The Mind Behind The Man
This paper delves into the ideologies of one of the most famous freedom fighters in India, Mahatma Gandhi. It discusses his motivations which led him to creating the satyagraha movement as well as the civil disobedience movement. It also dives into who his influences were and how he utilized their concepts to fit the freedom movement in India. Further, analyses his idea of swaraj or self-rule and why he felt it was justified and how he wanted to implement it. It also discusses Gandhi’s criticisms.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi popularly known as the ‘Father of the Nation’ has gone down in history as a man of non-violence and peace. He is shown in a favorable light in school textbooks as a man of passive but strong resistance, creating a legacy of being the man who took down the British Raj without the use of brute force and mob violence. He gave India a new identity during the course of this revolution1. The question then arises, how did his method of non-violent resistance achieve successful results? What political factors and motives did Gandhi have in mind before deciding that a movement of non-cooperation would help India gain independence. At the same time, is there a contradiction between Gandhi’s philosophical motives and his political action.
Beliefs & Influences
Gandhi was influenced largely by Leo Tolstoy and the Bhagavad Gita2. At the onset of his education, Gandhi was largely unbothered by the Gita and found it uninspiring. He only began to read it in the mid-1920s. Before that, during his studies abroad, he was taken by Tolstoy’s non-fictional essays and other works such as ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’. This is when Gandhi first realized the importance of truth, which he carried forward to his political moves and actions during the struggle for independence. Tolstoy said that the path of truth should be easy to walk even though finding that path may prove to be difficult.
Initially, instead of the term ‘satyagraha’ Gandhi called his method of protest ‘passive resistance’ proving that satyagraha did not originate from Hindu teachings or traditions, contrary to popular belief. He relied more on Tolstoy’s theory of love rather than Hindu dharmas. Finally, during the 1920s, Gandhi began reading the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit and inculcating various Hindu ideals and thoughts into his own teachings. This is where he further understood the concept of love and devotion. He believed that one can only offer true satyagraha if he was truly devoted to God and his beliefs. He who did not have love for God and hold faith in him, could not practice satyagraha to the fullest. Rather than focusing on state politics, Gandhi was more concerned with one’s inner soul and self-rule. He was of the mindset that state politics would simply follow suit of what was in our souls and reflect that order. Ultimately, Gandhi cannot be categorized as a western thinker, nor as an Indian-Hindu thinker, instead he is an interesting inter-cultural hybrid thinker3. He combines two different schools of thought to create a completely new phenomenon in his quest for the truth, satyagraha, which literally means truth-force.
Gandhi believed that God has created all beings as fundamentally equal and this interconnectedness should eventually bring peace and a mutual understanding. He wanted the same to be reflected in the Indian constitution as he wanted all religions to be treated equally post-independence, including the ‘untouchables’. According to him, our faith in God is the deciding factor of our moral worth, not any material aspects of wealth or social status. Satyagraha allowed for the consideration of one’s soul in the realm of politics. Gandhi preached that with this combination of faith in God and constant search for truth, one can achieve self- rule. If one can rule oneself effectively, there would be no need for a government to be in power, thereby foregoing the need for a political authority or power. Real self-rule is equated to self-control and with the help of this, there would be peace without the presence of a larger authority. Therefore, in an ideal state, there are no state politics because there exists no state. It can be inferred that his concept of a decentralized autonomous government has been derived from the Gita, since it is rather different from Tolstoy’s conceptions and critiques of government. Unfortunately, this type of system can only be implemented successfully at the village level, wherein the panchayat takes up the role of the legislative, executive and the judiciary. Gandhi’s political thought is more centric towards self-rule (or atman) and devotion4.
Anyone who has studied Gandhi’s political thought and motives, knows that he was not a utilitarian, which is an idea that supports the notion of ‘the end justifies the means’. On the contrary, he laid constant emphasis on the fact that the means are everything and if the means itself go against his very principles, then even in success, he would have failed5. According to him, “the attempt to win swaraj is swaraj itself”6. He limited himself to firm ethical boundaries in the course of political action. It appears that Gandhi was a true believer of not foregoing one’s morals, even if the opponent was willing to play a dirty game of politics and not afraid to use force and other violent means to achieve victory.
At the same time, the question arises, did Gandhi utilize the power of non-violence and satyagraha on the basis of purely moral grounds or was there a higher school of political thought analyzed thoroughly before implementation. During that time, violence and various forms of coercion had become rather normalized, which tends to be the case even today. Gandhi seemed to reject this and decided to take a different course of action, one which did not tempt the user to go to any extreme to attain the most miniscule of odds. History shows that the British had a specific method of attaining authority, which was violence. Gandhi knew that the emulation of this method would bring no real fruit. The constant and consistent use of violent methods would only help in furthering its legitimization and normalization. According to Gandhi the British did not take India, the Indians gave it to them. More than the strength and power of the British, it was the weakness of the Indians that allowed the British Raj to be in existence for so long. In an attempt to combat the tactics of the British, Gandhi first tried to understand the very structure of violence and the thought process of those who choose to indulge in it7. He associated certain emotions with it, such as anger, revenge, humiliation, etc. In order to avoid this and further escalation, Gandhi preached modesty and bravery.
Violence seems to erupt in the wake of confusion, when one feels that their beliefs are threatened and up for question. Gandhi therefore highlights the importance of people’s faith and beliefs in the realm of politics. Gandhi set out to develop a new political instrument that would not give way to any form of violence, which is difficult to do. Especially considering the fact that most of his methods involved mass action, such as the civil disobedience movement, the non-cooperation movement, the dandi march and other mass strikes. The problem with a large number of people, is that it could give rise to mob violence without proper organization or order. He had to make sure that he eliminated all such risks which eventually resulted in the creation of satyagraha8. This method largely involved suffering and discipline.
In this search for truth, one must be ready to sacrifice what is dear to them in order to achieve concrete results. It is also essential that the rights and liberty of one’s opponent is not taken away in this process. In a scenario of fight or flight, Gandhi said fight, but by injuring oneself. Such suffering is a result of discipline. At the same time, this method was more of an appeal to the opponent’s heart. It aimed to convert them and their thoughts instead of simply persuading them. It involved a complete change in heart and mutual understanding that a common conclusion would be beneficial to both parties. Gandhi was well aware of the fact that rationalization only held so much power in politics. He also believed that political power was not based on force, but on a common consent given by the public, be it consciously or unknowingly9. For him, the government was dependent on the citizens cooperation. In the absence of their consent, it would be nearly impossible to run an efficient administration.
The proof is in the pudding, considering the fact that there were less than a hundred thousand white men ruling over three hundred and fifty million Indians. Obviously, this rule was not achieved by brute force or mob rule, it was the acceptance and consent of the Indians which allowed such a government to be set up in the first place. Gandhi wished to open the eyes of the masses and show them how something as simple as their unknowing consent could aid the government and spread their propaganda. Thus, unfair and oppressive laws can be changed by
simply withdrawing consent, which is the very motive of satyagraha acts such as the civil disobedience movement. Gandhi may have aimed at breaking the machinery and the system of the government, but he did not seek out to achieve this feat through the instillation of fear or through coercion of any kind. He constantly maintained that in the course of practicing satyagraha, one does not punish the wrongdoer, he stops assisting the wrongdoer10. Despite this, his most controversial tactic was his most famous one, the political hunger strikes.
It is viewed by many historians that this was in fact, a coercive course of action. He claims that his motives were absent of any form of selfishness, yet there still remains a coercive element to his public fasts11. The leaders of conflicting religious groups did not wish for the death of Gandhi, a beloved figure, to occur on their watch. His other fasts of 1918, 1932 and 1939 contained even more evident elements of coercion wherein which the opponents were given no choice but to give in to his demands. Gandhi claims that his method is devoid of coercion and involves a consensual choice on part of the opponent, yet this notion has been contested time and time again.
Other instruments of non-violence contain elements of implicit coercion, such as non- cooperation, boycott and strike. Gandhi said that it is essential that a satyagrahi first organizes the public opinion against the given evil. Are these methods justified if everyone’s opinions have not changed despite trying to persuade or convince them otherwise? Gandhi also focused more on civil disobedience, rather than putting effort into more constructive work. On the other hand, in times of dire circumstances and changing times, perhaps ideals must be modified depending on the task at hand.
1Iqbal Narain and Asha Kaushik, ‘Charisma, Ideology and Politics: Gandhi In Indo-Anglian Novels’, 49 Indian Journal of Political Science 204 (1988).
2 Stuart Gray and Thomas M. Hughes, ‘Gandhi’s Devotional Political Thought’, 65 Philosophy East and West 375 (2015).
5 Karuna Mantena, ‘Another Realism: The Politics of Gandhian Nonviolence’, 106 American Political Science Review 455 (2012).
6Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Hind Swaraj: Or, Indian Home Rule (Navajivan Pub. House, Ahmedabad, 1989).
7 Supra note 5.
8 Supra note 5.
9 Supra note 5.
10 Supra note 5.
11Thomas Weber, ‘The Lesson from the Disciples: Is There a Contradiction in Gandhi’s Philosophy of Action?’ 28 Modern Asian Studies 195 (1994).