George Orwell’s Reflections on Gandhi : Summary and Analysis

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  • Post last modified:May 20, 2021

George Orwell’s Reflections on Gandhi : Summary and Analysis

Orwell’s Reflections on Gandhi is one of his most important essays probing the popular saint’s personality, perspective and works from various angles. The author has tried his best to be impartial on Gandhi since even his adversaries were unable to remain uninfluenced by him.  The question that whether Gandhi was a saint, a politician or both has haunted scholars. Answering it definitively would require a vast amount of research and reasoning. One notable fact about Gandhi’s life was abstinence and George Orwell highlights it in his essay at various stages in order to answer questions on Mahatma’s character. Orwell has also reflected upon Gandhi and his teachings and techniques in the context of the atomic war which was one of the darkest questions requiring answer following the dropping of the atom bomb.  The author also judges the appeal of Gandhi’s ideas of non-violence and if it had a universal appeal and could be practiced worldwide.

One great fact about Orwell’s essay is that you will find a stunningly clear picture of Gandhi in it – a picture that  looks vastly different from the one media or the other sources paint. Orwell has analysed Mahatma’s personality with great care and still he himself does not look satisfied. Orwell was an investigator who would probe any topic till he reached the right conclusion. Despite having drawn from second hand resources mainly, he has painted a large and clear picture of Mahatma. If any ordinary author tries to weigh and evaluate Mahatma Gandhi’s personae, it would take him a lot of reasoning with his own conscience. Gandhi had the power to bend others’ will in his favour. Orwell assesses Gandhi’s character and soul in his own honest manner.

Orwell's Reflections on Gandhi.
M. K. Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi). (1862-1948)

Gandhi’s attitude and appearance could give rise to some distaste as Orwell openly accepts in his essay. His actions and thoughts have not escaped criticism either and were considered anti-human and reactionary by many.  However, while there were several things impractical about Gandhi and still an impartial evaluation shows his ideals and ideology as a potent tool against violence and mass destruction. Orwell successfully highlights the strengths of Gandhi’s philosophy and how one simple man and his simple philosophy had the potential to change the world. However, at an inner level, Gandhi was not as simple as he looked. His personality was complex  because of the mixed traits, the existence of which in the same person is unimaginable for most of us. Many of us trying to understand Gandhi’s personae would not be able to see beyond the first few layers. His stubbornness and courage are some important traits that can not be overlooked. Without putting things in the right context, one cannot have a clear picture of Gandhi. Orwell is not trying to defend Gandhi or his character in his essay. Instead he is trying to present a clearer picture that helps you see past the Mahatma’s personality and outer appearance. For most people, it was impossible to peep into Gandhi’s soul. The aura of simplicity around Gandhi was tough as a turtle’s shell.

Orwell’s approach to understanding Gandhi is more candid than others. He starts his essay by asking questions about Gandhi’s sainthood and the extent to which he was a saint or a politician. He asks if Gandhi was moved by vanity and if his ability to shake empires by sheer spiritual power had corrupted his conscience. If he was a saint, then to what extent did politics corrupt him or did he compromise his principles by entering politics. A definite answer to these questions is impossible without having studied the saint’s life in detail and without considering every large and small act in his life which was a pilgrimage in itself.  Orwell had studied his autobiography which was only partial because it continues only into the 1920s and still provides some strong evidence into those parts of his life which prove that he was a shrewd man who would have become a successful lawyer, administrator, or business man but chose otherwise, shunning all the worldly pleasures and wealth.

Orwell raises such questions right at the outset because he cannot agree with the normal picture of the Mahatma presented to the world but subjects the ordinary photograph drawn by media to his own litmus test. One important strength of the Gandhian philosophy that comes to light from Orwell’s discussion is that rejecting a few small things is essential to reach the bigger things in his life. Slavery is for those who are weakened by their personal biases and when your personal bias stops weakening you, you find strength against the biggest monster that can dominate you – your ego. Gandhi’s personality is complex and to see under its layers impossible. This complexity can hinder judgement and one may end up being over-influenced or unclear in his view of the Mahatma. The personality that looked simple and frictionless could exert pressure that even Hitler did not.

While Gandhi in person did not make a great impression on Orwell, his autobiography did, whose first few pages he got to read in a low quality Indian newspaper. The things that were most commonly associated with Gandhi like home-spun cloth, ‘soul forces’ and vegetarianism did not hold any special appeal in the eyes of the Western masses. The British believed they were using him as he had the ability to prevent violence. In private, the English would admit that he was a man with real influence. However, as his nonviolent methods grew more targeted at the British, it had left the conservatives angry.

Orwell had noted that even the officials that talked of him with amusement and disapproval had developed a genuine liking for him later. Such was the influence of the Mahatma that it was difficult to hate him for long. No one could find vulgarity or malice in him or fear or even cowardice. However, when you are judging a person like Gandhi you instinctively apply the very highest standards as you apply in case of saints. This can make people ignore some of his most important and finest virtues.  Orwell highlights his courage as an example. It was one of the most neglected of his virtues. Any man of stature in politics who valued his life would have hundreds of guards surround him. Gandhi was not well guarded at the time he was murdered. It proved either he did not fear death by an enemy or did not suspect having one. His simplicity kept other things about him hidden.

He was free from other vices too like he did not have that suspicion of a  maniac which most orientals can be accused of and which Forster highlighted in his ‘A Passage to India’. Neither was he a hypocrite like the British. While he was quite shrewd at detecting dishonesty, he never tried to press his personal values upon others and could connect with their better side easily. Moreover, he was not afflicted by envy or inferiority despite being from a poor family or lacking physical appeal. He was surprised by racism when he first saw it in South Africa in its worst form. Orwell highlights his virtues and his innocence because these virtues cannot be found in a person without innocence. While fighting against racism in South Africa, he never thought of people based on their color or race. To him, everyone from governor of a province to a cotton millionaire, a half-starved Dravidian coolie or a British private soldier were all similar.  For such a person, it was difficult to be without friends and even when he was unpopular for fighting for Indians, he had some European friends.

Orwell explains how the Mahatma’s career went through stages before he started being known as the saint. His autobiography despite not being a literary masterpiece was impressive. It showed that while Gandhi might have been more content in some other field, he was forced to join politics and adopt his extremist opinions in stages and at times unwillingly. Gandhi did not happen by chance or by accident. He himself did not draw the path he followed. His character was shaped by circumstances and created through demand. He even made attempts to adopt a Westernized lifestyle as Orwell notes from Gandhi’s autobiography. “He wore a top hat, took dancing lessons, studied French and Latin, went up the Eiffel Tower and even tried to learn the violin” (Source : Orwellfoundation). He was not a saint since childhood as usually happens in the case of most. Neither was he of the type that shun sensational debaucheries after once having drowned themselves in them. While Gandhi has confessed in his autobiography he did not have many sins to hide, there are really too few to confess. All his worldly possessions he had at the time of his death did not cost any more than Five Pounds. The same can be said about his sins or what he gladly accepts as mistakes in his autobiography. If they were to be heaped together, they would weigh less than those committed by a ten years old kid. His sins could be counted on fingers.

Apart from a few cigarettes, consumption of meat once or twice and a few annas stolen and two fruitless visits to a brothel, he had hardly committed any worldly sins. This is not possible without personal character. Hardly ever did he lose his temper or judgment except one or two times. Orwell does not miss to highlight the highest degree of self control which Mahatma demonstrated and which could otherwise be found only in Buddhist monks. Since his childhood, he possessed a strong sense of ethics, even stronger than religion but remained directionless till he turned thirty. So, his first entry into something that could really be called life of public activity was made by way of vegetarianism. His ancestors were solid middle class businessmen and in his personality those strengths could be felt clearly. So, for the sake of social service, he abandoned his ambitions but even then remained as Orwell notes “resourceful, energetic lawyer and a hard-headed political organizer, careful in keeping down expenses, an adroit handler of committees and an indefatigable chaser of subscriptions” (Source: Orwellfoundation).

Exploring so many facets of Gandhi’s personality is not possible without feeling confused but Orwell has given an impartial touch to his analysis. He touches on Gandhi from several angles and while he is mostly appreciating Gandhi’s contributions he also explains what different people or groups have felt about him. He tries to reach the core of the topic that what made Mahatma a Mahatma (a saint) – as he was later called in his life. However, his teachings are based on his religious beliefs and so whether they can be accepted by everyone is not certain. Several people had also felt Gandhi to be touched by Orthodoxy. Despite those mixed traits in his character, there was hardly one that could be called sinful and for that even his worst critics have admitted him to be a wonderful man whose life was a gift to this world. While Orwell’s analysis is the most penetrating of all, it is so because he touches more on the real side of the Mahatma than the more glamorous side publicised by media. For many, Gandhi was like an enlightened monk but Orwell portrays him more as  a real person who wrestled India away from the British by virtue of his simplicity.

Gandhi’s teachings cannot be approached in the same manner as every piece of knowledge. They must be interpreted in the right context otherwise a tendency had grown to talk of him as if he were an integral part of the western left-wing movement. His opposition to state violence and centralism has made anarchists and pacifists claim him for their own herd. Orwell notes there is also an alien like and anti-humanist tendency of his doctrines that the anarchists and pacifists might have ignored. Gandhi’s teachings can mainly be interpreted in the Hindu context where only God is the truth and the material world an illusion.  To see it in a different context can lead people to varying conclusions. 

Apart from shunning all kind of animal food, he shunned alcohol, tobacco and spices. Sex was not a sin but must be practiced within restrictions and for the purpose of bearing kids only. In his mid thirties, Gandhi took oath of complete Brahmacharya that does not just mean complete chastity but also elimination of sexual desire. For an average man such high level of discipline must be very difficult to practice. He did not take milk either since it would arouse sexual desire. After it, the most important point – the person pursuing goodness must lose the personal and be impersonal. While trying to reflect on Gandhian perspective, Orwell also compares it with the common-sensical. Several of his actions and views do not look like based upon common sense and still he handled some of the most difficult questions in politics with skill and responsibility. It is why Orwell refers to the presence of a shrewd man inside Gandhi who was not a genius like Einstein but still had strong foresight. His shrewdness was also justified in the light of the problems he fought against.

There are no close friendships or exclusive loves. The way you like ‘A’ is the way you like ‘B’. He found close friendships dangerous and misleading because the personal bias born of it could lead you into moral wrongdoing. Orwell also finds it true because to love God or the humanity in its entirety, one must not give any one person a particular preference. To cultivate a bias for someone is not like loving him. However, to an average person it would mean being inconsiderate. You love your family means you love them more than others. This is where the humanistic and the religious do not match. His autobiography does not talk much about how he treated his kids and wife but gives a certain account where he was not ready to administer them animal food and instead was willing to let them die.  Any average man would consider it inhuman and would find it impractical because letting your kid die for want of animal food when he is ill is not less than cruelty. While such sacrifice on Gandhi’s part may look noble, for an average man it is inhuman.

Orwell while trying to evaluate Gandhian values in the light of their relevance for average human, sheds light on why they must not  be adopted by a common man. The essence of humanity is not perfectionism and one must not chase asceticism to an extent making friendly communication impossible. Detachment or non attachment is most often seen as a method to deliver oneself from worldly pain. This is where humanistic and religious ideal seem incompatible. Detachment or non attachment cannot become every human being’s reason who has to find reason in his worldly connections. Moreover detachment also means shunning responsibilities. While most people do not have a genuine desire to be saints, those who possess such desire are not much tempted to be common humans. The difference is similar to that between drama and reality. However, Orwell is not trying to ridicule Gandhi because if Gandhian lifestyle became everyone’s lifestyle, the originality and genuineness related with Gandhi’s personality will fail. He is trying to clarify the logic behind Gandhi’s perspective and if there was anything ridiculous behind it.

To sketch a complete picture of Gandhi is a difficult task but Orwell does try it and for it he studied many facets of Gandhi’s lifestyle, ideals, personal values and teachings. One cannot talk of him without mentioning Satyagraha which as per Orwell was a method of nonviolent warfare that was used to defeat the enemy without kindling any kind of fear, hatred or need for retaliation. It includes the use of tactics like civil disobedience, strikes, and similar more without being aggressive. However, Gandhi objected to passive resistance being understood as Satyagraha. Satyagraha is active resistance and active protests against oppression and evil – it denotes a firm stance in the favour of truth. Gandhi even served as a stretcher bearer in the Boer war and was ready to serve again in the World War I.

Even after having accepted nonviolence completely he believed that war had logic and you had to choose your side during a war. In this regard, he did not abstain from accepting the logic and did not pretend that you could be neutral in war and that both sides were exactly the same and which one won did not really matter. Gandhi remained honest even while answering such difficult and awkward questions. While the Western Pacifists evaded questions related to Jewish extermination, Gandhi answered that German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which will rouse the world to Hitler’s violence. This answer could have shaken people as was Mr Fischer. The later events justified his response and Jews died in large numbers. While urging a non violent resistance against Japanese invasion, he was ready to admit that it might lead to several million deaths.

Orwell questions the strength of Gandhian beliefs and if the person was able to think beyond his own struggle and if he even understood totalitarianism. He was able to generate publicity and arouse the world when right to free assembly and free press were limited by the government. There was no Gandhi in Russia and Russians could implement such movements only when the idea occurred to all of them. In Orwell’s view applying non violence to international politics was difficult and it was proved by the conflicting statements that Gandhi gave about the world war. The nature of pacifism changes when applied to international politics. Moreover the assumption that people have a better side and can be approached generously was not true in all contexts. If you were dealing with lunatics you will not necessarily find them approachable.

Gandhi might have been unaware of several facts but never felt afraid of answering a question and always handled them honestly. The Second World War had happened and the globe was on the brink of another. This had left George Orwell concerned that it would not be able to bear the effects of another world war. He could not see another way out of it than world-wide adoption of non violence. When Gandhi died, India was engaged in a bitter civil war. No one would have predicted the event till one year before the British fled India. It happened at the hands of a labor government and had Churchill been in control, things might have taken a different turn. However, by the time Gandhi died he had attained his biggest dream of India’s liberation from the British rule. Orwell asks a few questions before the conclusion. Was it Gandhi’s influence that so much support had gathered in favour of India by 1945? Had Gandhi been able to decontaminate the political environment with his non violent struggle? If such questions are raised about Gandhi, it is not difficult to imagine his mammoth stature. Questions can be raised about his sainthood and one can deny his ideals or feel a strong distaste for him but compare him to the other political figures of his time and his mere existence was a blessing for this world. Gandhi remained a misunderstood or less understood mystery and perhaps this was the reason that rather than being rewarded for his sacrifices and leadership, he was murdered brutally by a Hindu fanatic. However, even in his death he remained a picture of outstanding physical courage.

Orwell’s work illustrates Mahatma’s personality in detail. To avoid being partial, Orwell does not base it on first hand meetings or interviews and instead proposes to bring to light what can be uncovered only through reasoning. He peels the cover off Mahatma’s personality like an orange to show the pulpier side of him. He shows there is no stink underneath and Mahatma has preserved his soul from degeneration through sheer spiritual power and faith in basic principles like truth and non-violence. In politics, this will be seen as a great sacrifice and not as mere leadership.

Sources:

Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.