It is impossible to reduce Gandhi to any single categorial dimension save this, that he was an icon of the good man; and a seeker of truth.
Gandhi’s life-work combined a complex of ideals, concepts and practical endeavour that could inspire millions of ordinary Indians, but also irritate many sophisticated minds. His activity pointed toward an overcoming of the binary distinctions between tradition and modernity; individual and community; faith and religion; the nation and the world; Indians and humanity; ethics and politics. It is impossible to reduce Gandhi to any single categorial dimension save this, that he was an icon of the good man; and a seeker of truth.
Two of Gandhi’s most basic philosophical impulses were the dignity and responsibility of the individual; and the sacredness of life. These values fused ends and means; and were of global relevance. That is why he is widely regarded as a friend of humanity. He is also a luminous representative of the Indian liberal tradition, if we may use that term to signify the above qualities in combination with courage, compassion, and dialogic truth-seeking in political life.
These impulses impinge upon political philosophy via the question of violence as the foundation of a polity; and that of piety translated into civic responsibility. Gandhi’s innovative approach to these issues was profound. It emerged in his attempt to engage with the foundation of a new order on the basis of a violent colonial experience, and a society with deep and traumatic fault-lines.
The first question relates to the violence that is supposed necessarily to accompany the founding of new states. Thus, Machiavelli’s ‘realistic’ revolt, his substitution of patriotism for moral virtue abandoned older meanings of the good society. He discounted any divine or natural support for justice. All legitimacy was rooted in illegitimacy; all social orders had been established by questionable means.
The Machiavellian-Hobbesian tradition takes its bearings by the extreme case, which it believes to be more revealing of the character of civil society than the normal case. This assumption was replicated in revolutionary currents from the French revolution onward and attained normative status in the insurrectionary politics of the twentieth century.
Gandhi believed that a good society could never arise from evil foundations. His view is therefore the obverse of Machiavellian pessimism. Contrary to the belief that violence is essential to the act of political foundation, Gandhi made the prescient observation that ‘what is granted under fear can be retained only as long as the fear lasts’.
This meant that a polity founded upon assassination, which made the extreme case into a norm, would condemn itself to perpetual oscillation between extremes. In rejecting revolutionary political theory from the Jacobins to the Bolsheviks and Fascists, he was challenging a centuries-old tradition. His rejection of the utilitarian suspension of ethics points toward the deeper ramifications of 1947; and throws light upon extremist politics in the successor regimes of colonial India.
We are habituated to histories of rupture. Gandhi, however, took his bearings not by the extreme case but by everyday sociability: The force of love is the same as the force of the soul or truth. We have evidence of its working at every step.
He asked for a new beginning: ‘if we are to make progress, we must not repeat history but make new history. We must add to the inheritance left by our ancestors. If we may make new discoveries and inventions in the phenomenal world, must we declare our bankruptcy in the spiritual domain? Is it impossible to multiply the exceptions so as to make them the rule? Must man always be brute first and man after, if at all?’ (1926). It remains to be seen whether political cultures that celebrate violence will succeed in erasing his influence, or nullifying his wisdom.
Faith vs ‘irreligion’
Gandhi’s refusal to separate religion from politics is often misunderstood. The confusion is due to the reduction of religion to political identification. What we call communalism is a version of political theology, or civil religion. It starts from the assumption that religious homogeneity is a crucial component of state authority. Political theology invests in the utility of religion rather than its truth.
But Gandhi was interested neither in the use of religion by the state, or the use of the state by priests. For him, religion was a source of philosophical wisdom. Believing that nothing in the scriptures came from God directly, Gandhi wanted humans to exercise their judgement. Along with Tagore he distinguished between the religion of humanity and the faiths which were manifestations of it.
Gandhi’s name for communalism was ‘irreligion’. He believed utilitarian religiosity to be a perversion of faith and a harbinger of disintegration. His instincts told him that a stable Indian polity could not be based on a ‘national’ religion — the issue was not the separation of religion from politics, but the separation of religion from nationhood.
This approach answers ‘traditionalist’ objections to secularism: in India the term relates quite simply to the impossibility of an imposed religious homogeneity. Far from being a stabilising factor, attempts at enforcing uniform faith would ignite a crisis of state legitimacy. This was borne out by partition and its aftermath.
Tradition vs modernity
As a founder, Gandhi was not burdened with a ‘bad conscience’, but a good one. As someone searching for a dignified path toward self-governance, he had to deal with the diversity of traditions. In a speech in Jaffna (1927), he pointed to the difficulty of defining ancient culture, and determining when it began to be modern; that prudence required that we not swear by anything because it was ancient; that any culture ancient or modern must be submitted to the test of reason and experience. He continued: “I came by a process of examination to this irresistible conclusion that there was nothing so very ancient in this world as these two good old things — truth and non-violence.”
Gandhi thus upheld a respect for tradition whilst retaining the use of his conscience and his reason. Swimming in the waters of tradition did not require us to sink in them: ‘Every living faith must have within itself the power of rejuvenation if it is to live' (1935). He interpreted jnana, bhakti and karma to point toward knowledge of empirical situations; the imperative of love for one’s fellows; and service of society. Dharma could resonate with his favourite citation from Tulsidas (daya dharm ka mool hai..); and also be recast as yuga-dharma, which stressed our duties in the present - this was the basis for his recommendation of bread labour and scavenging for all.
Gandhi often made pragmatic adjustments to his strategies and ideas - he was in continuous debate with his compatriots, friends and critics all over the world. As the philosopher Arne Naess observed: “There can be no rule-books of Gandhian policy.... This, however, does not necessarily reduce the value of Gandhi’s teaching in the contemporary political situation. After all, the indication of direction that a compass-needle gives is of some value in itself, even if it takes no consideration of the terrain through which we must pass.”
The underlying ideal of Gandhi’s practice remained ‘the oceanic circle’ – an ever-expanding web of social relationships that reached out from the individual to the village, the country and the world. That is why he could tell his audience at a prayer-meeting in November 1947: “when someone commits a crime anywhere I feel I am the culprit. You too should feel the same.. Let us all merge in each other like drops in an ocean.”
As he put it: “The bane of our life is our exclusive provincialism, whereas my province must be co-extensive with the Indian boundary so that ultimately it extends to the boundary of the earth. Else it perishes.” These sentences condense the reasons why Gandhi remains relevant.
This is not the task of any especially endowed nation. The Amazon rain forest, the Himalayas, the polar ice caps, the oceans, the air; the crisis of displaced peoples, the safety of children and the access to knowledge – all these cannot be left within the ambit of nation-states. We are not particles of state-structures, but human beings with planetary responsibilities.
The outpouring of sorrow from around the world upon Gandhi’s assassination demonstrated how much the world’s people owned him. In recognizing his remarkable nobility of spirit; they lifted him above the limits of time and place. That is why, in a BBC millennium poll in 2000, Mahatma Gandhi was voted the greatest man of the past thousand years.