The conundrum of Gandhi for us is not he was a mass of contradictions. That we know. We know his views of celibacy. We know his views on modern medicine. He wrote that railways spread the bubonic plague and machinery was a “great sin.” We know that the apostle of non-violence volunteered for active service and tried to recruit troops from Bihar for the bloodbath in Flanders in 1918. He called off his civil disobedience movement after the killings at the Chauri Chaura police station but was perfectly willing to say, in 1942, that “rivers of blood” might be the “price of freedom.”
The uncomfortable truth for us is that we cannot just pretend that the inconsistencies of Gandhi’s positions were just milestones on his own road to spiritual evolution. Gandhi saw no inconsistency in his many U-turns because he saw himself as a “vessel of divine intention”. As Anderson writes:
Truth was not an objective value – correspondence to reality, or even (in a weaker version) common agreement – but simply what he subjectively felt at any given time. ‘It has been my experience,’ he wrote, ‘that I am always true from my point of view.’
...His religious belief in himself was rock-like, impervious to doubt or objection, guaranteeing in the final resort that all he said, no matter how apparently contradictory, formed a single bloc of truth, as so many scattered words of God.
Gandhi said that since he was called "Great Soul" he might as well endorse Emerson's saying that "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." We who have made him the Father of the Nation must live with mischief unleashed by those little hobgoblins. Therefore we focus on the fact that he thought untouchability was an odious sin and drew the untouchables to him as God’s people. We remember that he threatened to fast unto death when the British considered giving the untouchables the right to their own electorate. Of course, he was worried that that was just part of the Empire’s divide and rule arithmetic and an attack on the reputation of Hinduism. But we gloss over the more inconvenient truth as Anderson points out.
Gandhi, though he had long condemned Untouchability as odious, had never taken any drastic political action against it: sin it might be, but not sufficiently mortal to warrant a fast unto death. Granting Untouchables their own rolls was another matter. Against that he would put his life on the line.
On every issue - Islam, untouchables, caste, sex, even violence – Gandhi was literally an experiment with truth. (Read Anderson’s full essay here to get the full scope of his arguments.)
But we cannot really take on those contradictions about the Father of the Nation without having to address them within ourselves. Anderson says Gandhi’s achievements came at a huge cost to the cause which he served. How steep was that cost? We know no way to wrestle with that question without appearing to challenge the greatness of Gandhi. So far better to just change the topic - did he or didn’t he do it with that bodybuilder? That becomes the million dollar question.
Or these days, some would say, it is the 1.28 million dollar question.