The Great Soul


Reprinted from Journal of the Maharaja Sayajiro University of Baroda

Gandhi Centenary, Volume XVIII, No. 1 & 2, April & July 1969

The Great Soul

By Jack H. Adamson

There was a time when it was easier to be a great man, before the age of printing, before the disease of journalism that lives parasitically on the sensationalism in historical events and in the lives of history’s shapers. Once, when the great-souled died, they left no artifacts, only a tenuous memory among the folk which, tenderly reshaped by generations of story-tellers, finally found wings that lifted it above the world of human vanities , of concern with bowel and bladder, of domestic quarreling, of the petty surrenders and barnyard-cock tyrannizings of ordinary men. Then only a quintessence was left: the distilled attar of the soul’s greatness , and its sweet scent helped queasy men to live with their mortality.

Our human need to find something transcendent is as great ever, but now when a great man dies, by the peculiar nature of scholarly biography, our attention is directed to those mortalities, common to us all, which, when displayed in the life of the great soul, lend complacency to our own failures. Perhaps it is impossible for a nation ever again to provide itself with great souls. It may be that we must seek for them among other peoples where distance in space and strangeness of custom leave our imaginations free to simplify and to heighten.

No American can cease to be astonished at what has happened in India to the memory of John F. Kennedy. Everywhere there are theaters, scholarships, or statues erected to him; a certain aura even of saintliness envelops the man’s name and memory. John F. Kennedy a saint! One hardly knows whether to be astonished or pleased.

At Pilani, one evening at dinner, I witnessed with amusement an encounter between an amiable young Indian and two dignified and reserved Virginians, man and wife, not easily given to enthusiasms. The young Indian, seeking a safe conversational gambit, said something in the ecstatic vein about America’s late President. The husband and wife looked carefully at one another; their aloofness took on a touch of ice; the slightest hint of a mask settled over both their faces. The wife then looked away and, without emotion, said in her cultivated accent, “We ah not shuah about Mistuh Kennedy.” No Virginian is ever likely to be sure about a Boston Irishman.

And many young Indians are not sure about Mr. Gandhi. It took me a while to find that out. But when I first arrived in Delhi, if anyone had asked me what I first wished to see in all of India it would not have been the temples at Belur or Khajuraho, not the Taj Mahal or Ellora or Ajanta, not the white cliffs of Jabalpur or Jim Corbett National Park; not even the one sight on earth that actually outdoes the imagination, the Himalayas. No, I wished to see first the tomb of Gandhi, to make my pilgrimage and pay homage to a man whom I knew so little and honored so much. Therefore my first act of leisure was to drive along Delhi’s Ring Road to the Raj Ghat Bon the bank of the Jamuna. There I saw the stately yet unostentatious tomb with the words He Ram chiseled into its glistening ebony surface. I saw the marigolds, those ubiquitous tokens of affection, garlanding the Mahatma’s memory; I saw the pilgrims kneel to touch the cold tomb with their foreheads, and I did the same, experiencing a kind of levitation as I walked away. I had been lifted up, and that mood returned at intervals during the succeeding weeks.

But soon I learned that my euphoria did not come so easily to Indian intellectuals. My first shock came when a gentle Sikh said to me with just a little bitterness, “Gandhi said that his two missions in life were to save the cow and free the untouchable. Today in Gandhi’s own village a sweeper can’t go to the well, but the cow, as you see, has been saved.” At that time I did not know what the cow meant in India, that for Gandhi the protection of the cow symbolized ahimsā, the principle of harmlessness to all forms of life and that, even more, it stood for the maternal, enfolding, gentle feminine qualities of Indian religion and life that stand in such marked contrast to the sometimes arid masculinity of the West. And so that stricture seemed more severe to me then that it does now.

And soon I heard all the whispers about the young girls in the bedroom, the tragedy of the oldest son for which the father must bear some blame, Gandhi’s strange vanity in traveling third class even when given an entire car for his small party. And before long, all over Delhi, I saw the alleged hunger fasts going on for the most trivial and unworthy reasons. Ah! I thought, the unwitting harm that great men do.

But my greatest shock was yet to come. For the anniversary of Gandhi’s death, a peace march had been arranged. The marchers were to come past most of the colleges of the University of Delhi where their ranks would continually be swelled. Finally, on a large open field, an official of the university would lead the students in a pledge of non-violence.

I did not intend to participate. I have an aversion to political activism so strong as to be almost pathological. I dislike public speakers who smile too much; I often find even more offensive the self-righteousness of reforming liberals; I am repelled by “champions of the people” and consequently shun all public demonstrations. However, on this day I excused my Milton class early in order that those who wished might participate in the peace march. I thought that I would stand quietly and respectfully as the marchers passed. But then a strange thing happened. As my students entered the ranks, I was possessed, forcibly possessed by some power which appeared to be outside my own volition. Scarcely knowing what I was doing, I found myself walking along with the multitude, strangely ecstatic, eager to take the pledge of ahimsā.

Not everyone felt the same way. Along the route, a group of radical students had set up a loudspeaker through which, with all the rhetoric of violence, they were urging the marchers to participate in a university-wide strike on the following day. The incredibly bad taste of this counter-demonstration was, of course, wholly lost on zeal like theirs.

Nor was that all. I was astounded at how many around me refrained from taking the oath and later an Assamese student explained it. “They,” he said (meaning officialdom) “are using Gandhi. They think that by working us up emotionally, they may get us to take a vow we will feel obliged to keep even though violence may be the only solution to our problems.” I looked in astonishment at this decent, gentle boy.

And so this and many similar incidents caused me to wonder if my own inner experiences were the delusions of romantic sentiment, and I began to compare Gandhi’s experience with that of other reformers whose reputations were of the same magnitude as his own. From this comparison, certain conclusions emerged about the nature of Gandhi’s greatness.

First, one must acknowledge that Gandhi was a successful revolutionary. It is so much easier if one is not successful. I thought of the sentimentalized Tolstoy plodding along behind the plow while a nervous famulus followed along to take down for posterity whatever words might fall from sainted lips. I thought further of his impracticality, his complete unsuitability for wielding power, initiating programs, dealing with the shifting sands of human problems. What would happen to the sanitation, the transportation, the economy, the schools and civil service of even the smallest region managed by a Tolstoy?

And I thought of Shelley, that “ineffectual angel,” whose voice even today seems to be coming out of a cloud of idealized wish-fulfillment. He wrote fine tracts about England’s most difficult problem, what to do with Ireland; consequently he achieved a rather easy sainthood. It has never been difficult to point out the English mistakes in Ireland and yet a parade of England’s most notable public men made incredible botches of the actual situation. One after another, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Walter Raleigh, Lord Grey, Cromwell, Ireton and all the rest lost something of their reputation and more of their character in that lost land, and so the wise intellectual, following the method if not the intent of Immanuel Kant, would form a maxim according to which all men might act. “Always be an unsuccessful savior of mankind; then your reputation in later ages is assured.”

One can’t help feeling the same way about the Old Testament prophets, yes, and even that culminating figure, Jesus of Nazareth. How fine to appear in righteous wrath, to denounce the mistakes and follies of Israel’s kings; but how hard, even impossible to rule that stubborn breed, to bend them to any law, of man let alone God, to maintain even the most elementary rule of society, that men must be prevented from slaughtering one another. We must always ask what would happen to the moral fiber of the savior if he were to succeed and, in his own person, wield political power and be held accountable for flood, fire, pestilence and the stupidities and brutalities of his subjects. That way madness lies; it is nightmare to contemplate the pitfalls that Satan puts in the way of the successful revolutionary. It is better quietly to drink the hemlock, sleep through mankind’s strivings and be a hero forever.

And so in any comparison of Gandhi and other idealists of history, we must realize that he did succeed, that he wielded enormous power and became subject to all the temptations and corruptions that accompany such power.

It is instructive to consider the temptations that Milton envisions his Christ entertaining and rejecting if they were to be practiced upon the soul of Mahatma Gandhi. It is Belial, the sensual demon, who first proposes that Jesus be tempted with women, but Satan rejects this as scarcely worthy of consideration. And few would doubt the success of Gandhi’s lifelong and somewhat theatrical struggle against the flesh. It would go hard for woman’s need of love if his disciples should better him here.

We strike closer to human things when Satan offers Christ the opportunity to free his people from Roman servitude by force of arms. Milton was willing to allow Cromwell to free England, Ireland and Scotland by conquering them, but he would not allow his ideal of Christ the same easy way. Accordingly Milton’s Christ replies that when men are basely slaves to themselves, it is only fitting that they should also be slaves to outward power. Let them free themselves from themselves and political freedom would follow.

Neither Christ nor Gandhi, one feels, was much tempted by the lures of the world as most reformers have been. It is perhaps in England that reformers have been most cleverly seduced without loss of their self-esteem. The English offer ribbons, knighthoods, the pleasure that comes from intimate association with those in the seats of power, and the reformer finds soon that he has misjudged those wielders of the scepter, and that they are men of wit and women of beauty, urban, generous, rather to be preferred, on the whole, to his own clamoring followers, who reek of self-interest and impracticality.

Unlike Christ and Gandhi, most of the world’s saviors, once they have power, have been willing to use it, to turn the sword of oppression against the oppressor. With one or two exceptions, all of the Old Testament reformers would have done so as would most of history’s passionate Marxists. When this test is applied, we see how treacherously easy is the corruption of most seekers of social change. They do not, in their deepest selves, wish to be different from the oppressor; rather they wish to possess his power and his means to pursue their own “righteous” ends. We turn wearily away from moral pygmies.

The final significant corruption which Milton’s Satan offers Milton’s Christ is the temptation of being a learned man, of being world renowned as a poet, teacher, and sage. Christ’s rejection of this temptation is so excessively angry that one wonders if this perhaps was the temptation Milton himself could not really forego, that he always knew, really, that here Satan had him whenever it was worth the dark angel’s trouble. But this temptation was scarcely real for either the historical Jesus or for Gandhi.

It is between Gandhi and Milton himself that the more interesting comparison lies, for Milton, like Gandhi, was one of the world’s genuinely successful revolutionaries. Out of his mind came the words which, coupled with Cromwell’s sword, set a King’s head rolling and brought the Saints into political power. But once in power, how did the Puritan deliverer comport himself? If we were to follow him to his revolutionary triumph would we continue to follow him afterwards?

It might be difficult for many reasons, chief among them Milton’s treatment of his opponents, even the fallen ones whom he treats with contempt. We remember with some pain that Milton’s Christ treats Satan in precisely the same way. Evil, after all, has had its notable successes in the world, surely enough that any opponent might well treat it with a certain polite caution at least. But neither Milton nor his Christ treated his opponent so. When Milton first entered upon his career as polemicist, the bishops of the Anglican church were his opponents and poured invective on them; their motives were mercenary, their learning slight; they were spiritual tyrants, Goliaths of a new Philistinism from which Milton, the clear-eyed David, would deliver England by hurling words. We are surprised to find that one of these bishops is the gentle Launcelot Andrewes who was later to become T.S. Eliot’s historical example of humane and literate Anglicanism.

But as Milton’s enemies changed, his rhetoric and anger remained unchanged. He soon found the bishops unworthy of his scorn and attacked the Presbyterians, his erstwhile friends. Now the “new Presbyter” becomes “the Old Priest writ large.” But the final force of Milton’s invective was reserved for his Continental and royalist opponent, the Latin scholar Salmasius, who had denounced Milton, Cromwell and the other regicides for putting to death God’s anointed. It is with pain that an admirer of Milton the poet reads the barbaric words with which he announced to the world his triumph over Salmasius. Milton is greatful to God, he says, because he “obtained such a victory over [his] opponent that … [Salmasius] was obliged to quit the field with his courage broken and his reputation lost….”

But there is worse. Salmasius’ real offense, one quite honestly feels, is not that he attacked regicide, but that he attacked Milton’s Latin which, he said, was frequently faulty. This was the insult that Milton could not endure, and so while he and Salmasius ostensibly argued, before all Europe, the high themes of liberty and the state, each was secretly arguing his own superiority in Latin. It is said that angels, in contemplating the affairs of men, sometimes weep.

It is precisely in matters such as these that the life of Gandhiji is like clear shining after rain. Jesus, it is true, prayed that God would forgive his tormentors, but that is not quite as much as the Mahatma did. It is possible, while forgiving one’s enemies, to feel morally superior. It was the genius of Gandhiji that he could make his very enemies feel that they were his moral equals, and this he made it possible for them to concede when they were wrong. I can think of no other successful revolutionary in history who ever managed to do so.

When Gandhiji faced a judge, that judge came to realize that Gandhi was aware, given the ironies of history, that the prisoner might have been on the bench and the judge at the bar. The amazing thing is that there was no righteousness, no moral superiority in the communication of this fact. It was simple truth. Surely any man could see it.

When Gandhiji faced the industrialists, the Pathans, the angry Sikhs, the Moslems, always there was that generous communication which, to be successful, must be transmitted without words: I understand: if I were in your place, I would feel as you do. I consider it essential to your integrity that you should feel as you do. How could you feel otherwise and still be a man? It was all so objective, as though it were not Gandhiji but some third party to the issue, seeing it clearly and expressing it without emotion. And though few could voice it, somewhere within each adversary came the answering voice. Thank you, Mahatma for respecting me. I don’t really wish to hurt you or your cause. It is the circumstances, you see. And that was his simple greatness: the Mahatma really did see.

We are not merely men; some say we are part angel. But we certainly are also part animal. Somewhere under the rib cage, we feel the red tongue, the quick cunning feet, and we say to our angry, expendable saviors of the day, “I know it is wrong to hate, yet I must. Please justify me.” And the Miltons, the Lenins, the Tom Paines respond. They are generous men, for they take upon themselves the moral burden of our violence, leaving us free to indulge in it innocently. How much we owe them for that.

But the great soul of India said that he could not so dishonor us. If we wondered how deeply he meant it, there is one final test of political purity. What does one do when he comes to fee that the oppressed whom he has sought to relieve are themselves in danger of becoming oppressors? In political life the reformer commonly becomes rationalizer, desperately seeking justifications for for this turn of events. Surely generations of oppression and injustice justify the new oppressions and injustices. How right it is to be angry, how sensually delightful to luxuriate in the passion of moral righteousness. What is the pleasure of women compared to that?

In all if history I see one successful revolutionary who denied himself this luxury and that is India’s great soul. If he was willing to fast to the death at Ahmedabad against the industrialists, as perhaps a pure Marxist soul might have done, he was also prepared to fast to the death against the proletariat when they wished to destroy the instruments of production. If he was prepared to stand against the British for dividing his country, he was also prepared to stand against his fellow Hindu communalists who were dividing it in a different way. He could live without adulation; he could not live without truth.

Immanuel Kant once said that only one thing was good in itself and that was a good will. The ultimate test of a good will in political life is the willingness to stand against one’s followers on behalf of truth; it is loving truth more than self. Admitting, therefore, Gandhi’s preoccupation with bowels and goat’s milk, with chastity and vegetables, the mystique of retained semen and similar eccentricities, when his test came, when he had to surrender political power or truth, he was radically unlike Milton or Lenin or Samuel Adams or the modern breed of angry savior. He was actually prepared to surrender political power and his followers knew it.

Gandhiji was a great soul in two senses. In Aristotle’s ethical code a man could become magnanimous, great-souled, only after he had mastered all of the other ethical virtues and, consequently, by forgetting self, could rise above mean and petty actions. Mahatma also means great-souled, but for me the Indian word both includes Aristotle’s meaning and carries a higher one of its own. The great soul is one that one which has most clearly realized its relation to Brahman. It is not merely ethical; it is, in some sense, godlike. The ethical man gives us a pattern of conduct, but the godlike man, in addition, expands our awareness according to the measure of his own. We could have seen this more clearly before the age of printing. It requires magnanimity to see it now.

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