"Everything can be sacrificed for truth, but truth cannot be sacrificed for anything." - Swami Vivekananda











PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | April 2005  






            Discourse and Pragmatism: A Gandhian Perspective


          Dr. Sumita Roy


     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. (1)

     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 hate.



     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 the other.

     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 Ideas, 120.
     3. Ibid.
     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.
     6. Ibid.
     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.



International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015






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