Idol-worshipping gone haywire

This is a followup to the comments on my post on Gandhian Self-sufficiency.

It is more than a bit unfortunate that we have a tendency to immediately label any criticism of any person as a sign of disrespect. Any person whose image cannot withstand the harsh glare of honest criticism says something about the fragility of that image. The image takes on a aura of such holiness and awe that any hint of possible flaws is taken as sacrilegious. Taken to an extreme, this sort of idol-worshipping ends up with the worshippers lynching anyone daring to profane the sacred image.

For the record, I do believe that Gandhi was a giant of a man. But for all his greatness, he was still cut from the same cloth as you and I. The same human frailties, the same hopes and ambitions and fears. The difference between a Gandhi and one of us is one of size, not of substance. If we keep that in mind — not just about Gandhi but everyone — I do believe that we would have a useful working hypothesis. Those great big people are magnified images of ourselves. And that which magnifies the virtues, magnifies the flaws as well. An old Chinese saying says that the bigger the front-side, the larger the back-side.

I heard that Chinese saying on the radio (I think it was Fresh Air with Terry Gross.) The program was about the late Joseph Campbell. Campbell was a great big man whose work on the power of myths is legendary. I have enormous respect for the man. So I was fairly shocked to learn on that radio discussion that he was an anti-semite. The mind reeled. How could that be! A man with so much obvious humanity stooping so low? Then one of the discussants mentioned that Chinese saying and I had a sort of epiphany.

The epiphany was of the type that accompanies growing up, of maturing. I realized that all my heroes have pretty large backsides, just as much as they have front-sides. The two men I admired the most, the Buddha and Einstein, too had large backsides. That realization deepened my understanding of who they were and why I respect them. Knowing that they too have their faults did not imply that I stopped considering them worthy of respect, but only that they were more like me than I would have suspected. That is what happens, I suspect, in the case of parents and children. As children we grow up adulating our parents. At some point in our lives, we do realize that they too have their faults. Rarely do children end up losing their love and respect for the parents.

All I am trying to do here is to explain that my criticism of Gandhi does not imply that I don’t consider him worthy of respect. I do not consider anyone above criticism and that goes with a greater force for someone placed on so high a pedestal as he. Idol-worshipping, it would appear, is not limited to the religious sphere in India; it creeps into the political sphere as well. That is not to say that all other peoples are not guilty of idol-worshipping as well. Only that in India it has been taken to stratospheric levels. Mention the name “Gandhi” and people are willing to believe and do anything. A recent display of that sort of insanity was when a bunch threatened to commit suicide unless a certain Gandhi became the prime minister of India.

Here is what my position is with regards to Gandhi and Nehru. Gandhi is widely acknowledged to be the Father of the nation. OK, I am willing to grant that. Then I look around and see the nation and find it less than desirable. Therefore, I conclude that there must have been something the matter with the father if the child (the nation) is so pathetic. I am merely taking the argument to its logical conclusion. Gandhi was great; he was the father of the nation; the nation is pathetic; ergo, the father was not perfect. Now some would argue that Gandhi was great and he is the father of the nation, but it is not his fault that the nation is pathetic. My objection to that would be that you cannot have it both ways: if he was the father, then both the praise and the blame for his progeny rest at his feet. You cannot simultaneously claim that he was the father and yet assign no responsibility for the way things turned out. It is logically consistent to say that he was a great man but the nation did not follow what he preached. In that case, he was not the father of the nation.

The same goes with Nehru. It is silly to praise Nehru for all sorts of supposedly good stuff he is responsible for and to adorn each and every public institution with his or his progeny’s name and turn a blind eye to the disasters that he and his progeny have inflicted on an adoring nation. I find it bitterly ironic that educational institutions carry Indira Gandhi’s name when she was strictly opposed to education for the masses. Every time I come across the name of the Indira Gandhi National Open University, I can only marvel at the blinkered pig-ignorance that motivates the naming of educational institutions after her. I don’t think that there will ever be an institute called the “Adolf Hitler Institute for Jewish Advancement”.

My basic concern is to figure out what is the reason for what India is today. How did it get here? Is there something wrong with our national character? Is it that external forces have ruined us? Where did we go wrong? Were our policies good and if so, what explains the state of India today? If our policies were bad, who was responsible? What can we do so as to correct our mistakes? What were the mistakes and why were they made?

One cannot hope to answer those questions if there are some people and some policies that are not to be questioned. I think that unless we can critically look at the past, we may end up repeating the mistakes that were made. I suspect that most of us are fairly well off and we don’t really believe that India is badly off at all. So we are comfortably numb to the real state of affairs, because acknowledging otherwise would be to burden oneself with the unpleasant task of doing something about it. We pretend that there are no hard problems and therefore no real hard work needs to be done. And if someone turns up with bad news, we heap abuse on the messenger and when he goes away, we will continue to live happily ever after.

This messenger is here to stay for a bit longer.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

10 thoughts on “Idol-worshipping gone haywire”

  1. I can’t but agree with what you’ve just written on this post.

    People are fallible and policies should be questioned at all times. I’d sure like to read more about what these national blunders were that you attribute to Nehruvian and Gandhian policies.

    Someone once told me that the ancient Indians figured out government/economics and all that very well. Now when I ask them the question that how is it that we find ourselves in such a mess if that were true. The answer I get blames all of it squarely on the long years of foreign rule on India… I find that a little too hard to believe that a society could reach such an apex in its glory and then succumb to external forces without any problems inherent in itself.

    I keep coming back to thinking of what you’ve just so eloquently put forth. Idol worship and glorification of people and not enough criticism of their fallacies and mistakes have led us on this path of degeneracy.

    The only prudent thing would be to make an about-turn and not go down that path anymore.

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  2. I don’t think you read your comments carefully. From what I can read, neither Praveen nor Niket seem to claim Gandhi is infallible. I have objected to certain arguments you have put forth, because I think they are wrong.

    Yes, personally, I do believe that we spend too much time analysing one particular question that you say is your concern , i.e. “If our policies were bad, who was responsible?”. And by far, much of what I have read so far (and not just in your blog) seems to indicate that we affix responsibility more out of hindsight than any true appreciation of the context in which such decisions were made and the times in which these people lived.

    You said “India has to look very critically at the burden we bear of the legacy of Gandhi. We must choose to free ourselves from a blind uncritical acceptance of a defunct ideology.”

    Lol. There is no legacy of Gandhi. If he was around, he would have laughed at that statement. Defunct ideology? Except maybe for Anna Hazare’s modest experiment at Ralegaon, it has never existed in the first place. I would rather wish more people were “at least aware of his ideology”.

    Finally, am I heaping abuse on the messenger? Is anyone here pretending that there are no hard problems and no hard work needs to be done? To say we are comfortably numb to the real state of affairs is to give yourself too much credit.

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  3. Gandhi is supposed to be this “original” saint with a world view so radical that, not just in India, he is regarded on par with Jesus and Buddha. Martin Luther King followed in Gandhi’s footsteps but he gets no such adulation, at least not to that degree. The reason is that in Gandhi’s case, the British left the scene, and his posterity (Nehru and the Congress) used him as an unreal projection that they could hide behind. In the case of King, the white man never left the scene, and the black movement did not have full centerstage to gloat on King’s personality, and he did not reach cult status. It will be interesting to see what happens to Mandela’s legacy. My sense is that in a world where everything is so under scrutiny and attention spans are short, the kind of propaganda that carried Gandhi’s legacy is not possible today.

    Now, Gandhi’s ideas were not all that original, he basically was influenced by Thoreau and Emerson, and where he excelled was drawing analogies with the Gita and applying this in the Indian context. This is something the Marxists could never do. If you read Thoreau’s thoughts on Civil Disobedience, you get a good idea.

    Of course, all this is nothing new. Everyone knows that Gandhi was influenced by Thoreau. The point I am making is that Gandhi was a great man who excelled in a cetain environment. It is not just the person, but the combination with circumstances that create a cult. The same Gandhi would have been fodder in Nazi Germany. When there are no huge turning points, heroes cannot be created. Indira and Rajiv and Sonia will be footnotes in history, though they had and will have moments in the sun. Self rule was a big turning point. Gandhi represented the end of an era and Nehru a beginning of another. That is why they are idols. To either praise them effusively or to lambast them for future faults of society is just not useful, leave alone right or wrong. Every culture or country or society needs a few heroes, and we had a couple. As with all worship, there is no sense of proportion. Very exaggerated, no doubt and damaging, absolutely, but we just have to pick up the pieces and move on.

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  4. “a tendency to immediately label any criticism of any person as a sign of disrespect”
    If my comments made you think so, the problem is in my expression of thoughts. I didn’t consider this disrespect at all. I believe that we NEED to question even those whom we worship. My personal case: I don’t agree at all to Gandhiji’s ideas, but I still worship (well, almost) him.

    People like Gandhi and Nehru have left behind a stong legacy. Its up to us to mould their ideals into what suits our country the best. Self reliance, self denial, disobedience were the need of the hour (again, this is debatable) 60 years ago. Continuing on that legacy is not pragmatic, and Gandhiji need not be “blamed” for a lack of vision in the later generations.

    BTW, I do object to the remark about Kasturba… what they did (or did not) in their own bedroom is none of our business.

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  5. A side-effect of criticizing a person instead of an idea is that the discussion veers into unintended direction. We are debating now about people’s falliability and idol worship, whereas I believe that the more important issue is how the idea of independent village (as opposed to a global village) affects where we stand as a nation. I also find the issue of “what if” very intriguing. It should be used to understand what we need to do for the future, not to gloss over lost “opportunities”.

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  6. This is what I think, I had sent this to Atanu in an email, he thinks it should go here:

    I think it was a
    >phenomenal thing to get so many people to work for the
    >same cause…but I think if it was not for Gandhi we
    >would have got our independence a lot earlier thanks
    >to people like Chandrashekar Azad.
    >
    >I never had a framework to explain it, till I read
    >your post on “first-best” worlds.

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  7. Prakash,
    Your argument also borders on “what if,” and one can simply not know an answer to that. Before Gandhiji burst into the scene, we had freedom struggles going on for a while – one can argue since 1857. With indigineous support for the British and the disinclination of Maharajas to support the freedom struggle, I am not sure if a violent movement would have succeeded the way we assume it would have.

    I believe anti-violence (Non-violence does not appropriately describe the spirit of ahimsa) was the right way for India to gain independence.

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