Gandhi at the Center of Modern Indian Intellectual Discourse

Gandhi at the Center of Modern Indian Intellectual Discourse


Very good afternoon to you all. And thank you all for coming. When 46 years ago today,
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, later called Mahatma Gandhi,
was born in Gujarat, India. As Indians and India
observers know, October 2nd is celebrated all
over India as Gandhi Jayanti, as it was today. While Gandhi’s economic
legacy has dramatically faded in contemporary
India, an erosion that began under the leadership of
Nehru, his trusted lieutenant, his social and political
legacies continue to inspire. For example,
environmental ideas have been arguably at the core of
many environmental movements and driven a lot of
non-governmental organizations indeed. The NGO movement in India
is one of Gandhi’s greatest social legacies. I use the term
socially advisedly. The number of NGOs
who swear by Gandhi is enormous, truly enormous. What about Gandhi’s
contribution to what might be called the
strictly political field? I’m clearly making
a distinction here between non-governmental
organizations and politics. A distinction that
can be made but may not be under certain
other circumstances. His contribution
to India’s freedom is so great, that even his most
fervent opponents of the time have had to accept
that he is the Father of the Nation in a way
no one else can be or is. He might be a difficult father,
but a father nonetheless. If we’re having
this conversation, the students of mine
who’ve been in my class know that I often say that even
lousy fathers can be difficult, but great fathers are certainly
difficult because they demand so much of their children. Yeah. India’s current
prime minister was reared in an
organization which always resisted and critiqued Gandhi. Mr. Modi, however, has accepted
Gandhi as modern India’s greatest figure. He said so now several times. Whether it is an act of
genuine ideological conversion, at least in part,
not wholly of course, or as a pragmatic
concession remains unclear. But even if it’s the latter,
namely a purely pragmatic move, it shows how even Gandhi’s
ideological others have had to acknowledge the
debt India owes to the man. Otherwise there would be no
need for a pragmatic concession. Gandhi’s core political
idea, of course, was civil disobedience,
or nonviolent resistance. Our speaker today has made
some original contributions to the discussion of
civil disobedience. The distinctiveness
of his work lies not in a philosophical
exploration– that’s my view– philosophical
exploration of the idea of civil disobedience as much
as a truly remarkable account of how nonviolence is
bland and mobilized in political practice. How a theory is
put into action, I invite you all to read his
chapter, The Salt March, in his book. The exact title is Mahatma
Gandhi– A Non-Violent Power in Action, a book I have
used for the last 20 years in my class because how
well it analyzes this idea, a theory put into action. What kinds of organizations–
what kind of organizing is needed when you put this
difficult idea of taking blows and not
responding violently, taking blows and not responding
violently into practice? Other than that famous
book, Dennis Dalton has also been associated
with the sources of Indian tradition. The most recent
volume, it’s a source for all of us, one of the
most important sources for understanding
Indian tradition, as well as how the
tradition lasted and in what form
in modern times. He has been, for most of
his professional life, the Ann Whitney Olin
Professor of Political Science at Barnard College of Columbia. And he retired
from there in 2008, has been Professor
Emeritus since then, and living not in New York City,
but in Oregon for the last four or five years. He will discuss
Gandhi’s place in India as overall
intellectual discourse. And if I understand
correctly, in particular, Gandhi’s relationship with
Ambedkar, a very important issue for our times. So please welcome
Professor Dennis Dalton. [AUDIENCE CLAPPING] We were discussing my book,
the Gandhi book, over lunch. And I must say,
after the discussion with Professor
Varshney, no author could expect a more
attentive reading. I had to search my own mind to
remember some of the details that he mentioned
in our discussion. So I treasure your comments. Thank you. And I am most grateful
to be here today. I’ll talk for
perhaps 50 minutes, and then look forward
to the Q and A afterwards, and
invite your questions. I call my talk, as Professor
Varshney has just indicated, Gandhi at the Center of the
Modern Indian Intellectual Discourse. And him being at the center is
particularly felicitous today because of his
being [INAUDIBLE], his 146th birthday. The word discourse in the title
refers to the remarkable way that modern Indian thought
represents a vital exchange, a virtual contests of ideas
among prominent political leaders during the
Nationalist Movement. Whether the discourse
was sometimes charged with acrimony, as
between Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar. Or with eloquence as
Gandhi’s exchanges between the great poet,
himself, Rabindranath Tagore. These diverse, vigorous debates
remain rich and informative. As we gain more perspective
on the discourse, it’s contours, and substance,
increasingly illuminated significance. And we’ve referred
to– Professor Varshney has referred to a publication
in paperback at least. Just two weeks ago the
latest third edition of sources of Indian
traditions in paperback. And I’ll be glad to discuss
that with you, if you wish. This edition tries to capture
the vibrant conversation that went on among these leaders
of the Nationalist Movement. I refer you, especially,
you look at chapters four through seven, especially
chapter six, entitled, Gandhi and Responses,
which I’ve attempted to resurrect a vibrant nature of
this conversation, or dialogue, or debate among these leaders. As an actor with
magnetic force, Gandhi interacted at the center of this
dialogue, deeply rooted in it. He drew from both its ancient
and its modern sources; ancient in the context
of his religious heritage and modern from within the
Nationalist Movement itself. This lecture is
structured around ideas that concerned prominent
nationalist leaders and thinkers who with Gandhi at
the center shaped this course. It focuses on a
single word, Swaraj, usually translated as freedom. The particular
problem addressed here is how to unpack
and contextualize what may be called Swarajism, or
the Swarajist way of thinking. That is a continuing process
of both personal and political liberation, leading at
best to a spirit of what Gandhi and Ambedkar, alike,
identified as boundless empathy, or my truth. As we’ll see the concept of
self is crucial for Swarajism, meaning self-realization,
yet also self-restraint and
self-sacrifice. This theory of Swarajism
starts with how the term was conceived by
Indian Nationalist leaders in the early 20th century. It proceeds with their
various interpretations of a single text,
the Bhagavad Gita. I conclude with a summary
statement of the significance of Swarajist thought. Throughout the narrative,
Gandhi’s contribution is, of course, as
I said, featured. The modern Indian
idea of freedom dominates the discourse. It commences with
Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th
century and then soars through the writings
of the next 50 years of Indian political thought,
prominent especially in the political theories of
[INAUDIBLE], Bipin Chandra Pal, [INAUDIBLE], Rabindranath
Tagore, B.R. Ambedkar, and after Gandhi was [INAUDIBLE]
Narayan and M.N. Roy. The concept of
Swaraj, as I said, usually defined as freedom
in modern political thought, must, nevertheless,
be distinguished from our common understanding of
freedom in at least three ways. First, in the Vedic texts,
especially in the Rigveda and then in the Atharvaveda,
Swaraj initially signified self-ruling
chiefly in a political sense. For example, a king, including
even Indra, the king of gods, possessed Swaraj, it
was said in the Rigveda, as in sovereignty
over a dominion. And yet Swaraj also
had another meaning, in ancient Indian thought. The [INAUDIBLE]
[INAUDIBLE], for example, specifically states that
quote, one who has pleasure in the light only in the
soul, possesses Swaraj, or unlimited freedom
in all worlds. Therefore, from
the outset, Swaraj had this dual-meaning of
political and spiritual freedom. Second point about
Swaraj is how it assumed this duality of
political and spiritual in modern Indian thought. The word was
initially introduced to the Nationalist
discourse in the sense of its political meaning. And this was when Dadabhai
Naoroji pronounced it as self-government in
his presidential address before the Indian
Nationalist Congress in 1906. Bipin Chandra Pal, a
leader and theorist of the extremist faction within
the Indian Nationalist Congress seized on Naroroji’s
pronouncement of it and ran with it, enlarging
it to combine elements of personal, and
political, spiritual, and ethical emancipation. The lectures that Pal gave
in Madras in early 1906 are historic. They conceptualized Swaraj
by reconstituting it in its dual sense, as
well as connecting it to ideas of swadeshi
and passive resistance. Swadeshi translates
as one’s own country, and therefore, it signified
reliance on Indian rather than foreign materials. And this included
boycott of British goods. Following from this,
obviously the doctrine of passive resistance. All of these ideas
formed a nexus of thought forged by Pal
and other extremist leaders before Gandhi even
entered the Indian scene. Pal merits special attention
because he’s often ignored, when in fact, no one
spoke about Swaraj in the early 20th century
with greater oratorical power than Bipin Chandra Pal. So I offer here an ample
sample from Pal’s Madras lectures on Swaraj. These were delivered
two and a half years before Gandhi developed the
idea with mixed similarities. The following, then, is from
his Madras lectures in 1917. “This movement of Swaraj is
not a mere economic movement, though it applies to the
solution of the great problem of Indian poverty. This movement is essentially
a spiritual movement since it has its application
in the social, economic, and political life of the
sublime philosophy of the [? Vedanta. ?] It means to carry the
message of freedom because freedom is
man’s birthright. So are you. Prince or peasant, Brahman or
pariah, man or woman, Hindu or Mohammadan, Buddhist or
Christian, rich or poor, ignorant or learned,
you are inherently free. And this freedom is
not want of restraint, but it is self-restraint. Freedom is not want of
regulation but self-regulation. Freedom is not want
of determination but self-determination. And it is only
consists in members as members of a free state. We shall be able sooner
or later to realize the end that this new
movement has set up, namely that of Swaraj. We shall achieve
our goals of Swaraj through means of
passive resistance– that is, a boycott. With this comes, of
course, national education. This teaches us to
build the movement up from our village life. I said that our philosophy
comes from the [? Vedanta ?]. But the Indian nation
is not a Hindu nation, nor a Mohammadan nation either. Christians, Parsis,
Buddhists also form a large part
of our population. When we speak of Swaraj,
we talk of all these groups who belong to this land. The future people of
this Indian nation will not possess one
religion, or one social code, or submit to one
particular set of social or ethical discipline. Swaraj means a federated nation. It means we have our own
history, our position that is unique in the world.” This speech took a
long time to deliver because what I’ve
omitted from this speech were the extensive
periods of applause after virtually every line. This man was an
extraordinary orator. And Bipin Chandra Pal
deserves, as I said, far more attention
than he has received as a dynamic, forceful
leader of the extremists before Gandhi emerged. The words from Pal, and
this is our important point, provide the essential
elements of Swarajism. Other extremist leaders
soon supplied more until just the mention
of Swaraj served as the war cry of the militant
faction of the Congress. Aurobindo, Tilak, [INAUDIBLE]. Tilak’s mantra in May 1908
that, “Swaraj is my birthright, and I shall have it,” coincided
at exactly the same time with Auribindo, a
prominent extremist who insisted that the nation must
have quote, unqualified Swaraj, or self-liberation of the
people for the final fulfillment of the [? Vedantic ?]
ideal in politics, the true Swaraj for India. Now the last point relates
to Gandhi’s theory of Swaraj. Gandhi came notably late
in his reference to Swaraj. He didn’t mention the word
at all in his writings until as late as January
1907 when he briefly praised Naoroji’s speech. But Gandhi conceived a Swaraj
here only in a political sense. Within three years, a radical
development in Gandhi’s thought occurred. This critical change
of thinking happened during his crucial
visit to London in 1909 when he encountered
Congress extremists directly for the first time. Fresh from his
formative experience with civil disobedience in
South Africa from 1906 to 1909 after, he actively engaged
Indian terrorists who vigorously preached a violent
ideology of independence. Gandhi’s response was
historic and electric. The first sign of
it can be noted as he was about to leave
England to return in South Africa in October 1909. Gandhi, then, gave a
lecture entitled, Ethics of Passive Resistance. Here, he confronted
Bipin Chandra Pal for the first time in London. Pal reacted critically. In fact, he severely
criticized Gandhi’s position by contending that Gandhi’s
soul force, as he calls it, must always be backed by
physical force when necessary. Gandhi replied to
Pal at this point just as sharply that whenever
violence enters the Swaraj Movement in any form,
it would quote, not deserve the name of
satyagraha, or soul force. Now as we’ll see, Gandhi’s
position here accurately forecast the core element in his
controversy with Pal and Tilak later. It introduced into the
debate for the first time the vital theory, the
means ends relationship that Gandhi will feature in his
most important writing famously entitled, Hind Swaraj. This classic was
composed at [INAUDIBLE], while aboard the
ship voyage back to South Africa from
London in November 1909. So this was less than a
month after his confrontation with Pal. And it was also composed
to satisfy questions and criticisms from a close
friend of Gandhi, Dr. P.J. Mehta. My good friend, Professor
[? Schriwam ?] [? Merotra ?] has written an entire study on
the relationship between Gandhi and P.J. Mehta. And Gandhi later said in
1940, that he composed Hind Swaraj as a
response to his friend’s, as P.J. Mehta’s, criticisms. In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi didn’t
mention by name the Congress leaders at all. He only referred to the
two Congress factions of moderates and extremists,
directly then refuting their positions. His innovation in
Hind Swaraj was to take the extremist position
a crucial step further in terms of theory and method. He did this, not only
by forging the political and the spiritual
meaning of the word. Pal and Aurobindo had both
argued that two years earlier. What Gandhi introduced was, of
course, the theory and practice of satyagraha. Gandhi started by telling
the Moderates bluntly that their approach
was impotent, since their reliance
on endless petitioning would get the movement nowhere. It needed active
resistance of the sort that he, himself, led in
1906 with civil disobedience against apartheid
in South Africa. More consequentially,
though, Gandhi moved that to what he saw as
the fatal flaw of the extremist case, that is their
admission, that if the method of passive resistance or boycott
didn’t make the Swaraj yield, then they, the extremists,
would be prepared to proceed to violent action against it. Gandhi categorically rejected
that as a viable approach for both moral and
political reasons. It couldn’t work, he
declared, because violence gave the moral high
ground to the British. And violent means
would corrupt the end. Gandhi’s dictum, we
reap exactly as we sow appeared first here, in
Hind Swaraj, in 1909. This signaled his core theory
of the logical relationship of means and ends consistent
with his interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita, that
we’ll turn to in a moment. The closing paragraphs
of Hind Swaraj sum up the new idea of freedom
that Gandhi contributed to the Nationalist discourse. “Real Swaraj,” he stated
at the conclusion, “is self-rule in the
form of self-control. The way to it is satyagraha,
that is truth force.” Satyagraha has been translated
in a number of ways. Gandhi, himself, translated
it as truth force, soul force, love force. In my book I simply call
it non-violent power. “Therefore,” he
continues, “in my opinion, we have used the word Swaraj
in a wholly different way without understanding
its real significance. I have endeavored to explain
it as I understand it. And my conscience testifies
that my life, henceforth, is dedicated to its attainment.” The significance of Hind
Swaraj can not be overstated, and it’s justifiably
received ample attention by a number of
Gandhi’s scholars. As an ideological
proclamation of independence, its meaning for
anticolonialism is evident. In philosophical terms,
the theoretical connection forged between
Swaraj and satyagraha has been indicated by James
Tully, a well-known philosopher in his book, Public
Philosophy in a New Key. Tully perceptively
explains in quote as, “A meditative relationship. A working truthfully on
one’s self and one’s attitude to improve how one
conducts one’s self in the challenging yet
rewarding civic relationships with others.” Once again, I recommend
this book to you by the Canadian philosopher,
James Tully, his book, Public Philosophy in a New Key. As it happens, James Tully is
being celebrated now in Yale as I speak. That is, this book
and his other works have been chosen for special
attention, not because of his writing on
Gandhi, per se, but because he has become
a leading philosopher on the subject of citizenship. The point here, in the context
of the intellectual history of the Nationalist Movement,
is how ho Hind Swaraj clearly forecast Gandhi’s response
to both sides of the Congress in the debate between them. That is the stuff of
this exciting discourse. That is how well it served
him in the decade between 1909 and his rise to power in
India with the satyagraha campaigns of 1919 to 1922. He deftly stole the
thunder from the extremists by laying claim to
the Vedic tradition in his own
reconstruction of Swaraj. Yet he went further
by contending that their admission of
violence as permissible only emulated the West,
whether by following the terrorists of the Irish
[? Champlain ?] Movement or by the British Suffragettes. The extremists demanded action
and Gandhi gave it to them through the novelty
of satyagraha. At the same time, the
Moderates’ objection to violence was overridden by Gandhi’s
assertion of principle, nonviolence. So in one stroke Gandhi
advanced a discourse, that had been stalled within
the Indian National Congress, by paralyzing
factionalism, divisiveness, over a right method of action. Swaraj, thus, meant
more then Naoroji, Pal, Tilak, and
Aurobindo had conceived. It carried the traditional
meaning that Pal had revived but Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj
gave the movement satyagraha. Passive resistance then
was transformed by Gandhi into the entirely novel
idea that India’s freedom could be gained only through
strict nonviolence in word and deed. The extremists
hadn’t anticipated the consequent power
of seeing satyagraha, or a nonviolent
action, in this way. And so they were eclipsed
quite dramatically by 1919 by Gandhi when the
movement really took off. It took off four years after
Gandhi returned to India from South Africa. But naturally, there
was immediate resistance to Gandhi’s method of
satyagraha from those allied with Tilak and Pal. Annie Besant, for instance,
very remarkable woman, who was everywhere seen the
world in terms of resistance movements at this time. She was President of the
Congress, Indian National Congress. This Irish woman in 1917. And she was also a prominent
member of the entire extremist camp. Her criticism of Gandhi
at this time is memorable. She declared, “Gandhi
doesn’t want Swaraj. He wants suffering
and more suffering.” Aurobindo joined
in this criticism by characterizing satyagraha as
quote, getting beaten with joy. Gandhi’s dramatic and final
break with the extremists didn’t occur until January
1920, when Pal and Tilak refused to support his non-cooperation
campaign because of the demanding, exacting
requirements that Gandhi attached to satyagraha. Therefore, in placing his
resolution before the Congress, Gandhi stated emphatically
that their method, that is the extremist method, was
emphatically not consistent with his. “Mr. Pal and Mr.
Tilak,” Gandhi declared, “represent a definite school of
thought opposed diametrically to ours. They consider that everything
is fair in politics. We join issue with them in this
conception of political life. We consider that
political life in India will become thoroughly corrupt
if we import Western tactics and methods. We believe that nothing
but the strictest adherence to nonviolence, that is
to honesty, fair play, forgiveness can advance the
true interest of this country. This is the essential
difference between us.” From this, followed
Gandhi’s theory, based on his idea of means, ends,
of the core opposition of satyagraha to
passive resistance, or what he called
leaving behind the term passive resistance, duragra. That is clinging to
bias in a bad cause by using wrong methods. Duragra denoted the
counterfeit of satyagraha because it was corrupted
by its implicit allowance for violence. Some say, Gandhi remarked, that
quote, means are, after all, just means. I would say, means are,
after all, everything. As the means, so the end. Violent means will
give violent Swaraj. That would be a menace to the
world and to India itself. Now this sharp antinomy
that Gandhi insistently draws throughout between
satyagraha, on the one hand, that is pure nonviolence, and
duragra, on the other, that is mere passive resistance
that usually corrupted by wrong means, wrong methods,
as well as wrong sided goals. It’s distinguished and
refined by his means ends theory, giving the
Nationalist Movement a solid theoretical pillar. Gandhi stated this
clearly and emphatically. To quote Gandhi,
1920, “Satyagraha differs from passive resistance,
or duragra, as the North Pole from the South. The latter has been conceived
as a weapon of the weak and does not exclude the use
of physical force or violence for the purpose of
gaining one’s end. Whereas the former,
satyagraha, has been conceived as a weapon
of the strongest because it excludes the use of violence
in any shape or form.” And now we turn to a
discussion of Gandhi’s reading and use of the Bhagavad Gita. This shows how he enlarged and
illuminated the idea of Swaraj. His unique interpretation of the
Gita captured, on the one hand, the philosophy that
Tully perceives as quote, a meditative
relationship of working truthfully on oneself. While, on the other, it
emphasizes and incorporates the Gita’s concept
of karma yoga, that is the yoga of
action, selfless action. Gandhi consistently
maintained that the Gita served as the major spiritual
influence on his life. His [? excellent ?] uses of
the text, by far the longest and most detailed that he
gave to any single writing, includes a treatise entitled,
Discourses on the Gita. This was delivered in
a series of lectures that he gave to
members of his ashram from February to November 1926. And it’s evident, from this text
alone, that his use of the Gita is central to his thought. As he says repeatedly,
this is the source that he returns to until
the end of his life as a fount of inspiration
and consolation in both political and
personal respects. So these Discourses on the Gita
comprised no fewer than 217 lectures, 282 pages in
his collected works. And in the final
lecture, Gandhi concludes with a sense of reluctance
that its come to an end. The quote is, “My
enthusiasm for the Gita,” he told his ever eager ashram
audience, “grows day by day. When we began, I agreed
to talk about the Gita and explain its meaning
because I liked the idea. But now my pleasure
in the discussion has grown since I started. I get daily more
absorbed in it.” And one gets the
impression, at lecture 217, that he could’ve easily gone
on for another 217 lectures. His enthusiasm for not
just explaining the text, but relating it to the
daily life of his ashram. That’s the point. And it increases
with each lecture. Examples are bound
throughout these lectures. It’s about Gandhi
insistently applying the Gita to every day conduct
in his ashram, in this case the
[INAUDIBLE] Ashram. His basic premise, and this
cannot be emphasized too much, was that since the ashram must
be the model or the microcosm for the Nationalist Movement,
lapses in moral behavior in the ashram betrayed
the whole country’s cause. For example, when
someone was said to complain about
cleaning latrines because it qualms over
caste prohibitions, Gandhi sharply
determined that quote, Shri Krishna would tell him that
he was betraying his dharma, that he would lose
his good name, that people would
forever talk ill of him. Because the Gita taught
equal dignity of all without regard to caste. Furthermore, the Gita’s idea of
[? yajna ?], or self-sacrifice, dictated the sanctity of
manual labor in particular. Gandhi declared that quote, Man
simply cannot live without such work. Gandhi prejudices,
caste prejudices rather, contradict the value
of bread labor, as Gandhi liked to call it. Therefore, corrupt,
traditional practices of caste, or untouchability, cannot be
tolerated within the ashram. And they’re all sorts of stories
about how Gandhi is fighting with everyone over this,
including his own wife, about cleaning latrines or
performing other practices that are deemed often
beneath caste status. If the ashram, he insisted,
can’t exemplify these reforms, then the country has
no model to follow. One particular lapse of behavior
in the ashram so concerned Gandhi, they made
it a running theme throughout the discourses. This is the struggle between
possessiveness and detachment. For instance, when
an ashramite was distressed over the theft
of his personal property, Gandhi didn’t choose to make
this an issue of thievery in the ashram, rather he
criticized the victim’s distress as a symptom of
wrongful possessiveness or an attachment. It’s striking in this regard,
how Gandhi featured this as the central
lesson of the Gita, that is to learn detachment
from all possessions. In these discourses, he connects
virtually every major idea to it, always starting
with attachment. It breeds a host
of sins, beginning with craving that leads to
anger, enmity, lust for power, every aspect of selfishness. “Where there is
possessiveness,” he said, “there must be violence. We should think that the
things we keep in the ashram belong to others
as much as to us, and so remain
indifferent towards them. The other way is the
way of violence.” Krishna, oh we’re going
back to the Gita now, Krishna tells Arjun to
give up any possessiveness. If we blame the thieves and
regard them as very wicked men, we would be filled with
rage and want to kill them. Attachment gives rise to
anger and anger clouds a man’s vision, so that
he loses his judgment and forgets who he is. We should concentrate our
attention on the means. If they’re right, the end
is as good as assured. We can follow the
truth only, only if we shed our attachment to the ego. It is to teach us this
that Shri Krishna has advanced this beautiful
argument of the Gita. This should be the ideal
for the Satyagraha Ashram. That we may see light when
all around us is darkness. As in our body, so is
the universe, otherwise, we cannot win Swaraj. If we can achieve
self-realization, then self-realization
necessarily implies Swaraj. So do you see, there
is this long discourse, lecture, and always
infuses ideas from the Gita, because these
are discourses on the Gita. But almost always it comes
back to the central notion of Swaraj. It should be evident
that Gandhi was just fascinated with the Gita
because of how he could construe multiple meanings
from it that comprised his whole nexus of ideas. The Gita became the basis
of his whole program of social reform, his theories
of satyagraha and Swaraj, of the necessary relationship
of means and ends, and this must not be missed,
his concept of anticolonialism. Because the Gita
represents Indians, special meaning to the
world, special message to the universe as it
combats colonialism. Their cravings,
the possessiveness of modern materialism,
the hatred, the brute force of
imperialism, they have corrupted the original
meaning of civilization as good conduct. Good conduct, of course,
being [? suduro ?] and not [? kuduro, ?] the idiotic
conduct of the West. He often concludes
then with his reference to Swaraj because
it connects him centrally with anticolonialism. Now throughout
the discourses, he refers to the texts
as an epic poem. And he, himself, saw
himself as deeply involved in the art of poetic
interpretation. Gandhi never wrote a
word of poetry himself. He wasn’t much moved even by
Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize poems. And yet, he could assert
the power of the Gita lies in that the poet’s
meaning is limitless. He claimed that, “Only after 40
years of unremitting endeavor, I’ve tried fully to enforce
the teaching of the Gita as a great religious poem. The deeper you dive into it,
the richer the meanings you get. So at every age,
the important words will carry new and
expanding meanings.” He includes
tellingly that quote, the secret is at
liberty to extract from this treasure
of the Bhagavad Gita any meaning he likes,
so as to enable him to enforce in his
life the central teaching. Now this last claim
deserves real emphasis because of what it reveals about
his Swaraj’s way of thinking. As we’ve seen, leading thinkers
of this Nationalist Movement featured the idea of
Swaraj long before Gandhi developed his interpretation. Gandhi’s originality
lay in the way that he incorporated the
Gita into his Swarajism. 10 years after Gandhi delivered
the Discourses on the Gita, he reflected back
on his mission. He said, what I have done is to
put a wholly new interpretation upon the entire teaching of
the Gita and the very spirit of Hinduism, giving new
meaning to karma yoga, [? senyasa, ?]
[? yaja, ?] et cetera. This has breathed new
life into Hinduism. Now this claim might
seem extravagant, but in a certain respect,
it can be substantiated. We return now to the first
lecture in the discourses. This is crucial because
he revealed here his allegorical
interpretation of the Gita. This came with his contention
that the great epic poem was not as it might
appear, an account of an actual historical battle. It is rather a profound
metaphor of a moral struggle between forces of good and
evil, nonviolence and violence within each of us. The Gita, as allegory, was
meant to inspire, then, an internal contest within us. Our ethical duty, which he
stresses duty over and again, is to undertake
this inner strife. And notice specially how this
is emblematic of his Swaraj’s way of thinking
because it insists on his quest for inward freedom,
one of his favorite terms. Inward freedom achieved only
through psychic struggle. That’s my term. We’re using another metaphor. Gandhi declared that quote,
the pilgrimage to Swaraj is a painful climb, an
arduous inner ascent. We’re reminded here
further of Gandhi’s advice to a nephew who has asked
Gandhi, how to work for Swaraj. Gandhi replied. And these words are
pearls of wisdom from a Gandhian point of view. Quote, he tells this nephew. Emancipate your own self first. This burden is
very great indeed. Apply everything to yourself. In your emancipation is
the emancipation of India. The Gita became in Gandhi’s
allegorical interpretation, the indispensable
guide to first self and then national liberation. Richard Davis has honored
us with his presence today. He has analyzed Gandhi’s
view of the Gita splendidly in his recent
and your original biography of the Gita in a segment,
among many others, entitled, Gandhi’s Nonviolent Gita. Richard, I had concerns that
in this terrible weather, you somehow wouldn’t show
up for [INAUDIBLE] College. But you have blessed
us with your presence, and I am deeply
grateful because I’m going ask you to comment
on this, furthering our discussion. The value of Richard Davis’
study for our purpose, is that he not only gives a
lucid and succinct explanation of Gandhi’s
interpretation of the Gita against its classical
antecedents, but he also places it in
the context of contrasting interpretations by major
leaders, B.G. Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, Aurobindo Ghose. The contrasts are
sharp and instructive because they enter into
the ongoing conversation, discourse. It presents the Gita as
at the magnetic center of a rich dialogue within
the Nationalist Movement. This narrative shows
Gandhi striking originality by fulfilling his
claim to quote, put a new interpretation on
the whole teaching of the Gita and the meaning
of hidden wisdom. This point is well made
in an extensive review of Richard Davis’ book entitled,
War and Peace in the Bhagavad Gita. The review is by a
well-known scholar of Sanskrit and Hinduism,
Professor Wendy Doniger. Doniger opened her
review with a question. And the question was this, how
did Indian tradition transform the Bhagavad Gita, the soul of
God, into a bible for pacifism, when it began life, sometime
between the third century BC and the third century CE,
as an epic argument persuading a warrior to engage
in a battle, indeed a particularly brutal,
lawless, internicine war? Now we might know that
Doniger’s point is not new. Barbara Miller might. Former colleague
at Barnard College and, from my point of
view, the gentlest, most compassionate Sanskrit
scholar that I’ve met. I contended in the afterword
to her translation of the Gita in 1986, a widely
available translation you may know in [INAUDIBLE]. They quote, Barbara
said, “The Gita is not a justification of war,
nor does it propound that you were making mystique
as Mahatma Gandhi knew when he read it.” I had the honor of discussing
this at great length with Barbara Miller, and I take
her point of view emphatically. Doniger, however,
moves the argument further than Barbara
does in her afterword by explaining how
Gandhi’s voice emerged as prominent in this
focused conversation about this single text. Gandhi’s prominence, which
seems improbable, after all, as advocate of
nonviolence, directly opposed to the
contrary [INAUDIBLE] of Aurobindo and Tilak. Moreover, Davis
and Doniger mention in this contest
of interpretations in another figure. The one Professor
Varshney mentioned. That’s B.G.–
[INAUDIBLE] Ambedkar, by far Gandhi’s most
vocal and vehement critic. Ambedkar, renowned,
untouchable leader and theorist of his community,
offered a telling indication of the distance
between him and Gandhi, when he referred
to the Untouchables consistently as Dalits,
rather than as Harijans, children of God. Ambedkar deemed Gandhi’s
term and Gandhi himself as an upper caste,
patronizing Hindu. And he chose Dalit
for downtrodden as far more realistic than
Harijan, or child of God. The Bhagavad Gita provided a
charateristic lightning rod in Ambedkar’s fierce
controversy with Gandhi. It’s evident that
Gandhi liked metaphors. For him, the Gita represented
both an oceanic poem. The deeper you dive into
it, the richer the meanings you get, as well as a
majestic ship or a boat. Gandhi quoted Shri Krishna’s
Divine Voice in the Gita, in the midst of
these discourses. The quote is, “Even if you are
the most wicked of sinners, you will cross the sea
of darkness and ignorance with this ship of knowledge, the
Bhagavad Gita in your hands.” Gandhi, then, said,
after commenting on Krishna’s comment
in the Gita, he said, “For me, the Gita is the ship.” And we look forward to
[INAUDIBLE], Richard Davis’ next book, which is titled
Boat Over Troubled Waters, will focus on this
entire discourse, using the Gita as the key. It was, for Gandhi, a
ship over troubled waters because it gave him his whole
life safe passage over the most turbulent seas. Davis brings us to the point
of conflict between Gandhi and Ambedkar through his
account of Ambedkar’s position on the Gita. Ambedkar would have none
of Gandhi’s metaphors or allegorical interpretations. For him, the Gita
presented a rationalization of the Vedic caste system,
a defense of inequality and exploitation of
Dalits especially. And then, again, quoting from
Richard’s book, at its core, Ambedkar asserted
Krishna’s teaching aimed to supply a
divine foundation for the hierarchical
social order. Now if we return to
Wendy Doniger’s question about how the Gita became
a bible for pacifists, it certainly wasn’t due to
Ambedkar’s interpretation of it, nor did it come
from Indian Nationalists before Gandhi. In 1908, Aurobindo,
for example, declared his militant
interpretation of the Gita. Aurobindo wrote, the
sword of the warrior is as necessary
to the fulfillment of justice and righteousness
as the holiness of the saint. Therefore, Aurobindo
concluded, Shri Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita,
God created battle and armor, the sword, the bow,
and the dagger. Not long after this,
Aurobindo was put in prison and finally escaped
to go to Pondicherry, where he spent the
rest of his life. Now there’s no hint of
allegorical nonviolence in Aurobindo, nor is there
any hint of it in Tilak, or Lala Lajpat Rai,
or the other figures. This came solely from Gandhi. And it furthered defines his
Swarajist way of thinking. Because Gandhi, in
contrast to others, presented the Gita,
as we’ve seen, as a parable of
inner struggle that carries the secret
to a higher level of individual consciousness,
thus contributing to India’s emancipation. At best, proper
study of the Gita liberates one from
delusions of domination, from lust for power,
from anger, from hatred. In this regard, it gives
us Swaraj and satyagraha in its purest sense
as rule of self through an internal form of
conflict resolution in path to spiritual freedom. In fairness, Auribindo might
say– Auribindo did later, as Richard points out, change
his interpretation of the Gita substantially. Although, Auribindo
still rejected Gandhi’s allegorical meaning in
advocacy of nonviolent action. The political implications
of Gandhi’s use of the Gita became clear in the
Nationalist Movement. As Richard Davis aptly
concludes, quote, for the Indian activists
aligned with Gandhi, the teaching of
the Bhagavad Gita would define and reinforce
the discipline practices of nonviolent karma yoga at
the center of the struggle for Indian independence. Now in conclusion, Gandhi
achieved a radical paradigm– a radical paradigm shift
in Swarajist thought. He first redefined it,
and then he connected it to, more importantly,
satyagraha. He insisted that only
the strictest adherence to nonviolence could mobilize
the masses effectively and gain Swaraj. Unlike any thinker
or leader before him, he demonstrated the viability
of a method that didn’t merely unite the Congress,
but completely transform its method,
its mission, its program. The example of the Gita
serves to illustrate this. It provides an
essential allegory for a new way of conceiving
the freedom struggle. Against Tilak and Aurobindo,
who saw the Gita as a sanction for violence, or
Ambedkar, who insisted on its historical justification
for Indian domination, Gandhi came up with an
entirely original idea of it. The point, though, is
not just its originality, but that it follows logically
from his distinctiveness Swarajist way of thinking
about internal struggle as a path to personal
and political freedom. Emphasis needs to be placed
on how this path demanded a right form of ethical action. As we saw, earlier in
his political career, Gandhi grew impatient
with the Moderates because they were a
faction of an action. He equally rejected
the extremists for pursuing
wrong-headed action. From Hind Swaraj, his first
treatise, to his last writings, Gandhi insisted that his
method was all about action. He said action is
my domain in 1946. And the imminence
of India’s Civil War increased his sense of urgency. He concluded in ’46,
the world does not need– does not hunger
for [INAUDIBLE]. What it craves and will always
crave is sincere action. The Gita worked for him because
it satisfied this craving. This is why he
regarded Karma Yoga, the Gita’s Yoga of Action,
as the core of the text. There are several important
thinkers whom I’ve not touched on in this analysis. [? Vedagananda ?],
who inspired Gandhi. Lala Lajpat Rai, who like
Pal, Tilak, Aurobindo, contended with Gandhi. [INAUDIBLE],
[INAUDIBLE], M.N. Roy, who outlived Gandhi with their
own distinctive ideas about freedom. These noted figures reinforced
from one perspective or another aspects of the
Swarajists way of thinking. Above all, in terms of earnest
engaged discourse with Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore
reached Gandhi most deeply. Tagore definitely had serious
differences with Gandhi. Yet when he spoke of Swaraj,
Tagore used similar language. This is from Tagore now. The they who have
failed to obtain Swaraj within themselves,
Tagore asserted, must lose it in the
outside world too. The real place of
Swaraj is within us. The mind and its
diverse power goes on building Swaraj for itself. As everywhere else,
Swaraj in this country has to find its
basis in the minds unfoldment of each individual. As we listen to
Tagore’s language, it’s evident how profoundly
the conception of Swaraj resonated through modern
Indian political thought. When Gandhi wrote
in Hind Swaraj, “It is Swaraj when we
learn to rule ourselves.” He expressed a distinct
way of thinking about political and
personal emancipation. The notion of independence
became transformed into Swaraj, a philosophy of
social and self-cultivation, and then, with
satyagraha, a dynamic mode of political and social action. The originality of Gandhi’s
interpretation of the Gita provides an illuminating
case in point, especially as it
complements and reinforces the Swarajist way of
thinking with its connection to satyagraha. The cumulative result is
a powerful Indian idea of freedom. It’s a theory that
is first grasped within the
Nationalist discourse, yet it moves beyond it as
well through this approach of comprehending
how Swaraj evolved and its ultimate consequences. We may appreciate it it’s
significant contribution to the entire literature about
the philosophy of freedom. Thank you very much
for your patience. [AUDIENCE CLAPPING]

2 thoughts on “Gandhi at the Center of Modern Indian Intellectual Discourse

  1. This is an excellent lecture and has deepened my understanding of Gandhi, especially in regard to his contributions to the exegesis of the Bhagavad Gita.

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