Salty Gandhi: Alchemist of Psyche

by William J. Jackson

Gandhi gathers salt and breaks law; courtesy

Why Symbolism of Salt to Understand a Trouble Dissolver?

Alchemy is a kind of learning, a repository of old wisdom. It includes observations about elements, experiments with materials and aspects of the universe, as well as studies about processes and psyches. The imagination of curious souls and observers of life, active over the centuries, has experimented and found meanings in chemical and psychic interactions and transformations.

Despite modern science’s new technologies and ways of learning about the universe at various levels—micro, macro, meso—there are still valuable lessons to be learned from the ideas gathered under the term “alchemy” over the centuries. Shakespeare and other great poets are still interesting 500 years later—his grasp of human nature, his use of metaphorical language, and his observations on experience are still valuable, and this is true also for the metaphors found in alchemy.

James Hillman’s Alchemical Psychology is a brilliant contribution to understanding the richness of alchemy. In this book he garners and examines some valuable insights from the explorations of alchemy, and relates them to the processes of the human psyche. Many of the ideas in this paper are derived from Hillman’s inspiring work. I quote some points directly, others I paraphrase and elaborate on, extending them with my own examples and explicating and exploring their implications. Relating these ideas to Gandhi’s work is my idea, not Hillman’s. (1)

Granted, when alchemy is examined by taking parts of it out of context, and without knowledge of keys to historical symbolisms, alchemy may seem like a mess of unscientific obsolete principles and processes and obscure meanings. But we need to keep in mind that modern chemistry and metallurgy were founded on observations made by alchemy, by experimenting with the findings of alchemists, and carrying them forward and building on the insights proven to be useful. Granted, alchemy is not a neat concise little system proposed by one single author, but a reservoir of thinking which grew for centuries all the way from Egyptian mummy-making lore, metallurgy, jewelry and cosmetics, and the craft of dying cloth, to forms including a Christianized alchemy, which symbolically aspired to articulate a system in which the soul reaches redemption. (2)

Some of the substances found in alchemical thinking are parts of everyday conceptualizing and language. Salt, for example, has served to symbolize a good number of deep things to people throughout history. It is a necessity of life, the stable basis of living on earth. Its crystals are white, it has a sharpness, it stings with a burning sensation on a cut, it enhances flavor, it preserves. An Indian proverb expresses salt’s non-dullness: “A serving of dal (lentils) without salt has no flavor.” Salt can provide zest to a dish, and also can give a zest for life, bringing out the flavors of legumes, grain, vegetables, fruits and meat. Sometimes removing salt from the diet results in not only a loss of taste but also loss of the will to live—life itself may lose its savor.

There are many sayings about salt to help us remember the important part it plays and its traits. To pour salt into wounds is to hurt someone with stinging sensations. The good man is “the salt of the earth.” To “take something with a grain of salt” means to not overestimate its importance. “Salt to preserve food, citrus to prevent scurvy,” is a prescription for seagoing folk. If one examines proverbs and phrases, stories and alchemical meanings of salt, medical and chemical usages, as Hillman does, we find a rich tapestry of meanings. In other chapters of this thought-provoking book, Alchemical Psychology, Hillman explores rich meanings of colors black, blue, red, and yellow; and also fire, air, silver, stone, and other alchemical items too, including air and gases, the alchemical caelum—blue sky.

Just as Jung and Hillman’s archetypal psychology has found its way into everyday life and speech in phrases like “he’s not my type,” and “introvert and extrovert,” the residue of alchemy is there in our language too, in the phrase describing a relationship lacking a strong affinity: “I sense there’s no chemistry between them.” Some kinds of reading are more reflective than others. Reading a shopping list is a practical reminder. Deeper writings involve the receptivity and active involvement of the readers’ psyches—one reads about a pattern, and then one recalls one’s own personal experience to verify and enhance the matter at hand, finding examples of its occurrence in one’s past.

Here’s an autobiographical example: When I was 17 the director of a play I was performing in said: “Any actor worth his salt exercises before going onstage.” That call to discipline stayed with me for many years of push-ups, because I wanted to be “worth my salt.” The English word “salary” comes from salarium, Latin for “soldier’s pay”—common salt, the reward which helps you survive. We all need salt to go on living. Salt was precious in some cultures where it was not plentiful, and is a standard of wealth in some cultures as a unique substance. We can live without pepper or sugar, not without water and salt.

Hillman’s approach offers fresh views to psychology. For example, it provides a new appreciation of what it means to suffer hurt. It helps us envision hurt not as a feared enemy or horror always to be shunned, but as a part of life, recognizable sometimes as a blessing in disguise. The symbolism of salt is useful in Hillman’s view. “The soul is marked by its traumas. . . A trauma is a salt mine… [because] traumatic events initiate in a soul a sense of its embodiment as a vulnerable, experiencing subject…” This is a correlative to Hillman’s view that a wound is like an eye—we are sensitized to see some sides of life through our own sufferings. Traumas teach us who we are unforgettably. We can go back to the experience and “mine” it, benefiting from the depth perspective it has deposited within us. (3)

Salt symbolism is deep in various cultures. Salt in Judaic origin stories was a substance always included in ritual sacrifices as a remembrance of creation by separation of the waters above from the waters below. The idea is that when salty primal waters were torn asunder, the salt in the lower waters remembered the earlier state of oneness and experienced feelings of grief, and the waters wept at being cast down, separated from nearness to God. Tears are salty and are a companion of strong emotions. In fact, blood, sweat, tears and urine all have a salty constituency, as do the seas. Many more salt symbolisms exist in history and in everyday life, but these examples give us a taste of some of them.

We might for good measure recall also Gandhi’s breakthrough strategy—staging the historic protest known as the “Salt March,” also known as the “Dandi March” and “Salt Satyagraha,” in March-April 1930. Because common salt is a necessity, Gandhi led India’s protest against England’s oppressive Salt Law, which put a tax on salt in India. He marched 200 miles with a growing crowd of nonviolent protestors. The civil disobedience march arrived at the seashore where the marchers boldly proceeded to gather salt. This action violated colonial law, bypassing the British salt tax. It was a brilliant, reasonable, effective action devised by Gandhi, a “salty” solution to a specific problem. It highlighted British injustice, and also launched the drive for independence. It also earned sympathy and support from people around the world. It was more confrontational and effective than the American Tea Tax rebellion—the “Boston Tea Party”— which John Adams called “a sublime moment.” When Gandhi met the British Viceroy in 1930 after the sublime moment of the Salt Satyagraha he took out a little duty-free salt he had in his shawl and smiled as he showed it, saying the salt was “to remind us of the famous Boston Tea Party.” (4)

Gandhi’s Genius for Finding Solutions in the “Salt Mines” of His Soul

There is an enigmatic saying attributed to the 13th century bishop and doctor of the church, Albertus Magnus: “Salt is necessary for every solution.” What does that mean? What is the reasoning, pattern, or associations we can discern regarding the symbolic substance salt, which might substantiate that statement? It is not enough to say: “salt is a staple of life.” What else does it mean? How does it hold up psychologically? Hillman helps us understand meanings in this cryptic statement about the necessity for salt in solutions.

Besides our daily intake of salt to stay alive, we can see in salt’s traits further symbolic characteristics which advance our way of thinking about solving life’s problems. Salt is associated with fixity—preserving fruit, such as lemon pickles, fish and meat. It “keeps” perishables from going bad—salted items last, things we have “salted away” remain in a stable state, even if we have temporarily forgotten them.

But there is also the quality of salt that is rather bitter, the shock of excess saltiness in the mouth, and the sharp sting of salt in a wound. Twinges of pain, both the burning sensation on our skin, and the emotions of hurt, help us preserve memories. And there is also salt’s natural crustiness—the crust of crystallization. The crystals of salt form, square little crystal shapes grow, when a salty solution’s water evaporates. Besides the crustiness, salt is associated with fluidity: sodium chloride crystals dissolve in water. And in the psyche there are passively receptive conditions which allow qualities of bitterness to dissolve away, circumstances for the crustiness of resentments to melt into a salty fluid of forgiveness and forgetfulness. That’s a transformation in the psyche, such as bitter hardened feelings of anger and resentment becoming tears of released feelings.

In Alchemical Psychology, Hillman observes that the Latin term solutio (from Latin solvo, “to loosen, to solve”) is one of the rare basic alchemical operations that is not definable in only one way. There are multiple ways of solving. A genuine solution—dissolving a state of tense negative interpersonal affairs, resolving the conflict of a combination of factors stuck in a painful configuration—must have the capacity to stabilize. A genuine solution has to be able to sustain a condition, not merely to dissolve it. “Stable,” in terms of human affairs, such as the ongoing existence of one community which is at odds with another community, means a resolution of issues in which both sides continue to live on without one getting destroyed in the process. It means the groups not wasting strength, energy, wealth and resources in bitter conflict. “Stable” means not ending a standoff with the annihilation of the other, as in genocide, ethnic cleansing, wiping the enemy out of existence. Syria in recent years—2012-2016 would be an example of different factions’ strategies which gain only short term effects, short sighted victories won by violent attacks, barrel bombs dropped, etc. Historic examples of salt used in victories in which salt was literally put on enemy fields to render them infertile, and rubbing salt in the foes’ wounds, which naturally stir desires for revenge, are examples of non-stable solutions.

The conflict of imperial colonizers in power struggles with insurgent native people has often been expressed violently. India, led by Gandhi, in opposition to the colonial British power structure, did not go that “way of all flesh” to clashes of bloodshed, death and destruction. Hillman observes that the alchemical solutio model does not suggest simplified problem-solving, but requires instead salt-like qualities to work out differences and effect both sides of the polarized Indian/British “material” being transformed in a lasting way. Gandhi insisted on appealing to what is good and decent in the British who were opposing him, and appealing to the good in his own people, too. It was a civil, respectful way of seeking stability while undergoing the transformation and attaining the outcome of liberation. The stability and fluid change involved would satisfy Albertus Magnus’s rationale: Gandhi had the traits of salt required for solutions, lasting solutions: stability while accomplishing change.

Hillman, probing further into the symbolic function of salt imagery, notes that in the psyche there are “salt mines” of our old traumas. Our lessons learned the hard way, our scars of travails and trials, are like experiential deposits of salt; but Hillman reminds us that as deposits which we have retained they can also be seen as attempts at solutions. Our experiences when reflected on with care can help us grow and know more than we knew when we were naïve. When we sit and sweat it out, as Gandhi did in repeated periods of doing jail time, and in meditating, saying the Rama mantra as a lifelong practice, working patiently with no precipitous moves, taking time to deepen fellow-protestors’ understanding of the philosophy of Satyagraha, its whys and wherefores, we are stabilizing and “adding salt” to the solution.  That way it becomes a genuine one, based on wisdom regarding the whole situation.

Hillman observes insightfully that: “Problems seem not to go away until they have first been thoroughly received.” They need to be taken into oneself deeply. (5) A calm and receptive mind can allow the effective solution to arise out of contemplating the conditions themselves.

Gandhi took in the issues first hand, learned them by heart—they became second nature, including having awareness of the human needs of the opposition. (6) He tried not to take unfair advantage by using fasting as a lever to coerce the mill owners against whom workers were striking to sway sympathy. Another example: He was asked by a mother to tell her son, who had a sweet tooth, to stop taking too much sugar. He told her to come back in 2 weeks. When she returned she asked him “Why?” and he said, “I myself had to stop eating sugar before I could tell him not to, or I would be a hypocrite.” Gandhi willingly endured discomfort, personal inconveniences, for the cause. He sacrificed his own ego and pleasures to attain a higher goal. He suggested that protestors should welcome entry to a jail cell like a groom entering a honeymoon suite welcomes his new bride. (I have read that Thomas Jefferson and other leaders undertook the American Revolution only after a soul-searching time dedicated to prayer and fasting. Gandhi’s Satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act used prayer and fasting to prepare to take a stand.) Momentous endeavors require a commensurate serious preparation.

Gandhi’s jail time was an opportunity for spiritual retreat, soul searching and study. That self-humbling and self-cultivation enable one to be more worthy of undertaking difficult tasks is a part of Asian traditions such as Hinduism, Taoism and Confucianism. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, was a member of the Indian National Congress during the struggle for independence, and when freedom was nearly won, he demanded a new Independent state for Muslims, and the British agreed to the partition of the sub-continent. Jinnah was a Muslim lawyer, a Westernized modern man who did not sacrifice his own comforts as Gandhi did in pursuit of liberation. I cannot find examples of him engaging his own inner life and renouncing pleasures as Gandhi did, while playing the role of leader of his community. Jinnah was a political leader; he formed the nation of Pakistan, which was Muslim identity-based. Jinnah never suffered the indignities of going to prison as Gandhi did in the quest for independence. Nor did Jinnah have the opportunities for soul-searching which jail-time offered. (7)

A Leader Worth His Salt

What this idea of solutions is focusing on is the capacity to interiorize issues at hand. This interiorization involves inner knowledge of life’s bitterness, the taste of suffering and discomfort of sweat and tears and blood. This interiorization would be the way to “salt” the dilemma or riddle. A problem reaches its solution, Hillman observes, only when it is adequately “salted”— then it touches us personally. We have let it penetrate to our deeper self. It matters to our own inner world of psyche. We sacrifice ego—opening ourselves for the working out of the solution. When the issue and its resolution reside in us at that level (like the work of an artist who dreams of the art he should make, or a researcher who, after a long period of conscious attempts to understand, dreams of a solution to the problem or the invention he needs to design) then, Hillman observed, he or she can say “Fiat mihi”  which means “I surrender, it’s my problem.” Or, “I accept the undertaking, it’s on me. I am not separate, above it all.” The taste of this experience can be bitter, humbling, and yet lasting—and can reach a lasting solution. The process involves going to one’s inner “salt mines”—accessing wisdom one has salted away there—memories of experiences, common and personal, residues preserving one’s hard-earned lessons, packed away wisdom useful in later life, useful as solutions. (8) Without personal depth awareness it’s more likely one will be blindsided by being unaware of some angles and ramifications. Complexity rarely gives up secrets and inspirations without demanding a tribute of struggle and perspiration.

In this breakthrough experience you come to own the whole situation, you encompass the dilemma. You are not standing outside it, not feeling apart and above the conflict, you are not an external force hoping to manipulate forces outside of you, not ordering tanks, guns, planes, bombs to attack as an uninvolved outsider, superior, aloof, free from the suffering the problem involves. You identify with the whole, as Lincoln did with North and South, as Gandhi did. The well-being of all who were involved. That takes a big man. The psyche expands when one becomes a vessel for selfless service. It’s a kind of self-sacrifice, to humble oneself and identify with the common human condition, just as karma yoga means doing work not for a reward, but for the welfare of the world, dedicatedly—skillful action as selfless service.

Gandhi shouldered the guilt for the nation that would become modern India. For example, he said that Indian society was guilty of injustice to the untouchables, and this was something Indians needed to atone for, to be able to attain self-rule—swaraj. “I would prefer that Hinduism died than that untouchability lived.” (9)

Vulnerable to European outsiders who ventured to India and then gained power and ruled India, Indians were a little gullible sometimes and caught off guard by clever exploiters. Gandhi blamed the nation’s failure of remaining in charge of itself, losing self-rule because of a moral failure. India’s own unjust and intolerant attitudes and policies toward untouchables brought on India’s vulnerability to forfeit governance to others. Gandhi proposed a turnabout. He taught that a major effort on India’s part was called for: uplifting the downtrodden. This was the best use of the plight his generation of Indians found themselves in—pointing out this issue of injustice in Indian life, improving the lives of all concerned, especially victims of bias. Seeking to correct a flawed aspect of society, to repair centuries of bias against low castes people, and proving India capable of self-rule in the eyes of the modern world, called for democratic progress, fairness, and equality.

Gandhi developed a more thorough understanding of the plight of India through self-examination and by traveling all over India to assess the conditions and ills of society and to help specific conflicts—like indigo plantation owners in dispute with sharecroppers, the Kheda Satyagraha (regarding poor farmers protesting  government revenue during famine-like conditions), etc. He personally intervened as a lawyer and leader to mediate, arbitrate, lead strikes, negotiate with mill owners, etc. (10) Gandhi’s ability to continuously learn kept him crafty, wily, and adaptable to new circumstances. He found novel ways to overcome different obstacles in his path, moving ever onward like a rolling stone.

Gandhi sought solutions from the process of interiorizing the elements of the crisis and working on them humanely, fairly, at his own expense. He worked to find solutions from the standpoint of understanding and fairness. Not to combat the colonizers, who came to trade with India and stayed to dominate and rule as the British Raj. Instead, Gandhi looked within, to seek patiently the next step needed to become capable of winning self-rule. Improving the welfare and health and social harmony, demonstrating to the British the capability of Indian independence, using the least amount of conflict, with ideals of nonviolence. This was a humble endeavor and a brilliant accomplishment of clarity and appeal to conscience, piecing together the needed policies, avoiding skillfully the clashes that leave scars and bitter urges for revenge—sustaining the existence of India as well as the fellow human beings from England. How did Gandhi’s intuition find the path to work out a peaceful settlement between his homeland and the British? He consulted his own salted-away wisdom, and a way to reach liberation revealed itself.

Time was on Gandhi’s side, or rather, he seemed to have a good intuitive sense of using time well. He did not rush or get ahead of himself, he took things one step at a time.  “What makes the work actually work is knowledge of the secret of time.” (11) Gandhi was sensitive to the conditions he was dealing with, and with good timing, careful with each development, he felt his way into the unknown, taking steps of gradual progress, attaining modest goals, and the ultimate goal, liberation.

Gandhi was receptive to new possibilities. Millions of others would imagine it was impossible to win independence without violent insurrection. Gandhi had the hope and dedication, and the openness to inspiration needed to find a way by putting the unique pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together. He had dedication. Others could see no way, but persevering Gandhi went ahead and found the solution.

Questions about This Approach

I can imagine readers’ questions about accessing this inner resource for finding solutions: What’s to prevent someone on an ego trip, for example a leader with no practice in this, from cynically using it for political or personal gain, or making a gut decision that is delusionary? Do you have to be a Gandhi to truly fathom the depths and get it right? What’s the inner consultation like? Could you elucidate a little?

Why not consult the expert advisers, and the traditions, but also consult the reality of one’s own receptive psyche—what one has learned in life—the humanity one carries within. Why not follow the “Tao within,” not just the calculative mind? One’s inner resources may seem fragile, an illusory space, chimerical, hard to base much on. The realm of one’s own memories, personal episodes which brought self-awareness—is that a trustworthy basis for responsible decision? If one is not experienced in this as a practice, reliance on working in one’s own inner “salt mines” may seem foolish. And for some personalities, looking too closely at memories may be too rancorous with resentment and regret, stirring self-doubt and defensiveness—such a use of those inner resources would not be good for a leader. Someone looking at large issues through the lens of personal grudges would be a bad guesser; igniting a short fuse on one’s pet peeves could spark explosions. We all have the potential, inherited from our ancestors, for ferociousness, and for gentle nurturance, inside ourselves—murderousness or motherly love. We bring alive one or the other of these sides, or numb indifference, encouraging one or the other in ourselves and in the world.

Using inner wisdom includes letting the ego “get out of the way” and surrendering to a power beyond one. For example, Gandhi, whose tradition was Hinduism, was devoted to the form (and formless mystery) of God known as Rama, the divine righteous ruler, just and kind. Probably the mature wise among us depend on inner wisdom naturally without much analysis or explanation of the process—it’s the deep well from which they draw their water of wise ideas which seems to others a natural resource.

Learning to access the inner light and inner sight is a survival skill. Going through life without that seems like wasting a great opportunity. It is valuable to know that there is a natural learning process—tapping into ideas derived from travails of living. Some things we know not from books but from hard knocks. One can look at all one has experienced as a collection of stories with implications. The literalist cannot take things figuratively, with a fluid freedom, making use of elements “good” or “bad” imaginatively, as material in the process of thinking. Literalism sees a singleness of meaning; if you take things literally, a foe is just a foe, and nothing can be learned from knowing him. But if one is blessed with a multi-view awareness, the freedom needed to make use of one’s endowments with intuitive knowledge from total life experiences, and if one can access residual experiential riches to mine them, tapping into the collective unconscious, our shared humanity, one’s resources are vast and deep. The solver inhabits the problem and the problem inhabits the solver—the solver becomes a vessel of the work to be done, and useful ideas emerge from the process. Activists, artists, innovators are familiar with this process.

Gandhi’s dedication and method accomplished more than his cynical and snide critics with their biased attacks can claim to accomplish. Like the haters of Lincoln, Gandhi’s attackers lack the personal self-abnegation to take in the whole process which Gandhi’s large vision and practical approach required. They seek divisive devices to sway opinion against him, such as cherry-picking moments from his evolving life and presenting them out of context.  Gandhi actually accomplished the liberation of a nation using nonviolent means. His philosophy came to serve as a timeless beacon for those conscientiously striving to help social justice prevail. Anyone worth his or her salt should be able to recognize this accomplishment with respect and admiration.

In this paper I have tried to illustrate, by using samples of Gandhi’s way of working, a small example from Hillman’s book Alchemical Psychology in which he examines the archetypal symbols, and the metaphoric substances relating to alchemy—to explore traits of salt to describe experiences and to trace self-awareness and problem-solving processes in life. How do the images and traits of salt, important in alchemy, work to suggest insights? The rationale is that “metaphors are psychological language and all alchemy is metaphorical.” (12) The alchemists’ ruling maxim was “solve et coagula” —“dissolve and coagulate.” That pair of operations “have come to stand for the work of alchemy in general…” (13) Gandhi’s work dissolved the structure of colonial rule and coagulated a new polity, formulating and consolidating a new era of self-rule for a new and enduring India. Today, Gandhi’s example still shows what is possible to others working conscientiously to find solutions.

Endnotes: (WJJ)

(1) James Hillman, Alchemical Psychology, Putnam, Connecticut: Spring Publications, 2014.  (Vol. 5, Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman.)

(2) Thanks to scholars like Jung, Eliade, and Burckhardt, medieval alchemy is now more recognized to be “a manifestation of a refined spiritual tradition in which transformation and ultimate unity of matter and spirit are sought and celebrated.” The Tao of the West, p. 121.

(3) Hillman, op. cit., p. 63.

(4) accessed March 17, 2016. See also Eric Erikson, Gandhi’s Truth, New York: Norton, 1969, p. 448.

(5) “Problems seem not to go away until they have first been thoroughly received,” Hillman, Alchemical Psychology, p. 67. Superficial shortcut remedies often fail before long; they have nothing to preserve them.

(6) Mohandas Gandhi, Autobiography, “The Ahmedabad Satyagraha”,

Avani Mehta, “Breaking Someone’s Sugar Habit”,

Both sites accessed March 17, 2016.

(7) Jinnah never went to jail for the cause of winning India’s (or Pakistan’s) independence.

(8) Hillman, op. cit., p. 67.

(9) Gandhi’s speech at the last meeting of the Minorities Committee, Round Table Conference, London 1931. See Gandhi in Political Theory: Truth, Law and Experiment, Anuradha Beeravalli, Ashgate, p. 65.

(10) Mohandas Gandhi, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. New York: Dover Publications, 1983. Chapters in the last third of this book provide examples of Gandhi’s travels in India to learn about grievances, his guidance in civil disobedience activities, and his leadership in helping solve problems.

(11) Hillman, op. cit., p. 242.

(12) Ibid, p. 152.

(13) Ibid, p. 242.

EDITOR’S NOTE: William J. Jackson is our Literary Editor and a regular contributor to this site. For an indexing of his other articles and biographical information, please consult his Author’s page by clicking on his byline.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi