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The Mahatma's Bowl

This week's auction of Mahatma Gandhi's steel-rimmed spectacles, simple brass bowl and plate, worn sandals and pocket watch for $1.8 million raises a question that's good to ponder in these times: What's of real value?

What would you pay at a yard sale for sandals, a bowl, a broken watch and specs that are 60 years old? Even $20?

What makes those items worth so much more, just because Mahatma Gandhi wore those tattered sandals, ate goat curds from that bowl, and used that pocket watch to see through his spectacles that he was six minutes late to his last evening prayers?

Did Gandhi himself see those items as being worth much?

I don't want to sentimentalize the Mahatma. Anyone who has read his extraordinary autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, knows Gandhi was a shrewd showman who brimmed with contradictions.

He was a University College London-educated lawyer who donned a loincloth to identify with the poorest of the earth but cultivated wealthy contributors. In fact, at the time he was assassinated, he lived in a mansion lent to him by a rich industrialist. The bowl and sandals he used were props of a kind, to remind himself, and the world, of India's poor. He rode third class on trains, to visibly associate with the poor. But Congress Party members would buy scads of tickets to surround him with security.

Sarojini Naidu, president of the Indian National Congress, once memorably observed, "It costs a lot of money to keep this man in poverty."

The Mahatma's possessions were bought by an Indian businessman who says they will be put on display in India.

The seller is a U.S.-based filmmaker, James Otis, who says he will donate the money to unspecified pacifist causes. He initially told the Indian government that he would donate the items directly if it agreed to increase spending on the poor to 5 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

The Indian government told him that it is a democracy, and does not take orders from American collectors.

No one should try to pretend that they truly know what Mahatma Gandhi would make of this sale.

He gave his life, not just his death, to India, and probably didn't imagine that his unassuming sandals and beggar's bowl would be worth keeping — much less a small fortune. Today, we live in a world in which baseball cards have sold for more than $2 million.

But the Gandhi whose words I have cherished enjoyed pointing out his own contradictions to remind people he was not a deity.

I wonder if he wouldn't remind his supporters how even huge amounts of money given to good causes can quickly disappear. What endures is the example of a man who might say, "Give my bowl to someone who is hungry — and fill it."

Correction March 11, 2009

We referred to Gandhi as a "Cambridge-educated lawyer." He actually studied law at University College London.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small
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