Takes on Mahatma Gandhi tend to focus either on the Mahatma or on the Gandhi: That is, they either consider him a holy man whose politics emerged from an inner “truth” or revelation about the nature of India and the Indian people; or a clever politician, who exploited the religious susceptibilities of the Indian people to unite them against a colonial government that wasn’t all that bad, as far as colonial governments go. This image we have—the skinny old man, the simple cotton garb, the walking-stick—has its roots in the collective image, in Hindu India, of The Ascetic—or “Fakir,” as Churchill called him, a key English pun, from a master of the English language, on “faker.” Not all interpretations of Gandhi go to one extreme or the other, but they fall along a spectrum defined by the True Believers and the Naysayers, those who consider him a holy sage and those who consider him a worldly manipulator.
Now the truth, you probably expect me to say, is a “both/and” situation. Gandhi was holy and he was a shrewd political operator who used religiosity as a political tool (declaring fasts to get what he wanted, and that kind of thing). But actually I am going to say the Mahatma was all holy—but that he was holy in an unfamiliar way.
When we think “holy” or “genuinely religious,” we tend to think—though this is by no means implied in either term—of otherworldliness or innocence in the face of worldly power. This is an association that has resulted, specifically, from the life and death of Jesus Christ. There are certain statements in the New Testament—confronted with a coin that bears Caesar’s image: “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give to God what is God’s”—which strike me as childlike in their profound simplicity. I get the sense that Jesus actually wasn’t being coy or clever; he doesn’t strike me, in his historical form at least, as actually understanding money. Much less the realpolitik and sublimely secular level-headedness of a Pontius Pilate. Christ is the otherworldly holy man par excellence. His Kingdom is not of this world. The Buddha, once a Prince, is another world-renouncer. They are the holy men who don’t navigate the world of politics. They long to be outside or above all worldly power struggles.
This is not the case of all holy or religious men. The Prophet Mohammed, for example, did not follow the example of Christ. That is why, in the Islamic world, to this day, it is perfectly natural for politically fiery imams to be thought absolutely holy and divinely inspired. (By the way, in modern Christianity, the preacher with clout in Washington is a common fixture in American conservative politics.)
In Hinduism, the two major incarnations of Vishnu—Rama and Krishna, the ideals of Hindu holiness—were both statesmen; Rama, in his famous assault on Lanka, was a military man as well. (Krishna abstained from taking up weapons in the Mahabharata war, serving as an adviser to one side and driving his friend Prince Arjuna’s chariot.) Krishna, in particular, is presented as a supremely crafty, often witty diplomat.
It is no great leap from Krishna’s craftiness to Gandhi’s. There were never two Gandhis, never any inner conflict between his “experiments with truth” and his agitations against the British Empire. The one Mahatma was the purest modern expression of a Hindu holy man, following the Vishnu paradigm of how a holy man should behave: loftily with the lofty, and cunningly against the cunning.