Book Review: Ajay Skaria’s Unconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance
by Thomas Weber
As a university student with an interest in existential philosophy, I remember struggling with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. At times there were even consecutive pages that made sense to me, but more often there were only single paragraphs separated by many pages of dense language and philosophical concepts that were beyond my comprehension. I was very thankful when I came across Sartre’s essay “Humanism as an Existentialism” and suddenly what he was trying to say came into focus and made sense. How much I lost by not comprehending the probably profounder text, I will never know. Readers of some of the latest scholarly offerings in the attempts to understand the life and thought of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi may find themselves in a similar position while waiting for the simpler more readily graspable versions to materialise. But then, weighty philosophical concepts are weighty philosophical concepts and possibly they are not meant for a wider audience that has little desire or ability to engage in deep theoretical philosophical discourse.
Once, writings about Gandhi were biographies, often hagiographical (for example by Louis Fischer); personal reminiscences, usually hagiographical (for example by his most well known British disciple Mirabehn); and selections of the Mahatma’s thoughts grouped in various categories, generally selected by those who were followers (R.K.Prabhu and U.R.Rao, Anand Hingorani, N.K.Bose and Krishna Kripalani come to mind). Of course there were serious attempts at analysing Gandhi’s campaigns through primary archival sources (for example by Judith Brown) and more probing attempts to make sense of his world view and what led him to have it (here one could list Gopinath Dhawan, T.K.N.Unnithan and Erik Erikson). During 1969, the Gandhi birth centenary year, dozens of books appeared. More recently, although there was the occasional controversy (particularly over the writings of James Lelyveld and Jad Adams), it has become almost fashionable to ensure that Gandhi scholarship can in no way be seen as hagiographical, with writers doing their utmost to undermine the “myth of the Mahatma”, by pointing out Gandhi’s inconsistencies, his youthful elitist and even racist attitudes (for example by Desai and Vahed), his older-age, controversial experiments in sexuality, and even labelling him as a traitor in the project of the creation of modern India (too many to mention). Even more recently, however, there has been another trend where scholars with a strong theoretical bent and deep philosophical knowledge have taken the Mahatma seriously and decided to turn their attention to his life and an analysis of his praxis (and here we could mention the writings of Vinay Lal, Faisal Devji, Isabel Hofmeyr and Tridip Suhrud among a growing cohort). Ajay Skaria’s Unconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016) is a prime example of this development.
The back cover gives us a summary of the argument. We are told that Skaria provides an examination of “Mahatma Gandhi’s critique of liberal ideas of freedom and equality” and the practice of these “organized around religion.” Further, we are informed that the book “reconceives” Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance, “satyagraha”, as “a politics that strives for the absolute equality of all beings”; that liberal traditions tend to “affirm an abstract equality centered on a form of autonomy”, that is Kant’s term for the “everyday sovereignty that rational beings exercise by granting themselves universal law”; that for Gandhi this equality is the violent “equality of sword”, which on the one hand excludes the marginalised and on the other entails a loss of “the power to love”. This is the preview that is designed to tempt the browser to acquire the book.
Reconceptions of Gandhi are welcome. However, some of the new offerings are difficult to grapple with – and not only because the ideas are so new or at first glance so revolutionary. Dipesh Chakrabarty, another eminent post-colonial theorist, in his back cover blurb, informs the browser who may have picked up the book that, “No one interested in the Mahatma will be able to ignore this book.” He does not, however, say that everyone interested in the Mahatma would be able to understand this book.
I am one of those with an interest in Mahatma Gandhi. And I have read this book. I must say that I am thankful for the above cover note because I would not have been able to summarise the contents from my reading in such a succinct way. Skaria investigates the religiosity of Gandhi’s politics through a lens he calls theological secularism, informing us that “Gandhi insists on the absolute equality of all beings; indeed, this absolute equality is satya or the realization of being. That insistence makes satya synonymous with justice – now the seizure by the demand for equality and against inequality is ownmost to being.” He argues that in Gandhi’s writings “satyagraha is the unrepresentable and inexpressible kernel that constitutes the condition of possibility for any religion as well as for any conception of the ethical.” It is the relinquishment of the “everyday exercise of sovereignty, and that relinquishment itself opens onto another freedom. Surrender without subordination is the most crucial stake of Gandhi’s politics – what it most gives to think, and yet what remains most obscured in this politics.”
Skaria uses various concepts that occur in Gandhi’s thinking for his task. These concepts include that of ciphering (reducing the self to zero), of the relationship of ends to means, the equality of all life, the basic underlying agreement of all religions, fearlessness, the position of the warrior and forgiveness as ways to deconstruct Gandhi’s “religion of resistance.” For some this will be enlightening, for many others it will be hard going. Although the author has generally provided previous discussions of the main terms he has employed, much of the text, as illustrated by the following fairly randomly selected passages from early in the book, is simply too dense for me to readily come to grips with:
But “immeasurable pity” is the impossible as imagined from within the problematic of general responsibility (schematically, responsibility to the whole, to what is most general, such as the laws of the land, or the rights of man and citizen), or more precisely here, autonomy (using the term here as a shorthand – inadequate, I admit, but nevertheless not misplaced – for the exemplary modern form of general responsibility, for that complex named by the phrase “liberty, equality, fraternity”). (p. 55)
What makes the work of these tropes in Gandhi’s writing all the more intriguing is that he finds it difficult to think two-ness, and relatedly his critique of three-ness. In his explicit formulations, two-ness often becomes indistinguishable from European romantic and communitarian traditions, which have often questioned the concept of the third by invoking the unity of two. The commonsensical force of these traditions has to do with what is thinkable in the vocabulary of “modern civilization.” This vocabulary, to put it briefly for now, has a concept of one and of three, but can conceive two only as romantic unity – in other words, as one. (p. 67)
Relatedly, from the perspective of general responsibility and the third party, absolute responsibility can only be conceived negatively. From this perspective, the cardinal mark of absolute responsibility – indeed, the mark of its absoluteness – is its groundlessness. It is absolute: here, this also says – it is not amenable to reason, it is marked by faith alone, it has no further form or entailments. Consequently, it must be kept out of the mainstream secular public sphere and transformed into a secular religion or a religion within the limits of reason alone; general responsibility must not be contaminated by it. (p. 73)
Ironically, in a quotation from Gandhi, Skaria includes a piece where a friend of the London-based pre-Mahatma is trying to convince Gandhi to eat meat by reading to him from Jeremy Bentham’s text on utility. Gandhi notes that, “I was at my wit’s end. The language was difficult, I understood little.” Like Gandhi, I have to admit my limitations and ask for lenience: “Pray excuse me. These abstruse things are beyond me.”
To further his argument, Skaria regularly finds it “instructive” to engage with Jacques Derrida (and for many this may be a case of “of course”, while for the non-theorist the question may be “why”). At times the lengthy asides, either anecdotes or offerings from other scholars, seem to be inadequately tied in.
In fact, while there were some interesting building blocks in the text, I’m not sure that I understand much that these building blocks were examples of, how they went to furthering the main argument. Building blocks, such as the one that teases out the differing nuances between English and Gujarati texts that are ostensibly the same (and here Skaria has done some wonderful cross-textual comparisons); or the one that details Gandhi’s changing understanding of ahimsa; and even the one that points out that “Gandhi’s writing might be doing something quite different from what he may have intended it to do”, are fascinating and could easily be the bases for instructive papers or chapters written in clear English (or Gujarati or Hindi).
For those like me, who perhaps will be deemed semi-literate, a concluding chapter that drew the threads together would have been welcome, as would a glossary so that those with short memory spans for unfamiliar Gujarati and Sanskrit words did not have to continually search back through the text to be reminded of a given meaning.
All professions, the legal, the medical, that of computer boffins, philosophers and political theorists have their own languages. Languages often obscure to those outside the knowledge circle. This is understandable. But it should not be a cover for writing that is so obscure that very few will be able to engage with it in a meaningful way. Clear writing is an essential skill if one wants to communicate to a circle wider than that made up of a relative few who share an arcane language. Perhaps a little more attention to Gandhian values such as frugality and simplicity would ensure a wider audience for Skaria’s analysis.
While there is as yet no “Humanism as an Existentialism” equivalent, potential readers of Unconditional Equality may want to see the recent Wire-India interview with Ajay Skaria by Omair Ahmad (see: “The Religion of Gandhi: The Wire/India Interview with Ajay Skaria”) to determine whether to move on to wrestle with the book. In that interview Skaria notes that, “I wish I could say that Gandhi’s thinking provides some answers; that now it is only a matter of the political will necessary to follow or implement them. But with the most rigorous thinkers things are never that clear. What we receive from them are not answers but new questions and even more new ways of formulating old questions. And Gandhi’s writing, read carefully, offers many questions to ponder.” Without being judgemental, Skaria is adept at discussing contradictions in Gandhi’s thought.
In short, this is not the book for the person with a casual interest in Mahatma Gandhi. However, for someone with a deep philosophical understanding, who is well read in the theoretical literature, for whom Derrida clarifies rather than confuses, this book may well be worth the effort of engagement.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Thomas Weber is Honorary Associate in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. His Gandhi related books include Gandhi at First Sight; Beloved Bapu: The Gandhi - Mirabehn Correspondence (edited and introduced with Tridip Suhrud); Going Native: Gandhi’s Relationship with Western Women; The Shanti Sena: Philosophy, History and Action; Gandhi, Gandhism and the Gandhians; Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor; On the Salt March: The Historiography of Gandhi’s March to Dandi; and Conflict Resolution and Gandhian Ethics.