Gandhi's quest for truth
Gandhi’s own life is replete with contradictions—perhaps, this was his characteristic way of suggesting that truth is never static but that it continuously evolves; it grows rather.
A somewhat redeeming feature of Gandhi’s chequered life was his uncanny ability to turn adversity into fortune. He did this by turning an argument on its head. Or by offering himself as a sacrifice. To put himself in the centre of everything was a method that Gandhi frequently deployed to succeed in seemingly impossible situations. Once he did that, he was able to put aside the two sides to any dispute and replace it with a contest between his conscience and the conscience of his interlocutor. The force of Gandhi’s conscience was irresistible—as many found out to their peril—and invariably Gandhi got away with what he wanted most of the time.
In an interview to a foreign newspaper, sometime in the 1940s, when Gandhi was asked to explain his constantly shifting positions on caste and patriarchy, he sheepishly retorted that “consistency is the virtue of an ass”. Gandhi’s own life is replete with contradictions—perhaps, this was his characteristic way of suggesting that truth is never static but that it continuously evolves; it grows rather.
Indian statesman and activist Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869 - 1948) receives a donation in a train compartment, 1940. Acharya Kripalani and Radhakrishna Bajaj are looking through the window. (Photo by Dinodia Photos/Getty Images)
The quest for truth, therefore, cannot be paved with certainty. Gandhi understood that a commitment to truth is served much better by basic honesty than an obdurate insistence on consistency; consistency may have its merits but it certainly is no virtue. Gandhi’s truth, at any rate, was not like an abstract castle of unchanging ideas, or a lofty tower on which philosophers perch at pleasure. Gandhi’s truth emerged from his engagement with life. It was born in the matrix of his struggles, often painful. It was a truth that he had to labour for; a truth that he also actively shaped. Viewed in this light—in the light of his “lived experience”—Gandhi’s many inconsistencies begin to make sense. We may still have good reason to disagree with Gandhi about everything but it would be unfair to question his integrity. In this column, I wish to focus on Gandhi’s ability to bend facts to the power of his will, to adapt reality to his version of the truth.
3rd November 1931: Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi (Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi), outside 10 Downing Street, London. He is in London to attend the Round Table Conference on Indian constitutional reform. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
The first is his creative understanding of history. In the Hind Swaraj, a book Gandhi wrote in 1909, he persuasively disagrees with how history is envisaged in the West. Gandhi is reluctant to translate “itihaas”—the Hindi/Gujarati word—into its English counterpart “history” because he is convinced that both words do not connote the same meaning. “Itihaas”, which means “thus it happened”, according to Gandhi, is far removed from how history-writing in the West is carried out wherein it had become merely a project of record-keeping tied to the pursuit of power. Gandhi passionately thought that history should not be reduced to a grand chronicle of conquests and battles of emperors. Or a record of conflicts. To Gandhi, such a view of history is a perversion of history—what is lost in this chronicling is the everyday life of the people, which Gandhi believed somewhat naively, is based on love.
Gandhi makes his case with a simple example. If two brothers have a fight and if one manages to kill the other, then that becomes news, a part of recorded history, but if those two brothers were to live peacefully with love then that does not register at all in how history writing is conceptualized in the west. To Gandhi, it was scandalous that history could ignore the very basis of human life, which was love, and only become a chronicle of aberrations—for conflicts and discords were mere aberrations of human existence, not its essence. This jaundiced mode of history that Gandhi was opposed to was an essential part of how modern civilization took root in the west. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his colleagues in the national movement, Gandhi wanted India to chart her own course and not emulate the west blindly. Gandhi is critical of western modernity and all its attendant structures: Medicine, Law, Parliamentary democracy, the modern State.
INDIA - 1946: Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi reading as he sits cross-legged on floor next to a spinning wheel which looms in the foreground as a symbol of India's struggle for Independence, at home. (Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
This brings me to the second major difference that Gandhi had with the west. Since the days of Aristotle, western philosophy has understood the human as part of the animal kingdom. Human beings were viewed as the most evolved animals, in other words, on the top, but within the same spectrum of animality. Hence, even though civilization meant a transcendence of the beastly, yet the animal in us could never be completely erased. This means that our body and its needs, desires, is ultimately the locus of everything including the mind. Gandhi believed that the flaws of modernity are partly because of this wrong understanding of the human. If we are slaves to the animal in us, we only get a civilization based on needs and desires, a civilization based solely on the body: a civilization that is rooted in individual self-interest.
Gandhi, on the contrary, saw a fundamental schism between animality and humanity. Human beings are qualitatively distinct from animals and do not share the same spectrum of existence, according to Gandhi. To be human is not to be ruled by the body, but to overcome it. All of Gandhi’s struggles, his conceptions of Satyagraha, Swaraj, his experiments with brahmacharya should be viewed in this context of how he understood the human to be radically distinct and separate from the animal. Gandhi wished for a radical reconstitution of how we understand the human. There is yet a transcendence of the beastly, but unlike his western counterparts, Gandhi argues for what has been described as an “exclusionary transcendence” wherein the beastly ceases to exist in the human. Hence Gandhi was able to reconfigure the understanding of the human being as someone autonomous of the body and therefore capable of altruism, sacrifice, and love. This understanding formed the bedrock of both his political and personal struggles.
The question is not whether Gandhi’s interpretation of history or his reconstitution of the human is borne out by facts. To Gandhi, this constituted his truth. And he lived by it.
Syed Areesh Ahmad teaches Political Philosophy at Ramjas College, University of Delhi.