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Gandhi Contra Modernity.

Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi. Oxford Past Masters Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 111 pp. $8.95 (paper).

Americans tend to romanticize the figure of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and not without reason. The Mahatma -- the "great souled one" -- is a uniquely inspiring figure in a century whose master politicians seem to be mostly criminals and fools. Gandhi was a harbinger of the civil rights movement, the key influence directing the young Dr. Martin Luther King toward a politics of nonviolent resistance as an alternative to both resigned acquiescence and revolutionary terror. He is clearly a man worthy of emulation and affection. Even a critic of Gandhi, like George Or well, was quick to acknowledge that, when compared to his political peers, he was infinitely more admirable.

Yet this romanticizing of Gandhi often obscures his most enduring contributions, and highlights only those aspects of his achievement that tend to gratify our egos rather than put them to the question. Nowhere was this more evident than in the lavish praise bestowed posthumously upon him when Richard Atten-borough's film Gandhi swept the Academy Awards in 1982. Here was a crowd, dressed to the nines in overpriced gowns and tuxedos, ready to repair speedily to various nightclubs for some serious debauchery as soon as the annual self-congratulatory rituals were to cease, waxing effusive about this wonderful man who would not so much as hurl a fly but who brought down an empire, seemingly unaware that his entire life stood as an indictment of the very culture of excess, vanity, and narcissism that Hollywood epitomizes. While the film was a fairly good one, the celebration missed the point, massively. The empire is us.

The political theorist Bhikhu Parekh's monograph Gandhi, a volume in Oxford's superb "Past Masters" series, is an important and commendable book, in part because it refuses to view Gandhi through the gauze-covered lenses of romanticism and cheap sentiment. Like George Woodcock's Mohandas Gandhi of some twenty-odd years ago, it is short and direct, but instead of concentrating on the Mahatma's biography and political career it highlights Gandhi's place as a thinker -- as a political theorist, social critic, philosopher of religion, and cultural visionary. Parekh does not indulge in hagiography: his exposition is fair and broadly sympathetic, yet never blind to criticisms that might be plausibly leveled at Gandhi as an intellectual figure. The result is often disarming, in two distinct ways. First, Gandhi does not always come across as an infallible oracle of sacred insight. And second, when his arguments and analyses seem most convincing, they are often anything but congenial to the received socio-political wisdom of advanced modernity.

Gandhi's limitations are displayed most clearly in Parekh's account of his religious thinking. The religious environment of Gandhi's childhood was, as Parekh puts it, "eclectic:" his mother was associated with the syncretistic Pranami sect of Hinduism, which venerated the Koran as a holy book along with Vedantic scripture, and his father, a chief administrator of the court of Porbandar, freely associated with Jains and Christians. This cosmopolitan religious background inclined Gandhi toward a position that contemporary theologians have dubbed "religious pluralism" -- the conviction that all religions are valid paths toward transcendence and the holy, differing only in the vocabulary in which the sacred order is described and the perspective from which it is appropriated. Thus, as Parekh describes it,

For Gandhi, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other religions were all based upon specific conceptions of a personal God. They involved distinct forms of prayer, worship, rituals, and beliefs about his nature and relation to the world, and were all "sectarian." The "pure" or "true" religion lay beyond them, and had nothing to do with organization, belief, and rituals. It consisted in nothing more and nothing less than the belief that the universe was pervaded and governed by the cosmic power, and the decision to organize one's entire life accordingly. It involved living in the constant, intimate, and unmediated presence of the cosmic spirit, and represented the purest form of spirituality. (32)

Gandhi, as a theorist of comparative religion, is also a paradigm case of an advocate for what George Lindbeck, in his book The Nature of Doctrine, called "experiential-expressivism." Experiential-expressivists claim that there is a universal content to "the religious," based on the ubiquitous human experience of "the holy" or "the sacred," of which particular religious traditions are basically local variations. This adds something crucial to the doctrine of religious pluralism: while important, local traditions supply a distinctive yet inessential form to an essential, universal religious content. There are many attractions to this position, not the least of which is that it provides a basis for effective religious liberty and tolerance, and there are many important theologians who embrace it. Yet a problem emerges with experiential-expressivism, as Lindbeck pointed out, in that it invariably seems to evacuate particular religious traditions of their distinctive claims about God, nature, and society, putting them in the position of being mere elaborations of, and ultimately distortions of, a "sacred" truth that in its purest form is apprehended independently of any and all tradition. Experiential-expressivism thus tends to slide towards a reductionist brand of theological liberalism where everything determinately theological is drained off in favor of either a philosophical system that is taken for granted, or a "spirituality" that borders on the vacuous.

This is more than just potentially dangerous. In mainstream Protestant Christianity, an experiential-expressivism that began with Schleiermacher's putatively universal numinous feeling of absolute dependence ended in Harnack's hackneyed cliche about "the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God," not to mention any number of facile identifications of Christianity with socio-political agendas that make little or no reference to Trinity, Cross, or Resurrection. In Judaism the parallel movement was from the Enlightenment assimilation into European national cultures championed by Mendelssohn and Heine, through the emergence of the "committed" as opposed to the "religious" Jew, to the construal of Judaism among many contemporary Jews as something between an ethnicity and a mood. And if "real" religion is finally a matter of pure, immediate experience, nothing could conceivably rule out the worst forms of New Age schlock spirituality as beyond the pale. The testimony of a Deepak Chopra would be on all fours with that of a Karl Rahner or a Martin Buber. This should surely give pause to a sincere and reflective advocate of any religion.

If Gandhi was championing an experiential-expressive view of religion as an analogous option for Hindus, he seemed blind to its potential hazards. But it is not clear that this was his intention. The beliefs and practices of Hinduism seem, for Gandhi, to be contingent, accidental, incidental qualities of his own idiosyncratic piety, which was in its essence something direct and immediate, relatively indifferent to either the particularities of tradition or the need to reinterpret them. He seems as much "beyond" his Hindu cultural and conceptual inheritance as the Christian and Muslim beliefs and symbols he often cited to great rhetorical effect. While this is charming it is also naive. It is hard nowadays, in the shadow of post modernity and its hermeneutics of suspicion, and in the wake of philosophers as different as Quine, Sellars, Derrida, Foucault, and Rorty, to countenance any claims to "immediate" experience as also being otherwise "innocent" or "incorrigible," not to say "universal." In short, Gandhi's religious thought seems both badly dated and rather insubstantial.

Yet ultimately this is inconsequential: Gandhi is duly remembered not as a theoretician but as a man of action and sound practical judgment -- what Aristotle called a phronimos. And Gandhi's chief contribution to phronisis was in his recognition that a proper response to injustice ought not to be a reflexive jump to violence. Gandhi's pacifism rested less on explicit theological dogma (as, for example, that of Christian pacifists such as John Howard Yoder) than on his philosophical convictions about the inherent dignity of human nature and its place in a natural cosmic order of integral goodness. Unjust individuals and unjust social institutions oppose and disrupt that cosmic order, and offend the dignity of those they oppress; but in doing so they also compromise their own dignity and dam age their own chances for achieving a fully human, perfected life. Thus one who recognizes the duty to oppose injustice seeks to benefit the oppressor along with the oppressed: the way in which this can be done -- indeed, must be done -- is to confront the oppressor in such a way that, incrementally yet effectively, the unreasonableness and foulness of his or her deeds becomes apparent. Change is thus brought about first as a change of heart rather than by violently forcing a change of deeds. Gandhi's notion of satyagraha -- "soul force" as the power of resistance on behalf of the truth--is the basis for an exercise of political persuasion that respects the other even as it unflinchingly calls her or him to account. It exacts a price, however: the willingness to endure suffering for the sake of bringing one's adversaries to a recognition of justice. Here Gandhi's religious "eclecticism" served him well: adopting the Christian idea of redemptive suffering, as consummated in the sacrifice of the Cross, gave Gandhi the rationale he needed to make the way of nonviolence not just merely a means to an end, but a morally valuable end in itself.

If nonviolence is not just a policy but a way of life, there remains one major hurdle to clear. The modern nation-state gets its charter as the sole legitimate wielder of force, the purpose of which is to prevent an anarchic slide into a "war of all against all," or at least to enable self-interest-maximizing individuals to wheel and deal with each other with a minimum of friction. Modern politics is founded on an acceptance, however reluctant, of state violence as a legitimate instrument of power and principle. But this can only mean that the modern nation-state is inevitably questionable for the disciple of satyagraha, and inasmuch as the violent order inherent in the nation-state presently seems indispensable, modernity itself becomes doubtful. It should not be surprising, then, that Gandhi was a dogged critic of modernity: the fact that it is surprising to many illustrates the grip of sentimental romanticism on the political imagination.

Gandhi's brief against modernity rests upon its supposed privileging of body over mind, personality, and spirit: the body "[encloses] the agent within himself, [breeds] individualism, and [is] the seat of desires" that press for immediate gratification (64). While Gandhi's philosophical psychology may be questionable (is "the body" intrinsically disposed toward "possessive individualism," or only is a certain kind of body, already "disciplined" in and by modern political orders, so disposed?), he is right to note the shift from a political order based on a shared pursuit of moral virtue and spiritual value to one devoted to constraining the actions of self-interested preference-maximizers. The social order that emerges from modernity, whatever its explicit philosophical pedigree, is at bottom Hobbesian: restless, acquisitive, obsessed with the consumption of material goods (Hobbesian "felicity") and fostering technological "progress." It is also committed to what Bertrand Russell once called a "crackpot rationalism" that views all problems as technical questions concerning the implementation of efficient means, ignoring the more fundamental ethical questions about the worthiness of common ends. Capitalism institutionalizes the social mores of modernity, and regiments society in accord with the iron logic of the market, to the exclusion of other, noneconomic values. Paradoxically, this radical individualism leads to a "statist culture," since the state is needed both to advance the cause of industrial capitalism, and to be the only institution capable of exercising enough "countervailing power," in John Kenneth Galbraith's turn of phrase, to constrain capitalism's penchant for destroying social stability and to cope with its "externalities." The net effect of statism, however, is to make matters worse, by removing effective political power from those communities most directly affected by the capitalist juggernaut. Thus Marxist communism and centralizing versions of socialism, for Gandhi, are variants of the same modernist mistake as industrial capitalism. Enchanted by modernity's false rationalism, they all seek to evade the problems of alienation and exploitation while embracing-the very modern narrative of inevitable material progress that created the problems in the first place.

Gandhi was not utterly dismissive of modernity: he acknowledged as its three great achievements the spirit of scientific inquiry and rational criticism, the understanding and control of the natural world, and the cultivation of civic and organizational virtues. Gandhi was fair to a fault as a social critic, and did not engage in either a one-sided, root-and-branch condemnation of modernity or a "wistful nostalgia" for an imaginary past, as Richard Rorty often accuses contemporary communitarians of doing. But giving modernity its due is not the same as signing up with it. Gandhi's political thinking, as well as his political practice, was a series of "experiments in truth," endeavors to link ethical values up with political structures by listening, seeing the plausibility in one's opponent's point-of-view, and then thinking and acting creatively. The task before us, as he understood it, is to synthesize the achievements of modernity in a vision of social, political, and economic order that rejects many of its founding assumptions.

Parekh's account of Gandhi's brief against modernity is intriguing, since it shows Gandhi anticipating much of the social theory and criticism of advanced by "strong" communitarians (those who not only criticize present day individualistic liberalism but who in some measure want to supplant it) such as Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, and above all Alasdair MacIntyre (whose rejection of liberal modernity is strong enough to prompt him to disown the label "communitarian" as well). It is curious that Parekh does not make much of this, however, and instead launches a critique of Gandhi's political antimodernism that does not so much challenge as confirm Gandhi's message. Parekh claims that Gandhi

treated the rise of the scientific spirit and the developments of the civil and organizational virtues as if they were accidental products of modern civilization, and failed to appreciate that they were deeply bound up with it and could not have developed outside it. Gandhi was thus caught up in the paradoxical position of wanting to appropriate part of the "spirit" of modern civilization while rejecting the very institutions and social structures that embodied and nurtured it. This does not mean that one must accept or reject modern civilization in toto, but rather that one needs to take a more dialectical view of it than Gandhi did... (74).

Yet, it seems to me that this is precisely what Gandhi was doing: trying, "dialectically," to overcome modernity without repealing it, since that is impossible anyway. Scientific knowledge, technological prowess, and civic virtue are here courtesy of modernity, and we should be grateful for them. But this need not chain us to the conditions that brought them about (gradgrind capitalism, narrowly calculative reason, an ineffective bureaucratic state increasingly tied to the very economic powers it is supposed to regulate and curtail). The view that modernity presents itself as a tight "package deal" is the antithesis of creative, "dialectical" thought, and Gandhi never subscribed to it. It is curious that Parekh misses this aspect of Gandhi's social and political criticism.

While it is quite a stretch to label Gandhi a "postmodernist" avant la lettre (he certainly would have no truck with the epistemological skepticism and moral cynicism that characterizes postmodernism, at least that of the American academy), in one sense the tag fits him. To be "post" something is to be at least a little bit against it, yet also to see that a simple return to whatever is "pre" is impossible. To the extent that Gandhi tries to retrieve values and virtues that are at home in an earlier era - a view of wealth and power as a "trusteeship" held for the sake of a common good, a suspicion of progress for progress's sake, a concern for the quality of local communities and their settled ways of life, a view of human self-governance as something other than interest-brokering and manipulative self-seeking-he might, with justice, even be seen as a reactionary (albeit a left-wing reactionary, given his passion for social justice and his prophetic mission to bring money, power, and status to account). Yet it is to Gandhi's credit that the retrieval of these goods is less a matter of "going back" than "going forward" in the right way -- experimentally, nonviolently, doggedly, yet with enough humility to question our own motives from time to time. The ultimate collapse of his patriotic political efforts--the partition of India and Pakistan and the violent conflicts between Hindu and Muslim that prevail to this day--is less an index of his failures than of our own. Would that there be someone like him among politicians today.

Michael J. Quirk teaches in the Adult Division at New School University and Hofstra University. He is working on a collection of his essays, The Rule of Practice.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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