There is a whole sub-genre of science fiction-fantasy, pioneered by the likes of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, that deals with the intricacies of divinity, belief and politics — and the death of gods. Political deities, much like their religious counterparts, survive on the love and hate of the people. And they are much more interesting.
This is, perhaps, why a serious engagement with Mahatma Gandhi as a philosopher has not appeared as a book. Because to separate Gandhi the philosopher from Gandhi the sanyasi, or the social reformer, the Hindu, the father of the nation, the logo for Swachh Bharat, may well be an impossible task. Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi’s Gandhi and Philosophy takes on this challenge, but provides no easy answers.
Dwivedi, who teaches philosophy at IIT Delhi and Mohan, a philosopher trained in both India and France, accept this charge, saying, quite simply, “In India, the impossibility of a public practice of philosophy is due to the caste order which resists critique and transformation. Instead, it seeks its own ceremonial recursion.” Between varna and ashrama, it became nearly impossible for there to be something resembling a Socratic tradition here — the existence of someone who stands up for truth, against the social order. The only thing possible, or, at least, desired, is “ceremonial repetition”, the maintenance of what is called a “harmonious society”.
Perhaps it is because they are not tied to Gandhi’s political project — secularism of a particular kind, freedom from colonial concepts, caste without violence — that they are capable of addressing the more uncomfortable aspects of his life and politics. Was Gandhi a racist, as many African academics are now saying? “Yes,” says Dwivedi, “But the entire debate has been conducted rather superficially, by finding quotations for and against Gandhi’s racism from his writings. It misleads us into thinking that Gandhi is a garden variety racist who wanted to preserve traditional discriminations and segregation mainly because of the prestige of the past or to conserve existing social mores. In fact, Gandhi invented a new basis for racism, which is based on moral superiority.”
Then there are questions over Gandhi’s relationship with the RSS, with many of its stalwarts claiming that he admired the organisation’s “discipline” and even hint at his sympathy for Hindutva. Mohan argues that because of Gandhi’s political significance, he is often “misappropriated”: “When India economically liberalised Gandhi became important again because a mascot of liberal tolerance was needed. Liberal tolerance is the attitude that anything goes as long as it doesn’t shock the market.” Today, he says, Gandhi is being used by those who stand for a caste order. “What we have is the history of a quiet war between a 3,000-year-old ceremonial social order, and the various attempts at the creation of a state. When Gandhi was used by liberals during liberalisation, it was in effect against the state, that is, the state retreat for the reign of the social order. As we know, Gandhi was opposed to the modern state!”
So, the task of building a philosophy around Gandhi becomes a challenge twice over. First, is the man himself, who won’t fit in the boxes that the discipline puts in place. The second is the fact that the study of Indian philosophy and philosophers is still at a nascent stage, and the current academic and political scenario is not one conducive to questioning. Mohan and Dwivedi try to overcome this by creating new concepts and categories.
The most interesting of these is “hypophysics”. Essentially, for Gandhi, “nature is value”. The more human beings move away from nature, the more “immoral” they are. Hence, the village is better than the town, the charkha superior to the powerloom, and nature to man. Coupled with his fundamentalism about tolerance and non-violence, Gandhi can be seen as a nihilist — someone who even decries sex for reproduction and would like human society to wither away.
This understanding of the authors has a particular significance in an era where Instagram is flooded with anxious posts about the impending climate apocalypse and scientists declaring that human activity has birthed a new geological era. Gandhi, in this view, understood instinctively that humanity, post the industrial revolution, is moving too fast, and this speed is a form of violence. The final goal must be to slow down, be “sustainable”, so sustainable in fact, that human beings should be indistinguishable from nature. Seen as a politics, this would mean that Gandhi’s entire purpose was to end politics, at least, in any decent, modern form that we can think of today.
Gandhi the philosopher, it would appear, is far too complicated to be a father of the nation. Or, perhaps, addressing his contradictions is a way to understand contemporary India. Religious deities, after all, are also only human, and complicated. And philosophers, if not politicians, can deal with that fact.