On August 12, 1918, Mahatma Gandhi was felled by a severe bout of dysentery and high fever. His condition improved over the weeks but just about. Lassitude and infirmity overtook him for a good five months, compelling him to dictate letters instead of writing them himself. He often imagined he was dying.

Of those torrid months, Gandhi wrote in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, that he felt he was at “death’s door”. In September, a month after being bed-ridden, Vallabhbhai Patel brought Dr Kanuga to examine Gandhi. The doctor took his pulse and said, “I see absolutely no danger. There is a nervous breakdown due to extreme weakness.”

Nervous breakdown is popularly (mis)understood to be a mental breakdown. It is instead a condition in which a person suffering from acute anxiety becomes physically and mentally debilitated to the point that their daily routine is severely disrupted. It is often accompanied by a lack of purpose. For Gandhi, the disruption lasted all of five months, evident in the letters he wrote to his friends and relatives during this period.

For instance, to his eldest son Harilal, Gandhi wrote on October 2, 1918, “I have a feeling that I am now going. I have very little time left.” As late as in December, he cited his illness as the reason for not attending a Congress session.

What then was at the root of Gandhi’s anxiety that led him to suffer a “nervous breakdown”?

Gandhi’s incapacitation

This question is dealt with at considerable length by psychoanalyst Erik H Erikson (1902- 1994) in his magisterial work, Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence.

About Gandhi’s incapacitation, Erikson writes,

“….What interests us today is not whether he really was or only imagined himself to be deathly ill. The question is what caused this man at that historical moment to become the living and suffering centre of a conflict between two alternatives which had always existed in men’s mind.”

One of these alternatives, Erikson writes, is to “seek immortality and glory through killing or being killed, in the heroic defence of a territory or world-image (or an idea) deemed in mortal danger”. The other is to save “one’s soul at the risk of losing one’s life in extending even to the enemy the faith of human love”.

The latter encapsulated Gandhi’s idea of satyagraha, which demanded that its practitioners willingly court suffering, even death, in their resistance to oppression instead of violently retaliating against the oppressor. The true satyagrahi cultivated love for his opponents and, therefore, sought to reform, not annihilate and exterminate, them. Gandhi believed satyagraha was the weapon of the brave and strong, not of the weak and meek.

But this belief of Gandhi’s came under severe strain in the summer of 1918, largely because Erikson’s “two alternatives” came to a head through Gandhi’s twin decisions and actions. The theatre for the clash of the two alternatives was in Kheda district, Gujarat. Its consequence was to trigger an existential crisis for Gandhi: Were his principles of satyagraha based on erroneous assumptions? Had he misunderstood the people whom he wished to lead in the search, and battle, for truth?

Mahatma Gandhi eats his last meal before the start of his fast in Rajkot, in 1939. (Photo credit: Old Indian Photos/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY public domain in India]).

Fresh from his political battles in Champaran and Ahmedabad, Gandhi turned his attention to Kheda district, where the crops had failed in 1917. Under the existing law a poor harvest permitted the authorities to suspend or waive revenue collection. After an extensive survey of the district, Gandhi and his comrades deemed that the revenue collection should indeed be deferred. The government, however, shot down the demand and threatened, under the law, to attach the moveable and immovable assets of defaulters.

This prompted Gandhi to launch what is now known as the Kheda Satyagraha. On March 22, 1918, at Nadiad, a town in Kheda, a pledge was taken:

“We the undersigned…solemnly declare that we shall not pay the assessment for the year whether it be wholly or in part; we shall leave it to the Government to take any legal steps they choose to enforce recovery of the same and we shall undergo all the sufferings that this may involve. We shall also allow our lands to be confiscated should they do so.”

The satyagraha in Kheda elicited an enthusiastic response. In the main, the farmers upheld the pledge they had taken, compelling the administration, after months of confrontation, to suspend the collection of taxes even though Gandhi thought its decision was taken without grace. The Kheda movement educated the nation on the efficacy of satyagraha as a political weapon.

Yet, ironically, Kheda complicated Gandhi’s own understanding of satyagraha. Even as the movement in Kheda was underway, Gandhi attended the War Conference that the Viceroy Lord Chelmsford had convened between April 27 and April 29 in Delhi. Its aim was to recruit an additional five lakh Indian soldiers for the Great War in Europe.

Not only did Gandhi participate in the conference, he wrote a letter to the Viceroy’s secretary saying, “I have an idea that, if I became your recruiting agent-in-chief, I might rain men on you.”

In another letter to the secretary, Gandhi wrote, “I wish respectfully to state that I place my services at the disposal of the authorities to be utilised by them in any manner they choose, save that I personally will not kill or injure anybody, friend or foe.”

It might be asked, as some did then, whether Indians were to be recruited to feed Germany’s war machine.

Gandhi’s position did shock some who thought his offer to become the “recruiting agent-in-chief” violated the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence. But Gandhi had his reasons, which he spelt out in the Appeal for Enlistment leaflet of June 22, 1918, its arguments subsequently repeated in several of his letters. India’s assistance, the Appeal said, would make it “as much partners in the Empire as the Dominions (like Canada and Australia) overseas”.

But to become equal partners it was important for India to have the ability to defend itself. The leaflet went on to argue,

“It behoves us, therefore, to learn the use of arms and to acquire the ability to defend ourselves. If we want to learn the use of arms with the greatest possible despatch, it is our duty to enlist ourselves in the army.” To participate in the defence of the Empire was also the “easiest and straightest way” to win Home Rule. Why? This was because “if the Empire wins mainly with the help of our army, it is obvious that we would secure the rights we want”.

The Appeal for Enlistment was issued at Nadiad, which was where the pledge not to pay revenue to the government had been taken in March 1918. The Appeal reflected Gandhi’s desperation – Kheda had barely responded to his drive for recruitment. At times, the logic he employed to convince his audience was warped or, to quote Erikson, “appalling”. For instance, Bombay government records quote Gandhi telling his listeners in Nadiad on June 17, “Many men died of plague and cholera and so it would not be a hard thing to die in the war.”

His logic was similar to that used in all recruiting schemes that sacrifice a given number of men for the common good, Erikson writes. A reading of the Appeal suggests that Gandhi had entered the zone of darkness. Sample this:

“There are 600 villages in Kheda district. Every village has on an average a population of over 1,000. If every village gave at least twenty men, Kheda district would be able to raise an army of 12,000 men. The population of the whole district is seven lakhs and this number will then work out at 1.7 per cent, a rate which is lower than the death rate.”

Apart from the chilling statistical analysis, the Appeal noted,

“If every village gives at least twenty men, on their return from the war they will be the living bulwarks of their village. If they fall on the battle-field, they will immortalise themselves, their village and their country, and twenty fresh men will follow their example and offer themselves for national defence.”  

The idea of seeking glory through killing or being killed seemed to have seduced Gandhi.

But it did not seduce Kheda, nor, for instance, Patna. Government records tell us that when Gandhi, on May 25, exhorted an estimated crowd of 8,000 people in Patna to raise a Republican Army and called on them “‘to go along with him and go wherever the Government directed’, a fairly large number of people quietly slipped away”. Both Bihar and Gujarat had been the sites of Gandhi’s satyagraha (Champaran and Kheda), and both had rejected him on the recruitment issue.

Gandhi fasting in 1924 with a young Indira Nehru. (Photo credit: Yann/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY public domain in India])

Dark thoughts

The tepid response to Gandhi’s recruitment drive prompted him to issue yet another Appeal for Enlistment. The leaflet opened with the information:

“It is a month today since the first leaflet was written. During that time my fellow workers and myself have had a good deal of experience. I take the liberty to put before you the experiences we have had.”

Never one to shy away from confessing to facts acutely embarrassing to him, Gandhi said,

“Barely a hundred men have come forward. I find this to be too small a figure, considering the one month that has gone into it and the travelling it has entailed. When I think of the condition of the people, I feel that it is a wonder that even so many men have come forward.”

This was akin to putting an optimistic spin to the popular rejection of his idea of recruiting soldiers for the war. Nevertheless, an existential crisis had its grip on Gandhi, the intimations of which are palpable in his letters of this period. Thus, on June 23, 1918, he wrote to CF Andrews, principal, St Stephen’s College, Delhi,

“You cannot teach ahimsa to a man who cannot kill. You cannot make a dumb man appreciate the beauty and the merit of silence.”

So to whom should ahimsa be taught? Gandhi told Andrews,

“I shall best spread the gospel of ahimsa, or satyagraha by asking the himsak (militant) men to work out their himsa in the least offensive manner, and may succeed, in the very act, in making them realise the better worth of ahimsa.”

Gandhi elaborated upon this idea in his June 26 speech at Ras, Kheda. The Bombay Chronicle reported him as saying,

“Our mightiest weapon, satyagraha, is always with us. But he cannot be a satyagrahi who is afraid of death. The ability to use physical force is necessary for a true appreciation of satyagraha. He alone can practise ahimsa who knows how to kill, i.e., knows what himsa is.”

In a June 30 letter to Esther Faering, a member of Danish Missionary Society, Gandhi returned to the theme of violence and non-violence. The Mahatma wrote:

“What am I to advise a man to do who wants to kill but is unable owing to his being maimed? Before I can make him feel the virtue of not killing, I must restore to him the arm he has lost.”

He then asked a counter-question: “Must we all then first try to become Sandows [the German body-builder] before we can love perfectly?” He almost sounds Nietzschean.

To Faering, though, Gandhi replied,

“This seems to be unnecessary. It is enough if we can face the world without flinching. It is personal courage that is an absolute necessity. And some will acquire that courage after they have been trained to fight.” 

In other words, at least for some, fighting is a rite of passage for becoming a satyagrahi.

Perhaps conscious of his own darkled thoughts, Gandhi poured his heart out to Faering:

“I am passing through new experiences. I am struggling to express myself. Some things are still obscure to me…I am praying for light and guidance and am acting with the greatest deliberation. Do please write and fight every inch of the ground that to you may appear untenable.” 

The last sentence is Gandhi’s desperate cry to be saved from his own thoughts.

Internal crisis

His failure to secure recruits for the Army in Kheda was in sharp contrast to his success in inspiring the farmers there not to pay revenue to the government. What then explained Kheda’s contradictory responses? Why did it show courage in one instance and not in the other?

To Andrews, who had contested some of his ideas underlying the recruitment drive, Gandhi wrote on July 6,

“When friends told me here that passive resistance was taken up by the people as a weapon of the weak, I laughed at the libel, as I called it then. But they were right and I was wrong.” He said that, barring a few exceptions, for the “majority it was purely and simply passive resistance what they resorted to, because they were too weak to undertake methods of violence. This discovery was forced on me repeatedly in Kaira [Kheda].” 

That this discovery had triggered a crisis in him is obvious from these lines in his letter to Andrews. “I hardly want to talk to anybody. I do not want even to write anything, not even these thoughts of mine,” Gandhi wrote.

Nevertheless, he did pen a confession:

“I fear that the people whether in Champaran or in Kaira would not fearlessly walk to the gallows, or stand a shower of bullets and yet say, in one case, ‘we will not pay the revenue’, and in the other, ‘we will not work for you’. They have it not in them.”

This estimate of his about the people acquired an emphatic tone of certitude in his July 29 letter to Andrews. Gandhi wrote,

“I find great difficulties in recruiting but do you know that not one man has yet objected because he would not kill. They object because they fear to die.”

In other words, Kheda had embraced satyagraha merely as a weapon of the weak, to the horror of Gandhi.

On the same day, he also wrote a letter to the Gujarati writer Kishorelal Mashruwala, imagining the possible impact of teaching non-violence to a child who had been beaten. Gandhi wondered,

“Will he, in his youth, be a forgiving or a timid man? My powers of thinking fail me. Use yours. This new aspect of non-violence which has revealed itself to me has enmeshed me in no end of problems…I have not found one master-key for all the riddles, but it must be found.”

And riddles there were many. Thus, Gandhi asked Mashruwala,

“Shall we teach our boys to return two blows for one, or tolerate a blow from anyone weaker than themselves but to fight back, should a stronger one attack them, and take the beating that might follow?” 

Then again, what should the boy do if he is attacked by a government official?

Could these questions have a definite answer? With the poignancy of a man driven to desperation, Gandhi concluded his letter to Mashruwala thus:

“One cannot climb the Himalayas in a straight line. Can it be that, in like fashion, the path of nonviolence, too, is difficult? May God protect us, may He indeed.”

For sure, God seemed to have listened to his prayer but only after the conflict between Erikson’s “two alternatives” induced in him a nervous breakdown. On August 12, 1918, in a letter to the Bombay Chronicle editor G Horniman, who had invited Gandhi to become the president of the Humanitarian Conference, the Mahatma, quite alarmingly, wrote,

“Really I am recruiting mad. I do nothing else, think of nothing else, talk of nothing else and therefore feel ill-fitted to discharge any presidential function, save one on recruiting.”

About this confessionary statement to Horniman, Erikson in Gandhi’s Truth writes,

“On this very day when he wrote this clear confession of having lost control of himself, Gandhi fell ill with an extremely painful dysentery and high fever.” 

He languished in a state of febrile weakness until January 1919, when he miraculously pulled back after teetering on the brink for months.

Mahatma Gandhi leans on a girl to walk in 1948. (Photo credit: AFP).

The cure

It is possible Gandhi was able to tide over his existential crisis because World War I had come to an end in November 1918. But it is also possible that he was cured because he violated, at least in spirit, an oath he had taken – that he would not consume milk because cows and buffaloes were subjected to what he thought was the cruel process of phooka, which entails the blowing of air into a cow’s vagina to induce her to produce more milk.

In January 1919, Gandhi was shifted to Bombay for a surgery for piles. He was in the care of Dr Dalal, who told Gandhi, “I cannot rebuild your body unless you take milk.” Gandhi, as he wrote in his autobiography, replied that he wouldn’t take milk because he had taken a vow against consuming it. “What exactly is the nature of your vow,” asked the good doctor.

As Gandhi began to explain why he had decided not to consume milk, his wife Kasturba Gandhi butted in, “But surely you cannot have any objection to goat’s milk then.” The doctor weighed in, “If you will take goat’s milk, it will be enough for me.”

Gandhi said he succumbed and agreed to take goat’s milk.

About it, Gandhi wrote,

“For although I had only the milk of the cow and the she-buffalo in mind when I took the vow, by natural implication it covered the milk of all animals.” It did because the drive to increase the yield of milk led cruelties to be inflicted on other animals as well. Yet he agreed to take goat’s milk because, as Gandhi recorded, “the will to live proved stronger than the devotion to truth, and for once the votary of truth compromised his sacred ideal by his eagerness to take up the Satyagraha fight”.

In a more thoughtful vein, Gandhi continued,

“It seems to me that I understand better the ideal of truth [that is, of not breaking an oath taken] better than that of Ahimsa, and my experience tells me that, if I let go my hold of truth, I shall never be able to solve the riddle of Ahimsa.”

Was it then that the apostle of peace was reconciled to his suspicion that people embraced satyagraha out of cowardice only through his own failure to adhere to the oath he had taken against consuming milk? Perhaps. Through his own imperfection, he possibly understood the imperfection of his followers, that the quest for perfection is unceasing, that truth is revealed to mankind through action. India was not the poorer for it – an invigorated Gandhi was to arise from the sickbed a month later to launch a movement against the Rowlatt Act, which allowed for incarceration without trial.

This story of Gandhi’s nervous breakdown should have a special resonance for today’s India, where the strong and powerful mistake courage as the violence they visit on the weak and meek. Think of the atrocities committed on Dalits, the violence of cow-vigilantes, the clashes triggered over issues of religion and nationalism, and people who perish in armed conflicts or become victims of terror.