Thursday, February 14, 2013

Gandhi: Two Books to Guide


Sitting alone in a motel room one night in Hawarden, Iowa, after working a long day blacktopping roads, I turned on the TV and came across a movie about this man Gandhi. I only caught the end, but I learned that he was a saintly man and that when mortally shot by an assassin, he uttered the words “God, God, God”. (To what extent this is accurate, I don’t know, although I think that the actual recitation would have been “Ram, Ram, Ram”.) In any event, I don’t recall if I’d heard of this man before, but the brief exposure the film piqued my curiosity. (N.B. This was well before Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film biography, Gandhi.) I went on to read Louis Fisher’s biography, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (1948) and then Erik Erickson’s Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence, a consideration of Gandhi from Erickson’s unique psychoanalytic perspective. After that flurry of interest, college and an introduction to a wider world of ideas and experiences led me off in other directions—until now, when I find myself in Gandhi’s homeland. I look upon his continence each time I hold a piece of paper money. 


The 20th century is marked by a handful of titanic political figures. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao comprise a trio of titanic evil marked by war, genocide, and mass murder. Yet each is a complex, daunting, and fascinating human being embedded in their unique times and cultures. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were titans in liberal democracies who rose in response to the crisis of the Great Depression (FDR) and WWII (WSC). Each led his respective nation into and through the war. Together they led their nations into a mutual alliance that triumphed by the end of the 20th century. Both of them were immensely complex figures, certainly not angels, but canny politicians and strategic thinkers. And then there is the titan Gandhi. Gandhi, the rather unassuming young man turned barrister, turned activist, turned ascetic, turned politician, turned saint, turned father of the nation. One might argue that he proves more difficult to grasp than any of the other titanic political figures of the 20th century. 

Two books of late, both by authors who attended and presented at JLF, have provided me with new insights into Gandhi. Richard Sorabji’s Gandhi and the Stoics: Modern Experiments in Ancient Values (2012, 203 p.) delves into Gandhi’s thought through the lens of the ancient Stoic philosophies. In Sorabji, a British academic born of Indian immigrant parents, one could not find anyone more qualified person to make this comparison. Sorabji is a revered scholar of ancient philosophy and a wonderfully precise thinker and writer. Sorabji makes his case through careful consideration of Gandhi’s writings and Stoic teaching, while acknowledging from the beginning that Gandhi was not acquainted with Stoic thought (except perhaps to the extent of some fleeting exposure to Epictetus). While Sorabji cannot locate any direct Stoic influence on Gandhi, he does note a number of other well-documented influences: Socrates, Jesus (Mathew’s Gospel and the Sermon on the Mount, in particular), Thoreau, John Ruskin (Unto this Last), Tolstoy (e.g., The Kingdom of God Is Within You), and the Bhagavad Gita are the most prominent and influential. (Gandhi was very well read man, and he continued to expand his reading while jailed.) In addition to knowing what Gandhi read, we have what he wrote, which is immense. Indeed, Sorabji argues that Gandhi qualifies as a philosopher because he led a very examined life, and he did so publicly in order to invite comment and criticism. 

Despite the lack of a direct connection between the Stoics and Gandhi, the comparison proves quite fruitful because both traditions (Gandhi alone, I think, can constitute a tradition) attempt to deal with love, emotion, and our engagement with the wider world. Our current, popular notion of Stoicism is quite warped in relation to the ancient practice. We think of Mr. Spock as the ideal Stoic, at his best when he allows his emotions to overcome his rational mind. But this understanding, along with any sense of Gandhi as bound by any absolute standards, misses the very carefully considered analysis of emotions (including love and care) that mark these two traditions. Sorabji’s thorough, point-by-point consideration of the particulars of each position, takes us deeply into each. And, as I believe, each tradition has a rich vein of wisdom that we should mine, the book proves very worthwhile. 

In perusing the speaker list for JLF,  I came across the names of Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph, and I learned that they are retired (but very active) University of Chicago political scientists who have written very extensively about Indian politics (and whom are part-time Jaipur residents). Upon checking, I learned that my trusty Kindle could deliver Postmodern Gandhi and Other Essays: Gandhi in the World and at Home (2006) to me, and I purchased it. This book of essays considers Gandhi, his life and thought, from a number of different angles: his critique of modernity, his reception in America, the effect of Nehru’s different relation to modernity on partition, the ashram as public space, and importance of courage to Gandhi and his movement. Each essay mines its topic carefully and with revealing and insightful conclusions. By referencing political thinkers with whom I have prior acquaintance, like Reinhold Niebuhr, Hannah Arendt, and J├╝rgen Habermas, the Rudolphs help better situate Gandhi and his project in my existing political taxonomy. 

Perhaps the only contention I have with their work is their designation of Gandhi as postmodern. I often worry that the term “postmodern”, along with its predecessor, “modern”, is too slippery. But even setting aside that concern (which can certainly be addressed by careful acknowledgments up-front), this designation of Gandhi as postmodern seems to reach too far. One can argue more persuasively that Gandhi is pre-modern: his dedication to spinning and village life hardly smack of 19th century ideals, not to speak of 20th or 21st century norms. Gandhi and those he draws upon, like Ruskin and Tolstoy, are certainly critics of modernity that demand a hearing, but none of them strike me as having provided a compelling counter-narrative (although I’m sadly not well enough acquainted with Ruskin’s work to say that with certainty). Ashrams and village life may have their place in postmodern world, but only as one alternative in plural world. People in India and around the world have voted (and are voting) with their feet by leaving villages and migrating to cities for reasons economic and cultural. While I have a homespun (khadi) vest, I don’t delude myself that I and about 1.1 billion fellow humans here in India can cloth ourselves adequately without the aid of mechanical looms. People want the benefits of economic development and of (at least some) cultural freedom that the traditional (pre-modern) Indian life that Gandhi extolled can’t provide. Indeed, I perceive the village (and villagers transplanted into Indian megacities) as a huge and difficult challenge to India, especially for young Indian women who aspire to some level of gender equality and greater personal dignity, it appears to me that the pre- modern village mentality is a mortal threat. What Gandhi did not provide, and that we must, is a way through the problems of modernity, the problems of environmental degradation, rampant consumerism, and social alienation. In their place, we are challenged to establish new forms of meaning and society consistent with Enlightenment values. Gandhi as a critic of modernity and as a philosopher of personal values holds some sway with me, but Gandhi as political visionary does not. (N.B. Gandhi’s political heir, Nehru, did India no great favors with his modernist and statist political vision.)

I’m looking forward to reading more about Gandhi and grappling with the enigma of this amazing man, and I can do so with the greater insight having read these two excellent books.

Cross-posted on Steve's View from Abroad