Truth, Jiddu Krishnamurti said at the finest moment of his self-realisation, is a pathless land. Yes, no dogma, no sect or no organisation can take us to the realm of truth because fixed ideologies often condition the mind, and limit our horizons. Hence, I have no hesitation in saying that I am not a Gandhian — the way I am neither a Marxist nor an Ambekarite. Yet, as a wanderer, I keep the windows of my mind open, and converse with all these thinkers; and these days, I feel, my engagement with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has acquired a new meaning.
Well, I am deeply aware of the politico-intellectual tradition that evolves a sharp critique of Gandhi, particularly with reference to the caste question. I am aware of the Ambedkarite anguish, or even the feminist critique of Gandhi’s engagement with body and sexuality. Yet, I see many other positive and life-affirming possibilities in Gandhi: The way I see Marx beyond merely the parameter of a spiritually impoverished and deterministic doctrine of historial materialism; or the way I see Ambedkar beyond harsh words against Gandhi, or his modernist constitutionalism, and find a new possibility in his deep engagement with the Dhammapada. The point I am trying to plead for is that no thinker, be it Gandhi or Ambedkar, and Marx or Phule, is infallible. Hence, I need not be an absolutist Gandhian to walk with the Mahatma.
Yes, I rediscover him as I begin to reflect on the fate of modernity. My “academic” self has already mastered the texts of Max Weber, Theodor Adorno and Zygmunt Bauman. The crisis of the Enlightenment, the violence implicit in the positivistic duality between science and ethics, the aggression of the instrumental/technocratic rationality, the seduction of consumerism and new forms of social control, and the eventual rise of a “risk society” — the experience of being “modern” is not merely about freedom and prosperity. It is also about pain and loss, disenchantment and meaninglessness. And it is at this juncture that I transcend my academic self, and begin to walk with Gandhi.
His remarkably “simple” and meaningful words as communicated through a conversation between the “Editor”and the “Reader” in the Hind Swaraj appeal to me, and touch my soul. I see this “satanic civilisation” characterised by “brute force” — a civilisation that tempts us to “indulge” with ever-expanding desire and greed, and continually disempowers us as we lose the spirit of “soul force”, and become heavily dependent on the “outer” realm governed by the statist bureaucracy — its “courts, lawyers and parliament”.
No, for Gandhi, it was not swaraj or “self rule”. Freedom would mean the activation of the “soul force” — the moral power of the “self”, and the ability to restore moral communities with egalitarian/decentralised “oceanic circles”. What further awakens me is that I see the possibility of redefining myself. I begin to believe that I am not a restless consumer, that I am not a slave of techno-spectacles; instead, I can become truly rich — ethically and spiritually — by reducing myself to “zero”. Austerity, I realise, is not the romanticisation of poverty; it is a move towards non-possessiveness, the fundamental condition of being a socialist.
Yes, in this age of militancy and religious nationalism, Gandhi begins to surprise me. I ask myself: How was it possible for him to be religious, yet so elastic, dialogic, open and inclusive? Even though he chose the political domain as his field of sadhana, never did he allow religion to be reduced to an ideology of hatred and division — a manipulative strategy to generate herd instincts. Instead, his cross-religious dialogue, his nuanced engagement with the principle of niskam karma implicit in the Bhagavad Gita, and his ability to transform the Sermon on the Mount into a delicate prayer leading to satyagraha as an act of non-violent resistance against evil forces, religiosity as love, as a delicate exercise in the process of self-purification and as an inspiration for nurturing the dream of an egalitarian society distinguished Gandhi. Once again, he whispers into my ears: “Religion has to be saved from its self-proclaimed protectors — the bunch of zealots and hyper-masculine nationalists.”
Is it ever possible to overcome the “structural violence” — the violence implicit in a bureaucratic/technocratic state, the violence in the possession of social/cultural/economic capital by the select elite, or the violence of asymmetrical globalisation? I have no easy answer to this question. Yet, one thing I know: No amount of counter-violence can help us in our pursuit of justice. Possibly, this is the reason why McDonalisation and Talibanisation are the two sides of the same coin, and why suicide bombers would further intensify the militaristic gaze in the “disturbed” territories. Possibly, the new generation has to experiment with Gandhi, and the art of resistance he offered to evolve a praxis of emancipation from the vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence.
Well, at this juncture of history, when through the magic spell of some authoritarian personlities, we seem to have fallen in love with militarism, one-dimensional nationalism and culture of narcissism, the psychology of fear is all-pervading. I close my eyes, and begin to see Gandhi at Shantiniketan, and conversing with Tagore. And with a flash of truth, I begin to walk with Gandhi at Noakhali in 1946, and realise his fearlessness, and the meaning of Tagore’s poem: Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high…
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 26, 2019 under the title ‘Gandhi and the poetry of fearlessness’. The writer is Professor of Sociology at JNU.
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