I have a favorite volume of Complete Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG): number 98, the Index of subjects. I’ve walked it often over the past few years, sometimes on purpose; sometimes without an agenda, each time coming back more firmly convinced of a simple truth: Gandhi is the binary opposite of a monolith. No history can ever contain the multitudes he was and continues to be for those of us who still flock to him. He retains the ability to surprise with the catholicity of his interests and, in my opinion, the exquisite ability to synthesize vast amounts of information and ideas gleaned with little regard for trifles like academic disciplines or geographies.
To illustrate this, an example should suffice. By working on On Dandi’s Foot: In Search of Vikas, I spent some time with volume 98 as I tried to decipher the aesthetic of Gandhi’s walks. I started by reading the entries under “art” (according to the CWMG, it doesn’t seem to have used the term “aesthetics”). The first entry under this heading – perfectly indexed as relating to art and “beauty” – took my breath away quite a bit. Now I have read my Gandhi: admired and argued in equal measure with the stubbornness (and didactic though prophetic quality) of Hind Swaraj (1909/1910); keep reading with fascination as an artist turning the page Satyagraha in South Africa (1928) played out; walked with him in growing company through the painful honesty of the Autobiography, which I read in Mahadev Desai’s searing translation (1929), and while I have always found his writing incredibly coherent and often inspired, I have not necessarily considered it lyrical. I realize now that it’s because I didn’t know where to look for such a vein drawing on the sublime until I found the entrance to art and/or “beauty”.
The setting is as follows: we are at the beginning of 1925 and Gandhi undertakes multiple “tours” in the region of Gujarat. The following excerpt is taken from his “Notes” on a series of lectures he recently attended around Vedchhi. He goes into what can only be described as raptures over the arrangements for the Kaliparaj Conference:
I unknowingly exclaimed, “I have seen many lectures, but from the point of view of unstudied beauty, I have not seen one like this.”… It seemed that nature itself had arranged everything invisibly. In my opinion, the real art consists in learning from nature without fighting against it… Usually, a piece of land is chosen as the location of the Conference. Our artists looked around and picked a place full of natural beauty. A river named Valmiki flows near Vedchhi. This dance between rows of hills adorned with trees…The main stand was placed in running water and, just as branches spring from a tree, seats for the delegates were arranged in front of the main stand. As it was winter, and, moreover, as the water was cool, this artistic expert argued that not only did the delegates not need shade but that the afternoon sun at 2 p.m. would be welcome, from where the golden sky provided the dome of the pavilion and the sand of the river, the seats… The canopy above the rostrum was made of bamboo and green leaves. A wide path led to the grandstand. Bamboos had also been used for this purpose and arum lianas had been intertwined on the path. The first step leading to the grandstand consisted of a bag filled with sand. There was not a single image here and not a single strand of cotton was used for decorative purposes. Needless to say, even decorations made of yarn cannot enhance the beauty of such a place. The wire is man-made and is in place in a house. Where the sky is the ceiling and the sand the ground, only the trees and the leaves harmonize with the scene.
(CWMG 26:41-42; emphasis mine)
Who is this poet, even? There is nothing fixed or impenetrable in the feelings of the writer. This passage is why when I read about Gandhi (even though he was beautifully portrayed as a proto-ecologist) that he was too “practical” someone to have the kind of sense of the natural world which marks the work of other writers who have reflected closely on this land, and on all of us who are there (Guha and Martinez-Alier make this argument in their The environmentalism of the poor), it seemed incomplete to me. It is true that Gandhi is not inclined to routine outbursts like the one I quote above. But they are there, if we follow the thread that leads us from art as a knot to nature as another, with beauty as a bridge that brings them into conversation.
In this conception, nature is not a background on which life is lived and conferences are organized; nor is it simply a “resource” to be extracted for human “use”. To read these downright poetic invocations is to retrace the canvases of Gandhi’s weaving. That’s what we can do when the light catches these seemingly diaphanous patterns, stretching out in the form of volume 98, for example. This is how we move from Henry Salt (supporter of animal rights and ethical vegetarianism who befriended Gandhi when he was a young student in London) to Dandi; of Ruskin—including Until this last was fundamental to Gandhi’s conception of autonomous social unity – for the Sabarmati Ashram; the Bible at the Gita; and, “true music” being implied in “khadi and the spinning wheel”, which Gandhi said in a speech to the National Music Association in 1926. This is how we learn that there is music too in walking, and that walking is thinking about and implementing change that can only come from “turning the spotlight inward” (the title – and focus – of one of the most evocative of Gandhi on Dandi March in 1930) – for what is the value of ‘raj’ of any kind without the need to admit the self-reflexive ‘swa’ which precedes it? There is music in his swaraj, and this is what it sounds like.
Anyone who wants to walk with the old man for a while would do well to play with volume 98. What is uncertain is where you will go. Or how you will get there. But take a walk again, for there are domes of golden sky here, and if you’re lucky, the trees and leaves blend in with the scene, reminding us to tread lightly on this earth, and asking us to recalibrate our relationship with parents, in all forms of life.
Image selected via Wikimedia Commonspublic domain