Historical figure Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi isn’t above controversy even today, The Washington Post reported. On what would be Gandhi’s 150th birthday, historians find themselves highlighting less ideal facets of his life. The Indian icon’s beliefs suggest sexism, racism, and classism.
According to the Washington Post article, during Gandhi’s time in South Africa, he repeatedly claimed black Africans were inferior to Indians. Also in the spotlight is Gandhi’s defense of India’s caste system, with several historians saying he “believed in preserving hereditary roles for different caste groups in Indian society rather than eradicating them,” the article said. Some say that this was merely a way of Gandhi keeping the ruling elites happy as he preached independence for India. His political and moral philosophies were often contradictory, if not troubled, despite the good he did preaching nonviolence and inspiring leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.
Gandhi the Conservative
Though he traveled the world and spoke multiple languages, Gandhi’s heart was always in furthering India as a nation. Some of his ideas would resonate with modern conservatives, including decentralized power, a wariness of the global economy, and more.
“Gandhi thought India’s salvation lay in small, self-sustaining village communities that lived off minimalist means,” said Dr. Hayden J. Bellenoit, Associate Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy. “Gandhi believed that the centralized nation-state, which the British had built up and which Indian nationalists very much wanted to inherit, would sap away from India’s civilization and moral character. To Gandhi, it wasn’t Indian to have a large, centralized, and powerful state.”
This idea was supplemented by Gandhi’s belief that the lower classes of society merely needed to pull themselves up by the bootstraps to advance in life, despite the caste system in India.
Another conservative-leaning trait of Gandhi’s was his view of female modesty. A traditionalist, Gandhi believed a woman’s place was in the home. In one instance, when local boys taunted a girl and she complained, Gandhi suggested “that her hair be cut off for not being shameful enough,” Dr. Bellenoit said.
Gandhi also shunned contraception. “He held an almost puritan, Victorian attitude towards sexual energy, and said that sexual energy should only be used for procreation and service of the nation,” Dr. Bellenoit said.
Gandhi the Liberal
On the other hand, Gandhi’s beliefs also smacked of today’s liberalism, including eschewing materialism, doing social work, and advocating for the poor.
Gandhi developed a tool called “ahimsa,” which advocated a lack of desire to commit violence. Dr. Bellenoit gave a hypothetical example of a law being passed banning public gatherings. To challenge the law, people may gather in public, leading to the police forcibly removing them. The urge would be to fight back, but by responding without violence, the public would make the police look like bullies.
“So by taking the moral high ground and not responding with violence, people could expose the futility of a government’s actions and policies,” Dr. Bellenoit said.
He was also a staunch critic of the ties between missionary Christianity and government. “Though many observers at the time thought the British Empire was divinely ordained to spread the gospel, Gandhi offered one of the most cutting critiques of this idea,” Dr. Bellenoit said. “The British and the West were powerful not because of Christianity, he said, but in spite of it. He noted that European Christians rarely practiced what they preached.” Meanwhile, he often fought for Hindu-Muslim coexistence, or religious pluralism, which many conservatives decried.
Finally, in his early life, Gandhi was an advocate for many causes that are considered to be politically left-of-center today, including vegetarianism, civil rights, and anti-discrimination laws. These causes came up during his time living in England and in South Africa, respectively.
Gandhi’s life was one of contradiction. His beliefs often stood at odds with one another and he seemed to speak to opposing sides of an issue simultaneously. It may be fitting, then, that while once hailed as a hero of India, his story is increasingly scrutinized.
Dr. Hayden J. Bellenoit contributed to this article. Dr. Bellenoit is an Associate Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy. After graduating summa cum laude in History and Economics from Wheaton College, he attended Oxford University, where he completed his master of studies in Historical Research and his doctor of philosophy in Modern History.