Gandhi: Politics and Spirituality – by Antony Copley

Just where does Gandhi’s central concept of nonviolence fit into the overall Gandhi world view?

Our understanding of Gandhi has normatively been shaped by the role he played as an antagonist of racial prejudice in South Africa and of colonialism in India. We see him as an exceptional politician in some of the great power struggles of the 2othC. It is just because he prevailed in such power conflicts by nonviolence that he is held in such high regard.

It is worth emphasising that Gandhi was up against very different kinds of oppression in these struggles. If Gandhi felt race prejudice was his enemy in South Africa, in fact he considerably underestimated the force he was up against, for this was something far deeper, an emergent apartheid, with every intent of enforcing a radical restructuring of society into separate racial groups. It proved to be an utterly unrelenting force, though Gandhi was able to touch on some fellow humanism in General Smuts.

In India the oppression was of a milder character though no one would doubt its capacity to exercise lethal power when it chose to do so. The whole complex of attitudes revealed by reactions to the Amritsar massacre illustrates this description of the Raj. But the Raj was open to a degree of dialogue, to some flexible liberal programme, to concepts of fair play. It was in many ways an oppressive force tailor-made for Gandhi’s special kind of nonviolent protest.

Given the nature of this political contextualisation various kinds of interpretation of Gandhi’s distinctive blend of religion and politics become possible. We can distrust his rhetoric and see him as a wily politician, exploiting the religious card to gain support. Certainly many in the Raj saw him this way — think of Churchill’s phrase, “posing as a naked fakir” — and some historians still do so today.

And there can be no doubt that a still religiously minded peasantry in the subcontinent were moved by the sight of Gandhi in his role as an itinerant sanyasin. People attended Gandhi’s meetings to attain darshan, search for an essentially religious experience. But Gandhi’s extraordinary sacrifices in these political struggles suffice to rebut to such charges of opportunism.

But even if we accept the absolutely genuine nature of Gandhi’s commitment to a kind of moral crusade we still find ourselves at some difficulty in grasping quite what politics meant to Gandhi. He cannot help but be seen as someone caught up in power politics. His essential aims are seen to be to get the governments of South Africa to lift their various oppressive measures against the Indian minority. His fight to remove the incubus of imperial rule in India establishes Gandhi as the great anti-colonial freedom fighter. I am not suggesting that any of this is wrong; it just fails I believe to get at the true motivation of Gandhi.

The tradition of religious reformers

We need to adopt a different kind of paradigm to explain Gandhi. I believe we will be more likely to grasp his true character if we shift from seeing him as primarily caught up in historical power struggles and see him instead as one of a number of great religious reformers in the modern period who were trying to tackle the consequences of the exposure of Hinduism to the combined challenges from outside of westernisation and Christianity.

Prior to Gandhi’s coming of age there was Dayanand Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj, a firebrand exponent of Hinduism, but also a radical social reformer. He came from the same part of India as Gandhi himself, Kathiawad. However, I’d stress their differences rather than their similarities. Gandhi was never in any way a Hindu exclusivist, always a believer in religious tolerance and universalism.

Much closer would be the second great figure after Ramakrishna himself in the Ramakrishna Mission, Swami Vivekananda. Here was a powerful protagonist of social change together with a transcendent religious quest whose early death in 1902 robbed India of one of its great religious leaders.

And then there is Aurobindo Ghose. His is a hugely paradoxical career, starting out as a revolutionary nationalist, ready to entertain a strategy of terror, and very lucky to escape a prolonged period of imprisonment — his brother was not so fortunate — but then experiencing a kind of conversion and in consequence making a lifetime commitment to a search for transcendence, becoming one of the most impressive of all spiritual gurus. He is often seen as the greatest prime-minister India never had. But his achievement lay in his spiritual work in the ashram at Pondicherry.

Here I want to introduce some of the basic ideals of Hinduism. The ultimate ideal is moksha or release, escaping the world of samsara, the bondage of karma. But preceding this ultimate goal of human life are dharma or righteousness, artha or gaining wealth, kama or sensual enjoyment. This is a very inadequate summary description, I know — I take it from a recent attractive book of pictures, In the Realm of Gods and Kings: Arts of India. But it permits me a quick way into introducing the new paradigm that I believe takes us much closer to grasping Gandhi.

All the religious reformers I’ve just mentioned placed greatest emphasis on moksha. Maybe Dayanand and Vivekananda eschewed politics just because they recognised the still awesome power of the Raj. Aurobindo recanted on his political outlook. Only Gandhi saw artha, which also embraces politics, as the primary terrain for a spiritual trial, for his own version of sadhana or salvation.

Here I am but quoting from a remarkable new account of Gandhi in an as yet unpublished manuscript by Anthony Parel, Gandhi: The Search for Harmony. His is a thesis that Gandhi sought to harmonise all four Hindu ideals. He may struggle to convince us that Gandhi’s was a rich engagement with kama, though it is true that Gandhi enjoyed some art and music. But there is no doubting his engagement with dharma — Gandhi had a very strong sense of morality. But Parel is wholly persuasive in his claim that Gandhi saw poiitics as the means for salvation. Suddenly his self-sacrifice in political causes takes on a quite new significance.

Parel also makes Gandhi seem somehow more rooted in political realities, more of a political pragmatist, a defender of human rights, far more caught up in the discussion of democratic constitutions and the political process. Maybe Parel for this audience will be seen at his most controversial in his arguing Gandhi’s own recognition in man’s nature a fatal tendency to violence and his readiness to work with this reality and to make some allowance for a degree of violence in such causes as national self-defence. Gandhi still sought moksha but artha or politics was the means to do so. In the context of he religious movement of his day this was an aberrant but original and remarkable change of direction.

I have found some confirmation of this interpretation in a recent biography of Gandhi’s second son, Manilal (Gandhi’s Prisoner? The Ljfe of Gandhi’s Son, Manilal, Cape Town 2004). The author, Gandhi’s great grand-daughter, Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, provides a somewhat chilling account of the kind of character training — for it was this rather than an education — that Gandhi imposed on his two elder sons, Harilal and Manilal. But its very severity was as means of strengthening them for the trials of satyagraha. The living conditions of the South African farms or ashrams, Phoenix and Tolstoy, were quite deliberately as harsh as those in prison. Kasturba, his wife, saw Gandhi as tying to turn his two elder sons into sadhus and Gandhi, in this emphasis on the moral, did indeed see himself as training brahmacharis, with the sacrifices of political experience the means to moksha.

In a way all this is but to re-emphasise that Gandhi was supremely the karma yogin, the spiritual man of action. But it provides, I feel, a critical new insight into what politics meant to Gandhi and a new way into understanding his choice of nonviolence.

The above was a talk given at a seminar Nonviolence: A Choice at Goldsmith’s College on 10 July 2005 which was organised by The International Sufi School Khidmatul Khadim. Antony Copley is a historian and Academic Adviser to the Gandhi Foundation. He is the author of a number of books on aspects of Indian
culture including
Gandhi: Against the Tide.

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Categories: Spirituality & Religion


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