Gandhi at 150: A Reading List on His Thought

There are a number of aspects of Gandhian philosophy that continue to be the focus of scholarly debate. 

With 2019 marking M K Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, the government is all set to celebrate the occasion with events planned all over the world. Gandhi’s enduring significance can be owed to his philosophy, particularly his advocacy of ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (passive political resistance) that transformed him into a symbol of peace across the world. His novel methods catapulted him to the forefront of the freedom struggle and enabled him to establish his moral superiority over the colonial government. 

However, non-violence is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Gandhian philosophy. While aspects of his philosophy, such as ahimsa and satyagraha are generally agreed upon, his views on sexuality, religion, and caste continue to be debated by scholars. 

In this reading list, we explore the various aspects of Gandhi’s philosophy through articles that have been published in the Economic and Political Weekly

1) Gandhi on Social Conflict

At the heart of Gandhi’s philosophy was social conflict, writes A K Das Gupta. In his 1968 article, Das Gupta argues that there are “some unrecognised similarities between the social philosophies of Gandhi and Marx.” The difference between Marx and Gandhi, according to him, was that Gandhi, in addition to recognising the conflict between labourers and capitalists, and landlords and cultivators, also recognised the conflict between villages and cities in terms of the former being exploited by the latter for food and raw materials. Das Gupta says that Gandhi’s idea of an ideal society was one where there was no exploitation, and where the former exploiters began to see the ownership of property in terms of trusteeship and not as an inalienable right. 

Like Marx, Gandhi also recognised the need to invoke the stronger— not merely the higher—forces in human nature for terminating exploitation. But while Marx talked of violent proletariat action in the cities, Gandhi put forth the ideas of non-co-operation and passive resistance by the exploited against the exploiters, and he believed that this would cultivate the idea of "trusteeship" among the owners of land and capital Also, while—unlike Marx who would allow only the state to be owner of property—Gandhi allowed for individual ownership insofar as the owner himself directly used the property or worked on it, he also wanted any major means of producing the implements for individual use to be state-owned.  

2) Gandhi and Religion

Politics was applied religion to Gandhi, writes M N Srinivas. But Gandhi’s interpretation of religion was not static. Much of Gandhi’s philosophy was inspired by religion, particularly Hinduism. In his writings, he had clarified that they were subject to change. He considered himself a Hindu. Writing in 1927 in Young India (21 October) he said, "It [Hinduism] was the most tolerant of all religions. Its freedom from dogma gave the votary the largest scope for self-expression.” In his article, Srinivas discusses Gandhi’s “freewheeling interpretations” of religion. Particularly, he finds it “strange” that Gandhi found support for non-violence in the Bhagavad Gita. However, as Srinivas argues, this did not prevent Gandhi from being critical of Hinduism. 

He was proud of Hinduism but it did not prevent him from rejecting and criticising several institutions, ideas, and beliefs which Hindus would ordinarily regard as part of their religion. For instance, he not only rejected untouchability but fought against it all his life, and the constitutional banning of untouchability and the subsequent legislation making its practice an offence, owed a great deal to the public opinion he built up over the decades against it. Gandhi was opposed to blood sacrifices to deities; indeed he opposed every form of cruelty to animals. He criticised the practice of 'phuka' by which peasants used to drive a nail fixed to a stick into the rectum of bullocks to make them move faster. He gave up drinking the milk of cows and buffaloes. 

3) Gandhi and Politics

Gandhi is almost always identified as a political figure, and treated as a “world leader” because of his predominant role in the Indian freedom movement. Aditya Nigam argues that the treatment of Gandhi in general and Hind Swaraj, in particular, has been as an exclusively political text. He wonders if Gandhi might be read differently. 

... what exactly is Gandhi’s relationship to politics—in [Hind Swaraj] as well as in his other writings and texts or in his practice? Could it be the case that politics, rather than being the content of his life work, was merely the terrain, the stage on which he chose to enact his great existential/ontological drama of life? 

4) Gandhi’s Contradictions

Dipankar Gupta writes, “Gandhi was a man of many contradictions and he was the first to recognise this trait in him.” Gupta says that Gandhi was never motivated to systematise his thoughts, which has left much of Gandhi’s philosophy open to interpretation. He also says that except for non-violence, which was absolutely non-negotiable, Gandhi was open to arguments against his other principles. According to Gupta, Gandhi’s practice, more than his writings, should be used to read and understand his philosophy.

Gandhi is not done yet and there are more contradictions waiting. Though he advocated spinning, Gandhi did not want “to make every one of the boys and girls in the villages of India spinners or weavers, but...whole men through whatever occupation they will learn” (Gandhi 1967 LXVI: 342). This led him to argue that the wheel was not meant for those with “remunerative employment.” The message of the wheel has to be carried to people who have no hope, no initiative left in them.” In the same contradictory vein Gandhi said that in his Nai Taleem schools there “should be no place for books” (Gandhi 1967 LXXXII: 142), but he also urged elsewhere that for true education “some people may feel the need for a study of literature, some for a study of physical sciences and others for art” (Gandhi 1991: 296).

5) Gandhi on Caste 

The scholarship on Gandhi’s views on caste is conflicted over whether his writings ought to be prioritised over his practices. Some of Gandhi’s writings validate the caste system, and have been read as evidence of his faith in the caste system. But at the same time, there were several instances where Gandhi’s practices violated caste restrictions. The inconsistencies between his writing on caste and his practices have generated a fair amount of debate. As Nishikant Kolge argues, it is perhaps more prudent to see Gandhi as a “strategist” in his approach to caste. 


The argument that Gandhi was a strategist in his approach to caste resolves the seeming contradiction between Gandhi’s personal practices where he violates several caste restrictions, and his emphasis on some of the positive aspects of the caste system in some of his writings and speeches … the best way to understand Gandhi’s writings— where he defends and validates caste—is to see them as a part of his long-term strategy to combat caste, because unlike other explanations, it does not contradict either his practices or his general philosophical outlook.  


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