“Gandhi And Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics”, The Book Review Literary Trust

Reviewer, Vijay Tankha; Author, Shaj Mohan, Bloomsbury Academic; New Delhi, April Issue

The collected writings of MK Gandhi stretch over a 100 volumes. Prolific even for prolific writers, but for someone so politically active, this is not just phenomenal but incredibly so. Further, there are as many and more volumes about Gandhi’s life and thought, nor does there seem to be an immediate end to the discussion, debate and appropriation that Gandhi is subject to.

Jean-Luc Nancy in his insightful foreword reminds us that Gandhi is ‘at once the emblem of the most important colonial liberation—of an entire subcontinent—and the figure of a radical spiritual exigency for asceticism and freedom from the world’s enslavements… uniting the two dimensions of the spiritual and political…Gandhi represents…the point of maximum intensity which simultaneously puts into question the domination of the West and challenges western civilization as it proceeds towards globalization.’

While almost everything about Gandhi is in the public domain, philosophical engagement with his writings is both welcome and necessary. This book, Nancy writes, ‘aims to orient us…towards a thought, even a world, neither humanist nor reduced to suffering in the name of Truth.’ The word orient is well chosen, because the authors, in engaging with Gandhi’s thought, create their categories, at once descriptive and evaluative, from within Gandhi’s own writings. These neologisms (hypophysics, polynomia, crypsology) may be an impediment at first, but must be thought through patiently as they reorient the thought of the Mahatma.

We often think that Gandhi brought something spiritual into the realm of realpolitik, but Gandhi was as much a materialist as he was a spiritualist adopting and adapting what might be called cosmic wisdom, driven by analogies, homologies, and symbolic correspondences. It is this aspect of Gandhi that this imaginative study attempts to bring out, its deep foundations and apparently disparate and unrelated claims, the axis for both his theory (not really theorized) and his praxis, intimately connected as they are. The primary source of Gandhi’s apparently different and occasionally inexplicable convictions, was his adherence to a metaphysical ‘truth’ which the authors daringly name ‘hypophysics’ deriving the noun from an adjectival form inaugurated by Kant. While structurally convenient, it is semantically loaded, bearing different if complementary truths. Hypophysics is the root belief that nature (physis) is morally constituted. Nature and morality are coterminous. The realms of fact and the realm of value are overlapping, not distinct. No naturalistic fallacy here. Despite the long battle between religion and science in the West, the sentiment is difficult to shake off as an article of faith and hence remains a part (if under the surface) of all religious ideologies. The exclusive disjunction of morality from nature is the bedrock of modern science. In secular thought the distinction of these two realms is central to the project of modernity.

Gandhi’s hypophysics finds its most visible expression in his rejection of modern civilization on account of its excessive speed. His diatribe against the railways is well known (‘a most dangerous institution’), but the authors show that this is not an aberrant gripe but the inevitable consequence of his core belief in the norms of nature: each thing devised by the creator has been set a limit to how it must move. Man has been given two legs to walk on.  ‘Railways accentuate the evil nature of man. Bad men fulfil their designs with greater rapidity.’ Modern technological processes are characterized by increasing speed, and as speed increases, so does violence, the passive resister is one who slows things and himself down. Speeding civilizations are ephemeral, and those that failed did so not because they were primitive, but because they were advancing too fast. As Gandhi wrote to Nehru in 1945: ‘It does not at all frighten me that the world seems to be going in the opposite direction…When the moth approaches its doom it whirls around faster and faster till it is burnt up.’ Gandhi’s apocalyptic vision is one which is both feared and shared in many different outlooks: the end of the world, the end of history have been proclaimed by very different prophetic voices as not merely likely but a certainty. In Gandhi’s worldview, it is the moral dimension of nature that drives history: ‘The early history of man [shows] that races without morality have completely disappeared.’

The human body, which includes the mind, though made by God, is a slaughterhouse as well as a temple; man may see it either as a prison or a shrine. Gandhi’s ascetic attitude to bodily and moral health reveals itself to be a complex homology with natural processes, thus his obsessive reflections on evacuation and other emissions, not very different from traditional Brahmanical ideas of purity. Similarly, his idea of truth as a force, soul-force or love-force is connected with speed, for such force can bring changes in speed: truth slows things down; violence is the speeding up of nature. Even good goals must not be speeded up. The turn to khadi, a slowing down of our relation to apparel, requires the work of the hand rather than of power looms.

The distinction between active and passive forces also rests on ideas regarding speed: active forces are violent and disruptive; while cohesive forces like that of love, bring things together. The passive resister follows the laws of the Maker and maintains things and their relationships at their given speed.

The authors illuminate these and many other facets of Gandhi’s distinctive vision in this closely argued work, comparing and contrasting his views with both classical and contemporary western philosophers. A seminal if difficult read for those with an appetite for philosophy. But as the poet said: ‘Errors like straw upon the water flow/he that would seek for pearls must dive below.

Vijay Tankha recently retired from St. Stephens College where he taught philosophy. His Poetry and Politics in Ancient Greece is forthcoming.

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