Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy by Ronald J. Terchek is part of the “20th Century Political Thinkers” series by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, which also includes books about such figures as John Kenneth Galbraith, Martin Heidegger, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
I have studied Gandhi and his philosophy a great deal in my life, certainly more than I have any other historical figure. I found this to be a high quality book and found most of what Terchek says to be plausible. I differ with him slightly here and there, and would certainly sometimes put a different emphasis on certain aspects of Gandhi’s thought than he does, but I didn’t see anything in this book that struck me as a glaring error.
Part of the difficulty with a book like this is the whole project of trying to make explicit what is largely an implicit philosophy. It’s debatable to what extent there even is a Gandhian philosophy to be discerned from his writings and speeches. Gandhi didn’t try to put together a coherent system like that. He lived his life as best he could, and he made some efforts at times to put into words his reasons for doing some of what he did, but nothing like in the sense an academic would. You can be inspired by the general approach he took to life, you can agree or disagree with specific things he said or decisions he made, but you can only agree or disagree with his overall philosophy in a very limited sense, because there is no clear, specific philosophy there to be agreed or disagreed with.
When you write about Gandhi’s philosophy, you’re very likely going to be putting a lot of yourself into it, interpreting his ideas such that if he had laid out his philosophy explicitly, surely it would be very close to what you in your gut hope he meant.
So the author’s style is a sort of “We can infer Gandhi believed this, this, and this,” with an underlying approval, a sympathy toward these ideas, an acknowledgement that Gandhi’s ideas should be pretty appealing to sensible, right-minded folks like us.
I’ve worked out some ways that, at least tentatively, I think Gandhi’s core concepts of truth and nonviolence can be unpacked, and I’m curious about such things as how to deal with the fact that they seem to imply a philosophical anarchism, yet some of what Gandhi said and wrote seemed to accept a certain amount of state coercion as justified. Now I don’t know that ultimately there’s a contradiction-I tend to think with some of the things he said there was an implied conditional which would sidestep the contradiction-but I’m receptive to hearing theories about how they can or cannot be reconciled.
But the author’s approach, the author’s framework, doesn’t fit exactly (not surprisingly) with where I am in my journey to better understand Gandhi.
For the author, the core principle of Gandhi’s political philosophy is autonomy. I can see that. I maybe wouldn’t put it quite that way, but there’s a sense in which my analysis of his use of the concepts of truth and nonviolence fits that.
One thing I did maybe gain a little more insight into through this book was the extent to which Gandhi was a religious radical trying to reshape Hinduism. He consistently presented his ideas as if they were the original or pure Hinduism, the Hinduism they’d all always believed in, stripped of various lesser customs and detours it had accumulated along the way.
But really a lot of it was as far from mainstream Hinduism as Tolstoy’s pacifism (a big influence on Gandhi) is from mainstream Christianity. Even his basic principle of nonviolence was merely one of many contradictory strands in Hinduism, which few people saw as somehow the supreme strand that the others are to be measured against.
His relentless campaigning against Untouchability, for instance, wasn’t a matter of inspiring people to live up to the religious ideals they’d all always shared (though he presented it that way); it was an attempt to contest or reinterpret longstanding interpretations of Hinduism that were widespread both among the masses and religious scholars.
He was always very clear, by the way, where he’d come down in a conflict between his values and his religion. His attitude was that he thought the essence of Hinduism was utterly incompatible with the ugliness of Untouchability, but that it was entirely possible he was mistaken on that point, and that if he was, then he wasn’t really a Hindu. He was more firm in his moral belief that Untouchability was wrong than he was in his belief that Hinduism agreed with him on this point, and if there did prove to be a conflict, it was his moral belief that he’d cling to.
One small criticism I have of the book is that the author seems a little too inclined to present Gandhi in a way that will be palatable to a readership of Western academics, like “Don’t worry. He’s not as weird or extreme as you might think. There are ways to interpret the stuff that’s contrary to common sense in such a way as to make it really not so far out.”
But what appeals to me about Gandhi is precisely that he does seem out of step with a lot of “common sense.” I think he meant the extreme stuff. I think to live a life according to Gandhian principles would be vastly different from what most people think is right and proper.
But I think that’s just the kind of paradigm shift we need. I would guess we’ll be extinct or close to it in the next few decades or at most the next couple centuries if we continue believing roughly what we do now about what human behavior is acceptable and what isn’t, if we think that humans are roughly on the right track in how they treat each other, and that no more than incremental improvements are necessary.
Gandhian nonviolence to me doesn’t just have a little different nuance, a little different emphasis here and there from the world as it’s been shaped by the West’s most influential thinkers. It’s a radically different way of seeing the world and morality.
Terchek perhaps doesn’t give Gandhi the credit (or blame) he deserves for how far outside the box he was, how much of a genius/nut he was.