Orwell on Gandhi: Probing an Icon

George Orwell’s ‘Reflections on Gandhi’was published in Partisan Reviewa year after Gandhi’s assassination, in January, 1949. There is an undeniable admission of admiration with which Orwell writes about his reception of Gandhi’s writings and life, while offering a reproach that undermines his association with sainthood by ascribing it as “anti-human and reactionary”, by claiming that it was hardly that. On the other hand, Orwell also goes so far as to assert that “there was nothing in his [character] that you could put your finger on and call bad”, as he wallows in his efforts to navigate and categorize a balanced account of this man. As an influential and praised social and political commentator, George Orwell, who has largely been treated as a critic of Gandhi, first shared this work in a time when thoughts of memories of the man as a political activist and a liberator of the Indian people, were still fresh in the minds of many. It would be difficult to claim that despite his many reservations about the man, Orwell himself was not moved and intrigued by the character that was Mahatma Gandhi.

Orwell claims, in the very beginning, that “all saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent”. This seems especially odd in light of his recognition of a common tendency he has observed, wherein people “[instinctively] apply high standards, so that some of [Gandhi’s] virtues have [pass] unnoticed.” In light of this recognition, Orwell’s entry into a mediation on Gandhi’s values and ways seems indecisive; he is able to register a pronounced stance on certain practices that had become quintessential in constructing Gandhi’s reception as a figure of asceticism. Orwell is clear that he would not entertain, like any other European outlook on the man, his propagation of vegetarianism, or the modesty of home-spun cloth to wear, and finds them unappealing. At the same time, Orwell is clear to make a note about the disparity between his understandings of the man that was Gandhi, and the works that Gandhi produced as a political activist, in order to forewarn his readers about a need to pay heed to the nuances and attested disagreements in his deconstruction of this man, in order to ensure that it is not dismissed as an unfocused, indecisive and polarizing study, while simultaneously reiterating that Gandhi’s character is indeed, “an extraordinarily mixed one”.

Moreover, Orwell is clear to state that the confliction that troubles his assessment of the man was not exclusive to him; he could “even then that the British officials who spoke of him with a mixture of amusement and disapproval also genuinely liked and admired him.”He claims that no one thought he was “corrupt, or ambitious in any vulgar way, or that anything he did was actuated by fear or malice”. As such, he juggles between his personal assessment of Gandhi, and that of British officials, while offering a particular leniency in his personal assessment; he admits that Gandhi’s “autobiography is no literary masterpiece,” but is nonetheless impressive, owing to the element of commonplaceness that it entails. As democratic socialist opposed to the idea of totalitarianism, and someone who spent time in then British-occupied Burma, Orwell is able to emphasize with the conditions that motivated Gandhi to depart the days where “he wore a top hat, took dancing lessons, studied French and Latin, went up the Eiffel tower and even tried to lean the violin.”

Perhaps the most pressing criticism drawn by Orwell of Gandhi’s life and ways, was Gandhi’s very entry into politics, and his inclination to entertain the realms of a field characterized by deceit and rivalries. He emphasizes and reiterates Gandhi’s self-attestation as “a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying-mat”, who coincidently, and ironically, “[shakes] empires by sheer spiritual power”. This disharmony is very aptly identified in a question that Orwell then proposes, which seeks to identify the extent to which Gandhi “[compromised] his own principles by entering into politics, which of their nature are inseparable from coercion and fraud.” At the same time, despite the modesty that homespun cloth evokes, as do much of the Gandhi’s ascetic commitments, Orwell argues that these attributes function as symbols with political weightage. These aspects of his life are intended to propagate not just the ideals he religiously follows, but also carry a political purpose in working to achieve ends besides promoting a life spiritual power and humility.

Another facet of this work is Orwell’s assertion that Gandhi’s outlook is anti-humanist that stems from his religious understandings, with no considerations for other worldviews. An understanding of his outlook would entail that one human life is subservient to the whole. This outlook is characterized by strict abstinence; no meat-eating, no alcohol or tobacco, and no sexual-intercourse, at least not for any purpose besides begetting children. Orwell is understood to have traced the sources of Gandhi’s beliefs exclusively to Hinduism, and Satyagraha as well. As such, he claims that Gandhi’s pacifism, which can be traced to his study of Hindu texts, cannot be a “definite technique, a method, capable of producing desired political results.” Satyagraha, in Gujarati, translates to “firmness in truth” and entails acts such as civil disobedience, strikes, laying down in front of railway trains, enduring police charges without running away and without hitting back.” Orwell’s aforementioned about the inapplicability of ends derived from religious teachings for political ends, as such, are a little nearsighted, seeing how these techniques were able to immobilize the British administration, irrespective of whether or not these ends were responsible for loosening the grip of imperial power, or whether this decision was, as he claims, a byproduct of the Labour government that had taken power.

The essay’s closing words on Gandhi are, for the most part, and in many ways, guarded appraisal. Orwell closes this essay by claiming that compared to other leading political figures of his time, “how clean a smell [Gandhi] has managed to leave behind,” has much to say about the man. Such concluding words carry the reservation that marked the assertions that came before it.