Dear Friends,

After reading Gandhi’s autobiography and his speeches and sharing my impressions about his life and personality, dilemmas and dreams, struggles and conflicts, ideology and philosophy in my previous letters, I became curious about Erik Erikson’s National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize Winner book Gandhi’s Truth…On the Origins of Militant Non-violence. My curiosity was not only because of the expression ‘militant non-violence’ which seemed like a contradiction of terms but also because Erik Erikson has been one of the most respected psychoanalysts and intellectuals of our times, who became famous after the publication of his book Childhood and Society focusing on the eight stages of human lifecycle. After I ordered the book by mail from Chapters Bookstore, I found out that my dear friend Dr. Tahir Qazi had a copy of the book. So I asked him if he would lend it to me. I did not want to wait even two weeks before I got it in the mail. Secretly I wanted to compare notes and read how Erikson’s interpretation of Gandhi’s life was similar and different than mine.

The more I read the book, the more I was impressed by his candid analysis. Erikson was even honest about his bias as he wrote in the introduction of the book, “This book describes a Westerner’s and a psychoanalyst’s search for the historical presence of Mahatama Gandhi and for the meaning of what he called Truth”. Being a great admirer of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis I was intrigued about Erikson’s interpretations of Gandhi’s sexual, political and spiritual conflicts.

Erikson shared in his book that he got interested in Gandhi’s life after he and his Canadian wife Joan were invited in Ahmedabad, India to present in a conference. During that trip different aspects of culture, from spiritual traditions to traffic, touched him. He shares his scary but exhilarating experience of driving in these words, “But to drive into the city is a hair-raising experience, like boating through rapids. Everybody and everything spills out into the middle of the street, people on foot and on bicycles, on oxcarts and occasionally on camels—and erratic goats, trotting donkeys, ambling cows, and bulky buffaloes. All of this seems to approach one’s car like a solid phalanx not yielding an inch until the very last moment and only at the shrieking insistence of the driver’s horn. But then it yields easily, almost elegantly.” Erikson was also impressed by the hospitality of a number of people who had known Gandhi at a personal level and were involved in his political struggles.

 After doing his initial research Erikson went back to India after a year to interview those people to develop his psychodynamic and psycho-historical hypotheses about Gandhi’s life. Erikson discovered that Ahmedabad was of “vital importance in his [Gandhi’s] advent as a national leader and as the originator of militant nonviolence.” That was the city where the judge had given him the sentence of six years’ imprisonment. Erikson also stated in his book that it did not take him long to get in touch with the ambivalence about Gandhi’s philosophy and personality. On one hand some adored and worshiped him and on the other hand there were others for whom he was “a hypocritical politician and a saint of uneasy honesty” who in his old age “used to sleep with his niece.”

Erikson as a psychoanalyst was quite aware that human personalities are quite multi-dimensional and creative and destructive sides can co-exist in the same person. Based on Gandhi’s autobiography, his writings and interviews with Gandhi’s admirers and critics Erikson tried to trace the psychosexual and psycho-political evolution of his philosophy and political struggle. Erikson was aware that many believed that Gandhi was ‘a politician who tried to be a saint.” Erikson very successfully described and analyzed how at different stages of his life Gandhi failed and how he turned his failures into his successes. Erikson highlighted how Gandhi’s personality and its interaction with social and political circumstances helped him develop his political and spiritual instrument of militant non-violence, that he named Satyagraha, an instrument he felt necessary for his political success in helping the Indians gain their independence.

Gandhi was an unusual character with extra-ordinary qualities and ideals. On one hand he wanted to be a mystic, on the other hand a political leader, on one hand a reformer and on the other hand a saint. All his life he tried to build bridges between political and religious worlds. When Erikson went to see Gandhi’s ashram he found the following quotation, “I am told that religion and politics are different spheres of life. But I would say without a moment’s hesitation and yet in all modesty that those who claim this do not know what religion is.”

Erikson delves deep into Gandhi’s autobiography to find personal origins of militant non-violence. He feels that at an early age Gandhi, like other revolutionaries, became aware that he had far more creative powers as well as destructive energies than ordinary people and he had to find special ways to control or channel those powers and energies. Erikson wrote. “…a man like Gandhi, I would surmise, early knew that he had to contain a superior energy of destructive, as well as benevolent forces, an energy which he later called Truth Force and endowed with a discipline.” Some of the ways Gandhi tried to discipline his creative and destructive, sexual and aggressive energies were through fasting and celibacy. In this process of self-control, on one hand Gandhi developed a moralistic and religious attitude towards life and on the other hand he experienced a number of depressive episodes throughout his life. While his stay in England he had taken a vow “to abstain from meat, women and wine” which was a practice for him to control his desires, passions and instincts. His practice of self-control about meat and sex also helped him about his philosophy of non-violence. But to put his philosophy into action he needed the cooperation of other people so that they could be instrumental in bringing out social and political changes. Being an idealist Gandhi felt that it would not be hard for his followers to exercise self-control and stay away from meat, sex and violence, not realizing that most people were not as committed and self disciplined as he was. It was not easy for them to sacrifice things close to their heart. Some of them had ulterior materialistic goals in mind. That was why Gandhi experienced a number of abortions in his movement and there were episodes of violence under the flag of non-violence. There were a number of people hurt and killed in the non-cooperation and non-violent movement. Gandhi himself realized the tragedy and made a confession to his followers in these words, “What we have taken as dharma is not dharma. We commit violence on a large scale in the name of non-violence. Fearing to shed blood, we torment people every day and dry up their blood.”

Erikson compared Mohandas Gandhi with Sigmund Freud and shared that both of them wrote autobiographies and shared details of their personalities and lifestyles to discover their own truth as well as the truth of human nature. Both of them tried to find ways to deal with the dark side of human personality and find ways to deal with sexual and aggressive instincts. What Freud tried to achieve at an emotional level Gandhi tried to achieve that at a political level. Freud discovered psychoanalysis and Gandhi discovered Satyagraha. Erikson highlighted the irony that on the name of Freudian psychology there was a lot of acting out of sex and on the name of Gandhian Satyagraha there was a lot of acting out of violence. Erikson felt that Gandhi wanted to find out that how much controlled violence is needed to purge out the ills and injustices of the community and wrote, “One suspects, in fact, that Gandhi could come closest to an emotional acknowledgement of violence by way of the idea that one must violently rid oneself of what is hopelessly impure.”

We are all aware by now that if sexual and aggressive instincts are not dealt with at a conscious level and are repressed then there is always a danger of them coming back in a violent way. Erikson believed that in the beginning when Gandhi had not perfected the art there were a number of misunderstandings that led to opposite effects, violent outbursts taking place while Gandhi was trying to have peaceful processions. Erikson points out that for a while Gandhi continued to “speak ambiguously and was generally understood as supporting anarchist and militant youth.” He gives an example of one speech, which led to a disaster afterwards as it created misunderstandings. In that speech Gandhi had said, “If we trust and fear God, we shall have to fear no one, no Maharajas, not Viceroys, not detectives, not even King George. I honour the anarchist for his love of the country. I honour him for his bravery in being willing to die for his country; but I ask him: Is killing honorable?…I have been told: “Had we not done this, had some people not thrown bombs, we should never have gained what we have not.” His followers sometimes misinterpreted such speeches, and they used them to promote violence and create an image that Gandhi supported their terrorist activities.

As Gandhi matured as a politician and got to know his followers and opponents, his disciples and rivals he mastered the art of militant non-violence. He realized to be successful he needed a group of followers and disciples who understood his philosophy and were dedicated and committed to practice it faithfully. There was a need for them to understand that Gandhi expected self sacrifice so that there was a double conversion: conversion in the oppressed protestor to be peaceful in violent environment and conversion in the oppressor to change his heart and stop the cycle of violence and injustice. In the final analysis Gandhi believed that to break the cycle of violence, violence had to be embraced by non-violence. Erikson wrote, “Gandhi could sympathize with proud and violent youth, but he believed that violence breeds violence from generation to generation and that only the combined insight and discipline of Satyagraha can really disarm man, or rather, give him a power stronger than all arms.”

Erikson believed that Gandhi’s master performance of Satyagraha was when he decided to have Salt March to the sea. That was the time for him to prove it to himself, his disciples and his opponents that he could perform political and spiritual miracles. He and his followers started the march and within no time it grew leaps and bounds and the whole nation joined him. His followers marched with dedication and commitment. Gandhi and his disciples were ready to sacrifice their lives. That was the moment in history when the whole world saw the miracle of Satyagraha, as Gandhi had a large group of followers who were ready to respond to violence with dedicated non-violence. They were the prophets of peace, justice and freedom. Erikson wrote,

“ In 1930, again in the fateful month of March, the Mahatama started a new campaign…Now the Mahatama felt ready to stake everything once more on a national Satyagraha…the Salt Satyagraha.” In his speech he stated, “ In all probability this will be my last speech to you. Even if the Government allows me to march tomorrow morning, this will be my last speech on the sacred banks of the Sabarmari. Possibly these may be the last words of my life here.”

It is significant to note that as Gandhi matured as a political leader his public speeches became shorter and to the point. They became more serene than fiery. But the following that Gandhi had became a threat for the authorities. The absence of violent protest was sometimes more provocative than the violent outbursts.

“The very absence of violence, however, again aroused the police to pointed viciousness. The report of a British journalist, Webb Miller, has become the classical account of Satyagraha on the front line. Under the leadership of Sarojini Naidu and Manilal Gandhi (Devaras and Ramdas had already been arrested), 2500 volunteers “attacked” the Dharasana Salt Works not far from Delhi.

“In complete silence the Gandhi men drew up and halted a hundred yards from the stockade. A picked column advanced from the crowd, waded the ditches, and approached the barbed-wire stockade…Suddenly at a word of command, scores of native policemen rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads with their steel-shod lathis. Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten-pins. From where I stood I heard the sickening whack of the clubs on unprotected skulls. The waiting crowd of marchers groaned and sucked in sympathetic pain at every blow. Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing with fractured skulls or broken shoulders…The survivors, without breaking ranks, silently and doggedly marched on until struck down.

They marched steadily, with heads up, without the encouragement of music, or cheering or any possibility that they might escape serious injury or death. The police rushed out and methodically and mechanically beat down the second column. There was no struggle; the marchers simply walked forward till struck down…”

“ After that, the men in uniform, feeling defence-less in all their superior equipment, could think of doing only what seems to “come naturally” to uniformed men in similar situations: if they did not succeed in bashing in the volunteers’ skulls, they kicked and stabbed them in the testicles. “Hour after hour stretcher-bearers carried back a stream of inert bleeding bodies.”

Erikson tried to the post-mortem of Gandhi’s political struggle in the form of Satyagraha and analyzed its consequences and benefits in these words,

“What had the Satyagraha accomplished? They did not take the Works; nor was the Salt Act formally abolished in its entirety. But this, the world began to realize, was not the point. The Salt Satyagraha had demonstrated to the world the nearly flawless use of a new instrument of peaceful militancy.”

Erikson believed that Salt march was crucial in Gandhi’s political career as well as the Independence movement. The whole struggle that limped along for a while had a major breakthrough. After that incident Gandhi had established himself as a national leader not only in the eyes of his countrymen bit also in the eyes of the British that he was trying to negotiate. Those steps paved the way for Gandhi to be invited to England with a completely new and inspiring mandate. Gandhi was getting closer to his dream. Gandhi’s visit to England had mixed reactions. Erikson stated,

“After some compromises all around, Gandhi was invited to talks with the Viceroy. Churchill scoffed at the “seditious fakir, striding half –naked up the steps of the Viceroy’s palace, to negotiate with the representative of the King-Emperor.” But the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, has described the meeting as “the most dramatic personal encounter between a Viceroy and an Indian leader.”   

Erikson ended his book by a statement made by Tagore about Gandhi. I find it quite fascinating that Erikson disagreed with Tagore and commented,

“In May 1930 Tagore wrote triumphantly to the Manchester Guardian that Europe had now lost her moral prestige in Asia, Weak Asia, he said, praising Mahatama, “could now afford to look down on Europe where before she looked up. “ Gandhi, as I read him, might have said it differently: Asia could now look Europe in the eye—not more, nor less, not up to, not down on. Where man can and will do that, there, sooner or later, will be mutual recognition.”

Dear friends, I feel that if Erikson could disagree with Tagore then I can also dare to disagree with Erikson respectfully and say a few words in favour of Tagore. In my humble opinion Eastern poet Tagore knew Gandhi more than the Western psychoanalyst. Erikson being a humanist thought that Gandhi also believed that all people from different cultures and civilizations were equal not realizing that Gandhi believed that Eastern civilization was better than the Western civilization. If Gandhi did not believe that India had a better cultural tradition than the European tradition, why would he have said?

“The tendency of the Indian civilization is to elevate moral being, that of the Western civilization is to propagate immorality. The later is godless, the former is based on a belief in God”

“Indian civilization is the best and that the European is a nine days’ wonder.”




June 2003


Erikson Erik…Gandhi’s Truth…On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence

                        W.W.Norton and Company Inc.

                        New York USA 1969