The Trouble with Gandhi

It’s rare today to hear criticism of Gandhi. About the only quarters where you hear that kind of talk are the extreme atheists for whom every deeply religious person is a dangerous zealot. So it surprised me when I recently read this here:

You ask whether totalitarianism, leader-worship etc. are really on the up-grade and instance the fact that they are not apparently growing in this country [England] and the USA.

I must say I believe, or fear, that taking the world as a whole these things are on the increase. Hitler, no doubt, will soon disappear, but only at the expense of strengthening (a) Stalin, (b) the Anglo-American millionaires and (c) all sorts of petty fuhrers of the type of de Gaulle. All the national movements everywhere, even those that originate in resistance to German domination, seem to take non-democratic forms, to group themselves round some superhuman fuhrer (Hitler, Stalin, Salazar, Franco, Gandhi, De Valera are all varying examples) and to adopt the theory that the end justifies the means.

-George Orwell, 1944

It’s unexpected to see Gandhi lumped in with Stalin and Hitler, especially by someone so politically astute as Orwell. (And by the way don’t forget to notice that he also lumped “Anglo-American millionaires” in with that illustrious group.)

Now, it may be that Orwell just got it wrong. If you play the game of “which one does not belong,” Gandhi was the only one of the group that was poor, primarily working for the poor, and not seeking to empower or create an empire. Nevertheless, it is very worth remembering that he was in fact the head of a cult of personality.

Organizations that come together around the charisma of a strong personality are a problem. Often, as in the case of Stalin, it leads to terrible abuses of power. Gandhi did have some weird personal habits, but obviously nothing in the ballpark of Stalin. But even benevolent powerful leaders are a problem because when they die, everyone is obsessed with finding the next great leader. The reality is that concentrations of power around a single person are usually disastrous for everyone else. Look at the history of kings, popes, CEOs, presidents, quarterbacks, and other dictatorial positions. We look for the next great leader, only to 90% of the time be stuck with The Mad King So-and-So.

This has proven a big problem in Buddhism. All too often a great accomplished monk will gather around a large following. Then they die and their successors are less benevolent. And now you’re stuck with an ugly totalitarian organization.

To mind mind, this was one of the most amazing facts of the Buddha’s life. Instead of creating a Buddhist Pope, and leaving a position that was impossible to fill, he ordered his followers NOT to try to fill his shoes. Follow the dhamma. So the next time you find yourself following a person instead of the dhamma, remember: that’s not what the Buddha taught. Or Orwell.



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