Why we should embrace Gandhian modernity

Even though all of us know that violence in any form — be it in war, intimidation of people, communal discord, policeity, rape — is essentially brutal horrific, we remain largely indifferent to it as long as we are not directly affected. At times, even when it does directly impact us, we either choose to respond equally violently or helplessly undergo its gruesomeness without taking any steps to stop its recurrence. This is the normal pattern of human behavior or, perhaps, all animal behaviour. This is because we, like other animals, function within the framework of self-interests. Unlike other animals, humans are endowed with the ability not only to perceive violence as such but to also raise issues about it because of our capacity to use language. Many individuals have, in fact, interrogated violence and tried to figure out how to control its occurrence in human societies. Yet, violence continues to remain a recurrent phenomenon.

As long as humans function from the point of view of self-interest, violence is inevitable. If we think about violence within a framework of economic well-being and human self-interest, it will never get challenged. Normally, we only try to subdue and postpone its recurrence through other violent methods such as the use of police/military force — we try to counter violence with violence. We may also analyse such occurrences and write sociological treatises about such events, their cause and effects but we keep believing in its inevitability.

Since life feeds on life, some form of violence is necessary. But when we are talking about violence, we are talking about avoidable violence. What is required is to put an end to all forms of violence that are not necessary. To my mind, the only person who has given us an overall solution to the problem of violence is Gandhi. In its broadest sense, Gandhi’s solution is the idea of ​​learning to function within a framework of Satya, Ahimsa, Sarvodaya (concern for the well-being of all) and aparigraha (non-possession). Gandhi’s political philosophy is embodied in his Hind Swaraj. But when we look at this broad framework carefully, we notice that Gandhi’s solution demands among other things, a stateless society. In fact, the absence of centralized authority is a minimum requirement. Gandhi perceived, and perhaps correctly so, the state as the embodiment of all avoidable violence. But can a stateless human world ever be achieved? Gandhi thought that getting rid of the idea of ​​a state was necessary to live in a violence-free world; a position that is diametrically opposed to all the theories of social contract propounded by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls et al. From Gandhi’s point of view, the inevitability of the state that we take for granted is a product of our orientation towards a metaphysics-led way of life and thought process. Gandhi, like the Buddha, Socrates and Socrates’ admirer Zeno, advocated an ethics-led way of life in place of the conventional metaphysics-led one. When viewed from within the prism of an ethics-led way of life, the state with all its institutions would appear, to use Gandhi’s expression, “Satanic”.

A metaphysics-led way of life always enshrines a notion of some Ultimate Truth, whether it is religiously, scientifically or philosophically conceived. The Buddha, Socrates and Gandhi argued that man’s disposition to hold on to this belief in an Ultimate Truth is the result of his existential insecurity and the existential angst that ensues from it. Instead of rejecting the idea of ​​an ultimate truth, Gandhi, like the Buddha and Socrates before him, invited us to ground such an idea in ethics. That is, he is requesting us to make ethics our primary concern. Once ethics takes over our orientation, we would become less selfish and our concerns would become other-centred instead of self-centred. With this shift of concern from the self to the other, through the cultivation of Satya, Ahimsa, Sarvodaya and aparigraha, Gandhi thought that our existential angst would disappear. Once that happens, Gandhi thought, we would be in a position to see the desirability of stateless communities in the world. He described such a world variously as Rama Raj/Khuda Raj/ the kingdom of God on Earth. However, more often, he used the term “Swaraj” to name such a political scenario.

Let me explain. Even though Gandhi was not a religious person in any ordinary sense of that term, his vocabulary was Vaishnavite. He used the Vaishnava vocabulary (his parental vocabulary) deliberately in order to avoid the European Enlightenment vocabulary, which he thought was used to justify the British Raj’s criminal activities. When he was talking to a predominantly Hindu audience he used “Ram Raj” to designate his version of a stateless society called “Swaraj”. If his audience was mostly Muslim he used the phrase “Khuda Raj” and for a Christian audience it was “the kingdom of God on Earth” to designate “Swaraj” or the stateless society that Gandhi envisioned. Two of Gandhi’s booklets — Hind Swaraj and the Constructive Program — give some details of how one can non-violently try to actualise a stateless society.

Gandhian modernity replaces the European concepts of freedom, liberty and fraternity with truthfulness (Satya) non-violence (Ahimsa), a concern for the well-being of all (Sarvodaya) and justice (niti). It rejects the ideas of a nation-state, capitalism and parliamentary democracy. In Gandhian modernity, direct democracy replaces the parliamentary system. The use of heavy technology is taboo but there is no objection to theoretical science. Instead of heavy technology, it advocates the use of appropriate technology and sustainable development. Development, in a larger context, means the development of freedoms, such as the freedom to eat enough food, drink pure water, breathe pure air, cure curable diseases, freedom from patriarchy, etc. Another name for Gandhian modernity is enlightened anarchism.

The European concept of modernity is a criminal idea; in the past, it justified the European nations’ enslavement of the world and the destruction of civilisations. “Exploitation”, in fact, is the other name of European modernity/enlightenment. Even today, under the guise of modernity, the resources of the world continue to be exploited by a few wealthy countries thereby enabling them to remain inordinately rich at the cost of the others. This unsustainable resource extraction threatens the very existence of life on this planet. If animal life has to continue on earth for a longer period, Gandhian modernity is, I believe, what we should wholeheartedly embrace.

The writer taught philosophy at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi


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