• Ramin on Social Network
  •  Follow Ramin
  •  Keep up with Ramin

Gandhi and the 21st Century

Mon, 10/15/2012 - 00:03 -- razinadmin
Types: 

By: Ramin Jahanbegloo

Last three decades have witnessed a constant invocation of religion in the arena of politics. From the establishment of a Shiite theocracy in Iran, to George Bush's crusade against terrorism, from Osama bin Laden's Jihad against the US, to rise of Hindutva ideology in Indian politics one constantly gets to hear that politics is to be guided by religion. For many the guidance of politics by religion could lead to terrible tragedies such as the demolition of Babri Masjid or Taliban's destruction of Bamiyan Buddha or the massive violence of February 2002 in Gujrat. Events in Gujarat are unprecedented on two counts. One is the open participation of the state in communalization of common people. Secondly, the level of public participation in the carnage reached unbelievable heights in an economically advanced area. Seen in a larger cultural- historical perspective, the Gujrat carnage was a huge blow to the image of Gandhi’s Gujrat respected for its image of a friendly and peaceful state. While no doubt the phenomenon of what happened here in Gujrat is highly tragic and problematic for all of us as Indians and as friends of India, I think that we need to go back to the essence of Gandhi’s Gujrat as an antidote to all forms of violence that endanger our global civilization.  Gujrat was Gandhi’s home state, and Ahmedabad his adopted city. Gandhi established his ashram here, creating and nurturing a large array of civic and political institutions, developing an enormous mass following, and leaving after him a formidable legacy of voluntary social service and communal harmony. Today, the only question that comes to our mind is this: What is left of Gujrat’s Gandhian soul? To understand better Gandhi’s lost civic heritage, we need to go back to relation between the two concepts of religion and politics in his philosophy.

Religion and politics are inextricably blended in Gandhi’s thought. To Gandhi their separation meant the separation of body and soul. This is why Gandhi called politics without religion a dirty game. Gandhi used to say: “Most religious men I've met are politicians in disguise, I however wear the guise of a politician but am at heart a religious man.”  However, Gandhi strived all his life to find a balance between religion and politics. For Gandhi, religion was the realization of truth before anything else and politics was a way to live in and for this truth. Gandhi's politics was driven by his faith and morality to the point where it exasperated even his closest comrades. Summarizing the imperative of bringing religious values into politics, Gandhi said: “I could not be leading a religious life unless I identified myself with the whole of mankind and that I could not do unless I took part in politics. The whole gamut of man's activities today constitutes an indivisible whole.”

Gandhi's religion was not a universe of dogmas and superstitions. Hence, there was no temple at his ashram at Sabarmati. At Sabarmati, it was the religion of truth and not only one religion among others that was affirmed and practiced. Why? Because Gandhi believed and taught that all religions were true. Gandhi a self-described Hindu went far beyond Hinduism's religio-philosophical confines to truly embrace other religions and seek close fellowship with Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians, even atheists and agnostics, as they were equally “all sparks of Truth.”  Transcending all religious creeds and sectarian ideas, Gandhi said that, “God is Truth” and later modified this to “Truth is God”. Religion, to Gandhi, is simply the pursuit of truth under a different name. But the discovery of truth passes through the human medium, so that in one way or another religions are human mediations of truth and such open to critique. For Gandhi, truth is the only final criterion. That is why his attachment to religion is limited. Religion for Gandhi is identified with ethics rather than theology. Therefore, Gandhi’s major concept of “God” is not an absolutist concept. In essence, to Gandhi “true religion is not narrow dogma”. It is morality, and according to Gandhi, “morality is the basis of things, and truth is the substance of all morality.” For Gandhi, mission of politics was, not only, to humanize religion, but also to moralize it. That is the reason why Gandhi would reject any religious doctrine, which was in conflict with morality. In other words, when Gandhi says that,  “There is no religion higher than truth and Righteousness.”, he means that morality is prized by almost all the great religions of the world. From this angle the word Dharma is identified with the word religion. I think Dharma is an all-important concept for Gandhi. In addition to tradition and moral order, it also signifies the path of knowledge and correct action. Because of Gandhi’s emphasis on living in accordance with Dharma, anyone who is striving for spiritual knowledge and seeking the right course of political and ethical action is, in the broadest sense, a follower of Dharma. As you all know, Mahatma Gandhi had three reasons to be a follower of Sanatana Dharma. Firstly, he believed in the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Puranas. Secondly, he believed in Varna Ashram Dharma. Finally, he drew many of his concepts of truth, nobility and ethics from the Bhagavad Gita and his personal love of Lord Rama. Gandhi’s interpretation of the Gita was on the lines of his philosophy. According to him, the key to an understanding of Gita is that life is service and selflessness and to Gandhi this is a knowledge that cannot be learned through books. It is a wisdom, which begins with faith in truth and ends in experience of truth. At this stage, faith does not contradict reason but completes it. Gandhi is not a religious fundamentalist, nor is he committed to the idea of an absolute reason. What strikes me as interesting in Gandhi is how he kept a space in his mind open for doubt and for skeptical irony (and even self irony). In this sense the moral and political principles of Mahatma Gandhi do not constitute a sort of real gearbox that drives our thought and action in one direction, and is powered by a spiritual engine with only a monolithic ideology as the fuel source. Gandhi had the courage to stand and talk back to the authority of the tradition, by being consistent with his beliefs, but at the same time by remaining free enough to change his mind, discovers new things and rediscover what he had once put aside. As a matter of fact, one of the tasks of the Gandhian non-violence is the effort to breakdown the stereotypes and reductive categories that are limiting to human communication.

I think one of the main intellectual novelties of our time is the questioning of authority. It is therefore true to say that the Gandhian critique of authority did perform a positive service to India and to the world by underlining how in the modern world, one can construct his truth without excluding all others. The fundamental problem is therefore how to reconcile one’s truths and it’s cultural and historical basis to the reality of other truths with different cultural and historical basis to the reality of other truths with different cultural and historical backgrounds. Simply asserting one’s preference for what is known today, as “cultural relativism” can never do this. The resistance of Gandhian philosophy to any reductive formulas is not a way out for him to profess a language of cultural relativism. Far from being a relativist, Gandhi’s attempt in experimenting the truth is to hold to universal values. Even if Gandhi was very loyal to India and to the Indian people, his responsibility as a modern intellectual figure, made him speak the truth beyond the national and the cultural frontiers by picking the right moral and political alternative and then intelligently representing it where it could do the most good and cause the right change. In this respect, the contribution of Mahatma Gandhi in the creation and cultivation of a public culture of citizenship, that guarantees to everyone the right to opinion and action, as an alternative to system of representation based on bureaucratic parties and state structures, is one of the most relevant issues discussed in the western political philosophy today. Gandhi was very conscious about the fact that the cultivation of an “enlarged pluralism” requires the creation of institutions and practices, where the voice and perspective of everyone can be articulated, tested and transformed. In this connection the most significant concept that is relevant to revalidating Gandhi is that which goes by the name of “swaraj” (autonomy). I think that “autonomy” is not merely an economic concept, but it is also a political concept. The new spirit of “autonomy” not only in form, but also in essence, is very much discussed in the west as a pattern to enforce the civil society vis-à-vis the state. I do not think I am very far from the truth of Gandhi’s philosophy, by saying that his conception of politics is based on the idea of “active citizenship”, that is on the value and importance of civic engagement and collective deliberation. Gandhi was in fact a stern defender of the role of law, and advocate of fundamental human rights, a critic of all forms of political action based on violence and intolerance and a fervent of limited government. Gandhi’s political thought cannot, in this sense, be identified either with the liberal tradition, or with the anarchist tradition or with the claims advanced by a number of communitarian philosophers today.

On the social side, Gandhi envisioned an ideal society where justice is done “unto the last” and in which institutions aim to get the best out of man. The entire Gandhian thought in the realm of religion and politics also revolves round the establishment of a just society. Gandhi’s Sarvodaya hinges on moral growth in man where an unrestricted individualism gives its place to a civic humanism. Similarly while speaking on religion Gandhi wanted to develop certain qualities like fearlessness, nonpossession and humility in man. The main aim was to restructure man to suit to nonviolent society. Gandhi’s repeated emphasis on service to human beings as the essence of religion is intertwined his pluralistic understanding of humanity. In this pluralistic approach to the dialogue of cultures and faiths, Gandhi was far ahead of his time. Indeed he is still far ahead of our time, two generations after his death. If he were alive today, he would ask people to accept that human beings are the same all over the world: that it is absolutely wrong to regard some people, whether Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, whites or blacks, Croats or the Serbs as flawed, or worse than others. Secondly, he would ask for dialogue across religious divides and would denounce terrorism as something absolutely unacceptable and unjustifiable. Since for Gandhi India was a home to diverse religions and cultures, dialogue among religions proved to be a sure method of forging the bonds of unity between men of different faiths and emerged as the proven way of transforming discord and conflict into harmony and co-operation. While preaching equality of religions, Gandhi listed certain principles from various religions that had contributed towards an enrichment of spirituality on the Indian soil. For Gandhi, ahimsa was the greatest gift of Hinduism to mankind. Similarly, the idea of love and the spirit of service were the main contributions of Christianity to India’s culture. The New Testament profoundly impressed and inspired Gandhi. He found in Christ’s message of love something deeply consonant with his belief in nonviolence. In The Sermon on the Mount he found passive resistance, which he later developed into a weapon of the strong. Once when the missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Gandhi, he asked him, "Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?" Gandhi replied, "Oh, I don't reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ." Apparently Gandhi's rejection of Christianity grew out of an incident that happened when he was a young man practicing law in South Africa. He had become attracted to the Christian faith, had studied the Bible and the teachings of Jesus, so he decided to attend a church service. As he came up the steps of the large church where he intended to go, a white South African elder of the church barred his way at the door. "Where do you think you're going, kefir?" the man asked Gandhi in a belligerent tone of voice. Gandhi replied, "I'd like to attend worship here." The church elder snarled at him, "There's no room for kefirs in this church. Get out of here or I'll have my assistants throw you down the steps." From that moment, Gandhi decided to adopt what good he found in Christianity while criticizing the violence of Christians. For Gandhi, the example of Jesus’s suffering was an important factor in his remarkable faith in nonviolence.

Gandhi believed that “the highest Truth needs no communicating for it is by its nature self-propelling. It radiates its influence silently as the rose its fragrance without the intervention of a medium.” Hence, Gandhi declared that all prophets belong to humanity and he vigorously appealed to the people to approach religious books of different religions with same reverence. To him, “morals of a man were a matter of concern rather than a particular form of worship in a church, in a mosque or in a temple.”  Mahatma Gandhi frequently spoke, according to his grandson, about the eight sins: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, commerce without morality, worship without sacrifice, politics without principle, rights without responsibility, knowledge without character, and science without humanity.  A society and culture free of these sins would be a society without violence, he said. Today we must illustrate that the greatest sin is not trying to go beyond the shouts of ignorance and the intolerance that separate the gentle tones of mature faith and enlightened thinking. Sometimes misguided men and violence deliberately exploit the fears and misunderstandings of long estranged faith communities and murder replaces frank dialogue and civilized behavior. Today religious disputes continue sadly and violence is often linked to passions, which become associated with different faith communities. Issues of poverty and despair, to take just two examples, can become intertwined with issues of faith and can result either in aggression towards, or in the scapegoating of, others. And here I feel that I must refer explicitly to the wave of violent protests that erupted around the Moslem world and in European capitals over Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Today, the Islamic and Western civilizations are locked in a deadly embrace; hating and fearing each other. Looking things from this angle, Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory may become a true prophecy. Having said this, the main issue is not only about Muslims being portrayed as intolerant people whose beliefs and conducts are incompatible with the modern secular world. The problem is not whether Muslims are right or wrong in cases such as the controversy over Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad or The Satanic Verses of Salman Rushdie, but whether there is a way out of the clash between those claiming freedom of expression in the West and others demanding respect for religion in the Muslim world. Whether we like it or not, now we all effectively live in a global networked world, where tensions can be inflamed instantly through the transfer of information from one cultural context to another. This new situation raises the stakes on how to find a balance between democracy and cultural diversity.  The central question in this debate is a simple as it is difficult. What is more important for the advancement of democracy in the world- to ensure the freedom of expression of all citizens within the limits marked by law or to protect the collective interests of cultural and religious traditions? It is a fact, not all Muslims are enemies of free speech, in the same way that not all people living in the modern secular West despise cultural diversity and disrespect religious traditions. Actually the true problem starts when those on both sides begin to believe that a balance between the two is impossible and that a clash is inevitable. But, in the case of   controversies and violence opposing Islam and the West, we are not experiencing a clash of civilizations, so much as a clash of intolerances. Intolerance is mainly the inability or unwillingness to endure something different. Intolerance of other people who are different from us is obviously prevalent in our modern societies. This is not only about moral intolerance or political intolerance. It is just about intolerance of anyone who is in any way different than us. Paradoxically, the notion of tolerance, which is preached by all religions and cultures, is turned into intolerance within the confines of particularistic politics and communal catechism.

This reminds me of an ancient Indian story about the six blind men and the elephant. Six blind men were positioned around an elephant and asked to describe it.  One felt its leg and said it was like a pole.  One felt its trunk and said it was like a snake.  One felt its side and said it was like a wall. What we can note is that none of the blind men were absolutely wrong and none of the blind men were absolutely right. The problem is not in being wrong or in being right. He problem arises in the belief that one possesses the whole truth.  As Gandhi used to believe correctly that the scriptures of all religions reveal some of the truths of this world.  “Share each other’s experiences,” he advised, and “if you want to live peacefully, be respectful of all religions.” In a speech in Calcutta reprinted in Harijan on November 17, 1946, Gandhi affirmed: “ The golden way is to be friends with the world and to regard the whole human family like members of one family. He who distinguishes between one’s own family and another’s miseducates the members of his own and opens the way for discord and irreligion.”

Struggles for peace and equality have proved once more that nonviolence has a moral power that exacts our respect and reverence in a way that violence never can. Gandhi has been a shining example for many people, in particular for those who have been determined to do something about resisting injustice. It is not because some followers of Gandhi have failed, that Gandhi’s message is no more relevant for our time. As Martin Luther King once observed: “If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable.”  It is time for us to look into our souls and ask ourselves why Gandhi is more relevant today.

Mahatma Gandhi represents a figure of unique integrity, consistency and humanity. The point of departure of his life philosophy and the basis of his theory and activity in practice are freedom and welfare of any human being and prosperity of peoples and nations of the whole mankind. Non-violence is the elementary and indispensable condition for the materialization of these noble goals. These principals and values represented a permanent source of inspiration in Gandhi’s guidance in his imaginative undertakings both in the struggle for freedom and independent development of India and the promotion of her role in the international community. As a matter of fact, Gandhi’s firm belief in the creativeness and openness of the people of India and his own active engagement for a peaceful and friendly cooperation among nations on equal footing, without any interference or imposition were inexhaustible sources of his personal wisdom and high credibility both as the father of modern India, as well as one of the major moral, spiritual and political international authorities of our times.

Today, largely due to the work of Mahatma Gandhi, India has its political independence and the work of building that greater freedom which he set in train in continuing by non-violent workers all around India. But Gandhi himself had altered his successors that they would face a more daunting journey on the road to the betterment of the people of India, than he himself had done. His 50 years struggle for national independence reached a culmination in August 1947, but he could see that national independence of India was really only the first step towards ultimate goal-equality of opportunity for all through non-violent action. That is the reason why Gandhi represents today not only the collective conscience of India, but also the collective conscience of all humanity. My claim is that Mahatma Gandhi remains a relevant thinker today because of his theory and practice of non-violence, but also because of the way he defended all his life political tolerance and religious pluralism. Nothing about his defense is doctrinaire or a prior. Everything he claims about the importance of individual autonomy and political freedom, for human life, for modern living, is tested by experience. Everybody knows that Gandhi’s ideas evolved through experience from a highly simplistic view to more mature, sophisticated and relevant propositions.  More than two hundred years ago, in 1784, Immanuel Kant, the famous German philosopher, responded to the question posed by a Berlin newspaper: “What is Enlightenment?” by equating Enlightenment with attainment of maturity through the use of reason. Gandhi agrees with Kant that “maturity” consists in man’s taking over responsibility for using his critical rationality and that critical rationality consists in the unflinching examination of our most cherished and confronting assumptions. Therefore, Gandhi was able to articulate a fundamental change-taking place in Indian but also modern understanding which still gives his philosophy contemporary relevance. One thing is certain about Gandhi’s thought: it is not only modern, but also mature. Gandhi’s heroic break with religious fanaticism, far from opening up the possibility for a critical structure, which would provide universal norms for human action. Nevertheless, Gandhi was not a system builder. He was essentially a pathfinder towards social and individual goals. Therefore, Gandhi’s philosophy is neither utopian, nor eschatological. It is simply a critical view, which tells us what we need to do in order to go forward in the path of metaphysical humanism. Gandhi tells us to proceed with clear conceptual thinking and skepticism of the facts. Therefore, according to him, we must never fail to seek knowledge and enlightenment, never give up the virtues of common sense, civility, justice and non-violence. Therefore, a sense of balance and proportion of what fits when and where is crucial to the theory he enjoins us to practice. Nevertheless, for Gandhi pure rationalism was neither scientific, nor human. As he once said: “rationalists are admirable being, but rationalism can be a hideous monster when it claims omnipotence for itself”. More importantly, Gandhi’s attachment to religion is limited. Religion for Gandhi is identified with ethics rather than theology. Therefore, most of Gandhi’s major concepts and methods of struggle are not absolutist concepts. It would be totally unfair to judge and analyze Gandhi through some absolutist concepts and ideas. In this connection the most significant concept that is relevant to revalidating Gandhi is that which went by the name of “swaraj”. I think that “autonomy” is not merely an economic concept, but it is also a political concept. The new spirit of “autonomy” not only in form, but also in essence, is very much discussed in the west as a pattern to enforce the civil society vis-à-vis the state. I do not think I am very far from the truth of Gandhi’s philosophy, by saying that his conception of politics is based on the idea of “active citizenship”, that is on the value and importance of civic engagement and collective deliberation. Gandhi was in fact a stern defender of the role of law, and advocate of fundamental human rights, a critic of all forms of political action based on violence and intolerance and a fervent of limited government. Gandhi’s political thought cannot, in this sense, be identified either with the liberal tradition, or with the anarchist tradition or with the claims advanced by a number of communitarian philosophers today.

It would be the worst distortion of Gandhi to say that he was close to any of these political philosophers. In the same way, Gandhi belongs to none of the three ideological options which are available for us today. One option is the return to a “religious dogmatism”. The second option is “relativism” which is exemplified by the postmodernist movement that believes that the objective truth should be replaced by hermeneutic truth. The third option is the “rationalist fundamentalism” which believes in the total power of reason and desacralizes and disenchants, everything substantive. I think Gandhi belongs to none of these three main visions influential at present. He is not a religious fundamentalist. He is not a cultural revivalist, and he is not committed to the idea of absolute reason. What strikes me as interesting in Gandhi is how he kept a space in his mind open for doubt and for skeptical irony (and even self irony). In this sense the moral and political principles of Mahatma Gandhi do not constitute a sort of real gearbox that drives our thought and action in one direction, and is powered by a spiritual engine with only a monolithic ideology as the fuel source. Gandhi had the courage to stand and talk back to the authority of the tradition, be being consistent with his beliefs, but at the same time by remaining free enough to change his mind, discover new things and rediscover what he had once put aside. As a matter of fact, one of the tasks of the Gandhian non-violence is the effort to breakdown the stereotypes and reductive categories that are limiting to human communication. Every modern thinker has an audience and a constituency. The issue is whether that audience is there to be satisfied and justified or whether it is to be challenged and hence guided into a greater democratic participation in the society.

No doubt, one of the main intellectual novelties of our century is the questioning of authority. It is therefore true to say that the Gandhian critique of authority did perform a positive service to India and to the world by underlining how in the modern world, one can construct his truth without excluding all others. The fundamental problem is therefore how to reconcile one’s truths and it’s cultural and historical basis to the reality of other truths with different cultural and historical basis to the reality of other truths with different cultural and historical backgrounds. This can never be done simply by asserting one’s preference for what is known today as “cultural relativism”. As I have tried to show here, the resistance of Gandhian philosophy to any reductive formulas is not a way out for him to profess a language of cultural relativism. Far from being a relativist and even what Michel Foucault, the French philosopher called a “specific intellectual”, Gandhi’s attempt in experimenting the truth is to hold to universal values. Even if Gandhi was very loyal to India and to the Indian people, his responsibility as a modern intellectual figure, made him speak the truth beyond the national and the cultural frontiers by picking the right moral and political alternative and then intelligently representing it where it could do the most good and cause the right change.

In this respect, the contribution of Mahatma Gandhi in the creation and cultivation of a public culture of citizenship, that guarantees to everyone the right to opinion and action, as an alternative to system of representation based on bureaucratic parties and state structures, is one of the most relevant issues discussed in the western political philosophy today. Gandhi was very conscious about the fact that the cultivation of an “enlarged pluralism” requires the creation of institutions and practices, where the voice and perspective of everyone can be articulated, tested and transformed. Gandhi’s vision of modernity provides us with a number of fruitful insights that may help us to confront the dilemmas of the modern age. In this respect, Gandhi is one of the main intellectual figures today who has the disturbing capacity to unsettle our fixed categories, to shake our inherited conceptual habit, and to let us see world in a new light.

Poll

How do you know Ramin?

منشور 91

این منشور تلاشی است برای مستند کردن اصول، منش و ارزشهای اخلاقی انسانی  برای تولدی دیگر در جهت ایجاد حکومتهایی پاسخگو، روادار و مستقل.

به ما بپیوندید

Charter 91

A group of Iranian intellectuals have penned a new document that aims to unite the Iranian people around a common human rights and civic agenda.

Join us and sign

twitter   facebook    google   yahoo