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

The Basic Facts of Gandhism

Ram Swarup

What is Gandhism? Is there a body of doctrines, theories or opinions which could adequately describe it? Many speak for Gandhiji and several parties claim to follow him. In their utterances and practices, there is a bewildering variety which confuses rather than illuminates. Can we understand something of Gandhiji’s message by studying his writings or personality?

Gandhiji had no time to develop a coherent, logical exposition of his ideas to which a reference could be made for guidance. But even if he had, that would have been of no avail. For, that is the history of all great teachings. All teachings have to be reinterpreted, and there is always disagreement on what a great master or a great-thinker really meant.. Secondly, every great message is mixed up with accidents and imageries of its age, which  are difficult to disengage from its  universal  elements. For example, Gandhism stressed a simple system of economy but can we say that it is only true of times and countries which have only this system and that it has no message for countries which are industrailized except to scuttle away their industries and to return to primitive economy?

Further more, any great message has to be rediscovered by every age for itself. We cannot have truth ready-made. Objective situations also change rendering irrelevant old solutions and formulations. Thus we are called upon to apply old truths, which are hard to recover, to situations which are new. The task is not easy. 

The Truth Within

But these difficulties should not deter us. For the truth that showed the way in the past through an inspired individual is within us too. Let us be open to it and it will guide our path as well. And even when it seems to speak through different tongues and seems to lead to divergent  ways, its inner intention is the same. its goal is the same.

Though there is no consistent exposition of Gandhiji's ideas, we detect an astounding consistency in the consciousness with which he approached different problems. In a study of Gandhiji’s personality and attitude, the following characteristics stand out prominently.

(1) His deep-rooted belief in God; (2) his humanism; and (3) his advocacy of a decentralized. simplified mode of production.

The first he regarded as the most fundamental, even more important than the political and social work he did. Asked what he would choose if the choice was between India’s political freedom and his own salvation, he voted for the latter. He also felt deeply for the poor and the weak. Throughout his life he worked for them. The methods he used were the methods of tolerance, patience and persuasion. Even when his actions were firm, determined and decisive. they were infused with goodwill, and friendly feelings towards those against whom they were apparently directed.

Gandhiji also stood for a system of small-scale production, for austerity and simplicity in living. This was, to my mind, an expression, of his humanist approach: his ability to see nobility and dignity in ordinary human beings and their occupations. Our intellectualized Leftist conscience sees nothing but illiteracy, inadequacy, misery and frustration around, and hopes to remove these by the blue-prints of the five-year plans. Gandhiji, on the other hand, brought in a message of hope and suggested ways of improvement, not by destroying the existing patterns but by bearing with them, by improving them.

Different Strands

These different strands in Gandhism make different appeals. Some respond to Gandhiji’s theism; some to his humanism; and yet others to his economic “doctrines”. For example, Mr. Nehru regards Gandhiji’s theism as a superstitious Mumbo Jumbo, probably politically useful but intellectualIy obscurantist, and rejects his economy too, but he accept his humanism, at least the secular side of it. Others accept his economic decentralization, but reject his humanism and theism. Communists reject all these elements, though they claim that after a more or less long-drawn period of violence, dictatorhip, regimented life, purges and forced labour camps, humanity will emerge into the secular paradise of plenty and equality. Thus, Gandhism is accepted or rejected in different combinations of its various elements. Some of these combinations have led to certain distortions which we shall discuss  here.

The first distortion is the tendency to identify Gandhism with less comprehensive creeds, with ideas which, though part of the Gandhian ethos, are not co-equal with Gandhism. For example, though Gandhism advocates small-scale production, the two are not identical.

Nor is Gandhism co-equal with humanism, as ordinarily understood. Gandhiji’s faith in humanity flowed from his faith in God. He worked for the lowly and the down-trodden, not because of any social theory of action, but because he felt the living oneness of all life.

The same holds true of his pacifism. Pacifism is only a part of Gandhism, not the whole of it. It is true only when it is indicative of the unity of life, serves moral and spiritual growth, and generates goodwill and mutual understanding. But it becomes false when it is born of fear and non-discrimination, and serves falsehood. This point needs emphasis because of a tendency in certain quarters to seize upon non-violence and pacifism in Gandhism and turn them into a programme of  appeasement and surrender to communism.

Closely allied to the first, and directly flowing from it, is a second distortion: a new economic determinism. In Marxism-Stalinism a certain mode of production is the basic fact, the basic value; the other values and facts like God, virtue, conscience, political liberty and well-being are mere derivatives. Gandhism is acquiring a similar bias at the hands of some of its exponents. The only difference is that the “basics” which lead to a degraded and dwarfed life in Marxism lead to a virtuous and fuller life in Gandhisrn. According to this Marxist variant of Gandhism, the first thing is to establish a village economy, a decentralized system of production and distribution. and the rest will follow automatically: God, Truth, Beauty, non-violence, mutual help, monogamy, brotherliness.

These two attitudes–false identification and neo-economic determinism–have been utilized to feed an anti-west bias, particularly the anti-America bias. Organized by the. communists, it has been caught up by some of the Gandhians and has found a ready justification in Gandhian economics. The Western countries in general, and America in particular, are industrialized; therefore, they must incarnate the very devil–they must lack all virtue and conscience, all elements of spiritual seeking and promise which, after all are functions of a decentralized, village economy. Of course, these very persons who damn the West for its industrialization have a soft corner for Soviet Russia, the temple of centralization and industrialization. In castigating the West, they plead

Gandhian decentralization. In recommending Russia and China, they plead Gandhian “forget and forgive”, and Gandhian charity of judgement.

Such an attitude of hostility is dangerous, particularly when the world is in need of larger unity and when we should be exploring points of agreement rather than of disagreement.

Secondly, this attitude narrows down the usefulness of the Gandhian philosophy. If Gandhism has any universal message, it must be applicable to an age and to nations where non-industrialization and decentralization no longer obtain. There are things which are more important than the industrial structure of a country. What unites India and the West are the values of theism and democracy. Hinduism and Christianity affirm the same reality, the same underlying truth of our being. And that is where we meet. and that is what we have been called upon to defend together against a common attack.

Last such identifications and derivations are foreign to Gandhism. If Gandhism represent a spiritual standpoint, its reality cannot be so congealed, so material, so physical. Its value-norm can never be a particular mode of production, or a particular form of social behaviour. Its reality flows inward-outward, not otherwise.

Simple Living

Even his economic doctrine was not so objective. It had a strong subjective element. He emphasized the need of simplicity in life, a redefinition of human needs, a new approach towards labour, a new responsibility towards the poor. In the Gandhian scheme, a simple economy was to flow from a love of simple living. But at present the process has been reversed.

Even the social work is losing its deeper meaning. People engage in social work, not because they are identified with a ‘larger life, but because social service is a fashionable creed, a respectable creed; not because they have a particular talent or inspiration for it, but because they want to put a politician, or a scholar, or a businessman, in the wrong. Their driving force is intellectual and emotional, not spiritual-identification with fellow beings and a living sense of the oneness of life.

Gandhism is being depleted not only of its subjectivity, but also of its objectivity. If, on the one hand, it is being identified with a rigid economic system or social behaviour, on the other hand it is being identified with certain states of mind. According to this school, there is no evil, no goodness, only thinking makes it so. This way of thinking is best illustrated in the attitude of some Gandhians to the present struggle between democracy and communism. According to them, this struggle is only imaginary. an unfortunate misunderstanding fanned to white heat by wordy recrimination till the world is threatened with atomic destruction. It is doubly tragic, particularly when it could be prevented by a counsel of moderation here and a word of goodwill there.

This robbing Gandhism of its objectivity has led not to the softening of the heart, but to the softening of the head. It has led to a lack of discrimination, to neutralism and moral solipsism. It has led to false equations, to appeasement and surrender; to unnecessary confusion and distortion.

Reversal of Values

      Gandhism also suffers from a reversal of values. It makes secondary things primary. It exaggerates the importance of economy; it neglects the fundamental importance of theism and humanism. A new cult of admiration for Soviet Russia and China is growing among a certain section of the Gandhians. The facts of mass killing, purges, false and forced confessions, fear and terror, the State-enforced atheism, forced migration and deportation, new-style imperialism, the inherent violence of communism-all these things are forgotten or explained away. Gandhism should be saved from this distortion and vandalism.

     Gandhi was deeply religious. Fundamental to Gandhism is the view held by all religions that man emanates from God, and after the soul’s adventure through the world unites again with Him; and that while in this world, he has an inalienable right to seek this unity, this oneness with God. True, man should also work for his economic well-being, but any view which reduces him to a mere economic function, which regards him merely as a meeting point of certain economic wants or merely as a unit of production is opposed to the spirit of Gandhism. If this view is trying to generalize itself, impose itself by force of arms, with the help of military and police dictatorship, powerful fifth-columns and high-pressured propanganda; if in the pursuit of its ends it practises violence, chicanery, deceit and double-talk, it must be resisted, non-violently if possible, by military strength if necessary. This does not detract from Gandhism but fulfils it.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)                                                Astha Bharati