The religion of Gandhi: A Conversation about Satyagraha: Ajay Skaria talks with Omair Ahmad
Updated: Jan 25
It is rare to speak of “religion” in the political domain these days, and you mention your own difficulties in breaking out of the secular mould to read Gandhi in this light. Could you explain?
I must confess that, like most others who had come of intellectual age as part of the Indian left, I was for long suspicious of Gandhi because of his overt religiosity. Certainly, if you had asked me as late as 2000 whether there was any chance that I would work on Gandhi, I would have emphatically said “no.” And I would have said so partially because both as a college student, and later in my work in adivasi regions, I often encountered too many Gandhians running ashrams that effectively practiced an upper caste Hinduism. Even now, to my mind, his Hinduism as a social phenomenon likely enabled the later rise of Hindutva.
I was drawn into Gandhi’s writings completely by accident. In 2000, I was teaching the English Hind Swaraj in an undergraduate class, and a passage from it intrigued me. Since I happened to have the Gujarati text close at hand (I had in fact just bought it during my trip earlier that year to Ahmedabad since the person I was then working on, Indulal Yagnik, was first an associate and then a critic of Gandhi), and so I consulted it. There was considerable divergence between the Gujarati and English. As I read more, I realized that the divergences were quite frequent. It became increasingly clear to me that Gandhi’s writing was doing something quite different from what he may have intended it to do.
And this is one thing I would stress—my arguments are not at all a claim about what what Gandhi “really said,” or even about Gandhi as a historical figure. As a historical phenomenon, I think the scholarship of Ranajit Guha, Shahid Amin, David Hardiman and Partha Chatterjee is still quite persuasive—as Partha puts it, Gandhi’s ideology acquires “tremendous power,” because it enables the “political appropriation of the subaltern classes by a bourgeoisie aspiring for political hegemony in the new nation-state.” As for any arguments about what Gandhi “really said”, it is impossible to read Gandhi’s explicit arguments without a sense of profound disquiet, sometimes even outrage—for example, his repeated defense of varnadharma, his claim that only he (and not Ambedkar) can speak for the untouchables, or that moment when he cuts the hair of two girls in his ashram because boys have cast an ‘evil eye’ on them.
At the same time, my sense is that what makes rigorous thinkers interesting is precisely that their thinking is not exhausted by the arguments that are most evident in their writings. Here I would like to stress a beautiful word that Heidegger has given us—“unthought.” Heidegger says in What is called Thinking, “The more original a thinking, the richer will its unthought be. The unthought is the most precious gift that a thinking has to convey.” If we are to depart a little (but only a little) from what Heidegger goes on to say, then we could parse that statement as follows: An unthought is not what a thinking fails to think or does not think—that would merely be an inadequacy of the thinking. Nor should we confuse the unthought with an interpretation (something we add later, and sometimes presume is the implicit meaning of the thinking) or a contextualization (something we do when we place a thought in its surroundings). Rather, the unthought is what a thought cannot think, what is at its margins, but what it is nevertheless given from. Even when the unthought has the form of thought, it might undo and even destroy the thought; besides, it may not even have the ‘form’ of thought.
Gandhi is one of the most tenacious thinkers of dharma or “religion.” But it is the fate of all thinkers of the new that their context, and the very working of language, obscures their newness even from themselves. So it is with Gandhi. What I try and do in my book is elicit both what Gandhi thinks, and what he cannot think. Sometimes doing the latter requires bringing out how Gandhi’s explicit arguments come undone in his own writing. This undoing is not my interpretation of Gandhi, nor is it a criticism. Undoing is rather here a way of being faithful to a thinking or writing—betraying its explicit arguments so as to stay more intensely with what the thinking or writing gives, with what is most audacious in them but what may nevertheless be obscured in them. In being faithful to Gandhi this way—by betrayal, we can also think critically about many concepts we take for granted.
I have found Gandhi’s religion in this other sense increasingly unsettling and thought-provoking. Gandhi describes satyagraha as the religion that stays in all religions. He says there can be no politics without religion. He describes “modern civilization” as adharm, irreligion. But what is this religion? Most evidently, it articulates a profoundly conservative politics. On closer attention to the fissures and divergences, however, it is clear that Gandhi’s writing also offers, often against his explicit intentions, maybe even against his desires (unlike intentions, one is not in control of one’s desires), a far-reaching critique of liberal secularism and liberal equality; it potentially offers us some terms for thinking the equality of all being.
You mention how Gandhi emphasised that the British themselves were trapped by modernity, and that we must be free of both the British and Britishisms, such as Parliament. How coherent was this thought? What alternative forms of governance did Gandhi realistically expect to work?
This is not a coherent thought. When we are engaged in the task of interpretation, we are often trying to tease out a coherent argument from a text. But when as in this book we are attending to arguments that Gandhi may even explicitly oppose but that nevertheless emerge from his writing, this question of coherence is not as important. What we are attending to instead is the moment of danger when the coherence of the text may be undone. If we attend to Gandhi’s writing in this spirit, then we could say that one most unsettling (again, notice, not most evident) trope is the way it questions the equality of ‘modern civilization’, of what we are today likely to identify as liberal equality. Liberal traditions affirm a public life centered around autonomy—around a community that is free and equal because it gives itself (auto) its own laws (nomos). These traditions conceive equality in terms of measure. They do emphasize the immeasurability of the human—this is why we have the emphasis on the inalienable rights of man and citizen. But here immeasurability itself is conceived in terms of measure—immeasurable beings are those who can rationally exercise measure. Relatedly, the ability to master or measure is itself the sign of the immeasurability that sets citizens apart from animals, things, or from non-citizenly humans such as terrorists or felons. Simultaneously, in a democracy, sovereignty must be equally shared among the vast multiplicity of citizen-sovereigns. So, another sign of immeasurability is the ability to recognize and submit to abstract measure (for example, the principle of “one person, one vote”) and assume citizenship.
Gandhi is deeply disturbed by this liberal equality, describing it as an ‘equality of sword.’ As that phrase indicates, in his writing liberal equality is based on domination. And one can sense how. As I have argued in the book and elsewhere, first, this order grants equality only to those beings presumed to possess the power to reason and measure, and in this way systematizes domination over all other beings—equality can only be between humans. And because the line between the human and the animal passes through humans, this equality also requires domination over other humans—there are those humans who are presumed to be not quite human, such as women, slaves, the colonized, or in our times terrorists and anti-nationals. Second, autonomous beings inflict a massive violence on themselves, for they lose the power to love, which in Gandhi’s writings requires the surrender of autonomy and even sovereignty. (It is because of this loss that in Gandhi’s writing the English deserve ‘pity’.) In both these ways, autonomy institutes a rule of the major, even an equality of the major. Here, freedom and equality is possible only through domination over the minor. What is lost is the possibility of an exit from subalternity that does not participate in domination or majority. It is in part because of these hierarchies that Gandhi can describe “modern civilization” as adharm or irreligion, that the Editor in Hind Swaraj describes parliaments as ‘emblems of slavery.’
The alternative to the equality of measure for him is satyagraha. But he is acutely aware that satyagraha is not an alternative form of governance. Satyagraha requires instead abandoning sovereignty or governance over both others and oneself. So satyagraha is not an institutional or governmental alternative to the equality of measure. This is why even as he criticizes parliaments, he retains a strong taste for parliamentary democracy. As the leader of the Congress, he is constantly demanding parliamentary representation; it may also be partially why perhaps he affirms Nehru over Bose or Patel.
And one can sense why he is so drawn to the equality of measure. That equality is very enabling, which may be why not only liberal but also feminist, Dalit and Marxist movements have drawn on it. The equality of measure is at work in every demand for rights, for due process, rule of law, and so on. For example, amongst the things that is so outrageous about the BJP government is the way it constantly abrogates this equality of measure, constantly abandons the rule of law (even more than the Congress, which was certainly no model in this regard).
One may ask: is this not a contradiction—that he demands what he also attacks as an emblem of slavery? I would say: no, it is rather the symptom of the relation of relinquishment that the satyagrahi seeks with state power and more broadly with autonomy.
There is an anecdote, which I have discussed in one of my essays, that illustrates this point very well: Somewhere in the 1920s, one of Gandhi’s associates writes to him, reporting a theft in his house. In keeping with what Gandhi argued for, the associate writes, he had not registered a case with the police. But he still felt angry at the thief. Gandhi responds by arguing that if the associate was resentful of the theft, then it was his duty to report it to the police; he should refrain from registering a complaint, Gandhi adds, only if he could forgive or practice satyagraha against the thief. In other words, if the satyagrahi cannot abandon the desire for police action against the thief, then the satygrahi should by all means seek it. The point is to relinquish rather than master the desire for state action against the thief. In a similar vein, satyagrahis can discipline themselves so that they are more capable of relinquishing the desire for mastery, measure, or parliament. But they cannot choose to relinquish that desire; rather, the relinquishment must seize them. This is perhaps also one sense in which Gandhi often says that he does not choose to do satyagraha, that the compulsion to satyagraha seizes him.
Why do you describe his political philosophy as a religion?
It is Gandhi who describes his politics as a religion, who insists repeatedly that there can be no politics without religion. All I am trying to do is figure out what this religious politics entailed and entails. From the perspective of the liberal secularism that is our common sense, Gandhi’s assertions seem downright dangerous. Liberal traditions, because they privilege autonomy, necessarily regard religion with some suspicion. From their perspective, religion is constituted by affect or faith. And to be religious in the public sphere is to be unfree, for it is to function by laws that one has not given oneself.
This is not, of course, to say that liberal traditions dismiss religion. Rather, they institute some version of the distinction between political society or the public sphere, and civil society or the private sphere. Here, the public sphere is where the ‘rights of citizen’ are exercised, and the private sphere is where the ‘rights of man’ or what we today call human rights—the private individual’s rights—are exercised. This is not only a freedom from religion in the public sphere; it is also a freedom for religion in the private sphere, which is why religion becomes a private matter. And the secularism that is created in the process could be described as a theological secularism: now secularism provides the highest values in the immanent world.
There have been some very powerful secular critiques of liberal secularism. This for example is what the young Marx offers in “The Jewish Question.” He points out that even though the two spheres are supposed to be distinct, with political society dominating civil society, actually things are the other way round, and civil society dominates political society. In other words, the secular state is the ‘perfected Christian state.’ As I have argued elsewhere, this does not mean that the state surreptitiously preserves some Christian values, or even that it embodies a secular version of Christian values—not at all. That kind of Hegelian argument, which is still surprisingly widespread amongst scholars, is what the young Marx is criticizing. For Marx, the secular state is the perfected Christian state in a profoundly ironical sense. What the young Marx is arguing is that Christianity—and religion more broadly—is marked by man’s alienation from his “species being”, and this alienation is perfected by the liberal and secular state. Marx thus has a critique simultaneously of religion and liberal secularism. We have usually picked up his critique of the former, but glossed over his critique of the latter. (This may be partially because Marx himself does not follow through on his critique of the latter, but that is a different issue).
But Gandhi is not offering a secular critique. He is instead insisting on a religious critique. And with this, we are on unfamiliar ground. To engage with it, we must begin with the question: what is religion in Gandhi’s writing (notice that I do not say ‘for Gandhi.’) I think we must remember that Gandhi writes after the death of God—that is to say, after secularism has emerged in the world as a force that must be confronted.
And what is striking about Gandhi’s writing is the way it stages that confrontation. Indicatively (this by no means an exhaustive typology), we can distinguish in this context between four ‘forms’ of religion. The first form of modern theological religion is liberal secularism itself. It is theological in the sense that it grounds itself in the affirmation of humanity or universal human values—as for example in the attempts to justify western military interventions as humanitarian, or the very word terrorism, which is by implication inhuman. If it insists that religion cannot and must not ground the immanent world, this is only because it now seeks to ground that world. The second form—and most relevant perhaps in India today—is the remaking of religion as ‘culture,’ as for example with Modi’s Hindutva or secular Zionism. And culture, like the concepts of nationalism and ethnicity that accompany it, is a constitutively exclusionary category (as my colleague and friend Qadri Ismail has argued in a recent book), one which converts religions moreover into social entities with homogenous traits, and capable moreover of being enumerated into majority and minority. In this remaking, as several scholars have noted, a profound secularism creeps in—the question of doctrinal beliefs, or for that matter of faith, for example, becomes relatively unimportant. The third form is the explicit creation of a new theology, as for example with the rise of Orthodox Judaism, the Iranian revolution, or the emergence of a militant cluster of Hindu swamis and sadhvis since the nineties.
Two points about these three theologies. First, to describe all these three as theologies is not at all to say that they are all equally violent. Between these three, I, for one, have in principle an extremely cautious but nevertheless unabashed taste for liberal secularism. That is because liberal secularism is marked by a distinctive autoimmunity (to slightly repurpose Jacques Derrida’s phrase)—that of the question. Liberal secularism enshrines the question: it sees its knowledge as constantly produced, revised, and governed by questioning and critical thinking. This critical thinking goes to the point where secularism is willing to destroy its own institutional forms—hence autoimmunity. Perhaps the most systematic form of this autoimmunity is what Claude Lefort has called the ‘empty place of power’ in modern democracies. As he says, power ‘appears as an empty place and those who exercise it as mere mortals who occupy it only temporary or who could install themselves in it only by force or cunning. There is no law that can be fixed, whose articles cannot be contested, whose foundations are not susceptible of being called into question. Lastly there is not representation of a center and of the contours of society; unity cannot now efface social division. Nevertheless, a theology organizes modern democracy—not just in the sense that Lefort presumes (as a latency that is activated when resurgent religions attack secular democracy), but also in the way that liberal secularism continues to be based on sovereignty. In this sense, liberal secularism’s autoimmunity is very distinctive—it kills itself only so that it can be born again as more sovereign and more powerful; its empty place of power constantly makes for a more powerful state.
Second, there is a relation between these three modern theologies. I think it is not too much to say that the second and third theologies, which explicitly seek to found the public sphere on religion, emerge at least partially in response to what they can only see as the hypocrisy of secularism—the fact that (as Marx helps us see) secularism’s invocation of a humanist universalism or an empty place of power always dissimulates and diffuses a very particular complex of interests. To secularism’s empty place of power, the second and third theologies counterpose a full place, but they do so partially because of their suspicion that there is no empty place anyway. (In this sense, they repeat, as ideology, the argument that Marx made as critique.)
To elaborate: in his forthcoming book, The Age of Anger: A History of Our Present, Pankaj Mishra, writing of the climate that produces these theologies, recalls Nietzche’s remarks about the ‘men of ressentiment’ who seethe with ‘rabid mendaciousness and rage.’ What this paradoxical phrase says is: they are angry, but they have made themselves angry by lying to themselves, and their lies are moreover rabid. Nietzsche’s targets in this passage are the ‘noble Pharisees’, amongst whom we could surely include the liberal secularists. In other words, a certain rabid mendaciousnesss already marks liberal secularism. If we cobble Nietzsche and Marx together, we might speculate that this mendaciousness is the assumption or hope that the public sphere can be dominant over the private sphere. And we might add: the Modi or Trump phenomena are but reactions to the mendacity of this theological secularism, even if their mendacity makes the latter mendacity look almost trivial.
What sets the fourth ‘form’ (though here, for reasons that it would take too long to go into, the word ‘form’ is inappropriate and yet indispensable) apart from the other three theologies is that it opens onto a modern political mysticism. I say modern because, like the second and third theologies, it emerges within the field marked by dominance of theological secularism. I say political because it is concerned, in a way that cannot be resolved, with the question of the part of those who have no part, to paraphrase Ranciere. I say mysticism because unlike the theologies, this fourth form does not seek to fill up the empty place of power with a new grounding religiosity. Instead, it radicalizes the empty place of power.
Gandhi is to my knowledge one of the most tenacious thinkers anywhere of religion in this fourth sense. A paradoxical double move constitutes his political mysticism. First, it accepts the secular characterization of religion as groundless faith. But, second, it refuses to accept the secular insistence that religion be limited to the private sphere. It says rather: there is only faith without ground, groundless faith, even in the public sphere. This assertion has dizzying implications. On the one side: first, as critique: if authority cannot claim grounding, then the exercise of sovereignty—whether the sovereignty of the state, or the everyday sovereignty of the autonomous citizen—is never just, will always be unjust, and any freedom organized around such autonomy or sovereignty is no freedom. Second, as affirmation: if faith is groundless, then it cannot claim superiority over other faiths or other beings. It must rather affirm an absolute or unconditional equality with all being—this unconditional equality is what is most proper to groundless faith.
On the other side: conversely, absolute equality can only be a religion—religion in the sense of faith without ground, or groundless faith. I say this because there can be no grounded way to claim equality with beings as different (to name some of those that Gandhi is concerned with) as snakes, scorpions, ants, trees or crops. They cannot share an equality of power of the kind involved in claims to rights (animal rights is a well-meaning idea, but it is profoundly inadequate). Equality here would require relinquishing autonomy, or the everyday sovereignty we exercise over ourselves. In the book and elsewhere, I call this an ‘equality of the minor’ to distinguish it from the ‘equality of the major’ that is possible with parliamentary democracy.
Groundless faith and unconditional equality—these are two names from different angles for the same phenomenon. To this phenomenon, he gives the name satyagraha.
But satyagraha is not an answer. It is a question: how is this equality without condition, this faith without ground, to be experienced or enacted? Satyagraha is ahimsa or non-violence, but in a very specific way. It is certainly not non-violence as an attenuation of force, as an abstention from physical force under all circumstances—Gandhi is too sophisticated a thinker to not realize that such a concept of ahimsa is simply indefensible, that it would actually collude in the worst violence. Rather, I prefer to describe satyagraha as surrender without subordination. If surrender is to a sovereign power, then those who surrender become subordinate. But in satyagraha surrender is a way of refusing subordination, of not only claiming equality with opponents, but of giving to opponents that equality which they have obscured from themselves.
Still, to describe satyagraha as a surrender without subordination can seem puzzling. After all, one might say, mystics surrender to a divine form in which they can lose themselves, and which welcomes them. In contrast, satyagrahis are political mystics: they surrender to eminently human or even animal interlocutors who are often their opponents. How would surrender without subordination work here?
If we are to faithfully betray Gandhi—which is to say, follow the opening offered by his writing in a way that might go against his intentions and even desires—then perhaps we could say this: satyagrahis submit unconditionally to their interlocutors, but in doing so they resist their interlocutors and call the latter to a similar submission. By surrendering, satyagrahis strive to participate in their interlocutors’ being, and by doing so they not only sustain an unconditional equality with the interlocutors, but also receive, give, and intensify their difference from the other. The greatest equality is thus here also the greatest difference.
One can in these ways perhaps offer a pre-definition of satyagraha. But the question remains: what is satyagraha? That question remains because of the very nature of satyagraha. Satyagraha is religion in the sense that it does not spring from either knowledge or even choice. I cannot choose to have faith. Having faith is here like falling in love—one falls in or into faith. It is symptomatic perhaps that on several occasions Gandhi says that he does not choose to go on satyagraha; rather, the command to satyagraha seizes him.
Nor can one know that one has faith—as Gandhi notes on several occasions, what the faithful are most aware of is the inadequacy of their faith. Put differently, the overwhelming knowledge that the faithful have of their faith is that they do not have faith. Wherever and whenever absolute equality has been accomplished, there one might say that there is adequate faith. But this does not solve the problem—the accomplishment of absolute equality is not a knowable fact. This is why it seems to me that when Gandhi says that there can for him be no politics without religion, this is true in ways that he can perhaps only apprehend, not know.
But precisely because it is marked by non-knowledge and faith, because it is a mystical religion, satyagraha is not just the moment of greatest hope but also the moment of the greatest danger. Satyagrahis strive for absolute or unconditional equality. But how will they know unconditional equality? What conditions, unknown to themselves, organize satyagrahis’ struggle for unconditional equality? Since satyagraha does not rule out violence (Gandhi is quite emphatic about this), when does the struggle for unconditional equality topple over into its converse—the most immeasurable inequality? These are some of the questions that I hope the book is sensitive to.
Doesn’t this ask us to reframe what the term “religion” itself is? What you describe of Gandhi’s thought might work for Indic systems such as Buddhism, but maybe not for Abrahamic faiths.
I am reluctant to distinguish between Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religions. In a suggestive book, Aaron Hughes has reminded us that the term “Abhrahamic religions” itself is a modern projection. While Islam, Judaism and Christianity might all invoke Abraham, and while there has obviously been considerable interaction between them, these religions do not share some essential characteristics that either unite them, or set them apart from other traditions. Relatedly, I am hesitant to draw on the phrase ‘Indic’ religions.
Yes, what Gandhi does is indeed a reframing of religion. I would only add: here, reframing is also a return: he is returning to what is central to the ‘concept’ of religion. Derrida offers in one of his essays a beautiful ‘pre-definition’ of religion: ‘it is always a response that is prescribed, not chosen freely…. There is no doubt that it implies freedom, will and responsibility, but let us try to think this: will and freedom without autonomy.’ I like the caution of this word ‘pre-definition.’ I take it that while a definition would identify the formal contours of the object being defined, a pre-definition describes the opening within which these contours are unfolded. And I like the pre-definition too. It avoids the usual secular conceit—shared for example by Marx—which sees religion as a realm of unfreedom. Rather there is here a freedom where one does not give oneself one’s laws (as one does in autonomy, the freedom of citizens), You can sense why Derrida prefaces his pre-definition by saying, ‘let us try to think this.’ It is indeed difficult to think: how can one be free if one is following laws prescribed by another, laws that one cannot claim to have assented to freely and rationally (as we are broadly presumed to have in a liberal democracy, though again Marx reminds us that we are doing nothing of that sort)?
If on this question Gandhi is so compelling to think with, then that is because his writing reactivates an old distinction—that between theology and mysticism or faith. You find both these traditions ‘in’ almost all the religions (in Hinduism, for example, in the contrast between the priesthood of the stable caste order and wandering mendicants): doctrines and institutions are organized around theologies, whereas mysticism recoils from such groundings and foundings—seeking God, it encounters the abyss, it keeps missing God. (Of course, one can say mysticism only in a non-historical sense: the moment we look at anything as a historical phenomenon, we shall find social integuments that necessarily constitute every historical mysticism. Nor even would one ever find a pure mysticism—historically, mysticism and theology are always entangled phenomena. My point is only that mysticism as a ‘concept’ has an agonistic relation with its integuments, its social locus.) While theology organizes itself around knowledge, faith begins from the encounter with those moments where knowledge becomes impossible. Relatedly, while theology institutes a sociality that marginalizes solitude (and, relatedly, the minor), faith requires a sociality organized around solitude. Gandhi’s writing—once again, not always Gandhi in his explicit pronouncements—activates and intensifies religion in this mystical sense.
Second, and this is what is strikingly new about Gandhi, his is a political mysticism. That is to say, unlike many mystical traditions, which are concerned with a freedom that requires shedding social bonds, Gandhi’s mysticism involves a freedom in society. This is what brings it so forcefully in conversation with liberal secularism, with autonomous or republican democracy, which too is concerned with freedom in society. But where liberal secularism organizes its freedom around an equality of measure, Gandhi’s writing (though not his explicit formulations) offers a freedom organized around unconditional equality. Unconditional equality can only ever be experienced as faith. But this insistence on faith also opens up new questions. For example: if the relation between theology and faith is not oppositional, how else can it be conceived? Is unconditional equality the necessary ‘form’ of the sociality and justice of political mysticism? And how can unconditional equality be enacted? These are some of the questions that my book begins—but only begins—to open up.
A key part of your descriptor of Gandhi’s “religion” is his idea of immanence, of God being a living force in the world. How does Gandhi resurrect God after Nietzsche eloquent burial of him?
Nietzsche’s eloquent burial, as you so nicely put it, is of the theological God—of the God who would be sovereign over us, of the God embodied in various institutions. And he does not bury only the God that we usually associate with religion. As Heidegger says, when Nietzsche says ‘God is dead,’ this also signals the death of the suprasensory world—of that world of ideas and ideals which has been taken in so many traditions, including those in the South Asian subcontinent, to be more true and real than the changeable and sensory world. After the death of the suprasensory world, there can no longer be a straightforward assertion of ‘higher values’ such as those involved in humanism, or what I have been calling theological secularism. This is why, Heidegger says, for Nietzsche now ‘nihilism, "the most uncanny of all guests” is standing at the door.’ Nihilism: this word signals, in an entirely different register, the critique we saw the young Marx making—that the higher values presumed to be embodied in political society are constantly suborned and dominated by the values of civil society, of ‘egoistic man.’
But Gandhi is concerned with a mystical God, not a theological God. And though he invokes God all the time, Gandhi inhabits a world after the death of God. To begin with, he finds it difficult to affirm a ‘kinglike’ or sovereign God. Instead, he says repeatedly, that satya is god. And unlike the knowledge that constitutes theological secularism, this satya itself is not sovereign or kinglike—it cannot command everybody’s loyalty. Rather, satya is a matter of faith—one knows satya only through bhakti. This emphasis on bhakti implies that now satya is only one’s own satya, and there is a plurality of satya.. As he wrestles with the question of how to demand justice where there is a plurality of satya, he comes to his formulations about ahimsa and satyagraha.
Your reference is to “equality”, but much of Gandhi’s thought also focussed on propriety – you call him a “radical conservative”, and although this evolved – you mention how his words went from “Kaffir” to “Zulu”- it continued to be a problem in his imagination of the caste system, as did his inability to imagine those out of their “proper” places, such as prostitutes.
I would rather say: amongst the things that Gandhi most gives to think is the question of how to think equality and propriety together. Questions of the swa or the proper or the ownmost are crucial to Gandhi. Just think of so many of the words that matter to him—swaraj, swadeshi, swadharma, or swabhav. His critique of ‘modern civilization’ brings him to this emphasis on the proper. For him, even in his explicit formulations, the fundamental violence of ‘modern civilization’ is that it knows no limits—that it breaches limits and makes finite beings infinite. Indeed, becoming infinite through measure—specifically, the citizenly measure condensed in autonomous reason—is the violence distinctive to modern civilization. To it Gandhi opposes ‘true civilization,’ which is organized around self-limitation.
This emphasis on self-limitation is the crux of what I call Gandhi’s radical conservatism. To my mind, what is distinctive about modern conservatism is the way it discerns something proper to entities, moments, phenomena. Moreover, it conceives this proper in terms of a constitutive separateness or substantive finitude—for example, the sense that the differences between men and women, or castes, or various social groups are immeasurable or incalculable. Conservatism is not innocent of measure (how can there be a claim to immeasure that has not experienced measure!), but by its terms the violence of measure lies in making the incomparable comparable, thus creating false unities that do not allow for plurality.
We often miss out on on this emphasis that, as we might infer from Uday Mehta’s work or Sunil Agnani’s recent book, modern conservatism in its classical form places on plurality. Edmund Burke conceives his idealized English society as a stable and harmonious whole whose plural parts are each oriented to what is proper to them, but nevertheless complement each other externally, without participating in or unsettling each other. And if Burke attacks the French Revolution so fiercely, it is partially because for him its emphasis on abstract measure will not allow for this kind of plurality within a whole. In other words, Burkean conservatism is dissatisfied with the kind of plurality made possible by theological secularism’s public-private distinction (where plurality finds its primary anchor in the private sphere); it seeks a more vigorous plurality than the latter allows.
This conservative claim to enable a more vigorous plurality can, has been, and must be challenged. Conservatism (which could, to add to our list, be considered a fourth modern theology) is certainly as violent the other three theologies. But its violence is organized differently—around an insistence on propriety, on substantive finitude and separateness. And conservative traditions consistently fail to recognize that this propriety is sustained through a distinctive domination and oppression—one marked by immeasure. Certainly, if so many marginal groups have found theological secularism enabling, this is because its measure and abstract equality has allowed them to challenge the domination that discourses of propriety render invisible.
(This schematic account should also indicate that the Hindutva brigade’s lurid fantasies about JNU’s “organized sex racket” and drinking parties have very little in common with classical conservatism. Hindutva strives to wrench immeasure out of colonial measure, but it does so by internalizing measure. Even where it invokes the proper, that proper and its immeasurability is understood in terms of culture, an enumerable category. It fears always moreover that this culture eludes it, and hence its frenzied violence both towards those presumed to be part of it, and those presumed outside it. And it hates internal plurality—whether that at work in conservatism, or in the public-private distinction.)
In the book and elsewhere, I describe Gandhi’s religion as a radical conservatism. Here, radical does not refer to left or right. Rather, I wish to re-call the etymology of radical—that which goes to the roots, whether to uproot or reroot. Gandhi is drawn to conservatism perhaps because it offers the most powerful way (I sometimes fear the only way) of questioning ‘modern civilization.’ But he seeks to conserve something strange—faith without ground, or equality without conditions. These are not substantive values of the sort that conservatism usually affirms. In order to conserve unconditional equality, for example, it would be necessary to destroy caste, as also gender hierarchies. There is thus a tension, even dare one say an aporia, in Gandhi’s writing between the conservatism that he must start from and the equality or faith he must conserve.
It is perhaps because of this aporia that there is a fundamental and even undecidable instability in Gandhi’s politics, that there are two radical conservatisms rather than one. On the one side: very often the conservatism that he starts out from makes it impossible for him to think unconditional equality. You can find many symptoms of this all over—his remarks on varnadharma, the very concept Harijan, and the way that he is unable to consider the possibility that prostitutes of Barisal can offer satyagraha. And in his writing these symptoms together articulate more a classical conservatism than a nationalist Hinduism. For example, when Gandhi defends varnadharma, he does not do so on by providing a functionalist account of it as a division of labor (of which defense Ambedkar acerbically remarks that caste is a division of laborers, not labor.). Rather, for him, varnadharma names the idea that people limit themselves to their caste and its associated obligations, and that such self-limitation allows them to focus on what is really important—their spiritual wellbeing. Going by this argument, the inequality between castes is a later accretion, and can be taken away so that varnadharma is left in its purity. This conservatism is radical in the sense that it pushes conservatism much further than ever before; it remains however profoundly violent in that the proper remains sovereign. Not only that, the sovereignty of varnadharma might even be strengthened since its propriety can now be maintained with a clear conscience.
On the other side, there are those moments, rarer but nevertheless often destabilizing or even breaking through into his explicit pronouncements, where conservative sovereignty is destroyed by the emphasis on a faith without ground and an equality without conditions. Here, satyagrahis practice the impropriety proper to unconditional equality. Much of the book is devoted to teasing out this second ‘form’ of radical conservatism.
All that is perhaps everywhere visible is only the first radical conservatism. Does he ever practice conservatism in the second sense? The problem with this question is that it is impossible to answer. If conservatism in the second sense has ever been practiced, it belongs to its nature that it has been practiced unknowably and invisibly, not least of all from the practitioner. Which does not mean without power.
Like the death of religion, there has also been a death of the state – in that those who had faith that modernity would lead to a more moral life seem to be confounded by the amorality, even immorality, of states. Does Gandhi’s philosophy allow us out of this trap?
There has indeed been the death of the ideal of the state—whether the communist state or the liberal state. That death may in part be because of the realization (not of course cast in these terms) that political society or the public sphere is always being undone by civil society in its various forms: capitalism, caste, and the theological religions, to name some. The communist solution—the abolition of civil society—led to what Arendt has so powerfully described as totalitarianism. The rise of neoliberalism and the neoliberal state is amongst other things a symptom of this disillusionment with both the socialist and the liberal state.
I do not think Gandhi allows us a way out of this bind—that the state and more broadly political society is constantly dominated by civil society. But he does offer one way, one very compelling way, to responsibly inhabit this bind. In quite a prescient manner, he attacks ‘modern civilization.’ Satyagraha is deeply suspicious of both civil society and political society, and it offers another sociality, another discipline. This sociality does not overcome civil society and political society. But it remains outside them, and seeks to make them more responsible.
Gandhi remained a devout Hindu, but is this because Hinduism is so vast a field where he could redefine his “religion” drastically and still consider himself devout?
I would hesitate to make that argument. It is by no means clear that Hinduism is any vaster a field than, say, Christianity, when you take into account the varieties of Christianity. After all, even within the United States, both Martin Luther King and David Duke declare themselves Christians. I would say rather than the way he could redefine his religion has to do with some of the potentiality of mysticism as a ‘concept’ that is both borne and obscured in all ‘religions,’ so to speak.
How, today, are these thoughts – this approach to philosophy – relevant?
In an interview, Derrida describes his relation to Heidegger and Freud as one of fidelity and betrayal: “I betray them because I want to be true to them.” This betrayal he calls a counter-sign or counter-signature. The counter-signature, he says, is ‘this strange alliance that occurs between following and not following, confirming and displacing; and displacing is the only way to pay homage, to do justice.” The counter-signature is simultaneously the most intense following and the most intense difference. Unthought and counter-signature—each of these ‘concepts,’ I am tempted to say, calls forth the other.
To my mind, the counter-signature (which I think it would be too simplistic to describe as the hallmark of a school called deconstruction) is especially pronounced in the work of many scholars of India of my generation or younger whose work I find most inspiring and thoughtprovoking—for example, Prathama Banerjee, Faisal Devji, Leela Gandhi, Aishwary Kumar, Udaya Kumar, Simona Sawhney, Sanil V, and Milind Wakankar. I do not think these scholars can be said to share an approach—they differ and disagree in crucial ways from each other. The counter-signature, after all, is not quite an approach. Rather, it is a difference that arises in the process of the most faithful following, or conversely a following that arises in the process of the most insistent differing. What they might share then is not so much something substantive as a modality of following and differing.
And if the counter-signature is relevant and even urgent today, that is because it offers a very distinctive way of relating to our pasts and presents. It avoids the two most common secular conceits—of beginning from a clean slate, and conversely of understanding matters in their historical context (here, context becomes the term that smuggles in a modernist concept of time and space). Instead, the counter-signature enacts a curious traditionalism—what might be called a destructive (in Heidegger’s sense) relation with tradition. And that relation may be one way of acknowledging the inadequacies of our usual distinctions between the public and the private, or between political society and civil society.
I wish I could say that Gandhi’s writing, when read in this vein, provides some answers, that now it is only a matter of the political will necessary to follow or implement them. But with the most rigorous thinkers things are never that clear. What we receive from them is not answers but new questions, and even more new ways of formulating old questions. And Gandhi’s writing, read carefully, offers many questions to think with.
Most of all, he gives us the question of religion as political mysticism. Recall: political mysticism (as distinct from political theology) emerges from being struck by the apprehension (but not knowledge) that there is only faith without ground, and that proper to such faith is the equality without conditions of all being. To his articulation of this political mysticism Gandhi gave the name satyagraha. Given how deeply the first radical conservatism runs through Gandhi’s writing, perhaps neither that name, satyagraha, nor his articulation of it need necessarily be retained today (though I would worry that any effort to begin anew too quickly might end repeating old mistakes in new ways).
Also, at least for some us, to stay with the question of political mysticism today would also be to encounter a radical or even mystical secularism. What such a secularism would be—this remains to be thought. Suffice here to say that radical secularism is not a militant secularism. Militant secularism seeks to eliminate religion from civil society. By contrast, radical secularism (of which we can discern in Ambedkar perhaps the most intense articulation) is acutely aware that the distinction between political and civil society, or between the public sphere and religion, is also empowering, and cannot be simply eliminated or even relinquished—it must rather be reworked. And radical secularism reworks the distinction through a focus on the social question. Arendt describes the social as a curious and somewhat hybrid realm between the public and the private. But especially when framed as a question, then the social is no longer a realm—it becomes a criterion. And as a criterion, it asks: how can the public-private distinction enable the equality of the most marginal? Would the distinction between public and private become mystical in such an equality? If so, how? I think of Ambedkar’s searching conversion to Buddhism as part of his struggle with these questions.
Still, I often worry: is political mysticism—whether as radical conservatism or radical secularism—even relevant at a time like this, when the vicious violence of the BJP and its affiliates threatens to replace the measured equality of theological secularism with Hindutva as a cultural theology? Is posing new questions, reframing one’s questions, even a valid concern at a time like this? Should we not simply push for the implementation of—even the will for the implementation of—the answers that we already somewhat know? I am not sure of this, nor am I sure that these two options are opposed to each other. But I also remind myself that satyagraha itself is formulated during British rule, a time likely even more viciously violent than now.
Excerpts from this conversation were published earlier in The Wire)