Almost Entirely about Gandhi

      2 Comments on Almost Entirely about Gandhi

A friend writes, in response to my earlier comment on Gandhi:

"In the process of slogging through lifetime after lifetime one closes in on the harmonic understanding; which is paradoxical; because the understanding (as put in Albert Brooks's movie "Defending Your Life" which seems as close as a lot of things I've read) is an absence of existential fear, not a conscious epiphany."

The absence of existential fear does strike pretty close to the Gandhi Thing, as far as I can tell. I've gotten maybe three-quarters of the way through Satyagraha (Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad 1951), a fascinating collection of essays and speeches, and my primary response is that he's an Easterner, talking to Easterners, and I'm a Westerner. I don't agree with a lot of what he says, not from an ethical standpoint, but because of a fundamentally different worldview.

Gandhi believes in the law of suffering, that is, that all good things come out of suffering, and that if the suffering is pure, the greater the suffering, the greater the good. A few quotes:

  • We must, therefore, be ready for the repetition of the sufferings of the guiltless... (p. 106)
  • Non-co-operation as a voluntary movement can only succeed, if the feeling is genuine and strong enough to make people suffer to the utmost. (p.117)
  • Non-violence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering. (p. 134)
  • I would risk, if necessary, a million lives so long as they are voluntary sufferers and are innocent, spotless victims. (p. 154)
  • A warrior's death is never a matter for sorrow, still less that of a Satyagrahi warrior. (p. 262)

Yes, yes, these are out of context, but I think that the sentiment within them is one that Gandhi would not deny, that is, that suffering is not a thing to be avoided, but embraced. To that end, here's a longer quote, from p. 262

Thus did seven men, including Jairamdas, receive bullet wounds. Jairamdas's injury gave me unmixed joy. It is the injury to leaders that would bring relief. The law of sacrifice is uniform throughout the world. To be effective it demands the sacrifice of the bravest and the most spotless. And Jairamdas is of the bravest and the cleanest. I therefore could not help wiring when I heard of Jairamdas's wound that a wound in the thigh was better than prison and a wound in the heart better still.

Now, this is stirring stuff. And I do not deny that there is something persuasive about a man who is willing to suffer for his cause. And even, in some senses, a person who is willing to watch others suffer, gladly, for the cause they share. Where I part ways is that I prefer achieving a cause without suffering, and that in many cases, I would give up the cause to relieve the suffering (either my own or others). I'm agin' suffering. In fact, there isn't much that I consider worse than human suffering (in the hierarchy of human values and social purposes), whether done in the right spirit or wrong.

Of course, I've gone afield from my correspondent's point, but he was talking about the Eastern world-view, and how it is essentially different from mine, and I think he's right.

Thank you,

2 thoughts on “Almost Entirely about Gandhi

  1. Chris C.

    Two quick thoughts to toss out on suffering.

    First, the rejection of the value of suffering in the mainstream of Western thought is a fairly recent development. Christian theology and ethics have long placed a high value on suffering (it’s something that contributes to sainthood — for a pop-culture reference on this that I know V. knows, see the view of suffering put forward in Julian May’s _Many-Colored Land_ books), and such respect for suffering has still not entirely disappeared. Martin Luther King’s adaptation of Gandhi’s practices of civil disobedience was, I think, grounded in his sense of the value of suffering, freely embraced, to break down social structures that inflicted involuntary suffering, though I do not offer this thought on the basis of a deep grounding in Dr. King’s teachings.

    Second thought: in this imperfect world, it seems to me that striving to lead a moral life entails voluntarily undergoing suffering in some degree. If one is not to be damaged by this suffering, one must learn how to suffer, even how to suffer gladly in order to experience moral transformation. I’m not saying that I’m any good at doing so myself, but I’ll throw out the notion that the categorical rejection/avoidance of suffering in contemporary Western thought is, paradoxically, damaging, in that it justifies immoral choices and leads to psychic damage when people do suffer because they have no training in how to do it or in how to use it to grow.

  2. Vardibidian

    Thanks for your note; it’s good to be reminded of the lost or ignored Western tradition of suffering (which was sufficiently lost and ignored not to materially influence my thinking). I should re-read Dr. King; my recollection is that he does not emphasize suffering to the extent Gandhi does (or anywhere near), and he certainly did not accept the mind-body split that Gandhi takes as a matter of course.
    As for your second thought, I think there are two aspects of it, one of which I agree is damaging. There’s the rejection of suffering as a positive value, and then there’s the rejection of suffering as a necessary part of life.
    I do think that suffering is a thing to be avoided. Both my own, and other people’s. I feel that very strongly; one of the highest values in my own hierarchy is the alleviation of suffering. Not that Gandhi was indifferent to suffering in the mass, but it was not a matter of highest import to him, as suffering if undertaken in a pure spirit was a positive good (which I personally reject), and there were obstacles to obtaining that pure spirit which has to be attacked first.
    Digression: I’m not sure I can justify my rejection of the positive nature of suffering undertaken with a pure spirit, but it’s there anyway. If anyone wants, I’ll give it a try. End Digression.
    Anyway, that rejection does not mean that suffering will cease to exist, much less that it is avoidable in the world as it is now. The attempt to avoid it altogether is doomed to failure, and believing that it is not doomed can lead (as you point out) to bad choices, and to bad thinking.
    Perhaps another point is that I’m not sure we as a society are very good at differentiating between more serious suffering (starvation, malnutrition, bodily injury, abuse, etc.)and less serious (waiting in line, property damage, insult, aches), and therefore make bad choices because our priorities are skewed.


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