A Daoist Interpretation of Gandhian Thought and Dharma
Mohandas Gandhi is a living spirit in the forest of Indian politics, rustling with every leaf and bustling with every beast, though nobody sees that spirit with their own eyes. Great men shape history in their own image. Some, like Nehru, chisel their likeness into stone to be worshipped by posterity. But some, like Gandhi, disappear into thin air and gain immortality in the living breath of people. The colossus of Nehru, dressed in a Nawabi jacket and a prim English rose on its button, with its brow raised to the supposed superstitions of India and standing watch over its economic poverty, is now tumbling. But Gandhian thought, with a commitment to non-violence and rural life, as well as a sacred respect to nature, continues to define the unspoken neutral ground for India’s politics. Anybody who wants to make a political point has to critique it.
The left argues that Gandhian non-violence is passive and fatalistic, unable to uproot social evils and generate progress. It imagines Gandhi to be a personification of the dead force of history, along with other imagined social evils from India’s past. The right can be divided into economic and cultural right. The former critiques Gandhi for his anti-industrial stance and village ethic. The latter critiques Gandhian non-violence as a misinterpretation of Dharma, nothing but a “Dhimmitude” that is the cause of India’s enslavement to foreign aggressors. The greatest critiques of Gandhi appeared during his own lifetime, when his ideas were not yet fossilized by the establishment. Perhaps the most effective critique was from Ambedkar, who articulated the positions of both social left and economic right. There were many nuanced critiques of Gandhi from the cultural right. Aurobindo argued that Gandhi’s non-violence is not Indian in nature, but rather a closeted form of Russian Christianity through his reading of Tolstoy. Apart from books and distant correspondences, Gandhi had a close personal friendship with a devout Christian monk – C.F. Andrews who was influenced by the tenets of Christian anarchism and pacifism. But Gandhi was shaped as much by the Vaishnava and Jain culture of his native Gujarat as by his cosmopolitan outlook. His lasting impact on India, both during the freedom struggle and later, is testament to the fact that his theories are not entirely foreign. Gandhi himself argued that he was faithfully following the tenets of Dharma. To decipher the supposed alignment or non-alignment of Gandhian non-violence with Dharma, we will take an unusual perspective in this essay: by comparing it with Daoism – an ancient Chinese tradition.
Gandhi did not read Daoist texts, like how he read Tolstoy. But Daoism is a nature-based tradition, which can be discovered by self investigation (like Dharma). This needs no prophet, no history and no preaching, but can be discovered naturally by investigation into nature and into one’s own self. Thus Daoist parallels can exist to Gandhi’s personality. Such a system is termed as “Perennia Philosophia” by Ananda Kumaraswamy in an apparent translation of the term “Sanatana Dharma”. Daoism is a unique tradition with its own identity. Nevertheless, we will see that it is comparable to Dharmic traditions in certain ways. The word Dao itself means the way of nature – a meaning comparable to Ṛta (the cosmic order) in India.
The origin of Daoism
Daoism is considered to be a very ancient tradition in China, going back to the beginning of human civilization. But the first Daoist texts and historical records appear during the period of the warring states of 4th-5th centuries BCE. The old order of the western Zhou kings had collapsed by then and the Chinese society disintegrated into many warring kingdoms. This was a period of great societal flux, germinating many philosophical systems. Confucianism was the traditionalist school, tracing itself to the Lun Yu (the analects) of the sage Kong Zi (Confucius). It emphasized rituals that cultivate one’s mind and social ethics. Two other schools defined themselves in contrast and opposition to this. Mohism, traced to the sage Mo Zi, emphasized impartial care (Jian Ai) through clearly defined rules, without any baggage of social hierarchies. Daoism opposed rules-based society altogether and emphasized a return to nature. Ostensibly, it was a reaction to the violence wrought out by the princely states, where even the lives of noble men were not secure from danger. Daoists argued for a return of the society to a more primitive form – subsisting on agriculture with relatively primitive technology, but in alignment with the nature’s order. They argued that this would lead to the overall happiness of the individual as well as of the society at large. The directives of Daoism were codified in a text called Dao De Jing, attributed to the “ancient sage” (Lao Zi), who is perhaps a mythical figure created just to contrast with Confucius.
In Chapter 30 of Dao De Jing, non-violence is exhorted explicitly,
“Those who advice the ruler on the Way, do not want the world subdued with weapons.
Thorn bushes grow where armies have camped. Battles are followed by years of famine.”
Daoists considered violence as an inherent attribute of a codified rule-based society. To get rid of this violence, they argued for abandoning language-based reasoning altogether.
“The Dao that can be spoken is not the true Dao.”
But Daoists were not anarchists. They recognized the need for a ruler, but this ruler would be hidden. They used metaphors such as the “dark valley” and “unhewn wood”. By laying low, the idealized Daoist ruler would enable natural and spontaneous ethical behavior from all his people. In the Analects, Confucius says that an ideal ruler should be like the pole star, who steadies the cosmos and make it revolve around him. This can be considered as an interpretation of the Dharmic ruler who steadies the wheel of Dharma. In contrast, the Daoist ruler is like a black hole at the center of the galaxy, who is hidden but whose intense gravity makes everything revolve around him in natural order. We can imagine this as an alternative interpretation of the wheel of Dharma.
In Chapter 31, Dao De Jing enjoins the ruler to non-violence.
“Weapons are ominous tools. They are not the noble ruler’s tools. He only uses them when he can’t avoid it.”
Instead, the Daoist ruler proclaims.
“I do nothing and the people transform themselves naturally (Zi Hua)
I engage in no activity and the people prosper on their own; I am without desires and the people simplify their own lives.
Heaven and earth would unite, and a sweet dew would fall.
The people would be honest and just, though no one so decrees.”
The Daoists have a deeply appealing vision of human nature. They consider that what is natural (Zi) to it, is not violence, but spontaneous ethical behavior. So to achieve a happy and ethical society, man should not be molded by rituals (as Confucius argued), or by external rules of reward and punishment (as Mo Zi argued), but needs to return to what is natural (Ziran).
“People model themselves on the earth (their sensory desires)
The earth models itself on Tian (Heaven)
Heaven models itself on Dao (The Way)
The way models itself on Ziran (what is natural)”
This emphasis on natural spontaneity but without any explicitly established standards of behavior makes it very hard to tell apart a Daoist sage from a fake. The various stories and parables from Daoism discuss this problem from the very outset.
Parallels between Gandhian thought and Daoism
When one reads the writings of Gandhi, one cannot but notice a singular commitment to honesty and an abject hatred of cowardice and artifice. It is true that Gandhi had a very deep concern for the environment and was repulsed by established social norms of his time, and they do make for very good Daoist qualities, but the aspect of his personality which was startlingly Daoist was his honesty. Gandhi was so outspoken that he was considered cranky and irascible even by his friends. After his death, his persona has been reduced to a caricature. His writings have been appropriated and sanctified by the global power structure. But during his lifetime, Gandhi was never an easy person, either for his friends or for his enemies. The great racist and colonialist who was opposed to him, Sir Winston Churchill, once said in exasperation:
“It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor.”
But to Gandhi, this “half-naked attire” was not a prop, but the very nature of his being i.e, the Ziran of Daoism – completely spontaneous with no artifice. In one of his first camera interviews, Gandhi answers that if he put on a European dress to meet the British queen, it would be discourteous to her as it would be artificial. On the contrary, he argued, being natural to his own self and wearing an Indian dress was a sign of respect.
This authenticity is what made Gandhi a great leader. The context of India’s freedom struggle against foreign occupation was different from the civil war in warring states China, but both these periods required leaders with authenticity of vision. In Daoist terms, this aura of authenticity is termed “De” and is supposed to naturally make other people follow the person as a leader. Gandhi exploited this charm of his personality very effectively. This is where he falls short of his potential as a Daoist sage, who is supposed to be hidden and understated, as well as ready to examine his own prejudices and adapt to the context of the situation. Gandhi was definitely a simple man, but not necessarily a humble man, open to identifying new possibilities based on the situation and context. He compensated for this by a nice sense of humor, but this unfortunately did not lead him to re-examine his own stubbornness. This hard-headed stubbornness is not considered a virtue, as critiqued excellently by the Daoist sage Zhuang Zi, who emphasized the merits of thinking on one’s feet and being open to change course as needed. Attentively listening to nature and to other people are important Daoist qualities that Gandhi lacked, which reflected also on his poor relations with his own family. Contrary to what is expected in a Daoist ruler, Gandhi relished in being addressed to as “Mahātma” (great soul), a term with connotations from European theosophists.
In sum, Gandhi would be considered as a person with great Daoist potential, which was although under-developed in certain aspects. He would not be considered a Daoist sage, but would be appreciated for his honesty and non-violence, and for his respect for smaller beings in nature. Before we analyze how Gandhian thought fares with respect to Dharmic traditions, we will compare these traditions to Daoism to establish a common frame of reference.
Parallels between Daoism and Dharmic traditions
In order to compare Daoism to Indian Darśanas, we can broadly divide them into idealist and realist viewpoints. The idealist schools of orthodox Indian philosophy viz. the three Darśanas of Yōga, Vaiseshika and Vēdānta emphasize experience (Pratyaksha). They de-emphasize the importance of rituals and language, sometimes going as far as saying “Śabdāh bandhāh” (words are chains that fetter us). This is a Daoist sentiment. However, the three other orthodox Darśanas viz. Sāmkhya, Nyāya and Mīmāmsa are realist i.e, they consider that Truth can be reached by language. These realist schools can be compared with Confucianism. In ancient China, Confucianism and Daoism borrowed ideas from each other and evolved together in a mutually enriching dialectic. This can be observed also in Indian philosophy, which goes to the extent of explicitly pairing an idealist school with a realist school: Sāmkhya with Yōga, Nyāya with Vaiśēshika, and Mīmāmsa with Vēdānta. Amongst these various Indian Darśanas, the closest parallel to Confucianism is Mīmamsa, which is highly ritualistic. The closest parallel to Daoism is Vēdānta (especially Advaita Vēdānta), which deconstructs the categories in mind using the strategy of Nēti-Nēti (not this, not that). But as Daoism is also a highly practical system, this method of Jnāna Yōga in Vēdānta needs to be complemented with ethical action i.e, Karma Yōga. The Bhagavad Gīta exhorts people to follow the inherent nature of their inner self i.e, Sva-Dharma, which can be translated as the Ziran of Daoism.
The dialectic between realist and idealist positions in philosophy is about two different visions of civilization: one based on the city with rules and order, vs. one based on the village embedded with the flow of nature. This dialectic appears at an even more fundamental level when we consider language: rituals and rules to organize society vs. deconstructing them through a person’s experience. In India, these two positions are mythically represented by the Asuras and Dēvas respectively. Creative thought is considered to require both the Asura and Dēva positions, as represented in the myth of churning of the milk ocean through a gigantic snake (metaphorically referring to language).
In Chinese philosophical dialectic, Daoism roughly corresponds to the position of the Dēvas. As such, we can see that it is aligned with Dharma, though not categorizing it completely. The futility of deploying rituals and language to bind the Devas is alluded in the myth of Daksha Yagna, when Sati immolates herself after Shiva was refused an invitation to the Yagna, as he was considered beyond the scope of awareness by language. After the immolation of Sati, Shiva reacts by plucking a strand of his hair and tossing it on the ground, creating the furious form of Kala Bhairava who destroys Daksha’s Yagna. This form of Kala Bhairava represents the most extreme form of deconstruction, and is represented in the cremation ground with a dog, far outside the human society. In this form, Shiva represents the destroyer of worlds, or the destroyer of fortresses (Pura) which enclose the conscious experience of the inner self (Purusha). There are references in Chinese literature to the howling Daoist sages of the mountains, often in caricature, but Daoism does not go to the extreme of shunning human society altogether like the devotees of Bhairava. Instead, it shows a preference to rural village life, where people live with relatively primitive technology. Thus the Indian mythology is idealized to a far greater degree, enabling a clear distinction of the paths of Pravṛtti (engaging with the society) and Nivṛtti (renouncing the society). But these paths are not antagonistic to each other – an enriching dialectic is possible, producing a multifold diversity of philosophical viewpoints. As Shiva represents the destroyer of worlds, Vishnu represents their preserver, and a consummate awareness of self is considered to be possible only by combining these two aspects. Dharma itself emerges from this dialectic and caters to an individualized understanding of one’s own identity. In India, the nature of Dharma is discussed not only through rigorous philosophical debate but also through stories such as those in the Panchatantra or Mahābhārata. They educate common people on the need to adapt ethical behavior to suit to various contexts. Similar narrative tools are used by Daoists. In addition to these philosophical parallels, there are many similarities between the meditative practices of Daoism and Śaivaite Tantra. Other Śramāna traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism also resemble Daoism to some degree.
Gandhian thought vs. Dharma
Gandhi was strongly influenced by two Dharmic traditions: Vaishnavism and Jainism. The closest to a Guru that he had was a Jain monk – Shrimad Rajchandra, who unfortunately died very young in 1901, before Gandhi faced his gravest political battles. As we discussed earlier, Gandhi had a philosophical outlook that was quite similar to Daoism, but he did not sincerely practice its Indian parallel i.e Śaivism or other related Śramāna traditions. Instead, he adhered to his ancestral tradition of Vaishnavism, where his heterodoxy and abnormal spiritual practices definitely placed him in an odd position. But he did achieve a fairly high level of Yogic mastery. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describe 5 Yamas: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Astēya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (continence) and Aparigraha (non-coveting). They also describe 5 Niyamas: Śaucha (cleanliness), Santhōsha (contentment), Tapas (austerity), Svādhyāya (self-introspection) and Īśwara Pradhāna (contemplation on God). Gandhi adhered to all these prescriptions very sincerely. They did not remain as mere moral ideals for him, but tangible courses of action. In this regard, he was truly a Karma Yogi and was quite sincere in his spiritual quest. But it can be argued that his lack of systematic study under a Guru produced in him a skewed perception of Dharma.
This misunderstanding is perhaps revealed best in his statement that the Brahmin is the ideal archetype for all Indians to aspire to. Leftist critics pounce upon this statement, misunderstanding its intent immediately, and categorizing Gandhi to be a reactionary social conservative who failed to see the ills of caste. This criticism actually fails to see how Gandhi’s statement is actually the opposite of Varna Dharma which considers multiple modes of life as all valid. Not only does Dharma have to adapt to diverse social and temporal contexts, it also needs to promote a diversity of human occupations and archetypes. As people have different circumstances and desires, they cannot all be judged by the same measuring tape. But from Gandhi’s point of view, the ideals of Satya and Ahimsa, which are enjoined strictly only on Brāhmins and Sanyāsis (renunciates), apply equally to everybody. It can be argued that this sense of equality combined with a perceived ideal of ethical behavior made him err against Dharma.
As the context of one’s life experience differs from another, the required spiritual journey would vary accordingly. Gandhi was well aware of his own spiritual process, but he stubbornly thought it equally applicable to others as well. In Jainism – the closest that Gandhi got to following a Sampradāya with a Guru – this would be severely condemned. Jain logic is called Syadvāda, which explicitly makes provisions for multiple points of view, which arise due to the diversity of personal circumstances in looking at the same situation. Jainism considers it impossible to reduce all these differences to a single theory, however elaborate, that would be applicable to everybody. At the spiritual level, such a simplification may be considered as lacking a “theory of mind” i.e, an understanding of the relative desires and identities of other people. Children develop this theory of mind in the later years of their childhood, when they perceive that other people have different thoughts and desires to their own. Unfortunately, despite his sincerity and Yogic achievements, Gandhi did not transcend this age of childhood in his own spiritual investigation.
The misunderstanding of “Ahimsa Paramo Dharmaḥ”
Gandhi justified his ideas through aphorisms in Hinduism such as “Ahimsa Paramo Dharmah”. This sentence is from the Mahabharata, appearing in the discourse of Bhishma to Yudishṭara from his death bed. This is typically translated as “Non-violence (Ahimsa) is the highest Dharma”. But this is a mistranslation. Tellingly, Ahimsa was not termed as ‘Uttama Dharma’ (highest Dharma) – it is not possible to rank the different Dharmas in a hierarchy. Dharma is based on Ṛta, which is the cosmic order that is visualized as the movement of a wheel. This eternal circular motion is Dharma, which is centered on the experiencing self (Purusha), but which naturally varies in direction depending on local context. The word ‘Parama’ refers to the most essential aspect of this motion, which is the stillness of the Purusha at the center. Since this Purusha is common (Samāna) to all beings (Jīvas) in the universe, this ‘Parama Dharma’ is also shared by all beings as the Sāmānya Dharma. At the Parama level, there should be no violence, as there is neither any desire nor any ego to engage in violence. But very few people reach this ideal in their own lifetimes. In order to live in their bodies, they have no recourse but to engage in violence.
Dharma is about minimizing this violence and effecting it at the right time and place. For example, people living in colder geographical areas need to slaughter animals to survive. But they should not slaughter during the late winter and early spring, when the animals bear their young, as that would drastically reduce the numbers. This is observed as a custom in Christianity where people do not eat meat during the period of Lent. Preventing the slaughter of animals at this time is important to ensure that that food is available throughout the year such that the people themselves will not perish. The root of Dharma is “Dhṛ” which means that which sustains. To support Dharma is to support the ecosystem in which one’s life is based. This requires respecting the nature’s seasons and ecological relationships. Unnecessary violence that is contrary to this would be termed Adharma.
Indeed, Dharma is inseparable from violence, as revealed in many episodes of the Mahabharata. Especially for Kshatriyas, protecting the weak is defined as their Dharma and this requires judicious use of violence. Perhaps, the most shocking episode is the absolute destruction of the Khānḍava forest by Arjuna and Krishna, where they spare not even tiny birds and insects from complete decimation by fire. Ahimsa found no place at this time. Even the strict non-violence that is enjoined on renunciates (Sādhus) may have exceptions, as the Nāth tradition shows. These nuances were not understood by Gandhi, who cancelled the Satyāgraha movement after the violent incident in Chauri Chaura, which was poignantly located near to Gorakhpur – the headquarters of the Nāth tradition. The Śākta tradition also considers violence to be an inseparable aspect of Dharma. Gandhi was not able to accept such variations within the fold of Dharma. This reflects on his poor understanding of Dharma where only one version of morality is applied to everybody. Gandhi also argued for a total prohibition of alcohol. Such imposition of morality on others is actually Adharmic (against Dharma).
The relevance of Gandhi to the future of politics in India
“I would risk violence a thousand times rather than risk the emasculation of a whole race.
I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor.
I want both the Hindus and Mussalmans to cultivate the cool courage to die without killing. But if one has not that courage, I want him to cultivate the art of killing and being killed rather than, in a cowardly manner, flee from danger. For the latter, in spite of his flight, does commit mental Himsa (injury). He flees because he has not the courage to be killed in the act of killing.
Not knowing the stuff of which nonviolence is made, many have honestly believed that running away from danger every time was a virtue compared to offering resistance, especially when it was fraught with danger to one’s life. As a teacher of nonviolence I must, so far as it is possible for me, guard against such an unmanly belief.”
— Mohandas Gandhi
It is impossible to put Gandhi into simplistic boxes, as his Daoist honesty and originality makes him escape any such boxes. Reading him in his own words is a good antidote to one of the greatest vices of modern politics, which is the manipulation by media. In Daoist terms, a person who adheres to non-violence out of a principled choice is a sage. But one who does this out of cowardice, or laziness, or mere ignorance of his own self, is just a fool. The modern media is a product of systematized approach to behavioral conditioning. In this age of mass surveillance, large computers crunch data on people and predict their behavioral patterns. The global power structure is a systematized institution of violence and media plays a central role in maintaining it. It molds the behavior of people in a subconscious way, glamorizing life-style choices that are damaging to the ecology as well as the emotional health of people. Intellectuals in media are like ghouls who chime to the bell of the empire. Their conceit stands exposed when compared to the simplicity of Gandhi and his politics of action (Karma Yoga).
When inspected through a Daoist lens, people like Shashi Tharoor or Ramachandra Guha, with their elitism, affected language and disdain for the “farrago” classes, stand as the polar opposite of Gandhi. They cannot represent Gandhi to any meaningful degree. On the opposite side, we have leftist critics who critique Gandhi while embedded into the power-structures of the west. Like Pankaj Mishra, who argued that Gandhi was ultimately a political failure, they deny Gandhi his role in dismantling the British empire. They serve the role of the “house-nigger” who served the slave-masters, by disciplining the slaves by establishing an entrenched hierarchy of who gets to represent their voice in the house. At the academic level, this hierarchy and intellectual slavery to the west persists deep within Indian universities. Towards dismantling their hierarchies and deconstructing their theories, Gandhi remains a powerful force. But the Gandhian position needs to be accommodated within the framework of Indian Darśanas, where it rightfully belongs. In this regard, other non-western traditions like Daoism can be philosophical allies.
“There is no such thing as “Gandhism” and I do not want to leave any sect after me. I do not claim to have originated any new principle or doctrine. I have simply tried in my own way to apply the eternal truths to our daily life and problems…The opinions I have formed and the conclusions I have arrived at are not final. I may change them tomorrow. I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills.” – Gandhi
- Abhinav Prakash Singh does an excellent articulation of the positon of Ambedkar and his critique of Gandhi in his lecture.
- Nithin Sridhar discusses the context of “Ahimsa Paramo Dharmaḥ”
- Nagendra Sethumadhavarao discusses the special cases where Dharma is different from its regular form.
- The various references of “Ahimsa Paramo Dharmaḥ” in Hindu texts are discussed in Hindupedia. I disagree with the translation of Parama as “the highest”, as pointed out in this article.
- Koenraad Elst discusses the phrase “Sarva Dharma Sama Bhāva”
- Pankaj Mishra’s essay on how he considers Gandhi to be a failed tragic hero.
- Gandhi in his own words on non-violence.
- The context of Daoism within the philosophical traditions of ancient China is explained excellently in the course of Edward Slingerland (this was how I learned the material).
- My essay on the comparison of Daoist-Confucian dichotomy to the Śaivaite-Vaishnavaite dichotomy : this long essay recounts my reflections after taking Prof. Slingerland’s course.
- The text of Dao De Jing.
- My introductory essay on the nature of Dharma explained through the symbol of the wheel.
- My essay on morality via language vs. Dharma, where I also compare the Chinese traditions.
Featured Image: Wikipedia