Gandhi the Activist, Gandhi the Pacifist

by Anand Venkatkrishnan, ’10

The recent flurry of articles and subsequent commentary on this and other sites about Stanford and South Asia, India and Israel, casteism and nationalism, disrespect and denigration, have made me think about the relationship of these conversations to my own social location as a scholar in the field of religious studies. In one sense, these debates fall along the spectrum of a thematic which we might call “Hinduism and its Culture Wars,” to invoke the title of a recent online essay (and to which I have responded elsewhere). In another sense, they raise larger issues of political commitment, moral self-criticism, and religious sentiment. I want to take a step back and consider these issues with reference to M.K. Gandhi, whose voluminous writings reveal a nexus between religion, politics, and public discourse that frequently confounds the ways we have been conditioned to think about them. I don’t mean to distance myself from the debates themselves, even though, to adopt a crude dichotomy, it is for the activist to criticize, the advocate to counter-revolutionize, and the academic to contextualize. That does not assign to me, however, the power of moral arbitration, or consign me to the politics of neutrality; I can only claim the slight privilege of the historical long-view. For the record, my broad political sympathies are with Janani and their vocal opposition to the legacies of brutalization with which states and citizens are complicit. But I also understand from where the sentiments of the respondent emerge; I come from a similar place, though I have learned to distinguish between pride in and gratitude for the traditions I inherit. I will return to that later: my main concern here is not to comment further on these presentist debates, but rather to consider how the methods by which we come to and through which we express our moral, religious, and political convictions are as important as the convictions themselves. And here, I think, is where Gandhi presents a problem to both sets of articles, for both use the language of self-assertion, self-respect, self-actualization. Of course, the playing field is unequal; self-determination, political and otherwise, should be the prerogative of the historically oppressed and marginalized, and not of the privileged. But this is not a new axiom. The debates of the past were often more radical than the debates of the present, and how we engage with that past may bear directly on the activism of the future.

Gandhi has become the darling of the academy in recent years, especially among philosophers and political theorists, as the selected bibliography at the end of this essay indicates. Of particular interest is the way Gandhi reconciled the tension between moral relativism—his ability to acknowledge religious and moral truth as matters of personal conviction—and the impulse to universalize his own convictions, to insist on their importance in social life, and to create a public individual (the satyagrahi) who could demonstrate them. For Akeel Bilgrami (2011: 99), the key is Gandhi’s move from doctrine to moral exemplarity: “It is in the nature of principles that when someone fails to live up to them…he or she becomes subject to criticism. That is why principles should not be an essential part of religion and morals…[O]ne’s own moral and religious choices should really be seen only as matters of one’s conscience and experience, not as issuing from or generating principles and doctrines.” Gandhi sought not to export his morality, but to actualize it; to rephrase an existentialist maxim: “When I choose for myself, I do not generate a principle for others to follow, but set an example for everyone” (Bilgrami 2011: 100-1). Underlying this shift is a peculiar Gandhian concept of violence, which he attributes to his religious readings of Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu ascetic traditions—that is, the notion that violence owes to something seemingly remote from it, something deep-seated in the self that seeks its own affirmation. “There is no other way to understand his insistence,” Bilgrami writes elsewhere (2003: 4162), “that the satyagrahi has not eschewed violence until he has removed criticism from his lips and heart and mind.”

What does this mean, to remove criticism from lips and heart and mind, and why is nonviolence contingent upon it? The answer may lie in Gandhi’s concept of a self outside the boundaries of the modern political subject. Swa-raj, self-rule, was “rule-of-the-self” in both subjective and objective senses of the genitive. Gandhi maintained that religious vows and virtues–silence, fasting, spinning, patience, sexual restraint–were political acts, in the sense that they refused to turn the human being into a moral and political abstraction. “What troubled [Gandhi] about modernity,” writes Uday Singh Mehta (2011: 421), “was less its ideals, such as freedom, equality, or the hope to relieve exploitation, than the way that those ideals had become indifferent to the integrity of the self in the conduct of everyday life.” That integrity, however, was not that of the liberal-democratic self: a rights-bearing, constitutionally determined, civically engaged individual. Instead, Gandhian self-knowledge was achieved through renunciation and withdrawal, as his comments on voluntary poverty demonstrate: “[T]hose who have actually followed out this vow…testify that, when you dispossess yourself of everything you have, you really possess all the treasures of the world” (Speech at the Guild Hall, London, Sept. 27, 1931). Freedom and liberation for Gandhi were, paradoxically, the effect of self-disavowal. One could not achieve political liberation without attending simultaneously to the iniquities of the self: avarice, acquisition, attachment. Hence Gandhi’s insistence on criticism with compassion, activism with ahimsa. The morality of the satyagrahi—to resist actively ideological self-righteousness, unjust dynamics of power, and the violent exploitation of humans and resources—could be actualized, rather than exported, because it was predicated on self-suffering, self-sacrifice, and self-discipline.

Of course, Gandhi was not above criticism himself, either in terms of dishing it or receiving it. As far as the latter is concerned, we have to read Gandhi together with his most incisive political opponent and spiritual conscience, B.R. Ambedkar. In a brilliant essay titled “Self-Purification vs. Self-Respect,” the late great D.R. Nagaraj tried to reconcile the Gandhian and Ambedkarite heritages of the modern Dalit movement. For Gandhi, eradicating untouchability was a spiritual act of self-purification, a burden on the upper-caste self to purge Hinduism of its sins; it was incumbent upon the Gandhian to see God in the oppressed (daridra-nārāyaṇa), and therefore to abase himself before the “Harijan,” paradoxically elevating his own saintly stature. For Ambedkar, the Dalit was not the recipient of charity but the agent of justice, working in this world for social, economic, and political equality. It was not enough to change hearts and minds (the discourse of duty); one had to expose the structural violence and inequities of caste society and change them through secular, political means (the discourse of rights).

True, Gandhi could be shockingly insensitive to the paternalizing effects of his reformist approach, to the point of fasting unto death to prevent the creation of separate electorates for untouchables, resulting in the Poona Pact of 1932 and a legacy of embitterment among radicals. Ambedkar, for his part, could be virulently dismissive of Hinduism as inherently incapable of redemption, and lacked historical nuance when it came to what Aishwary Kumar (2010: 392) calls his “insurgent and heterogeneous response to the unitary power of tradition to frame meaning.” Yet each moved closer to the other’s position late in life: Gandhi recognized more astutely the underlying economic causes for the disenfranchisement of untouchables, and Ambedkar found in a radically re-envisioned Buddhism (Navayana) a spiritual home for a dispossessed people. One might think analogously of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X: where Martin began to see the struggle for black liberation through the eyes of the urban poor in the ghettos of Chicago and New York, Malcolm realized the power of political and spiritual solidarity with civil rights leaders. (James Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare remains to me the most compelling narrative about the two).

Even if Gandhi could be profoundly myopic when it came to the problem of Dalit (and feminist) political self-determination, should his broader language of moral self-criticism be sidelined? There isn’t much of Gandhi from either side of the present debate, beyond the perfunctory mention of his internationalist legacy in Rao’s response. This is where the bourgeois diaspora prefers to keep him: sanitized and romanticized; they are ready to link Gandhi and King, and to forget Ambedkar and DuBois, Phule and Paine. But the questions remain for the present audience: What can the world’s most famous pacifist teach us about the rhetoric of activism? Does critique without contrition become hypostatized and ineffectual? That is, how should we articulate our moral and political convictions in public fashion: with spite and derision or in a spirit of offering? Is Gandhi’s language of self-emptying (kenosis), self-disowning, a mere product of false consciousness? Do the Hindu traditions of bhakti from which Gandhi drew inspiration–a religious movement which proclaimed spiritual (though not always social) equality among the servants of God, and which valorized the lowly and humble–simply constitute an “ideology of subordination par excellence” (à la Ranajit Guha)? Or is there something radical in renunciation, something which questions not only the ethics of self-righteousness, but also the ideology of desire (by recognizing that desires are already part of the hegemonic realm of capitalism), and the troubling ontological link between desire and violence?

For Gandhi, the measure of his identity was the extent to which he could connect with the suffering of a people beyond his borders and outside his tribe, however much that meant apparent cruelty to his own self (not to mention his wife and children). The hard work of satyagraha was not in non-cooperation with a foreign evil; it was in resisting the temptation to selfhood. At his anti-imperialist best, Gandhi wrote a global history of suffering, violence, and marginality which had the moral power to anticipate the unraveling of the world. Politics to him was useful only insofar as it could help create the circumstances by which people could choose to become free from the universal human propensity to exploit others. Gandhi was careful to distance himself from those political forms he saw as complicit with facilitating the inner violence of humans to become legally sanctioned: be it the postcolonial nation-state, liberal democracy, or our modern plutocracies. Moreover, the existence of this skepticism was due to and not in spite of his religious sensibilities. Gandhi’s deeply religious pessimism about “the inherent corruptibility of our moral psyches” (Bilgrami 2003: 4165) is precisely what led him to experiment with creative social contracts.

If part of the activist mission is to persuade through rhetoric and to broaden the circles of solidarity, then it may be worth extending the Gandhian critique of violence to the linguistic practices we employ—without ceding the stage of action, of course, to the largest perpetrators of violence. In my view, we do not overcome traditions by going around them or at them, but by going through them; that is, we master and outmaneuver traditional discourses of inequality through their diligent and patient study, and not by outright rejection or name-calling. (Walter Benjamin’s famous dictum that there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism is almost too apropos to repeat here). As Vijay Prashad (2012: 161) notes, Gandhi recognized this when he wrote, in a powerful essay against compulsory widow-segregration, “It is good to swim in the waters of tradition, but to sink in them is suicide.” Gandhi’s loyalty to tradition may have blinded him to certain disturbing features of orthodoxy, but at times it seems that he simply wanted what Simona Sawhney (2009: 116) calls “a less violent and less dismissive relation to the past.” It would take another essay entirely to discuss the ways in which Gandhi maintained a depth of engagement with the past without being constrained to revere it. My only suggestion here is that to take Gandhi seriously, and to cultivate nonviolence in “lips and heart and mind,” is not to remain silent in the face of injustice, but to train the voice to sing.


Anand Venkatkrishnan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. He received his MA and MPhil in South Asian Religions from Columbia (2012) and graduated from Stanford University (2010) with a BA in Classics (Philology). His interests include Sanskrit scriptural hermeneutics, early modern South Asia, and Indian intellectual history more broadly.

Further Reading
Bilgrami, Akeel. 2003. “Gandhi the Philosopher.” Economic and Political Weekly 38-39: 4159-4165.
———. 2011. “Gandhi’s religion and its relation to his politics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gandhi, edited by Judith Brown and Anthony Parel, 93-116. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kumar, Aishwary. 2010. “Ambedkar’s Inheritances.” Modern Intellectual History 7.2: 391-415.
Mehta, Uday Singh. 2010. “Gandhi on Democracy, Politics, and the Ethics of Everyday Life.” Modern Intellectual History 7.2: 355-371.
———. 2011. “Patience, Inwardness, and Self-knowledge in Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj.” Public Culture 23.2: 417-429.
Nagaraj, D.R. 2010. “Self-Purification vs. Self-Respect: On the Roots of the Dalit Movement,” in The Flaming Feet and Other Essays, 21-60. Calcutta: Seagull Books.
Nandy, Ashis. 2002. Time Warps: Silent and Evasive Pasts in Indian Politics and Religion. London: Hurst & Company.
Prashad, Vijay. 2012. Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today. New York: New Press.
Sawhney, Simona. 2009. “Allegory and Violence: Gandhi’s Reading of the Bhagavad Gītā,” in The Modernity of Sanskrit, 86-124. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Skaria, Ajay. 2002. “Gandhi’s Politics: Liberalism and the Question of the Ashram.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.4: 955-986.
Sorabji, Richard. 2012. Gandhi and the Stoics: Modern Experiments on Ancient Values. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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