Why We Should Embrace Gandhian Modernity
Although we all know that violence in all its forms – whether in war, intimidation of people, communal discord, police brutality, rape – is essentially horrific, we remain largely indifferent to it until we are not directly affected. Sometimes, even when it touches us directly, we choose to either react just as violently, or helplessly endure its horror without taking any action to stop its recurrence. It is the normal pattern of human behavior or, perhaps, of all animal behavior. This is because we, like other animals, operate within the framework of our own interests. Unlike other animals, humans are endowed with the ability to not only perceive violence as such, but also to raise issues about it due to our ability to use language. Many people have, in fact, questioned violence and tried to understand how to control its occurrence in human societies. However, violence remains a recurring phenomenon.
As long as humans operate from the perspective of self-interest, violence is inevitable. If we think of violence in a framework of economic well-being and self-interest, it will never be challenged. Normally we only try to control and delay its recurrence by other violent methods such as the use of police/military force – we try to counter violence with violence. We can also analyze such events and write sociological treatises on these events, their causes and their effects, but we continue to believe in their inevitability.
Since life feeds on life, some form of violence is necessary. But when we talk about violence, we are talking about preventable violence. What is needed is an end to all unnecessary forms of violence. In my opinion, the only person who gave us a comprehensive solution to the problem of violence is Gandhi. In its broadest sense, Gandhi’s solution is the idea of learning to function within a framework of Satya, Ahimsa, Sarvodaya (concern for the welfare of all) and aparigraha (non-possession). Gandhi’s political philosophy is embodied in his Hind Swaraj. But when we look closely at this general framework, we notice that Gandhi’s solution requires, among other things, a stateless society. In fact, the absence of centralized authority is a minimum requirement. Gandhi perceived, and perhaps rightly so, the state as the embodiment of all avoidable violence. But can a stateless human world ever be achieved? Gandhi thought it was necessary to get rid of the idea of the state to live in a world without violence; a position diametrically opposed to all the theories of the social contract put forward by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls et al. From Gandhi’s perspective, the inevitability of the state we take for granted is the product of our orientation to a way of life and thought process guided by metaphysics. Gandhi, like the Buddha, Socrates and Socrates’ admirer Zeno, advocated a way of life based on ethics in place of the conventional way of life led by metaphysics. Seen from the prism of an ethical way of life, the state with all its institutions would appear, to use Gandhi’s expression, “satanic”.
A way of life based on metaphysics always enshrines the notion of an ultimate truth, whether conceived religiously, scientifically or philosophically. The Buddha, Socrates and Gandhi argued that man’s disposition to cling to this belief in Ultimate Truth is the result of his existential insecurity and the existential angst that comes with it. Instead of rejecting the idea of ultimate truth, Gandhi, like the Buddha and Socrates before him, invited us to ground such an idea in ethics. That is to say, he asks us to make ethics our first concern. Once ethics took precedence over our orientation, we would become less selfish and our concerns would become centered on others instead of being centered on ourselves. With this shift from concern for the self to the other, through the cultivation of Satya, Ahimsa, Sarvodaya and aparigraha, Gandhi believed that our existential angst would disappear. Once that happened, Gandhi thought, we would be able to see the appeal of stateless communities around the world. He variously described such a world as Rama Raj/Khuda Raj/God’s kingdom on Earth. However, most often he used the term “Swaraj” to name such a political scenario.
Let me explain. Even though Gandhi was not a religious person in the ordinary sense of the term, his vocabulary was Vaishnavite. He deliberately used Vaishnava vocabulary (his parental vocabulary) in order to avoid European Enlightenment vocabulary, which he thought was used to justify the criminal activities of the British Raj. When addressing predominantly Hindu audiences, he used “Ram Raj” to refer to his version of a stateless society called “Swaraj”. If his audience was predominantly Muslim, he used the phrase “Khuda Raj” and for a Christian audience it was “the kingdom of God on Earth” to refer to “Swaraj” or the stateless society envisioned by Gandhi. Two of Gandhi’s pamphlets—Hind Swaraj and the Constructive Program—give some detail on how one can nonviolently attempt to actualize a stateless society.
Gandhian modernity replaces the European concepts of freedom, liberty and brotherhood with truthfulness (Satya), non-violence (Ahimsa), concern for the welfare of all (Sarvodaya) and justice (niti). It rejects the ideas of nation-state, capitalism and parliamentary democracy. In Gandhian modernity, direct democracy replaced the parliamentary system. The use of heavy technology is taboo but there is no objection to theoretical science. Instead of heavy technology, he advocates the use of appropriate technology and sustainable development. Development, in a broader context, means the development of freedoms, such as the freedom to eat enough food, to drink clean water, to breathe clean air, to recover from curable diseases, to free oneself patriarchy, etc. Another name for Gandhian modernity is enlightened anarchism.
The European concept of modernity is a criminal idea; in the past, it justified the enslavement of the world by European nations and the destruction of civilizations. ‘Exploitation’, in fact, is another name for European modernity/Enlightenment. Even today, under cover of modernity, the resources of the world continue to be exploited by a few rich countries, thus enabling them to remain disproportionately rich at the expense of others. This unsustainable resource extraction threatens the very existence of life on this planet. If animal life is to continue on earth any longer, Gandhian modernity is, I believe, what we should wholeheartedly embrace.
This column first appeared in the print edition of April 23, 2022 under the title “Questioning Violence”. The writer taught philosophy at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi