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Gandhi and Truth




It is not easy to see how one could say anything new or illuminating about this theme, since so much has been written on it. It is not just that I rather not repeat what others have said that makes me somewhat troubled by this task, but more than this, I feel that I lack both the life experience and the intensity of devotion needed in order to claim any substantial understanding of Gandhi’s thoughts — since it is his life which is he’s message —, and hence contribute with new insights. Academic discourse is basically driven by an urge for “new” intellectual insights, more or less to the extent that all else falls outside the scope of its interest. But perhaps “new” intellectual insights are not what is really needed, or at least it is perhaps not the only thing of value when concerning such a topic as Gandhi and Truth.

The following is a short summary of how I understand Gandhi's notion of Truth: for Gandhi, Truth is reflected in the moral holding of Ahimsa, without which reason cannot grasp or be in communion with Truth. Reason disengaged from the moral constitution of man, becomes a tool for evil, distorting not only our moral self-understanding, but also the relation of reason to Truth. In other words, Gandhi never disclaims reason, becoming an advocate for irrationalism. He simply acknowledges that reason or reasoning is always already imbedded within a moral stance: the heart-mind unity.

Maybe then, I must start by turning my thinking into a confession.— I am a modern, western, urban man, getting my salary from an intellectual institution. Not a particularly good starting point for a treatment on Gandhi. To worsen this, I admittedly enjoy many features of my modern urban culture and sub-culture(s)— although there are many features which I also oppose. I have never lived a self-sufficient village life, except perhaps the 2-3 months per year of my childhood and early teenage years when I spent the summers on my family island in the Finnish archipelago – which is the closes to self-sufficiency that I have experienced. My life-style includes many features which do not easily resonate with Gandhi’s vision of a "truthful" life, such as sexual relations not restricted to that of procreation, long evenings with friends and loved ones involving intoxicating substances, tasty food etc. Further, I have an unresolved relation to modern science and especially to technology: I am perhaps more easily impressed with technological innovations than Gandhi was, although I do not, like Gandhi, think that technology will solve our problems and I fully acknowledge the dangers of technology.But still… On clear nights I gaze at the stars, as did Gandhi, and dream of another world, as did Gandhi, but my dreams are perhaps more strongly than his influenced by the modern framework, for I dream of other worlds and civilizations, even of space travel: my space is more informed by modern concepts than was Gandhi's and I cannot say this to be a “problem” for me.

It is hard to judge how far I am – in my own thinking and in my own ways of life – from Gandhi’s thoughts and ideas. It is hard to judge to what extent I am an incarnation of modern civilization, what that means, to what extent I can truthfully disclaim it or embrace it. The closer I look at what modern civilization is supposed to be and mean, and to what extent I am a part of it, the blurrier the contours of categories such as e.g. “modern”, “pre-modern”, “mythos”, “logos”, “enchanted”, “disenchanted”, “secular” etc. become – this has something to do with the concept of continuum which I will come back to.

Be the landscape of my self-identity how far removed from how Gandhi perceived his, the simple fact remains: Gandhi has better than anyone else articulated and shown an important feature of the moral conflict imbedded within my/the modern urban life: my/the modern urban life-style is “contaminated” by over-proportionate power. That is to say, my life as the modern urban man that I am — and I am, without bragging, nevertheless one who lives a modestly “alternative life-style” with its trait of a “conscious consumer” —, in an over-proportionate amount effects the lives of other people, other living beingsand the environment,through multiple sources. Effects them, I should add, by either causing or at least adding to poverty, hunger, loss of dignity, degradation of the ecosphere and so on, i.e. disastrously effects them. This violent reality of which I am a part of — in ways I do not and probably really cannot comprehend fully — is something I cannot in any way completely stand behind, and thus my existence is necessarily characterized by moral suppression and even repression (I gather). Don’t get me wrong, moral suppression and repression is most probably part of every human life in one form or another, across cultures and times and due to reasons which have nothing to do with modern civilization. But this does not comfort me the slightest, for the grim reality remains just as much what it is. Because of this moral conflict, my life will undoubtedly be characterized in some degree by utilitarian “ethics”, i.e. with a calculation of how much evil (immoral activity) I can tolerate myself to be involved in. So it is easy for me to proclaim that this “ethics” is a way of dealing with situations in which one consciously or secretly knows one cannot follow one’s conscience, or one does not know what one’s conscience is saying: one is not in attune with it. I gather that this is the main reason why Gandhi did not think that the utilitarian separation between means and ends was an “ethics” in the real sense of the word, but rather a distortion or suppression of our conscience, of the Truth. What this means in philosophical term is that morals, or the Truth about morality, is not about rationally or intellectually deducted principles, but rather about a ”knowing” or a realization of oneself – orultimately, as Gandhi would have put it in accordance with the tradition of Hindu philosophy,the Self.


Out of the predicament of my own life, I feel that I can clearly understand why Gandhi often spoke of how he in the faces of the poorest and most deprived people could see the face of God/Truth. In the interconnectedness between classes, individuals and social segments of our social, political and economic structures, the top segment’s glory is reflected in and connected to the “last person's” suffering. This would mean that in a society in which even the last person would lead a life of dignity, with all basic needs fulfilled, perhaps Truthwould be just as visible in the faces of the individuals at the “top”. But in our society, we at the top end or the middle (classes) cannot with dignity and an open heart, pride ourselves with the humiliation, exploitation and degradation upon which much of our “well-being” is built. Hence, the Truth shows itself to us— “us” meaning us privileged middle and upper class citizens — more lucidly through the “last person”. 

I want to announce that to my mind there lurks a certain danger in what I just now said, a danger that has become a reality of much of policy making. What I am referring to is the imagination that might easily captivate us, namely that the remedy for this moral contradiction would be to “uplift” everyone to the status of a modern urban middleclass citizens. One might call this the “wet dream” of the modern middleclass, since it would imply that no substantial transformation of our (I classify myself as belonging to this class) own forms of life would be needed: let everyone become like us! This imagination usually transforms itself into a metaphysical ideology — consciously or unconsciously — which self-image is the belief that modernization is the only realistic way of bringing material well-being and social equality. We all know that this was not what Gandhi had in mind. But it seems to me to be somewhat a dead end to imagine that we could free ourselves from this mind frame simply by repeating Gandhi’s critique of modernization. Instead I will try something else, hoping it can have some “therapeutic” value.


A champion of non-violent resistance, Gandhi never claimed to have fully realized what violence viz. non-violence truly is (and some might claim that Gandhi was and remained, in his own way, a very violent man). Take this following quote from Gandhi:

It seems to me that I understand the ideal of truth better than that of Ahimsa, and my experience tells me that if I let go of my hold of Truth, I shall never be able to solve the riddle of Ahimsa”[1].

Now in turn I would want to say that it is not clear to me who the “last person” is. I obviously do not mean that I don’t know who are the poorest of the poor, who are the oppressed and so on. This can be shown to me without controversy by means of, say, statistics and figures. I am concerned with another dimension of the problem, one that does not allow any simple black and white picture to exist, but which really is meant to challenge any simple notion of “progress” and any prejudice against “otherness”.

Let me put forth a few very simple observations and thoughts.

One: As I travel the streets of Delhi I come across, as one would, young children and whole families living on the streets, under overcrossing car-lanes and between them. Coming from a Scandinavian country, I, perhaps naively — but how else could I respond! — observe with astonishment how the children play around on the streets amongst the bypassing cars, displaying a freedom — so I at least on the face of it would describe what is see — unseen in my own society. Where I come from, children are kept “safely” in carriages or even at the end of a leash, protecting them from the dangers of (urban) life.

Two: Compare a deprived Indian farmer with an office worker from Europe or America. Both potentially belong to the category of "suicides", the one out of economic desperation and loss of self-dignity, the other out of depression and perhaps self-disgust, or even, self-dignity.

Three: Compare an annual ritual of an Adivasi tribe in India, in which genders exchange identities for one day, with the “ritual” of elections in democratic countries. One important aspect of the tribal ritual is that genders get to unleash their supressed (or how ever one wants to conceptualise the matter) masculine viz. feminine “energies”, the next day returning to their collective and more or less strict gender roles. For the average citizen democratic parliamentary elections, especially in an otherwise de-politicized society/culture, becomes the act of politics — once every four years or so —, the next day only to return to the role of a de-politicized citizen.

Four: Compare the self-image of men in certain gender debates: when after the gang-rape case in Delhi in early 2013, many of the, call them “conservative”, voices suggested to  impose restrictions on women’s movements and to their access to telecommunication. Underlying this, it seems to me, is the presupposition that men are such sexual beasts, or sexual mechanisms, that a man or a gang of men are somehow naturally inclined to sexually abuse women if women are allowed to move/live “freely”. That is to say, the flip-side of such a positionis the self-disgust or self-distrust of men or manhood it voices.

Five: Compare the life of a life enjoying individual living in a well doing, mostly self-sufficient rural village, with a CEO of a national or multinational company, earning millions and also enjoying his or her life. How do we judge which one of these lives as such have more value to them?

Six: compare any two individuals from any two different cultures and segments of society, who are living dignified and good lives. Alternatively, compare any two individuals from any two different cultures or segments of society, who are suffering in one way or another. Which of these cultures have more value and right to exist?


I would like the above given observations and thoughts not to be taken as romanticising either one of the compared lives/cultures, nor to downplay the actual suffering of the poor or the oppressed. I would like these to be understood as open questions opening up a horizon of thought, which, to my mind, hint at a unity, interconnectedness, continuum andonenessunderlying all life: there will be continuity between the oppressed and the self-image of the oppressor. Sufferings and joys of different cultures and segments of society will be both interconnected (at least in our time of globalisation) and display a unity and oneness of human experience and behaviour.

Such oneness, if it is there to be found, does not mean “sameness”, which unfortunately is what modernization and globalization has come to mean. I do not intend to say that every individual of modern culture is the same as the next one. I am saying that much of our modern cultural imagination can only encompass and include“togetherness”with those following a modern conceptual framework and forms of life. Gandhi, perhaps better than anyone else, saw that this tendency was and is one of the greatest threats to a “true democracy” or as he would rather put it,swaraj.The above given observations were meant, in their own cryptic ways, as simple examples of why any true democracy must not (only) “tolerate” but embrace diversity and why non-violence is the only way of truly doing it. Again, in our contemporary age, no one has pierced this insight, in thought and action, more deeply than Gandhi — even though we recognise all the"flaws" of his thinking and action.

"Democracy", if it is to transform itself into a “true democracy”, needs to work much on its self-imagination of inclusiveness and comprehensiveness. It cannot claim its right as universal while stuck in the categories of modern (rationalistic) discourse.The first thing to acknowledge — and I mean really acknowledge — is that or our planet is filled with means of articulating values in life and translating them into practices which cannot be said to be “rationalistic” or modern. Likewise, modernity includes a great variety of different dreams and visions of life, not only the capitalist model of consumer paradise.

I want to include, what to me seems an essential observation, or really, a fact of life. Namely, if we are true to our own selves and how we relate and experience the world, we will notice that we identify ourselves with others in multiple ways and through multiple sources. For instance, I will identifymyself much more easilywith — i.e. I will feel much closer to — a “tribal” person with respects to some issues in life than with one of my “modern” urban fellow citizens. On the other hand, there will again be issues with which I feel I can relate to this urban modern man or woman in ways which does not come “naturally” with a tribal man or woman. The way our identities forms networks and multiple overlaps with other networks of experience and thought, shows, it clearly seems to me, that there exists an overarching, but complex, continuum between “us” and “them”. This continuum can be widened to an unknown extent.


I have, during a conference meeting on cultural roots of modernity, said that Gandhi’s notion of swaraj is one of the best conceptual tools for combating ideologies and keeping intact the freedom of thought combined with a recognition of our moral constitution and the interdependence or rather unity between the heart and the mind. I found myself uttering this as a reaction to some discussants (all European well educated individuals!) whom were idealising “the East”, speaking about how in India thinking is "so holistic" as opposed to the fragmentary nature of the western thought and so on — as if a non-dual worldview would in itself guarantee a harmonious society (so one would need to wonder however modernization could have infiltrated the East). In short, holism, as any ism, is only a short step from becoming a superimposed ideology.

Reading Gandhi, it is of course true that one might easily think that Gandhi thought exactly along the lines of the conference discussants. I do not read Gandhi in this way. Swaraj, as I understand it, will never allow one worldview to impose itself on other worldviews or ways of relating and understanding the world and valuing life. That is to say, being true to the notion of swaraj means never to deny personal integrity, never to deny individuals from searching for and determining their own lives and Truth. Obviously this can dangerously enough be translated into a form of (epistemological and moral) relativism in which “tolerance”, and not genuine acceptance, friendly co-existence and love, would be the “best” possible outcome. Again, it seems to me that this is not what Gandhi had in mind. His notion of self-rule, of each individual’s own perspective on Truth and right to self-determination was not an epistemological outlook — at least not in the “modern” sense of the term. What characterizes the diversity is uniqueness and what binds us together is love, or Ahimsa. Individuals and their “perspectives” are not to be understood as atomistic points in a 3-dimensional coordinate system, in which perspectives are mainly rationally defined. Rather, individuals are fundamentally bound to each other through, what is best described as moral relations. The question of perspectives and their uniqueness is not a relativistic problem of  the modern notion of“knowledge”, but a problem of how we learn to live with each other, how we can come to love one another. One might say that bridging the gap between these perspectives is directly dependent on and related to what extent we can come to love each other: one who loves another will not see differences in “perspectives” as a fundamental problem or a fundamental factor of separateness, which in turn does not mean that such difference should simply be accepted as fixed and static. As Gandhi pointed out, we should not understand this as a romantic picture of a rosy dreamlike existence. Love involves struggles and confrontations, braking barriers and most importantly, reduction of the ego.


On the level of global political, social and economic structures, the first ego that needs to be overcome is the one that wants to make the whole world — all human cultures — a replica of itself, namely, what we might call “modern civilization”. I no doubt acknowledge myself as included in this collective ego,and perhaps this gives me the opportunity to still once more exemplify what I have been trying to depict as Gandhi's notion of Truth and its connection with morality. My "perspective" on life, and on the cosmos at large, is undeniably different from Gandhi's. Yet, this does not mean that I would have Gandhi become like me, and I dare say, neither would he have me become like him. If there are tendencies in us to think so or exercise practices which would directly or indirectly lead to a violation of the others self-rule and integrity, i.e. to think or act violently, then this, and nothing else, would create a gap between our co-existence.This is not meant to downplay the actuality of differences in opinions and worldviews. They will be there. But I see no reason why such differences in themselves would result to any conflicts as long as the respect and love of swaraj guides us — for swaraj is not an ideology. I need not simply "tolerate" the other, for really loving the other and caring for her does not mean "letting the other be", if that is to mean that we do not want to engage with the other, but rather just mark our differences and then go our own ways. Such an attitude, in a world where people are interdependently linked to each other and will inevitably have to deal with each other — be it on a village, national or international level — will lead to violent conflictssooner or later. To love, to act non-violently, is to upkeep engagement and care for the other.As I said, let us not romanticise this. Such engagement will include a lot of dialogue and other friendly engagements, but it will also include non-violent struggles and non-violent opposition, for if we truly love and care for others, we cannot tolerate any form of exploitation.And this goes just as much for both the victims and the inflictors of evil: to love the evildoer means combating him/her with love, i.e. non-violently. How harmonious our different perspectives and worldviews then can become, we will know only through such engagements. That is why I understand my reading of and thoughts on Gandhi as “engagements”.



This hasnot only beenphilosophical remarks on“morality”, but just as much on epistemology or “knowledge”; on the “politics of knowledge”.


[1] Gandhi, M.K. Autobiography, p.345, Quoted from Allen, Douglas 2008, p.194, The philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi for the twenty-first century, Oxford University Press