The dilemmas of greatness

“The truth is that heroes can have, most do have, feet of clay, flawed personalities who grapple with baser emotions while they serve the nation.  It is the commitment and the vision that matter.”  A G Noorani wrote this while reviewing two books on J F Kennedy in the Frontline dated Nov 6, 2009.

Noorani mentions a few examples of flaws in personalities that are considered great in history, though an ordinary book review wouldn’t call for such details.  I’m grateful to Noorani for mentioning those details because it made me think much about greatness.  [Having killed, with the generous assistance of the systems in which I worked, the delusions I nurtured about my own greatness, it became interesting to ponder on the topic.]

Gandhi was a great man, according to me (and many other silly people too).  But Gandhi too had feet of clay.  Didn’t he impose his ideas on his wife most of the time?  Did he care for his children one-tenth as much as he cared for the nation?  Didn’t he ask young girls to sleep beside him (mind you, I didn’t say sleep with) in his old age?  Didn’t he use those young girls as kind of crutches, again in his old age?  Well, Noorani doesn’t ask those questions.  It’s silly me who’s asking them. 

Noorani mentions just one example from Gandhi’s life.  The 50-year old Gandhi was immensely attracted to Sarladevi, a rich lady with “a broad cultural education” (Gandhi’s own words about her) and wife of Ram Bhuj Dutt Chaudhuri.  Gandhi confessed that he had lustful attitude toward this woman.   Noorani quotes Gandhi: “I was carried away in spite of myself and but for God’s intervention I might have become a wreck.”  I must add (lest I perpetrate some injustice upon Noorani as well as Gandhi) that Gandhi also said explicitly that this was the only lady who aroused lustful feelings in him. 

Suppose Kasturba was a woman of “a broad cultural education”.  Would she have aroused such “lustful” feelings in Gandhi?  If she had, would we have had Gandhi as the father of the nation?  Did Gandhi choose celibacy because Kasturba could not arouse his lust?  These are three (3 is my lucky number) of the many (blasphemous?) questions that aroused in my mind as I read Noorani’s review.

They are hypothetical questions and can be dismissed summarily if you wish.  Yet I think the questions are valid if you are discussing Gandhi’s greatness. 

Greatness lies partly in being able to overcome the temptations of the flesh.  It is when you are able to deal fairly and squarely with those temptations that you will be able to give due attention to your great vision.  And I’m pretty sure that Gandhi would have overcome the temptations had they even been proffered by his own wife.  That ability to grapple advantageously with temptations was part of Gandhi’s greatness. 

Noorani’s review goes on to mention a few other great men who had feet of clay and says that what matters ultimately is how useful you are to the people around you, to the institution you serve, to your society, to your nation.  Noorani doesn’t, however, discredit morality.  “In any fair assessment,” he says, “moral lapses must not be ignored…”

“Lloyd Geroge was utterly unscrupulous, financially corrupt and a philanderer to boot,” says Noorani.  Yet George has a significant place in British history because he “provided steady leadership to Britain during the First World War.”

John F Kennedy had too many women in his life.  That was the flaw his personality.  Yet Kennedy was great because of the services he rendered to his nation.

Nehru too had a weakness for women.  That does not really detract from his greatness.

While Gandhi overcame his temptations most of the time, many others like JFK succumbed.  So Gandhi was greater than JFK and others like him.  Yet JFK and others too remain great in comparison with (too) many others who add nothing worthwhile to the betterment of humanity or at least a section of humanity.

Anyone who adds more beauty, more compassion, more goodness to humanity is great in my view, even if the person has some personal drawbacks. 

The vast majority of people who have nothing to add to humanity are keen to highlight the drawbacks of the great because they think doing so will keep the greatness under their control.  We like to admire greatness; but not when the person is alive!

About matheikal

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4 Responses to The dilemmas of greatness

  1. Dawn and Dew says:

    Good ponderings, sir. What I personally feel is that Character is nothing but having control over our temptations. Without that kind of character, I believe, our impression in the mind of others is just a make-believe game. And character is built when we replace desire with intelligence by constant meditation on our actions and thougts and self critiques.

    • matheikal says:

      Thanks for the comment, Dawn. While character is very, very important, I was also trying to say that the feet of clay need not be magnified…

  2. Sir, now I understand your view fully. Let me put across my view. My view differs from yours in the sense that I believe that a person having high esteem and respect in a society, should exercise restraint in doing stuff that is socially unacceptable at large. In my view this is just another form of abuse of one’s stature in the society. Also, since anybody’s personality is made up of umpteen qualities/flaws and that greatness is an adjective of one’s personality, it seems incorrect to me to view somebody’s greatness in the light of some isolated qualities.

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