The Mahatma as an intercultural Indian
His proximity to the East and the West proved to be fruitful; his intellectual openness helped him to live up to his ideals
There is a tendency in today’s world to think and to say that Gandhi’s ideal of non-violence is a noble idea but impractical and unrealistic. The odd thing about this affirmation is that it tends to sanctify Gandhi while rejecting his principles. However, Gandhi was not a saint; nor was he a religious leader. He was, first and foremost, an original thinker and an acute political strategist, who believed profoundly in the possibility of introducing humanity to the principle of non-violence.
A realistic hope
Gandhi’s idea of non-violence was not a dream; it was a realistic hope, armed with a dose of practical idealism; that of the global welcoming of the law of love. By saying this, he presented himself, at the same time, as an Asian who was influenced by Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, and as a person who was deeply influenced by the teachings of Jesus Christ, Socrates, Tolstoy, Ruskin and Thoreau. Thomas Merton once wrote that Mahatma Gandhi was “an alienated Asian”. Maybe so, but it is not because Gandhi learnt many things from the West that he had necessarily become a stranger to his own culture and to the traditions of the East. On the contrary, his proximity to the East and the West proved to be very fruitful and made of him, what we can call, “an intercultural Indian”. Gandhi was endowed with an intellectual openness, which helped him to learn from others, and, as a result, live up to his ideals. As such, he was not only an Indian political and moral leader but also the founding father of modern non-violence as it has been practised for the past 100 years around the globe.
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Ethical mode of conduct
As such, with Gandhi, the philosophy of non-violence turned into an instrument of public dissent and a pragmatic tool of the powerless against the powerful. However, in the eyes of Gandhi, while being an instrument of conflict resolution and universal harmony, non-violence was also an essentially moral exercise. What Gandhi called the “soul force” was actually an ethical mode of conduct. As a matter of fact, he viewed non-violence essentially as an ethical commitment and a constructive political action. For Gandhi, the ethical and the political were the same. Therefore, for him, the struggle against violence and fanaticism was at the same moral level as disobeying unjust laws: it was expressed by the soul force and the pursuit of truth to uplift others. Gandhi had a profoundly ethical view of life: he recognised neither the infallible authority of texts nor the sanctity of religious traditions, but he was also the foremost critic of modern politics and its authoritarian practices. That is why, reading Gandhi today is unavoidably to rethink modern politics as a new relation between power and violence and as a way of transcending the conventional distinction between citizens and the state. It is also a move towards an inter-cultural democracy, where solidarity of differences is not compromised by mere nationalism, and democratic action is not limited by mere constitutionalism and representation. Working in this perspective, the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence finds the conventional meaning of politics as incomplete, while problematising democratic politics as a way of assigning a duty to citizens to be vigilant about the abuses of power by the state and to struggle against the “Sultanization” of political power in our contemporary societies.
Establishing a just society
On the social level, Gandhi envisioned an ideal society where social justice is done, including for the last person. This is a common world in which institutions aim to get the best out of the individual. The entire Gandhian thought in the realm of citizenship and democracy revolves around the establishment of a just society. As such, Gandhi’s idea of democracy hinges on moral growth in humankind, where an undisciplined and unrestrained individualism gives its place to an empathetic humanism. Moreover, while speaking on non-violence and democracy, Gandhi believed that humanity had to develop certain qualities such as fearlessness, non-possession and humility. The main aim was to restructure humans to suit to an inter-cultural and pluri-dimensional democracy. Gandhi’s repeated emphasis on service to all human beings from all traditions of thought was the essence of his non-violent democratic theory.
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An approach ahead of its time
In this pluralistic approach to the dialogue of cultures and faiths, Gandhi was far ahead of his time. Indeed, his non-violent democratic theory as a philosophy of inter-cultural dialogue is still far ahead of our time, several generations after his death. Gandhi was not a dogmatic nationalist but essentially a pathfinder towards a common ground among different cultures and diverse mentalities. Therefore, his philosophy of democracy remains neither mono-cultural nor essentialist. It is essentially pluralistic and empathetic. More importantly, his attachment to politics is more ethical than religious. Consequently, religion for him is identified with ethics rather than theology. Therefore, his concept of democracy and modes and methods of achieving it, including Satyagraha and Swaraj, are not theological concepts. Gandhi believes that human destiny has constantly been on the move towards a non-theological truth. And he was a person who pursued truth in all aspects of life, not only spirituality, and encouraged others to join him in this pursuit.
Gandhi considered democracy as a dynamic element in the ethical becoming of human civilisation. His effort to bridge different views of life was matched in many ways by his approach to the many-sidedness of truth. That is why he did not reject different traditions of social life; he simply affirmed what he considered to be authentic in them and thought of bringing them together in the realisation of an ethical common ground. This enabled him to maintain that it would not be possible to understand the concept of democracy without having some understanding of the philosophical tradition of a critique of violence in which it is nurtured. Gandhi, therefore, speaks of democracy and non-violence as two sides of the same reality.
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Idea of ‘Indianness’
He defined his mission of promoting non-violence and democracy in India beyond all political and philosophical sources of hatred, exclusion, suspicion and war. He was well aware of the fact that politics is a fragile concept and is vulnerable to nationalist justifications of violence and war. That is the reason why he refused to define India in terms of ethnic purity or linguistic unity or some other unifying religious attribute. More than rallying Indians to combat various “others,” Gandhi’s philosophy of democracy introduced an anti-monistic and pluralistic dimension into a primarily territorial rootedness of Indianness. In this sense, it could be argued that for Gandhi, there was no sentiment of loving one’s country (namely India) without loving the culture of the other. Gandhi’s appeal to planetary companionship was based on an inclusive and dialogical idea of living together which disapproved all forms of national or religious self-centredness. As he pointed out: “The golden way is to be friends with the world and to regard the whole human family as one. He who distinguishes between the votaries of one’s own religion and those of another miss-educates the members of his own and opens the way for discord and irreligion.”
Ramin Jahanbegloo is Director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana