Friday, December 14, 2018

The elusive task of “getting Gandhi right:” on religion and spirituality

I recently have come across several comments about Gandhi’s ideas, spirituality and politics in various fora that I find tendentious, distorted (e.g., a caricature), or simply wrong (alas, one finds Leftists often shamelessly indulging in ‘Gandhi-bashing,’ which of course is something quite different from intelligent and informed criticism). One characterization in particular was spectacularly off-target, so I’ll spend some time here addressing it: Gandhi is described, without qualification, as being among the class of “conservative Hindus.” Gandhi’s identification with Hinduism was in fact utterly idiosyncratic and defined by him in such universalist terms as to be almost unrecognizable as “Hinduism,” despite the plethora of ideas he adopted from the tradition, ideas invariably subject to his unique and well-considered interpretations (Gandhi’s allegorical reading—in toto—of the Gita is highly unusual and perhaps utterly unique, at least within Hinduism proper). Gandhi would not accept conventional or orthodox renderings of concepts from Hinduism if he found them repugnant to either “reason” or “moral sense.” I suppose it should not be surprising how hard it is to “get Gandhi right” as it were, for he was not a systematic intellectual or philosopher and was open to altering or correcting his views in light of self-examination and reflections on his experiences (be they intimate or public: Gandhi himself as not fond of such distinctions as we commonly make between the ‘private’ and ‘public’ realms). Hence Gandhi did not place a premium on the “consistency” of his views over time because he felt perfectly free to change his mind (and so he reminds me of the great pragmatist philosopher, Hilary Putnam) for any number of legitimate reasons that arose out of his experience, reflection, reading, dialogue, or even conflict with others. I will not name names with regard to the authors of the comments I’ve found troubling (in one case I’ve written a letter to a professor from whom I’ve yet to hear back). After attempting to set the record straight as we say, I’ve added a short list of secondary sources that might have saved the individuals in question from writing such nonsense. I hope it also proves helpful to those still learning or curious about Gandhi’s life and thought. 

One should always bear in mind, with Akeel Bilgrami, that Gandhi’s “religiosity was eclectic and individual, a product partly of what was given to him, but partly too a matter of his [moral and spiritual] instincts, which were then consolidated over the years by his haphazard reading [yet this reading was wide ranging, in terms of both topics and geographic origin] and his highly personal and searching reflection.” Whatever the species of Vaishnavism of his family and native Gujarat, Gandhi freely borrowed, adopted, and attempted assiduously to integrate into his worldview and social and political activism a medley of religious ideas and spiritual practices, a fine sample of which is provided by Bilgrami:

“… Advaita-Vedantin ideas; Bhakti ideals of devotion* (ideals through which he read his beloved Bhagavad Gita and made it, as he himself would say, his constant moral guide [or his ‘spiritual dictionary’]); the Jainism of his mentor [insofar as it could be said he had a ‘guru’] Raychandbhai; Buddhism and an admiration for the person of the Buddha [like B.R. Ambedkar!] that he acquired after being moved by Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia; [T]heosophical notions (shorn of their occultism) that he got from exposure in England to Annie Besant [among others; indeed, it was Theosophists who more or less introduced Gandhi to the Gita, as they were reading a Sanskrit version alongside Arnold’s book, and Gandhi was embarrassed by his ignorance of the material; in Johannesburg, he came to know a ‘a group of young predominantly Jewish intellectuals’ who were influenced by Theosophy and its active group of members in the city ‘became friends or supporters of Gandhi’], and Christianity—particularly the New Testament … which he filtered through his admiring, though selective, reading of Tolstoy’s writings, as well as what he took from his frequent encounter with missionaries both in South African and India. He even made something religious out of what he learnt from his study of Ruskin and Thoreau who, like all the other influences on him, contributed to the shaping of a life of spiritual dedication and service and conscience.” 

It is thus no surprise that Gandhi’s “Hinduism” was frequently and often vociferously criticized and attacked by “orthodox” Hindus. Bilgrami refreshingly and importantly reminds us that Gandhi’s religion was, in the Mahatma’s own words, a “humanistic” creed, for his personal convictions, however creative and subjective their genesis, were relentlessly subject to “universalization,” a process which Bilgrami carefully analyzes and explains (e.g., as an ‘intense dialectic’ between the experiential or individual and universal aspects of religion) as to make Gandhi’s spirituality intellectually if not philosophically coherent and perhaps more than plausible. 

* I spoke to the question of how Advaita Vedantin philosophy and bhakti devotionalism might be integrated or reconciled in this blog post several years ago at the Indian Philosophy Blog: “What is the relation between Advaita Vedanta and bhakti?” (There are some interesting and delightful comments, which are far longer and perhaps more enlightening than the post itself!)

*  *  *

Essential reading by way of endeavoring to make sense of Gandhi’s religiosity or spiritual worldview:
  • Bilgrami, Akeel. “Gandhi, the Philosopher,” and “Gandhi (and Marx),” in Bilgrami’s Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014: 101-121 and 122-174 respectively.
  • Brown, Judith M. and Anthony Parel, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Gandhi. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011. See especially Akeel Bilgrami’s chapter, “Gandhi’s religion and its relation to his politics.” This book also has an indispensable essay by Anthony Parel that speaks to Gandhi’s views on and politics regarding caste and “untouchability.” Gandhi’s positions and activism on this score are also often incorrectly portrayed, misinterpreted or ill-understood. See the second of two chapters by Parel: “Gandhi in independent India.”
  • Chatterjee, Margaret. Gandhi’s Religious Thought. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.
  • Ghosh, B.N. Beyond Gandhian Economics: Towards a Creative Deconstruction. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2012.
  • Iyer, Raghavan. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 1983 ed. (1st ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1973). Absolutely essential reading as it remains a nonpareil examination of Gandhi’s moral and political views, as well as much of his religious and spiritual outlook.
  • Parekh, Bhikhu. Colonialism, Tradition and Reform: An Analysis of Gandhi’s Political Discourse. New Delhi: Sage, 1989.
  • Parekh, Bhikhu. Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989. See in particular (but not only) chapter 4, “Spirituality, Politics and the Reinterpretation of Hinduism.”
For further research, please seeThe Life, Work, & Legacy of Mohandas K. Gandhi: A Basic Bibliography.” 

The following might also be useful:


Post a Comment

<< Home