Gandhi’s Political Ethics. Part Four: The Psychology of Trust

by Arne Naess

Many of Gandhi’s actions were, on the face of it, demon­strations of sheer lunacy. For instance, in 1931 he went unguarded into the textile manufacturing areas of England, though told that he would certainly be killed if he did so. The terrible unemployment of that year had hit the textile workers especially hard. Indians were no longer buying textiles to the extent that they had done before. Moreover, the campaign for home industries, which Gandhi had organized in India, had had a power­ful effect, and the British Press was not slow to blame Gandhi for the sufferings of the workers. In fact the newspapers, eager to find a scapegoat for the dreadful privation and suffering of their public, greatly exagger­ated and distorted his role.

In spite of all warnings, Gandhi went to the workers, defenseless and trusting. And it was not just to show sympathy with the textile industry’s view of the crisis that he went. On seeing the textile workers’ actual living conditions, he pointed out to them how fantastically rich they were, compared with the poor of India, and he fol­lowed up this surprising statement by saying that the economic aims of the textile industry were unrealistic; they had not been formulated, he said, with any under­standing of the European crisis as a whole. One would expect such words to have provoked bitter reaction, but Gandhi’s manner, marked by humor, trust, respect, and compassion, made it extremely difficult to oppose him. The workers gave him time to present his views, and they managed ultimately to divert their hatred from indi­vidual persons. They ceased to be his enemies and be­came his potential fellow-workers.

Trust in others, moreover, played a unique role under the (to Western eyes) strange conditions prevailing in the places in which Gandhi’s closest disciples lived. For example, Gandhi went so far as to say that if we showed confidence to snakes and scorpions, they wouldn’t sting or bite. Scorpions and snakes were allowed to crawl freely in and out of rooms. Madeleine Slade, who was a member of one of the ashrams, recounts that all people did for protection was to move with sliding steps so that the animals were moved to the side instead of trampled on. In Gandhi’s animal psychology, it is, however, conceded that snakes and scorpions cannot altogether distinguish between carelessness and hostility. They may well attack someone who tramples on them quite by mistake. Miss Slade did close doors with some caution, for she knew that there might have been large snakes sleeping on the other side. Many of those who lived at various of Gandhi’s ashrams were later to report that, to their knowledge, no one had ever been bitten or stung by a snake or a scorpion. Gandhi held a theory that not only men, and children, but even animals more or less intuitively perceive an attitude of trust. Indeed, a sign of defensiveness or uncertainty may be seen, or felt, as we know, by an animal long before a trained psychologist can detect it; he who can harbor feelings of fear is always a potential enemy.

This theory about trust is part of the psychological background of much of what Gandhi taught and meant; and he meant it as realpolitik rather than as Utopian idealism. Yet few people have followed his injunction to awaken trust in place of fear, and the reason for this is surely fear itself. Fear is deep-seated; it possesses us, and it is mainly the force of fear itself that prevents its removal. Fear can­not be fought; it has to be replaced. If you force yourself to convey an impression of unconcern and fearlessness, you will most likely fail; others will be able to see your pretence and your fear. Where fear can be removed (and one of the places where it can is in personal relation­ships), it can only be removed, as Gandhi said, by put­ting trust in its place.

Thus personal contact was not only a significant ele­ment in the nonviolent campaign; it was, for him, a deci­sive one. His belief in its importance grew from personal experience, experience which showed him that in another person, literally whoever he is, there is always something one can appeal to with confidence. And even if one’s op­ponent acknowledges the appeal only reluctantly, and with every qualification he can summon, he will not suc­ceed forever in preserving the appearance, or the fact, of his indifference or implacability. If a man can be ap­proached, there is a chance, possibly only one chance, that he will relent. However, he must he convinced of the sincerity of the approach. Gandhi wrote in Harijan, “I hold it an axiomatic truth that real ahimsa never fails to make an impression on the opponent.” (24 June 1939)

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This essay by Arne Naess is from the long out of print, Gandhi and the Nuclear Age, Totowa (New Jersey): Bedminster Press, 1965; Part Two, Chapter 5, pp. 48-51. We are grateful to Mrs. Arne Naess for permission. Copyright © 2013 Mrs. Arne Naess/Estate of Arne Naess. We are also grateful to Alan Drengson for his assistance.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An extensive editor’s note is appended to our earlier Naess postings, as at the end of the “Gandhi and Group Conflict” articles. For an example click here.

“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