Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Gandhi- Premodernist, Modernist or Postmodernist ?

The major relevance of Gandhi's philosophy is his relation with Postmodern thoughts. Gandhi is usually seen as a forceful critic of modernism and exhorts us to pre-modern forms of existence. This might have been a reasonable hypothesis to his contemporaries and most commentators since his death; it is now time for us to re-evaluate Gandhi's philosophy in light of post-modern modes of thought. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan's first impression of Gandhi was that he possessed a "medieval attitude of mind," but he later saw that he was mistaken.

Gandhi’s mind-body dualism (which in some places is Manichean)) is the greatest obstacle to his post-modern interpretation but nevertheless Gandhi may, if we discount his dualism, offer significant contributions to a post-modern view of the self, ethics, religion, and political philosophy. Hence, Gandhi’s philosophy is much more compatible with "constructive" postmodernism. In the following article the author has tried to take into account the Pre-modern, Modern and Post-modern characters of Gandhi’s philosophy.

Following was Gandhiji’s statement in Harijan, 29-4-1933 p.2 which seems appropriate in this context-

“I would like to say to the diligent reader of my writings and to others who are interested in them that I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search after Truth, I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things. Old as I am in age, I have no feeling that I have ceased to grow inwardly or that my growth will stop at the dissolution of the flesh. What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment, and, therefore when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he still has faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the latter of the two on the same subject.”


The crisis of the modern world has led many to believe that the only answer is to return to the traditional forms of self and community that existed before the Modern Age. Such a move would involve the rejection of science, technology, and a mechanistic cosmology. Ontologically the modern world-view is basically atomistic, both at the physical and the social level. The cosmos is simply the sum total of its many inert and externally related parts, just as modern society is simply the sum total of social atoms contingently related to other social atoms. The modernist view of time is also linear, with one event happening one after the other, with no other purpose than simply to keep on continuing that way. The modernist view of the sacred has been to reject it altogether, or to place God in a transcendent realm far removed from the material world.

By contrast the Pre-modern vision of the world is one of totality, unity, and, above all, purpose. These values were celebrated in ritual and myth, the effect of which was to sacralise the cycles of seasons and the generations of animal and human procreation. The human self, then, is an integral part of the sacred whole, which is greater than and more valuable than its parts. Myth and ritual facilitated the painful passage through personal and social crises, rationalized death and violence, and controlled the power of sexuality. One could say that contemporary humankind is left to cope with their crises with far less successful therapies or helpful institutions.

When Gandhi says that "in order to restore India to its pristine condition, we have to return to it" most commentators have taken this to mean that Gandhi has joined the pre-modernist revolt against modernism. The pristine India was for him the village communities where a vast majority of Indians still live today. In the villages Gandhi found people who "overflowed with faith" and "whose wisdom was boundless." Because of his confidence in these people, he called for a dismantling of centralized state authority and a return to what he called "village republicanism." Gandhi also insisted that the son should follow the father’s occupation, as long as that job did not involve immoral activity. Even more pointed is his disavowal of modern technology, mechanized industry, centralized bureaucratic administration, and the rule of science in all areas of life. Most of us would probably agree with Gandhi that the modern state does indeed swallow up individual persons, even as it is, ironically, celebrating their autonomy, and that it has also destroyed the intimate ties of traditional community life. Gandhi reaffirms his own Hindu tradition that the goal of human life should be truth and virtue rather than wealth and power. According to The Laws of Manu, the attainment of family and prosperity is only a stage on life's way, a stage that is eventually replaced by the person who takes vows of non-violence, non-possession, and chastity.

Gandhi’s Manicheanism is pervasive and it may have come from Christian influences as well as his own Indian tradition: "In God there is no duality. But as soon as we descend to the empirical level, we get two forces–God and Satan, as Christians call them." Gandhi claims that we are necessarily violent because of life in a body, so that is why we should aim to be rid of it or at least train ourselves to become imperious to its needs. Interestingly enough, a mind-body dualism characterizes much of modern thought, but it is formulated in a much more subtle and sophisticated form. So Gandhi's dualism is definitely more pre-modern than modern and it stands as the greatest obstacle to a post-modern interpretation of his thought.

As we now look beyond Gandhi as a pre-modernist, it is important to note that, although he admired the achievements of the ancient India, he realized that he could not take the dharma of another age as his own. Distinctively modern, or even post-modern, is Gandhi's principle that each society, as each individual, has its own truth, and that simply reviving ancient truths was not only anachronistic but unworkable.


Modernism has been described as a replacement of Myth by Logic. The Greek Sophists stood for ethical individualism and relativism; they gave law its adversarial system and the now accepted practice that attorneys may "make the weaker argument the stronger"; they inspired Renaissance humanists to extend education to the masses as well as to the aristocracy; and they gave us a preview of a fully secular modern society.

One of Gandhi's most basic assumptions was his firm belief in the integrity of the individual. "The individual is the one supreme consideration"; and "if the individual ceases to count, what is left of society?" Gandhi said that he feared the power of the state, because "it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress." For Gandhi each individual must act on her own truth regardless of the consequences and regardless of whether others think she is in error. If individuation is ultimately illusory, the very foundations of Gandhi's political ethics are dissolved.

Gandhi’s experiments with truth are distinctively modernist with their firm assumption that the individual is the final arbiter of action. To assert a source of authority outside of the laws of any God is a sure sign of the modernist mind. Gandhi also rejects a premodern cyclical view of history in favor of a modernist view of linear moral progression. A very modernist Gandhi states: "The force of spirit is ever progressive and endless. . . . The remedy [from self-destruction] lies in every individual training himself for self-expression in every walk of life, irrespective of response of the neighbours." This is not only progressive and individualistic, it also appears to undermine his pre-modern view that one should train in the profession of one’s father. Because of our finitude and fallibility, Gandhi firmly asserted that we can only attain relative truths. Gandhi's position on truth is more compatible with constructive postmodernism.

Gandhi's conception of religion could be called modernist as well. He believed that all religions are equal; and all are to be tolerated. Gandhi was a fervent believer in prayer and he also chanted Rama's name, but even these practices are sometimes given a modernist rendering. Gandhi said that for him Rama was not the king of the Ramayana or an incarnation of Vishnu, but the name simply means "purity of conduct" and the "search for truth". For Gandhi religion is a purely personal matter, and "there are as many religions as there are individuals." One could also say that he is committed to the modernist reduction of religion to ethics. He has his own special version of this: religion is the search for truth, an endeavour even inclusive of atheists. Also modernist is his position that the state should not support religious organizations. But this did not prevent his holding that religion should be integrated into political action as its ethical ground and justification. Gandhi's famous warning that "India is in danger of losing her soul" does not express a fear that Indians are losing their ancient pre-modern traditions; rather, it means that Indians will lose their moral autonomy in a dehumanizing bureaucratic state.

Gandhi's commitment to civil disobedience is intimately related to the issue of Gandhi's professed anarchism. Gandhi called his village republicanism a form of "enlightened anarchy" in which "everyone is [her] own ruler." He said that "government is best that governs least" and he believed that government is a necessary evil. Gandhi spoke fervently of his village communities as ideal states, but he was keenly aware of human fallibility and the limits of reason, especially the calculative reason of modern mass political organization. Gandhi's practice of nonviolence and self-suffering discourages self-interest and reintroduces constraint and coercion in a way unlike any other previous political theory.


Postmodernism may be defined as "the adoption or adaptation of Western developmental models to indigenous systems"; or alternatively a "synthesis of old and new which is qualitatively new from the old and the new".

Gandhi wanted to protect the individual from dissolution either in a premodern totality or the modern bureaucratic state.

Gandhi also qualifies his individualism with other-constitution, and he definitely joins in this postmodern reconstruction of the self. As he once reminded a correspondent: "I value individual freedom, but you must not forget that man is essentially a social being".

Gandhi’s reasons for rejecting other Indian nationalists’ programs can best be interpreted as constructive postmodern. Both the liberal constitutionalist Shri Gokhale and radicals such as Shri Tilak and B. B. Pal, who recommended violent means to the end of Indian independence, were thoroughly modernist in their worldviews. Both separated the inner from the outer, both proposed a rationalist methodology, and both ridiculed Gandhi’s belief that legitimate political action must have a spiritual foundation. Answering questions at the 1930 Round Table Conference in London, Gandhi explained why he had to stand apart from these other nationalists. In South Africa he found that he was very good at marshaling facts and presenting a convincing case to his fellow Indians. He was dismayed, however, in their usual response: many quickly proposed violent solutions to their grievances. Gandhi concluded that his follower’s minds were in the right place but their hearts were not prepared for the nonviolent action that was required. It was here that Gandhi discovered his most important philosophical principle: namely, that good ends must always be matched with good means. This principle will be the key to distinguishing utilitarianism, where means are independent from ends.

Gandhi’s fusion of means and ends, the inner and the outer, of religion and politics is neither premodern nor modern, but distinctively postmodern in the constructive sense (Constructive postmodernism can be seen as the result of a dialectical triad in which modernism negates premodernism, and then the constructive postmodernist, in a third stage of reintegration, gleans value from both).


I have tried to present the summary of this wonderful piece of work. Original, full length article may be found at the following link-


1 comment:

vishal said...