*The Homeless Gandhi

Los Angeles, 30 January 2018

On this day, seventy years ago, Mohandas Gandhi was felled by three bullets from a gun fired by Nathuram Godse, a Chitpavan Brahmin who nursed a number of grudges against the man anointed as the “Father of the Nation”.  Most people in India mourned; some cheered.  More than a few held him chiefly responsible for the vivisection of India and declared that he, more than Muhammad Iqbal or Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had played a critical role in birthing Pakistan; in the days before his death, Gandhi had been taunted by some as “The Father of Pakistan”.  Godse held that Gandhi was an effete man whose womanly ways and petulant behavior, which led the old man to fast whenever he could not get his way, had emasculated the country.  Thus, in Godse’s view, Gandhi deserved to die.


Nathuram Godse. Getty Image.

Unlike, however, those who at present rejoice in Gandhi’s death, even as they garland his statues and mouth the customary platitudes about his “continuing relevance”, Godse was quite candid in holding forth that India could never become a powerful nation-state that the rest of the world might envy so long as Gandhi was alive to guide the country’s destinies.  Godse was also genuinely reverential in his feelings towards Gandhi, a part of his story that is little recognized:  the Mahatma loved the nation and had awakened the slumbering masses, so Godse thought, but he had deviated from the path and gone astray.  Gandhi, that inveterate user of trains, had derailed the country.  His murder would be the first step in the yet unnamed project of ghar wapsi:  even as Gandhi was being returned to his Maker, the country would supposedly be returned to its roots.

Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents described the battle within everyone between eros (the instinct to love) and the death wish (thanatos).  While we need not be beholden to Freud’s precise reading of the death wish, it may be said that, in a peculiar way, Gandhi did not mind being killed.  By this I do not merely mean what most who are familiar with Gandhi’s life will at once infer, namely that he often spoke in the last few years of his life, and particularly in the aftermath of the partition killings, of having lost the desire to live.  He had a premonition of his own death; and, yet, he had also said on more than one occasion that he wished to live until he was 125 years old.

I have in mind something quite different.  Though there have been many compelling interpretations of his life, Gandhi has increasingly struck me as someone who felt himself at sea in the world.  Everyone has her or his own Gandhi:  political activists, nudists, vegetarians, environmentalists, prohibitionists, civil resisters, and pacifists are only some among the dozens of constituencies that have claimed him as their own and sometimes even adopted him as their mascot.  It is time for the homeless to claim him as their own, though we should first strive to unravel a few of the meanings of home and dispossession.  We often make a home and dispossess others by our act.  The home that we long for, when realized, suddenly loses all its attractions.  Our home might come to burden or haunt us, creating other forms of dispossession.  Our actual home may well be elsewhere than the home in which we live.  We may be at home in not being at home at all, and the home that we call home may have no relation to the home that is in the heart.  That home with which we draw a boundary to keep out others becomes more than a marker of territory, helping shape conceptions of the outside and the inside, the other and the self, the alien and the familiar. We may, like the reluctant exile, gain a political home and lose our cultural home.  We may have several homes, and yet feel dispossessed; or we may have no home at all, and feel that the world is at our fingertips.

Gandhi’s life offers fleeting impressions of someone who, even as his feet were firmly planted on the ground, was curiously unmoored.  For much the greater part of his adult life, Gandhi was bereft of a family home, sharing not even an extended family home that was overwhelmingly the norm in his lifetime.  He shared his life not merely with Kasturba and their sons but with dozens and often hundreds of inmates in communes and ashrams, and was deeply resented by some members of his family for being insufficiently attentive to them and their needs.  If, for instance, the notion of home implies the idea of a private sphere, Gandhi displayed not merely indifference to the idea of privacy but was inclined to see it as a species of secrecy and thus deception.  It cannot be an accident that, having vowed not to return to Sabarmati Ashram until India had been delivered from the shackles of colonial rule, Gandhi went on the Dandi March and then drifted around, somewhat like a homeless man, for a few years until he settled upon Wardha in central India.  In early April 1936, he set himself up in the desperately poor and mosquito-infested village of Segaon, which then had a population of less than 700.  Segaon had the virtue only of being, it is said, the dead center of India, home to everything and nothing.


Gandhi in Noakhali, 1946:  When No One Walks With You, Walk Alone.

Gandhi was beginning to feel homeless in the India that was taking shape even before partition tore apart his country and his heart alike.  He was an early critic of what in post-World War II would begin to be called “development”; but he was also, and this is the greater irony, in view of his role as the chief architect of the Indian independence struggle, never at home with the idea of the nation-state.  No nationalist was less invested in the nation-state that he had helped to forge.  That is one of the measures of his greatness and of his distinct mode of being (at home) in the world.  Gandhi had once appealed to Ambedkar to put aside their differences and work him in the interest of the country, and Ambedkar famously replied, “Mahatmaji, I have no country.”  Little could Ambedkar have known that Gandhi would just become his statues.  We can in any case think of their exchange as the most extraordinary recorded conversation between two homeless men.


[This is a slightly revised version of a piece published in the print and online editions of the Indian Express on 30 January 1948; in the print edition, the piece appears on p. 1; the online version is here: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/mahatma-gandhi-jayanti-father-of-the-nation-5044076/]

[The online version of the piece as it appears in the Indian Express of course invites comments from readers.  One reader remarked that, in highlighting the fact that Nathuram was a Chitpavan Brahmin, I was clearly displaying my prejudice against Hindus.  This is not even remotely the case, though the culture of trolling has now made it far too easy for people to engage in slander, cant, and humbug.  It is not unimportant that Nathuram Godse came from a Chitpavan Brahmin background: not only were there other attempts on Gandhi’s life by Chitpavan Brahmins, but the community as a whole felt especially aggrieved at the loss of its power as a consequence of British rule.  Having a Gujarati bania such as Gandhi at the helm of power was not calculated to make Chitpavans, who bemoaned the loss of their masculinity, feel emboldened as the sun began to set on British rule in India. But an extended commentary on all this is scarcely necessary, since Ashis Nandy’s “Final Encounter:  On the Politics of the Assassination of Gandhi”, offers a complex and brilliant interpretation of the sources of Chitpavan Brahmin anxiety about Gandhi.  Another reader, quite predictably, counsels that my piece may be ignored since it stems from the pen of a Non-Resident Indian.  Gandhi himself spent over 20 years in South Africa, and I suppose that some nationalist Hindus are still inclined to take the view that Gandhi remained a foreigner to India.]


20 thoughts on “*The Homeless Gandhi

  1. As stated in one of your lectures, I agree with you that the future of India will revolve around Gandhi and Ambedkar.
    In your view mr. Vinay Lal, do you think Gandhi’s vision of India will ever become a reality? Or is it a utopian dream?


  2. Hi Jacob,
    This is not a question that I can answer at this juncture. We’d first have to agree upon what constitutes Gandhi’s vision of India. I have written around this subject here and there but every dream of radical social justice has some element of the utopian about it.


  3. Pingback: *Footloose and Fancy Free:  The Killers of Gandhi in Modern India | Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal

  4. Professor Vinay Lal,
    In my understanding, the search for a “home” or “nation-state” was never the goal of Gandhi in fighting for Indian independence, so much as it was to guarantee the freedom of never needing such a bordered home. The creation of borders, to me, is also the creation the same type of resentments that members of his family felt seeing his lack of adherence to traditional familial obligations — he saw all of India as his family, not necessarily within the borders of genealogical lineage. But what rather confuses me is this: as Gandhi was not focused on territorial state boundaries and lineage to form his identity or as bearers of some set of predetermined responsibilities, what do you believe he did see as the thing that defined Indians as separate from others? Or was there no such identifier? In which case, can he truly be called the architect of Indian Independence, or would it be more apt to just call him a liberator of oppressed people and leave it at that?

    I hope I haven’t completely missed the point with this inquiry, but in either case I hope to hear back! (Even if it is just to redirect my line of thought to something more consequential!)


    • Hello Marit, You have raised some exceedingly good points. It would be impossible for me to enter into a protracted discussion on all of them, since, as you have already surmised, there are perhaps no easy answers. If we call him a liberator of oppressed peoples, a designation with which I am tempted to agree, there are some who will demur and argue that he sought no such thing and was not fundamentally interested in revolutionary upheaval. Then there is the question of the specificity of his contribution if we take India out of the equation and simply see Gandhi as the architect of the idea of self-liberation. If we view him as the architect of self-liberation, then how does he differ from the long line of harbingers of spiritual liberty in the Indian tradition, including for example Kabir, Guru Nanak, and scores of others? With respect to the early part of your remarks, my intent was not to argue that Gandhi was searching for a home, though of course it is possible to say that we all seek to be at home in something (which is a rather different thing). I was rather playing up the irony of the architect of “the freedom struggle” (as it is known in India) himself being “homeless” in some fundamental ways, finding himself adrift and at sea, finding himself uneasy with the very nation-state that he had helped to birth. I see myself as having done some service in raising some questions though everything you’ve said could be discussed at much greater length.


  5. Hello Professor,

    I was hoping you could provide me with some clarification on Nathuram Godse’s purpose in assassinating Ghandi. What did he seek to accomplish? With Pakistan already being created, what was Godse’s goal in killing Ghandi? A symbolic act of revenge? Restoring his ‘home’ from Ghandi’s views? Eradicating Ghandi’s prestige and influence from Indian society (By killing Ghandi, he made Ghandi’s ideas more widespread and made Ghandi more famous within Indian culture. Ghandi became a martyr for his cause; he was not erased from Indian ideology or culture.)?


    • Hello Sophia,
      I shall be addressing these questions in my lecture on Tue April 9. The article by Ashis Nandy, “The Final Encounter”, offers a compelling set of explanations for the assassination. Most people rightly think that Godse resented Gandhi for what he perceived to be his betrayal of Hindus, but Nandy suggests the picture is far more complicated. Much of Godse’s rage has to be do with his idea of the modern nation state and what he perceived to be Gandhi’s hostility to it. The argument that, in martyring Gandhi, Godse made him all the more famous is one that is plausible, but I suspect that even without his assassination Gandhi had already left a considerable mark on history. It could also be argued that the contours of modern India might have been quite different had Gandhi lived on for another decade or two, which is quite likely given that the iron discipline that Gandhi exercised.


  6. Hello Professor
    After reading the text “The Homeless Gandhi”, I would say that Mahatma had a great love for the nation. This is why he even went ahead and awakened the slumbering masses, thanks to his political activism. Gandhi can be said to be a down to earth man who could do anything for his people and his nation.
    My opinion is that Gandhi was for the idea of having the world at peace, and all people loving each other despite their differences. He could pity those who were oppressed, as he pitied the Indians under the colonial rule of the British. Despite challenges of lack of support from his people, he was able to achieve his dreams of uniting people. At some time, his family members had thought that Gandhi didn’t really support them.


  7. Hello Professor,

    Mahatma Gandhi had a motive of uniting the world. This is evident from the way he was against the idea of “development” which would bring divisions in India. He often felt homeless due to the fact that the country was being partitioned. He was so determined to free India from colonial rule that he vowed not to return to Sabarmati.

    Although Gandhi wanted independence for India, he was against the idea of a nation-state. I think Gandhi wanted two things at once; independence for India and unity for the whole world. This is why he even interacted with people of all sorts, even the homeless. My opinion is that Gandhi was a really selfless person.


  8. The subject of histories of homelessness and of itinerant reformers such as Gandhi, Jesus of Nazareth and Francis of Assisi is something I have never thought of before reading this blog post. Very thought provoking.


  9. Hello professor,

    After reading the article “The Homeless Gandhi”, I can say that Mahatma Gandhi did not really deserve to die. Apparently, he helped India to gain independence from the colonial rule of the British. Mahatma Gandhi had a great love for the nation, and was like a mentor to the environmentalists, vegetarians, political activists and the homeless people. He was selfless person who would sacrifice his time and resources to cater for the less fortunate citizens. Although Godse said that Gandhi’s existence would cause India to make less developments, it would actually make India a great place. The development which Gandhi was against was the one which would separate the people. Gandhi preferred a state whereby all people in the world would have unity.


  10. Ashis Nandy writes “As not a few have sensed, like Socrates and Christ before him, Gandhi knew how to use man’s sense of guilt creatively”. I found this a very thought provoking line Nandy adds at the very end of the article, got me imagining what a conversation between Socrates, Christ, and Gandhi would look like.


  11. Great article once again professor,
    My main question would be how much of Godse heritage played a role in his dissention to assassinate Gandhi I remember from the “Political assassination of Gandhi” that Godse was from the Chitpavan Brahmins who were legendary for their warrior prowess and legendary battles that they took part in to protect India. Do you feel that being from this particular group Godse felt that he had an obligation over other members of the RSS to assassinate Gandhi or was it just his personal experiences in his upbringing that compelled him to assassinate Gandhi since he wasn’t a typical member of those who opposed Gandhi .


  12. You cannot blame Ambedkar or any Dalit for saying that they have no homeland is it not? As a persecuted group, I believe it makes much sense for them to feel alienated from India. Homeless indeed. I happen to think both Gandhi and Ambedkar had incredibly simplistic and non-nuanced views. Perhaps that is the reason for their homelessness.


  13. Hello professor,
    His political efforts are strongly represented through his absolute detachment of materialistic possessions. Although some perceive him as a foreginer for having spent a long time in South Africa as you have explained in the last sentences, detaching himself from physical borders and a physical house doesnt make him less of a true Indian. Especially the second paragrah where you elaborate on the concept of home, has touched me personally, having lived apart from my family, moving from place to place since my early childhood. Thank you for this interesting read.
    -Sundo Oh-


  14. I believe Gandhi’s insistence that the Dalits must remain Hindu is one of the fundamental flaws of his analysis. I wonder if he did not recognize that Buddhism too is an inheritance of Indian civilization and perhaps the most ancient critique of chaturvarna ideology. Indeed, he would be much more respected by the Dalits of today had he recognized that the movement to embrace Buddhism was legitimate and had not opposed this.


    • Your point is well taken in its own way and worth debating. But we would have to enter into a protracted understanding of what Gandhi understood by caste, how his views on caste evolved over time, whether the distinction between caste and varna is useful, and so on. Gandhi’s understanding of Buddhism may not have been very profound; he seldom wrote on the Buddha or Buddhism. To me, at least, that remains one of the puzzles when one considers his religiosity.


  15. Pingback: Gandhi’s Religion | Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal

  16. Professor — I find it intriguing that many in India attributed Gandhi with the creation of Pakistan when he seemed to place great emphasis in Hind Swaraj on religious tolerance and unity. His conception of religion as nothing more than a system of universal ethics and a formal organization encouraged all religions to be considered legitimate, and from his views on tolerance and love I find it difficult to believe that he was even a supporter of partition.


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