Yesterday, the History News Network posted an article by Joseph Kip Kosek, author of Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy. In the article, “Selling Gandhi,” Kosek writes about the very un-Gandhian spectacle of Gandhi’s personal effects being auctioned off to the highest bidders. While many critics see the auction as a violation of sorts, Kosek suggests that while Gandhi often tried to resist the trappings of modernity and materialism, he would also use them when it served his purposes. Throughout his life, Gandhi balanced the modern and the anti-modern to define his mode of politics.
Kosek argues that Gandhi was “entangled in American ‘materialism and commercialism,'” and was a “canny participant” in the modern world. Gandhi was adept at using news media to get his message across and present an image of himself to the world. However, this more complicated and “less pure” image of Gandhi in many ways serves as a better reflection of the man himself and his message. Kosek writes:
Even the most distinctive emblems of Gandhian austerity, his clothes, could be commodified. Krishnalal Shridharani, a participant in the March to the Sea who later lived in the United States, noted back in 1939 that the Indian leader’s peculiar dress had its own presence in popular culture. “As an originator of fashions,” Shridharani wrote, “Gandhi can well be the envy of Hollywood stars.” Movies and the mahatma were, perhaps, more amenable than we think. Long before Gandhi’s sandals were auctioned, his photogenic persona was “sold” in American mass media as a symbol of moral integrity, a symbol that generated international sympathy for Indian independence.
To stress Gandhi’s engagement with the modern world might seem to impugn his motives or cast doubt on his sincerity, but that would be a misunderstanding. Instead, the point is that he is, in Salman Rushdie’s words, “infinitely more interesting” than his well-meaning protectors allow. His creative uses of media, technology, and popular culture showed that, as Rushdie puts it, “Gandhian intelligence” may be more powerful than “Gandhian piety.” Gandhi the distant saint is more comfortable, but Gandhi the endlessly resourceful innovator is far more relevant to our current crises of violence and injustice.