The Mystic versus the Politician
A review of Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography, by Arvind Sharma
Here is an important, but disturbing, book about Gandhi. It is important because it offers an interpretation that runs against the grain of the “domesticated” Gandhi that can be found in a tradition of books that includes Joan V. Bondurant’s Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict, Bhikhu Parekh’s Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination and Ramin Jahanbegloo’s recent The Gandhian Moment. Their Gandhi is largely reasonable, sensible, interpretive—a theorist whose ideas can serve as a model for political practice. The Gandhi we encounter in Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography, by McGill University professor of comparative religion Arvind Sharma, is a bit crazy, however, for he is a mystical creator rather than an interpreter, and his ideas are similarly meant to bring justice through inspiration. So it is because of its focus on the centrality of religion for Gandhi that Sharma’s book is so valuable. And yet, as I said, there is also something disturbing about it, which is all the more troubling for coming near the end, after almost 200 clearly written pages of sensible judgements and intriguing, sometimes profound, insights.
In any case, it is not Gandhi the practical political theorist but Gandhi the prophet or saint, the one that sociologists today would call a charismatic leader, that correctly answers the question that Sharma poses about the source of his power, about how he was able to get people to face blows without defending themselves, much less retaliating. For one thing, Gandhi was well aware that he often contradicted himself and he was also explicit that there was no question of his “leaving any code.” For another, any proper interpretation of his approach needs to appreciate how, as a Hindu, he conceived of morality as a matter of truth understood not as something propositional but as what one upholds in practice, such as when we keep a promise. Gandhi’s practice of satyagraha or “clinging to truth” should be grasped in this light. This is why his vision of the ideal society, that of a decentralized, participatory village republic driven by an economy of love and capable “of defending itself against the whole world,” is utopian in the strictest sense.1 What I mean is that it is a fictional “no place” meant to inspire creativity rather than to serve as a guide in the sense of a model to be applied. It should thus be placed alongside such things as Gandhi’s position on celibacy, according to which married men and women should have sex only for the purpose of procreation; once they have had three or four children they should sleep separately from then on. Teach people this, Gandhi once said, and if it fails, then “why not a law?”
Gandhi was 37 when, after much deliberation and discussion with his co-workers, he informed his wife that he had taken a vow of celibacy. Sharma is excellent on the complex factors behind this decision as well as on the tests that the vow would later undergo. Sharma explains its fundamentally religious basis and how it was designed to assist Gandhi in making sacrifices for the common good. To Gandhi, doing good is the chief means of worshipping the divine, since morality—both personal and political—and religion are synonymous. As we shall see, however, they are also, on occasion, paradoxical.
Consider satyagraha. It requires respecting a number of principles, including non-violence, a focus on specific injustices rather than generalities and a willingness to compromise as well as never to treat one’s opponents furtively or kick them while they are down. But it would be a
mistake to conceive of satyagraha as a technique in the mundane, rational sense. For that its principles would have to cohere and so be capable of being skillfully applied, since this is how skills work. Satyagraha, however, is not something that “works.”
We can begin to see why by going back to Aristotle’s account of the form of practical reason that he called technē. Technē requires taking an oblique approach, since the skillful actor should not shoot directly for his or her ultimate end. For example, the rhetorician should aim to produce persuasive expressions, not to persuade, just as the doctor should aim to produce effective remedies, not to bring health, and the player should aim to make outstanding plays, not to win the game. If these distinctions seem a bit strained it is because Aristotle was exaggerating; still, he was on to something in identifying the latter goals as external to the skills in question—even if they are, of course, their final ends. This, then, is the sense in which a skillful activity must be something coherent overall. Not so satyagraha, which goes beyond obliquity in that its practitioners must struggle to be true to the sometimes paradoxical relationship between religion and morality: by transcending the good, we may fulfill it far more than if we aimed simply to do good. And we truly must transcend it, which is to say that it cannot serve the role of even an external end. Hence, I would say, Sharma’s reference to “the otherwise alarming statement by mystics that a bad deed done without attachment [to our quotidian existence] is better than a good deed done with attachment.” And hence his exploration of the temptation of succumbing to a “desire to serve,” one that Gandhi faced throughout his life, and not always successfully. (Of course, when dealing with a saint the question of his or her imperfections is always of interest.)
One might think about the contrast between rational technique and satyagraha this way. “I was never a real guitarist,” George Harrison once confessed to a friend. What he meant is that he never achieved technical mastery of the instrument, as must, say, a professional studio musician. Yet few would protest the claim that Harrison’s playing was inspired. And that there is the difference between a craftsman or technician and a true artist, between an interpreter and a creator, between reason and revelation. Because unlike the rules of rational technique, those meant to bring creativity do not have fully coherent reasons behind them, since their point is not fluid, skillful behaviour but the forcing open of a hole (Leonard Cohen would call it a “crack”) in meaning in order to invite inspiration. Satyagraha’s principles are just like that. This accounts for why Gandhi’s ideas were in constant evolution, and why they remained dynamic instead of settling into what might be considered a theory: his ideas followed his mystical practice. It is also why he subtitled his autobiography “The Story of My Experiments with Truth.”
Although Gandhi did not himself recognize the sometimes paradoxical priority of religion to morality (for he subscribed to a monist metaphysics according to which all parts of reality cohere as one), it seems to me that his observance of satyagraha grew and deepened as he overcame the temptation of “desiring to serve” by increasingly getting the priority right. Thus, as Sharma states, “Gandhi began by identifying God with truth, but in 1929 he reversed the equation and identified truth with God.” Evidently, Gandhi sensed the non-commutative nature of such concepts, of how when we reverse the order their meanings change. This is key to understanding him, as Sharma shows again and again. For example, as a Hindu who believed in reincarnation, Gandhi did not see people as human beings who had spiritual experiences but as spiritual beings from the start, before (re-)birth, who had human experiences. In this he concurred with “high mystical theory,” as Sharma refers to it, according to which God turns His face to us before we turn our face to Him. Indeed, as Gandhi himself explained: “What I want to achieve—what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years—is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha [freedom]. I live and move and have my being in the pursuit of this goal. All that I do by way of speaking and writing, and all my ventures in the political field, are directed to this same end.” Other Gandhian reversals include his response to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, in which he asserted that rights accrue to us only when we have done our duties to the world, as well as his telling Indian South Africans that if they wanted to be treated well they must deserve it. Gandhi did not believe that people inherently bear rights; on the contrary, to him duty, that is spirituality, must come first.
This, then, is how we should understand Gandhi’s politics, much of which was not really a politics since politics consists of responding to conflict with dialogue, the exchange of interpretations, whereas mysticism aims, as we have seen, for creation rather than interpretation. This becomes particularly clear when we take account of the role of force in creation—not necessarily physical force, of course, although Sharma is right to point out that what Gandhi was doing constituted “a new form of warfare.” What it definitely was not, then, is “dialectic” (Bondurant and Parekh) or “dialogue” (Jahanbegloo). It is important to appreciate the difference. Because while dialogue at its best, which takes the form of “conversation,” can also serve the common good as well as be said to have a religious dimension (see Martin Buber), it is unlike mysticism in that it does so in a rational and so non-paradoxical way. That is why we should (almost) always try it first, before turning to alternatives such as Gandhi’s non-violent resistance. One reason the conversational option nevertheless gets missed is that it is, as with Gandhi, misconstrued by identifying its reasons as “cold” (appealing to the mind separate from the heart) and yet also giving too great a role to imaginative empathy. Or else political dialogue tends to be equated with “negotiation,” which differs from conversation in that it aims for accommodation rather than reconciliation, for controlling the damage to, rather than realizing and developing, the common good. And a politics limited to negotiation tends not to be in the interests of those who benefit from the status quo, since they will have to make concessions, to compromise rather than fulfill their values. No surprise, then, that it frequently seems necessary to bring justice with force instead, as Gandhi did so effectively against the British Raj. But this is a dangerous and, as we have seen, irrational business. Still, it is often unavoidable, though we should never fail
to appreciate how easy it is to lose our way.
Which brings me to the disturbing part of Sharma’s book. On page 190, he opens a discussion in which he makes some astounding comparisons. Gandhi, he says, “is not the only towering giant of the twentieth century, which also produced a Churchill, a Mao, and a Stalin.” Sharma then claims that “their greatness matches Gandhi’s in some ways” for they all staked their lives on the truth as they saw it. To be sure, “Gandhi attributed his outstanding achievements to his faith in God, but these three political leaders achieved as much by keeping God out of the picture.” The discussion ends thus: “Churchill, Mao, and Stalin believed that their ends justified their means. And this belief might have led to their impressive achievements. But Gandhi did not believe in that justification. And this belief led to his achievements.”
Now the second thing that comes to mind upon reading these words is: what about Hitler? Did he not also manage to get the proverbial trains to run on time? But the first thing is that, while Churchill certainly had some serious faults, surely he deserves to be included with Gandhi as one of the great men of the century, whereas Mao and Stalin (each of whom arguably murdered more people than Hitler) were two of its most evil dictators. Any other interpretation is beyond me.
1 The quote comes from Gandhi’s “Village Republic,” in The Village Reconstruction, edited by Anand T. Hingorani (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1998, 2nd edition), page 117.