Still Searching for Svaraj? India after Gandhi
I would also like to begin by paying homage to the ancestral gods and spirits of this land. I invoke them, however, not as token gesture that the modern may deign to what it has usurped and displaced, but as a Sanatani Hindu, who regards the earth to be sacred, living, and indivisible. Indeed, my paper is intended as an extended act of such Sanatani reclamation. I will explain later what I mean by this, but wish to stress at the outset that such a perspective is offered as a contribution to an alternative transnationalism that is both contestatory, emancipatory, and at the same time lovingly, if painfully, engaged with the dominant. The latter is none other than yet another somewhat horrific manifestation of its own anxiously rapacious self. The purpose of this altercation, then, is to refresh the perennial possibilities of an alter-globalization because they embody a deep species aspiration, which each one of us shares, for a better world. Sadly, however, neither dominance nor dissent, are able to deliver such a world to us. In fact, dissent is often a sanctioned, if not sanctified, part of the dominant. Gandhian satyagraha is radical and far reaching precisely because it dares not so much to break up or break out of the dominant or even to destroy it as Osama Bin Laden would, but rather more ambitiously to transform it into becoming the co-author of Ram rajya, the ideal polity for the multiverse which we inhabit.
Coming closer to the topic of this seminar, I wish to focus on a special kind of limitation in M. K. Gandhi’s thought. Simply put, this limitation was his refusal to engage with modernity on its own terms. Whether this limitation was also a source of strength is debatable, but that it was deliberate and thoughtful is somewhat more certain. What I plan to do today is to use a similarly limited agency to recuperate Gandhi, who I argue himself risks being marginalized in India’s current self-fashioning. I propose to do this by offering what I call a Sanatani re-reading of Gandhi. If this paper sounds familiar in an uncanny way, I shall be happy because I regard it not as a new adventure, but an act of remembering what it is to be a Sanatani in contemporary times. I invite you to share in this remembering. Before I start I want to express my deep sense of gratitude to Debjani and John for inviting me here to talk about Gandhi. This means a great deal to me not just because it is an opportunity to meet old and new friends, but because it enables me to re-encounter a part of myself which was languishing for want of reaffirmation.
The Irrelevance of Gandhi
It is regrettable, if not totally unexpected, that no one seems to be talking about Gandhi in India. The official custodians of his legacy, the Gandhian institutions, are declining. Denied of state patronage, they have not managed to keep up with the times. Their employees, who neither get government scales nor the wages that their counterparts in the non-governmental sector get, are an unhappy lot. Forcing people to live simply by paying them too little or forcing them to wear khadi has not done much to perpetuate Gandhi’s legacy. Worse, there is a deeper despair that prevails in these organisations because of what might be termed the failure of a dream. Gandhian ideas no longer seem to be relevant; there seems to be no one either to practice or preach them. The old Gandhians or should I say Gandhians of the old school, that is those who exemplified both the Gandhian lifestyle and ideology, are dead or dying by the year. They have no real successors. Neo-Gandhians-- intellectuals, activists, ecologists, counter-culturists inspired by Gandhi--who spoke against modernity, industrialisation, consumerism, big dams, the economy of scale, right and left wing violence—have also been marginalized. With the apparent triumph of LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation, Globalisation), no one listens to them. In India, then, Gandhi has become an empty signifier.
This emptying is visible in the polity by the gradual desertion of those who might have been thought of as Gandhi’s stakeholders, those whose rights and causes he championed so tirelessly. Some of these desertions and rejections happened even during his own life. For instance, one of Gandhi’s most passionate projects, Hindu-Muslim unity, lay in shambles with the creation of two nations, India and Pakistan. The latter was the progeny of an ideology, popularly called the “two nation theory,” that directly opposed most of what Gandhi stood for. The Muslim League propaganda that Gandhi was a leader only of the Hindus was effective, at least to the extent that it found support in that section of Muslim leadership who demanded and succeeded in creating an Islamic republic. That this rejection saddened him immensely cannot be doubted.
Another group whose interests Gandhi had fought for had also begun to turn against him. These were the untouchables, whom he renamed Harijans, God’s people. Under the leadership of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, some of them broke away both from him and, subsequently, from Hinduism itself. Yet, large masses of the oppressed and depressed classes and castes did look to Gandhi as their friend. This changed first in the south, where under the banner of Dravidianism, Tamil nationalism, anti-caste rationalism, and anti-North Indianism, the DMK or the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam came to power. Something similar happened in North India, but several decades later, with the rise of BSP or the Bahujan Samaj Party came to power. The word Harijan is seldom used, so vehemently is it rejected by those who call themselves Dalits or the downtrodden these days. Dalitism is most palpably quite anti-Gandhian as instantiated in the repeated attacks on Gandhi not only by leaders such as Kanshi Ram and Mayavati, but by a wide variety of Dalit intellectuals.
Like the Dalits, women, whose rights Gandhi supported and whose entry into the national freedom struggle he encouraged, have also, it would appear, given up Gandhi. With the emergence of Western-style feminism in English/urban India, Gandhi is no longer seen as a proponent of women’s empowerment. Instead, he is regarded as an enthusiast of Hindu patriarchy who believed that a woman’s primary duty was to look after home and hearth. Women Gandhians are seldom well-read, certainly not in recent feminist writings. They have not cared or tried to respond to such charges. Gandhi’s contribution to women’s empowerment is now a sort of fading memory; everyone thinks so but cannot say exactly how or why Gandhi was pro-women. Those who read his work a little more carefully are embarrassed by his repeated insistence on chastity or sexual abstinence. Similarly, they cannot say that his instence that women made better satyagrahis because of their inherent capacity to bear suffering patiently is a compliment or a curse. It seems certainly more convenient to join those criticising Gandhi for his antiquated notions of women’s subjectivity and role in society.
Gandhian Socialists, a peculiarly Svadeshi or indigenous type of left, with stalwarts like Rammanohar Lohia, Asaf Ali, Achyut Patwardhan, Narendra Dev, and Jayaprakash Narayan are all dead. Their ideological mantle has fallen on lesser men, most of whom cannot even be mentioned in the same breath. These contemporary Socialists, who are scattered over several parties which have the word Janata in them, know or say little about Gandhi. The more confirmed crimson communists—whether they call themselves Marxists, Naxalites, Maoists—not to speak of other revolutionary left-wingers, had little use of Gandhi to begin with. Now that the masses are not longer with Gandhi, they can afford to be openly contemptuous of the bourgeois reactionary who they say prevented the real devolution of power to the people or the real revolution in which the proletariat would have ceased power once and for all as in the former Soviet Union or China.
But the most shocking and sudden eclipse of Gandhi from the popular imagination has come from an unexpected, Hindu source. With the rise of the BJP and its strident rhetoric of Hindutva after the 1980s, the last and most loyal followers of Gandhi, those ordinary Hindus to whom he was and will always remain a Mahatma, also seem to have forgotten him. Nathuram Godse, the man who with the utmost deliberation and “rational” justification assassinated Gandhi, who was considered by most Hindus to be an unHindu fanatic, instead, finds himself resurrected in those same Hindus who considered him most unlike themselves, now voicing their sympathy with a political party whose platform is Hindutva, a political creed which at its best is majoritarian and at its worst Hindu supremacist. The re-election of the Congress to power, too, is little consolation to Gandhians because the only deceased Gandhi that they seek to promote is Rajiv, now sought to be projected as the unifying national symbol of an upwardly mobile, globalising Bharat. And the only living Gandhi that is the object of the nation’s adoration, who Forbes magazine rated as the world’s third most powerful woman and whose renouncing of power has been hailed as one of the most noble acts of sacrifice in human history is, of course, an Italian Indian called Sonia. Needless to say, neither Rajiv nor Sonia seem to have even the remotest connection to Mohandas, I mean not just genetically, but ideologically. Sadly, then, Gandhi is today no longer even the leader of Hindus.
What does this gradual emptying or hollowing of the Gandhian sign in India signify? Does this mean that Gandhi is well and truly irrelevant to India or is he simply waiting to be rediscovered in rather unexpected ways?
Recuperating Gandhi: A Sanatani Essay
If we regard Gandhi as an intellectual, at which description he himself would have baulked, we see in him a remarkable awareness that the clash of ideologies, systems, and, yes, even civilizations, occurs at the level of categories. It is not just concepts, ideas, or ideologies that differ, but at their root lie deeper structures of thought, contrasting definitions of how to regard wo(man), God, and society. To read Hind Swaraj yet again is at once to come across a refusal of the self to be defined in terms set by the other. The “Other” in this text is primarily imperialistic, western modernity, a specific version of which was the British Empire. But there is also a more familiar, neighbourly Other, the violent, modern Indian, who had internalised the values of the adversary and wished to combat the latter with his own weapons. A freedom won through violent means, for Gandhi, is no better than the violent imperial state that he sought to replace. British rule without the British was no better than British rule by the British. Gandhi’s trenchant treatment of Westernised Indians, including doctors, lawyers, and English –educated elites, reminds us that we Indians have been equally responsible for blocking Svaraj. Gandhi did not want us to succumb to the conceptual framework or apparatus of the dominant even if he was unafraid of engaging with it. Not to fear the West is of course quite different from being a part of it. That is why he sought to define it in terms of his own civilisational framework. He used the traditional vocabulary of Kali Yuga, the iron age, to describe the way modernity allowed the machine to enslave and dehumanise us: “The tendency of the Indian civilization is to elevate the moral being, that of the Western civilization is to propagate immorality. The latter is godless, the former is based on a belief in God” (63). Modern civilization, he argued, does not improve us, does not encourage virtue, but instead leads us to vice, moral dissipation, and the multiplication of wants.
While Gandhi’s critique may be modern in one sense, even post-modern in another, it would be not be easy to fit him either into the pre-modern or the modern or the post-modern. In fact, I think such attempts are misplaced in that they seek to read Gandhi from the narrative framework of the dominant. I have argued elsewhere that after its contact with the West, India learned the vocabulary and the discourse of modernity without necessarily arriving at the condition of modernity. Indian responses to modernity are hence, neither anti-modern or pro-modern as many people have argued, though such elements can easily be found. I have argued that India is a radically non-modern space, which nonetheless displays elements of the pre- the modern, and the post-modern. But these elements cannot be confused with its matrix, which remains non-modern. In other words, India’s narrative has a dynamics which can neither be absorbed nor annexed by the dominant narratives of the West. Even Marx could not incorporate India into his universal master-narrative and had to invent a special category to explain India’s centuries long stupor of stagnation, which he called the Asiatic mode of production, to contrast it with the more historically amenable European feudalism. Without setting up a binary between India and the West, I would simply say that these have different narrative trajectories. I stress not polarity but distinction, not opposition merely but variation. My strategy, therefore, is not to read Gandhi in Western terms, but to read the West in Gandhian terms. This way, I sidestep the perennial tradition-modernity dialectic that is endemic or shall I say epidemic to academic discourse on India. It is as misplaced, then, to propose India’s tradition in opposition to the West’s modernity, thereby to locate Gandhi in the traditional, just as it to suggest that Gandhi’s anti-modernity was actually an avant garde post-modernity, rather ahead of its times.
Instead I propose a different way of understanding India’s narrative.
I would like to use the word “Sanatani” to describe this narrative. This was a word that Gandhi himself often used to describe himself. Gandhi, by his own admission, was a Sanatani Hindu. Witness his famous remark to Ranchodlal Patwari the letter of 9th June 1915: “I will sacrifice this life itself to uphold the sanatana dharma as I understand it” (CWMG 15:9). This he said at a time when a Sanatani Hindu was thought of as conservative and traditionalist, quite in contrast, to consider the example of North India, to the Arya Samaji, was seen as a reformist. But Gandhi redefined what it meant to be a Sanatani Hindu. He upturned the entire belief systems of the Hindus, especially those that pertained to social observances. He was, in that sense, the most reformist or modernising of all recent Hindus. His pronouncements and actions on untouchability, the rights of women, and Hindu-Muslim relations, for instance, would put him in direct conflict with most so-called Sanatani Hindus of his time. His lengthy correspondence, not to mention his fast unto death, over the denial of temple-entry to untouchables in Travancore state, amply demonstrates his resolve to purge Hinduism of both social ills and irrationalities. In the end, Gandhi succeeded in redefining Hinduism ways that no other national leader before or since has.
A Sanatani reclamation of Gandhi, therefore, is the need of the hour. But lest I be misunderstood, let me clarify that my use of the category “Sanatani,” though related to Gandhi’s use of it, should not be equated either with Hindu or with any specific religious belief. By Sanatani I mean a certain way of regarding the self, the society, and the cosmos. Let me quickly spell out some of the features of this Sanatani Parampara or Sanatani narrative, as I see them. First, it has no point of origin and no closure. Secondly, it is pluralistic, without being relativistic; that is it accepts the unity of truth, but allows for a diversity of expressions and descriptions. Thirdly, it has no one central text, prophet, founder, or church. It is always a field of difference and debate, though not necessarily of conflict or opposition. Fourthly, its central tendency is to sacralise the world and all the objects contained in it. To such an extent is this drive manifest that it turns even secularism into a sacred creed and sanctifies instrumental rationality, which is itself the means of de-sacralising the world. It is this tendency that saves it not only from rapaciously preying on other human groups, but on non-human life.
The Sanatani is not anthropocentric, logocentric, or even theocentric, but radically self-centric, where the self is, ultimately, non-separate, radically relational, and co-extensive with the cosmos. The Sananati, as its name suggests, is not fixated on time, but on the untimely and the timeless; though it allows for complex notions of linearity, evolution, and teleology, it main focus is neither on the past or the future, but on the present. The Sanatani also has a complex sense of causality called Karma and an equally complex sense of axiology called Dharma. When both karma and dharma are individual, collective, and cosmic, there can be no simple idea of doership or agency. Naturally, the ultimate reality cannot be restricted to the merely perceptible. Unlike the modern mind, which moves from inequality to equality, the Sanatani proceeds from identity of substance to variety, differentiation, and hierarchy. Instead of equality of opportunity it stresses variety of aspiration. I could list many other features and characteristics, but will end with what I call the categorical imperative of the Sanatani, namely its non-exclusivity. The non-exclusive must not be considered identical with the inclusive. The opposite of inclusive is exclusive; to that extent the two will always be tied together. Those who claim to include will always exclude something or the other. The non-exclusive, on the other hand, has no opposite, because theoretically it does not exclude even the exclusive. But to remain non-exclusive, it cannot permit the exclusive to overrun it totally. That is how the exclusive remains as a non-dominant element in the non-exclusive. In other words, the Sanatani will have some exclusive elements, but the latter will not be allowed to dominate.
India’s intellectual and cultural history, if seen in Sanatani terms, often shows it coming into contact or conflict with alternative perspectives. These latter I shall term co-Sanatani, non-Sanatani, and anti-Sanatani. The co-Sanatani shares basic assumptions and premises with the Sanatani: for example, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism. There have been perennial exchanges, debates, and crossovers between the Sanatani and the co-Sanatani. Then there is the non-Sanatani, which refers to those world views which are radically different from the Sanatani. The Abrahamic faiths may be cited as examples. All these have a point of origin and closure, are monotheistic and dogmatic, and ultimately based on a community that is formed by a special covenant with God, who is the sovereign of the university and the ultimate arbiter. Secular modernity, communism, capitalism, imperialism, to name just a few, are also non-Sanatani. There is every possibility of a peaceful coexistence, conversion, or limited syncretism between the Sanatani and the non-Sanatani. But under certain circumstances, the non-Sanatani can also turn into the anti-Sanatani. When that happens, the Sanatani is called upon to produce a response. These responses are often multi-dimensional, more or less vigorous or successful. Like all resilient traditions, the Sanatani may be considered to be endowed with self-correcting and self-renewing mechanisms. So its growth and development in history needs to be seen not so as much unbroken and continuous but as marked by losses and recoveries, ruptures and sutures. This moment of recovery, restoration, and recuperation may be termed the “neo”-Sanatani. The “neo”- is not a negative, pejorative, or reactionary; it cannot be dismissed as fundamentalist or revivalist. The “neo”- to be genuinely so must be a both new and old at the same time. It has to show a new way of being Sanatani thereby rendering it simultaneously both unprecedented and recognizably the same as what is already known. One might borrow an idea from Kashmir Saivism to explain this familiar newness: pratyabhijna—the sort of self-recognition that is in fact predicated upon the self being already realized, but somehow forgotten by none other than itself in anticipation of the camatkara (miraculous wonder) of remembering as in Acharya Utpaladeva’s Isvaraprtyabijankarika.
There is an epochal dimension to these acts of recovery and suturing, of recognition and remembering. The tradition produces its own cultural heroes and heroines to do the job. The process of mending is also one of minding, like searching for and splicing together the scattered threads of a cloth that has been torn or rent. Similarly, a tradition that has undergone a traumatic, even catastrophic blow finds ways of healing by rediscovering lost continuities and new bridges from the past to the future. The present, so potent with possibilities, is not some essence from the past or even that which passes before the uncertain future, but a gift, a joyous flow that liberates the beleaguered self of its false identification. As Gandhi said, the moment Indians know fearlessness, virtue, and dignity, they are already free; no prison or imperial government can bind them then. It is only the free who can demand or attain freedom. Freedom is the prerequisite not the result of satyagraha. Such praxis involves the invention of new methods and materials with which to effect the restoration of the flow of the parampara. Sruti, or non-contingent gnosis incarnates as human agency to heal the wounds in Smriti or the collective cultural memory. Unlike the Hebraic, which emphasizes re-membering, the Sanatani often encourages forgetting: one must forget the holocaust of the Hindus, their defeat and humiliation, their oppression and trauma, their scattering, conversion, enslavement, transportation, and so on. The realization of present power is not contingent upon the denial of past tribulations, nor is it forever denied or unavailable to a conquered people; the memory of being crushed can be overcome by the immediacy of svaraj. Forget that you are crushed, but rise up anew to an altogether different kind of battle, fought with altogether different kinds of weapons. Gandhi taught us how thus to turn our disadvantages to our advantages.
To my mind, Gandhi’s ahimsa should be understood not so much as refusal to injure others, which it certainly was, but an active, even forceful and aggressive loving that brought about a transformation in the Other. Gandhi sought to turn the anti-Sanatani into the co-Sanatani; indeed, he refused to believe that Muslims and Christians were intrinsically anti-Sanatani, even if they might be doctrinally or historically so. Instead, he tried to recapture the other history of peaceful co-existence and common ancestry to suggest a uniquely Indian, even Sanatani, Islam and Christianity. His approach to the question of Hindu-Muslim unity was for Hindus to yield the utmost without compromising on essentials, even as they remained good Hindus. In his speech at Nellore on April 7, 1921 he said:
As a Sanatana Dharma Hindu, feeling for my own faith, hoping that if the Faith was on its trial, I would be found in the front rank to give my life for its
sake as a Sanatani Hindu, I wish first of all to address myself to my
Hindu brethren, and would say: ‘If you would live in amity and
friendship with the Mohammedan countrymen, the only way you can
He goes on to list temple worship and cow protection as non-negotiable items to secure which a Hindu may even give up his life, but not playing music before a mosque, which the Hindu should not insist on. Today’s secularists want Hindus to be non-Hindus or un-Hindu in order to prove the extent of their willingness to accommodate Others. Clearly, this is neither feasible, nor is it Gandhi’s way. What Gandhi did see as clearly anti-Sanatani was Western modernity, or rather a specific manifestation of it in the form of racist and exploitative imperialism. Secularism, which is itself the progeny of dogmatic Christianity is ill-qualified to arbitrate between people of different religious persuasions in India. Instead, it is secularism itself which must be weighed on a Sanatani scale to measure its efficacy.
Still Searching for Svaraj? India and a New Global Order
In the context of rise of religious fanaticism and intolerance, it is above all a Sanatani Gandhi who can best serve our purposes today—this is what I have been trying to argue. Such a Sanatani Gandhi can rise only if he is not hijacked or subordinated to Nehruvian secularism, which is blatantly non-Sanatani, nor overtaken by reactive Hindutva which is also non-Sanatani, despite whatever official claims it might make. Like a true Sanatani, Gandhi spiritualised politics, tying up India’s freedom with his own quest for liberation and self-perfection. Both the secularist, minoritarian Congress and the Hindu majoritarian BJP have de-spiritualised the Indian polity, thereby divorcing power from piety, rajkarana from rajdharma. A Sanatani Gandhi can stand for a new political initiative in India, one that veers India away from the divisive and conflictual politics of vote banks and false populism, to a collective effort for cooperation and collaboration. A Sanatani Gandhi will restore the dignity and self-hood of common Hindus without forcing them either to secularise or to turn Hindutvavadis. A Sanatani Gandhi can demonstrate that one can be a Hindu in India without being anti-Muslim or anti-Christian. A Sanatani Gandhi shows how we can love India and its culture without being chauvinistic, self-righteous, or bigoted cultural nationalists. At least in the context of India, non-Sanatani, Western-oriented, post-modernist, or other readings of Gandhi cannot achieve this.
A Sanatani reconsideration of Gandhi is available not only in his writings on ashram vows and observances, but in Chapter XVIII of Hind Swaraj on “Passive Resistance” where he spells out the prerequisites of a truth-warrior or a satyagrahi. These include chastity, poverty, truth, fearlessness (84), reminiscent of Patanjali’s yamas, ahimsa, satya, brahmacharya, asteya, aparigraha (non-injury, truthfulness, chastity, non-stealing, and non-hoarding). To observe these would be to qualify oneself to be a practicing yogi. In that sense, Gandhi wanted all his political workers to be satyagrahis or yogis first and foremost. These and his other “religious” writings cannot be erased from the archive just as Sanatani cannot be erased out of Gandhi.
But instead of a long an elaborate reconsideration, I would suggest a far simpler and more effective way to recuperate the Sanatani Gandhi. It is simply to place Svaraj before us a sort of discursive talisman. Do what I write and practice contribute to my svaraj and the svaraj of others like me? This, to me a fundamental question. I would hazard to assert that much of the work of our champion dissenters does not actually contribute to svaraj in this broader sense. Unfortunately, the word itself has been translated as “Home Rule” in the English translation, but on the last page of this text, Gandhi clarifies that “Real home-rule is self-rule or self-control” (104). This takes us back to the original, Upanishadic meaning of the word, which suggests not just self-mastery but liberation from suffering. What Gandhi does, however, is to make Swaraj the bridge between the personal and the political, the individual and the social. Gandhian archaism is not really a form of anti- or non-governmentality, but more a project of self-regulation and governance. A community made up of self-regulating individuals, living in dignity and according full respect to each other would be a good definition of Svaraj.
To me, Svaraj is also the interface between intra-national struggles and inter-national ones. Individuals, groups of individuals, communities, sub-nationalities, nations, even groups of nations can struggle for Svaraj. The range of meanings that Svaraj encompasses include anti-imperialism, self-determination, independence, autonomy, non-alignment, non-interventionism, right down to very specific acts of self-correction and self-culture. Svaraj implies not only freedom from oppression, but also the refusal to oppress. That is why it can serve as a link and common ground between both the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the strong and the weak. It allows for an alternative to the present rule of the world, which is rule or be ruled. U.S. imperialism cannot be replaced by Soviet, Chinese, or some other kind of imperialism, but only by a non-imperialism, which is yet convincingly to be exemplified among the powerful nations. Can India rise to the challenge of becoming powerful, but not imperialistic? This would need nothing short of a new definition of power, which is nothing short of a new institutionalising of the state apparatus. This, in turn, can only happen when there is a new kind of rationality, which means, really, a new level of consciousness. Curiously, this is where the Gandhian and the Aurobindonian project seem to intersect. All this seems like a really tall order for a disturbed and refractory planet, plagued by strife and misery. But then there seems to be no way out, no way ahead. Such wisdom is not utopian so much as minimal and imperative to the survival of the species. It is the prerequisite, not the final desideratum of decent terrestrial life. If human kind must move ahead to such a pass, India will have to play its part. In that part, Gandhi’s uniquely innovative Sanatanism will have proved to be crucial.
Gandhi, M. K. Hind Swaraj. 1909. Ahmedabad: Navjivan, 1992.
---. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Vols. 15 and 23. Rev. 6th ed. New Delhi:
Publications Division, 2000-2001.