Gandhi's Legacy

I am most grateful to the staff of the Centre of South Asian Studies of the School of Oriental and African Studies for doing me the honour of inviting me to deliver the Annual Lecture. Since the lecture is part of the conference on Gandhi's Legacy, I thought it proper to devote it to that theme. Both the conference and the lecture mark 125th anniversary of Gandhi's birth. The anniversary is particularly important and even poignant because Gandhi had repeatedly declared that he wished to live until that age. Believing in the power of the spirit over the body, he saw no reason why a spiritually and physically disciplined life should remain confined to the conventional maximum of a hundred years. Even nearly four decades after Gandhi's death, opinions about his achievements remain deeply divided. For some he was too implacably hostile to modern civilization to offer an adequate understanding of its nature, let alone provide answers to its malaise. For them he was basically a man of action whose major or even sole contribution consisted in leading his country's struggle for Independence. Some of his critics regard even this as a mixed legacy. They argue that his basically conservative, puritanical, pro-bourgeois and pacifist thought hindered the development of radical political movements, did much long-term harm to the cause of the Dalits, burdened the Indian psyche with a paralyzing sense of guilt about economic development, hampered the emergence of a strong and powerful State, created a national schizophrenia about the need to acquire and exercise political power, and perpetuated unrealistic and confused ideas about human sexuality.

Gandhi's admirers take a radically different view. For them he was a man of both thought and action, a rare combination. As a man of thought he saw through the malaise and madness of modernity, and offered an alternative vision that combined the best insight of both the pre-modern and modern world-views while avoiding the confusions and contradictions of the currently fashionable post-modernism. Indeed, argue his admirers, if Indians were to be asked to mention their greatest twentieth-century thinker, most would unhesitatingly refer to Gandhi and would feel hard pressed to mention another. Gandhi was also a man of action, and was unique in acting at both political and personal levels. He led the greatest anti-colonial struggle in history, organised his deeply divided countrymen, gave them a sense of collective pride, forged tools of collective action that continue to stand India in good stead, and developed a unique method of struggle that combined the energy and effectiveness of violence with the peacefulness and humility of non-violence. At the personal or moral level, he restlessly strove to create a beautiful soul free of all that was petty, mean, coarse and vulgar, successfully embarked upon a most heroic struggle to conquer all his senses including sexuality, and offered a rare example of how to lead a political life without compromising one's integrity. Some of Gandhi's admirers go even further and argue that we should not be surprised if one day he were to prove as influential, and be placed on the same footing, as Jesus of Nazareth and the Buddha. Einstein set the tone for such a view when he remarked in a tribute to Gandhi on his seventieth birthday: 'Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.’

Ralph Boultjens echoed Einstein's view in 19842: Thirty-five years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ there was no indication that Christianity would emerge as one of the great spiritual forces of history. Around 450 BC, three decades after the death of Confucius, nobody could have predicted how influential his ideas would eventually become. And around 1915, thirty years after Karl Marx, the communist movement seemed doomed to be an inconsequential political aberration. Perhaps, then we are too near Gandhi to evaluate his impact on history. In my view Gandhi's detractors underestimate the originality of some of his ideas, the depth of his political and moral influence on India and on the rest of the world, and the sheer grandeur and moral beauty of his life. By contrast his worshippers make the opposite mistake of ignoring his confusions and ambiguities as well as the dark underside of some of his ideas and actions. Since this is not the occasion to undertake a detailed critical assessment of Gandhi and to arbitrate between his detractors and worshippers, I have decided to concentrate on what I take to be of lasting value in his life and thought. Accordingly I shall take three areas for close examination. I have selected these three because they relate to issues that agonise us today and about which Gandhi has something extremely important and original to say. These are first, the nature of fundamentalism and religious identity; second, the sources of human suffering and an adequate theory of social change; and third, Gandhi's redefinition of fundamental liberal values and his attempt to give them a much-needed moral and ontological depth.

Religious fundamentalism has been a considerable source of violence and suffering in recent years in almost every part of the world, including such developed countries as the USA and such developing countries as Iran, Pakistan, and India. Fundamentalism is a frightened religion's response to the crisis of identity and integrity, and consists in seeking to recapture and uncompromisingly assert what it takes to be its fundamental beliefs and practices. Fundamentalism cannot be countered by abstractly condemning either the religious consciousness itself or its perversions in a spirit of secularist fundamentalism. The best way to deal with it is to understand and criticise it from within, and to show how the fundamentalist approach to religion, although understandable in a specific historical context, profoundly corrupts and ultimately destroys the integrity of the religious consciousness itself. I can think of few who understood the nature of religious consciousness and undermined fundamentalism from within the religious perspective itself as sensitively and effectively as Gandhi did. For Gandhi every major religion articulated a unique vision of God and emphasised different features of the human condition. The idea of God as loving Father was most fully developed in Christianity, and the emphasis on love and suffering was also unique to it. As he put it: 'I cannot say that it is singular, or that it is not to be found in other religions. But the presentation is unique'. Austere and rigorous monotheism and the spirit of equality were 'most beautifully' articulated in Islam. The distinction between the Impersonal, and conceptions of God, the principle of the unity of all life and the doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence) were distinctive to Hinduism. For Gandhi every religion had a distinct moral and 'spiritual composition'. To a truly religious person all religions should be 'equally dear'.

Gandhi argued that since God was infinite and since the limited human mind could grasp only a 'fragment' of Him and that too inadequately, every religion was necessarily limited and partial. Even the religions claiming to be directly revealed by God were revealed to men with their fair share of inescapable human limitations and were communicated in the necessarily inadequate human languages. For Gandhi, every man was born into a particular religion. Since no religion was wholly false, he should be able to work out his destiny in and through it. And if he felt attracted to some aspects of another religion, he should be at liberty to borrow them. When Madeleine Slade wished to become a Hindu, Gandhi advised her against it. She should, he insisted, live by her own Christian faith and absorb into it whatever she liked in Hinduism. Merely changing over to a new religion would not improve her conduct or way of life, the only thing that ultimately mattered. When they were overwhelmed with doubts, Gandhi encouraged his Christian friends to draw new inspiration and strength from their own religion. An American missionary, Stanly Jones, spoke for many of them when he said that Gandhi had reconverted him to Christianity. In a different context he told his Jewish friend, Mrs Polak, that she need not 'become' a Christian in order to 'be' one. She could draw inspiration from Jesus's life and teachings and live like a Christian without ceasing to be a Jew. Religions are commonly thought of as closed worlds, almost like sovereign states zealously guarding their territorial boundaries. No one is allowed to belong to more than one religion, or to borrow the ideas and practices of another, without feeling guilty or threatened at the dilution of his or her religious identity. Interfaith dialogue is therefore expected to occur within and to do nothing to weaken the religious boundaries. Gandhi took a very different view. For him a religion was not a monolithic structure of ideas and practices, but a resource from which one freely borrowed whatever one found attractive and persuasive. As such, it was a collective property and a common human heritage. Every man was born into and deeply shaped by a specific religious tradition which as it were constituted his original family. He also enjoyed varying degrees of membership of other cultural and religious families, to whose achievements he enjoyed an unrestricted right of access. Gandhi said that as a Hindu he was an heir to its rich and ancient heritage. As an Indian he was a privileged inheritor of its diverse religious and cultural traditions. As a human being the great achievements of mankind constituted a collective human capital to which he had as much right as their native claimants. While remaining firmly rooted in his own tradition, he therefore felt free to draw upon the moral and spiritual resources and openness, he often used the metaphor of living in a house with its windows wide open to allow cultural winds from all directions to blow into it and to enable him to breathe fresh air at his own pace and in his own way. Ano Bhadra ritavo yantu vishvatah (May noble thoughts from all over the world come to us) was one of his favourite classical maxims.

Gandhi took full advantage of his self-proclaimed intellectual freedom. He abstracted what he took to be the central values of Hinduism and set up a critical dialogue, even a confrontation, between them and those derived from other religious traditions. Thus he took over the Hindu concept of ahimsa (non-violence), in his view one of its central moral principles. He found it negative and passive and reinterpreted it in the light of the activist and socially-oriented Christian concept of caritas. However, he felt that the latter was too emotive, led to worldly attachments and compromised the agent's self-sufficiency, and so he redefined it in the light of the Hindu concept of anasakti (non-attachment). His double conversion, his Christianisation of a Hindu category after he had suitably Hinduised the Christian concept, yielded the novel idea of an active and positive but detached and non-emotive love. Again, he took over the traditional Hindu practice of fasting as a protest, combined it with the Judaic concept of representative leadership, and the Christian concepts of vicarious atonement and suffering love, interpreted and reinterpreted each in the light of the others, and developed the amazing notion of a 'voluntary crucifixion of the flesh'. It involved fasting undertaken by the acknowledged leader of the community to atone for the evil deeds of his followers, to awaken their senses of shame and guilt, and to mobilise their moral and spiritual energies for redemptive purposes. For Gandhi a religion was not a sovereign system of authoritative beliefs and practices which its adherents may violate only on pain of punishment, but a great cultural resource which, like great works of art and literature, belonged to all mankind. One did not have to be a Christian in order to feel entitled to adopt Christian beliefs and practices. And a Hindu or a Muslim who did so did not become a Christian. Indeed, the very terms Christian, Hindu, and Muslim were mistaken and a source of much mischief. They reified respective religions, set up rigid boundaries between them, sanctioned false proprietary claims, and created a psychological and moral pressure towards conformity. In the ultimate analysis, argued Gandhi, there were neither Christians nor Hindus, only whole and unfragmented human beings who freely helped themselves with the moral and spiritual resources of these and other great religious traditions. One could admire Jesus and even accept him as the son of God, but one could also hold the Buddha, Moses, Mahavira, Zarathustra and others in equally high regard. Men and women who did so belonged to their specific religions but also to several others. They were Christians or Muslims or Buddhists in the sense that these religious traditions were their native homes or points of spiritual orientation, and satisfied them the most. However they also cherished and freely drew upon other religious traditions, and carried parts of these into their religion. Whatever one may think of Gandhi's views, he offers the clearest antithesis to fundamentalism and shows that the religious identity, like other kinds of identity, is both rooted and open, both firm and flexible, and is constantly reconstituted in the light of the agent's constantly changing self-understanding. As Gandhi rightly stressed, cultural and religious identities are neither primordial and unalterable as the fundamentalist imagines, nor volitionalist projects to be undertaken and executed at will as the secular rationalist maintains, but products of periodic self-constitution based on the inherited resources of one's tradition as interpreted and enriched in the light of changing needs and knowledge of other traditions.

Gandhi saw more clearly than most other writers both the interdependence of human beings and the ways in which systems of domination were built up and sustained. He argued that all systems of domination rested on a profound misunderstanding of human nature, and wrongly assumed that it was possible for one man or group of men to harm another without also harming themselves. Human beings were necessarily interdependent and formed an organic whole.3 An individual owed his existence to his parents without whose countless sacrifices he would neither survive nor grow into a sane human being. He grew and realised his potential in a stable and peaceful society, made possible by the efforts and sacrifices of thousands of anonymous men and women. He became a rational, reflective and moral human being within a rich civilization created by scores of sages, saints, savants, and scientists. In short, every human being owned his humanity to others, and benefited from a world to the creation of which he contributed nothing. As Gandhi put it, every man was 'born a debtor', a beneficiary of others' gifts, and his inherited debts were too vast to be repaid. Even a whole lifetime was not enough to pay back what a man owned to his parents, let alone all others. Furthermore the creditors were by their very nature unspecifiable. Most of them were dead or remained anonymous, and those alive were so numerous and their contributions so varied and complex that it was impossible to decide what one owed to whom. To talk about repaying the debts did not therefore make sense except as a clumsy and metaphorical way of describing one's response to unsolicited but indispensable gifts. Since the debts could never be 'repaid' and the favours 'returned', all a man could do was to 'recognise the conditions of his existence and to continue the ongoing universal yajna or system of sacrifices by accepting his full share of collective responsibility. The only adequate response to the fact that he was born in and constantly sustained by yajna was to look upon his life as yajna, an offering at the universal altar, and to find profound joy in contributing to the maintenance and enrichment of both the human world and the cosmos. As Gandhi put it, 'Yajna having come to us with our birth we are debtors all our lives, and thus forever bound to serve the universe'. Not rights, but obligations were the basis of moral life, and one's rights were embedded in and grew out of others' discharge of their duties.

Gandhism is a body of ideas that describes the inspiration, vision and the life work of Mohandas Gandhi. It is particularly associated with his contributions to the idea of nonviolent resistance, sometimes also called civil resistance. The two pillars of Gandhism are truth and non-violence.