Friday, April 9, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7c

It is significant that Gandhi’s thoughts on gender politics was opposite to that of reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who sought to empower women by bringing them closer in capacities and opportunities to men. Gandhi sought to render men closer to women by exhorting them to adopt feminine characteristics like empathy and non-violence. It served to present the masculinities of British imperialist rule as crude, rapaciously materialist, violent, hypocritical, and profoundly lacking in self-control and discipline, in contrast to the spiritually stronger, scrupulously nonviolent, disciplined Indian resistance that Gandhi sought to forge. 

Gandhi knew that he faced a struggle to pass off the idea of nonviolence as the central core of Hinduism. After all, he himself said that he had borrowed his idea of nonviolence from the Sermon on the Mount. Before Gandhi, nobody had tried to give centrality to non-violence as a major Hindu or Indian virtue. Swami Vivekananda had sarcastically said that the British had, following the 'real' injunctions of the classical Indian texts, excelled in their this-worldly, hedonic, manly pursuits, while the Indians, foolishly following the 'true' injunctions of Christianity, had become their passive, life-denying, feminine subjects. Vivekananda had once said that the salvation of the Hindus lay in three Bs: beef, biceps and Bhagvadgita. Ashis Nandy writes in The Intimate Enemy

The current belief is that the Hindus are a peace-loving and nonviolent people, and this belief has been fortified by Gandhism. In reality few communities have been more warlike and fond of bloodshed. . . . About twenty-five words in an inscription of Asoka have succeeded in almost wholly suppressing the thousands in the rest of the epigraphy and the whole of Sanskrit literature which bear testimony to the incorrigible militarism of the Hindus. 

Their political history is made up of bloodstained pages. . . . Between this unnecessary proclamation of non-violence in the third century B.C. and its reassertion, largely futile, in the twentieth century by Mahatma Gandhi, there is not one word of non-violence in the theory and practice of statecraft by the Hindus.

  Gandhi’s own active feminization of himself is epitomized in the image of him at the spinning wheel, where both posture and activity are distinctly feminine. He also actively courted an image of motherliness through his intense, even obsessive involvement in nursing. On several occasions, he observed and then maintained that women were moral beings of a higher order than men and were exceptionally well-suited to such labor-intensive, painstaking, and sacrificial tasks. In Bapu – My Mother, Manubehn Gandhi (who was  a grandniece who he had brought up) says that he had constituted himself her 'Mother' and took interest in the minutest details of her life, even whether she thoroughly washed her hair every week. 

Responding to colonial criticisms, Gandhi reworked Hindu ascetic practices.  He argued that the practice of world renunciation in classical sannyasa is an escape into self-centeredness; renunciation is futile unless it manifests itself in selfless service and social reform: "In this age, only political sannyasis can fulfil and adorn the ideal of sannyasa, others will more than likely disgrace the sannyasi's saffron garb ... one who aspires to a truly religious life cannot fail to undertake public service as his mission, and we are today so much caught up in the political machine that service of the people is impossible without taking part in politics". 

When young, Gandhi had accepted dominant colonial attribution of Hindu cowardice to a vegetarian diet. So he began to eat meat, which he understands as a nationalist "duty." But the experiment did not last long. He came across Henry Salt's Plea for Vegetarianism and this changes his understanding of vegetarianism. He now came to consider vegetarianism as a moral virtue and became a vegetarian by choice. He also changed his earlier belief that meat-eating increased masculine strength: eating a sparse meal devoid of meat was a requirement, if one wanted to reside in his ashrams as a disciple. 

The nonviolent refusal to cooperate with injustice required that "feeble physiques" reflecting modern forms of indulgence to be replaced with bodies "as strong as steel" . He conceived his ashrams as centers to produce disciplined minds and bodies that can endure the hardships of satyagraha. Gandhi argued that aggression was the path to mastery of those without self-control, nonviolent resistance the path of those with self-control. (He became puritanical in his restrictions but it must be remembered that it was in the context of resisting the dominant narrative of the superiority of masculinity.) 

Gandhi's model of masculinity found expression in his economic thought also. He said: "I must confess that I do not draw a sharp distinction between economics and ethics. Economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation are immoral, and therefore sinful. Thus the economics that permit one country to prey upon another are immoral. . . .” The Western world had been proud of science and technology and the industrial revolution. They used to criticize the Eastern world for its backwardness in this field. But Gandhi criticized the overdependence of men on machinery in the West. 

He believed that the people of the West had become slaves of machines and neglected use of their bodily strength. In Gandhi's model of masculinity, importance was given to manual labour and minimum use of machinery. He believed that it was manly to be self-reliant and independent. He thought that the modern methods of production and distribution had made people indulgent and deteriorated the moral qualities of the people. 

Gandhi, through his actions, suggested that resistance could be other than in the mode of masculinity and violence. His encouragement of women's participation in the political realm and attempts to feminize the anti-colonial struggle offered a resounding challenge to British colonial ideologies and institutional practices. He offered nonviolent resistance or satyagraha and reworked "feminine" practices, such as spinning, weaving, suffering hunger, and enduring assaults on the body, as the primary mode of political resistance. 

Gandhi wished to develop an Indian kind of nationalism which would be far more accommodative and more rooted in Indian traditions and cultures rather than being influenced by the West. He hoped that by inculcating feminine virtues in his followers he would develop a nationalism that would avoid the dangers of an aggressive tilt in nationalism  which removed from it of all its humanity and tolerant character, thereby generating jingoism. More than any other nationalist movement, the one Gandhi forged was largely devoid of hatred. 

What particularly incensed the Hindu right about Gandhi’s politics was what they perceived as his emasculation and even explicit feminization of “the Hindu community,” in relation to “the Muslim community,” which they saw as a betrayal of Hindus in general. They saw (and continue to see) politics like the colonial rulers did – as a rational, zero-sum game in which the losses on the opponent must be continually maximized. Nathuram Godse wanted Hinduism to attain the masculinity that the colonial rule represented. Gandhi wanted the opposite.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7b

The culture under colonialism symbolized the dominance of men and masculinity over women and femininity. The colonial rulers identified masculinity with rulership and identified femininity with submissiveness. Femininity-in-masculinity was now perceived as the least desirable, a pathology more dangerous than femininity itself. Many pre-Gandhian protest movements reflected this cultural change. The dominant culture of the colony had become the ultimate definition of manliness: aggression, achievement, control, competition and power.

In The  Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, Ashis  Nandy says that probably the person who most dramatically sought to redefine popular mythology to fit the changing values under colonialism was Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-73) whose Bengali epic Meghnadvadh Kavya was hailed, in his lifetime, as one of the greatest literary efforts of all time in Bengali. Meghnadvadh retells the Ramayana, turning the traditionally sacred figures of Rama and Lakshmana into weak-kneed, feminine villains and the demons Ravana and his son Meghnad into majestic, masculine, modern heroes. 

For Dutt, Meghnadvadh was a tragedy in which evil, represented by Rama finally triumphs. The culture of colonialism had influenced him so much that he endorsed the demonic masculinity embodied by the rakshasas. Nandy writes, ‘Indian culture rejected most forms of  competitive individual achievement, frequently underplayed sex-role differences, gave low status to high technology, granted equal status to myth and history, and rejected hedonism, including possessive individualism and consumerism. Madhusudan now freed Ravana from these traditional constraints to give him a new stature as a scientific, learned, modern Ksatriya king, fighting the non-secular politics and anti-technologism of a banished pastoral prince.’

By writing Meghnadvadh as a tragedy, Madhusudan Dutt was agreeing wholeheartedly with the hypermasculine self represented by Ravana that had previously been looked down upon in Indian culture. The image of a just king that Rama projected and had been worshipped for generations was now represented as a non-masculine, immature, effete godhead not worth emulating. It held that the softer side of human nature was irrelevant to the public sphere. It openly sanctified new forms of institutionalized violence. Ashis  Nandy writes in The  Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism

It interprets the encounter between Rama and Ravana as a political battle, with morality on the side of the demons. The epic ends with the venal gods defeating and killing the courageous, proud, achievement-oriented, competitive, efficient, technologically superior, 'sporting' demons symbolized by Meghnad. Simultaneously, Madhusudan's criterion for reversing the roles of Rama and Ravana, as expressed in their characters, was a direct response to the colonial situation. 

He admired Ravana for his masculine vigour, accomplished warriorhood, and his sense of realpolitik and history; he accepted Ravana's 'adult' and 'normal' commitments to secular, possessive this-worldliness and his consumer's lust for life. On the other hand, he despised 'Rama and his rabble' — the expression was his — because they were effeminate, ineffective pseudo-ascetics, who were austere not by choice but because they were weak.

The opposite side of this psychological tussle is the colonial power’s search for the ‘worthy’ opponent among the oppressed. Thus they came up with the concept of ‘martial races’. According to the concept, certain ethnic, religious, caste or social groups were regarded as possessing a more masculine character, as being loyal and therefore especially suited for military service. Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims, Hindu Jats, Dogras, Gurkhas, Garhwals, Pathans and Afridis were among the groups regarded as “martial”.  

Gandhi was fully aware of this psychological tussle between Indians and the British and his response was anything but a passive acceptance of the status quo. He formulated his own unique model of masculinity which found expression in his political, social and economic thought. Gandhi knew that it was difficult to compete British imperialist masculinity with physical power; so he gave emphasis on moral superiority. By presenting this new model of masculinity, Gandhi wanted to remove the inferiority complex from the minds of Indian men. 

He seemed to act with the belief that people fighting an oppressive system may internalize the norms of that system because they start believing that the opponent is not just economically but also culturally superior. He refused to grant cultural superiority to the British and resolutely defied the temptation to regain self-esteem by equaling the oppressor in violence. He refused to accept that it was the Indians who were inferior and had to copy the Europeans in order to become more advanced. In Gandhi in the 21st Century, Prof. Bhikhu Parekh describes the problem faced by the colonialists that Gandhi sensed:

Colonialism did promote their material interests, but only at the expense of their larger and infinitely more important moral and spiritual interests. For Gandhi material interests had only an instrumental significance, and were positively harmful when they hampered moral and spiritual development.

Gandhi challenged first the colonial culture's ordering of sexual identities which considered manliness as superior to womanliness, and womanliness as superior to femininity in man. The initial Indian response to this was to accept the ordering, look back at their tradition and decide that Ksatriyahood was true Indianness. Gandhi's solution was different. His post-1916 reformulation of courage as equally a feminine attribute with unique connotations of its own, led him to recommend the incorporation of femininity into the masculine. Ashis Nandy writes that he used two orderings, each of which could be invoked according to the needs of the situation:

  • The first ordering was that manliness and womanliness are equal, but the ability for a man to show feminine characteristics is superior to both i.e. the best  situation is when a man possesses the gentler side of human nature like love, kindness, forgiveness, empathy, etc. 
  • The second ordering was that  the essence of femininity is superior to that of masculinity, which in turn is better than cowardice. Cowardice, for him, was worse than the violence signified by masculinity.  A man cannot practice ahimsa and at the same time be a coward. Gandhi feels that possession of arms is due to lack of courage. In the face of violence and injustice, Gandhi considers violent resistance preferable to cowardly submission. There is hope that a violent man may someday be nonviolent, but there is no room for a coward to develop nonviolence.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7a

Arundhati Roy says that Gandhi, '. . .(allegedly) feminised politics and created space for women to enter the political arena . . .'. Admittedly, there are contradictions in Gandhi’s writings and there are times when he gives the image of a typical patriarchal figure. For instance, Gandhi believed that women's education should differ from men's as their nature and function differ. He was of the opinion that women should first look after the home. He was against reservations for women but he also said ‘Seeing however that it has been the custom to decry women, the contrary custom should be to prefer women, merit being equal, to men even if the preference should result in men being entirely displaced by women.’ 

But it is undoubtedly true that far more women participated in the Indian freedom movement than in other revolutionary movements because, thanks to Gandhi, it was largely nonviolent. In violent revolutionary movements, very few women take part and the positions of power are held largely by men. Gandhi saw women as the best candidates for satyagraha since they exemplified nonviolent courage, as well as the energy and force that would drive both, the struggle for independence as well as the social change that he envisioned and sought. Madhu Kishwar writes in an article ‘Gandhi on Women’ about the perplexing contradictions in Gandhi’s writings:

He is one of those few leaders whose practice was far ahead of his theory and his stated ideas. . . he could keep on harping on women’s real sphere of activity being the home even while actively creating conditions which could help her break the shackles of domesticity. 

‘Feminising politics’ has a deeper, psychological meaning and in this dimension, Gandhi took the fight to the British. Masculinity /femininity has to do with particular traits and qualities rather than with biology. Masculinity is associated with qualities like being  virile, bold, brave,  gallant, hardy, macho, muscular, powerful. This gives us an idea of the physical and behavioral traits a society expects from men. 

Nature makes us male or female, it gives us our biological definition, but it is society which makes us masculine or feminine. Men who are gentle are derisively called feminine; on the other hand, women who are strong and in control are called manly or masculine. Ashis Nandy writes in The Final Encounter: The Politics of the Assassination of Gandhi (included in the essay collection Debating Gandhi):

Every political assassination is a joint communique. It is a statement which the assassin and his victim  jointly work on and co-author. Sometimes the collaboration takes time to mature, sometimes it is instantaneous and totally spontaneous. 

But no political assassination is ever a single-handed job. Even when the killer is mentally ill and acts alone, he in his illness represents larger historical and psychological forces  which connect him to his victim.

One of the major historical reasons that resulted in the assassination of Gandhi was the nature of his response to the colonial conception of masculinity. Colonialism cannot be identified with only economic gain and political power. There are two chronologically distinct periods in the history of colonialism in India. The first was relatively simple-minded in its focus on the physical conquest of territories, whereas the second was more insidious in its commitment to the conquest and occupation of minds, selves, cultures. 

If the first conquest and plunder mode of colonialism was more violent, it was also transparent in its self-interest, greed and rapacity. By contrast, the second was pioneered by rationalists, modernists and liberals who stressed the civilizing mission of colonialism. It was described by Kipling as ‘the White man’s burden’ – the White man had the task of bringing civilization to the uncivilized world. One of the ideologies that colonialism privileged was based on gender where hyper-masculinity is privileged over the feminine. 

Though few in number, the British were able to rule India for about 200 years, by overpowering the minds of Indians. For years, it was impressed upon them that the British and their institutions were far superior to that of Indians and could not be challenged. The British saw  Indian culture as infantile and immoral and the culture of the British public school products as austere, courageous, self-controlled, 'adult men'.  Colonialism creates a state of mind in the colonized in which they are constantly tempted to fight their rulers by imitating their tactics.

 The British argued that the civilizational ideal of renunciation had made the Indian elite passive to their sociopolitical condition. They claimed that a hot, humid climate, a vegetarian diet, early marriage, and the lack of a physical tradition had produced physically weak male bodies lacking in self-control. Since such physically and morally weak men could not be trusted to take on the reigns of the government, colonial rule was presented as necessary for India to emerge as a nation. 

British imperialism had assumed a morally superior image of itself. Indian nationalist leaders and literati were strongly influenced by such denigration of the weak Hindu male in colonial discourse. It prompted them to engage in varied attempts to reform their religion and themselves. They strived to build moral character and cultivate physical strength, so that they could prove their masculinity and claim their right to self-government. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 6b

Though Gandhi had plenty of criticisms of modern political institutions, he never advocated total segregation from them. He very much understood the perpetual need for political institutions. Politics of refusal does not mean refusal of politics. He felt that the modern state coercively extends state power into realms which were once regarded as private. So you are caught up in politics whether you like it or not. He said in 1920: 'If I seem to take part in politics, it is only because politics encircle us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out, no matter how much one tries. I wish therefore to wrestle with the snake.' 

He thought that leading a quiet, contemplative life eschewing politics is a dangerous tactic in the modern era because it leaves the field open for unscrupulous characters to use it for their own benefit. He realized that the divorce of ethical principles in a materialistic society led to the widely held notions of realism and and self-interest. In such a situation, the power of the state was a standing inducement to social corruption. He felt that this could be tackled only by introducing the monastic ideal into politics. When he entered the coil of politics, he said that he realized that a political figure must discard all wealth and private possessions to remain untouched by immorality, untruth and political gain. 

Gandhi felt that both politics and religion are concerned with ‘the happiness of the toiling masses, a means to the realization of the highest realizable in life’ which is why he was against the prevail norm of separating religion and politics.  If people today talk about the segregation of politics from religion, it is the fault of both politicians and theologians. But he was firmly against state religion, even if a country had only one religion. He thought that a group which depended partly or wholly on state aid for the existence of religion does not have any religion worth the name. To understand Gandhi’s position, it is important to understand what he meant by ‘politics’ and ‘religion’. 

When he spoke very critically about politics, he was talking about power politics. He thought that it was a part of politics that received too much importance.  He did not place his faith in the necessity of being able to capture power at all costs. ‘To me political power is not an end but one of the means of enabling people to better their condition in every department of life.’ He felt that if politics was artificially separated from religious values, it would become a game played according to its own amoral rules that may be given a moral disguise. 

Gandhi stood for the substitution of Power politics by Goodness politics by insisting that the means are important for achieving the desired ends. The institutional factors that constrain the actions and beliefs of ordinary people are what concerned Gandhi. Since he was not interested in a political career as conventionally understood and since he did not consider politics as separate from other aspects of his life, he regarded his periods of withdrawal from politics as political acts. When he spent an year in his ashram in 1926 withdrawing from political activities, he said, 'The condition of the country certainly makes me unhappy, but sometimes even silence is a form of action. I am sure that my silence is. '

Gandhi felt that the only way to wrestle with the snake of politics is to introduce religion into politics. He used the word ‘religion' in a sense that had nothing to do with its usual sectarian connotations. 'By religion I do not mean formal religion or customary religion but that religion which underlies all religions.' He was more concerned with religious values, which he thought were common to all religions, rather than the received dogmas. Religion means a belief in ‘the ordered moral government of the universe’. He referred to 'the religion which transcends Hinduism, which changes one's very nature, which binds one indivisibly to the truth within and which ever purifies'. It is 'rock-bottom fundamental morality'.

Christians who admired Gandhi would ask whether it was not the presence of Christ that guided him. He replied : “If you mean the historical Jesus, then I feel no such presence. But if you mean a Spirit guiding me, nearer than hands and feet, nearer than the very breath of me, then I do feel such a Presence. . . You may call it Christ or Krishna that does not matter to me.” Gandhi uses the word 'religion' several times in different contexts in his seminal text Hind Swaraj. For eg., he says, 'It is contrary to our  manhood if we obey laws repugnant to our conscience. Such teaching is opposed to religion and means slavery.' 

This gives the impression that he was a reactionary figure who was mired in the past. This is due to a misunderstanding which Anthony Parel clears in Gandhi: Hind Swaraj and Other Writings.  In the original Gujarati text of Hind Swaraj, Gandhi uses the term ‘dharma’ which is usually translated into ‘religion’ in English. But ‘dharma’ has a much wider meaning than ‘religion’. Gandhi uses the word ‘dharma’ in two different senses throughout the text: ‘dharma’ as ethics and ‘dharma’ as sect. Most occurrences of the word ’religion’ in the English translation of Hind Swaraj should be read as ‘ethics’. Gandhi applies the moral approach and he also pleads for politics guided by morals. He writes: 

I have always derived my politics from ethics. It is because I swear by ethics that I find myself in politics. A person who is a lover of his country is bound to take a lively interest in politics.

In the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira is disconsolate at the end of a senseless war that results in enormous loss of life and is haunted by the wailing of widows and children. He contemplates giving up his kingship and become a hermit to find serenity in the forest. Krishna dissuades him, saying, ‘Yes, Yudhishthira, you can renounce the world and become a hermit and achieve peace, but what about the rest of the world? Will you abandon them? A hermit seeks meaning for himself but only a king can create a world that enables everyone to find meaning.  Choose kingship, Yudhishthira, not out of obligation but out of empathy for humanity.’ Yudhishthira agreed with Krishna. So did Gandhi.  In an article, Gandhi — the step-father of the nation, Ashish Nandy said:

After Gandhi died, he [Arnold Toynbee, a historian] said, “that henceforth humankind will ask its prophets, are you willing to live in the slum of politics?” It is that capacity to live in the slum of politics that identified Gandhi as a distinctive contributor to human civilization; one who expanded the horizons of human civilization. He did not live with only his values. He pushed them and worked on the basis of them in politics. 

PS: Hannah Arendt was greatly influenced by Martin Heidegger who is acknowledged as one of the sharpest brains of the 20th century. She was disillusioned when she later found that he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis. She recognized in Heidegger the philosopher’s characteristic disdain for public life and, in his support for the Nazis, the philosopher’s tendency to prefer the order of tyranny over the contingency of politics. Subsequently, she was preoccupied by the problem of how ‘such profundity in philosophy could co-exist with such stupidity or perversity in politics’.

She traced this problem to a specific incident in Western philosophy - the sentencing to death of Socrates. Plato was shocked by the public condemnation of his greatest teacher. He then began thinking of politics as a solitary act through which the thinker confronts himself with the meaning of complex problems away from the world of the simple opinion. But Politics was for Arendt originally meant to be the place where men can manifest their individuality through speeches and deeds which can affect the life of the community. The politician was no more than a citizen taking part in public debate and not a technician who can operate according to his abstract principles.

Arendt strongly opposes the understanding of politics as a problem-solving technique that aims at conforming the social reality to a predetermined standard which science should be able to dictate. This technocratic conception of politics has become quite commonly held. Political thought is representative. The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusion, my opinion. 

Deeds and speeches cannot for Arendt be reduced to mere instrumental or strategic behavior: in that case, she says, they would be easily replaced by violence. She stressed that the characteristics of the political life are plurality, unpredictability of human action, the consensual nature of power, the use of persuasion in order to achieve consensus - the very features that  Plato, and by extension, many intelligent people, are uncomfortable with. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 6a

Arundhati Roy writes:

For centuries before Gandhi and for years after him, Hindu rishis and yogis have performed feats of renunciation far more arduous than Gandhi's. However, they have usually done it alone, on a snowy mountainside or in a cave set in a windblown cliff. Gandhi's genius was that he yoked his other-worldly search for moksha to a very worldly, political cause and performed both, like a fusion dance, for a live audience, in a live-in theater. 

It was precisely the idea that saints should retreat to caves that Gandhi wanted to challenge. The history of Hinduism is marked by the tension between the hermit tradition (which emphasized turning away from the world for enlightenment) and the householder tradition (which emphasized engagement with the world). Gandhi wanted to embody an enlightened householder. An unenlightened householder is one who views life either as a burden or as an indulgence. An enlightened householder is one who lives like a householder but thinks like a hermit; who is engaged in everything but is possessive of nothing.

Gandhi was venerated as a saint but he did not fit the conventional Hindu saint. In his project of trying to unite politics, ethics and spirituality, he went beyond all the great figures of modern India. His spiritual mentor, Raychandbhai, had warned him not to involve himself too deeply in the politics of Natal for the good of his soul. Many years later, Ramana Maharshi said that Gandhi was a good man who had sacrificed his spiritual development by taking too great burdens upon himself. Even Swami Vivekananda urged Indians to participate in social action, philanthropic activities, etc. but not politics. Horace Alexander, a British Quaker who worked with Gandhi, said that if Gandhi was a mystic, he was 'a very matter-of-fact mystic'. 

It was Gandhi who found a way of overcoming this fear of the political on the part of the spiritual and he found the inspiration for it in the Gita. In his opinion, there was no evidence in the Gita of any opposition between these two pursuits. Rather, it taught that in performing one's duties rightly - whatever they might be whether related to the family, society, nation or state - one could attain the goal of moksha. He was of the opinion that since man had a soul - the spark of the divine - in them, it was their natural obligation to love and respect one another. He rejected religious quietism or purely private piety and his religious vision compelled him to participate in a range of public activities. 

He didn’t believe in just talk about religion but kept reminding people that actions speak louder than words. Things had to be done rather than merely contemplated. He believed that true religion was not a matter of rules and regulations but a journey through life's realities and challenges during the course of which dharma must be worked out. He was never comfortable with the purely contemplative tradition but believed passionately that each man must find his God in encounter with his fellow men. In 1936, he told a Polish visitor, '. . . If I could persuade myself that I could find Him [God] in  a Himalayan cave, I would proceed there immediately.  But I know that I cannot find him apart from humanity.'

The exclusive cultivation of inwardness leads one to neglect the practical aspects of life which does not necessarily have a beneficial effect on society. He therefore does not advocate a retreat into the ‘cave of the heart’ like Indian holy men but the power of religion to move the heart must be used to bring people together when a course of action is being planned. He said that if religion is concerned with practical life, it is also concerned with politics. Religion, morality and ethics, for him, are closely interwoven. Similarly, politics was nothing but a major instrument of service to the people totally free from all games of power politics. Gandhi realized that he couldn't do even social work without politics. He told a group of missionaries in 1938:

I could not be leading a religious life unless I identified myself with the whole of mankind and that I could not do unless I took part in politics. The whole gamut of man’s activities today constitutes an indivisible whole . . . I do not know of any religion apart from activity. It provides a moral basis to all other activities without which life would be a maze of sound and fury signifying nothing. He said, '. . . religion that takes no count of political affairs and does not help to solve them, is no religion.'

Gandhi said that a truly spiritual person had to be engaged with society – he could not be indifferent to the social ills that he sees around him. If he is indeed an indifferent spectator of these ills and prefers to pursue his spiritual quest in isolation, then there is something wrong with his concept of spirituality. He felt that the most challenging moral problems for a religious person came from politics. As early as in 1926, Gandhi asserted that "'moksha' or self-realization was impossible today without service of and identification with the poorest." What Gandhi meant by service was not relief or charity, but radical restructuring of the present exploitative economic system. Raghavan Iyer writes in The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi:

Gandhi thought that the saint and the revolutionary are not incompatible, although the former is more concerned with his inward integrity and the latter with his outward effectiveness. The saint must not be a self-deceiving escapist who refuses to act, while the revolutionary politician must not become a self-seeking opportunist who is ever-ready to sacrifice his declared principles.

The true saint must be effective in society, while the true revolutionary must be possessed of the deepest integrity; in the end, the two categories merge into each other. In this way Gandhi upheld what Archbishop Temple called 'the error of medieval monasticism', the belief that it is possible to live in a society that is altogether at variance with the prevalent moral standards. 

He recognized a key feature of modernity that had never been present earlier - the elevation of vices like greed and selfishness to the status of virtues resulting in the institutionalizing of irresponsibility. He argued that the modern version of material advancement is a regression rather than a higher stage of human evolution, because it displaces dharma (as ethics) from its primacy. He argued that all efforts to improve the human condition are bound to fail unless they put dharma, or a moral framework and a sense of higher purpose, above the pursuit of artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure). He considered modern civilization to be without a moral center with its emphasis on progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, and technology without cost.

Gandhi felt that Indian civilization needs a realignment of the aims life with an end to the predominance of the ascetic tradition. He felt that India needs to have modern type of political and economic institutions with Western values like human rights, gender equality, civil liberty etc. But he felt that those who rely only on this philosophy tend to believe that perusing spiritual transcendence is anti-modern and that the modern state can justify any end it pursues. His concern had been based on his perception that modernity over-emphasized the material comforts of life and under-emphasized the ethical dimension – it encouraged the pursuit of bodily needs without the framework of ethics i.e. it did not provide any 'inducement for morality'. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 5b

 Gandhi's reading of John Ruskin’s Unto this Last made him “determined to change my life”, influencing his concept of “soul-force” as a substitute for physical force. He learnt from it that “the good of the individual is contained in the good of all . . . the lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s. . . a life of labor, ie, the life of a tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.” After his return to India, he used his philosophy of work to undermine the caste hierarchy that undermined manual labor in various social practices. He tried to re-legitimize the manual and the unclean and delegitimize the Brahminic and the clean. Ashis Nandy writes in Bonfire of Creeds:

I remember anthropologist Surajit Sinha once saying that while Rabindranath Tagore wanted to turn all Indians into Brahmans, Gandhi sought to turn them into Shudras. This can be read as an indictment of Gandhi; it can be read as a homage. 

And every Indian social thinker and activist has to make his or her choice some time or the other; for to say glibly that one must in the long run abolish both the categories is to fight in the short run for the Brahminic world-view. Exactly as to work for the future removal of poverty without touching the super rich in the present is to collaborate with the latter. 

A year after his return he asked a group of students, ‘…I consider that a barber’s profession is just as good as the profession of medicine’.   At that time, a barber’s profession was meant for untouchables and the medical profession provided entry into the ranks of the Westernized elite so Gandhi’s statement would have been incredible for the students. He further stated that only when these ideas are clearly understood ‘and not until then, you may come into politics’. Indians, according to him had not developed its scientist-engineers like in the west because: 

We are apt to think lightly of the village crafts because we have divorced educational from manual training. Manual work has been regarded as something inferior, and owing to the wretched distortion of the varna, we came to regard spinners and weavers and carpenters and shoemakers as belonging to the inferior castes and the proletariat. 

We have had no Comptons and Hargreaves because of this vicious system of considering the crafts as something inferior divorced from the skilled. If they had been regarded as callings having an independent status of their own equal to the status that learning enjoyed, we should have had great inventors from among our craftsmen. 

Gandhi was anxious that those engaged in physical labor should not be looked down upon and their place should be considered equal to those engaged in intellectual pursuits. He thought that it is the wide gulf between manual and intellectual labor that is the cause of poverty and inequality in society. Gandhi said that the labor test would be far superior to that either of literacy or property for a person to take part in government. He held that voters could not become pawns in the hands of politicians by becoming self-reliant through this principle. He held that this would enable people to have the capacity to resist authority and prevent the formation of a small class of exploiting rulers and a large class of exploited subjects. 

It was not that Gandhi held intellectual labor in low esteem. He even says at one place that he would allow those with greater intellect to earn more. But he believed that all should perform manual labor, irrespective of their professions, so that the load of physical labor was not borne unfairly by some and a sense of identification was created with the hardships of others. Spinning and khadi must be seen in this context. While for the poor, it provided some additional income during the off-season, for others it was a form of sacrifice. 

But the pragmatic in Gandhi had been overwhelmed by the idealist in pursuit of an egalitarian, just society which is why there are contradictions in Gandhi’s argument. He asserts that professionals should not expect payment for their work, but at the same time, he was willing to allow those with greater intellect to earn more. 

The importance of using ones hands also informed his views on science. In a speech he delivered to a group of college students in Trivandrum in March 1925, Gandhi said that he appreciated the urge that led scientists to conduct basic research, to do ‘science for the sake of science’. But he worried that scientists and science students in India came overwhelmingly from the middle class (and upper castes), and hence knew only to use their minds and not their hands. His own view was that it would be ‘utterly impossible for a boy to understand the secrets of science or the pleasures and the delights that scientific pursuits can give, if that boy is not prepared to use his hands, to tuck up his sleeves and labor like an ordinary laborer in the streets’. For only if one’s ‘hands go hand in hand with your heads’, could one properly place science in the service of humanity. 

Without an understanding of practical needs as developed through such labor, scientific research was unlikely to benefit the masses. In Young India of September 1, 1921, Gandhi wrote, “Our children should not be so taught as to despise labor. It is a sad thing that our school boys look upon manual labor with disfavor, if not contempt.” With this view he exhorted the science students to work with their hands, as science was one of the few things that involved accuracy of thought and accuracy of handling. Gandhi's critique of education, both modern and traditional, was based on the place of manual and crafts work in its overall scheme. He was convinced that: 

The utterly false idea that intelligence can be developed only through book reading should give place to the truth that the quickest development of the mind can be achieved by artisan's work being learnt in a scientific manner. True development of the mind commences immediately the apprentice is taught at every step why a particular manipulation of the hand or a tool is required (Harijan, 9-I-37, 386).

The demands that he made were revolutionary and required profound changes in thinking about work, caste, religion and politics. Following his critique of traditions from the standpoint of a believer, he argues that the stagnation in matters of science was inevitable if the practice of untouchability persisted. He said, 'We look down upon those who do manual work. Had we assigned to craftsmen and artisans a place of dignity in society, like other countries we too would have produced many scientists and engineers 

Friday, January 29, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 5a

(I have changed the numbering system from this post. This series is very long and I thought that it would be easier for readers to follow if I switched from Roman numerals to Hindu-Arabic numerals with sub-sections. For example, this post and the next are numbered 5a and 5b respectively.  This means that these two posts are on the same issue viz. manual labor. If there are posts numbered from 12a . . .12f, it would mean that there are 6 posts on the same issue triggered by a comment by Arundhati Roy.) 

Arundhati Roy writes sarcastically about an article in the Harijan where Gandhi writes that 'the ideal Bhangi of my conception would be a Brahmin par excellence' and that a 'Bhangi constitutes the foundation of all services'. He then writes about the qualities that 'such an honored servant of society' should have. These include 'a thorough knowledge of the principles of sanitation', 'how a right kind of latrine is constructed and the correct way of cleaning it', 'how to overcome and destroy the odor of excreta and the various disinfectants to render them innocuous', etc. 

It is common practice these days to take a quote that somebody made a long time ago, and invest it with huge significance. If somebody wants to condemn him politically, they quote this one line. It’s not that he didn’t say it, but you can't analyze somebody based on one sentence they said years ago. You have to look at their entire body of work. Gandhi's philosophy of manual labor was completely at variance with existing Indian assumptions about labor which was causing sharp caste divisions and the horror of the upper castes in performing manual labor. It was part of his indirect attack on the caste system without saying it in so many words. 

Gandhi is too nuanced for people who want black and white answers and leap too easily to simplistic conclusions. Manual labor is the labor that is essential for meeting basic needs and nobody was exempt from it. While the poor had to do it out of necessity, the rich had to do it out of choice. The Industrial Revolution changed the way labor was perceived. Now labor is seen only as an input to produce profit and power. Manual labor's status was downgraded and seen as fit only for backward, illiterate people. It was looked down upon in Indian culture and Gandhi spent his entire adult life fighting this prejudice. Dennis Dalton writes in Gandhi: Non-violent Power in Action:

If any single idea demonstrates or stamps Gandhi's credentials as a social reformer, it must be his theory and practice of work. The idea pervades his whole reform preprogram, from abolition of untouchability to construction of village latrines and wells. His unique emphasis on public health and sanitation required social workers-cum-political volunteers to engage in labor that would routinely defy caste restrictions.

For Gandhi, manual labor is not a sign of weakness but our humanity yet he finds it continually degraded. 'In our country manual labor is regarded as a low occupation . . . We should spin, therefore, if only to guard against the pernicious tendency of regarding the toiler as being low in the social scale.' - (Young India, May 20, 1926). He was critical of the devaluation of manual labor in Buddhist monasteries. Although he had very high regard for the Buddha, he had some criticisms as well. He said that 'if I had the good fortune to be face to face with one like him [the Buddha], I should not hesitate to ask him why he did not teach the gospel of work, in preference to one of contemplation.' 

He said that he would do the same thing if he met Hindu saints such as Tukaram and Jnanadev. He wondered how much responsibility the Buddha had to bear for the rise of an anti-work ethic in Buddhist monasticism. He said, '. . . did he himself set up the organizations [of monasteries] or did his followers do so? Whoever did it, the monasteries which were established became . . . stagnant and by-and-by acquired a reputation as dens of sloth.' He alluded to the same state in Hindu monasteries also. Anthony Parel writes in Gandhi's Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony:.

. . he felt it necessary to criticize the imbalance between work and the spiritual life. The theory that begging was holy and that living off the labor of others legitimate, provided it was done by mendicants, also came for criticism. He made it clear that his criticism did not spring from any sectarian bias. They sprang from the insight that the work ethic was mandatory on all, mendicants as well as lay people. 

In his ashrams his insistence on everybody performing manual labor caused friction between various castes. In Sabarmati Ashram, manual labor was part of daily routine - inmates had to work for 3 1/2 hours in the field and 3 hrs. in the kitchen and dining hall. The first task entrusted to new entrants was the cleaning of latrines.  Gandhi's reasoning for this kind of initiation was that this would strip the person of any residual ego and make them humble enough to be able to recognize truth and be prepared to serve the weakest and the poorest. To a young man to whom he had assigned the job of cleaning latrines, he said:

I know that you have been educated abroad and so you feel that you must address the bigger issues plaguing India, like reducing poverty, speeding up development and eradicating illiteracy, but as long as you don’t have the humility to do the humblest of jobs you will not be able to recognize the real problems that beset our motherland. 

If you really want to make a difference you will have to first get rid of your ego, only then will you be able to understand that it is essential to recognize the importance of the seemingly insignificant, menial tasks and have the humility to perform them, if you learn to do them with dignity and honor, the bigger tasks will become easy.

He asserted that no work was superior or inferior; the work of a Brahmin, of expounding holy truths, was not one whit better than that of a sudra who removed night-soil. Madeline Slade was the daughter of an Admiral of the British Navy. She came under the thrall of Gandhi, renounced her affluence and came to India to live in his ashrams. Her transformation into Meerabehen, the name given to her by Gandhi, began by cleaning latrines and emptying chamber pots. He wrote in Harijan of September 8, 1946: 

I am a firm believer in the educative value of manual work. Useful manual labor, intelligently performed, is the means par excellence for developing the intellect. One may develop a sharp intellect otherwise, too. But, then, it will not be a balanced growth but an unbalanced, distorted abortion. It might easily make of one a rouge and rascal.