Mr. Kosek is the author of Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy (Columbia Studies in Contemporary American History).A New York auction house ignited international outrage recently when it announced plans to sell sandals, eyeglasses, and other personal effects that had once belonged to Mohandas Gandhi. The Indian government denounced the sale and took legal measures to stop it, but the auction went forward anyway. On March 5 an Indian businessman purchased the items with a high bid of nearly two million dollars and promised, amid ongoing controversy, to donate them to the Indian government.
Critics agreed that the whole thing was very un-Gandhian. The director of the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi fumed that the mahatma was “absolutely against materialism and commercialism.” Certainly, the sale was troubling, not unlike Apple Computer’s use of Gandhi’s image in its 1997 “Think Different” advertising campaign. At the same time, appeals to the Indian leader’s pure saintliness vastly oversimplify his complex history.
In fact, Gandhi was entangled in American “materialism and commercialism” even during his own lifetime. Sometimes he objected to the entanglement, but at other times he used it to spread his philosophy and further his political goals. The man in the loincloth was never just an opponent of the modern world. He was also a canny participant in it.
Gandhi achieved truly global significance during his 1930 “March to the Sea” and subsequent negotiations in London regarding Indian independence. At this time, he became an international celebrity as well as an international political leader, and American culture industries responded accordingly. Newspapers and magazines found him a captivating subject. Thornton Wilder dreamed up an American Gandhian for his novel Heaven’s My Destination, which became a main selection for the Book-of-the-Month Club, that mid-century arbiter of the literary marketplace. Meanwhile, Cole Porter wrote the mahatma into his song “You’re the Top,” improbably rhyming the name of the strict teetotaler with “Napoleon Brandy.” Gandhi had entered the lexicon of American popular culture.
At times he tried to resist this trend. He contemplated a visit to the United States in 1931, following his England tour, but decided against it because he feared he would be “exploited, ridiculed and misinterpreted.” The long voyage would only be worthwhile, he explained, if Americans were “willing to listen to my message rather than regard me as a curiosity.” Despite what he called his “great affection for the American people,” he never visited the nation.
Yet Gandhi did participate in the “materialism and commercialism” of American life when it served his purposes. In particular, he relied heavily on modern communication technologies, even if he did not always admit it. Though his United States trip never happened, he did talk to Americans in 1931 using the newly popular medium of radio. The text of his address ran in the New York Times, no bastion of antimodernism.
Gandhi also showed a pragmatic bent when he published his autobiography in the United States around this same time. That work, now considered classic literature, was originally printed serially in his journal Young India. An American pacifist minister named John Haynes Holmes read the installments and got the idea to put out an abridged version of the autobiography as a book. The Indian leader’s little-known correspondence with Holmes is an eye-opener for those who see the “Great Soul” as a lonely mystic. Gandhi’s careful questions about translation rights, royalties, and the other minutiae of publishing are not at all otherworldly. Indeed, he was a busy author and editor whose collected writings stretch to one hundred volumes. The American edition of the autobiography turned out to be a bust, but it showed how Gandhi cooperated selectively with the “materialism and commercialism” of mass media rather than rejecting it wholesale.
Beyond these specific cases, the whole Gandhian mode of politics depended on a dialogue between the antimodern and the very modern. The March to the Sea drew on ancient religious and moral principles, but news of it spread over global wire services. The spinning wheel, a protest against machine technology, appeared alongside Gandhi in countless photographs and newsreels. Cameras, in other words, were not machines that he went out of his way to avoid.
Even the most distinctive emblems of Gandhian austerity, his clothes, could be commodified. Krishnalal Shridharani, a participant in the March to the Sea who later lived in the United States, noted back in 1939 that the Indian leader’s peculiar dress had its own presence in popular culture. “As an originator of fashions,” Shridharani wrote, “Gandhi can well be the envy of Hollywood stars.” Movies and the mahatma were, perhaps, more amenable than we think. Long before Gandhi’s sandals were auctioned, his photogenic persona was “sold” in American mass media as a symbol of moral integrity, a symbol that generated international sympathy for Indian independence.
To stress Gandhi’s engagement with the modern world might seem to impugn his motives or cast doubt on his sincerity, but that would be a misunderstanding. Instead, the point is that he is, in Salman Rushdie’s words, “infinitely more interesting” than his well-meaning protectors allow. His creative uses of media, technology, and popular culture showed that, as Rushdie puts it, “Gandhian intelligence” may be more powerful than “Gandhian piety.” Gandhi the distant saint is more comfortable, but Gandhi the endlessly resourceful innovator is far more relevant to our current crises of violence and injustice.
One of Mohandas Gandhi’s American admirers was Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who later became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. A psychiatrist once told Merton that he was the kind of person who would construct “a hermitage in Times Square with a large sign over it saying HERMIT.” It was a cynical comment, but it effectively pointed to a tension between renouncing the modern world and operating within it, a tension that animated both Merton and Gandhi. The mahatma’s sandals may soon be in India, safe from American “materialism and commercialism,” but his elusive, paradoxical vision of the modern world will continue to challenge our expectations.
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