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The Song of the Mahatma

Gandhi's Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony by Anthony J Parel;

BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 19, 200835Gandhi’s appearance borrows of a men-dicant, although he is far from one in a definitive manner. The mendicant practises voluntary poverty. The renunciation of wealth is simultaneous with renunciation of labour. Manual labour has been under-stood as the lowest of social activities. By refusing to labour the mendicant remains continuous with the social system of assignment of labour which here is the caste system. Gandhi embraces poverty to show the despicable state of the involuntary poor in India, but, unlike the mendicant, embraces manual labour which he insists all members of the society should partake in, at least symbolically in spinning the wheel. There is no artha without labour and Gandhi refuses to allow the holiness of the mendicant to let go of that canoni-cal goal. Similarly, artha implies its main-tenance and protection, for which military force has to be developed. Parel shows Gandhi to be an astute statesman who knows when to wage war and when peace. Gandhi conceives the state as necessary, coercive, and as that which concentrates all violence. Civil society is comprised of individuals who are ideally non-violent. Civil society relates to the state by organ-ising itself in non-violent ways to remove the possibility of violence. Civil society practises civil disobedience when the state is violent in a non-preventive manner: a violent act that will further violence. Civil society will never produce organisations with the power of violent action; construc-tive programme is not an organisation that slowly rises to oppose the state.The Gandhian Manifesto Nation in the civic sense is opposed to reli-gious and ethnic nationalisms, hence, op-posed to Hindutva defining the nation. However, religion prescribes codes for living the civic life; the state is secular and civic society is religious. Parel shows Gandhi to be suffering this demarcation as a crisis. If the conduct of a people is to be defined by the codes which they are to follow, then peoplewill be defined by religion; before the instantiation of a coercive civic state there must be a decision as to who its people are, which is the problem of Partition: can Hindus and Muslims form one nation, rather, can two codes coexist without con-flicts? Parel proposes a compromise on the one hand and on the other a sense of inevitability. As a first step he proposes an open Hinduism which opposes the closedHinduism of Hindutva; secondly a call to other religions, especially Islam and Christianity, to embrace this opening. “As he told Rev Joseph Doke, Baptist missionary and his first biographer, ‘the fullness of Christianity could only be founding its interpretation in the light and by the aid of Hinduism’. Given what is hap-pening in Christian-Hindu dialogue today, these are indeed prophetic words” (p 110). The crisis in determining a people is quite timely – a crisis that shares philoso-phers like Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Ag-amben, though they would rather insist on this crisis as crisis – yet, it is a crisis that existed amidst all people across times. The need that Parel sees in determining a people by a certain religion, a renewed Hinduism and a Lord Ram who is not his-torical but an ideal, is a method that has been tried in history before. This need becomes just that when Parel leaves out certain aspects of Gandhi – the statement “Truthis God”and Gandhi’scontention that by religion he does not understand any particular religion. However, we find that this new Gandhian paradigm’s relevance holds, “given India’s emergence as a major political and economic power in the world” (p 205). What we have is a manifesto for a new nation and politics, and a diagnosis of a world to which this nation is to be ad-dressed, which seems appropriate when most manifestos are addresses in themselves of something non-present to these times. The Gandhian manifesto is also a public philosophy derived from the renewed the-ory of purusharthas for which the Bhaga-vat Gita is the reworked canon – “It is true that modern India has not accepted it as part of its public philosophy” (p 193). There have been many alchemistic dark comedies in history when philosophy and the public were mixed. The transmissions of philosophy form an “overground or superground”. Chairs and ladders and whatever you have are added upon one another to help the public ascend to it. Philosophy still remains overground, while the ascending material goes down leaving a scrawl, like dominoes. But these moments in the book demand that we think the problem again, with a sense of imminence. Anthony Parel does not withdraw from determining these timeswhich are never given 20/20. He does not wish to be the master of hindsight, the likes of Fukuyama would suffice for that task. Such are the moments he offers, unsettling, from which you cannot be a fugitive, to which you cannot play dead – the dice is rolling. “The motor of change was artha” (p 201). If guided by the purusharthas of dharma and moksha, the pursuit of artha can bring about good changes. Dharma is first of all a sense of duty. Through a sense of mutual duty and responsibility society coheres, and in pre-modern India caste defined one’s duty. That is no longer relevant. “For all practical purposes, by 1894, i e, from the beginning of his public life Gandhi had mentally rejected the ethic of caste and had replaced it with the ethic of rights” (p 93). The idea of rights has come a long way, in an explicit manner, from natural rights to human rights, and certain critiques of that very idea. Parel returns to the natural, understood, however, as obligation – the obligation to be non-violent even in conflict, to which rights are appended to protect the individuals. This obligation is a dictate of the faculty of “buddhi” – we can sense a sort of Kantianism. However, Parel does not discuss what buddhi is such that it would be a faculty of obligation. Non-violence is of two kinds – heroic and civic. Satyagraha is civic non-violence, the practice by which one defends and secures rights, that is, rights are defended according to the natural obligation of being non-violent. Here, one is permitted to engage the other party violently when not given a chance, even by military means. Heroic non-violence on the other hand is kept apart for exceptional individuals, who are willing to give up their life as a consequence. This distinction of non- violence as civic and heroic allows Parel to enter the Gandhi-Buber controversy. “By demanding voluntary ‘general massacre’ from the mass of German jews, Gandhi was violating his own principle…It confirmed, though in a negative way, the validity of Gandhi’s distinction between fields of non-violence” (pp 126-27). There is certainly a distinction between masses and the heroes in Gandhi’s writings. At the same time, Gandhi wished to create a heroic nation. Parel, interestingly, does not dwell
BOOK REVIEWjuly 19, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly36on the programme that would lead to it. This brings up a question what if the Jews of Germany were all heroes? If the answer is there will always be masses and heroes, then Gandhi will become the balance act of marionettes of the cross of purusharthas. Rather, a balance of the first three purusharthas required to obtain the fourth, moksha, is impossible within a life of artha. The Civic and the HeroicThe purusharthas are not four quadrants within which we may draw the most har-monious image of humans. The purush-arthas are heterogeneous. Artha is the modulation of the material, dharma is the code of obligation dictated by the faculty of buddhi, kama is pursuit or striving it-self, and moksha is the index of effectivity of the other three in coordination. “Gandhi solved the problem of the relationship of artha, dharma, and moksha thanks to his theory of purusharthas” (p 202). Such is the sense we gain from the book, a solution at the cost of kama. Parel spends the least upon it. Although he defines artha as the purushartha of change, he acknowledges kama as striving to be the relator of all the other pursuits, including moksha. Then it follows that restraint in all the other pur-suits is to be achieved by containing kama, the striving – “[…] celibacy is presented as being concerned with not only sexuality but also with other aspects of life, such as spirituality, non-violence, self-restraint, anger management and the like” (p 138). Iskama not, then, the principal purush-artha? In that case it becomes a question of how much kama one is allowed to have moment to moment. To facilitate this quantification Parel turns to the earlier distinction of civic and heroic. Within civic celibacy one is permitted sexual inter-course, but only for the purpose of procre-ation. Ashram celibacy was heroic, which absolutely denied sexual intercourse. Gandhi saw kama as a poisonous snake from which he has to keep away at all times. “The idea of sexual pleasure as poison could not have been better conveyed than by the metaphor of the deadly snake” (p 145). But if kama is the purushartha of pursuit itself then how is one to pursue any of the other purusharthas, even moksha? Doesn’t it now make sense of Gandhi’s likening of politics to that same snake which always wound itself around him, which he had failed to shake off totally?“The old ways have been discarded. As a result there is now a new Gandhian par-adigm” (p 13). This deviation from tradi-tion is obtained by conceiving Gandhi as address. That gesture is adequate to bring about a new way of organising Gandhi’s writings and for inventing a new method. We have touched upon a certain aspect of this book which seems central to us. But that in no way sums up the complexity ofthis book, where a style of restraint blazes the outside of the book, the old philosophical virtue of humility explodes into declarations which are often disturb-ing, and when you finish reading the book there is an eeriness about it – something is out there and it is about to rush in.Email: shajdivya@gmail.comBooks ReceivedClarke, Kimberly (ed) (2007): Civil Paths to Peace: Report of the Commonwealth Commission on Re-spect and Understanding, Commonwealth Secre-tariat, London, pp 96.Kapur, S Paul (2008): Dangerous Deterrent: Nuclear Weapons Proliferation and Conflict in South Asia, OUP, Delhi, pp 262, Rs 625.Marjit, Sugata (2008):International Trade and Eco-nomic Development: Essays in Theory and Policy, OUP, Delhi, pp xx + 338, Rs 745.Hassan, M Sajjad (2008): Building Legitimacy: Explor-ing State-Society Relations in Northeast India, OUP, Delhi; pp xviii + 316, Rs 675.Metcalf, D Barbara, Thomas R Metcalf (2008): A Con-cise History of Modern India, second edition, Cambridge University Press, New Delhi; pp xxxiii + 337, Rs 350.Cernea, M Michael, Hari Mohan Mathur (ed) (2008): Can Compensation Prevent Impoverishment? 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