Gandhi, Contemporary Political Thinking and Self-Other Relations

Douglas Allen, “Gandhi, Contemporary Political Thinking, and Self-Other Relations,” in Contemporary Political Thinking, ed. by B. N Ray (New Delhi: Kanishka Publishers, 2000), pp. 129-70.

Professor Douglas Allen
Department of Philosophy
University of Maine, USA

January 30, 1998 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi. Although Gandhi was the most admired person in India and perhaps in the entire world, there is considerable doubt about his contemporary relevance both to political thinking and to political and other developments in India and in the world. Gandhi’s basic philosophical and religious assumptions and positions at the heart of his political thinking seem antithetical to what is happening in most of political and other worldly developments. My own position is that Gandhi’s approach is extremely relevant to the concerns of contemporary political thinking, offers a radical critique of most of contemporary life, and can serve as a catalyst for rethinking political positions. However, I also maintain that Gandhi’s approach contains many contradictions and some of it is reactionary, irrelevant, and must be rejected. We must be very selective in appropriating and reconstituting what is of value in Gandhi’s thought for contemporary political thinking.

In the first section of this chapter, I raise a number of challenges from modern political thinking that would contend that Gandhi’s approach reflects a premodern antimodern orientation, assumes an essentialist metaphysical and spiritual approach, and is largely outdated and irrelevant to contemporary political thinking. In the second section, I submit that Gandhi’s political approach, when selectively appropriated and reconstituted, can provide a radical critique of and positive alternative to modern political thinking; it can serve as an urgently needed catalyst for rethinking dominant modern political positions. In the third section, I maintain that there is not one, correct, absolute, decontextualized political thought of Mohandas Gandhi; that his political thinking is eclectic and at times contradictory and that relating Gandhi’s approach to contemporary political thinking involves a dynamic domain of contestation and the reconstitution, revalorization, and development of diverse Gandhian positions. In the fourth section, I briefly formulate Gandhi’s metaphysical and spiritual framework at the foundation of his political thinking by focusing on his key concepts of truth (satya) and nonviolence (ahimsa). In the fifth section, I focus on a particular feature of this essential framework: Gandhi’s analysis of self and self-other relations with his radical inversion of the dominant models of self-other relations that have constituted modern, Western, political thinking. Finally, I show that there are key unresolved questions about Gandhi’s analysis of self and self-other relations, especially arising from ambiguities in his formulations about the individual self, the social self, and the spiritual self, and reflections on such questions can give rise to new developments in contemporary political thinking.[1]

Contemporary Political Thinking: Rejection of Gandhi

Dominant contemporary political thinking is completely at odds with Gandhi’s basic assumptions, principles, and spiritual philosophical framework. Hundreds of foundational formulations by Gandhi about the nature and purpose of politics, economics, and law would strike modern Western thinkers as, at best, well-intentioned but naive and irrelevant or as, at worst, revealing dangerous, traditional, premodern residues.[2] Political scientists, for example, typically assume a political orientation of realpolitik in which Gandhi’s ethical, religious, and other observations are largely irrelevant and are often an affront and embarrassment to modern critical political thinking. Legal thinkers typically assume, usually without any need of justification, a legal system of inherent adversarial relations, free of Gandhi’s ethical and religious considerations, in which the modern objective is to win in a confrontational relational system of win-lose alternatives. Economic thinkers typically assume an anti-Gandhian view of human beings as economically calculating persons in which the modern objective is to maximize one’s own economic return and in which Gandhi’s ethical, spiritual, other considerations play no part. Political commentators and analysts assume an anti-Gandhian orientation in which the purpose of politics is to win, to raise huge amounts of money to be used for political advantage, to control and manipulate media images, to do polls so that one can use political language and craft political messages to maximize voter appeal, to acquire and distribute wealth and power to supporters, to engage in negative advertising and other attacks on political opponents and to thwart the objectives of political opponents, and so forth. Gandhi’s political thinking, by contrast, is seen by modern political scientists and other political analysts as out of touch with such political reality. Applying Gandhi’s approach produces uncritical, romantic, utopian, irrelevant political thinking and is counterproductive in achieving modern political results.

It is not the case that all Indian political thinking, from ancient times to the present, is so at odds with dominant contemporary political thinking. In terms of the classical Hindu four aims or ends of life (artha, kama, dharma, moksha), there is a vast literature that functions on the pre-ethical and prereligious (nonethical and nonreligious) artha level of economic accumulation and political power. Kautilya’s approach in his classical Arthashastra is certainly closer to Machiavelli, Hobbes, and modern political thinking than is Gandhi’s approach which tends to subsume economics and politics under the “higher” aims of social and ethical duty (dharma) and religious transformation and spiritual freedom and release (moksha).[3]

The contrast to Gandhi can be seen in dominant characteristics assumed by most contemporary, Western, political thinking: primary focus on means-ends instrumental rationality and on structures of power and domination; adoption of capitalist assumptions, values, and objectives with regard to individuals, nation states, foreign relations, and relations to nature; aggressive materialism with maximization of consumption and endless proliferation of insatiable needs; huge investment in militarism with acceptance of a large permanent war economy; primary focus on technological development and industrialization; easy recourse to political, economic, psychological, and other forms of violence; strengthening of globalization with military-industrial-political interlocking relations of power; concentration and centralization of power with top-down technological control of the flow of information; glorification of egoism and individualism with the socialization and reinforcement of ego-cravings and ego-attachments; and so forth.

The assumption and sometimes explicit conclusion of such contemporary political thinking, epitomized in Francis Fukuyama’s famous, chauvinistic, reformulation of Hegel’s “the end of history,” is that “we” in the modern West have achieved the final decisive political victory.[4] Gandhian and other political alternatives have been defeated and rendered obsolete. Those who attempt to adopt a Gandhian political orientation at odds with the dominant features of contemporary political thinking will create dysfunctional political structures, will be smashed by modern political forces, and will be shown to be historically irrelevant.

Modern political thinking is largely a child of the Enlightenment. Many nineteenth and twentieth century Indian political reformers, revolutionaries, and leaders in the Indian National Congress and in other developments in India’s independence and freedom struggles were also strongly influenced by Enlightenment thinking. This helps to explain the internal contradictions and tensions between Gandhi and many other Indian leaders, even those who admired Gandhi’s courage and supported or paid lip service to his leadership in political struggles. By describing major characteristics of the Enlightenment, we may better appreciate the sharp contrast between Gandhi and much of contemporary political thinking.[5]

In broadest terms, the Enlightenment defines leading characteristics of modernity, including modern political thinking. It begins in seventeenth-century England, especially with John Locke’s approaches to knowledge, politics, and religion. The French Enlightenment includes Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, D’Alembert, and Rousseau. The English and Scottish Enlightenment includes Priestly, Hutcheson, Adam Smith, Gibbon, Hume, and Bentham. The German Enlightenment includes Christian Wolff, Moses Mendelssohn, Lessing, and Kant. The North American Enlightenment includes Paine, Franklin, and Jefferson and finds expression in the Declaration Independence of 1776.

The dominant, medieval, European, pre-Enlightenment approach to politics emphasizes the hierarchical supremacy of supernatural or religious authority. Upheld are divine or supernatural revelation, religious scripture and tradition, religious institutions and clerical or priestly authority. This is also the orientation of the Vedic, traditional, Indian, religious approach to politics and political thinking.

The Enlightenment rejects such an approach to politics and upholds the primacy of reason and of nature, not the supernatural realm, as the source and authority for political thinking, objective knowledge, and human progress. Emphasized are critical reasoning, laws of nature, objectivity, universality, a scientific outlook, progress, natural rights, liberty, equality, utility, toleration, and freedom from superstition, irrationality, and dependence on religious and other forms of external authority.

According to Kant’s famous definition of 1784, Enlightenment is characterized by the emergence of human beings from self-imposed immature tutelage in which they lack the determination and courage to use their own capacity for understanding and instead depend on the external authority and guidance of another. Individuals must have the courage and will to think for themselves about politics and religion instead of depending for their views on political and religious authorities.

Human beings must be true to their nature and exercise their central capacity for reason as the sole means for gaining objective knowledge and understanding of politics. Gandhi’s many nonrational appeals to special political insight and disclosure of truth and to justification of his political choices are not based on objective, rational, intersubjectively verifiable criteria and must be rejected. Critical reasoning undermines irrational dogma and externally imposed, religious and political structures of domination. Reason can free us from religious dogma, irrational and oppressive legal systems, and political and moral injustice and suffering. Since rationality is a universal human capacity, the Enlightenment emphasizes a new sense of egalitarianism in which individual human beings are free to exercise their own critical reason, enjoy individual liberty, are equal before the law, and are treated with equal tolerance. There was and continues to be a huge gap between such Enlightenment ideals and their limited applications and actual practices in modern political life.

Unlike many counter-Enlightenment thinkers, the Enlightenment emphasizes that the methods of investigation and the procedures for verification of true knowledge for politics and for religion are the same. Uncritical dogma, superstition, and irrationality are to be uprooted whether in religion or politics. Natural law, natural rights, critical reasoning, and objective knowledge are to be upheld whether in religion or politics.

The Enlightenment affirms both religious and political tolerance. Toleration is necessary for human beings to develop their natural capacity for reasoning to decide what they will believe. Both political and religious intolerance restrict our capacity to develop our universal, natural, rational capacity to arrive at objective knowledge and to establish political and other relations that maximize our potential for human development and the realization liberty and happiness.

Compared with pre-Enlightenment views, Enlightenment thinkers tend to be very critical of past interactions and intersections of politics and religion. While religious and political phenomena are to be approached using the same fundamental conceptions and the same methodology, there is a strong tendency to undermine their intersection and to affirm a separation of religion and politics. This is clear in formulations of atheists of the Enlightenment who see no value in religion and are determined to free politics from religious authority, dogma, ignorance, and superstition. Other Enlightenment thinkers affirm a natural and rational deism, a rational theology, and a natural religion over a religion of supernatural revelation. However, even these religious figures of the Enlightenment oppose the use by religion of supernatural revelation, dogma, scripture, and institutional and clerical authority to interact with and restrict political life.

Any legitimate view of religion and politics is based on our critical understanding arising from our own nature as rational beings. Religion, which is based on reason and nature, must respect the rational natural foundation of politics and the universal, equal, political rights and liberties of others, including those of nonbelievers and believers in other religions. Politics, which is based on reason and nature, must ensure our freedom from religious and other forms of domination while at the same time protecting our liberties, including religious liberty, so that we can freely and critically pursue the truth or falsity of religious, political, and all other matters.

It should be obvious to anyone familiar with Gandhi’s writings and his political engagement that he was very critical of most of this Enlightenment approach and its profound influence on modern political thinking. Gandhi, for example, would evaluate many of these features as expressing an unjustified and dangerous rational and scientific reductionism, an arrogant deification of the sufficiency of human reason and human progress, and a devaluing of the spiritual basis of reality. He did not accept the modern separation of the political and the religious. Not only did he insist on the religionization of politics but also on the politicization of religion, especially in the sense that his spiritual orientation did not involve traditional Indian patterns of withdrawal from active political engagement.

At the same time, while showing how dominant post-Enlightenment modern political thinking is clearly at odds with Gandhi’s approach, it is important to emphasize that Gandhi is really a much more subtle, complex, and flexible political thinking than is usually assumed. In many respects, he is just as critical of premodern superstitions, dogmatism, intolerance, and appeals to transcendent exclusivistic religious authority as are the modern political thinkers. In some cases, he can endorse certain Enlightenment characteristics, such as the need for tolerance and for respecting the ultimate authority of the individual self, but he usually gives justifications for such political positions that are at odds with modern political thinking. For example, in justifying a political position upholding political and religious pluralism and tolerance, Gandhi does not appeal to the ultimate authority of critical human reason; the Enlightenment view of rationality as the universal human capacity in which individuals must be free to exercise their own critical reason and be treated with equal tolerance. Gandhi, as will be seen, is more likely to justify such pluralism and tolerance by claiming that there is absolute spiritual Truth, but then submitting that we, as finite fallible human beings, are capable of having only partial limited “glimpses” of the Absolute. Therefore, we should be tolerant, recognizing the unavoidable fact that there are many diverse paths to the Truth and that each approach at most expresses relative truth.

Contemporary Political Thinking: Gandhi’s Alternative

Although it is tempting to classify Gandhi’s political thinking as reflecting a premodern, antimodern, religious essentialism at odds with modern political thinking, it is important to note two significant qualifications to our previous formulations. First, many contemporary political thinkers reject the major characteristics of the Enlightenment and how these characteristics defined modernity and modern political thinking. Second, in his rejection of much of modern political thinking, Gandhi shares some characteristics with recent postmodernist orientations.[6]

In the twentieth century, there have been widespread attacks on post-Enlightenment assumptions and values that shape modernism and modern political thinking. For example, confidence in objective human rationality and progress through scientific and technological development has often been shaken by devastating wars of mass destruction and by the “irrational” behavior of so-called rational scientists and scholars in contributing to and justifying the attempted genocide of Jews and others in the Holocaust; the development of nuclear and other weapons threatening the survival of humankind; and the production of various technologies that destroy the environment and seem to produce even greater oppression, exploitation, poverty, domination, dehumanization, and suffering. Modern political and other attempts to conceive of the human being as in essence a rational animal and to conceive of political thinking in terms of means-ends instrumental rationality are often criticized as too narrow, reductionistic, provincial, and oppressive. Many of these critiques of modernity raise the same kinds of concerns as those raised by Gandhi.

Existentialism, phenomenology, depth psychology, feminism, deconstructionism, postmodernism, and other twentieth-century developments have presented powerful critiques of modernity and modern political thinking in which the theoretical privileging of modern rationality and other post-Enlightenment political values have been analyzed as excluding gender, race, class, and other “voices.” Foucault and many other contemporary political thinkers have deconstructed and demystified modern, Western, political models as revealing ideological justifications for dominant relations of power. Communitarians and various socialist and Marxist political thinkers have analyzed the modern individual as the alienated dehumanized person and have proposed political alternatives for realizing a sense of meaningful community and our human development and fulfillment as social individuals. Once again, Gandhi, in his criticism of the dominant features of Western modernism, raised many of these same concerns.

When noting Gandhi’s metaphysical, spiritual, essentialized framework at the foundation of his political thinking, as well as his sweeping generalizations and negative judgments about the modern mode of being in the world, it is tempting to classify him as antimodern premodernist. Certainly this is how most severe critics of Gandhi, who identify with contemporary political thinking, evaluate his political approach

However, it is also possible to interpret Gandhi’s negative judgments about modernity and modern political thinking as sharing many characteristics with antimodern postmodernist approaches. “Postmodernism” is a very fashionable term among many contemporary philosophers, literary theorists, and other scholars, although the term tends to be very vague. Postmodernism encompasses all kinds of fragmented, contradictory positions. It tends to resist any clear definition or coherent formulation because it often upholds the inviolability of differences and sees attempts at coherence as oppressive forms of intellectual, political, and cultural hegemony.

Nevertheless, the following typical assertions of much of postmodernism can be related to Gandhi’s approach to politics and political thinking. We must resist the tyranny and domination of the modernist idols of science, rationalism, and “objectivity.” The Enlightenment gave us narrow, oppressive, hierarchical, reductionist projects of rationalistic and scientific hegemony. But rational scientific discourse is only one of many possible ways that human beings construct their “stories” about political reality. The scientific narrative does not have exclusive privileged access to political truth. Metaphysical spiritual narratives, as other ways of constructing accounts that shed light on political truth and reality, should not be reduced to scientific, rational, historical, and other nonethical and nonspiritual discourses. Ethical and religious approaches to politics that reject the major characteristics of post-Enlightenment modernism must be respected as legitimate expressions of a multiplicity of irreducible, incommensurable stories about political truth and reality. None of the particular stories mirrors or exhausts all of political reality. Each of the stories has its own nature, structure, function, and significance; makes different claims about truth and reality; fulfills different emotional, imaginative, conceptual, aesthetic needs for different people; and functions differently in different historical and cultural contexts.

Gandhi would undoubtedly have been uncomfortable with some of this postmodernist language and with what I consider the vague, uncritically eclectic, facile nature of many postmodernist formulations. Nevertheless, the emphasis in Gandhi’s political thinking on the relativity of truth and the tolerance of and respect for multiple voices, diversity, and an enriching pluralism of significant differences is similar to what one finds in various postmodernist political orientations.

Although Gandhi sometimes sounds like this postmodernism when arguing against modern forms of political thinking, in many fundamental respects he clearly rejects such a postmodernist orientation. For example, Gandhi, in his critique of modernity, is not simply insisting on a separate, metaphysical, spiritual space so that he can tell an alternative political story. He is not embracing some postmodernist relativism by endorsing the legitimacy of a plurality of irreducibly autonomous stories about political reality. In his political thinking, he makes highly normative, universal, absolute judgments about human nature, the human condition, and ultimate reality. He often judges the political perspectives of modernity as culture-specific and oppressive, inauthentic, dehumanizing, incapable of solving our economic and political and cultural crises, and denying human and cosmic reality. He privileges a metaphysical religious approach to political thinking as providing access to the deepest structures and meanings of the human condition as such and reality as such. Therefore, from the above typical postmodernist perspective, Gandhi, along would with dominant modernist thinkers, would be criticized for formulating another universalizing, totalizing, essentializing, hegemonic project.[7]

In the previous section, we delineated characteristics of dominant modern political thinking, showed how such modern thinking is at odds with Gandhi’s approach, and indicated ways that the modern political orientation would reject Gandhi’s approach as premodern, outdated, and irrelevant. I shall now present very briefly my view that some of Gandhi’s political approach also provides a radical critique of and positive alternative to the dominant, modern, Western political thinking and to modern political developments.

My own position is that Gandhi’s political, philosophical, religious, economic, and social approach is relevant to understanding many contemporary political concerns. Gandhi’s approach offers a valuable radical critique of much of contemporary political thinking and of developments in contemporary political life. While being selective in appropriating what is of value in Gandhi’s political thought, Gandhi’s approach can serve as an urgently needed catalyst for rethinking modern political positions.[8]

Despite some of its socioeconomic, political, and other limitations, a Gandhian perspective presents a powerful critique of many features of modernity, Western materialism and models of development, domestic and foreign domination, and the bureaucratic state. It offers challenges, valuable insights, and alternatives to modern political thinking in its proposals about nonviolence, ego-construction and attachment, consumption, decentralization, community, appropriate technology, more harmonious relations with nature, more sustainable economic and political institutions and structures, and Gandhian socialism. It offers alternatives for personal and political transformation, ways to empathize with and communicate with oppressed and exploited masses and indigenous cultures, and ways to resist modern and other forms of domination, hatred, violence, class exploitation, gender and caste and religious and political oppression. What is needed is to contextualize and integrate certain Gandhian political insights, perspectives, and alternatives with certain compatible non-Gandhian approaches that may have analyzed various aspects of modern political life in greater depth than did Mohandas Gandhi and his followers.

In the “Summing Up” to Gandhian Economics: A Humane Approach, Rashmi Sharma summarizes the following alternative to dominant modern economic thinking. I shall insert “politics” and “political” since this formulation also gets at Gandhi’s valuable alternative to dominant modern political thinking.

Mahatma Gandhi had formulated his economic [political] ideas in terms of his conception of an ideal social order. He wanted to build a non-violent and non-exploitative social order, peopled by truthful, non-violent and pure hearted simple individuals. His approach to Economics [Politics] is through the avenue of truth and non-violence. Its goal is not pure material benefit [and political gain] but the advancement of whole humanity on the road to progress by strengthening the character and development of the personality of each and every person in the society. No one’s gain should be anybody’s loss whether financial, physical, moral or spiritual. If there is to be a choice, the preference should fall on the eternal constituents of man rather than on the material. His conception of an ideal economic [political] organisation is directed towards the moral and spiritual development of all human beings rather than towards a blind pursuit of economic [and political] growth—a sustained increase in per capita real Gross National Product. Actually he believed that a blind pursuit of economic abundance [and political power] through accumulation, competition, and technological innovation would lead to economic [and political] aggression, exploitation and violence in the society. This led him to denounce the conventional economics [and modern political thinking].[9]

Many of these key features of Gandhi’s political thinking will be analyzed in the following sections.

Contextualizing Gandhi’s Political Thought

Gandhians, as well as non-Gandhians, are divided on what constitutes “the true Gandhi” and the true Gandhian approach to political reality. Both proponents and opponents often appeal to an essential decontextualized Gandhi, usually identified with a rather clear, static, and rigid political approach, and then disagree on whether this essential Gandhi is relevant or irrelevant to contemporary political developments.

By contrast, I maintain that there is not one, true, decontextualized political thought of Mohandas Gandhi. Not only was Gandhi’s political thinking flexible, eclectic, and at times contradictory, but our attempts at relating Gandhi’s approach to contemporary political thinking always involve a dynamic process of contestation with the reinterpretation, reconstitution, and development of diverse Gandhian positions.

In denying that we have access to one authentic Gandhi with his one true Gandhian approach to politics and political thinking, I in no way intend to deny the historical existence of this particular human being who expressed his views through his political writings and his political practices. This is not similar to the contemporary cases of, say, mythico-religious-historical claims by certain Hindus in India or Buddhists in Sri Lanka or fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, whose claims defy historical, scientific, and archaeological analysis and verification. In Gandhi’s case, we have a tremendous amount of factual documentation about his political thinking, his political struggles, and his thoughts about modern, Western, political thinking. In many ways, our problem in interpreting and formulating Gandhi’s political approach is that there is so much, often unsystematic and contradictory, evidence.

Mohandas Gandhi himself contributed to this problem of comprehending his political thinking. He emphasized political practice and had little interest in formulating theoretical arguments and resolving inconsistencies by writing coherent, systematic, political works. Gandhi never wrote a lengthy book, and yet he left one of the most extensive collections of writings ever assembled. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi has now grown to one hundred volumes. These largely unsystematic writings, full of political, philosophical, religious, social, and cultural assumptions and claims, have allowed interpreters to maintain that they have discovered so many blatantly contradictory Gandhis and Gandhian political perspectives.

Others have also contributed to this problem of comprehending Gandhi’s true political thinking. It sometimes seems as if everyone who ever met Gandhi felt compelled to write something about this man, his views, and his struggles. What they wrote, even about the same political events and about what they attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, is often highly contradictory. Sometimes followers transformed a political speech or demonstration into a darshan, deifying Gandhi and embellishing his words and actions with supernatural meaning and significance. Gandhi was sometimes given credit or blame for political developments over which he had little or no control.

However, the problem with making any essentialized decontextualized claims to one true Gandhi or one true Gandhian political approach is more basic than the above considerations of historical verification and textual consistency and coherency. The more basic methodological problem has to do with the dynamic, ever changing relations that are constituted between political and other texts, contexts, and interpretations. This is true even of texts that are less inclusivistic, eclectic, and unsystematic than are Gandhi’s political writings.

My own position is that every reading of a text is to some extent a rereading, every interpretation a reinterpretation, and every philosophical or political formulation a reconstruction. What a political text by Gandhi means to us cannot be fully understood outside its contexts, both the specific contexts within which Gandhi constructed the text and how our understanding of that text is mediated by our own changing social, economic, political, religious, ethical, and other contexts. That is why any attempt to interpret, reconstitute, and relate Gandhi’s political approach to contemporary political thinking must take into consideration how our views of Gandhi and his political thought are at least partially filtered through variables defining contemporary political and other contexts that did not exist during Gandhi’s lifetime. How we read and interpret the meaning and significance of Hind Swaraj or some other political work by Gandhi, how we understand Gandhi’s political actions and commitments, what we emphasize and what we ignore in Gandhi’s political formulations, which voices in the Gandhian text speak to us and which voices are silenced, and how we evaluate political values and political change are all filtered through and at least partially structured by our historical, social, political, and cultural contexts. Indeed, I would even maintain that there is not one “M. K. Gandhi” in the sense that however we describe, as well as analyze, this particular human being involves a historical, social, political, and cultural reconstruction that is never completely detached from our own contextual framework.

The contradictory interpretations of the political Gandhi and his political thinking involve diverse, competing Gandhian projects, each attributing the major figure of authorship and authority to Mohandas Gandhi but also encompassing the contributions of many other individuals, including Gandhi’s predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. Not only in the debates between Gandhians and non-Gandhians, but also in the sharp disagreements reflected in diverse Gandhian perspectives, there is an unavoidable domain of contestation. Any political perspective, including any Gandhian perspective, must be viewed as dynamic, open-ended, and continually changing. There is no exclusive, nondialectical, absolute, static, eternal, true Gandhi or Gandhian political perspective. Therefore, what follows should be seen as several of many possible ways to reinterpret and reconstruct a Gandhian approach to the nature of truth, nonviolence, self, and self-other relations as essential to political reality.

Such an approach is consistent with Gandhi’s own dynamic, open-ended, relative, experiments with truth. As a conditioned, temporal, historical, finite, fallible being, Gandhi rejected any human perspective that claimed to experience unconditioned, exclusive, absolute, static, eternal, noncontextualized, political Truth. Through concrete praxis, Gandhi continually attempted to move from one relative political truth to another greater relative political truth. According to Gandhi, one of the greatest evils in political and other human relations has been our tendency to absolutize what is necessarily relative. As we noted, Gandhi’s insistence on the relativity of all political, religious, and other human perspectives is a justification for Gandhian tolerance and respect for other relative perspectives to truth and reality.

The challenge to such an approach to Gandhi’s political thinking is to avoid the kind of facile relativism reflected in most of postmodernism and many other contemporary Western approaches and so clearly rejected by Gandhi. In maintaining that there is no exclusive, nondialectical, absolute, static, eternal, noncontextualized, true Gandhian (or non-Gandhian) political perspective, I do not want to maintain that “everything goes,” that all political views are of equal value, or that all political views reflect nothing more than relative, personal, subjective, contextual viewpoints. Even without an exclusive, absolute, noncontextualized, normative foundationalism, I think that we can formulate criteria for evaluating different Gandhian political perspectives in terms of their explanatory power to illuminate the nature, meaning, and significance of different phenomena, their tendency to exacerbate or free us from structures of exploitation, oppression, and domination, and so forth.

Gandhi’s Metaphysical and Spiritual Framework

At the beginning of Rediscovering Gandhi, Yogesh Chandra makes the dramatic claim that “Gandhi’s greatness—nay, uniqueness—lies in his role as an innovator in politics….In fact, he endeavoured to found a new human order. He was the first in human history to extend the principle of nonviolence from the individual to the social and the political plane.”[10]

What is probably most striking when contrasting Gandhi’s uniqueness as a political innovator with dominant modern political thinking is how his political approach is grounded in a general ethical, metaphysical, and spiritual framework. To understand Gandhi’s specific political concepts and practices, including his key analysis of self and self-other relations that we shall examine in the following section, one must become aware of this underlying philosophical and religious foundation. The two most important concepts constituting this essential Gandhian foundation are truth (satya) and nonviolence (ahimsa).[11] In general terms, Gandhi’s spiritual philosophical presuppositions and framework affirm the essential unity of all existence, the indivisibility of Truth, and the interrelatedness of Truth, Self, and nonviolence.

Glyn Richards in The Philosophy of Gandhi correctly emphasizes Gandhi’s metaphysical concept of Truth as key to understanding the theoretical and practical dimensions of his philosophy.[12] Gandhi may appear to be an unsystematic thinker, but his underlying concept of Truth (satya) provides a rationale and coherence to his political theory and practice.

Gandhi frequently expressed his view of reality and of political truth in terms of the formulation “Truth is God.” In his reflections on Truth, Gandhi expressed a personal preference for the Hindu impersonal formulations of the nondualistic Advaita Vedanta with its view of the all-encompassing, spiritual Self as Atman and its identification of Atman with the impersonal absolute Brahman.[13] Gandhi was also extremely flexible in his formulations of Truth, frequently referring to God, Rama, and many other personal and impersonal terms. Gandhi acknowledges that God “is a personal God to those who need His personal presence.”[14] At the same time, Gandhi “would say with those who say God is Love, God is Love. But deep down in me, I used to say that though God may be Love, God is Truth, above all.”[15] Gandhi wrote that he then “went a step further and said that Truth is God. You will see the fine distinction between the two statements, viz., that God is Truth and Truth is God.”[16] In his attempt to be as inclusive as possible, Gandhi reverses the traditional theistic formulation of God is Truth, in which Truth is one of many essential attributes of the reality that is God. By focusing on reality as Truth, God can include religious and nonreligious approaches that reject “God” and other theistic concepts. For example, Gandhi states that atheists may deny the existence of God, but they still have a passion for discovering truth. Therefore, “rather than say that God is Truth, I should say that Truth is God.”[17] This often allows those who have rejected theistic or other traditional religious formulations to relate to Gandhi’s concept of Truth.

Analyzing the relation of “Truth is God,” James Hart uses a philosophical phenomenological approach to interpret the relations and meanings of Gandhi’s Truth, God, Self, and ahimsa.

Truth is the omega, the telos, of life; as identified with the impersonal Brahman it is also the alpha. The theme of Truth is experientially available in everyday life as telos, as what we want as the cognitive fulfillment of the emptiness which manages to pervade even the objects which are given to us in a filled intention of evidence. Perhaps we can say that the theme of Truth, as what the mind seeks foremost, moves G [Gandhi] in the direction of a kind of “transcendental reduction.” Such a reduction is already adumbrated by the Indian tradition which holds that the self must “go back” to its Self, its foundation, by relinquishing its attachment to itself.[18]

On 8 June 1927, Gandhi wrote to Basil Matthews: “If God who is indefinable can be at all defined, then I should say that God is TRUTH. It is impossible to reach HIM, that is, TRUTH, except through LOVE. LOVE can only be expressed fully when man reduces himself to a cipher. This process of reduction to cipher is the highest effort man or woman is capable of making. It is the only effort worth making, and it is possible only through ever-increasing self-restraint.”[19] He concluded An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth by stating: “But I know that I have still before me a difficult path to traverse. I must reduce myself to zero. So long as a man does not of his own free will put himself last among his fellow creatures, there is no salvation for him. Ahimsa is the farthest limit of humility.”[20]

Reminiscent of passages in the Upanishads and Vedanta giving expression to a view of reality in terms of an all-encompassing, permanent, spiritual Self, Gandhi often writes of Truth or God as an impersonal Absolute, an unseen power or unifying force pervading all things, pure consciousness, the changeless essence of life beyond name and form.

There is an indefinable mysterious Power that pervades everything. I feel It, though I do not see It. It is this unseen Power which makes Itself felt and yet defies all proof, because It is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses. It transcends the senses. . . . I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying, there is underlying all that change a living Power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves and recreates. That informing Power or Spirit is God. And since nothing else I see merely through the senses can or will persist, He alone is.[21]

Consistent with the Advaitin monistic identification of Brahman (Reality, Being) with Atman (the Self), Gandhi often uses the terms Truth, God, and Self interchangeably. Gandhi’s political life and political thought are profoundly influenced by presuppositions of the indivisibility of Truth, the identification of Self with Truth or God, and the essential unity of all existence.

This approach to Truth and Self informs Gandhi’s entire philosophy and political thinking regarding ahimsa (nonviolence, noninjury, nondestruction of life). Gandhi attempts to correct a common misconception that his primary emphasis is always on ahimsa. “Ahimsa is not the goal. Truth is the goal. But we have no means of realizing truth in human relationships except through the practice of ahimsa. A steadfast pursuit of ahimsa is inevitably bound to truth—not so violence. That is why I swear by ahimsa. Truth came naturally to me. Ahimsa I acquired after a struggle. But ahimsa being the means we are naturally more concerned with it in our everyday life.”[22] Here and in many other places, Gandhi focuses on nonviolence as the political means for realizing the goal of Truth or Reality, including the realization of the true Self.[23]

Since means and ends are convertible terms in Gandhi’s political philosophy, ahimsa and satya are “so intertwined that it is practically impossible to disentangle and separate them.” Attaining nonviolence involves the realization of Truth; attaining Truth involves the realization of nonviolence. Now if the essence of the individual is the higher universal Self that is at one with Truth or God or Reality, then to inflict unnecessary, deliberate violence and suffering on another is to negate or violate Truth, God, Reality, and one’s Self.[24]

It is imperative to emphasize an important, often overlooked, distinction between the absolute and the relative in Gandhi’s political approach. Gandhian perspectives which do not emphasize this distinction are of limited relevance for analyzing political values and political change today. Gandhi’s writings, as seen throughout An Autobiography, often seem so full of absolute ideals and uncompromising judgments that one can easily ignore this distinction and misinterpret his political approach. Gandhi is more complex and more flexible than the common interpretations of him as a person with philosophical, ethical, and spiritual absolutes who, for sympathetic followers, was courageous in sticking to his lofty principles, or, for critics, was inflexible and even dictatorial in forcing his absolutes on his wife, children, striking workers, and others.

Gandhi himself confesses that he has only had “glimpses” of Truth. He begins An Autobiography by affirming that for him “truth is the sovereign principle” and is “not only the relative truth of our conception, but the Absolute Truth, the Eternal Principle, that is God.” Gandhi continues that “as long as I have not realized this Absolute Truth, so long must I hold by the relative truth as I have conceived it.” This relative truth must serve as his guide. Often Gandhi “had faint glimpses of the Absolute Truth, God, and daily the conviction is growing upon me that He alone is real and all else is unreal.” Only when the seeker of political truth practices ahimsa and expresses great humility can she or he “have a glimpse of truth.”[25]

Gandhi repeatedly tells us that a human being cannot fully realize Truth as the absolute ideal. “Nobody in this world possesses absolute truth. This is God’s attribute alone. Relative truth is all we know. Therefore, we can only follow the truth as we see it.”[26] Human beings as political beings can at most approximate the absolute ideal through their understanding of their relative, imperfect, historically and culturally conditioned political truths about self and self-other relations. Indeed, the relative understanding of self, gained through political and other limited experiments in truth, is our only means for gaining some partial, imperfect understanding of the absolute Self.

This absolute-relative distinction is essential for an understanding of Gandhi’s approach toward Truth and other interrelated concepts and their application to political, social, economic, and educational concerns. In his numerous specific positions on Untouchability and caste, political resistance to colonialism, educational priorities, and socialism and decentralized economic institutions, Gandhi has general concerns about which imperfect political theories and practices least violate or best approximate the ideals of the indivisibility of Truth, the oneness of existence, and the identity of Truth, Self, and nonviolence.[27]

Ahimsa in its inextricable relation to Truth and Self-realization is an absolute ideal. At best, human beings gain some partial realization of this ideal through the formulation and application of imperfect relative political concepts of nonviolence as seen in dynamic, changing, political self-other relations. “Ahimsa in theory no one knows. It is as indefinable as God. But in its working we get glimpses of it as we have glimpses of the Almighty in His working amongst and through us.”[28] Since our understandings are imperfect, we sometimes, even with the best of intentions, violate the absolute ideal of nonviolence. We commit violence in our political and other relations with the other. What is more surprising, and runs counter to a common stereotype of the absolutist Gandhi, is his justification for sometimes committing political and other forms of violence.

Using numerous examples from Gandhi and especially Peter Winch’s analysis of “‘the perspective’ of the action” in Ethics and Action,[29] Richards repeatedly shows that Gandhi has absolute philosophical ideals but also recognizes the complexity of specific situations, especially those involving moral dilemmas. Gandhi struggled over how the self should relate to all kinds of others. He struggled over what to do not only about unintentional violence to other forms of life, but also about how to relate to disease-carrying rats, mosquitoes, venomous snakes, as well as rapists, insane persons, and other humans intent on committing violence. He even worried about the destruction of plant life necessary for his vegetarian diet. Gandhi concluded, often very reluctantly, that at times we must act in such a way as to violate the ideal of nonviolence.

According to Gandhi, we must not make a “fetish” of ahimsa. Sometimes we must reluctantly commit violence and even destroy the life of the other in order to live and protect life. In terms of the ideal of ahimsa, our acts of violence would still be wrong, but they might result from moral considerations and be done for moral reasons. This doesn’t mean that we are rejecting the ideal. Gandhi has not abandoned or qualified his commitment to the ideal Self and its necessary relation with the principle of nonviolence. The ideal of nonviolence is still operative, informing our circumstances, attitudes, and actions, even when we are forced to violate it.

Such an approach presents a much more flexible political Gandhi than the typically honored or condemned rigid absolutist. In addition, such a contextualized perspectivism, while needing to struggle against the dangers of the kinds of facile relativism Gandhi opposed, has the advantages of relating Gandhi’s political approach and political thinking to many contemporary critiques of ahistorical, nontemporal, abstract, rigid, essentialized foundationalist political formulations.

Self-Other Relations: A Radical Inversion

In this section, I focus on a particular feature of the essential metaphysical and spiritual framework at the foundation of Gandhi’s political thinking: his key analysis of self and self-other relations with his radical inversion of the dominant models of self-other relations that constitute modern, Western, political thinking. There is nothing more essential for understanding Gandhi’s political approach to human relations and political change than his analysis of the nature of self and self-other relations. In this regard, Gandhi is eclectic and pluralistic with many formulations of self and self-other relations, along with contrasting formulations of false and illusory constructions of self and self-other relations found in modern, Western, political thought. As was previously noted, Gandhi’s approach to self, self-other relations, and other political concerns must be situated within a larger utopian or ideal theoretical framework grounded in the essential concepts of Truth (Satya), Nonviolence (Ahimsa), Self (Atman), and God.

As was seen in several quotations in the previous section and in similar passages found throughout Gandhi’s political writings, Gandhi advocates a radical reversal of the post-Cartesian or dominant, modern, Western, philosophical, economic, political, social, and cultural orientation in which one’s starting point and foundation is the primacy of one’s own individual self or ego. In such a modern, Western, non-Gandhian orientation—which increasingly defines politics, economics, culture, advertising, and other aspects of contemporary life in India—the human being tends to assume, both for one’s own self and for others selves, some view of the person as a separate, independent, autonomous, I-me individual or ego.

Perhaps the best-known formulation in the history of Western philosophy is René Descartes’s cogito ergo sum in his Meditations on First Philosophy. In the Meditations, Descartes attempted to subject everything he normally accepted as true to rigorous, logical, methodological doubt in order to determine if anything was absolutely certain and could then serve as the secure foundation for his philosophy. He found that nothing he normally held to be true—sense impressions, reasoning, memory, belief in God, and so forth—was absolutely certain. Threatened by a pervasive skepticism, Descartes finally concluded that there was only one thing of which he could be absolutely certain: the existence of his own self or ego as a “thinking thing.” Even when I am doubting, imagining, dreaming, having illusions, being mislead and deceived, there must be something that is doing the doubting, being deceived, etc., and that is the “I” or self as a thinking thing.[30]

Such a modern orientation renders problematic meaningful self-other relations. This thinking thing of which I claim to be certain is my separate individual self. I come to know my own self in isolation, independent of other selves. Indeed, all of my relations to others have been subjected to methodological doubt. This thinking thing or my self is only certain of its own existence and even then only when I am doubting or thinking. Such a modern, non-Gandhian philosophical and political project is continually threatened by a pervasive skepticism and a self-imposed solipsism as it attempts to establish objective, meaningful relations with the secondary political other.

Although Descartes’s specific form of philosophical orientation, and especially his Cartesian foundationalism and metaphysics, may not be widely accepted by contemporary philosophers, his focus on the primacy of the “I” or ego, the autonomous separate individual, continues to shape much of modern, Western, political thought. The most influential Western social and political philosophers, such as those with Hobbesian and Lockean roots, and the most influential capitalist political economists, such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, assumed a human condition of separate I-me individual selves. The concept of the modern post-Cartesian self, the autonomous individual, continues as an essential component in modern economic, political, legal, cultural, and educational ideologies and systems.[31]

Before discussing Gandhi’s ethical, political, and spiritual inversion of this post-Cartesian self-other relation, I shall simply note my rejection of this modern, Western, political orientation. Unlike Western political thinkers who emphasize the isolated, separate, autonomous individual, I maintain that the self is a relational self, that there is no political self without its integral positive and negative relations with the other, and that the nonsocial, independent, autonomous, modern, individual self is largely a social, economic, political, and cultural construction. My view is that Gandhi also upholds a social relational view of self, with his major focus on dynamic self-other relations. Nevertheless, as we shall see in the concluding section, Gandhi is inconsistent on this matter, as when he sometimes emphasizes an “inner voice” or “individual consciousness” completely detached from, and at times in opposition to, all social relations with the other.

In his political analysis of self-other relations, Gandhi provides a radical inversion of the modern political focus on the primacy of one’s own self or ego. This inversion is grounded in proper ethical relations with the other. Gandhi would have no difficulty agreeing with the influential phenomenologist and Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas that “ethics is first philosophy.” Unlike much of traditional religion, philosophy, and politics, Gandhi focuses his attention on moral values and moral human relations. He has no sympathy for political thinking that claims to be value-free or value-neutral, nonethical, or focused on power relations free from moral considerations. Similarly, he has no sympathy for religious thinking that claims to transcend morality by advocating salvation based solely on faith in some supernatural deity. For Gandhi, politics and religion are grounded in morality, and one becomes more spiritual as one establishes more moral political relations.

Gandhi critiques and rejects the dominant modern political perspective by establishing an inverted asymmetrical relation between the self and the other: We establish meaningful ethical, political, and spiritual relations with the other when we focus on the primacy of the other. This radical inversion of modern self-other relations with Gandhi’s primary focus on serving the needs of the other is clearly seen in Gandhi’s famous “talisman.” In trying to decide how to act politically, how to establish an ethical self-other relation, Gandhi advises the person to recall the face of the poorest and most helpless human being you may have seen, i.e., focus not on your own self but instead on the other with the greatest needs. Then ask whether the political or other action you contemplate will be useful to the other. Will it help the hungry and spiritually starved other human being to gain control over her or his life and destiny? Then, Gandhi concludes, you will find your doubts about what to do and your self melting away. As with Levinas, Gandhi thus claims that we uphold authentic human values and engage in authentic social and political change only when we assume moral responsibility for the welfare of the other.[32] As Gandhi repeatedly tell us, this necessarily involves “self-restraint,” reducing one’s ego or self to a “cipher” or a “zero.”

Several Indians, including Gandhians, have claimed to find a contradiction between Gandhi’s political and other formulations of this asymmetrical human relation recognizing the primacy of the other and many other political passages, such as those upholding swaraj, which emphasize the necessity for self-rule, self-assertion, etc.[33] My own view is that there is no such necessary contradiction within a Gandhian perspective. Gandhi does not deny but instead affirms the existence of a true moral and spiritual self (Self). When Gandhi is talking about self-restraint and reducing the self to a zero, he is focusing on the I-me, egoistic, separate ego or self. Put in traditional Indian terms, this is not the authentic spiritual Self, but the karmic, mayic, illusory self-construction that establishes unethical and unspiritual political relations. In Gandhi’s perspective, it is only when one restrains and overcomes this focus on the primacy of one’s own self/ego and instead focuses on the primacy of the needs of the other that one begins to experience the deeper, true, moral, and spiritual Self and establishes authentic self-other political relations.

It is important to avoid a misunderstanding that could arise from several of my previous formulations of an essentialized metaphysical and spiritual foundation and an essentialized inverted self-other relation at the center of Gandhi’s political thinking. As I’ve previously indicated, it would be incorrect to analyze Gandhi’s political thinking as consisting simply of rather mechanical, ahistorical, noncontextualized, universal appeals to absolute, ultimate, moral, metaphysical, and spiritual structures and values. As Richard Fox correctly emphasizes, Gandhi’s political thinking and political practice focus on the concrete, dynamic, social and political processes in terms of which Gandhian political perspectives, including self-other relations, constitute and reconstitute human values and enact political change. Gandhi does uphold utopian or ideal political values, but he is always engaged politically in relative, imperfect, political experiments with truth that are indispensable for understanding a Gandhi’s approach to political values and political change.[34]

Gandhi was pragmatic in his political approach to self-other relations, human values, and political change. He was concerned with political effectiveness, with transformation of self-other power relations, with being successful in his political experiments with truth. But unlike most pragmatic political approaches, Gandhi’s also upheld ethical, political, philosophical, and spiritual ideals. His experiments, attempting to reconstitute human relations and to bring about progressive political change, always to some extent pointed beyond what could actually be achieved in our finite, limited, everyday, political world. Gandhi often saw himself as a utopian political experimentalist, pursuing political experiments in an elusive truth, with the intention of radically transforming politics, culture, society, the individual person, and self-other relations. Satyagraha and ahimsa powered these dynamic experiments in truth that depended on confrontation and opposition to existing cultural and political meanings and material conditions of inequality and domination. Gandhi’s political experiments were sometimes successful, when political resistance was powered by his utopian vision, and sometimes failures, such as cases when the experiment was transformed into a nonconfrontational, ideological legitimation of the dominant political reality.

Key Questions Regarding the Self and Self-Other Relations

In previous sections, I have shown that Gandhi’s analysis of self and self-other relations— especially as it is grounded in his ideal metaphysical spiritual framework, in his rejection of the modern Western focus of the primacy of ego/self, and in his ethical and political inversion of dominant modern self-other relations—is essential for understanding Gandhi’s political thinking. In this concluding section, I submit that there are key unresolved questions, along with creative possibilities for the development of political thinking, in Gandhi’s analysis of self and self-other relations, especially arising from his ambiguous and at times contradictory formulations about the individual self, the social self, and the spiritual self.

I shall now delineate, without documentation, a series of key questions relevant to Mohandas Gandhi’s complex, often contradictory, analysis of self and self-other relations. Since there are such complex and contradictory formulations in Gandhi’s writings, there is little wonder that later Gandhian perspectives, incorporating data from Gandhi and from other sources, should express such a wide range of diverse and contradictory positions.[35]

Among the questions arising from formulations of self and self-other relations in Gandhi’s writings are the following: How is an individual self related to other individual selves? How is an individual self related to a social self? And how is an individual self and/or a social self related to some deeper spiritual self? Gandhi’s many responses to these and related questions often reveal ambiguities, complexities, and dialectical tension and contradiction.[36]

Gandhi repeatedly emphasizes the importance of the individual (individual self) by focusing on the “inner voice” and the individual consciousness. Throughout his political writings, when facing ethical and political crises, Gandhi appeals to his inner voice for guidance. Gandhians often cite the numerous anti-authoritarian passages in which Gandhi advises the other person to listen to her or his own inner voice, even if that contradicts what Gandhi’s own inner voice tells him to do. Such an admirable approach is seen as upholding the values of pluralism and diversity with a respect for individual differences and a remarkable sense of tolerance.

Nevertheless, Gandhi’s emphasis on the inner voice and individual consciousness raises many serious questions. Most basic, it is not clear precisely what Gandhi means by such concepts. In some passages, inner voice seems to point to conscience, and it is tempting to adopt a Kantian philosophical approach. But in such passages, Gandhi also seems to reject some essentializing, categorical, reason-based, Kantian sense of ethical universalism. Instead he emphasizes the real differences of individuals selves.

Some Indians, including Gandhians, claim that India is like the United States of America (or the West) in that both place primary emphasis on “the individual.” But such a supposed similarity is usually more misleading than instructive. Gandhi does not endorse some political concept of the modern, Western, nonsocial or antisocial, nonrelational, autonomous, independent individual. Just the opposite: He usually views the ideological construction of such a modern individual self as an impediment to true self-realization and to positive self-other political relations.

What complicates this question is that Gandhi—unlike most contemporary political scientists and political philosophers, historians, social and natural scientists—does not reduce this concept of the individual self to empirical, historical, psychological, social, biological, or other scientific terms. Most essentially, this inner voice, as a statement of truth, is a spiritual voice.[37] What is this individual spiritual voice/self?[38]

There are obvious questions arising from the danger of such a primary focus on this individual inner voice. As Gandhi was well aware, many individuals throughout history, often with strong religious faith commitments, have claimed strange, demonic, anti-Gandhian inner voices. This is why Gandhi places such an emphasis on moral development, adhering to moral spiritual vows, and purification of mind and body as preconditions allowing one to listen to the true inner voice. As essential to political thinking, the inner voice is a statement of political truth, and, for Gandhi, many inner voices are statements of political untruth.

A serious difficulty in distinguishing the true inner voice as a statement of political truth from the false inner voice as a statement of political untruth arises from the fact that Gandhi usually seems to pose the individual inner voice against the social, detaching it from its larger social and political context and any process of intersubjective verification. This leaves us with a tension in Gandhi’s writings and with serious questions about the basis on which I can judge an inner voice as true or false and about what this does for Gandhi’s respect for pluralism and diversity. After all, a political approach that might conclude that your particular inner voice is a statement of untruth—even if I sometimes advise you to act politically on what is really false so that you can learn from your own failed experiments in truth—doesn’t seem to correspond to Gandhi’s deeper sense of tolerance and pluralism based on Satya and Ahimsa.

This focus on the individual self raises crucial questions about its relation to the social self. Gandhi’s individual is not the nonsocial/antisocial individual. For Gandhi the latter is the height of egotism and immorality. Such self/ego-centered and ego-attached tendencies must be restrained, even to the extent of placing primary focus on the needs and welfare of the other and placing your “self” last. In Gandhi’s political approach, it is only when one restrains and overcomes the dominant modern focus on the primacy of one’s own self/ego and instead establish dynamic, social, political self-other relations focusing on the primacy of the needs of the other that one begins to experience the deeper, true, moral, and spiritual Self and constitutes a more moral and spiritual political order. Only by restraining the false self/ego, realizing one’s nature as a social relational self, and assuming ethical, social, and political responsibility for the welfare of the other, can I begin to listen to the authentic inner voice of the true self.

Even with this clarification, there remain many questions about the individual-social relation in Gandhi’s political thinking. Clearly for Gandhi the social is an essential dimension of self-realization and of developing a more moral and spiritual political order of constructive self-other relations. In his analysis of swaraj and many other concepts, Gandhi emphasizes the necessity of incorporating into the process of education, moral development, and self-development, including character development, cultural, linguistic, and other aspects of one’s specific social and political context. To a large extent, in Gandhi’s political approach, both the false individual self and the true individual self are socially and politically constructed. Gandhi’s political individual is a social relational self. But Gandhi also resists reducing the individual (inner voice, individual consciousness) to social analysis. Indeed, the individual inner voice is often posed against the social.

If, as I would submit, the self is always a relational self, the self-other is a necessary structure of human consciousness, and there is no self free from dynamic dialectical relations with the other, then many of Gandhi’s political assertions about the inner voice, social reality, and spiritual reality require further analysis. Although Gandhi’s political thinking usually emphasizes a commitment to a social relational view of self, he sometimes attempts to detach the individual self from its social relations with the other or to point to a deeper, nondualistic, spiritual self (Self) in which the self-other relation is transcended. I would submit that these nonsocial and antisocial formulations, when detached from the Gandhi’s social political relational analysis, have contributed to more reactionary Gandhian political positions.

Additional questions about the self and the self-other relation arise from Gandhi’s key distinction between the relative and the absolute. As we observed in our formulation of Gandhi’s essential metaphysical and spiritual framework, Gandhi repeatedly warns us that everything he says about absolute ideals of Truth, Nonviolence, God, and Self remains on the level of relative truth. At best Gandhi’s political experiments with truth proceed through action-oriented praxis from one relative political truth to a more adequate relative truth. But as a limited, conditioned, imperfect self, no human being can fully grasp the absolute Self and absolute Truth. This is a major justification for Gandhi’s insistence on political and religious pluralism, multiplicity, diversity, nonviolence, tolerance and respect for many authentic perspectives, glimpses of, and paths to Truth. In short, there is not one, objective, universal, absolute, true view of “the Self.”

As we have seen, this leads to a complex Gandhian political approach to self and self-other relations far different from the commonly presented rigid absolutist Mahatma, admired by some followers for his uncompromising insistence on absolute political and other principles and attacked by some critics for his tyrannical imposition of his absolutes on his family, workers, and others. The more accurate and more adequate political Gandhi, in my view, who upholds the relativity of all political truths about self, can be more easily related to contemporary analyses of self-other relations. Such a Gandhian approach, for example, emphasizes a situational perspectivism, as seen in the claim by Merleau-Ponty and other philosophers that all knowledge is perspectival. Such a Gandhian approach to self can be related to contemporary anti-essentialist critiques, contemporary anti-foundationalism (including critiques of traditional philosophical formulations of “the Self”), and the insistence on the relativity of all perspectives.

Nevertheless, there are serious problems with simply identifying Gandhi’s insistence on the relative truth of any assertion about self with contemporary pragmatist, phenomenological, multiculturalist, deconstructionist, postmodernist, and other formulations of the relativity of all perspectives. Gandhi rejects the kinds of facile or unlimited relativisms, fragmented eclecticisms, and insistence on the inviolability of relative particular differences so fashionable in many contemporary approaches. On a deeper metaphysical or spiritual level, Gandhi presupposes and insists on the indivisibility of Truth, the interrelatedness and unity and even oneness of Reality, and the ultimate spiritual identity of Truth, Nonviolence, God, and Self. This raises the key question for a Gandhian political approach to self and self-other relations as to what holds together and unifies the different, limited, imperfect, often contradictory, relative views of self.

In this regard, there is a persistent tension in Gandhi’s political and other reflections on self and self-other relations. On the one hand, Gandhi repeatedly emphasizes the inner voice, the individual consciousness, relative limited political truths, and respect for a plurality of diverse political perspectives on Self and Truth. On the other hand, Gandhi grounds his profound commitment to unity and oneness, to Self and Nonviolence and Truth, by assuming a metaphysical and spiritual framework. Such an ultimate framework is constituted by moral and spiritual absolute ideals. In terms of such ideals, Gandhi has faith and believes in a deeper spiritual Self—whether formulated as a monistic, Upanishadic, Vedantic, Atman, as the divinity within, or in other terms. Such a metaphysical and spiritual foundation provides the sense of an objective universal approach to Self that unifies diverse, individual, and social political perspectives on self. This distinguishes Gandhi’s political approach to self from the modern, Western, political endorsement of a plurality of diverse, ultimately separate, fragmented, particular, relative perspectives on truth and self. There are many paths to Truth, many relative truths, many diverse paths or ways to climb the mountain. But as human beings we are unified in that we are formulating or experimenting with diverse, limited, imperfect ways to climb the same mountain; to reach the ultimate Truth and experience the unifying Self.

The tension here in Gandhi’s political approach to self and self-other relations arises from the fact that he has assumed a metaphysical foundation, a spiritual essentialism, that holds together and unifies the plurality of individual selves with their diverse relative perspectives on self-other political relations. How does one justify this philosophical religious assumption of such a metaphysical spiritual framework? How is the assumption of such a spiritual political foundation reconciled with Gandhi’s previous affirmations of individual inner voices, the relativity of all human glimpses of truth, and a tolerant situational political perspectivism? Through faith? Through the imposition—even if well-intentioned—of a metaphysical framework and view of deeper spiritual Self and Truth on the other, even if the political other claims that this reflects a unifying Hinduization or some other imposition of an alien political perspective on one’s own approach to self and self-other relations? Put in other words, how does a Gandhian political approach deal with the claim that we may not simply be taking different paths or ways to climb the same mountain? We may be climbing different mountains with different political and other views of relative truth and absolute Truth, relative self and absolute Self.

One way that several Gandhians have attempted to resolve such a tension—even claiming that there is no real tension—in Gandhi’s political approach to self and self-other relations is to present a traditional Indian philosophical distinction between relative truth and absolute truth. We should not conflate or confuse these two levels of analysis expressing two, radically different levels of reality. When Gandhi is discussing individual selves, inner voices, social selves, political self-other relations, glimpses of truth, and diverse political perspectives, his political thinking functions on the limited, conditioned level of empirical, political, relative truth. When Gandhi refers to Self, Atman, the divinity within that unifies self and other, Truth, God, and Nonviolence, his political, ethical, and religious thinking functions on the deeper, ultimate, spiritual level of unconditioned, nonempirical, transcendent, absolute Truth. Tension arises only when we confuse these two levels of analysis of self/Self by not distinguishing what may have limited, empirical, relative, political truth from absolute Truth.

Regardless of how one assesses attempts in Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika Buddhism or Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta to formulate such a theory of two levels of truth, such an approach does not easily remove all tension in and questions about Gandhi’s political approach to self. I’ll conclude by providing two of many possible complicating considerations. First, for Gandhi, relative truth is not simple empirical truth. Even his relative political truths about self and self-other relations (inner voice, individual consciousness, etc.) have a nonempirical, ahistorical, spiritual basis or dimension. This is why many of Gandhi’s relative political assertions, arising from seemingly empirical political experiments with truth, can prove so frustrating to those attempting to subject them to a process of strict empirical, social, historical, political, nonreligious verification.

Second, for Gandhi—unlike many traditional Vedantists and many other advocates of ultimate spiritual realities—there is an integral necessary relation between relative truths (t , t , t ,…) and absolute truth (T). A traditional proponent of Advaita Vedanta may claim that on the level of absolute Truth, when we experience fully and unconditionally the true Self as nondifferentiated, pure, spiritual Atman and experience the complete identity of Atman-Brahman, we reject and transcend the political order of relative truths. The relative political order, with its formulations of limited relative self-other relations, is sublated or negated as constituted by false, karmic, mayic constructions devoid of Truth and Reality. Such empirical, political, relative truths may have epistemic status but no ultimate ontological reality. But this is not Gandhi’s political approach. For Gandhi, the relative is our only access to the absolute. We can only speak politically of the ideals of Self and Truth from the imperfect, limited, relative political perspectives of self and truth. At no point can we speak of transcending ethical, political, and other relative dichotomies, including self-other relations.

Therefore, for Gandhi’s political thinking, unlike some of traditional Indian philosophy, even in the imperfect realization of the Self or Atman or in the realization of the divinity within, there remain key questions about the status of the other and about moral, spiritual, and political self-other relations.[39]


[1] Parts of what follows in this chapter appear in Douglas Allen, “Philosophical Foundations of Gandhi’s Legacy, Utopian Experiments, and Peace Struggles,” Gandhi Marg 16, No. 2 (July-Sept. 1994): 133-60 (reprinted in Naresh Dadhich, ed., Rethinking Gandhi [Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 1999]) and Douglas Allen, “Gandhian Perspectives on Self-Other Relations as Relevant to Human Values and Social Change Today,” in Ishwar Modi, ed., Human Values and Social Change, Vol. 1 (Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 1999).

[2] For example, particularly troubling to most contemporary political thinkers are the many passages in which Mohandas Gandhi, struggling over political and other crises, insists that God spoke to him, God showed him the way, etc. Although such formulations are capable of different interpretations, they often point to a religious origin and legitimation at odds with modern political thinking insisting on empirical, human, intersubjective, rational justification. Similar concerns of modern political thinking can be directed at Gandhi’s numerous, diverse formulations seemingly extolling a religionization of politics, even if Gandhi’s orientation is at odds with much of the narrow, militant, exclusivistic, intolerant religionization of politics (and politicization of religion) that one finds in India and the rest of the contemporary world.

[3] Very revealing with regard to contemporary political thinking in India are comments made in December 1997 at the Institute of Gandhian Studies in Wardha by Gandhian scholar Usha Thakkar of the Institute of Research on Gandhian Thought and Rural Development in Mumbai. Dr. Thakkar indicated that she does a survey of students at the beginning of her courses in which she contrasts the artha-level political approach of Kautilya in his Arthashastra with Gandhi’s more ethical and spiritual political approach. She asks her students which approach they prefer. She sadly reported that her students consistently and overwhelmingly prefer Kautilya’s political approach. In fact, if I recall correctly, she reported that at least 90% of her students prefer Kautilya. This is consistent with my clear impression from numerous talks on Gandhi I gave at Indian universities during 1997-1998. Indians students overwhelmingly identified with dominant, modern, Western models of science, technology, development, economics, political science, philosophy, etc., rather than with Gandhian alternatives. Indeed, several student responses at my talks, sometimes expressed in embarrassed and even defensive pronouncements, were that their parents (or more likely grandparents) admired Gandhi, but that they really know nothing about Gandhi and his political, ethical, or philosophical thinking. What they study and know a lot about are computers and other technology, science, mathematics, “modern” economics and politics, etc., but not Gandhi’s alternative thinking.

[4] See, for example, Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History,” The National Interest, No. 16 (Summer 1989) and Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992).

[5] The following analysis of the Enlightenment is taken from Douglas Allen, “Enlightenment,” in The Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion, ed. Robert Wuthnow, Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1998), pp. 233-35.

[6] Some of this analysis, completely unrelated to Gandhi, appears in Douglas Allen, Myth and Religion in Mircea Eliade (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998).

[7] This is similar to the criticism of Gandhi’s political thinking offered by various Muslim and other Indian critics, even during Gandhi’s lifetime. These critics charge that Gandhi is not really respecting the other as other; he is subsuming the other within his universalizing, totalizing, essentializing, hegemonic, metaphysical and spiritual framework which incorporates particular Hindu versions of inclusivism, tolerance, and respect for multiple paths to Truth.

[8] In being selective in appropriating what is of value in Gandhi’s political thinking, we must avoid a typical unfortunate dichotomy found in India and elsewhere: Either Gandhi is uncritically idealized and even deified as a larger-than-life Mahatma by some admirers or he is uncritically dismissed as reactionary or completely irrelevant by some critics.

[9] Rashmi Sharma, Gandhian Economics: A Human Approach (New Delhi: Deep & Deep Publications, 1997), p. 189.

[10] Yogesh Chandra, Rediscovering Gandhi (London: Century Books, 1997), p. 1.

[11] What follows on truth (satya) and nonviolence (ahimsa) is taken from my “Philosophical Foundations of Gandhi’s Legacy, Utopian Experiments, and Peace Struggles” and my “Gandhian Perspectives on Self-Other Relations as Relevant to Human Values and Social Change Today.”

[12] Glyn Richards, The Philosophy of Gandhi (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, and London: Curzon Press, 1991 reprint, originally published in 1982 by Curzon and Barnes & Noble).

[13] See, for example, The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, compiled and edited by R. K. Prabhu and U. R. Rao (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1967), pp. 47-54.

[14] The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India), Vol. 26, p. 224 (Young India, 5 March 1925).

[15] The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 48, p. 404 (“Speech at Meeting in Lausanne,” 8 December 1931).

[16] Ibid. M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, translated by Mahadev Desai (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, first published in 2 vols. in 1927 and 1929; 14th reprint), p. 503: “My uniform experience has convinced me that there is no other God than Truth.”

[17] The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 48, p. 404.

[18] James G. Hart, “Recent Works in Gandhi Studies,” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 44, No. 1 (January 1994), pp. 155-56.

[19] The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 33, p. 452. See also Judith M. Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 199.

[20] M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography, p. 420.

[21] The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 37, pp. 348-49 (Young India, 11 October 1928).

[22] The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 84, p. 229 (Harijan, 23 June 1946).

[23] M. K. Gandhi, From Yeravda Mandir: Ashram Observances, translated by V. G. Desai (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1933; 1957 edition), pp. 12-13: “Without ahimsa it is not possible to seek and find Truth. Ahimsa and Truth are so intertwined that it is practically impossible to disentangle and separate them. They are like the two sides of a coin, or rather of a smooth, unstamped, metallic disc. Who can say which is the obverse, and which is the reverse? Nevertheless, ahimsa is the means; Truth is the end. Means to be means must always be within our reach, and so ahimsa is our supreme duty. If we take care of the means, we are bound to reach the end sooner or later. When once we have grasped this point, final victory is beyond question.”

[24] Similarly this view of Truth and its inseparable relation with Self and Nonviolence is key to understanding Gandhi’s formulations of the interrelated concepts of satyagraha (“Truth-force,” “Soul-force,” the techniques and applications of nonviolence) and sarvodaya (“universal uplift,” “welfare of all”).

[25] M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography, pp. xi-xii.

[26] The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 84, p. 199 (Harijan, 2 June 1946).

[27] In Douglas Allen, “Philosophical Foundations of Gandhi’s Legacy, Utopian Experiments, and Peace Struggles,” pp. 142-43, I maintain that Gandhi’s ethical approach to self and self-other relations, arising from his key concepts of Truth, Self, and Nonviolence, cannot be classified in terms of the dominant, modern, normative, ethical alternatives of either utilitarian consequentialism or Kantian deontological ethics.

[28] The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 71, p. 294 (Harijan, 2 March 1940). It should be obvious that such typical formulations by Gandhi, appealing to ultimate ethical, metaphysical, and religious values, are at odds with dominant, modern, Western, political thinking.

[29] Peter Winch, Ethics and Action (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), esp. chap. 9: “Moral Integrity.”

[30] See René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[31] For a more developed formulation of Descartes’s orientation and modern Western concepts of self, as well as Hindu, Buddhist, Marxist, and feminist alternative perspectives to this dominant modern Western orientation, see Douglas Allen, “Social Constructions of Self: Some Asian, Marxist, and Feminist Critiques of Dominant Western Views of Self,” in Culture and Self: Philosophical and Religious Perspectives, East and West, edited by Douglas Allen (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press/Harper Collins, 1997), pp. 3-26.

[32] For an introduction to Levinas’s philosophy, see Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, trans. Richard A Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985). For more detailed analysis of Levinas’s perspective of ethics as first philosophy and in which I must recognize the primacy of the other and assume moral responsibility for the welfare of the other, see Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981); and Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969).

[33] I found during my presentations and research in India in 1997-1998 that some Indians claimed that this emphasis in Gandhi on restraining the self and recognizing the primacy of the other had made Indians weak, especially when competing with modern Westerners who are not so troubled by questions involving the morality of primary aggressive self-assertion. It saddened me, although it did not surprise me, that so many Indians want to imitate those very characteristics of modern, Western, economic and political thinking with self-other relations that I find so egotistical, oppressive, exploitative, unjust, and destructive of other human beings and of nature.

[34] See Richard G. Fox, Gandhian Utopia: Experiments with Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989).

[35] What follows is not intended to convey the impression that scholars of Gandhi do not take seriously these questions. A number of Gandhian scholars have done impressive research on Gandhi’s approach to self and self-other relations. What I found in India in 1997-1998 was that many Gandhian, non-Gandhian, and anti-Gandhian scholars assume that there are clear, objective, correct answers to these questions. Scholars disagree in their interpretations of Gandhi and in their Gandhian political perspectives, but the frequent assumption is that the other interpretations and perspectives simply have it wrong; that they reflect a misreading and misinterpretation of Gandhi’s political and other writings; and that there is one correct, true, or essential Gandhian answer to questions about Gandhi’s political approach to self. As I’ve indicated earlier in this chapter, I find such an essentialist approach inadequate.

[36] I do not necessarily view all such ambiguity, complexity, and dialectical tension and contradiction as inherently negative. It is not always the goal of analysis to remove all ambiguity and complexity and to eliminate any sense of dialectical tension and contradiction. My position is that an adequate Gandhian political perspective on self-other relations must sometimes insist on the ambiguity and complexity of specific phenomena and that dialectical tension and contradiction may be a constructive basis for realizing more adequate human values and bringing about needed political change.

[37] I am indebted to Rajiv Vora of the Gandhi Peace Foundation in New Delhi for emphasizing this important point. Dr. M. P. Mathai of the School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala, Dr. Sadhna Vora of the Peace Research Centre, Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad, and other Gandhi scholars also offered invaluable insights on Gandhi’s analysis of the inner voice, individual consciousness, and self-other relations.

[38] There are many controversial and ambiguous formulations of inner voice, individual consciousness, and self in Gandhi’s political and other writings that I shall not consider. For example, Gandhi frequently tells us that his inner voice is the voice of God. Such formulations are open to many interpretations, and, as we’ve seen, Gandhi prefers the formulation “Truth is God” and sometimes uses Truth, God, Self, and Nonviolence interchangeably. But when discussing his inner voice, Gandhi often writes of the necessity of God’s grace. He tells us that he is but an agent or servant of God. His formulations sometimes express a sense of complete passivity on the part of his individual self. God shows him the right path. Some truth, transcending his individual, political, relative consciousness, is disclosed to him, as the voice of God is revealed as his inner voice.

[39] My formulations of Gandhi’s political thinking—as grounded in his essential metaphysical and spiritual framework, as constituted by dynamic, contextualized, inverted self-other relations, and as revealing complex, unresolved, dialectical tensions and ambiguities regarding the nature of self and self-other relations—could be applied to Gandhi’s controversial political analysis of issues extremely relevant to contemporary political thinking. To mention but three examples of such controversial political analysis: Gandhi’s political thinking about the priority placed on swadeshi and face-to-face decentralized relations; his political formulations of swaraj, including the endorsement of certain forms of nationalism and national swaraj; and his analysis of legitimate and illegitimate forms of political struggle, including his rejection of class struggle.