Gandhi’s Diagnostic Approach Rethought – by Margaret Chatterjee

Gandhi’s Diagnostic Approach Rethought: Exploring a Perspective on His Life and Work
Margaret Chatterjee
Promilla and Co/Bibliophile South Asia: New Delhi  2007
Rs495   ISBN 978-81-85002-81-1

Few scholars match Margaret Chatterjee’s outstanding contribution to Gandhi studies. We are all in her debt, for example, for her Gandhi’s Religious Thought (1983) so it more than a little sad to learn that this text will be the last of its kind.  With her roots in both South Africa and India she was always ideally placed to be Gandhi’s interpreter.  She has brought so many skills to bear in the task, maybe most strikingly as a tantalising historian of ideas, together  with an expertise in the comparative study of religions.  She is a formidable moral and political philosopher.  Not all will be able to keep up with her breathtaking if often allusive reference – in a kind of shorthand – to so many thinkers, those of the classical world, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, James Mill, Henry Sidgwick, William James, Max Nordau, Simone Weil, so many more, but surely it is an intellectual journey well worth undertaking.

The leitmotif of the text is of Gandhi as doctor manqué, his role as diagnostician of the sicknesses of India (and the world ?), diseases of oppression, racism, injustice, exploitation, and of its chief canker, violence.  Gandhi had thought of training as a doctor and certainly took every opportunity to put his nursing skills to the test.  It’s an attractive way through the many expressions of Gandhi’s mind though a disease metaphor has its tricky side.  Might you risk infection if you borrowed ideas from outside ?

I think the big question she is raising is, just how morally intransigent was Gandhi ?  Did he succumb to the Gregers Werle complex that Ibsen explored in The Wild Duck, that Truth must be revealed at whatever the human cost ?  What did Gandhi intend by Truth when he identified it with God ?

She writes of “reflection on Truth (as) almost an obsession with him”, of Gandhi as an unmasker of the deceptions of ‘civilisation’ in the same mould as Darwin, Marx and Nietzsche.

Yet her answer is just a little surprising.  Gandhi emerges often on the side of moral compromise.

Her constant theme is of Gandhi the pragmatist, “a relentless and sometimes ruthless sense of the priorities of the moment.”(p113) Gandhi, she acknowledges, had “a soft corner for inconsistencies”. (p133)

Given that some of we Gandhi commentators have been uncomfortably aware of the very strict moral regime he imposed on his two elder sons and some of his closest followers, it is worth quoting her acerbic comment,

“as often happens in saying anything about Gandhi the man, exaggerations and one-sided assessments tend to cloud the view taken.” (p189)

Firstly the text addresses some of the non-Indian influences on Gandhi, with special reference to the Russian and in the shape of Mazzini, the Italian.  The big idea he learnt from the Russians, and this embraced both Madame Blavatsky and Tolstoy, and one that he could not have learnt from his own culture, was brotherhood.

One completely new name she introduces is that of Timofei Bondariev, a peasant who converted to Judaism during the pogroms of the 1880s and set up Jewish agrarian communities.  Was this the origin of Gandhi’s idea of bread labour ?  She also speculates that Gandhi may have taken the idea of the oceanic circle from Peter Kropotkin.  Had Henry Salt taken him to hear the Russian anarchist lecture in London ?  Of course Gandhi as a religious man differed from the Russian populists with their secular often atheist agenda, but there was much in common in the ways they addressed the needs of the Russian and Indian peasantry and there still remains a great book to be written on the comparative histories of those peasantries.

Mazzini as a man of God is far closer to Gandhi.  The fascination of early Indian nationalism, above all in Bengal, with the Italian is of course well known – I traced it myself in an essay Congress and the Risorgimento: A Comparative Study of Nationalism, published in The Indian National Congress: Centenary Hindsights edited by D A Low (OUP1988) – but Chatterjee rightly reminds us that Mazzini looked beyond the nation to ‘the good of all’.  My concern is whether both Mazzini and Gandhi overprivileged the role of religion in politics.  Chatterjee also wryly acknowledges that modern Indian admirers of Gramsci use just the same Gramscian critique of Mazzini’s failure to endorse a genuine social revolution in Italy to fault Gandhi’s to do the same in India.

Chatterjee now turns to the more metaphysical aspects of Gandhi’s thought and in highly original chapters explores his attitudes towards vows, deception and war.  This is where his readiness to compromise comes under review.  Gandhi clearly was wedded to the taking of vows – think of those to his mother, to brahmacharya or celibacy, to what was to prove to be the birth of satyagraha in the Empire theatre in Johannesburg in 1906.  I detect some ambiguity here.  Curiously Gandhi was very impressed by Charles Bradlaugh’s refusal to take a vow except on his own terms when elected an MP and even attended the funeral of this outspoken atheist.  Yet he was less than sympathetic to Charles Andrews who rued the day he had taken a vow to believe in the 39 articles on becoming an Anglican priest.   When it comes to Gandhi’s attitudes to war, she speculates that he may have come up with the idea of ‘a moral equivalent to war’ in nonviolence from William James.

Gandhi saw war as ‘quite literally dehumanising’ and against the law of our being, and yet on several occasions went along with war as a member of an ambulance brigade – “one must be ready to be killed but not to kill” – and still saw India as bound to support the King Emperor in the First World War.

Gandhi she sees as engaged in “a strenuous wrestling with the feasibility of nonviolence” (p120) and satyagraha as “a science in the making”, “a way of life which could find expression in day to day living.” (p144)  Gandhi indeed had an acute understanding of just how difficult it would be to win mankind over to an alternative to violence.

The text ends with chapters on Gandhi’s larger vision, on the oceanic circle, on the tension between tradition and modernity, on resolving religious difference.  The oceanic circle, which he wrote about at the end of his life in 1946, is seen as Gandhi’s mode of  ‘gathering in’, an ever widening collective, one that transcended nation and became universal, yet still enhanced the individual.  In one of her arresting associations in the history of ideas she points to affinities between Adam Smith’s ‘inner voice’ and his views on the affective power of sympathy and Gandhi’s outlook.  She rejects any simplistic categorising Gandhi as traditionalist or modernist: “I do not think Gandhi can be classified under any of the usual rubrics”. (p175)

Gandhi had a highly subversive interpretation of dharma, loathing as he did distinctions between purity and pollution, between clean and unclean labour.  And he saw moksha in this-wordly terms, a realisation of “a transformed society”. (p188)  For Gandhi tradition “was not a repository of inviolable norms but a place of considered criticism, change and development.” (p191)  Up against the communal divide Gandhi met the seemingly insuperable.  He himself “was unfazed by otherness and in fact he was often attracted to it”. (p217)  He believed in multiple identities.  Nonviolence was seen as common to all religions and religion as praxis should work towards a fair society.  But he could not staunch the holocaust of partition.

She concludes by emphasising “the extraordinary range of his acts of healing”.  “What he sets out”, she affirms,” not through exhortation but through action, is his ideal of what it is to be civilised.” (p227)

The Promilla/Bibliophile press list of books on Gandhi and related topics is impressive, and this clearly should be known to the Gandhi Foundation, but my worry is that the author’s searching epitaph of her Gandhi scholarship may not become as well known to a wider readership as it so richly deserves.

Antony Copley

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One Comment on “Gandhi’s Diagnostic Approach Rethought – by Margaret Chatterjee”

  1. Dr Vandita varma
    May 13, 2010 at 1:14 pm #

    Its a brilliant review of the work

    I have an absurd enquiry in know whether Margaret ji is fine?


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