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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 2 January 13, 2024

Review of Postmodern Gandhi & Politics, Ethics and the Self Re-reading Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj | Chotelal Kumar

Friday 12 January 2024



by Chotelal Kumar

Postmodern Gandhi and Other Essays
Gandhi in the World and at Home

by Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph

The University of Chicago Press | 2006 - 272 pages
ISBN-10 : 0226731235
ISBN-13 : 978-0226731230

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Politics, Ethics and the Self Re-reading Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj
Edited By Rajeev Bhargava

Routledge India | 2022 - 370 Pages
ISBN 9780367488598

This work is based on a thematic review of two books, namely “Postmodern Gandhi and Other Essays” by Lloyd Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and “Politics, Ethics and the Self: Re-reading Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj” by Rajeev Bhargava. The primary emphasis is directed towards the ’Postmodern Gandhi’ chapter within Rudolph and Rudolph’s oeuvre, whereas Bhargava’s compendium delves into a chapter co-authored by Lloyd Rudolph and Akhil Bilgrami. Both books intricately delve into the intricacies of Gandhi’s seminal masterpiece, ’Hind Swaraj’. Hind Swaraj serves as a formative text for comprehending Gandhi’s perspectives on various potent concepts and worldviews. It has been posited that Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj stands as the preeminent work emerging from India’s anti-colonial struggle, being the inaugural piece to scrupulously scrutinize the cultural and civilizational assumptions inherent in the mindset of the invaders. The book astutely presents a complicated cluster of theses with conceptual sensitivity, analytical accuracy, and well-reasoned argumentation, making it the first work in India to fit into the wide heritage of contemporary world political philosophy. It is interesting to note here that Gandhi wrote this powerful book in his mother tongue, Gujarati, during a Sea voyage from England to South Africa in 1909, and it is one of the earliest works of Gandhi; he wrote this before his direct involvement in the Indian Freedom Movement. Gandhi, a prominent political figure in India, and his works have been extensively scrutinized in a plethora of works. However, these two books intriguingly distinguish themselves from the existing works of literature by situating him within a broader philosophical tradition as a global thinker. Notably, both books share significant thematic threads concerning Modernity and Civilization. In this review, I intend to delve into and problematize these themes to encourage a more discerning and critical engagement.

This paragraph derives its insights and interpretations from the essay ’Postmodern Gandhi’ authored by Rudolph and Rudolph. Gandhi, viewed modernity through the lens of scepticism. One can contextualize Gandhi’s critique of modern civilization within the paradigm of Colonialism and the British Empire. In his formative years, the British Empire stood at the zenith of its unassailable power and dominance, with its proponents proudly likening it to an everlasting sun. Gandhi found this hubris surrounding the formidable British Empire disquieting. He questioned the assertions of Modernity, which professed an unwavering belief in the pursuit of absolute truth and denied any possibility of existing alternatives. Gandhi found it ridiculing and rejected its assertions of absoluteness. For him, Satyagrahis should be dedicated to bringing about profound social transformation and understanding "truth in action," not absolute truth. Gandhi staunchly opposed the wholesale relegation of religion and myth, as well as the triumphantly progressive ethos of modernity. The carnage, destruction, and seemingly senseless nature of World War I laid bare the fragility of the belief in rational beings and unbridled progress. Beyond merely critiquing the prevailing societal norms, Gandhi offered a morally alternative elucidation of civilization. Both books depict Gandhi as being influenced by, and establishing a connection with, Europeans who not only questioned but also objected to and rejected both modernity and imperialism. These individuals served as a wellspring of inspiration and guidance for Gandhi as he formulated his critique of contemporary civilization and articulated his counterargument. Without a doubt, Gandhi wrote a tract for his audience, but it is also obvious that he intended to connect Hind Swaraj to timeless concerns about, to borrow Tolstoy’s phrase, “the good life”. Hind Swaraj’s writing conditions imply that Gandhi intended for his work to speak to a global population that was enslaved by modern civilisation as well as to his own people.

In his chapter, Bilgrami draws a sharp contrast between Gandhi’s and Weber’s perspectives on Modernity, emphasizing Weber’s stance that science enhances our understanding of decisions but remains incapable of definitively determining the optimal choice. Bilgrami goes on to argue that towards the end of his life, Weber grappled with reconciling his sombre view of modernity’s consequences with his deterministic vision of its inevitability. Like Gandhi, he used Tolstoy’s ethical framework when he envisioned a non-modernist alternative. Through embracing and synthesising the "Other West” (Counter to the absolute modernist in the West), Hind Swaraj establishes the foundation for Gandhi’s "other project," which goes beyond Indian nationalism and independence to reform and surpass "modern civilisation." The power to reject and transcend modernity is what makes Hind Swaraj so compelling.

For Bilgrami, Gandhi’s criticism of modernity was progressive, much like that of the English Radicals of Early Modern Europe. Further, he highlights Gandhi proposed his Ashram life as an alternative to a liberal modernist political economy. According to him, Gandhi was offering a foundation for asserting the concerns regarding the necessary collaboration (represented by the fear, "What if I helped and others didn’t?"), which are fundamental to the liberal political economy’s epistemological perspective, are inherently a profound expression of the disconnection that defines contemporary society. No normal person would have such fear in a society that is not estranged.
Additionally, he said that this kind of alienation does not occur in pre-modern civilisations where there was an unself-conscious and untarnished sense of belonging (even slaves and serfs, despite their terrible treatment in other respects, did not suffer from a loss of sense of belonging). In the eyes of Bilgrami, Gandhi’s opposition to the dismantling of pre-capitalist societies thereby showed that his anti-modernism was more than merely a romantic moralist attitude. While it was undoubtedly a normative position, it was grounded in the instinctive empirical understanding that colonial capitalism had not and would not produce the conditions necessary for the industrial transformation of primarily agrarian nations like India. As a result, the effects of imperialism were inherently dependent on the colonised world’s lack of the transformative conditions necessary for European capitalism to flourish and diffuse throughout the world.

Modern civilisation’s primary flaw is that it prioritises world dominance (or mastery over the natural world) over self-mastery. It places no restrictions on growth or ambition. Gandhi’s critique of contemporary civilization stemmed from a diverse array of sources, incorporating grievances articulated by individuals grappling with the challenges of existence in the modern world. Gandhi is cognizant that a multitude of Europeans and numerous Indians, whether directly or indirectly, align with his perspectives on contemporary society as articulated in Hind Swaraj. Far from being a nationalist manifesto, Hind Swaraj serves as an international proclamation challenging the pervasive and triumphant modern culture while positing an alternative. In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi assumes a multifaceted and international voice. It incorporates concepts from Tolstoy, Ruskin, and Thoreau’s thoughts about the "other" West in Europe as well as concepts from India’s major books, the Gita and the Ramayana, about non-colonized minds in India. It addresses and advocates for all forms of civilised existence.

In their scholarly endeavours, Rudolph and Rudolph construed Gandhi as a global philosophical thinker, positioning him as a forerunner of the postmodern philosophical tradition. They assert that in Hind Swaraj, Gandhi developed both an internal and external critique of "modern civilization," thereby challenging the prevailing notion of progress. In this manner, Gandhi made an early contribution to the emerging postmodernist philosophical tradition. Gandhi’s ideas also hinted at postmodernism by not elevating modernism’s dedication to the epistemology of master narratives, objective knowledge, and universal truths. Gandhi adopts the stance that people can only know incomplete and situational truths, which, at best, predicts a great deal of postmodern thought. Gandhi, a self-professed karma yogi, based his epistemology on the idea of "truth in action," which finds truth in the circumstances and unique facts of a given scenario. Truth took on several meanings and shapes for Gandhi. It may be situational, as in a satyagraha’s objective; contextual and contingent, as in his autobiography’s experiential truths; or absolute, as in his dedication to the idea that "Truth is God." The postmodern shift toward the contingent certainty of contextual or situational reality is foreshadowed by his conception of relative truth.

Big dam opposition represents a problem in the new development paradigm that captivated the enthusiasm of Nehru’s generation. Until postmodern criticisms started to question their predominance in the 1980s, social science thought about development was dominated by variables in one form or another. Gandhi questioned modernity’s concentration on physical capital and its efficiency by emphasising human capital, decentralised production, and appropriate technology. Though not quite enough to eliminate the necessity for Hind Swaraj’s harsh critique of contemporary society, the NGO and IT revolutions hold out some hope of surpassing the high modernism of the Nehru period and heading toward something akin to the postmodernism of Gandhi’s "imagined village." As Rudolph argues we go from the 20th to the 21st century, Hind Swaraj continues to be relevant literature. With the emergence of a postmodern Gandhi in the 1980s, Gandhi’s standing and reputation in India started to recover. The change was aided by books written by academics like Ashis Nandy and other prominent scholars. An emerging civil society comprising political and social movements as well as nonprofit, non-governmental, and voluntary groups was influenced and given legitimacy by a freshly remembered Gandhi.

(Review Author: Chhotelal Kumar is a PhD scholar at the Centre for Political Studies, in JNU, New Delhi)

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