IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis

The Mahatma as an intercultural Indian

2nd October, 2020 Editorial


  • There is a tendency in today’s world to think and to say that Gandhi’s ideal of non-violence is a noble idea but impractical and unrealistic.
  • The odd thing about this affirmation is that it tends to sanctify Gandhi while rejecting his principles.
  • However, Gandhi was not a saint; nor was he a religious leader. He was, first and foremost, an original thinker and an acute political strategist, who believed profoundly in the possibility of introducing humanity to the principle of non-violence.

A realistic hope

  • Gandhi’s idea of non-violence was not a dream; it was a realistic hope, armed with a dose of practical idealism; that of the global welcoming of the law of love.
  • By saying this, he presented himself, at the same time, as an Asian who was influenced by Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, and as a person who was deeply influenced by the teachings of Jesus Christ, Socrates, Tolstoy, Ruskin and Thoreau.
  • Thomas Merton once wrote that Mahatma Gandhi was “an alienated Asian”. Maybe so, but it is not because Gandhi learnt many things from the West that he had necessarily become a stranger to his own culture and to the traditions of the East.
  • On the contrary, his proximity to the East and the West proved to be very fruitful and made of him, what we can call, “an intercultural Indian”.
  • Gandhi was endowed with an intellectual openness, which helped him to learn from others, and, as a result, live up to his ideals.
  • As such, he was not only an Indian political and moral leader but also the founding father of modern non-violence as it has been practised for the past 100 years around the globe.

Ethical mode of conduct

  • As such, with Gandhi, the philosophy of non-violence turned into an instrument of public dissent and a pragmatic tool of the powerless against the powerful.
  • However, in the eyes of Gandhi, while being an instrument of conflict resolution and universal harmony, non-violence was also an essentially moral exercise.
  • What Gandhi called the “soul force” was actually an ethical mode of conduct.
  • As a matter of fact, he viewed non-violence essentially as an ethical commitment and a constructive political action.
  • For Gandhi, the ethical and the political were the same.
  • Therefore, for him, the struggle against violence and fanaticism was at the same moral level as disobeying unjust laws: it was expressed by the soul force and the pursuit of truth to uplift others.
  • Gandhi had a profoundly ethical view of life: he recognised neither the infallible authority of texts nor the sanctity of religious traditions, but he was also the foremost critic of modern politics and its authoritarian practices.
  • That is why, reading Gandhi today is unavoidably to rethink modern politics as a new relation between power and violence and as a way of transcending the conventional distinction between citizens and the state.
  • It is also a move towards an inter-cultural democracy, where solidarity of differences is not compromised by mere nationalism, and democratic action is not limited by mere constitutionalism and representation.
  • Working in this perspective, the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence finds the conventional meaning of politics as incomplete, while problematising democratic politics as a way of assigning a duty to citizens to be vigilant about the abuses of power by the state and to struggle against the “Sultanization” of political power in our contemporary societies.

Establishing a just society

  • On the social level, Gandhi envisioned an ideal society where social justice is done, including for the last person.
  • This is a common world in which institutions aim to get the best out of the individual.
  • The entire Gandhian thought in the realm of citizenship and democracy revolves around the establishment of a just society.
  • As such, Gandhi’s idea of democracy hinges on moral growth in humankind, where an undisciplined and unrestrained individualism gives its place to an empathetic humanism.
  • Moreover, while speaking on non-violence and democracy, Gandhi believed that humanity had to develop certain qualities such as fearlessness, non-possession and humility.
  • The main aim was to restructure humans to suit to an inter-cultural and pluri-dimensional democracy.
  • Gandhi’s repeated emphasis on service to all human beings from all traditions of thought was the essence of his non-violent democratic theory.

An approach ahead of its time

  • In this pluralistic approach to the dialogue of cultures and faiths, Gandhi was far ahead of his time.
  • Indeed, his non-violent democratic theory as a philosophy of inter-cultural dialogue is still far ahead of our time, several generations after his death.
  • Gandhi was not a dogmatic nationalist but essentially a pathfinder towards a common ground among different cultures and diverse mentalities.
  • Therefore, his philosophy of democracy remains neither mono-cultural nor essentialist.
  • It is essentially pluralistic and empathetic. More importantly, his attachment to politics is more ethical than religious.
  • Consequently, religion for him is identified with ethics rather than theology.
  • Therefore, his concept of democracy and modes and methods of achieving it, including Satyagraha and Swaraj, are not theological concepts.
  • Gandhi believes that human destiny has constantly been on the move towards a non-theological truth.
  • And he was a person who pursued truth in all aspects of life, not only spirituality, and encouraged others to join him in this pursuit.

Celebrating Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary

  • Gandhi considered democracy as a dynamic element in the ethical becoming of human civilisation.
  • His effort to bridge different views of life was matched in many ways by his approach to the many-sidedness of truth.
  • That is why he did not reject different traditions of social life; he simply affirmed what he considered to be authentic in them and thought of bringing them together in the realisation of an ethical common ground.
  • This enabled him to maintain that it would not be possible to understand the concept of democracy without having some understanding of the philosophical tradition of a critique of violence in which it is nurtured.
  • Gandhi, therefore, speaks of democracy and non-violence as two sides of the same reality.

Idea of ‘Indianness’

  • He defined his mission of promoting non-violence and democracy in India beyond all political and philosophical sources of hatred, exclusion, suspicion and war.
  • He was well aware of the fact that politics is a fragile concept and is vulnerable to nationalist justifications of violence and war.
  • That is the reason why he refused to define India in terms of ethnic purity or linguistic unity or some other unifying religious attribute.
  • More than rallying Indians to combat various “others,” Gandhi’s philosophy of democracy introduced an anti-monistic and pluralistic dimension into a primarily territorial rootedness of Indianness.
  • In this sense, it could be argued that for Gandhi, there was no sentiment of loving one’s country (namely India) without loving the culture of the other.
  • Gandhi’s appeal to planetary companionship was based on an inclusive and dialogical idea of living together, which disapproved all forms of national or religious self-centredness.
  • As he pointed out: “The golden way is to be friends with the world and to regard the whole human family as one.
  • He who distinguishes between the votaries of one’s own religion and those of another miss-educates the members of his own and opens the way for discord and irreligion.”