While recently rereading Erik Erikson’s 1969 psychoanalytical political biography of Gandhi, Gandhi’s Truth, I was particularly struck by the following statement: “Freud, in one of his ‘economic’ moods might well have said that, psychologically speaking, such men (people like Gandhi) save others not so much from their sin but from the fantastic effort not to see the most obvious of all facts: That life is bounded by not-life.” Gandhi, according to Erikson, allows us to face the fact that we are “bounded by not-life” and tempts us to draw power from such efforts as exemplified in Gandhi’s life struggle.
Our fascination for men like Gandhi, the Buddha or Socrates “rests on the need of all men to find the few who plausibly take it upon themselves to reveal — and give meaning to — what others must deny at all times but cannot really forget for a moment”— death/nothingness. Those of us who are familiar with Gandhi’s philosophical, political and intellectual struggles know that he, perhaps more than the Buddha or Socrates, tried his level best to reduce himself to “zero”, as he announced in the last paragraphs of his autobiography. Erikson believes that Gandhi almost succeeded in this endeavour and because of this singular achievement, Erikson presents Gandhi as a heroic figure who drew power from “nothingness”. Lesser mortals if they ever had the courage to attempt anything similar, Erikson cautions us, would have most likely ended up being crushed between megalomania and self-destruction.
A reading of Gandhi, from a purely philosophical point of view, would tempt one to see him as someone who — like the Buddha — was asking us to replace our unselfconsciously and uncritically held metaphysical beliefs through a series of “experiments with truth”. We know that the Buddha did say this in the “Kalama Sutra” and many other sutras. Gandhi’s life was a work in progress till it was terminated by his assassin Nathuram Vinayak Godse’s bullet.
In the rest of this article, I make an attempt to bring out the significance of Gandhi’s desire to reduce himself to “zero” by using some subcontinental philosophical concepts.
Individually speaking, one’s own birth is not an enigma. Life as such, although we don’t have any clear cut explanations about it, is not an enigma for many since we can marshal some semi-intelligible explanations. But what about death? A person can only infer, like in the case of her own birth, that she will cease to exist just by inductive reasoning. Everything ultimately loses its integrity in the familiar world of ours. The same thing happens to one’s own current biophysical integrity. It happens to all inanimate as well as all animate beings. From the point of view of the physical and the biological, there is no enigma here. But from an agent’s point of view, she could anticipate a “world lost” that is not enigmatic but could be traumatic psychologically. The natural disintegration “deprives” one of the familiar world of meaningful scenarios in which one is constantly engaged in. This anticipated deprivation of the “world” is what is disturbing emotionally. The “world” is an enigma because it is not explainable biophysically. It is, therefore, not “natural” but “conventional” — we can at the same time be both, entities capable of a biophysical explanation as well as agents functioning against a background of standards of correctness. The “world” is related to the latter .
That is why the “world” is termed by Nagarjuna as “vyavaharika”. It is akin to the other subcontinental idea of “leela”. It is correctly described by some of the subcontinental philosophers as “anirvachniya” — inexplicable because it is neither real nor unreal. Indeed, it is like any other game we are familiar with (nether real or unreal) but it is conceptually/historically prior to them all and all of them supervene on it. That is why (we) take it as more fundamental (conventionally) than the ordinary scenarios we call “games”. We also acknowledge (under metaphysical compulsion) that the “world” itself supervenes on an “X”, which is taken as the “real” — Matter, God , Brahman, Nothingness…
The conventionality of the world can be gauged from the presence of binary oppositions which we deal with regularly. These oppositions are indicators of standards of correctness. The standards are what makes conventional, conventional. Nevertheless, we cannot break out of the conventional/ vyavharika, we can only have useful/useless interpretations of it from within.
The Buddha thought that the fear of death and all other unsatisfactoriness emerge from our metaphysical affectedness. Because we are socialised to treat the “world” as supervening on a “ground everlasting” we habitually presuppose and look for something permanent, if it is not visible in the world, but within us. Because of this, the anticipated loss of the “world” which is undeniable threatens us as inexplicably meaningless and hence makes us angst ridden.
The Buddha’s solution for this predicament is to learn to live without metaphysical props like Matter (White or Dark), the Unified Theory of Physics, God and all its versions, Brahman and all its versions , nirvana included. The Buddha himself thought that some ad hoc versions of metaphysics were initially needed to replace the one that we have been socialised into. He suggested for his disciples a “ Right View” — an ad hoc metaphysics for temporary use, till they get rid of selfishness significantly enough to make all metaphysical props totally unnecessary. He, like his contemporaries Socrates, Vardhamana Mahavira, and 20th CE admirer Gandhi, prescribed a series of ethical practices for us to cultivate virtues in order to significantly reduce the play of selfishness in our lives. As selfishness reduces (Gandhi’s “zero”) significantly through ethical practices, all fears, including the fear of death, which are due to the immoderate selfishness in us, disappear. This automatic disappearance of all fears, in other words, is because of the cultivation of all-inclusive “sarvodya” (concern for the well-being of all) a term Gandhi like the Buddha kept on repeating tirelessly.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 2, 2019 under the title ‘In Good Faith: Power from nothingness’. The writer taught philosophy at St Stephen’s College, Delhi University
- In Good Faith: Gandhi and the varna question
It is easy to cherry-pick from his writings to paint him a racist and anti-Dalit. But Gandhi’s views evolved, reflected his ethical project..
- Tyranny of the majority
In many ways, Gandhi’s scepticism about representative democracy resonates...
- In Good Faith: Ethics for enlightenment
Unlike most religious and spiritual traditions, the Tao-te Ching and Buddhism of the Nikayas places the well-being of all at their core...