Gandhi, the subversive

As people are reduced commodities and consumers, his moral engagement with self and society must be revisited as a protest ideology.

Written by Avijit Pathak | Updated: October 2, 2017 7:32 am
Mahatma Gandhi, gandhi jayanti, 2 October, October 2, Gandhi jayanti 2017, congress party, Mahatma Gandhi, Khadi products, Gandhi jayanti, colonial india, india before independence, independent india, indian express Mahatma Gandhi. (File photo)

A deep engagement with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is exceedingly difficult for two reasons. First, the constant bombardment of the image of the “official” Gandhi — appropriated by the ruling forces, circulated through the flow of currency notes, museumised as our lost conscience, reduced into a business proposal for offering special discounts on Khadi products, and objectified as a fetish, causes some sort of repulsion. Second, there is yet another circulation — the image of the “condemned” Gandhi: “Anti-modern”, “Machiavellian”, “savarna” Gandhi dangerous for the emancipation of the Dalits as well as the working class. The spirit of Gandhi, I fear, has been crushed by these two imageries. However, as I believe, the new generation — perplexed by the alliance of global capitalism and militant nationalism, seduced by media simulation and market-induced spectacles, and thrown into a fragmented/violent politico-cultural milieu characterised by exclusionary identities — needs to engage meaningfully with the spiritually subversive, visionary Gandhi.

To begin with, let me refer to Gandhi’s religiosity. Neither a bundle of rituals intensifying the power of priest craft, nor a set of practices reproducing social hierarchies — religiosity, for Gandhi, was a lifelong quest for self-transformation. It was an engagement with the world without tamasic inertia or rajasic ego, but with sattwic calmness. It was to see politics as a field of sadhana characterised by the Bhagavad Gita’s principle of anasakti yoga as well as the power of love Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. This religiosity was subversive; it sought to manifest itself in radical social practices. When this “sanatani” Hindu felt the “magical spell” of John Ruskin’s Unto This Last, learned the value of labour, and in Tolstoy Farm in South Africa began to practice a pedagogic culture breaking the duality of the mental and the manual, his “experiments with truth” posed a series of critical questions to scriptualised Brahmanism: Its hierarchy, its “purity-pollution” dichotomy, its elitism. He gave a new meaning to a series of disciplinary/religious practices like austerity, fasting and control over body and sexuality. These practices, for him, were not meant for solitary moksha; instead, this positive energy was transformed into a spiritualised politics for collective emancipation. Even when Nathuram Godse — guided by some sort of hyper-masculine, militaristic religious ideology — was getting his pistol ready for the final act, Gandhi with his frail body was on a pilgrimage of a different kind. The fragrance of this religiosity was incomprehensible to orthodox zealots as well as disenchanted modernists.

We know how social scientists have evolved a critique of modernity, its hegemonic scientism, technological violence, hypnotising culture industry, and the “risk society” it has created. Gandhi’s insights took the debate to a much higher reflection. “Brute force”, as he argued in Hind Swaraj, is inherent in colonial modernity causing a satanic civilisation. We live with greed, aggression and indulgence. Our redemption or swaraj lies in what he regarded as “soul force” — the cultivation of one’s religiosity, inner resources and the light within. It would be naïve to say Gandhi’s critique of this sort of “irreligious” modernity was a regressive journey towards a feudal/hierarchical/superstitious past. A careful reader of his life and practice would realise his Ram Rajya was a sort of socialist utopia centred on the principles of decentralised oceanic circles, reconstructed communities, self-sustaining economy, ecological harmony and religiosity as a feminine ethic of care. At a time when global capitalism as reinvented colonialism has reduced us into marketable resources and captive consumers, Gandhi’s utopia appears to us as a protest ideology and an aspiration for a new society trying to come out of the seductive trap of technological miracles, media simulation and militarisation of consciousness.

Finally, we ought to reflect on the language of resistance that Gandhi evolved. From Antonio Gramsci’s creative Marxism we learned about “war of movement” and “war of position”. However, Gandhi went further. No meaningful resistance against injustice is possible without working on one’s own self; and hence satyagraha or ahimsa or non-cooperation with evil forces would require a process of self-purification: Eradicating the seeds of greed, violence and lust lying within. Quite often, the external enemy, be it a colonial master, an exploitative capitalist or a patriarchal Brahmin, lies inside us, despite our adherence to supposedly radical political philosophies. Hence, for Gandhi, neither a frontal attack nor a counter-hegemonic struggle is complete without self-transformation. No wonder, even at his “golden” moment at Noakhali, as Nirmal Kumar Bose’s My Days with Gandhi would suggest, he was testing himself severely. This self-reflexivity gave a new meaning to Gandhi’s spiritualised politics that transformed the art of resistance into a moral/dialogic act of collective redemption.

Gandhi was no God. He was humane with follies, blunders and contradictions.He was honest enough to confess the stories and dilemmas of his inner world. He was not like Ramana Maharshi or Ramakrishna taking spirituality to a subtle realm of ecstasy. In a way, he was living in the murky world in which the agony of a peasant in Champaran or a textile worker in Ahmedabad mattered. He was in a world in which Ambedkar, Nehru, Jinnah and Savarkar existed, and like an inclusive grandfather, he was required to retain the thread of connectedness amidst overwhelming differences. He knew that his spiritualised self ought to walk through this complex path. And he tried. In a way, he did not escape the Kurukshetra of everyday life; Krishna was his inner conscience. It was a difficult journey, a daring journey. Even his “failure” was heroic. The new generation cannot afford to remain ignorant of it.

The writer is professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU

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