Thoughts on economics and liberty

Research into Gandhi’s views on suicide and fasting #2

Back from the gym. This intriguing topic is compelling me to study the issue some more. Hence a second tranche of research findings, to be (separately) followed by another – an entire article by Gandhi on fasting. 


Yet Gandhi did not advocate the mere exaltation of life as an end in itself; nor did he believe in martyrdom. He said about a follower of his, who was threatening to fast unto death to gain his interest and was on the point of death: "I would rather that he lost his life than that untruth succeeded." And he shocked some of his more orthodox and literal interpreters of ahimsa, when he permitted the doctor to put to sleep, by an injection, a calf in his ashram which was in excruciating pain. [Source: N. A. Nikam, Gandhi's Philosophy, The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Jun., 1954), pp. 668-678]


This one is from: Anthony Parel, Symbolism in Gandhian Politics, Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Dec., 1969), pp. 513-527


Of all the Gandhian symbols, fasting was probably the most typical. It represented the following set of values. First the value of vicarious suffering in political action. Gandhi believed that all social and political conflicts had a dimension of sinfulness, and that atonement for them, by means of vicarious suffering, was necessary.Through the use of this symbol one sought to remind the community of the spiritual and moral foundations of social and political relations, and to reduce, if possible, the volume of moral evil in oneself and in society, and consequently, the volume of political violence. The most obvious example of the use of this symbol is Gandhi's famous fasts to restore political harmony between Hindus and Muslims.

Secondly, fasting was a means of self-purification, of acquiring mastery of the spirit over the body, of obtaining spiritual clarity in times of political and social confusion.

Thirdly, fasting represented the value of voluntary suffering. In conflict situations one resorted to it as a means of non-violent political persuasion. Gandhi attached very stringent conditions to the adoption of this symbol in the political arena. First of all, one had to take into account the state of the public opinion in regard to the effectiveness of the fast.' Secondly the issue on which a fast is contemplated must be just. Thirdly, the motive which prompts fasting must be the vindication of truth and justice as the one who fasts sees them, and not embarrassment or blackmail of the adversary. Fourthly, one must be sure, at least subjectively, of a divine inspiration to undertake the fast.

Because of the difficulty in meeting these conditions, and because of the abuses most likely to occur, Gandhi most frequently discouraged others from using this symbol. He claimed for himself an expert knowledge of how and when to use this symbol. Gandhi's idea was that great moral integrity was required for the effective use of this symbol; otherwise it would be merely an exploitation of the public's high regard for a spiritual act."
Gandhi had also a strict code of manipulating the fast-symbol. After fulfilling all the conditions mentioned above, the one who fasts must declare his intention to fast to the public, to the individual or group in regard to whom the fast is going to be undertaken. This must be followed by bargaining and negotiations. If the negotiations fail, the fast must be actually undertaken. During the fast, however, negotiations must be continued. Such devices as press conferences, private meetings with the "adversary," mass petitions, pacification councils, joint declarations, even token sympathy fasts, hartal (that is a token general strike for a specific period of time), renunciation of public honors and offices may also be used to press home the truth and justice of the issue involved.
If there are related symbols they may also be utilized during the time of fasts. Thus during the first fast, undertaken to restore Hindu-Muslim harmony, Gandhi stayed in the home of his famous Muslim friends, the Ali brothers. Similarly, if the fast was undertaken to restore religious harmony, during the days of the fast, sections from the sacred books of the relevant religions would be read, and appropriate religious hymns would be sung by eminent leaders. Gandhi attached great dramatic significance to the manner of ending a fast. For example, the famous fast in favour of the outcastes, undertaken in 1933, was supposed to have been ended by Gandhi taking the glass of orange juice from the hands of an Outcaste. Similarly, the Calcutta fast of 1947, undertaken to restore Hindu-Muslim peace was ended when Mr. Suhrawardy, the Muslim leader (and later the chief minister of East Bengal), handed the orange juice, and the last fast (1948), undertaken also for Hindu-Muslim peace, was ended with Abul Kalam Azad, the Muslim minister of education handing the orange juice. Gandhi clearly understood mass psychology, and the fact that without the aid of political imagination and political emotions the most rational and just of political goals could never be restored. He verified this insight by the method of manipulating the fast-symbol.
The virtues particularly relevant to the effective use of the fast-symbol were chastity, truth, and fortitude. For fasting was a means "for the attainment of the spirit's supremacy over the flesh," of "crucifying the flesh" which was necessary for the practice of Gandhian politics. With the aid of fast one acquired spiritual vision, and thus arrived at a better grasp of the truth of the question involved." Recall also Gandhi's dictum, "What eyes are for the outer world, fasts are for the inner." And without fortitude one could not endure the hardships and suffering involved in the use of this symbol.'

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