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Gandhi and the Philosophical Letter


The Philosophical | Letter:

Mahatma Gandhi

This paper was written for a conference held in Oxford in June 2016 on the Philosophical Letter.  My contribution was on Mahatma Gandhi. We were each asked to present a letter, and mine was one from Gandhi to Maganlal Gandhi in 1910. You can read the original letter below on the right.  On the left is what I said.

The letter I’ve chosen to present is just one from a vast correspondence. Gandhi was a prolific writer of letters. He wrote dozens of letters by hand almost every day of his adult life. The Sabarmati ashram, which holds the largest collection of his correspondence, has around 35,000 letters.

Gandhi also took correspondence very seriously. In his journalism, he often chided Indians for being casual about it: for failing to read letters carefully, or being slow to reply. He wrote – and was written to by – almost anyone. And he wrote about almost everything: not just politics but almost every aspect of modern life.

The example here was written by Gandhi in 1910 to Maganlal Gandhi, a relative of his, but not a close one. Maganlal (1883-1928) was the grandson of an uncle of the Mahatma, and he was twenty-seven years old in 1910.

The letter was written at a decisive moment in Gandhi’s life. He was forty-one. For the previous four years he had led the passive resistance campaign in South Africa (the Transvaal) against the requirement for Indians to register for special permits for residence and work. He had been imprisoned several times. The previous year he had spent mostly in London unsuccessfully lobbying the British government to over-rule the South African government. On his return voyage to South Africa in November 1909, he had written a book: Hind Swaraj, to which he refers in the letter.

Hind Swaraj sets out, tellingly in the form of a dialogue, Gandhi’s position on Indian freedom. It argues that India has been made unfree not by British occupation, but by Indians’ acquiescence in alien rule. The cause of this acquiescence has been Indian seduction by western modernity. Swaraj – self-rule – meant not only self-government (political independence), but the government of the self, by each individual (self-discipline and autonomy). In terms of political strategy, this meant self-reliance, rather than mendicancy – the tactic of petitioning others that Gandhi had used hitherto. ‘What is secured for us by others’, he wrote, ‘is not swaraj but pararaj, i.e. foreign rule’. Indians should make themselves free by resigning from government jobs, leaving western schools and colleges, boycotting British goods. They should reduce their dependence on, and admiration for, western modernity and rediscover the strengths of their own civilization. Getting the British to leave India might take many generations. But Indians could free themselves now if they wanted. ‘You and I can enjoy it even today,’ he tells Maganlal. ‘Emancipate your own self … Nobility of soul consists in realizing that you yourself are India.’

Gandhi was opposed not only to mendicancy, and also to revolutionary violence, which was the other dominant opinion among Indian anti-colonialists. Violence is mistaken because the enemy lies within and not without, but also because violence claims certainty for itself. Instead, Gandhi advocated ‘truth-force’ – satyagraha – non-violent action which is a courageous insistence on the truth: neither coercing nor begging, but insisting on the truth and being willing to suffer publicly for it.

It’s fair to say, I think, that when Gandhi set out this philosophy, he was not only in the minority, but almost entirely alone. To the mendicants, Gandhi seemed hostile to the most generally accepted boons of colonial influence – western medicine, legal systems, and education, the railways, industrialised cotton-mills. How was India to become a modern, independent state without these things? To the revolutionaries, Gandhi’s non-violence seemed quaint. Wasn’t ‘truth-force’ just the sort of Hindu passivity that had made India easy to conquer in the first place?

To persuade his critics, Gandhi therefore needed to provide answers to the hundreds of questions Indians had for him. Maganlal, as you can see, had asked him some. How was India to become free without modernising itself on western lines? How could non-violent satyagraha work against violent tribes like the Pindaris?

Gandhi did have answers to these questions. Modernity was not the strength of the British, which Indians should emulate, but their weakness which the Indians should reject. Satyagraha is not weakness. It is about not using the strength that you have.

But what is puzzling about the letter – and the reason I chose it for this workshop – is that as well as challenging all these conventional assumptions, Gandhi has some critical things to say about correspondence itself. This is a letter which criticizes letter-writing. The value of correspondence is exaggerated, Gandhi says. ‘When we give up railways and such other means,’ he writes, ‘we shall not bother ourselves about writing letters’. Indeed, so far as possible, we should give these things up now. The isolated Indian village, he tells Maglanlal, will be better off without the post office.

So there is an intriguing performative contradiction here. Gandhi is advocating the restriction of correspondence in a piece of correspondence. Why should Gandhi, knowing that he was almost alone in his views, wish to restrict one of the ways by which they might best be disseminated to others? Considering this puzzle also seems to speak to the central question of our workshop: what can correspondence do, and what can it not do?

What correspondence can do     *

Let’s start by looking at what Gandhi says in the letter about how truth spreads itself. The search for truth is a personal search: you have to pursue it yourself and not receive it from others. You have to be self-reliant. But the truth for Gandhi is also many-sided and inexhaustible. Because it is inexhaustible, no one person, no matter how energetic, could ever find it all. And because it is many-sided, each individual will see a different (and small) part of it. So dialogue between individuals – correspondence, if you like – is necessary if the truth is to be found. Each individual is uniquely constituted and must make his or her own search for truth, but the search necessarily involves seeking unity with the widest number of other human beings.

Because the truth is many-sided and inexhaustible, each searcher for truth needs to be humble and aware of his or her fallibility. Correspondence is valuable to Gandhi as a way to test and correct one’s own view. We’ve been thinking about how correspondence can be dialogic (two-way) or instructional (effectively one-way), and about letters which expect answers and letters which don’t. Gandhi’s conception of correspondence is emphatically dialogic. He asks for consideration and replies. ‘Please ponder over the meaning of this statement’, he writes in this letter. And right at the end: ‘Please ponder over this … If you want to ask anything more, please do’. Think it over. Let me know what you think.

Another of the dimensions of our discussion so far has been the relative merits of the philosophical letter and the philosophical treatise. Gandhi never produced a comprehensive treatise. Instead, he developed a set of approaches which he described somewhat misleadingly as experimental. The title of his autobiography was The story of my experiments with truth. Gandhi thought that India’s long civilization was itself a form of scientific enquiry in which people had worked out, and were still working out, through observation and experiment, which moral and social practices worked and which didn’t. We might well doubt that these were real experiments: they often confirmed as truth the beliefs that middle-aged male Hindus already held. But the point is that experimental testing could not be done alone. The task was too great for any individual, so it had to be pursued by like-minded others, sharing their findings. Some lived alongside each other in ashrams, but others, in India and across the world, would share their findings through correspondence. In other words, Gandhi had what you might call a ‘correspondence theory of truth’.

Gandhi therefore offers a distinctive position on three of the problems we’re considering in this workshop. First (1), he has an answer to the problem of ‘reach’ that philosophy needs to reach large audiences, but letters only reach one or two. The assumption that (unless it is published) the influence of a letter stops at its immediate recipient is something Gandhi would have denied. He thought in terms of a network of influence, in which experimenters shared their findings through correspondence with each other. He did this himself by reading out letters at public meetings, and also by printing and publishing letters in journals which he also edited, and which in turn were republished as contributions in other journals, elsewhere. Something which started out as an exchange of letters – and which needed to do so: an article would be different in audience and tone (more finished, more authoritative) – later achieved a wider circulation through republication. But it began through private circulation through correspondence.

What Gandhian experimenters were sharing, moreover, were their personal experiments. Their correspondence had impact, therefore, not despite the fact that it was personal, but because it was personal. Perhaps we are mistaken, therefore, if we assume (2) that the personal quality of a letter diminishes its wider effectiveness. For Gandhi the force of a view turned on whether it was practised by the individual who held it. He was very critical of people who espoused but did not live out their ideals. You can see this insistence on the importance of personal example-setting in the letter. We shouldn’t be deterred from giving up modern practices, Gandhi says, just because we can’t end them overnight, nor because some people will never follow us. This doesn’t matter. ‘Even if one man reduces or stops their use’, he writes, ‘others will learn to do so.’ Making ‘only’ a personal connection with a single individual through a letter is therefore not an impediment to spreading the truth. On the contrary: it is the best means – perhaps the only means – by which to do so.

Gandhi also has a distinct position on a third problem we’ve been considering: (3) the fact that letters are private yet often seek to address public matters. Gandhi draws the line between the public and private in an unusual place. In many of his letters there is an odd mix of conventionally public and private topics. Discussions of high political developments rub up against advice on diet, health, hygiene, dress, sexual desire, marriage, child-rearing, and so on. To Gandhi these are not incoherent juxtapositions, because his concept of freedom is one in which these supposedly ‘private’ matters have a profound public importance. To be politically free you have first to free yourself in ordinary life. Gandhi thought that India’s subjection was a consequence of regarding its own social practices as inferior. This was what had made Indians servile and imitative. To become free was not just about political campaigning, but also about freeing oneself, even alone, and today, in matters of everyday life. ‘In your emancipation is the emancipation of India’, Gandhi tells Maganlal. ‘All else is make-believe’.

So letters can have great influence, even if ‘only’ personal, even if ‘only’ addressed to individuals, and even if ‘only’ private.

What correspondence can’t do   +

What, then, can letters not do? What does Gandhi mean when he says that it would be better if the Indian village never got a post office?

Gandhi feared that Indian rural localities would be overwhelmed by western modernity. This was not because he romanticised the condition of the traditional Indian village. Nor was it because he wanted to keep new ideas out. He thought Indian culture had always been open to and influenced by the ideas that came from outside it, which it absorbed, traditionalized and Indianised, so as to remain true to itself. The trouble with western modernity was that, unlike earlier religious incursions like Buddhism and Islam, it was spiritually impoverished. It had made Indians indifferent to the cultural resources they already possessed, and anxious to imitate alien ones. The ironic consequence of greater openness to communication, therefore, was that people became more isolated, and more alienated from their own identities, and hence the world more fragmented.

Letters, therefore, (1) cannot substitute for the local. Correspondence connects people across distance, but in doing so, it also distracts people from what is closest to them. For Gandhi, living under colonialism, the alien had displaced the indigenous, and this had happened not only by invasion and coercion but by the dangerous seductions of western modernity, which had stimulated desire – as he says in the letter, we have to beware of our desires – and pushed aside duties to others. Modernity had alienated Indians from the local, the situated, the familiar, the timely. ‘The English have not taken India’, he wrote in Hind Swaraj. ‘We have given it to them’. ‘They are not in India because of their strength, but because we keep them.’

The trouble with modern communications was not only that they carried spiritually dead cargo. We also have to remember that Gandhi was trying to reach a largely illiterate society. The Indian literacy rate was about 5% in 1910. There were around 200 languages. So written correspondence in English, or even Hindi, could never have been enough for him. The traditional information order in India relied less on printed or written materials and more on relayed news, story-telling, dramatic production, song. Gandhi was suspicious that the prioritisation of the written form would displace these non-written and even sometimes non-verbal symbolic modes of communication. So there was a second thing that letters could not do. They (2) cannot substitute for non-written and non-verbal communication.

Modern communications also worked too fast. They failed to respect the pace at which human lives could sensibly be lived. Letters, especially pouring in at modern rate, (3) cannot substitute for consideration. While Gandhi rejected the idea of monkish withdrawal from the world, he also thought that everyone should engage in daily meditation, without distraction, to reflect on things and compose their own thoughts. You can have too much correspondence. Enough, as we have already learned from Epicurus, is enough.

There was a fourth objection. Letters (4) cannot substitute for the face-to-face. Gandhi sets great store by the change of heart: the connection that is made when you speak with others directly and without mediation. He thought, for example, that it was harder us to lie face-to-face than it was when we write to each other (the opposite of the view of Goethe, as we heard earlier). He thought too that people were more likely to change when they directly witnessed truth-force, rather than read about it. In India, and especially in the Gandhian ashram, much of ordinary life was carried out in full view of everyone else. So, yes, the fact that letters are private does not preclude their having wider influence, but the most valuable forms of influence are exerted face to face in local communities, like ashrams, and villages.

But Gandhi’s largest objection to mass communication concerned the way that it rendered the individual a passive recipient and echo for others’ ideas. Correspondence (5) cannot substitute for action. From the letter to Maganlal: ‘It is not enough merely to profess [humility]’ … it should stand the test when the occasion comes’. So Gandhi is very critical of the lawyer who writes to boast of his altruism or spirituality. ‘Let him learn his livelihood through physical labour and carry on his legal practice without charging anything for it’, he argues. Action carries meanings that letters can’t. Indeed, it is telling that Gandhi, although a prolific correspondent, did not much value the physical letter – the piece of paper – itself. He takes care with correspondence, but does not take care of his letters. He did not preserve them or refer to them or regard them as in any permanent way defining his view. They were needed only for the moment: for the impact they might have on people’s thinking or action.

The letter as an enabling weakness of empire 

So in colonial conditions, modern correspondence was double-edged. It was both the means by which India might develop an alternative to colonialism, and also the means by which India had come under colonial rule in the first place. Correspondence is an instance of a wider dilemma for Gandhi, which was how to fight a battle against western modernity without relying on the weapons of western modernity.

Like other instances, this expressed itself in terms of opportunities and vulnerabilities. Let me give one example of each. First, the vulnerability. These concerns about the corruptibility of the Indian village cut against the dialogic. One interpretation of what Gandhi is saying to Maganlal is that natural leaders may continue to correspond, provided their heads are not turned by it, but that the Indian villagers will be too easily corrupted, so must not be permitted it. ‘Swaraj is for those who understand it’, Gandhi writes. There’s a double meaning in that. First: anyone can be free: once you have understood, you are free. But also: you need to understand what freedom means before you can use it. ‘You and I can enjoy it today’, Gandhi says to Maganlal. ‘All the others will have to learn to do likewise’. There’s a tension here between autonomy and liberation, on the one hand, and slowly learned self-discipline on the other.

Now, to finish, the opportunity. The British empire, we should not forget, was governed through correspondence. The post is one of its enabling weaknesses. How had Gandhi corresponded with Maganlal? He had bought a stamp with King Edward’s head on it, and used the imperial postal service. In order to govern a far-flung empire, the British had developed a system of postal communication. And in order that it should work cheaply and in depth, the system was not reserved for the governors, but could be used by anyone who could afford a stamp. This meant that it could be exploited by anyone.

Indeed, twenty years after the date of this letter, Gandhi was able to plan a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience, which the British struggled to control by censorship because the flow of propaganda and conspiracy through the postal systems they had themselves introduced was so great.

In that campaign, Gandhi wrote another letter, to the Viceroy of India, on the eve of his famous Salt March in 1931. He could have issued a press statement, but he sent a letter. Addressing the Viceroy ‘Dear friend’, rather than the expected ‘Your Excellency’, Gandhi claimed the level status of friendship. He did not beg or make threats: on the contrary, he informed his ‘friend’ of his plans and asked for his views.

Gandhi’s letter to the Viceroy can, I think, usefully be contrasted with the written communicative forms generally used by other Indians when addressing the British. It differed both from the petition, which Gandhi had used himself when a mendicant; and the threat, made by the revolutionaries.

The petition comes from below: it concedes a position of superiority to authority, and defers to the recipient’s conceptions of what is right and just. Threats, on the other hand, are violent. To impose your own view on others is a form of violence, made from above, from omniscience. In Gandhi’s correspondence, by contrast, you can set out your own views, and you can try and persuade, or even educate, your reader. But you cannot compel them. And you must not beg.

This sort of communication-on-the-level was very destabilizing to the British. They knew what to do with petitions from below. They met them not exactly with rejection, but perpetual deferral – always holding out the prospect that they might satisfy them one day. They knew too what to do with threats: they fought back, or they gave in. But the personal letter – Dear Friend – had a strange forcefulness they couldn’t easily reject. Friendship with Indians was, as E. M. Forster saw in A Passage to India (1924), incompatible with imperial relationships, in which ‘the office defined the man’, and the personal and the official were kept firmly apart.

So firm was this separation, indeed, that the British actually separated the correspondence they received into distinct categories – official, demi-official, private – precisely so that they could file letters appropriately, for fear that the private and the personal might corrupt the public and official. But Gandhi’s letter could not be filed properly. He broke the rules of correspondence, and he did so using correspondence as his weapon.

Nick Owen

Mohandas K. Gandhi to Maganlal Gandhi, 2 April 1910, from The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, (New Delhi, 100v., 1958- ) vol. 10, pp. 473-7. Translated from the Gujarati Gandhiji-ni Sadhana by Raojibhai Patel, and Mahatma Gandhiji-na Patro, edited by Dahyabhai Patel.

Chi Maganlal,

Your letter to hand. I return it to you so that you can understand my reply to it.
I shall try to answer the questions you have raised. But even then you may not understand thoroughly. You will perhaps find the explanations you have sought from [Hind] Swaraj itself if you read it afresh once or twice.

There is no doubt that we shall have to go back to the extent to which we have imbibed [modern] civilization. This part of the task is the most difficult one, but it will have to be done. When we take a wrong path there is no alternative but to go back. We have got to free ourselves from attachment to the things we are enjoying. For this it is necessary that we begin to feel disgust for them. Whatever means and instruments appear to us to be beneficial are not going to be given up. Only he who realizes that there is more harm than the apparent benefit from a particular thing will give it up. I personally feel that no benefit has been derived from our being able to send letters quickly. When we give up railways and such other means we shall not bother ourselves about writing letters. A thing which is really free from fault may be used to a certain extent. We who are engulfed in this civilization may avail ourselves of postal and other facilities as long as we are so engulfed. If we make use of these things with knowledge and understanding we shall not go crazy over them, and instead of increasing our preoccupations we shall gradually reduce them. He who will understand this will not be tempted to take the post or the railway to the villages which do not have these. You and I should not remain passive and increase the use of steamers and other evil means for fear that these things cannot be abolished forthwith and that all the people will not give them up. Even if one man reduces or stops their use, others will learn to do so. He who believes that it is good to do so will go on doing so irrespective of others. This is the only way of spreading the truth; there is no other in the world.

It is very difficult to get rid of our fondness for Parliament. It was no doubt barbarous when people tore off the skin, burned persons alive and cut off their ears or nose; but the tyranny of Parliament is much greater than that of Chengiz Khan, Tamerlane and others. Hence it is that we are caught in its meshes. Modern tyranny is a trap of temptation and therefore does greater mischief. One can withstand the atrocities committed by one individual as such; but it is difficult to cope with the tyranny perpetrated upon a people in the name of the people. It seems to have happened in the past that some rulers were like King Foolishman while others turned out to be wise. Had Edward alone been our ruler it would not have been so objectionable; but every Englishman is ruling over you and me. Please ponder over the meaning of this statement. I do not refer here to people’s fondness for this world. The common man in India at least believes that the Parliament is a hoax. Even an extraordinarily intelligent man, caught in the meshes of this civilization, loses his sanity in Parliament. By saying that mercy cannot have any effect on the Pindaris you have denied the very existence of the soul or its [essential] attribute. Lord Patanjali has emphasized the greatness of mercy, etc., in such a way that we feel delighted even while thinking of those virtues. The real fact is that fear has taken deep root in us and consequently truth, mercy and such other virtues do not develop. And then we think that mercy has no effect on cruel people. If we show mercy to the person who shows mercy to us it is no mercy; it is only the return for mercy.

We should be considered weak if someone protects us free of charge or even if we pay him for doing so. If we have to seek outside help to be free from the menace of the Pindaris, etc., we are unfit for swaraj. If we would subdue them with physical force, we shall have to develop that force in ourselves. We shall not then have to pay blackmail or tribute. A woman seeks her husband’s protection as a matter of right; but she is considered an abala (weak) after all.

Swaraj is for those who understand it. You and I can enjoy it even today. All the others will have to learn to do likewise. What is secured for us by others is not swaraj but pararaj, i.e., foreign rule, whether they be Indians or Englishmen.

In calling the cow-protection societies cow-killing societies, I have but stated the truth; for their object is to rescue the cow or protect her by bringing pressure on Mussalmans.

To rescue the cow by paying money is no protection of the cow; it is a way to teach the butcher to be deceitful. If we try to coerce the Mussalmans they will slaughter more cows. But if we persuade them or offer satyagraha against them they will protect her. No cow-protection society is necessary for doing this. That body should be for teaching Hinduism to the Hindus. It is better to kill an ox by a single blow of the sword than to kill it by starving it, by pricking it, by over-working it and thus torturing it.

It would be very confusing to take the examples of Shri Ramachandra and others literally. I have never imagined the possibility of a Ravana in the physical form of a man with ten heads and twenty arms. But to imagine that he was a huge passionate senseless animal and that he was killed by Shri Ramachandra representing the divine essence may appeal to the intellect.

Tulsidasji has described Ramachandraji as the forces of the Sun who is the destroyer of pride, infatuation, and the darkness of the night of excessive attachment. Do you think we shall have the least desire left in us to destroy anybody when we are rid of all pride, infatuation and attachment? If you say ‘no’, how could Ramchandraji who was free from pride, infatuation and attachment and who was an ocean of mercy destroy Ravana? However, let us first attain his stage, like Lakshmana1 give up sleep and observe brahmacharya for fourteen years and then see where physical force could be used.

I want to say that everything is achieved by humility. The example you gave of the Transvaal is quite appropriate. It is not enough merely to profess orally to have the above sentiment; it should stand the test when the occasion comes. Think of the numberless adversities Harishchandra had to face before his [devotion to] truth was proved. Think of the suffering Sudhanva had to undergo before his bhakti (devotion) was proved to be genuine. We may not consider these as mere legends. It may be that the names and forms were different; but they who have composed these stories have given their own experiences through them. Even in the Transvaal the babblings of persons like me are being put to the test. Also bear in mind that many who were regarded as satyagrahis have proved to be insincere demagogues. Who, then, should be regarded as true satyagrahis? Of course, they who possess virtues like compassion, etc. Nowhere has it been said that suffering may not have to be undergone. And what does suffering after all mean? It is the mind, says the Gita, which is the cause of our bondage as well as of our freedom. Sudhanva was thrown into boiling oil. The person who got him thrown into it thought that he was inflicting suffering on Sudhanva; but for the latter it was a grand opportunity to show the intensity of his devotion.

It will never happen that all are equally rich or equally poor at the same time. But if we consider the good and evil aspects [of the various professions] it seems that the world is sustained by farmers. Farmers are of course poor. If a lawyer would boast of his altruism or spirituality, let him earn his livelihood through physical labour and carry on his legal practice without charging anything for it. You will not easily realize that the lawyer is lazy. Just as a sensuous man, even when exhausted by indulging in passions, remains engrossed in sensual pleasures, so a lawyer, even when he is exhausted, goes on straining his nerves to the breaking point in his practice in the hope of getting wealth and attaining to greatness and later on passing a life of luxury and comfort. This is his objective. I am conscious that there is a little exaggeration in this; but, what I have said above is true for the most part.

What service will an army of doctors render to the country? What great things are they going to achieve by dissecting dead bodies, by killing animals, and by cramming worthless dicta for five or seven years? What will the country gain by the ability to cure physical diseases? That will simply increase our attachment to the body. We can formulate a plan for preventing the growth of disease even without the knowledge of medical science. This does not mean that there should be no doctors or physicians at all. They will always be with us. The point is that many a young man who gives an undue importance to this profession and wastes hundreds of rupees and several years qualifying for it, ought not to do so. We must know that we are not, nor are we going to be, benefited in the least by allopathic doctors.

I hope I have replied to all your questions. Please do not carry unnecessarily on your head the burden of emancipating India. Emancipate your own self. Even that burden is very great. Apply everything to yourself. Nobility of soul consists in realizing that you are yourself India. In your emancipation is the emancipation of India. All else is make-believe. If you feel interested, do persevere. You and I need not worry about others. If we bother about others, we shall forget our own task and lose everything. Please ponder over this from the point of view of altruism, not of selfishness. If you want to ask anything more, please do.

Blessings from