunts and cousins, all belonging to the joint family of which Gandhi's father was the head. Then come Gandhi's school friends, the most important of whom was Sheikh Mehtab, the enemy-friend, who in a way represented the 'devil' in Gandhi, and then Gandhi's child-wife, Kasturba, and some years later, Gandhi's own sons.

Of course, there are lots of grounds for differences of opinion - it wouldn't be worth talking or writing about, if it wasn't thought-provoking - but on the whole, after reading Erikson’s account of Gandhi's childhood and his growth till he identified himself with the blacks during and after the Zulu war (when White doctors and nurses refused to attend to wounded blacks, and the main burden of nursing them fell on Gandhi's Indian ambulance corps) you feel that now you know your Gandhi a little better. Without necessarily agreeing with all his conclusions, I feel grateful to Erikson, for his book enabled me to understand Gandhi better, both as a person and as a leader of men, even if by interpreting the facts that Erikson presents, in an entirely different manner.

Here I'll give only two instances. Erikson, commenting on Gandhi's emphasis on celibacy says that it led Gandhi almost to a vilification of procreation. In his personal note (written in the form of a letter addressed to Gandhiji) Erikson pleads for mutuality in sex instead of celibacy. I am inclined to agree with him on this point. But then, one should remind oneself that Gandhiji at one place called procreation “next only to divine", and that on several occasions he not only permitted his disciples to marry but sometimes even acted as the priest.

In fact, with the passage of time, it appears to me, Gandhiji increasingly distinguished between the Varna and Ashram aspects of what is usually presented as a single unified Varnashram Dharma. He later rejected the Varna aspect of it almost totally, and so necessarily modified his views on Dhrama also, more in consonance with the bi-sexual aspect of Indian culture, and his own personality. In fact Erikson himself later concedes that non-violent action by itself was likely to lead to a greater mutuality in sex.

Erikson has dealt in some detail with Gandniji's relations with his sons, particularly his first child, Harilal. Father and son were alienated, Harilal became a Muslim, and within a year of Gandhi's assassination, died as a destitute. Gandhiji was not blameless in the matter, and as Kasturba once said (quoted by Erikson), he tried to make holy men out of her sons before they had become men. But then there is another aspect of it. Gandhiji left for England soon after the birth of Harilal and during the six years of his absence, he wrote to Kasturba through Sheikh Mehtab, (the counter-player of Gandhi's adolescent years, the enemy-friend) and during those formative years of Harilal's life, Sheikh Mehtab was the only link with the father Harilal had not seen. Later when Gandhiji returned and then set-up his household in South Africa, Sheikh Mehtab followed him there also, and for sometime was a member of Gandhi's house-hold. Ultimately Gandhiji had to turn him out.

He also had to turn out the British from his country. So, while it is true that all non-violent action involves a minimum amount of mutuality, in a recognition of humanity, if there is a lesson to be learnt from Gandhi, it is that mutuality, beyond what is inherent in non-violence itself, must not be considered essential for any non-violent action. In Gandhiji's own case, attempts at mutuality had disastrous results both on individual and collective planes - the loss of his first born, and the loss of the country's unity preceded and followed by a carnage unparalleled in history.

Mutuality is essential for the achievement of a wider identity. But a person or a group must be free to make the attempt before it can strive for such an achievement. If non-violence is to have any meaning in this struggle for freedom, it must be equipped to deal with all possible violence on part of the adversary – who ever he or they might be. Otherwise Gandhi would be reduced to the position of reference material for psychoanalysts. I don’t hink psychiatry is likely or equipped to play such a determining role in the future of mankind.