Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Life and Thought of Mahatma Gandhi: Recommended Reading

There is an enormous amount of literature on Mohandas K. (‘Mahatma’) Gandhi, and Gandhi’s own writings themselves have been collected in ninety plus volumes. So I thought it would help to recommend a comparatively short reading regimen, culling what I immodestly think is the crème de la crème (forgive the mixed metaphor in the name of alliteration), although I’ve hardly come close to reading all of the available literature. By way of background, readers fairly innocent of most-things-Indian (or ‘Indic’) should consult, first, A.L. Basham’s classic, The Wonder that was India.... (3rd ed., 1967), followed by the works of the historian Stanley Wolpert, Gerald J. Larson’s India’s Agony Over Religion (1995), Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India (1998), and Ramachandra Guha’s India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (2007). The brilliant economist Amartya Sen provides us with “a profound and stimulating collection of essays” (William Dalrymple) that “smashes quite a few stereotypes and places the idea of India and Indianness in its rightful, deserved context” (Soumya Bhattacharya), in The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (2005). Perhaps the only Indian in the twentieth century worthy of close comparison to Gandhi is Rabindranath Tagore, with whom Gandhi had several disagreements and “debates,” as Sen explains, “Tagore greatly admired Gandhi but he had many disagreements with him on a variety of subjects, including nationalism, patriotism, the importance of cultural exchange, the role of rationality and of science, and the nature of economic and social development.” So in addition to Sen’s presentation of Tagore’s little-known side of these arguments, see Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man (1995).

I recommend, well short of tackling the many volumes of his collected writings, the manageable selection edited by Raghavan Iyer: Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, 3 Vols. (1986).* There’s also a one volume edition for those who seek something yet shorter: Raghavan Iyer, ed., The Essential Writings of Mahatma Gandhi (1993).

Among the earlier biographies, Louis Fischer’s The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (1950), stands apart, and of the more recent attempts, I would select Wolpert’s Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi (2001). On the psychological front, the most ambitious if not most controversial account is Erik H. Erikson’s Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence (1969). In the end, I remain partial to Judith Brown’s Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (1989).

On Gandhi’s religious and spiritual beliefs, see Margaret Chatterjee’s Gandhi’s Religious Thought (1983). More particularly, and because his unconventional (to put it mildly) interpretation of the Gita came to have such an enormous influence on his spiritual praxis, see J.T.F. Jordens, “Gandhi and the Bhagavadgita,” in Robert Minor, ed., Modern Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gita (1986): 88-109. Although perhaps difficult to track down, see too Mahadev Desai’s The Gospel of Selfless Action or The Gita According to Gandhi (Translation of the original in Gujarati with introduction and commentary) (1946). Those readers with little knowledge of Hinduism would benefit from Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009).

Gandhi was not a systematic political thinker, yet his moral and political philosophy is no less original and provocative, deserving of serious consideration: see Joan Bondurant’s Conquest of Violence (1965), Bhikhu Parekh’s Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination (1989), as well as his Colonialism, Tradition and Reform (1989), B.R. Nanda’s Gandhi: Pan-Islamism, Imperialism, and Nationalism in India (1989) and, especially, Raghavan Iyer’s* nonpareil study, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (1st ed., 1973; 2nd ed., 1983).

Gandhi’s nonviolent politics are well-treated in Gene Sharp’s Gandhi as a Political Strategist… (1979) and Dennis Dalton’s Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action (1993). (I plan to post a select bibliography at Ratio Juris in the near future on ‘conflict resolution and nonviolence’).

Gandhi’s economic ideas are fruitfully conceptualized under the theory of “trusteeship.” See, for example, Iyer’s “Gandhian Trusteeship in Theory and Practice,” a short essay published by the Institute of World Culture, Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 1985. A somewhat uneven but nonetheless worthwhile volume is edited by Romesh Diwan and Mark Lutz: Essays in Gandhian Economics (1985; the first edition was published by the Gandhian Peace Foundation, New Delhi, but available in this country since 1987 from the Intermediate Technology Development Group of North America, New York). Although I’ve yet to read it, B.N. Ghosh’s Gandhian Political Economy: Principles, Practices, and Policy (2007), looks inviting (yet published by Ashgate at an exorbitant price).

For an examination of some of the more trenchant as well as facile criticisms of this or that aspect of Gandhi’s life and thought, see B.R. Nanda’s Gandhi and His Critics (1985).

*Full disclosure: Raghavan was one of my undergraduate teachers for political philosophy and his wife, Nandini, was one of my teachers in Religious Studies. Nandini and the Iyer’s son, the writer Pico Iyer, remain close friends (indeed, Nandini is my best friend).

Readers are invited to cite additional titles they deem noteworthy in the comments.

Please note: I have added a few items since this was first posted this morning.


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