Blog Post · Book Review

Gandhi and the Unspeakable

Gandhi and the Unspeakable

His Final Experiment with Truth

by James W. Douglass

Orbis Books, hardcover, $24.00, 158 pp.


The term, “the Unspeakable,” Douglass gets from the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who wrote that the world was “stricken to the very core of its being by the presence of the Unspeakable,” which is “the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment when they are pronounced, and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss. It is the void out of which Eichmann drew the punctilious exactitude of his obedience.”

Douglass claimed in his book JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters (2008), that JFK and Kruschev, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, went in the direction of peace, against the wishes of the Joint Chiefs, and that his continued movement toward peace prompted the military-industrial complex to set in motion his assassination. It would not surprise me if this was, at some level, true, but conspiracy theories often depend on not looking at the simplest explanation but, assuming the conspiracy, then look for evidence for it. They almost always remind me of what Chesterton wrote about the lunatic in Orthodoxy (1908), that he is the most reasonable of persons; that he starts with a mistaken notion but everything else from that point on is pure reason. So, if you start with the assumption that because four (arguably) peacemakers (Douglass is also researching Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and RFK) all died within the same few years, then there is something nefarious afoot, you can make everything fit into that model. I’m not saying that Douglass is a lunatic, only that conspiracy theories often smack of that kind of reasoning.

However, in the case of Gandhi, Douglass has a lot more substantial evidence to work with, including the Printed Record of Mahatma Gandhi Murder Case, Vols. I-VIII (U.S. Library of Congress Law Library). He began the research for the book when he learned that Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, claimed that Gandhi “was assassinated by a powerful conspiracy that involved Indian government complicity.”

Basically the claim is that Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, was inspired by Hindu nationalist, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who had inspired (most likely masterminded) earlier assassinations, most notably that of Sir William Curzon Wyllie, “political aide to the secretary of state for India” on July 1, 1909. Gandhi, who suspected Savarkar’s involvement, debated Savarkar in London after the assassination. Both of them expounding upon the Indian epic Ramayana, Savarkar argued that assassinations and violence were indispensable in India’s drive for independence, whereas Gandhi argued that only non-violence based on “suffering for the truth” would give India true independence. In fact, he argued that inasmuch Indians committed themselves to suffering for the truth, “they can from that instant count themselves as free.”

Douglass shows how Gandhi’s idea of satyagraha (truth-force) developed in South Africa, where he worked for reforms in the abominable ways Indians were treated there, then were put into action even more forcefully in the non-violent fight for India’s independence. This involved, for Gandhi, learning to die:


So let the reader be forewarned that this book celebrates dying, in the specific way Gandhi prepared to die, from the roots of his journey on the path of nonviolence and throughout his life. Walking with Gandhi means walking joyfully and nonviolently into God’s arms—the arms of truth and love—through death. That is a way of hope. Because he prayed and prepared himself to die with love, Gandhi could meet his assassins’ destructive conspiracy with hope.


The conspiracy was an active one on the part of Savarkar and his followers; a passive one on the parts of the Dehli and Bombay police, and even on the part of Gandhi’s disciples, now head of the new government, Nehru and Patel, who for any other threatened public figure or visiting dignitary would have had much better security then that accorded Gandhi. The first major attempt at assassination, a plot that fell apart when one of the assassins got cold feet, and only a bomb went off as a distraction, happened on January 20, 1948, and one man, Madanhal Pahwa, was arrested. He told police there would be another attempt on Gandhi’s life; security was heightened, but not to governmental standards. Douglass writes, and it is hard to disagree based on the evidence he presents, that India’s government security forces were “by culpable inaction, complicit in the assassination.” The reason: The government was afraid to arrest the Hindu nationalists such as Savarkar because they wielded a lot of power and could possibly bring down the new government. It would have enraged the nationalistic Hindus and mass violence might have broken out.

If any of this sounds familiar that is because it is the same old story, of both death and hope accomplished in the same act. Though Douglass perhaps goes too far in making parallels between Christ and Gandhi, he does show Gandhi agreed with Christianity in the core area of sacrifice: “Cosmic reality, he saw, was rooted in the truth of what he called ‘the cross.’”

Douglass sometimes, to my mind, overdoes conspiracy buzzwords such as “systemic” and, when he has run out of evidence, argues too much with leading questions. Sometimes as I read this book I was reminded of Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), a short masterpiece about one man saying he will kill another in a Latin American village, how everyone knows this but, busy with their own lives, no one does anything to prevent the death, and then are shocked when the murder takes place. It seems to me there was an element of this inertia in the events leading up to Gandhi’s assassination and which can be accounted for not by conspiracy except that of perennial human nature.

Nevertheless Douglass’s book makes me wonder about and reflect on the idea of the Unspeakable. And Douglass’s message is just as pertinent in these days of wars on terrorism as it ever was:


In the course of his experiments with truth, Gandhi discovered there was a third choice besides state terrorism and revolutionary terrorism. Satyagraha, truth-force, was based on a harmony of means and ends. Gandhi saw “there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree. We reap exactly as we sow.


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