Dialogue  October-December, 2010, Volume 12 No. 2

Gandhi’s life, thought and work : An evaluative essay

Ramchandra Pradhan

There are several reasons why an over-all evaluative study of Gandhi, his life, thought and work, is called for. In the first place, almost every branch of social science atempts to appropriate him within the narrow confines of its own discipline. Such an approach undermines the symbiotic relationship between his life, thought and work. What further complicates the matter is that such scholarly studies, thought quite germane to their own disciplines, ultimately result in presenting a fragmented view often divested from their aggregate whole. In other words, in the process of counting the trees an over-all picture of the wood is lost. Secondly more than any other thinker he has been sabjected to a heightened sense of extrems commendation to an outright rejection by his ardent admirers and trenchant crities respectively. As such he has been cast in different and even diametrically oppopite moulds. Thirdly, his wide range of concerns from sexuality to spirituality present their own problems in respect of his over-all evaluation. All this makes such an undertaking a daunting task. The present paper has emerged out of my larger study on Gandhi which attempts to restore such a symbiosis. As such it seeks to make an over-all presentation on Gandhi’s life, thought and work.

Gandhi’s Life : Its Perrenial Message

Since most of the landmarks of his life are well-known, one could skip over them and concentrate on what his critics have to say about his life. First, his critics over that his life is full of contradections. For instance it is asserted that despite being a man of advaitic vision and with unstinted creedal commitment to non-violence, he allows snakes and monkeys to be killed in his ashram and a he-calf to be poisoned to relieve him of his suffering of terminal illness. A practitioner of Brahmacharya, he lives, moves and even sleeps with young women without clothes as an experiment in his Brahmacharya. A loyalist to the British rule, he becomes its arch enemy and ends up as being its destroyer. A crusader against untouchability, he contends and contests some of the basic ideas of B.R. Ambedkar, who claims to be sole spokesman of the Indian depressed classes. Not even remaining a four ‘anna’ member of the Indian National Congress, he forces Subhas Chandra Bose to resign from the Congress Presidentship. Claiming to be to Sanatani Hindu, he goes out of his ways to placate Jinnah and the Muslim League and even pleads for the political power to be handed over to them on the eve of independence. A man committed to the course of Indian Independence, for which he had staked everything, often turns out to be a great compromiser rather than remaining an arch enemy of the British.

It is further asserted that Gandhi as a man of many parts has been cast in numerous moulds which has often projected his different and even diametrically opposite images. He has been described as the democrat of democrats, the autocrat of autocrats, the idealist of the idealists and a shrewd and calculating Bania of the Banias, with a canny instinct to turn every adversity to an opportunity. Not only that, it is contended that many theses and anti-theses, many contrarian and contradictory views co-existed and crowded his persona. For instance, here is a rare blend of saint and politician, a traditionalist and modernist, a deeply religious man with a spiritual bent of mind but with vast earthly and secular concerns, a nationalist to the core, but always concerned with wider human predicament, a man of destiny, but of simple and humble make, a voice of the dumb million, but a lonely pilgrim with a lonely voice at critical moments, a fighter of the Indian cause, but a lover of humankind, a man of a rare swadeshi spirit, but endowed with universalistic vision, candid, courteous and friendly and yet distant, blessed with mystical inner voice yet a rationalist, passionate yet detached, a crusader for a cause but a tolerant saint of the first order, modest and yet exceptionally self-assertive, no big orator, but the master of words which could move millions, a man of rare urban sensibility, yet the real voice of the rural peasants cast in a rustic garb, a picture of towering strength and yet having a soft heart of a woman, so on and so forth. Even in religious terms, he could be hardly cast in a single mould. As such, despite his categorical claim of being a Sanatani Hindu, he has been described as a prachhanna (in disguise) Jain, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and what you have.

Of late, there has been another attempt from the Indian soil, perhaps inspired by the Western tradition, by Girija Kumar and Madhu Kishwar to reassess his life in the context of the man-women relationship. They do admit that he played a revolutionary role as the liberator of the woman. But Madhu Kishwar argues that his experiments in brahmacharya with his women associates were out of tune with his views on the autonomy and integrity of individuals. Besides, he failed to take into account the sever impact it could have on the psyche and personality of his women participants of his experiments.

The problem of these critics, in our view, is that they refuse to take a holistic view of his life when they pinpoint his failure on the family front. They forget that any one who takes the larger human society to love and serve could not remain confined to his family and its needs. To judge such a man in terms of his role as a householder is just not only unfair to him, but to all those who take the larger society as their own family.

Besides in our view, two points needs to be made in this connection. How much he respected Kasturba could be seen on what he wrote after her death, saying that whatever he had become it was due to her sacrifice. Could one accuse Ramakrishna Peramhansa of being totally insensitive to Ma Sharda’s and her womanly desires? Or could we accuse Ramana Maharshi of leaving his entire family in the lurch when he went in search of the ultimate purpose of human existence. At such a level of spiritual evolution, one transcends the ‘temptations of the flesh’ and the life-partner of such a one takes things in the stride and in the process becomes a co-partner in the new search. In fact, such life-partners becomes two people but ‘one soul’. Hence, there is no sense of deprivation in any one of them. Two, none of his women associates including Manu and Sarala Devi ever complained of any sexual misdemeanor on the part of the Mahatma or ever suffered from neurosis on account of their sexual abstinence. Manu even wrote a book called ‘Gandhi My Mother’. Even in the case of Sarala Devi whom he went to the extent of describing as his ‘spiritual wife’, he never crossed the Lakshman rekha. Besides, all the women participants in his experiment of brahmacharya not only came as willing partners, but never regretted their decision or showed signs of abnormalities in their behaviour pattern subsequently.

There is another aspect of his life which would remain relevant for generations to come. Deeply rooted in the Indian tradition, he chose to lead a life of an exemplar. An exemplar is one who does not preach  quite contrary to what he practices till he has practiced what he preaches. For such an exemplar, not words but deeds, not dead dogmas but living truth, not preaching but actual practice becomes the guiding and driving norms of his life. All his experimental struggles including in brahmacharya, non-possession, non-violence struggle against human frailties like children as anger, greed and delusion, he always led from the front. In a word, it was his life as an exemplar which enabled him to move millions. Hence, it would continue to inspire our children’s children.

Gandhi’s Thought: A Critical Appreciation

On account of the paucity of space, we would not take the major fragments of his thought for any datailed investigution. Here we would be making some observations only on those aspects of his thought which, in our view, are of perennial nature. They are:

One of the seminal contributions of Gandhi in the realm of political theory is his concept of man and his symbiotic relationship with his fellow beings and the nature. Being rooted in the philosophical tradition of advaita, he was hardly impressed by these basic formulations of liberalism or for that matter Marxism. He challenges them and even offers an alternative perspective on the issues involved. He contends that man carries a spec of divinity in his persona. But being embodied in a perishable body, he easily forgets his true nature. This is primarily on account of avidya which makes one to take things as they appear rather than as they are. Hence the real challenge for every man is to go through a long and arduous self-transformative process leading to self-disclosure (Atma-Jnana). Such an uphill journey of spiritual ascent will have to be basically covered by the man himself; though the need for the God’s grace could not be totally brushed aside. In other words, the primary initiative for human redemption rests in every man and he could not pass on his moral responsibility to any body else or even to God Himself. What was more, being inspired by the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ and the Bhagavad Gita, he further asserted that such redemption could be attained only through loving and serving one’s fellow beings in particular and other cosmic species in general.

The theory and practice of satyagraha is the second major contribution of Gandhi in the realm of ideas. If Gandhi’s views on man, society and his alternative perspective do not sound fired by ‘romanticism’ and ‘utopianism’, this is primarily because of his ability to forge and use as an effective weapon in the form of satyagraha. This was needed as no system, whatever might be its nature, could be totally free from injustice and inequity. Hence, the need for struggle would always be there. But Gandhi’s rootedness in advaitic philosophy and his concept of relative truth, and his emphasis on the purity of means rules out any resort to violent resistance. What is more even on practical grounds, the poor and the dispossessed could hardly have wherewithal to fight a violent battle which might even invite greater repressive measures against them. Hence, a non-violent non-cooperation, viz., satyagraha remains as the only viable and effective means in the battle against injustice. But Gandhi’s real contribution here is that he holds both the victims and the perpetrators responsible for acts of injustice. He asserts that the victims must bear their part of the blame as cooperators in the acts of injustice. Hence, it is their moral duty to offer non-violent non-cooperation, viz., Satyagraha. But they have to bear in mind that in a Gandhian perspective on a conflict situation, there is no other, no enemy. They, both the victims and the perpetrators of injustice, could work together in such an emancipatory struggle. Ultimately, there will be some kind of reconciliation and both the parties would be morally upgraded at the end. But satyagraha does not offer a one time final solution as no system could be raised, which would be entirely foolproof against all future injustice. Hence, the need for satyagraha would always be there. May be, every generation will have to use it as a remedial measure. Perhaps, that is its beauty, its strength, which ensures its perennial relevance.

The third major contribution of Gandhi is a just and moral critique of modern civilization; which he first propounded in his book Hind Swaraj which was primarily written in response to the insistence on the parts of the Indian revolutionaries for use of violence as the only effective means for the liberation of India. As Raghavan Iyer observes that Hind Swaraj was not written to ‘provide political conclusions based on rigorous social analysis’. Besides, it has to be remembered that Gandhi was not the first to provide a critique of modern civilization. A host of writers and thinkers have been its trenchant critique. Despite these limitations, Gandhi raised very profound and pertinent questions as a critic of modern civilization. First, he not only raised his high-pitched moral voice against modern civilization, but also tried to provide an alternative vision of a new social order. Second, more than anybody else, he was able to establish a symbiotic relationship between modern civilization and all round prevailing violence. Third, Gandhi presents a shocking, brutal and total condemnation of modern civilization. This is in sharp contrast to those of the insider critics of modern civilization, who concentrate on some aspects of its distorted vision and who further presume that if they are taken care of, it could be restored to its pink health and pristine glory. Thus, Gandhi’s main criticism against modern civilization, which he did not hesitate to characterize as ‘satanic civilization’, is that it has totally fallen in the service of the man. In the process, physical and material comforts propelled by greed and exponential expansion of human desires has become its main driving force. But he did not stop with his criticisms. Rather he tried to provide an alternative vision of a social order marked by inter-dependent, environment-friendly slower pace of lifestyle based on limited human needs and above all a people-oriented decentralized socio-economic political system.

A number of critical points have been raised both against Gandhi’s critique of modernity and against his alternative social order. One, the severest question mark has beam against his basic rejection of the technological basis of the modern civilization. This is nothing but moving back the clock of human history, so argue his critics, almost to the medieval times. They further assert that it is a total rejection of what the humankind has been able to achieve in last few centuries. Surprisingly, such a line of criticism came from no other person than one of his close followers, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru, both in his correspondence with Gandhi in 1928 and 1945, rejected the basic approach of Gandhi as enunciated in the Hind Swaraj. Besides, under Nehru’s leadership, independent India opted for a model of development which had hardly anything common with the basic Gandhian perspective.

The second line of attack came from B.R. Ambedkar, the dalit leader, who argued that Gandhi’s critique of modernity was based on his historically non-existent idealized version of the traditional Indian village life and its institutional set up. In Ambedkar’s view, the Indian village life has always been a den of domination, exploitation — the dalits being its worst victims. And that is why the Gandhian concept of Panchayat Raj was rejected by the Constituent Assembly and it was put under the Directive Principles of State Policy in a ritualistic form.

The third groups of critics reject the basic Gandhian approach on more empirical and practical grounds. They argue that there have been many critics of modernity including Gandhi, but none of them have been able to stop the juggernaut of modern civilization. The caravan moves on despite the attacks by critics from the sidelines. Another variant of this line of criticism comes from Bikhu Parekh, who argues that Gandhi went to other extremes while pinpointing its basic malaise. In the process, he ignored its positive contributions, viz., democracy, human rights, and social justice with its emphasis on non-hierarchical social order, secularism with centrality of rationality in human affairs, etc, etc. Thus, Gandhi failed to take a more balanced and positive view of modern civilization and mostly concentrated on its negative sides. In fact, Gandhi’s question mark against the role of ‘Reason’ has been attacked by a number of other scholars as well. They smell an obscurantist rat in the Gandhian way of thinking.

In our view, certain observations could be made as counterpoints to the above line of criticism. One, the critics mostly concentrate on answers he provided rather than the fundamental questions he raised regarding modernity. His questions gave a better view of the bane of modernity. In other words, one need not go along with the alternative he suggested, but there is hardly any doubt that he raised some of the most fundamental questions on the darker side of modernity. Some of his question marks were on, viz. soulless, atomized individuals pursuing their ‘enlightened self-interest devoid of the warmth and love of the community life; the demon of the materialism constantly eating into his spiritual vitals: singular pursuit of the secular success at the cost of the ultimate meaning of human existence, violation of the basic intricate cosmic balance under the basic drive for the conquest of nature. In other words, today man is ever engaged in naked pursuit of material comfort and security, self-aggrandizement and self-indulgence. In the process, he not only temporizes with his transcendental nature, but also rips off the fine and intricate cosmic balance. Tears apart his community life, which earlier provided him with warmth of life and emotional sustenance, makes a fetish of his ‘instrumental rationality’ ignoring the other epistemological tools of knowledge like intuition, inner voice, spiritual insight gained from sages and the scriptures. Such a singular pursuit of ‘secular success’ is constantly eating into the spiritual vitals of his life. Gandhi questions the modern civilizations in the light of such a basic perspective. If we link up this basic Gandhian perspective to some of the most crucial questions confronting humankind today, viz. all pervading violence in every walk of human life, the problem of poverty, inequality and squalor affecting the marginalized teeming millions, ecological imbalance posing a serious threat to the very human existence, and all round moral degeneration, one could really gauge the depth and dimensions of all the fundamental questions Gandhi raised in the respect of modern civilization.

Gandhi’s life work: An Appreciation

Here our focus would be on the overall view of his life’s work.

Gandhi and the South African Struggle

In our view, the real significance of Gandhi’s role in the South African struggle need not be viewed in terms of what it achieved or for that matter what it failed to achieve. Admittedly, its real importance lies in  the fact that it was first major non-violent struggle in a colonial set up. Here, the victims were the people of Indian origin mostly comprising the indentured labour living far away from their motherland and not having much of support base. In such a hapless situation, they were hardly aware of direct, racial attack on their dignity, integrity and self-respect. It was more likely that they could have taken all this lying down or some of them might have been forced to come back to India. It also needs to be remembered that Gandhi had not gone there like a Knight-Errand to launch a battle on their behalf or to lead them to the ‘promised land’ of freedom and plenty. He had gone there in search of greener pastures, to make money and build up a lucrative legal career. Hence, it is remarkable that facing humiliation on personal level as well as seeing the plight of the people of the Indian origins, he not only stayed back but also organized and led them in their struggle against racial discrimination. It is true that his struggle ultimately resulted in a compromise and not in a decisive victory. Besides, it did not touch the issue of racial discrimination against the African Blacks. Nevertheless, it could be taken as a major achievement if all the constraints of the situation are taken into account. It became a classic reference point for all the future fight against racial discrimination including that of the American Blacks which could be initiated only after half a century later. Such a historical perspective, alone could underline the real significance of 1914 settlement between General Smuts and Gandhi.

Gandhi and the Indian Freedom Struggle

      That he played a crucial and critical role in the Indian freedom struggle could hardly be contested. He was primarily responsible for turning the Indian struggle from an elitist to a mass movement. He reorganized the Indian National Congress to make it a fit instrument for the national struggle; provided satyagraha as a new weapon for the national liberation; laid the ideological foundation of an inclusive secular Indian nationhood; brought the poor and dispossessed to the mainstream of the national struggle; and presented a new vision of the future Indian society and even provided the broad outlines of a new world civilization.

So far his role in the Indian freedom struggle is concerned; his critics came from several sides. Basically they could be divided in four groups.

The first group comprising Muslim fundamentalists led by Jinnah alleged that despite his apparent faith in the Hindu-Muslim unity, he was nothing but an ardent Hindu and a committed Congressman. And the Indian National Congress, as a dominant Hindu organization wanted to dominate, if not to subjugate, the numerically inferior Muslims. They further argued that his entire scheme of New Talim, his concept of Ramarajya, the dominant idioms of his speeches, and in fact, the entire diction and lexicon was reflective of his basic commitment to being an ardent Hindu leader. Consequently, the Indian Musalmans led by Jinnah  opted for the partition of the country, so as to avoid the Hindu domination.

Strangely enough, the second group to attack on Gandhi and his work comprise a section of ‘Hindu nationalists'. They allege that he was not only a prachhanna Muslim – a Muslim in disguise, but was primarily responsible for promoting Muslim communalism in the country. They refer to his unstinted support to the Khilafat Movement, a movement primarily inspired by pan-Islamism, and his non-opposition to the principle of the separate electorate for the Muslims and his active participation in the process of the partition of the country. In fact, one of the Hindu fanatics assassinated him on that very count.

In our view, the biased attack on Gandhi from both sides of the ring goes only to prove his genuine secular credentials. He wanted to build up a united Indian nationhood transcending all division of caste, creed, language, region and religion. In fact, his impeccable secular record could be easily proved by his courage to stand steadfastly and fearlessly in the midst of communal carnage without making a discrimination between the Hindus and the Muslims. Not only that, his 21 days fast for Hindu-Muslim unity, his work in Noakhali, Calcutta, Bihar and Delhi during 1946-7 communal holocausts is a living witness to his undying faith in a secular united India. He lived and died for the communal amity. Even his much-maligned Ramrajya and Ramdhuna hardly had any communal tinge as alleged by the Muslim communalists. His Ram was nothing but the name of the universal God and had nothing to do with historical Dasarathi Ram. And his concept of Ramrajya was nothing but a mythical symbol of good, just and equitable rule. In other words, it was a real people’s Raj with a bold and categorical promise of justice for everybody – the rich, and the poor, and the high and the low.

The third line of attack on Gandhi came from the Marxists. The sum and substance of their criticism was that he had a strong class bias in favour of the rich and the propertied. Hence, at every critical juncture of the national movement, he hindered the growth of real radical and subaltern politics in India. In fact, none of his national movements including the Quit India Movement reached out to their logical conclusions. To be more precise, they argued that he withdrew the Non-cooperation Movement in February 1922, at the moment when it was taking a radical and revolutionary turn. Not only that, he signed the Gandhi-Irwin Pact at a similar radical juncture of our national movement and even his much adumbrated ‘Quit India’ movement would have come to a cropper but for the ‘Un-Gandhian’ underground movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan and others. Besides his pacifism, the Marxists argue, was nothing but a cloak for his pro-rich philosophy of action which ultimately led to compromises with the national and international bourgeois. Moreover, his opposition to Indian revolutionaries including Madan Lal Dhingra, Bhagat Singh, Subhas Chandra Bose and the last but not the least to the RIN (Royal Indian  Navy) Rebellion, all falls in line with his main work of hindering the growth of radical politics in India. They also argue that he hardly did much to save the life of Bhagat Singh, as he did not make it an issue as a part of the Gandhi-Irwin settlement. They carry forward their indictment of Gandhi by saying that right when the Indian politics was taking a radical turn as reflected in struggles like Telengana, Tebhaga and the RIN Rebellion, he became a party to the compromise with the British colonial rulers which led to the so-called independence of the country. Even his major ideas like trusteeship, minimal state, self-sufficient village republics, bread-labour were reflective of being both pro-propertied classes and backward looking tendencies.

One could say a number of things in defence of Gandhi. In the first place, the Marxists both in India and outside changed their assessment of Gandhi several times which ranged from being a mass leader to a class leader. In fact, during our freedom struggle, the Communist Party of India several times came to the fold of the national movement and then drifted away at the behest of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Thus, their changing and often contradictory stands took away much of the sting from their criticism. In fact, Gandhi’s criticisms of Marxian line of thinking, including his views on totalitarian and violent nature of their system, the use and misuse of the private property, the elitist basis of their revolution and the inevitability of the emergence of a ‘new class’, all this have been proved to the hilt by the subsequent historical developments.

The fourth group of people who led their attack on his personality and integrity comprised of the dalit leadership led by B.R. Ambedkar. This tradition has not only been continued, but even intensified by leaders like Kansi Ram, Mayawati and other dalit leaders. Their prime accusation was that Gandhi was nothing but a true representative of Savarna Hindus. Hence, he worked for their hegemony over the avarna sections of the Hindus more particularly even the dalits. Their line of argument runs like this. His primary attempt was to keep the dalits in the Hindu fold and not allow them to go out at any cost and find a new and independent status for themselves. What was worse, he had a streak of paternalistic feelings about them. Besides, he ignored the socio-economic aspects of their problems and attempted to turn them into a purely religious issue. In the support of their accusation, they argued that dalits were never given their due, in his scheme of things. Nor did B.R. Ambedkar, their leader, ever have what was his due, in the national life. The Congress led by Gandhi even attempted to build up an alternative line of the dalit leadership led by Jagjivan Ram. That was nothing but a clever ploy to divide the dalit leadership so as to keep them marginalized. They view his entire Harijan compign for the elimination of untouchability in the similar light. It was nothing but an attempt on his part to divert the attention from the real socio-economic problems faced by them to the peripheral issues. What was more, when the Communal Award came in 1932; he resorted to his fast unto death which virtually forced Ambedkar to sign the Poona Pact. According to them, the Poona Pact hardly contributed anything substantial towards the basic problems confronting the dalits.

That the dalits have suffered at the hands of the upper caste Hindus could hardly be denied. But no one felt the pangs of their sufferings in his own persona as did the Mahatma. He even went to the extent of expressing his desire to be born as a dalit in his next life so that he could really feel the depth and dimensions of their suffering in his own personality. And he did express such a wish despite his incessant search for moksha – freedom from the cycle of rebirth. He was so committed to banish every track of untouchability both from his own personal life as well as from the society that he even tried to turn Kasturba out from his home on two occasions both involving the issue of untouchability. Once in South Africa, when she refused to clean the excreta of a dalit from the common toilet and the second time when a dalit couple got admitted in the Sabarmati Ashram. He even went to the extent of adopting their daughter Laxmi as his own daughter.

      To sum up, despite all these sectarian attacks, the fact of the matter is that Gandhi led an all-inclusive national movement and as such, had to carry along all sections of the Indian society. He could not have spoken and worked as a sectional/sectarian leader in terms of class, caste, language, region and religion. As such, he made seminal contributions in the cause of the national movement. No less seminal were his contributions in terms of ideas. He presented broad outlines of the truly non-violent society with the ultimate purpose of freeing the human society from all vestiges of exploitation and domination of man by man. In the process, he made a serious attempt to restore integrity, autonomy and self-respect to the individual, while taking full care of the societal need by marking their inter-dependent nature. Some of his ideas like minimal state, trusteeship, truth and non-violence and above all satyagraha have valiantly stood the test of time. Besides, the problems he identified and anticipated in respect of both liberal and the Marxist system have been well validated by the course of subsequent historical developments. Thus, if for nothing else, he would be always remembered for his seminal contribution of satyagraha as an effective weapon in the hands of the poor and dispossessed. And above all, his life of the exemplar in terms of the unity of precepts and practice makes him to stand out not only from all his contemporaries but would also continue to inspire all those who would concern themselves with the sufferings of the man for generations to come.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)                                                Astha Bharati