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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Book Review: Uniqueness of Carvaka Philosophy in Traditional Indian Thought


I’m working on a much longer article (or series of articles?) on the Charvaka/Lokayata school of philosophy, so I’m going through a whole bunch of texts on the school of thought. As this one was the shortest, I finished it first. And as I’ve got a lazy saturday afternoon on my hands, I’ll supply a short review:

Uniqueness of Carvaka Philosophy in Traditional Indian Thought (or a version thereof) served as Dr. Bupender Heera’s doctoral thesis, so my expectations were high in terms of the scholarly quality of this text. However, in total I was disappointed. Heera doesn’t offer a new perspective on Charvaka, nor does he synthesize some of the existing viewpoints on Charvaka into one coherent conception, nor does he give a clearly worded survey of the range of theories about Charvaka. I also found that many of the book’s claims were either sourced in a frustratingly obscure way (i.e. a claim would appear [for example] five times throughout the book, but would cited only the third time.) To a degree this is unavoidable, but it made the text problematic as a research material.

Heera has clearly read the work of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, but he neither utilizes his theories on Charvaka effectively, nor addresses/refutes them. Chattopadhyaya for example, points out that most of the academic viewpoints on Charvaka rely on the description of the philosophy which is contained in Madhvacharya’s  Sarva-shastrartha-sangraha as a basis point, without properly accounting for Madhvacharya’s Vedantic bias, and his argumentative style. Madhvacharya tried to “put himself in the shoes” of his opponent, which often led to him presenting a position derived from a blending of his own Vedantic beliefs, and the beliefs of the opposing system, as purely the beliefs of the opposing system. Thus, the uncritical reliance on Madhvacharya’s account renders most accounts of Charvaka distorted. Heera’s work largely falls prey to Chattopadhyaya’s criticism, without attempting to justify why Madhvacharya’s account should be accepted as basically consistent with actual Charvaka practice. For instance, on page 42, where Heera claims that Charvakas quote scripture in defense of their position, a claim which derives completely from Madhvacharya’s account, and without which would seem bizarre.

The book also contains numerous internal contradictions. Heera cannot seem to decide whether or not the Charvakas had any actual texts, or not. On page 17 he says:

“Many of the above mentioned works, by way of quoting with acknowledgements the sutras, karikas and slokas pertaining to materialistic school of thought, hold out a clear and unmistakable evidence to the effect that there once existed, at least, two works of the Indian materialists, namely the Barhaspatya-Sutra and the Lokayata Sastra. Patanjali’s Mahabhasya on Panini’s Vyakarana refers to another work of the Lokayata School — One by Bhaguri, a commentary on Lokayata Sastra.” (Emphasis added, and my apologies for omitting diacritical marks)

Then on page 87 he says:

They did not have any literature of their own like other philosophical systems of traditional Indian thought. The Carvakas did not have any sutra… In the case of Carvaka we hear only Barhaspatya Sutra which is very small in size besides being a sutra of questionable authenticity.” (Emphasis added, and my apologies for omitting diacritical marks)

Another notable inconsistency is the notion that Charvaka was simultaneously the first Indian philosophical system, and a reactionary movement against asceticism and brahmanism. In an attempt to simply describe Charvaka without getting entangled in any of the historical controversies, he presents a wide range of mutually exclusive scholarly opinions (without prefacing them as such) and thus creates an incoherent view of the Charvaka philosophy.

There are also certain confusions which occur towards the end of the book, such as the idea that the Charvakas were not condemning the Vedas, but were rather condemning their distortion and misinterpretation by brahmanas. This claim is not sourced*, leading me to believe that this is Heera’s opinion or personal interpretation. Thus, I theorize that Heera in an attempt to be charitable, has formed a conception of Charvaka which is strongly influenced by his own spiritual outlook. In this sense, he is himself a modern Madhvacharya.

Nevertheless, the book was useful to me. It has pointed out many source texts to explore further, and summarized some of the beliefs of prior scholars. There are also useful analogies made to Western philosophers like Hume, Locke, Lucretius, and Strato of Lampsacus. For this, I humbly thank Dr. Heera, though I have trouble recommending his volume. Nevertheless, it is the briefest (and cheapest) exposition of Charvaka philosophy on the market, so if you can tolerate some inconsistencies and are aware that this perspective may be distorted, why not check it out? Even with all the problems, it still provides a more nuanced and complete perspective on Charvaka than any online resource I’ve discovered so far.

*Interestingly, this claim is only remotely plausible if Madhvacharya’s account is discarded. The Sarva-shastrartha-sangraha (page 10) contains an alleged quotation from Brihaspati in which the authors of the Vedas are explicitly condemned as “fools, knaves, and demons.”