Gandhi and Romain Rolland Conversations – Art & Truth (Satyam, Sivam, Sundaram and Sat, Chit and Ananda)

The boycott of Simon Commission in 1928, and several incidents in its aftermath, led to an impasse in the ongoing dialogue for political reforms between Indian people and the British government. By 1930s, the socio-economic situation world over, was also undergoing rapid changes. The Wall Street crash of October 1929 and the spiraling world economic depression hit the Indian peasants, workers and trading classes as well. The political atmosphere was in total disarray. Civil disobedience or armed revolution – these were the two alternatives before the people. Younger elements in the Congress and elsewhere were impatiently in favour of militant action. But the elder generation, including Gandhi, knew well that England had stood on a better footing when it comes to dealing with revolutionary responses. Many freedom fighters were looking towards Gandhi for a call. For weeks, Gandhi had been waiting for the prompting of his ‘inner voice.’
On 2 March, 1930, Gandhi wrote a long letter to the Viceroy intending to start civil disobedience, now on the issue of Salt, giving a dead line of 11 March. The British Raj salt laws made it a punishable crime to possess salt not obtained from the British government monopoly. As usual the Government turned a cold eye to the caution of Gandhi. Many political leaders also felt the call for satyagraha on the issue of salt was inconsequential. But, as 11 March neared, Indians slowly turned to be fervent, sizzling with enthusiasm about the course of events to take place. Scores of foreign and domestic correspondents were swarming the Sabarmati Ashram. Thousands surrounded the village and waited. On 12 March, Gandhi and seventy eight satyagrahis of the Ashram left Sabarmati to Dandi, south of Ahmedabad. Through the winding roads from village to village, the entourage marched for two hundred and forty two miles in twenty four days. When Gandhi reached the sea at Dandi on 5 April, the caravan had grown into an army of several thousands. The next morning he picked up some salt left by the waves. Gandhi had broken the British law.
In fact, Gandhi’s act of walking all through two hundred and forty miles, with several colleague satyagrahis, in public view, and converting the spectacle into convergence of several thousands of Indians into a mela was intended to be an open and public defiance of the mighty Government. Louis Fischer wrote : “Gandhi did two things in 1930; he made the British people aware that they were cruelly subjugating India, and he gave Indians the conviction that they could, by lifting their heads and straightening their spines, lift the yoke from their shoulders. After that, it was inevitable that Britain should someday refuse to rule India and that India should someday refuse to be ruled.” Another immediate consequence of the ‘inconsequential’ had been the revival of political dialogue with Congress in the Second Round Table Conference.
Romain Rolland, the French dramatist, art theoretician and Nobel laureate [1915] wrote a philosophical biography of Gandhi – Mahatma Gandhi in 1924, without ever visiting India, or even seeing or meeting Gandhi once. He also earlier wrote two great books on the teachings of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Vivekananda in the similar fashion. He was also instrumental in changing the course of the ‘spiritual pilgrimage’ of Madeleine Slade, daughter of a British admiral, from Beethoven to Gandhi. She was introduced to Gandhi through the words of Rolland: “He is another Christ’, he said. He further said: “The only living person worthy of the sort of veneration you have felt for Beethoven is Mahatma Gandhi.” These words deeply influenced Slade, who straight away came to India to join Gandhi in November 1925, became Mirabehn, spent 33 years of her life in India, and she returned to England in 1959, again spent the rest of her life in the devotion of Beethoven. She started her life in a divine love to Beethoven, and ended it again in the same, while in the intervening period Gandhi took the place of Beethoven.
At the end of the Second Round Table Conference, while on his way back home, Gandhi visited Rolland’s villa near Geneva, on the specific insistence of Mirabehn. The meeting between Gandhi and Europe’s one of leading pacifists took place for six days December 1931. In those few days several European intellectuals met him and discussed various issues with him. In the backdrop of failed Western rationality in the wake of the WWI, the Europe was in a moral and ethical crisis. In this milieu, a deeply insightful and passionate dialogue took place between the two great minds on the subject of Truth, God and Art. Robert Payne wrote: ‘But Romain Rolland no longer possessed the fire of St. Dominic. Old, sick and disillusioned, he was coming more and more under the influence of communism, and his first words were to express his profound regret that Gandhi never met Lenin. “Lenin, like you, never compromised with the truth,” he exclaimed.’ The conversations between these two great men were recorded by Rolland’s sister.
Romain Rolland asked Gandhi as to why he regarded God as Truth. Gandhi replied: ‘In my very early youth I was taught that the Hindu scriptures knew almost a thousand names of God, but these thousand names are not nearly enough. I believe that God has as many names as there are living creatures, and this is why we also say that God is without name. And since God has many forms, we also consider him as being without form. And since he speaks to us in many tongues, we consider him speechless. … With those who say that God is Love, I too say that God is Love. But in my heart I thought that though God may be Love, God is, above all, Truth. If it is possible for human language to give its complete description of God, my conclusion is that for me, God is Truth. But two years ago I made a step further, to say that Truth is God’ [Emphasis supplied].
“Gandhi explains that he came to this conclusion after an ‘incessant search for Truth’ which had begun about fifty years earlier. He had felt then that the nearest approach to Truth was made by ‘love’, but he had recognized that the word ‘love’ has many meanings in the English language. Moreover, human love, in the sense of passion, could also become ‘a degrading thing’ . He added: ‘But I have never found a double meaning to the word “Truth”. Even the atheists do not doubt the necessity or the power of Truth. In their passion to discover Truth, the atheists have not hesitated to deny the existence of God – and from their point of view they are right’. Gandhi then continues to give more reasons for his belief that ‘Truth is God’: ‘I might add that millions have used the name of God and committed atrocities in his name. This is not to say that scientists, too, do not very often commit cruelties in the name of Truth; I know how in the name of science and truth, all sorts of frightful cruelties are perpetrated on animals by vivisection. So there are a certain number of difficulties on the way, however one describes God. But the human mind has its limitation, and we must work within these limitations when we try to conceive of a Being or an Entity beyond our powers of apprehension. … The Sanskrit word for Truth means literally “That which exists – Sat”. For this and for several other reasons I have come to the conclusion that the definition “Truth is God” satisfies me best. And when you want to find the Truth which is God, the only infallible way to it is by Love, which means Nonviolence’ [Emphasis supplied].
At this point, Roland interjected the flow with a question – ‘But what is Truth?’ Gandhi answered it with the same steady reflection: ‘A difficult question. But I have solved it for myself by saying that it is what the inner voice tells us. You will ask: “How is it then that different people think different and contrary truths? Well, we see that the human spirit works through innumerable media, and that the evolution of the human mind is not the same for all men. It follows that what may be truth for one man is non-truth for another. … all I can say to you in all true humility is that Truth cannot be found by anyone who has not achieved an abundant sense of humility. If you want to swim in the bosom of the Ocean of Truth, you must reduce yourself to zero. I can go no further along this fascinating path’ [Emphasis supplied].
Rolland expressed certain reservations about Gandhi’s explanation in respect of the attributes of Truth. If truth can be approached through ‘what the inner voice tells us’, there can be no universal truth and the idea of truth itself becomes an uncertain project. In doing so, he also drew Gandhi’s attention to another important element in their discussion i.e., art. Rolland: ‘If it is true that “Truth is God”, it seems to me that it lacks a very important attribute of God, which is Joy. For – and I insist on this – I cannot conceive of a God without joy. … I found this joy, which truth was not sufficient to prove to me, in beauty, and this is where I found myself in opposition to Tolstoy; I attribute a capital importance to art and beauty. By this I mean true art and healthy beauty.’ ‘Great art has harmony as its essence, and it brings peace, health and equilibrium to the soul. It communicates them at once by the sense and by the mind, for both senses and mind have the right joy. Beauty manifests itself in many ways; beauty of line, beauty of sound, beauty of colors, etc., and at the bottom of them all, the inner order, the hidden harmony which is in essence moral. The troubles of the soul are filtered and sublimated through it. Art is the bread of thousands of souls, above all in some refined races, who without beauty (either in nature or in art) would be destitute. All the different routes leading to peace and harmony are good; none of them must be closed, and the ideal would be to associate them all: -which happens in history at some supreme moments when all the inner forces of a people run together, producing books of religion, beauty, science and dreams for whole peoples.’
Rolland’s thoughts on ‘art’ prompted Gandhi to explain his own views on the subject. ‘For me, the definition of Truth is a universal one. The Truth is made manifest in many ways. Any art which is inconsistent with Truth, which is not linked to Truth, is no art. I would not classify art as a thing distinct from Truth. I am against the formula “art for art’s sake”; for me, art must be based on Truth. I reject beautiful things which pass for art if they express non-truth instead of Truth. I would subscribe to the formula: “Art brings joy and is good”, – but on the condition I have stated. By Truth in art I do not mean the exact reproduction of exterior objects; it is the living object which brings living joy to the soul and which must elevate the soul. If a work does not achieve this, it is worthless. If Truth does not bring joy, it is because Truth is not in you….’ Then Gandhi spoke of a Hindu religious song of morning prayers, and the holy formula ‘sat-chit-ananda’: ‘sat’ meaning ‘truth’, ‘chit’ ‘that which lives’ and ‘true knowledge’ (knowledge that is not void of true perception), and ‘ananda’ ‘ineffable joy’. In this conception, Truth is inseparable from joy. ‘Yet,’ Gandhi insists, ‘one must suffer in the search for Truth; one must undergo disappointments, fatigues and afflictions without number; but despite everything you draw joy and felicity from it’ [Emphasis supplied].

The Gandhi-Rolland dialogue also focused on the menacing political situation in Europe, whose sky was already being darkened by the clouds of fascism and the approaching Second World War. Madeleine Rolland, the writer’s sister, who recorded this conversation wrote : ‘They discuss the grave problems which they have at heart, my brother describes for Gandhi the tragic situation of Europe – the sufferings of the people oppressed by dictators; the drama of the proletariat who in their desperate effort to break the shackles of an anonymous and ruthless capitalism and pushed forward by their legitimate aspiration for justice and freedom, see only one way out, that of rebellion and violence. For man in the West is by education, by tradition and by temperament unprepared for the religion of ahimsa… Gandhi listens, reflects… when he answers, he reaffirms his unshakeable faith in the full power of nonviolence… At times their conclusions vary: yet always they commune with each other through their common love for humanity, their identical desire to alleviate its misery, their fervent search for Truth, in its multiplicity of aspects.’

What is the significance of this conversation between the two greats of the time from West and the East in terms of ontological and epistemological studies? “The East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” says the refrain of Rudyard Kipling’s ballad – ‘The Ballad of East and West’. Are there any congruent areas in the thinking of the East and the West? In Gandhi’s explanative we find two strands – that he revised his idea of ‘God is truth’ to ‘Truth is God’, and that ‘Joy’ is a part of truth. What significance can a modern reader attach to the revised idea of Gandhi from ‘God is Truth’ to ‘Truth is God’? The first and foremost is the subordination of God to Truth, a decisive step forward in achieving unity of thought between the believer and non-believer. As far as the reformation of idea of ‘Truth is God’ is concerned, it also has several connotations and provides for several possibilities in social sciences. Atheists, rationalists, materialists, and Marxists of all varieties deny the existence of any super-human reality. There may not be a God to them, but there is truth. Still, if there can be a Truth which takes into its fold – ‘God’, by subordinating God to Truth – if God can be proved within the parameters of Truth, there is no reason to deny his existence. The eternally contentious matter can thus be temporarily kept in abeyance and the two camps can work together. It is an original proposition of an agnostic. It allows the believer within the fold of a seeker of truth; it also doesn’t deny him his existential position by degrading him to unscientific subhuman. He is now a co-traveler along with the so called ‘enlightened beings’ having the so called Midas touch of rationalistic thinking.
The second narrative in the discourse – ‘There could be no joy if it is not true, since there can be no art which is not true.’ ‘Joy’ is the raison d’être of the art – both in the East and the West. Art is conceived as one which gives ‘joy’. But the complementary question that troubles the mind of a true artist always is – ‘Can there be a joy based on falsehood?’ And if there is one – can it give ‘a joy forever’? ‘A thing of beauty is joy forever!’ proclaimed John Keats. The question again sought is – can there be a beauty which is not true? In defining the idea of God or Godhead, the Hindu philosophy invokes two important concepts, apart from the nirguna and niraakara meant for higher mediations. One is sat, chit, ananda and the other is satyam, sivam, sundaram. The second one defines more attributes – Truth, Goodness, and Beautiful. Both these concepts together constitute the idea of ‘art’ equally in an enlightened proposition and contain in its fold – the concepts of the West and the East in this area.
In the ‘Republic’, Plato considered art as an imitation of the object and events of ordinary life, – a work of art is ‘a copy of a copy of a form’. ‘Art as form’ has its own adherents even in the twentieth century West in ‘formalists’. The www.britanica.com considers the meaning of ‘formalism’ as one that ‘can best be seen by noting what it was reacting against: art as representation, art as expression, art as a vehicle of truth or knowledge or moral betterment or social improvement.’ In the Indian Hindu tradition – the word ‘sahitya’ (sa + hita) connotes the good of the reader or the society in general. Sahitya, an art form, is pursued by the classical Hinduism for the ‘truth’, ‘knowledge’ or moral upliftment of the target group. This idea is very much available in the Communist / Marxist tradition also, though with the emphasis on non-spiritual or rather materialist concerns. ‘Art for art sake’ is challenged by many including religious theorists, socialist and communist theorists.
This controversy has always been there, and Gandhi’s contribution to the predominant ideas of the West – ‘art for art sake’ or ‘art as a copy of a copy of the nature’ is a continuum in the discourse. But in Gandhian discourse, reassessing Gandhi’s ideas of art is significant in the sense that Gandhi was projected as ignorant this area, which is not true. “Gandhi’s contributions to the general field of the arts are not given the kind of attention that they deserve,’ contends Anthony J Parel . Gandhi put two great theories of art of his time – Leo Tolstoy’s ‘What is Art?’ and John Ruskin’s ‘A joy for Ever” – And Its Place in the Market,’ as Appendices to his Hindu Swaraj, which according to Parel proves the point that Gandhi had a serious interest in art, but the interest is laid in the practical side of things more than theoretical ones. Parel gives a detailed analysis of Gandhi’s ideas on art in the chapter on “Art and society” in his comprehensive exposition of Gandhi’s Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony . He had an idea of art, and that was constructed on the traditional Hindu concept of ‘satyam, sivam, sundaram’ or ‘sat, chit, ananda’ which includes in its comprehensive schema – truth, good, beauty, consciousness and joy.
One important interception in the conversations was the role of ‘inner voice’, especially in social and personal experiments of a public intellectual. ‘Positivism’ is a philosophical system which recognizes only that truth which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and thereby rejects metaphysics and theism. But the confidence of scientific positivism has its own inconvenient questions in the recent developments in science. Even physical sciences and mathematics, the so-called definitive sciences, at certain higher levels, from the mid of twentieth century, entertained such concepts as ‘relativity’ and ‘uncertainty’. The most advanced studies in astrophysics and human biology – genetics, DNA structures etc., also led to awe and wonder bordering spirituality. It has its own impact on social sciences. It has sufficiently shaken the solid structures of scientific, rationalist and materialistic thinking in the recent past. The condescending approaches of one to the other as possessing the higher truth have been challenged seriously in the twentieth century sociology through ‘cultural or social relativism’. Now, in the social dialogue, we can allow space for pluralistic nature of ‘truth’. In the heydays of positivism, and much before the relativistic social sciences emerged, Gandhi powerfully argued for such an eventuality by invoking the idea of ‘inner voice’.
Most of the religious or other social conflicts emerge out of the exclusivist claims by one to have an access for higher truth. Gandhi advocated the possibility of ‘plural or multiple truths’ within the idea of ‘Universal Truth’. ‘Inner voice’ is not unknown to the religious or theological truths. ‘Intuition’ has always been the known method in many theological systems. The difficulty arises from the societal pressures in the form of ‘authority’ – scientific, rationale, materialistic, in stifling this tool of epistemology, and placing ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’ of a special kind above every other method in validating knowledge. Gandhi is one, in modern times, but much in advance, who restored this ‘intuition’ or ‘inner voice’ to its respectable place, which can release a seeker of ‘truth’ from many unwarranted and suffocating socio-psychological compulsions. It offers scope for pluralistic concept of truth and its existence in many ways simultaneously – a kind of Anekantavada of Jainism, and thus helps in reducing social tensions. The possibility of coexistence of the science of a higher mind and the belief systems of a common man, and the rare synthesis in this regard is undeniably one contribution of Gandhi.

Gandhi and the Authority – An Examination in Anarchist Tradition

Dr. A. Raghu Kumar

avadhanamraghukumar@gmail.com

On 15 August 1947, when the crowds were swarming into New Delhi from all sides, and Nehru was about to deliver one of the finest speeches on such a great dawn, reminding the people of India of the culmination of ‘the tryst with destiny’ long years ago the people of India had made, “The first uncertain sputtering of a candle had appeared in the windows of the house on Beliaghata Road just after 2 a.m., an hour ahead of Gandhi’s usual rising time.  The glorious day when his people would savor at last their freedom should have been an apotheosis for Gandhi, the culmination of a life of struggle, the final triumph of a movement which had stirred the admiration of the world.  It was anything but that.  There was no joy in the heart of the man in Hydari House.  The victory for which Gandhi had sacrificed so much had the taste of ashes, and his triumph was indelibly tainted by the prospects of a coming tragedy.  … ‘I am groping,’ he had written to a friend the evening before. ‘Have I led the country astray?’[1]   How do we understand this person who refuses to rejoice in his own offspring?  What binds him or refuses to bind him to any particular pleasure?   

All interpretations of India are ultimately autobiographical”, says Ashis Nandy.[2]  In understanding Gandhi, and his philosophy, his struggles within and without India, the trajectory of his life, and the culmination of his nonviolence in the assassin’s bullet is not just autobiographical or biographical of Gandhi; it has, in fact, become an inalienable part of Indian history.   There are several readings of Gandhi, at several layers, including a facet which explains him as unconventional, atypical and always relating himself with an authority disobligingly.  From the first biography of Gandhi written by Joseph J. Doke, a Christian missionary in South Africa in 1909[3], there are several incisive readings and roving inquiries into his life from various angles and philosophical standpoints. 

Some such important readings include Romain Rolland’s Mahatma Gandhi[4], Erikson’s Gandhi’s Truth[5], Pannalal Dasgupta’s Revolutionary Gandhi[6],  Manu Gandhi’s memoir[7]Bapu – My Mother, Louis Fischer’s[8] The Life of Mahatma Gandhi,  Robert Payne’s[9] The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi, and  Ashis Nandy’s[10] The Intimate Enemy.   The list is not exhaustive, but indicative of exploring unknown depths of this presumably spiritual maverick. Any one, at the initial reading of his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, would arrive at an idea of Gandhi as primarily a law-abiding citizen.  His family legacies, his loyalties to the British rule time and again, and his ambivalences even till the early phases of the Second World War lead us to such derivatives.  But Gandhi also makes a parallel contra-reading.   All his life was a continuous and long struggle against ‘authority’ – authority of every kind!  All his understanding of religious texts such as Bhagavad Gita, caste or class, swaraj, modernity, freedom, liberation of the individual or society, rights and duties, the concept of Truth and God, nonviolence, brahmacharya, health, food, community living etc., defied the reasoning of known epistemology.  To cite one, he said once: ‘Freedom is often to be found inside a prison’s walls, even on a gallows; never in council chambers, courts and class rooms.[11]  Was Gandhi an anarchist or iconoclast internally, while externally offering a different posture?

In the list of anarchists at wikipedia.org we find the name of Gandhi as one standing with the insignia of “anarchist” along with Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, William Godwin, Emma Goldman, Tolstoy and Bhagat Singh etc.  Gerald Runkle[12] writes: “The essence of anarchism is individual liberty. … Anarchism thus opposes authority in all its forms; government rule, social constraint, religious domination and moral compulsion.’ … ‘The anarchist, as Proudhon proclaimed, accepts no master, recognizes no sovereign’.  The idea that Gandhi was an anarchist has always been contested by most of his adherents.  But his life provides for humongous evidence of his strained relationship with every ‘authority’ from childhood to his last breath, an inalienable ingredient in anarchist thought.  Another problematic area in this description has always been the conceptual connotations of the very word – ‘anarchism’.  The historical experience of the West with anarchism has been awfully brimming with the overtones of violence.  However, even in anarchic tradition of the West there are certain subaltern layers of non-violence.   

George Woodcock[13] considered ‘anarchism’ as a doctrine which poses a criticism of the existing society and strives to change it.  “All anarchists deny authority; many of them fight against it.  But by no means, all who deny authority and fight against it can reasonably be called anarchists.  Historically, anarchism is a doctrine which poses a criticism of existing society; a view of a desirable future society; and a means of passing from one to the other.”  But there are some basic features common to many, if not all, anarchists: refusal to establish systems, naturalism, deeply moralistic tendencies, anti-historicism, apolitical or anti-political approaches, direct and individualistic action, rejection of or suspicious outlook towards all forms of government or authority etc.      

But the difficulty now revolves also around understanding ‘authority’.   The idea of ‘authority’ has undergone a great change.   ‘Authority’ manifests in different incarnations in the course of a modern man’s life, not just in ‘the King’ or ‘the priest’ as in the pastoral societies. We may locate him in a parent, a teacher, an employer, a policeman, a judge, a leader, a guru, a caste-head etc.   Consequently we have as many counter-shades of antonyms also.  Many a time, we may not challenge the authority; we may just escape its sovereignty.  The escape, sometimes, may also be in the form of art, literature, spirituality or in an appeal to the something unknown higher.  We need to negotiate with the ‘authority’, mostly unavailingly.  Gandhi’s theory and activity were constructed, undoubtedly, mostly around moralistic or spiritual normative.  

Very early in Gandhi’s career, Sir C. Sankaran Nair[14] [1857-1934] [who was the President of the Indian National Congress for 1897 and a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council for 1915] had accused Gandhi of being ‘an anarchist’ in an essay titled ‘Gandhi and Anarchy’.  Anthony J. Parel rejects this claim as unfounded and presents Gandhi’s harmoniously constructed philosophy of modern State in his work.  At the end of Dandi March on 06.04.1930 – Mrs. Sarojini Naidu[15] hailed him as “Law breaker”.  The Right Hon’ble V.S Srinivasa Sastri[16] also described Gandhi as a “philosophical anarch” who could not be swayed by rational arguments.  Gandhi himself described his utopia as ‘enlightened anarchy’ contends Vinit Haksar.[17]

            In fact, Gandhi’s life appears to be a series of such violations of the conventional authority or wisdom.   From childhood, in many of his acts, we find a typical discordant, while apparently being an obedient person.  Erikson[18] cites an anecdote from Gandhi’s early childhood: “… for when his father was not there, he was inclined to usurp strange rights.  He would remove the image of the ruling Prince from its customary stool and put himself in its place, a habit of pretending to be his father’s master …”   Raja Rao[19] quotes another anecdote:‘ … and once it’s said, he even took one of the idols from their sacred seats, and placed himself in the god’s place’.   Gandhi’s decision to go to London to pursue law ended up in the caste elder-men passing a gag order against him: “In the opinion of the caste, your proposal to go to England is not proper.”   Hinduism had long held taboo against travelling beyond sea.  Gandhi said to them that he would nevertheless go.  He replied firmly: “I think the caste should not interfere in the matter”.  Consequently the headmen ostracized Gandhi: “This boy shall be treated as an outcaste from today”. 

There were three Englands, by then, within England – England in England, England in India, and England in South Africa.  England in England is a very sophisticated nation through the Enlightenment awakening of the eighteenth century.  Most of the Indian renaissance is the result of our intellectual contact with this England.   But England as a colonial power was always different.  England in South Africa is no sophisticated State rather it was a State with all prejudices – color, class etc.  This is the specific additional element which enriched Gandhi’s approach towards the England.  His journey from Durban to Pretoria and the incident that occurred at Pietermaritzburg where he was removed from first class compartment on the insistence of a white man is well-known and was a turning point of his life.  It is now in the deep memories of many Indians and even the Westerners thanks to the great film of Richard Samuel Attenborough of 1982.  This is not the last experience to Gandhi of a different England and a different Whiteman.  Fischer[20] raises the question: ‘Why, of all people, did it occur to Gandhi to resist the evil?’ and tries to answer it: ‘… Was it this inherent anti-authoritarianism that made him rebel against the government color line? …  Was it destiny, heritage, luck, the Gita or some other immeasurable quantity?’ 

The white man always relied on some kind of slavery.  With the demise of European feudalism, conditions became increasingly unfavorable to the institution of slavery; maintaining slaves was expensive, and a growing population increased the availability of cheap labour, making slavery economically less favourable.  When the slavery was found economically and morally indefensible, the England had adopted innovative methods.  One such was the ‘indentured labour’ intelligently introduced in South Africa, in the guise of contractual freedom of the labourers.  During 1890-1 some 150,000 Indian emigrants were settled in South Africa, most of them having taken up their residence in Natal.  “Semi-barbarous Asiatics” was the description of Indians of South Africa in the statute books.  Though by religion they were different formulations, the White racial arrogance put them in the parenthesis of a common nomenclature “coolies”; all Indians were known as “coolies” or “sammis” i.e., “coolie merchants”, “coolie clerks”, “coolie barristers” etc.   It is in this process of understanding the different England in South Africa, unknown to the Indian students in England or USA or Germany, he underwent a transformation in his life and philosophy.  Here he was also introduced to the writings of Tolstoy and John Ruskin. 

Within a week of his arrival he visited the Durban court.   The magistrate asked him to take off his turban which he refused to obey and left the court promptly.  Some newspapers described him as an “unwelcome visitor”.[21]    During the year 1894 the Natal Government sought to impose an annual tax of £25 on the ex-indentured Indians.   Gandhi campaigned against the law, and the struggle which started in 1893 had gone up to the end of 1914.   It is here Gandhi experimented with his method of struggle – ‘means’, i.e., ‘satyagraha’ for the first time in 1907.  

In Transvaal during January 1908 in the agitation against compulsory registration of Indians, Gandhi and his colleagues were once summoned to the court.  The questions and answers in the trial between the Judge Mr. Jordan and Gandhi make an interesting reading: 

Jordan:            The question is, have you registered or not?  If you have not registered this is an end of the case.  If you have any explanation to offer as regards the order I am going to make, that is another story.  There is the law, which has been passed by the Transvaal legislature and sanctioned by the Imperial Government.  All I have to do and all I can do is to administer that law as it stands.

Gandhi:           I do not wish to give any evidence in extenuation and I know that legally I cannot give any evidence at all.

Jordan:            All I have to deal with is legal evidence.  What you want to say, I suppose, is that you do not approve of the law and you conscientiously resisted it.    

Gandhi:           That is perfectly true.

Jordan :           I will take the evidence, if you say you conscientiously object to the law. 

Gandhi asked for the indulgence of the Court for five minutes but Mr. Jordan refused to grant it.  “You have defied the law” he bluntly said.

Gandhi:           Very well, Sir, then I have nothing to say.

Jordan :           Leave the colony within forty eight hours.  That is my order.

Gandhi refused to comply with orders.  So on January 10, 1908, Gandhi and others who attended the court for sentence ‘pleaded guilty’ to the charge of disobeying the order to leave the colony.  The magistrate sentenced Gandhi to two month’s simple imprisonment.  “The role of a political prisoner is far more honorable than that of a lawyer,” he declared.   This was his first prison experience.

            Gandhi returned to India in January, 1915.  The first exhibition of the rebel in him on Indian soil occurred on 4 February, 1916 at Hindu University Central College (now Benares University).  The ceremonies were attended by illustrious and glittering persons such as the Viceroy, bejeweled maharajas, maharanis and high officials apart from Mrs. Besant and Malaviya.  He spoke in such gathering about the poverty of India, comparing the richly bedecked nobleman with the millions of the Indian poor counterparts.  ‘There is no salvation for India unless you strip yourselves of this jewelry and hold it in trust for your countrymen in India’.  He declared ‘our salvation can only come through the farmer.  Neither the lawyers, not the doctors, nor the rich landlords are going to secure it’.   There was a commotion.   Mrs. Besant repeatedly ordered Gandhi to close his talk.  The Viceroy, the maharajas, the noble officers left the meeting one by one. 

From then on, in all his interventions, whether it was Champaran movement in the cause of indigo farmers (1917), or the stike in the cause of Ahmedabad Textile workers (1918), or the subsequent movement of ‘boycott of foreign goods or cloths’, civil disobedience movements during 1921-22, or at Bardoli (1928) or the Salt March (1930) or the Quit India movement (1942), he was giving the British Authority, the concrete proof that their might, hitherto dreaded and unquestioned, could be challenged by Indians.  Gandhi was arrested on 10 March, 1922 on the charges of sedition for his three articles written for Young India.  The first one appeared in Young India dated 19 September 1921, titled ‘Tampering with Loyalty’.   ‘I have no hesitation in saying that it is sinful for anyone, either soldier or civilian, to serve this government…. Sedition has become the creed of Congress….Non-cooperation, though a religious and strictly moral movement, deliberately aims at the overthrow of the government, and is therefore legally seditious…”   In the second article, ‘A puzzle and its solution’, dated 15 December, 1921, he wrote ‘Lord Reading must understand that non-cooperators are at war with the government.  They have declared rebellion against it…”   The third one ‘Shaking the Manes’ dated 23 February, 1922, opens with the most challenging sentence: ‘How can there be any compromise whilst the British lion continues to shake his gory claws in our faces?’  He further added: ‘No empire intoxicated with the red wine of power and plunder of weaker races has yet lived long in the world.’   ‘The fight that was commenced in 1920 is a fight to finish, whether it lasts one month or one year or many months or many years. …’.    

At the preliminary hearing of the case he was asked to state his profession and he declared it as ‘farmer and weaver’, and as usual pleaded guilty.    ‘The Great Trial’ was held on 18 March, 1922 before Mr. Justice C.N. Broomfield, District and Sessions judge.  After the charge was read out by the Advocate General, the judge asked Gandhi whether he wished to make any statement.  He had a ready written statement.  The statement read: ‘The Advocate General was entirely fair…. It is very true and I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of government has become almost a passion with me’.   He concluded saying: ‘I do not ask for mercy.  I do not plead any extenuating act.  I am here, therefore, to invite and cheerfully submit to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.  The only course open to you, the Judge, is, as I am going to say in my statement, either to resign your post, or inflict on me the severest penalty if you believe that the system and the law you administer are good for the people.  I do not expect that kind of conversion, but by the time I have finished my statement you will perhaps have a glimpse of what is raging within my breast to run this maddest risk that a man can run.’    ‘I came reluctantly to the conclusion that the British connection had made India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically….. I have no doubt that both England and the town-dwellers of India will have to answer, if there is a God above, for this crime against humanity which is perhaps unequalled in history’.   ‘But I hold it an honor to be disaffected towards a government which in its totality has done more harm to India than any previous system’. ‘In my opinion, non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is co-operation with good.’

            Gandhi did not think ‘Swaraj’ in itself as an end.   In his ‘Hind Swaraj’ [1909], written during his return from England, after series of discussions with both the British liberal intellectuals on South African question, and with the freedom fighters of India operating from London with militant means, he had expressed a different idea of ‘Swaraj’.   For him ‘Swaraj’ is a mental state, not physical or political liberation from England.   If, for the sake of independence the Indians want to continue the materialistic aims of the Western Civilization, modes of production and production relations, he found no reason for political independence at the first instance, since this could however be achieved even under the British regime.   In his idea, the Indians had to overcome the slavery and imitation of the West within.  On 2 March, 1930, as a preparatory step to Salt Satyagraha, Gandhi sent a long letter to the Viceroy:

Dear friend,

Before embarking upon Civil Disobedience and taking the risk I have dreaded to take all these years, … Whilst, therefore, I hold the British rule to be a curse, I do not intend harm to a single Englishman or to any legitimate interest he may have in India. … And why do I regard the British rule as a curse? It has impoverished the dumb millions by a system of progressive exploitation and by a ruinous expensive military and civil administration which the country can never afford.

            It has reduced us politically to serfdom.  It has sapped the foundations of our culture.  And by the policy of cruel disarmament, it has degraded us spiritually. …

            The iniquities sampled above are maintained in order to carry on a foreign administration, demonstrably the most expensive in the world.  Take your own salary. It is over 21,000 rupees [about £1,750] per month, besides many other indirect additions… You are getting over 700 rupees a day against India’s average income of less than two annas (two pence) per day.  Thus you are getting much over five thousand time India’s average income.  The British Prime Minister is getting only ninety times Britain’s average income. …

            Nothing but organized non-violence can check the organized violence of the British government.

My ambition is no less than to convert the British people through non-violence…..

… But if you cannot see your way to deal with these evils and if my letter makes no appeal to your heart, on the eleventh day of this month I shall proceed with such co-workers of the Ashram as I can take, to disregard the provisions of the salt laws…      

This letter is not in any way intended as a threat but is a simple and sacred duty peremptory on a civil resister. …

I remain,         

                                                                                                Your sincere friend

                                                                                                M.K. Gandhi

As 11 March neared, Indians slowly turned to be fervent, sizzling with enthusiasm about the course of events to take place.  Scores of foreign and domestic correspondents were swarming the Sabarmati Ashram.   Thousands surrounded the village and waited.   On 12 March, after regular prayers at Ashram, Gandhi and seventy eight satyagrahis of the Ashram left Sabarmati to Dandi, south of Ahmedabad – famously called the Salt Satyagraha.  Through the winding roads from village, the entourage marched for two hundred and forty two miles in twenty four days.  In the area he travelled, over three hundred village headmen gave up their government posts.   When Gandhi reached the sea of Dandi on 5 April, the caravan had grown into an army of several thousands.  The next morning he picked up some salt left by the waves.  Gandhi had broken the British law which made it punishable crime to possess salt not obtained from the British government monopoly.   His act of walking all through two hundred miles, with several colleague satyagrahis, in public view, and converting the spectacle into convergence of several thousand of Indians in a mela was intended to be an open and published defiance of the mighty Government.   

            What was the effect of this act of defiance?   ‘Every villager on Indian’s long sea coast went to the beach or waded into the sea with a pan to make salt!  It provoked the State with terrible law and order problems.   Pandit Malaviya and other moderate co-operators resigned from the Legislative Assembly.   The police began invoking violence.   But civil resisters did not resist the use of force by the authorities.  People were beaten and bitten in the fingers by constables.  The state had shown its cruelty, and incapacity.   Congress volunteers openly sold contraband salt in cities.   Hundreds were handcuffed or their arms fastened with roes and led off to jail.  The agitation spread far and wide to all corners of the country.  Teachers, professors and students made salt at the sea and inland, and were sent to jail in batches.  A series of arrests, prosecutions and sentencing to jails went on!  About sixty thousand political offenders adorned the prisons by their presence.

“Gandhi did two things in 1930; he made the British people aware that they were cruelly subjugating India, and he gave Indians the conviction that they could, by lifting their heads and straightening their spines, lift the yoke from their shoulders.   After that, it was inevitable that Britain should someday refuse to rule India and that India should someday refuse to be ruled.”[22]   He said he would do his part outside the official world.  According to Gandhi, ‘That government is the best which governs the least.[23]   After Salt Satyagraha and the Second Round Table conference in 1930-31, and his internment from 3 January, 1932 in Yeravda Jail to 8 May 1933, the Poona-Pact, and for another short incarceration from 1 Aug to 23 August, Gandhi was mostly away from freedom struggle concentrating on his ‘constructive program’ which encompassed spinning, challenging untouchability, inter-religious dialogue etc.  Shortly after midnight of 8 August, 1942, Gandhi gave ‘Quit India’ call.   “….Every one of you should, from the very moment, consider himself a free man or woman and even act as if you are free and no longer under the heel of this imperialism…”   

‘In comparison to other groups during anti-British anti-colonial struggles, Gandhi organized the Hindus as Indians, not as Hindus, and granted Hinduism the right to maintain its character as an unorganized, anarchic, open-ended faith.’[24]  He was not just agitating for freedom of his people.  ‘Gandhi was a living antithesis set up against the thesis of the English.’[25]   Most of the counter-players of Gandhi believed in some kind of theories based on masculinity, valor, physical force and the supremacy of the arms.   Gandhi also thought in those terms in his childhood.  Later Gandhi found the folly of it, and ‘used two orderings’, the first one – ‘saintliness’ and the second one – ‘femininity’.   He employed these terms in a kind of qualitative differentiation in degree – ‘femininity’ as superior to masculinity, which in turn is better than cowardice.[26]  Here Gandhi had employed the idea of ‘masculinity’ and ‘violence’ as synonymous with the ‘authority’, and contemplated his fight against both cowardice and authority.  D.R. Nagaraj[27] says: ‘According to Gandhi, fear is the source of violence.  Strictly speaking, his philosophy of violence is nothing but a spiritual analysis of the phenomenon of fear.’    “…..Gandhi’s achievement of awakening Indian people and lending them through an almost bloodless national revolution against foreign rule… was influenced by several of the great libertarian thinkers.  His nonviolent technique was developed largely under the influence of Thoreau as well as of Tolstoy, and he was encouraged in his idea of a country of village communes by an assiduous reading of Kropotkin.”[28] 

In fact, his later experiments on ‘brahmacharya’ at the last phases of his life were constantly directed against this male-female dichotomy and transcending to the higher synthesis of androgyny.  Thus he located the ‘State’ or ‘Authority’ not just in the political form, but in various points such as the religious heads, teachers, conservatives, the so-called revolutionaries and the very ‘kshatriya-hood’ or ‘masculinity’.  It is in this context, Manubehn’s expression – ‘Bapu – My Mother’ needs a further examination in understanding Gandhi.  In fact many women found equality and more freedom in the company of Gandhi, and many more writings of women acquainted with him provide for these reflections.         

            Even his concept of sanatinism is contrary to the accepted normative descriptions of it by the orthodox Hindu or the established monasteries of Hindu order.   He ‘moved on the periphery of English society during his three years stay in London, absorbing ideas from a wide range of sources, discovering the wisdom of the East through the eyes of the West.  He associated with socialists, anarchists, radical Christians and feminists.’[29]   Gandhi also drew upon Henry Summer Maine’s Village Communities of the East and West (1881).  As an alternate to centralist systems such as capitalism and communism in which labour was placed as degraded and alienated from the factors of production, these anarchists proposed a decentralized social and economic system.  The idea of organic communities, self-governing and self-sufficient in the necessities of life, free to co-operate and associate with one another on the basis of mutuality had impressed Gandhi’s intellect since then.  We may also appreciate that the type of community living experimented by him in name of various ashrams, away from the State, and living within community, on certain self-defined terms has also been a peculiar feature of certain anarchist groups.  Even Gandhi was said to have visited and be influenced by the Trappist monastery in Durban 1895 in this regard apart from his readings into Ruskin’s Unto This Lost in 1904.  After his Phoenix Settlement (1904-1910), he later established Tolstoy Farm (1910-1913), Sabarmati or Satyagraha Ashram (1915-1933) and Sevagram (1934-1948).  In fact his community experiments in the form of ashrams combined the features of both the East and the West monastic living, while simultaneously converting them into laboratories for his ideas of religion, education, manual labour, self-sustenance and ultimately ‘satyagraha’.           

William Godwin[30] said: Man “must consult his own reason, draw his own conclusions and conscientiously conform himself to his ideas of propriety.”  The ‘inner voice’ of Gandhi resembles this proposition which had constantly driven Gandhi to differ with the established interpretation of conventional ideas, religious texts, political and legal theories generally accepted by the society as most advanced and as containing higher rationality. 

Gandhi was deeply influenced by several philosophers, activists and social theoreticians of both from the West and the East including Thoreau’s idea of civil disobedience. But none could permanently stay as ‘guru’ in his mind.  ‘If the Mahatma concludes all this with the remark that “the throne” of guru had “remained vacant” in his life even up to Moksha time,’ Erikson[31] writes, ‘one could be tempted to follow the throne imagery in his life, from the time way back in Porbandar when little Moniya had sat himself in the place of Thakorji’s picture to all the real or symbolic thrones and top jobs he would come close to in one context or another.  It would appear that he never occupied one and yet never bowed to one either.  Any throne, or for that matter any prime ministership, was too sedentary a place for a pilgrimage.’  His actions during his stupendous work in Naukhali dousing the flames of bigotry generated by the partition, and his observance of fast and silence on the day India achieved formal independence makes a compelling reading of an anti-authoritarian and libertarian Gandhi.  

Coming back to our starting point – it’s true that Gandhi was a law-abiding citizen, but when his ‘inner voice contradicts the proposition, he challenges the authority in various forms – from teasing to open challenge.   He contemplates an area of such challenge, and then he chooses his method of challenge within his major frame work of Truth and nonviolence.  He allows sufficient time and scope for his counter-player to withdraw or change it.  Then he openly announces his intention of violating the authority.  He gives even sufficient propaganda for his actions.  Then on a fixed time, date and place, he consciously attempts to violate it.  If the other side attempts to use force, he refuses to surrender to it.  When the counter-player invokes the legal remedies he surrenders to the process voluntarily.  He accepts the charge and demands for maximum sentence.  He does not demand evidence in the sense of an accused in the modern revolutionary practices.  He doesn’t avoid trail or delay it on technicalities.  At the first instance itself he accepts his dereliction, and asks for maximum penalty.  Thus he compels an equally moral and ethical counter-narrative in the conscience of the prosecutor or the State.

            Anhony J. Parel may be more correct in saying that Gandhi was not an anarchist and that his philosophy tends towards harmonious construction of tradition and modernity.  If we examine various concepts of anarchism, and more specifically the revolutionary politics of it which are overwhelmingly violent, and highly individual, they may not be properly fitting into the Gandhian scheme of things.   Yet if we carefully examine his actions – not accepting any specific authority as the final arbiter, constantly questioning the absolute authority within and without, series of acts violating ‘the Law’ or ‘the Authority’ consciously and his volunteering the penalty imposed by the authority without resistance, the communities he established on the lines of many anarchist communities, his fascination to jails, and his idea of the State etc., they border certain terrains of anarchism.   It is an open ended debate and deserves further research.   


[1] Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, © Larry Collins and Pressinter, S.A., 1975, Freedom at Midnight, Tarang Paper Backs (Vikas Publishing House Pvt Ltd), p.262-3

[2] Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism, Oxford University Press, 1983, p-80

[3] Doke, Joseph J., M.K.Gandhi, An Indian Patriot in South Africa, 1909, Indian Chronicle, London

[4] Romain Rolland’s Mahatma Gandhi: The Man who became One with the Universal Being, Translation from the Frenchby Catherine D. Groth, Publications Division, Govt. of India, 1924, 2004

[5] Erik H. Erikson, Gandhi’s Truth: The Origins of Militant Non-violence, © 1969 W.W. Norton & Company. Inc., New York

[6] Pannalal Dasgupta, Revolutionary Gandhi, Translated from Bengali by K.V. Subrahmonyan, Earthcare Books, Kolkata, 2011

[7] Manu Gandhi, Bapu – My Mother Ahmedabad, Navjivan, 1949

[8] Louis Fischer (1951), The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, HarperCollins, 3rd impression, 2008

[9] Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi, Rupa & Co., © 1969, 1997 by Sheila Lalwani Payne

[10] Ashis Nandy, op.cit.

[11] Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, p-50

[12] Gerald Runkle, (1972),  Anarchism Old and New, Delacorte Press / New York, p.3

[13] George Woodcock, Anarchism: A history of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, © 1962 World Publishing, New York, p.9

[14] Anthony J. Parel (2006), Gandhi’s Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony, Cambridge, p-56

[15] D.G. Tendulkar, Mahatma – Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Publications Division, Govt. of India,  1961, 2018, Vol-3, p-31

[16] Robert Payne, op.cit.p.390

[17]Vinit Haksar, Gandhi and Liberalism, Satyagraha and the conquest of Evil, South Asia Edn, Routhedge, Oxon & New York © 2018, p.224

[18] Erik H. Erikson, po.cit., p.108

[19] Raja Rao, © 1998, 2004, The Great Indian Way – A life of Mahatma Gandhi, Vision Books, Preface, p.39

[20] Fischer, p.58-59

[21] D.G. Tendulkar, op.cit., Vol-1, p.36

[22] Fischer, p-345

[23] Young India, 2 January 1937

[24] AshisNandy, op.cit., p.26

[25] Roll May, Power and Innocence:  A search for the sources of violence,  New York: Delta, 1972, p-112 as quoted in Ashis Nandy’s op.cit p-49

[26] Ashis Nandy, op.cit., p.53

[27] D.R. Nagaraj: Listening to the Loom – Essays on Literature, Politics and Violence, Ed by Prithvi Datta and Chandra Shobhi,  Permanent Black,   (c) 2012 Girija Nagaraj and Amulya Nagaraj, p-272

[28] Woodcock, p-234

[29] Mark Thomson, Gandhi and His Ashrams (1993), Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, p.18

[30] William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness,  (Third Edition), F.E.L. Priestly, Ed, The University of Toronto Press, 1946, Vol. I, p-168 as quoted in Runkles, op.cit., p.4

[31] Erikson, p.163S

What is philosophy? Do we really need one?

Philosophy is the world of ideas, the ideas which can offer solace to the struggling human being in this world.  Over centuries, from the Greek to the early 20th centuries in maintained a connectivity with the common man, though as a subject matter it was the domain of some upper layers of the society.  But most philosophers since ages in every society were guides of the ordinary people in times of crisis.  As the subjects of human study expanded over years, the philosophy also struggled hard to prove its own existence. Even with the expanding area of knowledge in all spheres of human life and experience, philosophy maintained its distinction as either one explain away the complexity and multiplicity, and or as one relating it to human predicament, and offering the reason for continued enthusiasm of the man in this wilderness.  There was also deeper connect between the growing branches of knowledge, and the need to reconcile the same with general needs of the society.  Even up to the mid of 20th century, the purpose of philosophy was to universalize the individualized knowledge.

But post-1950s, with several uncertainties and relative nature of outcomes, even with in science, and with a higher intensity in social sciences, the project of philosophy has itself lost its path somewhere into relativity, uncertainty, and ultimately into a mere play of words.  Now the philosophy has gone so far away from the people, and become so irrelevant to a common man that a regular question would be raised by any ordinary person if somebody claims he has been pursuing philosophy – “What do you do with the study of philosophy?”

Man started his journey with the unfathomable fury of nature contesting his existence.  Somewhere in the way religion offered some solace.  Later scientific inquiry started unfolding the secrets of nature one by one.  Positive sciences in an alliance with secular philosophies led man to some certainty.  But the humongous scientific inquiry split into minute studies.  Suddenly by the mid of twentieth century, man was returned back to his existential doubts, where philosophy distanced itself from its role.  Now the spiritual unrest of man needs to be addressed by the religion again?  Does philosophy has the strength and intent to offer anything to the man?

Dr. A. Raghu Kumar, Advocate
Flat No. 401, Shashank Residency,
Tarnaka, Hyderabad
Email: avadhanamraghukumar@gmail.com