Discourse and Pragmatism: A Gandhian Perspective
The development of Indian philosophic
prose in English meant not only translation, which, of course,
is always questionable, but also reinterpretation. In the
writings of Raja Rammohun Roy, Dayananda Saraswati, Tilak
and other key figures of the period, concepts in Hindu philosophy
were reinterpreted in terms of the existing cultural and social
as well as political situations. Quite often this was not
just reinterpretation but some kind of deconstruction, as
for instance, in the case of Tilak's concept of karma yoga.
Gandhiji: The Pragmatism
of His Ideas
In this landscape of giving
new descriptions and definitions oriented to practical needs
of classical philosophical thought, Gandhiji occupies a very
important place. Though not a sage like Swami Vivekananda
or a scholar like S Radhakrishnan, he is yet unique in making
his interpretations part of a pragmatic and highly unpredictable
political and social campaign. This uniqueness is a fine blend
of theory and practice.
Thus Gandhiji tested his descriptions,
which are in very simple and lucid English, in the arena of
practice. As I C Sharma says:
Among contemporary thinkers
of India the name of Mahatma Gandhi will ever remain high,
not because of his philosophic acumen or his depth of insight
into the nature of ultimate reality, but because of the
simple and straightforward views he preached and practised
without swerving from truth at every moment during his long
career as a social reformer, a political leader, a saint,
a true lover of humanity and an apostle of peace and non-violence.
It thus appears that Gandhiji
was not interested in language which is speculative and abstract.
For him action embodied in language took precedence rather
than language first defining his ideas.
Swadeshi and Swaraj
For instance, swadeshi did not
mean for him indigeneity or ethnic identity. It meant, as
he himself put it, 'that spirit within us which restricts
us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings and
the exclusion of the more remote'. (2)
The words imply that this kind
of description is not taken for granted but subjected to constant
revision necessitated by the exigencies of his experiments
with truth. He declared, 'If I find my religion to be defective
I should serve it by purging it of its defects.' (3)
Among the most crucial insights
which held the entire edifice of his thoughts is Hind- swaraj.
Obviously, the context in which he used it meant wresting
freedom from foreign rule. But this does not exhaust the range
of meanings he included. For instance, a revival of the home-spinning
and -weaving and other indigenous practices were also included.
Initially, as Vincent Sheean
has shown, this idea of first identifying the pragmatics of
what swaraj meant animated his consciousness until he could
find confirmation for it and 'a practical demonstration upon
the most literal stage of human experience, that of economics',
(4) specifically economics of the charkha. He never saw the
spinning wheel even as late as 1915; yet the irrepressible
habit of translating every idea into the pragmatic correlatives
never left him.
However, swaraj through charkha
represented just an initial act through which the achievement
of economic, political and social independence culminated
in nothing less than self-realization or self-mastery. If
we take the linguistic analysis, Gandhiji's achievement in
this regard becomes obvious. Like the classical system of
sheaths, or koshas, ideas for him represented a vast
spectrum of interrelated realizations. That the range of associated
ideas got constricted to merely political independence and
never extended themselves to human resource development is
a tragedy which we are witnessing today.
We can thus identify one of
the features of Gandhiji's prose. We can call this the classical
method of multiple levels of dhvani of an insight all
of which together constitutes a rich complex of human experience.
This becomes evident in his formulation of what he called
truth. For him this word meant not a definitive and permanently
irrefutable fact but an insight constantly to be experimented
with in secular and spiritual arenas. He rightly called his
autobiography My Experiments with Truth and declared
that realization of the Truth remained the constant frame
of reference for all the activities which he undertook.
Dharma, Bhakti and Satyagraha
Gandhiji linked this with dharma
and his definition of dharma suggests, in his own words, 'a
man … who wants to realize Truth which is God' (5) and truth
is exemplified in practical qualities of the psyche such as
freedom 'from anger and lust, greed and attachment, pride
and fear'. (6)
Thus, even the extremely amoral
political scene which we witness today would for Gandhiji
never be exempt from the truth, the whole truth and nothing
but the truth. One can even risk saying that truth meant shruti
which has to take into account the exigencies of smriti, the
live existential situations. But one should not assume that
Gandhiji formulated an endless relativism of truth. What he
sought was absolute Truth, which, in fact, is God.
Coming from a long tradition
of Vaishnavism Gandhiji turned even the concept of bhakti
upside down. He freed it from emotive sentimentalism and made
it a complex culture of thought, will and emotion. An integrated
personality is what bhakti in his references meant. So the
ritualistic excesses are effectively negated and the medieval
idea is imbued with a contemporary context in which even prayer
is a precedent indispensable to political action.
But the most significant and
the most pragmatic idea stemming from bhakti is satyagraha.
As many analysts of Gandhiji have shown, Gandhiji changed
the idea from sadagraha suggested by his cousin to
satyagraha which 'in a large group of related Indian languages
plainly says truth-force, the power of the truth'. (7) (Later
it was translated into English as soul-force.)
Commenting on this Vincent Sheean
says, 'If I may paraphrase the idea a little more boldly than
Mr Gandhi himself ever did, it is simply this: that in a sense
what a man can do is to declare his truth and die for it.
This any man can do; and there is no power on earth that can
prevent it.' (Ibid.) He adds, 'Innumerable others for centuries
knew this truth but it was Gandhi alone who knew the power
latent in that simple truth.' (Ibid.)
It is interesting that like
the modern transpersonal psychologists Gandhiji gave tremendous
psychological thrust to what may appear a theological faith.
Recycling anger in terms of the final aim of truth and one's
own self as part of the cosmic system is what this word meant
for Gandhiji. Even if it is an essentially individualistic
concept it has emerged as a very important way of political
resistance by subjugated and marginalized groups. A typical
example would be Martin Luther King, who found in satyagraha
great promise for his oppressed race to assert its rights.
He found it a very important antidote against bigotry and
Satyagraha without ahimsa is
unthinkable. The one inevitably involves the other. In fact,
many have traced ahimsa in Gandhiji to the Upanishadic idea
of the all-pervading Self which makes inflicting injury on
another as, in reality, inflicting of injury on oneself.
N. G. S. Kani observes:
Ahimsa as the central principle
informing Gandhian action, is derived from Atman which is
commonly shared by the adversaries and combatants. Himsa
results when this common factor is veiled. To remove this
veil which is a source of contention, discord, ego-centredness
and exploitation, Gandhi used atmashakti (satyagraha) and
fostered again the common factor (Atman) which again unites
the opponents in a filial bond. (8)
In short ahimsa and satyagraha
are systems of interdependence, each strengthening and verifying
In analysing Gandhiji's writings,
therefore, we come up against the uniqueness that all his
concepts have stemmed from not only the anxiety to redefine
but also the ability to relate them in life to contexts of
any variety. This aspect of his prose needs very careful analysis.
1. I. C. Sharma, 'Gandhian Ethics
Based on Pragmatic Spiritualism' in Ethical Philosophies
of India (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1995), 332.
2. C. F .Andrews, Mahatma Gandhi's
4. Vincent Sheean, Lead Kindly
Light (London: Cassel, 1950), 166.
5. Pyare Lal, Mahatma Gandhi:
The Last Phase, 2 vols. (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing
House, 1958), 2.233.
7. Lead Kindly Light, 118.
8. N. G. S. Kani, 'Gandhian
Contribution to the Theory of Politics' in Studies on Gandhism,
ed. V. T. Patil (New Delhi: Sterling, 1983), 5.