George Orwell on Gandhi: Decoding Vanity, Suicide, and Sin

George Orwell’s 116th birth anniversary: Here’s what Orwell thought of Mahatma Gandhi and his ‘Vanity’ and sainthood

5 min read
George Orwell kept aside Gandhi’s sainthood and assessed him as a plain politician.

This article was first published on The Quint on 24 June 2018. It has been republished to mark George Orwell’s 116th birth anniversary.

George Orwell was a non-partisan examiner of personalities — be it Leo Tolstoy or Mark Twain. His essay, ‘Reflections on Gandhi’, once again confirms his integrity as an unbiased observer. Orwell doesn’t only extensively study the actions and works of Gandhi, but he also lends his essential scepticism to the analysis of the man’s complex personality. He draws reasonably from the Mahatma’s autobiography, and admits to have been impressed by its everydayness, even though not so much so by Gandhi himself at that time.


Of ‘Vanity’ and Deception

Orwell not only rightly sees Gandhi’s medievalist programme (the opposition to large scale industrialization) as unviable for his poverty-ridden and overpopulated country, but also questions his being motivated by Vanity. However, Orwell finds him vindicated on the second count owed to the self-confessions of his historical wrongs in his autobiography, possible only for a person with lack of vanity.

He is astonished by the Mahatma’s unusual physical courage; undeniably evident from his unarmed confrontations with the British in South Africa, and the fact of his denial of adequate personal security, which eventually led to his death.

He makes no bones about mentioning the possibility that the British were making use of Gandhi, since he would wield fullest potential to avoid or control any violence in every situation.

Orwell, however, doesn’t fail to assert the likelihood that it was only that the British thought they were using him. He thinks so because such efforts only earned Gandhi the much needed attention of the international media. To support his argument, he quotes Gandhi’s own words, “In the end deceivers deceive only themselves.”

Of Suicide and Pacifism

Orwell that that unlike most western pacifists, who were good at avoiding awkward questions, Gandhi showed a remarkable earnestness in giving a kind consideration to them (the questions). He attributes the contradictions in the Mahatma’s statements on the First World War to his understanding of the difficulty of the war. He thinks that despite having rejected violence as a mode of resistance, Gandhi participated in the Boer war as a stretcher-bearer on the British side, and was ready to act similarly in the First World War, with the knowledge that in a war not both sides are equally evil.

When being asked about the Jewish situation in Germany at the time of World War II, Gandhi suggested they commit collective suicides which “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence” as he later justified it by saying that Hitler would have killed them anyway

In such situations, one should be ready to lose lives in some other way if one is not ready to take lives, thought the Mahatma. These thoughts might well have not impressed Orwell, but what seems to have impressed him is the Mahatma’s sincerity.

Talking about the Russia of that age, Orwell questions how the Mahatma’s methods could be applied in countries where the adversaries of the governments vanished overnight. Owing to free press, Gandhi could make his voice heard across nations, and it was right of assembly that aided him in gathering support. In the absence of these, he argues to know, how effective his methods of non-violence would have proven.


Making of the Mahatma

Orwell is shrewd in pointing out, as is evident from Gandhi’s autobiography, his gradual transition from being an ordinary man to becoming a Mahatma. He writes:

“He was not one of those who are marked out by their phenomenal piety from childhood onwards, nor one of the other kind who forsake the world after sensational debaucheries. He makes full confessions of the misdeeds of his youth, but in fact there is not much to confess…. A few cigarettes, a few mouthfuls of meat, a few annas pilfered in childhood from the maidservant, two visits to a brothel (on each occasion he got away without ‘doing anything’), one narrowly escaped lapse with his landlady in Plymouth, one outburst of temper – that is about the whole collection.”

Counting his revelations of the misdeeds of his youth, Orwell remarks that “there is not much to confess.” But the casualness of his tone, points towards a lack of an insider’s perspective on Indian idealism. Perhaps, owing to his foreign perspective, he seems to not have totally grasped the gravity of the revelations at that time in the country, especially from a person who was already revered as a Mahatma at the time. It looks as though Orwell was not fully aware of how much Indian society weighs upon an individual’s piety, particularly of public figures.

Contrasting Gandhi’s otherworldly ideas with basic human nature, he says that they rest on the existence of a God who could be reached through material sacrifices. But as mere human beings, we tend to think of life as the only chance we have to make the most of, and one way to do it is through material pleasures. And that, going against the basic human nature is in fact anti-humanist. He writes: “One should, I think, realize that Gandhi’s teachings cannot be squared with the belief that Man is the measure of all things and that our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have. They make sense only on the assumption that God exists and that the world of solid objects is an illusion to be escaped from.”

Talking about non-attachment he says that human beings resort to sainthood, with the aim of avoiding the hurt that attachments bring and the hard work that love demands. He writes:

“Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find that the main motive for “non-attachment” is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work. But it is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is “higher”. The point is that they are incompatible.”
George Orwell, Author

Sin and Discipline

Well aware of the Mahatma’s vow of brahmacharya (complete chastity) and his otherworldly choices, Orwell debates the near-saint’s ideas about the imposition of strict disciplinary practices in order to serve either God or humanity. Talking about the disciplines that Gandhi imposed on himself---vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol or tobacco, complete chastity, non-attachment---Orwell writes:

“The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.”

Keeping aside his sainthood, and assessing him as a plain politician, compared to other prominent politicians of his time Orwell believes, “How clean a smell he [Gandhi] has managed to leave behind!”

Excerpts reproduced from

Source: Reflections on Gandhi, By George Orwell.

(This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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