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Autonomy as 'Moksha'

Gandhi: Struggle for Autonomy by Ronald J Terchek; Vistar Publication, New Delhi, 2000; pp xiv+265, Rs 245 (paper)

The most persistent and urgent quest of Mahatma Gandhi’s life by his own admission, like a true ‘sanatani dharmik’, was undoubtedly ‘moksha’, and the witness of his life, the way he lived, bares this out. But unlike most sanatani dharmiks this quest for Gandhi was never an other-worldly detachment as with some ancient ‘rishis’. Gandhi’s quest was not a ‘jnana marg’ that took him away, from everyday concerns, nor a ‘bhakti marg’ that focused on the deity, nor just a ‘karma marg’ that was preoccupied with ritual and action. Rather Gandhi’s ‘marg’ was truly a new and creative reconstruction of Hinduism that subsumed all these paths into what can only be called a ‘seva marg’. This was the only dharma he accepted, the service of the Darydra Narayan, whom he found in the least, the last and the lonely among his people.

And the yet for all the political implications of such a quest, as clearly seen in the freedom struggle that he lead, there was a distinct ethical dimension that anchored Gandhi’s quest firmly in moral and spiritual principles which transcended the here and now, even while he subsumed this into a higher order of struggle. This was the ‘nish-kama-karma’ ethic that Gandhi found in the Bhagwad Gita, and which he made foundational for his own struggle for liberation, even as he tried to inspire others to do the same.

But ‘moksha’ is a quintessentially Hindu category, with other-worldly overtones that make it unattractive if not incomprehensible to modern secular society, particularly in the west. And in spite of Gandhi’s reconstruction of it into an ethic of service and freedom, ‘moksha’ is all too often understood as a spiritual escape for the cycle of ‘karma’ and as such is alien to modern western society.

In his effort to interpret Gandhi to modern society, in spite of the devastating critique that he made of modernity, Terchek finds an analytical category that he uses as a master lens to make Gandhi intelligible and relevant not just for today, but as he claims for tomorrow as well. There can be little doubt about the centrality of personal autonomy and freedom in the individualist ethic of the west. Terchek ably uses this as a bridge to make Gandhi intelligible to a western world that has often being exasperated by his critique and rejection of modern civilisation as little more than ‘a good idea’!

For Terchek finds that

animating all of Gandhi’s work is his consistent respect for and tenacious defence of the integrity and worth of persons; this commitment to autonomy inspires all of his other projects.

Autonomy stands at the centre of Gandhi’s political philosophy. It is his greatest good and precedes in importance his other political and social goals (p 21).

Gandhi’s affirmation of individual dignity cuts across boundaries of history and geography, across barriers of space and time. He believed that each one can and should take charge of their lives and resist every form of domination, whether traditional or modern. However, while Gandhi’s understanding of autonomy is premised on personal freedom and rationality, in common with the west, yet there are distinctive differences which he brings to bear that interrogate and challenge his western counterparts.

A western understanding of autonomy is basically premised on the free choice of rational persons that must be respected. Thus Gerald Dworkin holds that autonomy is “the capacity of persons to critically reflect upon, and then attempt to accept or change, their preferences, desires values, and ideals” (p 26). There are indeed implicit individualistic overtones that go back to the Protestant Ethic that idealised every man as ‘his own priest and prophet’. The rugged ‘can do’ individualism of the wild west is nothing but a secular version of this.

Terchek rightly sees that this understanding of autonomy is premised on rights, and these are central to any modern western political philosophy (p 25). Obviously duties are not excluded, but when rights are prioritised then duties become consequent not foundational to our understanding of civil society. In this western regime of rights then it is ‘freedom from’ that is primary whereas ‘freedom for’ becomes secondary, in other words, civil liberties and protection from the state and others are prioritised over empowering and enabling persons to exercise their liberty.

Gandhi’s autonomy is quite the opposite of such an individualist version of freedom, for his understanding is premised on ‘dharma’, ‘ahimsa’ and conscience. For him “the true source of right is duty. If we all discharge our duties rights will not be far to seek” (Young India, January 8, 1935). Indeed, it this free moral choice that founds the equality and dignity of persons whom he calls to resist domination and humiliation. In prioritising duties then Gandhi locates persons in community, even while he insists on protecting their autonomy from this community. Moreover, for him the truly autonomous person must be concerned with the autonomy of others as well.

Indeed for Gandhi, it is a person’s struggle for internal freedom from inner compulsions like fear, anxiety, anger, etc, that is the more definitive and crucial freedom. Freedom from external forces of political oppression, from the compulsions of poverty and hunger, is but a necessary condition we must struggle for and strive after, precisely so that this inner freedom can find its proper expression and fulfilment.

Yet, in spite of this emphasis on the exteriorisation of autonomy, Gandhi steers clear from any taint of individualism. For he sees a cosmological inter-connectedness between all beings, and locates autonomy firmly with persons as a part of, not apart from community. Clearly the prioritisation of duty serves well to emphasise cohesion and community even as he affirms the inviolability of the human person.

It would seem then that for Gandhi ‘moksha’ is not so much autonomy but rather ‘dharma’. What Terchek has done is to re-interpret ‘dharma’ as autonomy, as something more understandable to the west. How far is this really a legitimate exercise? Certainly, Gandhi gave a unique interpretation to ‘dharma’. His is no longer the traditional ‘samaj dharma’ even when he seems to accept the ‘varnashram dharma’ as any ‘sanatani dharmik’ would. For Gandhi’s own criticism of Hindu tradition is as severe as, if not more than, his emphatic rejection of modernisation.

Indeed, Gandhi reconstitutes and reinterprets tradition as an insider more radically than any outsider would have dared. The traditional elites noticed how he was subverting their privileged position and power and finally became inexorably opposed to him and so want to take him out. For it is not the ‘samaj dharma’ of tradition that can be the foundation of individual autonomy for Gandhi, it must be the ‘swa-dharma’ that is inspired by fidelity to the inner-voice of conscience. But Gandhi does not fall into a subjective relativism. He is well aware that “the inner-voice may be a message from god or the devil for both are struggling in the human breast” (Harijan, July 8, 1933). Hence is must be carefully discerned and the context for such a Gandhian discernment can never be the self-referential individual, it must be the community of persons to which one is bound in duty and service.

Thus “the defender of tradition turns out to be one of its harshest critics” (p 234). Yet rather than rubbishing tradition with a rationalist modernity Gandhi will critique it and reclaim it as a resource precisely to defend the personal autonomy that he sees is so threatened by modernity itself, particularly by the complexity and scale of modern society and the state.

Moreover, Terchek demonstrates with great facility how Gandhi’s autonomy is of the critical relevance for us today: “he questions much that has been taken for granted in both India and the west, particularly the ideas that violence is an effective way to achieve justice and that modernity and modernisation spell progress” (p 3). For “his assault on modernisation is always coupled with a sense of what it promises and what it fails to deliver” (p 236). In this “Gandhi hopes not to settle the conversation but to open it up, not to offer solutions but to point to the paradox and irony embedded in any answer” (p 4).

The uncritical and uninhibited acceptance of such modernity and modernisation is precisely what Gandhi wants to contest. In problematising modernity, he certainly strikes a discordant code. But as Terchek shows, even in the west there have been counter-cultural critiques, from Rouseau and Ruskin to anarchism and atavism, that have tried to contain and moderate this inexorable march of modernisation, not to mention those that have stood against and rejected it. Gandhi was an incisive participant in this debate. For with modernisation, state power and control expands as the agents of the state invade private spaces: the bureaucratic power over individuals, the massive lobbies of a politics of interest, giant corporations reducing humans to cogs in a machine...

For Gandhi, the issue is not who will win control over modern institutions and practices, but about questioning their efficacy and moral justifications regardless of who controls them.

For all of its rationalism and science, Gandhi finds that the modern world has created its own brand of fatalism, one that assumes that reigning institutional arrangements cannot be otherwise and it is our task to adjust to them (p 5).

In this scenario Gandhi come out as a strong republican suspicious of the state but defending civil society in which he situates individual autonomy.

Thus Gandhi uses autonomy to problematise and critique political power, to unmask the hidden agenda of power and to make a strong case against a majoritarianism in democratic politics that would violate individual autonomy. For Gandhi in matters of conscience there can be a majority of one, and even a single conscientious objector deserves the same respect as the numerical majority. The problem of political power is not resolved by democratising it, rather this only calls for greater vigilance to counter monopolistic and oligarchic tendencies. Neither is liberation achieved with the overthrow of the oppressor, rather it only begins with it.

So too with industrialisation, Gandhi’s essential critique is not only that it undermines authentic individual autonomy by promoting consumerism, but more so because it negates human dignity itself by making persons themselves redundant, with increasing mechanisation and now automation. For Gandhi humans are more important than machines, labour is more valuable than capital. Hence he is most concerned with the way goods are produced since this already pre-empts how they will be distributed and consumed.

All this adds up to is a counter-cultural meta-narrative that interrogates and questions the master narrative of modernity, a narrative that now seems to have run its course, or at least so the postmodernist would have us think. But Gandhi is no postmodernist, he is still firmly routed in personal and the humanist values that trace their contemporary origins to the Enlightenment. It is these that Gandhi uses to interrogate and challenge tradition, even as he refuses to accept a self-justification of modernity from its own internal criteria. But then again Gandhi is no conservative either, at least in the sense one seeking to preserve tradition, rather he uses it as a resource, and in a subversive way as well. Neither is he a communitarian who would submerge the individual in the group, the person remains for him an inviolable and a sacred trust.

Thus Terchek sees Gandhi as perhaps even more relevant to the 21st century than to the 20th. In spite of the apparent progress and superficial optimism that seems to embrace the information age, the electronic technology that it brought has left only dissolution and despair to at least two most critical contemporary groups, the young and the poor (p 230). Suicide rates among the young are a tragic testimony of this, just as the persistence of poverty even in affluent societies is a severe indictment on neo-liberal capitalism. Moreover, the problem of violence in the modern world simply has not been adequately addressed, and if it shies away from Gandhi and his non-violence it certainly has no viable alternative in place, except perhaps mutually assured destruction (MAD). To think that this was the official ideology of nuclear powers, only illustrates the poverty and inadequacy of contemporary political thinking.

But Terchek has a legitimate fear. It is precisely because Gandhi is in fact counter-cultural, that he may be ignored by the 21st century, just as in fact he was marginalised in his own country towards the end of his life. Certainly Terchek does not romanticise Gandhi, and it would be a sad disservice to attempt this either. For Gandhi is too great a Mahatma to need such idealisation. Rather just as Gandhi problematises modernisation and modern society, there is need to problematise Gandhi so that in the mutual interrogation and dialectic between him and us, we might put together a meta-narrative for our society not one of nostalgia for the past or of despair for the future, or one of a superficial hope for the good life, but one that will be premised on the autonomy and freedom of persons-in-community, a community that is democratic and participative, harmonious and non-violent, in which individuals will be free from oppression and free for ‘moksha’.

Gandhi is for Terchek the man for the 21st century, but he might well be an ignored and lonely figure there. For global uniformity, market consumerism, bureaucratic control, these are not the metaphors for a Gandhian narrative which privileges local diversity, bread-labour, selfless service. But there is one thing that Terchek’s book does bring home: finally Gandhi is an invitation for us to struggle for the truth, to struggle non-violently, to struggle for one’s own autonomy and freedom as well as that of others, or in other words, to struggle for ‘moksha’ by living one’s ‘swa-dharma’. And this is surely of fundamental relevance for our millennium and others.


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