Gandhi Was Not a Theorist

Mahatma Gandhi portrait, 1931. Image Source: Wikimedia

Mahatma Gandhi portrait, 1931. Image Source: Wikimedia

In much of what I’ve recently read on Gandhi, there exists the impulse to find a unifying structure which underlies his thought. Most recently I’ve been reading Faisal Devji’s The Impossible Indian, and various essays by Akeel Bilgrami on Gandhi, which exhibit this trend.[1]

I think this recent impulse might be a reaction against an older mode of thought, which is now perceived as either outmoded, or unsophisticated. In the old paradigm, Gandhi was framed either as a shrewd politician, or an irrational mystic. Both these stereotypes lend themselves to portraying a disunified view of Gandhi’s thought in which either he is inconsistent for political or philosophical reasons.

The problem for me is that the old way of thinking about Gandhi, passé and rigid though they may be, contain much which is valuable. Given his triple identity as a political philosopher-politican-mystic, I’m not sure that we, even under charitable conditions, should expect a consistent system out of Gandhi.

Gandhi was a philosopher-politician: This is perhaps the most obvious fact about Gandhi. But as of late, he seems to be treated differently from other philosopher-politicians. Consider the following names: John Stuart Mill, Woodrow Wilson, the American Founding Father, Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin. It is completely normal for academics to acknowledge that these people had contradictions between their political theories, and their stated/enacted policies. Rather than doing intellectual gymnastics to explain how Gandhi can simultaneously support and decry fighting in World War 2, fighting in Kashmir, and a hypothetical Indian civil war, can we not just acknowledge that Gandhi often wrote with an eye towards political strategy?

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Bengal in Global Concept History: Book Response


Purchasable on Amazon

(Skip the first 4 paragraphs if you don’t care about the book, and just want the general narrative of how Bengali culturalism evolved and declined)

For those who are tempted to pick up this book as a primer on Bengali cultureput the book down. This is really a book not on culture, but culuralism, that is to say the social and political ideology that encompasses most of the Bengal Renaissance.

Without reservations I applaud Andrew Sartori for making good on his promise to deliver a explanation of the rise of Bengali culturalism and related thought systems such as Bengali classical liberalism, and to a lesser degree, early Bengali Hindu nationalism, Bengali Muslim nationalism, and Bengali Marxism. His analysis is grounded in the particular local intellectual and economic changes taking place in Bengal. He does not place a disproportionate weight on formal chains of intellectual influence, nor does he fall into the vulgar Marxist trap of economic determinism. Kudos!

However, in the first two chapters of the book, he lays out (in excruciatingly jargon laden and difficult to read prose) several other promises, which are either unelaborated and/or left unproven. I’ll zero in on one illustrative example, which he phrases as a sort of thesis for the whole book: Sartori claims to show that Bengali culturalism is rooted in a fundamental “misrecognition” of the structures of global capitalist society.

This perplexes me, as the main thrust of his work seems to imply the opposite. He broadly argues that culturalism was in essence, a rational permutation of Bengali liberalism, in response to the altered conditions of capitalism in Bengal after the collapse of the native bourgeois class. How could such a natural ideological evolution rest on fundamentally misrecognizing the surrounding economic structures? The following is his basic narrative, with my own interpretive spin put on it of course:

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Reading List, and Thanks to Event Attendees

Edit: I created this list for one particular presentation, but I’ve been using it for many ensuing presentations.

Welcome to any new readers who I might have picked up from the Hinduism 101 presentation I did at the Orangeburg Library, or at any subsequent events. To older readers: I apologize for not advertising it on this page beforehand. I’ll advertise future presentations on this page before anywhere else, but this time the event “sold out” before I got the chance.

For those who attended, here is the powerpoint I used (ppt), and here is the handout and glossary (docx) I used.

There were also many requests for a more detailed book recommendation list on Hinduism. I’m linking to Amazon out of convenience, but if you look around you might be able to find a better deal. This list will probably undergo frequent revision. Feel free to add your recommendations in the comment section, or to disagree with any of my selections.


Hindu man reading the Bhagavad Gita. Image source: TrekEarth

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Covert Lokayata II: Proto-Materialism in Vedic and Tantric Traditions

(Click to go back to Part I: Doctrines)

lokayatachartfiddled_2Proto-Materialism in early Indian thought:

           Dr. Chattopadhyaya has done a wonderful job presenting the theory that in the earliest days proto-Tantra and proto-Lokayata were a single system, which either originated or was most prevalent in northeast India.[1] His argument rests on a theory of magic as a necessary precondition of religion, similar to the theories of anthropologists such as Andrew Lang and J.G. Frazer: [2] [3]

According to Chattopadhyaya, magic precedes, and then accompanies religion in early human societies. Magic does not necessitate Gods; it is simply an attempt for early humans to manipulate the forces of nature without knowing the mechanisms of how nature works. For example, it makes sense for someone ignorant of physics, chemistry and the hydrologic cycle to attempt to generate rain by ritualistically pouring water on the ground and calling to the sky. In this sense, magic is a sort of proto-science.

The problem is that when these magic practices are empirically tested over generations, most of them will be found ineffective. Yet still perceiving order and regularity, the population generally will infer that other conscious agents called Gods are in control, and will adapt their magic into a theistic system. By this process the magic becomes a religion, and “experimental” processes become religious rituals.

The magic underlying Hindu religion is evident in all the early texts. The Rig Veda contain a huge number of passages asking the Gods for purely material things such as cattle, crops, prosperity, or protection from the elements. [4] [5] [6] Other passages frequently identify the Gods as a “powerful chief” “foremost amongst men,” “the bravest among all humans” which is perhaps a clue that these first Gods were in fact God-kings or the deified spirits of ancestors. The Arthava Veda consists almost entirely of magic techniques, mantras and rituals. Several early Upanishads also espouse a belief in the magic power of breath manipulation. [7] [8] It seems likely that many of these writings exist because early experimenters with meditation found them to be materially effective. Sinha argues that the materialist trend represented in the Vedas culminated in Lokayata in the 7th century BC. As evidence he cites many examples similar to those above, but also emphasizes the fact the in the Vedic canon, the progenitor of materialist philosophy is the deified guru named Brihaspati.[9] Another word for Lokayata is Brihaspati Darsana.


According to the Vedas, Brihaspati invented materialism in order to fool the Asuras into incorrect beliefs and practices. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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Covert Lokayata I: Doctrines


This chart doesn’t represent every possible influence between the subject categories, just those relating to Lokayata’s influence. Each post will start with this chart, darkened to signify which relationships will be explored in that post.

This will be the first in a series of posts exploring the hidden role of Lokayata, and closely related forms of materialism, in Indian history and philosophy.

Reconstructing the influence of a dead school of philosophy is a difficult task, made all the more difficult in the case of Lokayata, where none of the original source material has survived. We are left to rely on the few fragmentary quotations, which pass on to us exclusively from critics of the school. The following posts rely heavily on the work of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Dale Riepe, and Rasik Vihari Joshi, both in their analytical capacities, and in the collections of primary source fragments they’ve published.

In future posts I will examine the proto-materialist origins of Lokayata, Tantra, and Vedic religion, the impact of Lokayata on the orthodox darsanas, the impact on social and physical sciences,  the impact on culture and art, and the 20th century revival of interest in Lokayata. But this first post will simply be an overview of the remarkable characteristics of Lokayata.

Core Features of Lokayata

Though Lokayata (also known as Carvaka, or Brihaspati Darsana) changed over time the main features were as follows:

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If you Meet Krishna on the Road, Kill Him.

This will be a response to some of the criticism I’ve received on and offline for the post The Yoga of Arjun’s Despondency.

The most common criticism I receive is that I didn’t “get” it. I interpreted the text literally, whereas it is a metaphorical or spiritual treatise. Its really about an “inner battle” whereas I focus entirely on the external battle.

I find this criticism unsatisfactory, but it comes up a lot so I might as well address it:

Image Source: ISKON/Corbis

Image Source: ISKON/Corbis

First of all, Hindu exegesis has (at least) three levels. First, adhyatmika (analysis on a philosophical, spiritual, transcendental level) second adhidaivika (analysis of cosmological, ritualistic, psychological factors) and third adhibhautika (analysis of physical events, the sphere of matter and nature.) Check out Page 76 of this paper for a better set of definitions.

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The “White Hindus” Phenomenon

Hello readers,

Today will be a short post. On October 5th I’ll be speaking at Princeton University in the practicioner section of this event titled: The “White Hindus” Phenomenon: A Symposium on Sanatana Dharma, Race, and Identity. I’ll be discussing the tensions of multiple identites (Hindu, non-Hindu. Indian, white) and the problem with this sort of binary thinking.  My presentation is entitled: None of the Above: Moving Beyond the Binary. This link has all the information you’ll need. If you are interested in attending, please email the  Coordinator for Hindu Life at Princeton:


Click to see full size image

Maybe I’ll see some of you there!