Gandhi: Philosopher or Pragmatic Politician?

Oxford University Press 2017; Total Pages 316; ISBN 13:978-0-19-947429-5 (Hardcover) Price 695 INR
  • Samiksha GoyalEmail author
Review Discussion

The book under discussion is a study of Gandhi’s opposition to the caste system in India. While stating the need for this study, the author, Nishikant Kolge, observes that Gandhi’s writings and speeches on the issue of caste may suggest that Gandhi held contradictory views on this issue. For instance, Gandhi sometimes referred to caste as a “useful and natural institution” (4), while on some other occasions Gandhi held views like “caste kills (life)” and “untouchability is the most hateful expression of caste” (4). In this work, Kolge sets out to devise ways to understand and resolve this contradiction to bring out Gandhi’s stable views on the caste system.

The suggested contradiction, if true, may have serious implications for understanding the historical, political, and philosophical meaning of Gandhi’s thoughts. Gandhi’s use of the idea of non-violence in mass political action has influenced several political movements around the world, such as the liberation movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. in America, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and the Chipko movement in India. Gandhi’s commitment to non-violence lies at the heart of Gandhi’s practices in personal and political domains. However, his apparent support to caste oppression, as suggested by the alleged contradiction, undermines Gandhi’s sincerity towards non-violence. Since the caste system is laced with violence, any approval of it raises questions about genuine non-hypocritical practice of non-violence on Gandhi’s part. In turn, the suggested contradiction is a matter of great worry for philosophers who uphold the significance of Gandhi’s views in the moral domain on the basis of his emphasis on truth and non-violence.

Kolge aims to explicate Gandhi’s actual stand on caste in such a way as to resolve the said contradiction. He accomplishes this task from two related directions. First, Kolge provides a sustained historical account of Gandhi’s life to show Gandhi’s resolute commitment to eradicate caste in his own thoughts and actions ever since his childhood. Second, Kolge introduces the conception of “strategy” to suggest that the contradiction in Gandhi’s writings and speeches is only apparent. According to the author, the contradiction appears because Gandhi took some strategic decisions in the context of the on-going freedom movement. In the process, Kolge also rejects the “evolution” view on Gandhi that holds that Gandhi grew out of his caste prejudices over time. There is a fundamental difference between the evolution view and Kolge’s strategy view. The former regards the said contradiction in Gandhi’s thought as true and thus provides a revisionist explanation of it; Kolge’s strategy aims to prove that contradiction is apparent and false.

This book comprises five chapters and a postscript. The first two chapters introduce the notion of strategy. In these chapters, the author explains the intended meaning of the term strategy and the need to introduce this concept to understand Gandhi’s work. The third and the fourth chapters give a detailed chronological account of Gandhi’s struggle against caste in India to show how the suggested strategy worked in Gandhi’s thought and action. In these chapters, Kolge argues that Gandhi in fact used several strategies to fight the caste system. The fifth chapter compares the social movements organized and led by Gandhi with other contemporary anti-caste movements such as the shuddhi movement (230) and Ambedkar’s movement for social and political representation of Dalits (230). The book ends with an evaluation of Arundhati Roy’s (2014) well-known criticism of Gandhi for his alleged support to the caste system (269–291).

Kolge uses much historical and textual material to develop his argument. Although I touch upon some of them, the accuracy and sufficiency of such material is not my primary concern; my concern is primarily philosophical and is centered around Kolge’s notion and use of the concept of strategy. In any case, several reviewers have already covered the historical and political aspects of this  book (e.g., Banerjee 2019). Nevertheless, before I turn to some of the philosophical issues, it is worthwhile to note that Kolge’s book contains other material in defense of Gandhi’s views on caste besides the concept of strategy. For example, Kolge provides a detailed refutation of one of the major thrusts in the current literature against Gandhi, namely, criticism of Gandhi’s views on caste from the point of view of Bhim Rao Ambedkar. Arundhati Roy (2014) is a prime example in that genre. In his discussion of Roy, the notion of strategy plays no significant role since Kolge raises several historical problems with Roy’s critique of Gandhi.

One of them concerns Roy’s opposition to Gandhi from an Ambedkarite position. Comparing Gandhi with Ambedkar, Roy argues that Gandhi was much like a privileged caste Hindu reformer who narrowed the issue of caste just to the removal of untouchability and prejudice against dalits (backward class). In response, Kolge shows that Roy’s argument does not take note of the fundamental differences between Gandhi’s methods and the method of the upper caste reformist. According to Kolge, Gandhi thought that overcoming false consciousness of caste hierarchy, and rejection of the Brahminical notions of purity and pollution, will bring about an end to the caste oppressions. The practices of untouchability and related prejudices were the outcome of this false consciousness.

Thus Gandhi persuaded upper caste people to give up their privileges and identify themselves as dalit in thought and action (285). Kolge calls this identification of the upper caste with the dalit “the principle of downward mobility.” Upper caste reformists, in contrast, urge the principle of upward mobility according to which the dalits are encouraged to embrace the lifestyle of upper caste Hindus. The two principles—upward mobility and downward mobility—fundamentally differ in the sense that the former maintains the sanctity of the upper castes while the latter opposes the false consciousness of upper caste Hindus regarding permanent hierarchies in society.

Further, Roy appeals to the apparent contradiction, noted above, in Gandhi’s speeches to conclude that Gandhi never decisively renounced his belief in the varṇa system. Instead of using the notion of strategy here, Kolge cites a series of events from Gandhi’s life to show how Gandhi never practiced untouchability and other caste boundaries in his life. With rich documentation from Gandhi’s life, Kolge rules out Roy’s faulty view that Gandhi supported the caste system. As Rajmohan Gandhi mentions in his foreword to this book, the historical coverage and documentation in Kolge’s work deserves much admiration.

In the rest of the present review, I will limit my attention to Kolge’s notion of strategy and its philosophical implications. I wish to examine Kolge’s claim that the moral philosophical principles held by Gandhi did not directly guide his actions; his actions were largely based on practical considerations. This claim seems to underlie the very need to introduce the concept of strategy. To anticipate, the notion of strategy suggests a separation of pragmatic exigencies and the moral and philosophical commitments in Gandhi’s thoughts and actions. I will argue that the notion and the use of strategy misrepresent the scope of Gandhi’s moral and philosophical ideals. In other words, it is questionable if some notion of “pragmatic exigency” bridges the alleged gap between Gandhi’s thoughts and his complex web of social, political, and personal practices.

On Strategy

Kolge projects the notion of strategy as a means to interpret the apparent contradiction in Gandhi’s remarks on caste, as noted. Kolge bases his conception of strategy in the Buddhist notion of “skillful means.” The term skillful means is an English rendition of the Sanskrit term upāyakauśalya or upāya kuśala in Pāli. This notion is widely used in the later Mahāyana Sūtras of Buddhism. It denotes the idea that the Buddha skillfully adapted his teachings to the level of his audience (Federman 2009, 125). Similarly, Kolge defines strategy as a “means of persuading people towards a particular direction.” These skillful means, says Kolge, may not be truthful or precise; they are primarily motivated by compassion towards the audience and the hope to release people from suffering (44). A common example is to give false hope to terminally ill people. Note that the notions of imprecision and lack of truthfulness are used here with almost the same effect (43); it suggests that one resorts to strategy, i.e., imprecise means, when demands of truth cannot be fully and immediately satisfied. The notion of strategy thus signals some planned departure from the ideals of sustaining truth and precision in thought.

Next, Kolge borrows the idea of interpreting Gandhi as a strategist from Bipin Chandra (1989). Chandra refers to Gandhi as a strategist leader; in his view, Gandhi was guided by “exigencies of the situation” during the freedom movement in India against the imperial rule (Chandra 1989, 520). Although Chandra and Kolge apply the concept of strategy to understand two different political aspects of Gandhi’s thought—freedom struggle and the fight against caste, respectively—they seem to have a common motivation in introducing the concept of strategy. Both the authors suppose that Gandhi’s ideology and philosophy are insufficient for explaining Gandhi’s actual stand on certain issues. In Kolge, this proposal is captured in the following statement:

His (Gandhi’s) political action therefore appears not to be directed by moral or religious principles alone, distant from the concrete practical situations at hand. There must have been some element of strategy when he decided what issues to take up…in order to achieve the political results he was seeking (2).

In this sense, Kolge believes that Gandhi’s moral principles were too far away from concrete practical requirements to direct his political goals including some “long term” ones. Hence, Gandhi used strategies to fill the gap between his cherished principles and his political goals on the ground. The suggestion seems to be that Gandhi’s speeches and acts did not always fully comply with the demands of truth. In this, the hidden rationale is that the truth, owing to its ideal nature, makes unrealistic demands that are inapplicable in certain concrete situations. I will call it the "claim of ideality".

This perspective on Gandhi’s thought is scattered in different forms in the book. For example, in a cluster of statements in Chapter 2, Kolge says: (a) Gandhi was concerned with bringing about changes in people’s life rather than formulating theories; (b) Gandhi believed in the importance of practice over theory (59). These remarks suggest that, according to Kolge, Gandhi gave preference to concrete action over intellectual reflection. However, some other statements in the same area of the text suggest that Kolge is implying more than the mere significance of performing actions. In these statements, Kolge seems to give priority to Gandhi’s practices by suggesting that (c) Gandhi’s principles are a result of Gandhi’s practices rather than vice versa (59). Furthermore, Kolge holds that (d) Gandhi willingly compromised on small issues of principle in pursuit of the fruits of more important battles (59). Additionally, he said that (e) Gandhi’s philosophical exposition of an ideal society was the result of his systematic thinking towards achieving desirable goals (59).

These remarks may be understood as making two broad suggestions. The first two statements (a–b) suggest that Gandhi endorsed the importance of practice; he was less concerned with formulating theories. The remaining statements (c–e) suggest that Gandhi formulated his principles and theories on the basis of the goals/fruits he desired to achieve in concrete, practical situations. There is an important difference in these two assertions. Since Gandhi was not a professional philosopher but a political leader, the first suggestion is broadly and benignly true. In fact, in what follows I will urge how, in the context of Indian religious texts promoting ascetic behavior and meditative inaction, Gandhi asserted the importance of performing action over mere intellectual reflection.

But the second statement—Gandhi’s principles were based on his political goals—makes a fundamental claim about Gandhi’s overall thought. This claim suggests that the cherished principles were valuable not intrinsically, but only in terms of what they were supposed to achieve. In this sense, this claim is different from the claim of ideality. Here, Kolge is claiming that Gandhi’s ideals were guided by practical exigencies. Let us call this the “claim of practicality.” It identifies Gandhi as primarily a pragmatist politician who was guided by practical immediacies. I will evaluate how these claims—the claim of ideality and the claim of practicality—relate to Gandhi.

With the notion of strategy in hand, Kolge proceeds to explain how Gandhi used a variety of strategies to fight the caste system. Kolge formulates these strategies on the basis of a detailed enumeration of Gandhi’s actions over a period of several decades. Three of those strategies are as follows. First, in order to gain the support of upper caste Hindus, Gandhi projected himself as an orthodox (sanātani) Hindu (107). Second, instead of opposing the caste system directly and at once, Gandhi aimed to gradually remove the prejudice of untouchability in the caste system that was closely related to the Brahminical notions of purity and pollution, as noted. Caste system assigns the job of cleaning and scavenging to dalits; in turn, the system prohibits upper caste Hindus from physical or social contact with dalits as they are considered dirty and their touch is contaminating. Untouchability is the most extreme aspect of caste oppression. Hence, an attack on untouchability is an indirect yet fundamental attack on the caste system; it gradually removes the ill effects of the caste system. Third, Gandhi aimed to salvage the dignity of manual labor in his struggle against caste (207); that is, Gandhi aimed to undermine caste hierarchies by minimizing the gap between intellectual and manual labor. In the light of the characteristic feature of strategy, namely, practical exigencies, let us examine what these strategies mean.

Consider Kolge’s claim that Gandhi’s projection of himself as an orthodox Hindu was a strategic move (207). On the face of it, the projection appears to be contradictory because it means that Gandhi was projecting himself as a part of the system he was trying to abolish. Kolge calls it a “strategy” because it is based on the exigencies of immediate circumstances. During the time when Gandhi was trying to oppose caste oppressions, the upper caste Hindus were socially and economically strong. In Kolge’s view, it was practically very difficult for Gandhi to carry on the freedom struggle without the support of the caste Hindus (207). In his historical survey of Gandhi’s actions, Kolge shows how ever since childhood Gandhi never practiced caste boundaries and made every possible effort to transgress them. Therefore, projecting himself as a caste Hindu was indeed an untruthful claim designed to gain support of the upper caste people. In this sense, it was merely a compliance with the practical immediacy in violation of the principle Gandhi held throughout his life.

Similarly, Kolge views the removal of untouchability as an immediate practical goal. According to Kolge, Gandhi situates this goal in the larger aim of attaining which literally means self-rule. Kolge observes that swarāj is mainly applicable to individuals; thus swarāj is the collective capacity of individuals to live in harmony (74). In the author’s view, Gandhi used swarāj in three ways: political freedom of the nation, economic independence of the individual, and political freedom of the individual. Untouchability hinders most explicitly the economic and political freedom of individuals. Hence, the removal of untouchability is a pre-requisite for attaining swarāj in Gandhi’s framework. However, it is a strategy in Kolge’s sense because just the removal of untouchability does not remove the caste system, as many authors have pointed out. Focus on untouchability is a practical exigency which ignores the attack on freedom that the caste system continues to enforce.

Furthermore, the author contends that the character of self-rule itself is practical in nature. In Chapter 2, he explains how his understanding of swarāj differs from Anthony J. Parel’s (2000) interpretation of self-rule as ideal self-realization (2000). Kolge argues that Gandhi was agnostic about the human ability to comprehend a spiritual notion of self-realization as a transcendental experience of the self, as recommended in, say, the Vedāntin literature (80). Kolge contends that, instead of an epistemological justification involving self-knowledge, Gandhi gave a pragmatic reason for preserving transcendental notions like self-realization (81).

According to Kolge, Gandhi’s skepticism about the ability of humans to experience spiritual emancipation (Mokṣa) made Gandhi shift his focus from the final goal of attaining Mokṣa to the process that is supposed to lead to Mokṣa. Gandhi’s focus on the process, instead of the goal, leads Kolge to conclude that Gandhi promoted the significance of action; in other words, this shift to process recommends participation in political and social aspects of human living (82). It follows that, according to Kolge, (a) swarāj is Gandhi’s ultimate aim, and removal of untouchability is a pre-requisite for attaining swarāj, and (b) swarāj is itself a practical aim because the widespread spiritual interpretation of swarāj in fact boils down to achieving political and economic freedom of an individual. In the next section, I will explain the philosophical nuances of Gandhi’s concept of swarāj somewhat differently.

So, there are two main conclusions in Kolge’s work: Gandhi was (i) guided by practical goals like achieving self-rule and (ii) practice has primacy in Gandhi’s thought. To review, Kolge’s argument for these conclusions goes like this: achievement of self-rule is partly based on abolishment of caste (as explained above); steps taken for abolishment of caste are based on practical exigencies; therefore, achieving self-rule, which is itself a practical aim, is based on practical exigencies. In this sense, Kolge’s notion of strategy adheres more to the claim of practicality than the claim of ideality. To emphasize, the claim of practicality regards practical exigencies as the fundamental tenet of Gandhi’s thought which ultimately shaped his moral principles. I will now try to show that self-rule is indeed a fundamental concept of Gandhi, but it is primarily a moral concept which is not based on the primacy of practical exigencies. Thereby, I question Kolge’s claim that practical exigencies play a more fundamental role than philosophical principles in Gandhi’s thought.

Principles and Practices

As pointed out by Kolge, Gandhi in his seminal work Hind Swaraj did explain how self-ruling individuals are a pre-requisite for a truly egalitarian polity like swarāj. As noted, Kolge explains Gandhi’s conception of self-rule in terms of a contrast in two extreme views of self-rule: self-rule as transcendental experience of Mokṣa, and self-rule as a pragmatic socio-political goal (81). Let us briefly review Gandhi’s views on this issue.

Kolge mostly refers to Gandhi’s translation of Bhagvad Gītā to understand Gandhi’s take on the transcendental notion of Mokṣa. As stated earlier, Kolge asserts the primacy of action in Gandhi’s thought—claim of practicality—on the basis of the evaluation that Gandhi shifted focus from the end result of Mokṣa to the process leading to Mokṣa. However, Kolge does not mention the aspect of meditative contemplation which is prescribed in the Gītā as the means to attain Mokṣa. In Discourse VIII, the Gītā stressed the importance of meditative contemplation as the means to attain Mokṣa. Gandhi summarily rejected the idea and said that “rather than waste these brief moments, we should devote them to serving God through serving mankind” (Gandhi 1927, 177). In his translation of the Gītā, Gandhi actually detaches the idea of devotion from meditation and attaches it to social and political action in service to mankind. In this sense, Kolge is right in noticing that Gandhi asserted the importance of social and political action, but he seems unclear about how Gandhi reached this view.

At this point, let us recall the distinction between asserting the importance of action, on the one hand, and priority of action, on the other: the former asserts the importance of acting over mere thinking/meditating, while the latter suggests that practical concerns guide formulation of principles. No doubt Gandhi asserted the importance of action, as explained above. This is in sync with Gandhi’s words that Kolge draws much inspiration from, “to understand what I say one needs to understand my conduct” (6). However, it is still unclear if Gandhi also asserted the priority of action/conduct, for this would imply that actions guide the abstract principles, rather than actions following from principles that are remote from the context of action. In my terms, it would mean that the principle of practicality explains Gandhi’s philosophy.

A study of Gandhi’s reinterpretation of Gītā throws light on what he considered to be the fundamental motives to his actions. In his introduction to Bhagvad Gītā, which Gandhi called Anāsakti Yoga, Gandhi wrote that the main idea of the Gītā is that “man’s aim is to be like God”; he added that God is “the one who performs extraordinary services to mankind” (Gandhi 1927, 127). Thus, Gandhi transformed the ambiguous transcendental notion of God into a thoroughly moral ideal; in other words, he reformulated religious and spiritual categories into humanly achievable moral notions. The ideal of “service to mankind” is one such moral notion achievable by human action; in Gandhi’s view, such human action is the form of perfection the practice of which makes one become a perfect—“Godlike”—human individual (127). In his definition of Gandhian self-rule, Kolge also states that “self-rule is the ability to perform every act with perfection” and “one who seeks Mokṣa behaves as society’s servant” (82). But from these statements, Kolge only reaches the conclusion that Gandhi is asserting the fundamentality of socio-political action. I wish to highlight that Kolge does not give sufficient emphasis on the meaning of perfection and society’s servant.

The ideal “service to mankind” presupposes selflessness (anāsakti in Sanskrit) as the motive of moral action. It is the central feature of self-rule. Gandhi said that "for realising the self (self-rule) first essential thing is to cultivate a strong moral sense. Morality means acquisition of virtues..." (Gandhi 1909/1999, 317). Gandhi himself defined self-realization/self-rule as “selflessness” (Gandhi 1927, 128–129). Although Kolge does discuss Gandhi’s understanding of the Gītā, it is surprising that there is no mention of these moral ideals in Kolge’s analysis of swarāj.

It now becomes clear that in the preceding discussion three altogether different components of self-rule are at play: religiosity or spirituality, morality, and practical action. As we saw, these dimensions may be characterized as follows: (a) religiosity captures the notion that transcendental experience of the Mokṣa is self-realization; (b) morality guides action in accordance with the notion of service which presupposes selflessness; and (c) practical action asserts the importance of action instead of intellectual contemplation.

Kolge rightly mentions the shift that Gandhi makes from spiritual inactivity to practical action, but he misses out on the intermediate transition of spirituality into morality in Gandhi’s view. Kolge’s view gives the impression that Gandhi sets aside spiritual activity and simply focuses on practical action. But as discussed above, Gandhi’s use of the notion of God in terms of service to mankind suggests that Gandhi in fact transforms the spiritual self-rule into moral self-rule. Kolge seems to selectively pick and reinterpret only those aspects in Gandhi’s philosophy which assert the importance of practice in order to apply the principle of practical exigencies on Gandhi. The regulative dimension of morality in Gandhi’s framework defeats Kolge’s scheme.

In contrast to Kolge’s claim that practices guide Gandhi’s moral principles, Gandhi’s interpretation of the Gītā asserts that practice by itself is neither constitutive of nor sufficient for attaining perfection. Gandhi asserts that practice needs to be guided by the moral notion of service; practice is aimed at achieving moral perfection in terms of service to mankind. Gandhi says that the only way one can be free from the “taint of action” is to perform action without any attachment, by renouncing the fruits of action. In this sense, on the one hand, Gandhi promotes the need to act and, on the other, he qualifies the resulting action with the moral principles of selflessness, truth, and non-violence. By no means did Gandhi assert the priority of action in his thought; action by itself is not a regulative aspect of his philosophical principles.

So, where do we stand with respect to the apparent contradiction in Gandhi’s speeches? In my view, Gandhi’s moral commitments to the principles of truth and non-violence can very well explain the apparent contradictions. Consider again Gandhi’s projection of himself as an orthodox Hindu. As such, it may appear to be paradoxical and contradictory in the sense suggested above. However, Kolge fails to note that while Gandhi projected himself as an orthodox Hindu, Gandhi also qualified it by saying that he believed in all other religious texts in the similar way, and there is room for all other faiths in his own faith (Gandhi 1967, 99–100).

Moreover, Gandhi’s insistence on varṇa (forms of labor) rather than jātī (caste) shows that he indeed believed that he was reforming the existing system of caste. It was neither untruthful nor contradictory on his part to assert his image as an orthodox Hindu. To put it differently, Gandhi’s projection of himself as an orthodox Hindu is not a strategy in Kolge’s sense which is both imprecise and untruthful on Gandhi’s part. It is in fact based on a reflective understanding of orthodox Hinduism that is consistent with his moral principles. It is a different issue if such understanding on Gandhi’s part is morally and politically valid.

In fact, as against Kolge’s statement that “Gandhi willingly compromised on small issues of principle in pursuit of the fruits of more important battles” (59), Gandhi once said “I have sacrificed no principle to gain a political advantage.” (Gandhi 1925/1999, 396). The famous case of the Chauri Chaura movement in 1922 illustrated Gandhi’s stern moral position. It was a non-cooperation movement led by Gandhi, based on the principle of non-violence. At some point during the movement, the protesters resorted to violence against the police after the police opened fire on them. Gandhi called off the struggle as soon as the protesters resorted to violence. After calling off the movement with immediate effect, Gandhi went on five days’ fast to penance for the violence and cursed himself for allowing the movement to develop with ill-prepared people. By ill prepared, he meant that people did not yet know the value of non-violence and how to practice it in the face of violence against themselves.

Gandhi was severely criticized by other leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhagat Singh for calling off the movement in which people were uniting in protest in thousands. In the opinion of these leaders, it was most practicable to let the movement grow. But Gandhi thought the opposite. This is only one of many instances where Gandhi exhibited (a) unflinching commitment to the method of non-violence in practice and (b) no compromise on this principle on pragmatic grounds. The point is that non-violence is practicable in the sense that it is not merely a utopian principle, yet its performance is not conditioned by practical immediacies and expediencies. Non-violence is not practiced because violence is costly; non-violence is to be practiced as a principle.

In fact, if Gandhi’s moral principles are indeed the regulative aspect of his actions, then the issue of contradictions raised by Kolge can be resolved by using the philosopher Akeel Bilgrami’s analysis of Gandhi’s notion of satyāgrahi. In a series of articles, using Gandhi’s notion of moral exemplar, Bilgrami shows how Gandhi’s own actions flowed from abstract and remote epistemological commitments held by Gandhi. Thus, Bilgrami (2003) argues that, by making moral action a matter of exemplary living, Gandhi eliminated the moral legitimacy of violence. Bilgrami reaches this idea by questioning the common view in moral philosophy that moral truth and criticism are related. Morality and criticism are so related that a person acting wrongly (say, an oppressor) is typically considered to be worthy of criticism. Bilgrami observes that Gandhi’s aversion to criticism lies in the fact that criticism eventually leads to violence (112). Criticism may sometimes take the form of punishment, and in punishment violence gets its validation. By asserting the importance of a moral exemplar, Gandhi eliminated the possibility of seeing others as potential objects of criticism. Gandhi’s moral exemplar rejects the notion of inflicting punishment on the other. In fact, this leads Gandhi to assert the need for self-suffering in the process of voicing and asserting moral truth, instead of inflicting suffering on others. That is why Gandhi blamed himself, rather than the protestors, for the violence that erupted in Chauri Chaura.

Let me extend Bilgrami’s analysis of Gandhi’s focus on the (moral) agent to understand Gandhi’s notion of moral responsibility in cases of moral failure like oppression against dalits. Gandhi resolutely held the upper caste Hindus responsible for the miserable condition of the dalits. Gandhi metaphorically understood the earthquake in Bihar in 1934 “a divine chastisement for the great sin we (caste Hindus) have committed and are still committing against those whom we describe as untouchables". Gandhi never demanded infliction of punishment on the oppressors even for the practice so highly morally culpable in his understanding. Gandhi demanded correction of the wrongdoings (against dalits) by appealing to oppressors’ moral conscience, by levying responsibility on them. At the same time, he motivated the oppressed to conduct non-violent non-cooperation against the oppressors.

Gandhi was very careful about not paving the way for violence in his struggle against caste. In stark contrast to holding Manusmritis responsible for the caste system, and appealing to the violent streaks of people to motivate them to burn scriptures, Gandhi questioned the authority of the scriptures in a different way. He radically transformed the meanings of these scriptures, as shown in the case of his interpretation of Gītā. In the introduction to his translation of Gītā, Gandhi outrightly says that he does not consider Kriṣṇa as God, and also says that he is willing to draw the lesson of satyāgraha from the Gītā even if the Gītā doesn’t really support non-violence (Gandhi 1919/1999,50).

Following Bilgrami’s analysis, one can argue that the alleged contradictions in Gandhi’s thoughts appear to be so primarily because Gandhi’s actions followed from rather abstract epistemological commitments which are otherwise unobservable, perhaps even inconceivable, in the concerned contexts. The abstractness of the rationale behind Gandhi’s thoughts and practices lead authors to seek more tangible “pragmatic” explanations for his actions. This seems to be the case with Kolge too. As noted, Chauri Chaura explains Gandhi’s rather radical not-so-pragmatic step of halting the struggle when the struggle was about to hit its pinnacle. Gandhi exemplified the life of an ideal Hindu by embracing the lifestyle of a dalit. In contrast to Kolge’s view, much abstract philosophical thinking went into Gandhi’s own practices as a moral exemplar.

Gandhi’s commitment to the moral notions of welfare of the other and non-violence provides rationale to his commitment to abolishment of untouchability and other caste atrocities. If Gandhi was guided by practical exigencies, as Kolge proposes, he would have focused more on the freedom movement than removal of untouchability as other upper caste freedom fighters perhaps desired. But to do so would have amounted to giving up on the principle of service to mankind. Yet, even in this case, Gandhi made sure that the service to mankind proceeded in strict accordance with the principle of non-violence, that is, without burning the scriptures and punishing the oppressors. There was no assurance that such abstract moral restrictions on the possibility of practice will lead to desired pragmatic effects. Gandhi held on to the principles, nonetheless.



I am grateful to Nirmalangshu Mukherji, Akeel Bilgrami, and Rajmohan Gandhi for their suggestions and encouragement. I am also thankful to Monima Chadha and Justin Oakley for their comments on earlier versions. Thanks as well to Purushottam Bilimoria and David Lawrence for their editorial advice.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentMonash UniversityMelbourneAustralia

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