The modern Gandhi

Ramin Jahanbegloo
30 January 2008

Mahatma Gandhi is widely recognised as one of the most original and influential political thinkers and activists of the 20th century, yet he remains an elusive figure. He never wrote a comprehensive and systematic political or philosophical work in the mode of Thomas Hobbes or Hegel, and the pamphlets and books he did write are extremely diverse in topic: they include criticisms of modern civilisation, the place of religion in human life, the meaning of non-violence, social and economic programmes and even health issues. These works are constructed upon a series of concepts (satyagraha [truth force], swaraj [self-rule], sarvodaya [upliftment of all]) which Gandhi elaborates into thematic strands.

Ramin Jahanbegloo was born in Tehran and studied at the Sorbonne University, Paris. He is currently professor at the University of Toronto.
He was previously Rajni Kothari professor of democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, and head of the department for contemporary studies at the Cultural Research Bureau, Iran.

Among his twenty books in English, French and Persian are Conversations with Isaiah Berlin (Phoenix, 2000), (as editor) Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity (Lexington Books, 2004), and India Revisited: Conversations on Contemporary India (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Also by Ramin Jahanbegloo in openDemocracy:
"America's dreaming" (30 August 2004) - an exchange of letters with Richard Rorty, part of our "Letters to Americans" series

"Iran's conservative triumph" (28 June 2005) - contribution to a post-election symposium with seven other Iranian writers

"Richard Rorty: living in dialogue" (20 June 2007)But the way that the interconnections between these strands are in turn related to Gandhi's life and action is unique; together, the pieces fit into a profound reflection on the nature of civilisation, politics and religion (see David Hardiman, Gandhi in His Time and Ours: The Global Legacy of His Ideas [Columbia University Press, 2004]).

Gandhi spent much of his life and a great deal of his writing in an effort to comprehend and explain three vital concepts: freedom, self-rule and nonviolence. These three concepts (which are also values and principles) are for Gandhi not only "theoretical frameworks" but also "methods of struggle". They appear in Gandhian philosophy as the pillars of what Gandhi understands by a "true civilisation", which he counterposes to a "civilisation only in name".

When once asked if non-violent resistance was a form of "direct action", Gandhi replied: "...It is the only form." He described it as the "greatest force...more positive than electricity, and more powerful than even ether." Gandhi believed non-violence could be put into practice at every level of human experience. This is an indication of its scope in Gandhi's thinking, for he regarded non-violence as not just a political tactic but as spirituality and a way of being.

Today, largely due to the work of Mahatma Gandhi, India has its political independence, and the work of building that greater freedom which he set in train is continuing by non-violent workers all around India. His own fifty-year struggle for national independence reached a culmination in August 1947, but he could see that the national independence of India was really only the first step towards an ultimate and even greater goal: equality of opportunity for all, to be achieved through non-violent action (see Ramin Jahanbegloo, India Revisited: Conversations on Contemporary India [Oxford University Press, 2007]).

That is the reason why Mahatma Gandhi represents today not only the collective conscience of India, but also the collective conscience of all humanity. His urgent relevance is rooted in his theory and practice of non-violence, but also in the way that throughout his life he defended political tolerance and religious pluralism. For nothing about this defence is doctrinaire or a priori; everything he claims about the importance of individual autonomy and political freedom for human life is tested by experience.

Gandhi's ideas evolved through experience towards gradually more mature and sophisticated propositions that found life in his hearers, readers, and followers. In this sense Gandhi in his own activity was able to articulate the fundamental changes taking place in Indian but also modern understanding. Gandhi was a stern defender of the rule of law, a critic of all forms of political action based on violence and intolerance, and a fervent advocate of limited government. The resulting conception of politics was a pioneering one based on the idea of "active citizenship": that is, on the value and importance of civic engagement and collective deliberation (see Bidyut Chakrabarty, The Social and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi [Routledge, 2005]).

openDemocracy's articles on India and the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi include:

Rajeev Bhargava & Tani Bhargava, "The Indian experience" (13 May 2001)

Rajeev Bhargava, "India's model: faith, secularism and democracy" (3 November 2004)

Vinay Lal, "The Tavistock Square Gandhi: 'war on terror' and non-violence" (24 July 2005)

Mariam Cook, "All men are brothers, Mahatma Gandhi" (6 August 2006)

Satish Kumar, "Mahatma Gandhi's achievement" (30 January 2008)

Mahatma Gandhi had the courage to stand on his own ground and talk back to "the authority of the tradition", consistent in his core beliefs while remaining free enough to change his mind, discover new things and rediscover what he had once put aside. What Gandhi was "not" - a religious fundamentalist, a cultural revivalist, committed to the idea of absolute reason - is as revealing as what he affirmed. His work is very far from a sort of mental gearbox that drives thought and action in one direction only, powered by a spiritual engine with a monolithic ideology as the fuel source. This singular combination of moral and political principle is also part of Gandhi's contemporaneity.

The seed and the sower

At the core of Gandhian non-violence is the effort to break down the stereotypes and reductive categories that limit or block dialogue among human beings and cultures. In this respect, the contribution of Mahatma in the creation and cultivation of a public culture of citizenship that guarantees to everyone the right to opinion and action - not at the convenience of systems of representation based on bureaucratic parties and state structures - makes his example part of the unfolding Indian and global present (see Debjani Ganguly & John Docker, eds., Rethinking Gandhi and Nonviolent Relationality: Global Perspectives [Routledge, 2007]).

Gandhi was very conscious of the fact that the cultivation of an "enlarged pluralism" requires the creation of institutions and practices where the voice and perspective of everyone can be articulated, tested and transformed. This indeed is a vision of modernity, offering fruitful insights that may help us to confront the dilemmas of the new century: among them how to create a sense of global citizenship, how to turn inter-faith dialogue into a means of civic and moral self-understanding, and how to realise the potential of non-violence to heal a torn world. To reap the harvest of these ideas, we must sow the seeds - and the seeds are in Gandhi. In this respect, this moral and intellectual figure - sixty years after his death on 30 January 1948 - retains the disturbing capacity to unsettle fixed categories, shake inherited conceptual habits, and challenge us to see the world in a fresh light.

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