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.
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?
Gandhi was a mystic: I don’t mean to imply that there is nothing, which unifies Gandhi’s philosophy. What does unify it is not a logical structure or a discrete set of principles. The reason for this is simple: Gandhi was a mystic. He explicitly decried rationalist abstract thought, which he saw as the root of all the evil produced by the West. Treating people as citizens, communities as populations, and treating nature as a resource comes from abstracting oneself from lived experience, and “revelatory” truth by retreating into the domain of abstract reasoning. This, to Gandhi, represented a detachment from reality which alienated people from one another, and from the universe and its divinity.
The very mechanism, which would produce a systematic set of interrelated principles, was Gandhi’s avowed nemesis. Instead he relied on experiential and intuitive knowledge to make judgments. Certainly there is some unity to be found here, but it is unity derived from non-linguistic, non-rational processes which occurred within Gandhi’s mind. Trying to codify this into a principle of logical structure of thought is an inherently doomed mission. The best we can do is try to approximate the intuitions or feelings which undergirded his philosophy. When we run into confusions or contradictions, we may have to be content with the fact that we cannot fully excavate Gandhi’s psyche. His intuition or experience may have differed from ours in a significant enough way to obfuscate the intuitive justification for any given statement.
This is tough luck for the intellectual historian, but it is inherent to Gandhi’s way of thinking.
If this all sounds too simplistic, I would suggest that perhaps the world is sometimes simpler than academics, who profit from needless complexity, would prefer it to be.
P.S: I realize that this post is less detailed and more brief than my norm. Luckily, a commenter going by the name R.Nanjappa has stepped up to elucidate the issue of Gandhi further. I strongly recommend that interested readers check out his writing in the comment section.
 I disagree with both these thinkers in this piece. Disagreement makes for more interesting writing. But I have high respect for both of them as thinkers. Devji’s book is really quite innovative in how he historically frames Gandhi’s thought in the aftermath of the Sepoy Rebellion, and in how he tries to position Gandhi as a philosopher of violence, rather than of nonviolence. I have the utmost respect for Bilgrami’s mission to engage with Gandhi’s thought— not by adopting Gandhi’s methodology, but by taking his ideas and running with them using different (one might say, more sophisticated) philosophical tools. Though the fact that he engages with Gandhi in that manner makes it sometimes difficult to tell whether you are reading Bilgrami, or Gandhi. Regardless I’m really looking forward to Bilgrami’s forthcoming book Gandhi the Philosopher.