2 May 2008 ... Few scholars match Margaret Chatterjee's outstanding contribution to Gandhi studies. We are all in her debt, for example, for her Gandhi’s Religious Thought (1983) ... Antony Copley
Firstly the text addresses some of the non-Indian influences on Gandhi, with special reference to the Russian and in the shape of Mazzini, the Italian. The big idea he learnt from the Russians, and this embraced both Madame Blavatsky and Tolstoy, and one that he could not have learnt from his own culture, was brotherhood.
One completely new name she introduces is that of Timofei Bondariev, a peasant who converted to Judaism during the pogroms of the 1880s and set up Jewish agrarian communities. Was this the origin of Gandhi’s idea of bread labour ? She also speculates that Gandhi may have taken the idea of the oceanic circle from Peter Kropotkin. Had Henry Salt taken him to hear the Russian anarchist lecture in London ? Of course Gandhi as a religious man differed from the Russian populists with their secular often atheist agenda, but there was much in common in the ways they addressed the needs of the Russian and Indian peasantry and there still remains a great book to be written on the comparative histories of those peasantries.
Mazzini as a man of God is far closer to Gandhi. The fascination of early Indian nationalism, above all in Bengal, with the Italian is of course well known – I traced it myself in an essay Congress and the Risorgimento: A Comparative Study of Nationalism, published in The Indian National Congress: Centenary Hindsights edited by D A Low (OUP1988) – but Chatterjee rightly reminds us that Mazzini looked beyond the nation to ‘the good of all’. My concern is whether both Mazzini and Gandhi overprivileged the role of religion in politics. Chatterjee also wryly acknowledges that modern Indian admirers of Gramsci use just the same Gramscian critique of Mazzini’s failure to endorse a genuine social revolution in Italy to fault Gandhi’s to do the same in India.
Chatterjee now turns to the more metaphysical aspects of Gandhi’s thought and in highly original chapters explores his attitudes towards vows, deception and war. This is where his readiness to compromise comes under review. Gandhi clearly was wedded to the taking of vows – think of those to his mother, to brahmacharyaor celibacy, to what was to prove to be the birth of satyagraha in the Empire theatre in Johannesburg in 1906.
I detect some ambiguity here. Curiously Gandhi was very impressed by Charles Bradlaugh’s refusal to take a vow except on his own terms when elected an MP and even attended the funeral of this outspoken atheist. Yet he was less than sympathetic to Charles Andrews who rued the day he had taken a vow to believe in the 39 articles on becoming an Anglican priest. When it comes to Gandhi’s attitudes to war, she speculates that he may have come up with the idea of ‘a moral equivalent to war’ in nonviolence from William James.