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?

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.

Gandhi Spinning in Naokhali. Image source: Wikimedia

Gandhi Spinning in Noakhali, 1946. Image source: Wikimedia

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.

[1] 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.

3 comments on “Gandhi Was Not a Theorist

  1. R.Nanjappa says:

    The Gandhi of popular conception is the one made complex or difficult by academics, rendered a saint or mystic by admirers, or considered a wily politician by other politicians. Nearly every one who writes about him project their own views on to Gandhi, with selective quotations.

    The real Gandhi is seen through and from his own writings- which are voluminous.( nearly 100 volumes). The original Gandhi is revealed in his tiny pamphlet ‘Hind Swaraj’ ( 1908). He was influenced by Ruskin, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Sermon on the Mount, and the Bhagavad Gita..He did not develop a system out of his thinking- Gandhi-ism is not only post Gandhian but un-Gandhian as well.This accounts for the contradictions in him. Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad brought out compilations of his writings on various subjects in the 60s. I hope these are still available. These are more reliable as guides to his thought than any thing any academic or journalist has ever written.

    I sumbit three propositions to understand Gandhi:
    1. Gandhi’s political action programs like khilafat, non-cooperation, Satyagraha , Quit India were complete failures.
    Where he followed the program of Bengal revolutionaries such as Swadeshi, Boycot, Uplift of the downtrodden, national education- he was effetive. But he did this without due acknowledgement.
    Where he invented his own like Hindustani as the lingua franca, linguistic states,,advocacy of non-violence of his conception as absolute state policy etc he was a failure.
    He faltered at every critical stage eg: Cripps Mission..

    2. Gandhi’s theoretical understanding of no religion was perfect, or faithful to the original- which is a tragedy considering that he was a sincerely religious man. His religion was no more than the common moral-ethical combine. He had flashes of what we may call intimations of the eternal, but flashes do not make a complete philosophy any more than a few drops of water do make the ocean.

    3.Gandhi’s undersanding of the march of civilization or ‘progress’ was absolutely fantastic.He distinguished between ‘modern’ and ‘western’ cicilization and held the former responsible for every body’s misery- including that of the West, whom he considered its victims.

    Gandhi was a real philosopher in identifying NEED as the real basis of economic activity and not WANT as advocated by the dismal science of greed-based modern economics, proposing endless growth in a finite world, leading ultimately to an enviornmental crisis of unimaginable proportions.engulfing the whole globe. This has spawned all the modern alternatives to conventional economics called by various fancy names- small is beautiful, appropriate technology, sustainable economics, steady-state economics, humanistic economics, etc. It is very clear that conventional economics serves only fools or the devil ie mammon.
    His proposition about trusteeship can solve not only the problem of poverty, but that of inequalities in income distribution within any society.

    In the end, Gandhi’s life is his message or his philosophy:

    1. We can adjust contending claims, and not seek to annihilate the opponent. We may simply oppose the opponent’s program, not hate him.
    2. We can engage in constructive activity to benefit society, even when not enjoying state power or position.
    3. The ultimate religion is simple faith in God and sincerity in behaviour.. That the man fell with the name of God on his lips when shot at point blank range is the divine seal on his lips and life.

    Why should we try to invent theories about Gandhi and complicate matters?

    • R. Nanjappa,

      So glad that you commented here! I was worried that readers might find my post not detailed or insightful enough, but with your contribution I am relieved of that worry. I have nothing to add! Other than that you demonstrate a perspective on Gandhi which I wish was more commonly presented in major intellectual channels. I’m going to make a P.S. notation on the bottom of this article to direct readers to your comment.

      Thanks for reading.


  2. dwc says:

    Even though he is not a thoerist, a theorest who provides a hypothesis to solve a set of cognitive problems, his writings provide a link to the mileu he was in. The other issue is: how to understand him? Sure, one can find inconsistenies in his writings, etc: but we should use ‘principle of charity’ to understand, just like the way we try to understand the people like; understanding is precondition for learning for others.

    You may find this article interesting on Gandhi:
    “Gandhi, Conversion, and the Equality of Religions: More Experiments with Truth”, published recently. For e-copy,

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