Mahatma Gandhi’s steel-framed spectacles, his pair of sandals, bowl, plate and pocket watch recently brought in $1.8 million at auction. Vijay Mallya, the Indian liquor and airline magnate, announced that he had purchased the items with plans to return them to India. How ironic that these few items owned by a man who had repudiated materialism commanded such an exorbitant price!
A century and a half ago, Henry Thoreau described a similar set of transactions in his “Economy” chapter of Walden:
“Not long since I was present at the auction of a deacon’s effects…As usual, a great proportion was trumpery which had begun to accumulate in his father’s day. Among the rest was a dried tapeworm. And now, after lying half a century in his garret and other dust holes, these things were not burned; instead of a bonfire, or purifying destruction of them, there was an auction, or increasing of them. The neighbors eagerly collected to view them, bought them all, and carefully transported them to their garrets and dust holes, to lie there till their estates are settled, when they will start again.”
Similar examples of the pursuit of venerated objects abound in history. Crusaders sought the Holy Grail. Thousands still journey to Fatima to seek the holy water with healing properties. Now that she is gone, Mother Teresa’s medical notebook, her white enamel bowl, her crucifix, rosary and brown leather sandals are contemplated with reverence. Even Thoreau’s flute and rustic furniture that he used during his two-year sojourn at Walden Pond remain on public display in the Concord Museum.
Why in our quest of the spiritual do we continually put stock in material things? It’s almost as if we believed that spirituality could be bought instead of sought.
Another ironic twist here is that it was Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience that spurred Gandhi to pursue a non-violent philosophy of political resistance—Satyagraha—throughout his life as an ascetic in India. And in 1999 Gandhi’s grandson in turn participated in the public reading of Thoreau’s essay on the steps of First Church in Concord, Massachusetts, on the 150th anniversary of its publication at the annual gathering of the Thoreau Society.
Even though they’re no longer for sale to the highest bidder, perhaps we can still glimpse the world through Gandhi’s eyeglasses—by studying his writings and reading his life story.