How Gandhi’s Views on Religion and Politics Shaped His Philosophy of Ahimsa

One of the achievements of social scientists over the past century has been the leveling of the hierarchical distinction between modern and premodern societies. While in the public imagination this distinction dominates, in the social sciences it has become, if not obsolete, at least without interest. That is why, for example, a social scientist would even consider the Taliban in Afghanistan to be a thoroughly modern phenomenon.

To assert that all societies are modern is absolutely not informative if it is not followed by a reflection on the concept of the new. The new is not the modern, despite their continued confusion with each other. Nor is the new opposed to the old. Often, what is new is only the repetition of the old. This is reflected in Jyotirmaya Sharma The Elusive Nonviolence: The Making and Destruction of Gandhi’s Religion of Ahimsa, which is an attempt to read MK Gandhi as the creator of something absolutely new – the concept of ahimsa. The question around which the book revolves is: what exactly is new about Gandhi’s concept of ahimsa?

Sharma is perhaps one of India’s greatest intellectual historians of Hindutva. His passage to the thought of Gandhi must be considered as the conclusion of an investigation into the reformulation of Hinduism. Yet Gandhi, despite the superficial similarity in his attempt to reformulate Hinduism, is unique in his theoretical practice as the creator of a new language: political asceticism. It is this conjunction of mass politics with asceticism that makes Gandhi’s thought unique. The conceptual thread that connects the two, however, is none other than ahimsa or non-violence.

Sharma is careful to point out that ahimsa has a long history, but it was only with Gandhi that it became a political concept. For Sharma, Gandhi’s politics are circumscribed by his religion. Yet he points out that Gandhi did not passively inherit the tradition but actively rewrite it – creating a unique form of Hinduism, where all of its components were chosen based on their affinity with the central concept of ahimsah. For this reason, Sharma argues that Gandhi’s involvement in the Indian freedom movement was not guaranteed by some commitment to a European concept of freedom. For Gandhi, freedom meant nothing but moksha – freedom from the cosmic error that is the body. Western civilization, with its attachment to the body, was against it. For this, it was necessary to oppose British domination. Yet this opposition had to be non-violent, otherwise one would risk becoming what one opposes and the making of moksha would be abandoned.

According to Sharma, Gandhi’s language of political asceticism is grounded in ahimsa’s relationship to unattached action and duty. Even violence, if exercised out of a sense of duty, is non-violence. This laid the groundwork for Gandhi’s insistence on the importance of varnashrama, like the ideal society where everyone does their duty. For Sharma, it is not enough to assert that Gandhi introduced religion into politics. The total miscibility of religion and politics in Gandhi’s thought is a consequence of their common root in ahimsa. The superficial appearance of inconsistency in Gandhi’s thought therefore translates into a frightening coherence. All of his public stances on political, religious, or social issues can be seen as grounded in his commitment to ahimsa as a means of moksha.

Even more surprisingly, Gandhi’s political asceticism makes extinction, death and annihilation a virtue. His whole thought is the creation of a new concept of ahimsa whose content anticipates the universal annihilation of the body. It is something radically new that militates against all newness as nothing but a vast cosmic error that needs to be corrected. It is the monumentality of this contradiction that is why Gandhi makes all but the most thoughtless among us uncomfortable. Sharma unveils this contradiction in her naked brutality. The merit of Sharma’s book lies in the way it renders unrecognizable both what Gandhi did and what he said.

(This appeared in the print edition as “Correcting Cosmic Error”)

Minnie J. Leonard