Thursday, April 29, 2004

Was Gandhi anti-modern? (Or just a celibate, vegetarian lawyer on a mission for social justice)

I've been reading Meera Nanda's Prophets Facing Backwards this week (and even last week -- it's been slow). It's an excellent book, which I would recommend to anyone thinking about questions of the history of science, secularism (in India and elsewhere), or postmodernism. I'm planning to write a proper review of it for a journal, so I'll spare you detailed analysis for now.

But one interesting problem comes up in the question of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi -- aka the Mahatma. For Nanda, Gandhi's influence is the source of much of the nativist resistence to 'western' rationality amongst recent Indian social scientists like Partha Chatterjee and Ashis Nandy. Though I would question whether Nanda is right on Chattjeree (Chatterjee likes Nehru better than Gandhi, after all), there's no question that Gandhi's image has been used by many contemporary critics of modern thought, including the pacifist left and even some who call themselves postmodernists. If one is critical of some of the above positions (leftist pacifism, romantic postmodernism), does one have to throw out Gandhi?

As of right now I don't think so; I think Gandhi is more complex. In my view, he is a modernist and a rationalist in practice, if not in name.

To begin with, take western civilization and the idea of progress. Gandhi's stated beliefs about the value of western civilization are well known ('It would be a good idea'). But how, clever epithets aside, does he engage with these issues? Reading his letters and essays from when he was developing his ideas on the subject (the 1910s), one sees a person who sounds much more like a lawyer-politician than a religious sage or mystic. Take the following passage from a lecture Gandhi gave in 1915:

Does economic progress clash with real progress? By economic progress, I take it, we mean material advancement without limit and by real progress we mean moral progress, which again is the same thing as progress of the permanent element in us. The subject may therefore be stated thus: 'Does not moral progress increase in the same proportion as material progress?' I know that this is a wider proposition than the one before us. But I venture to think that we always mean the larger one even when we lay down the smaller. For we know enough of sicence to realize that there is no such thing as perfect rest or repose in this visible universe of our. (December 15, 1915; from The Essential Writings of Mohandas K. Gandhi)

Though his topic (economic vs. moral progress) is abstract, Gandhi's rhetoric is focused and analytic -- not fuzzy in the least. He is careful to address the question directly, though he reframes it in terms that will suit his particular argument (classic law school/debate team strategy). Note also the example taken from thermodynamics. Examples from science and scientists appear often in Gandhi's writings from this period. Clarity and rational argumentation are also strongly emphasized in Gandhi's 1925 Autobiography. Gandhi was aware that his experiments did not always work, and he considered his aim in many of his social and political experiments the realization of 'truth' -- which was as much oriented to social justice as it was to spirituality.

But the most important gesture of the above passage is the way Gandhi ignores the question of the value of progress in modern science in his attack on modern materialism. It is materialism (capitalism) that really hinders moral progress, not science or scientific progress per se.

I concede that Gandhi's vision for a thoroughly decolonized India entailed a kind of de-modernization: the decentralization of power, small-scale industry and agriculture, and small-scale business -- not technologized modernity or industrialization. Nevertheless, Gandhi articulated even this vision pretty coherently: the advantage of such an approach to development is that it is completely self-sustaining, and that it can be achieved without assistance from anyone else (DIY or Swaraj). And isn't small-scale development itself a kind of social engineering? That is to say, Gandhi is in the tradition of John Ruskin and William Morris in that his is a distinctly modernist critique of modernity. It would not have been possible without John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, and in many ways he is arguing with and extending the ideas of those thinkers (i.e., Gandhi's social theory is close to utilitarianism in some ways).

I do not want to overstate Gandhi's modernism here -- there are limits to it. But even if he didn't embrace it in name, in his ongoing arguments both big and small Gandhi shows that he is a modern thinker and activist. He may talk on and on about brahmacarya (celibacy) and vegetarianism, but on the big questions his best side comes out, and he becomes again a ferocious, rhetorically gifted lawyer. Some of his more extreme ideas failed or were simply ignored by Nehru in India's inspiring/tragic experiment with postcolonial socialism. Others -- the idea of sustainable development -- are again being adopted, albeit under a different name. A hint of Gandhi is present even in the language of international development agencies in the wake of the failure of big social engineering projects like the massive hydroelectric dams of the 1960s-80s.

Select comments from this post

Was Gandhi anti-modern? (Or just a celibate, vegetarian lawyer on a mission for social justice)

On : 4/30/2004 8:53:48 AM Brey (www) said:

This makes me think of Naipul's critiques of Indian culture. He certainly makes Gandhi out to be somewhat of a simpleton. I think most disagree with that interpretation. But, I think much of Naipul's criticism centers on an argument that Gandhi's efforts focused on anti-modernist techniques and lifestyles. (Although, Naipul never actually uses the term anti-modern to my memory.) Naipul seems to think this tradition of thought undermined Indian progress and - more to his point - that it led to the Emergency. However, Gandhi's ultimate goal was, to me, a distinctly modern one based on democracy and freedom.

On : 4/30/2004 11:13:18 AM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

Thanks for the tip on Naipaul. I assume this must be from "A Million Mutinies Now," since I can't find any mention of Gandhi in my tattered old copy of "An Area of Darkness."

Naipaul on religion is pretty interesting -- he started off such a determined atheist, and has now become a safron flag-waving Brahmin.

On : 4/30/2004 12:54:58 PM Brey (www) said:

The one I read was India: A Wounded Civilization. But, I believe An Area of Darkness is ismilar in its treatment of Indian culture.

I agree with you on Naipul's personal history.

On : 4/30/2004 1:36:47 PM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

Oddly enough, after I wrote I found some interesting references to Gandhi even in the earliest book (An Area of Darkness). I think I need to go through all three of his 'India' books and see what he says.

There might be a blog on this later...

On : 4/30/2004 5:34:21 PM kumar (www) said:

Interesting post.....

About Naipaul: I dont' think he's converted to anything, let alone that he's become a Brahmin. But I don't want to pursue that argument, at least not now. Though do read F. Dhondy's defense of Naipaul [against Dalrymple et al], in Outlook magazine, which is available online.

Now onto your post about Gandhi. I think you equivocate between two definitions of 'modernity' in your post, one substantive and the other methodological. By the latter, I mean your comment that Gandhi argued in a modern fashion, very much unlike a religious mystic.

If we use your methodological yardstick, then there were quite a few 'modern' Indians in, say, 10th century Mithila. Which is to say, that closely reasoned argument and counter-argument is also a characteristic of Indian civilization. It's been that way for, oh, a few thousand years (from the time of the Nyaya Sutra, etc.).

I don't wish to suggest that all civilisations have the same character. Rather, I think that the creative potential of the traditional Indian shastric disciplines hasn't been exhausted. Think, for example, of the remarkable encounter of Indian & Western philosophy, recorded in the book 'Samvada', after a Navya-Nyaya pandit was introduced to Russell's work on propositions.

Your stance, as well as the argument between Dr. Nanda and the Hindutvavadins obscures this potential.

On : 5/3/2004 11:59:36 AM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

Kumar: Once again, a great point. Perhaps what I need to argue is that Gandhi's reasoning and argumentation are modern first because they are focused on the production of an independent modern nation-state, and then only because they follow particular conventions ('closely reasoned argument and counter-argument').

Even if his ideas for how that state would be run aren't directed towards further modernization, what Gandhi wanted was clearly a nation -- his philosophical language is nationalist in a very historically particular way. His nationalism is something I don't believe the medieval Indian thinkers could have conceived of (I admit I have little direct familiarity with that material).

On : 5/3/2004 11:59:42 PM S Kumar (www) said:

What a lot of gas! [REST OMITTED]

S Kumar


On : 5/4/2004 3:10:24 PM Kumar (www) said:

Whoa! Dr. Singh, you're initial instinct was on-target! I'm most definitely NOT S. Kumar. I don't peddle ad hominem attacks. Surely my previous posts ought to have made it clear.

Moving to the substantive discussion: I do think that MKG's version of India is modern. However, I think this 'idea' has affinities with similar, fairly ancient, projects as well: Think of the Roman Empire/Roman Peace, or Dar-ul-Islam etc.

More later, gotta get back to studying evo-devo.



On : 5/4/2004 3:22:23 PM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

Also -- to Kumar : Thanks for stepping in to clarify that.

S Kumar = mean
Regular Kumar = nice