Mahatma Gandhi: The Saint as Political Actor and Philosopher

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was trained as a lawyer and an important figure in South African anti-discrimination activism, the campaign for Indian independence, and the first premier of India after its independence from Britain. In India and around the world, he was known by the honorary title “Mahatma,” which means “Great Soul” in Sanskrit. During his lifetime, Gandhi faced opposition, was imprisoned times, and finally assassinated by a Hindu nationalist on January 30, 1948. His autobiography is one of the most important works by a 20th Century political figure. [1] Gandhi was foremost a political activist and secondarily a thinker. His thought, sometimes contradictory, flowed from his commitments to human betterment, and are, therefore, to be respected as the reflections of a person of action.

One reason for covering Gandhi at this point is that he was referenced by both Alfred North Whitehead and Reinhold Niebuhr, both of whom mention his life and work. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to whom we will next turn, was influenced by Gandhi and wanted to meet him. Finally, Martin Luther King, Jr. and, therefore, the American civil rights movement, was influenced by him.

By the time Whitehead published Adventures of Ideas, Gandhi was known throughout Great Britain, and his work and strategies for eliminating British Colonialism in India were legendary In Whitehead’s view, Gandhi’s work in India, and his influence on British public opinion and political action were evidence of the potential importance of religious and moral factors in political life. In Whitehead’s view writing in 1933, Gandhi’s success is used as an example of the potential for divine persuasion to move in public affairs in which a way as to produce social harmony without destructive, revolutionary conflict. [2] Foreseeing the destructive potential not only in that conflict but in the course of post-World War I European history, Whitehead felt Gandhi’s life and work symbolized and gave hope to the potential for religious and moral action and thought to promote a calm and reasonable approach to political progress. [3]

Niebuhr gives attention to Gandhi’s work in Moral Man and Immoral Society, published in 1933 around the same time as Whitehead is writing. [4] Niebuhr’s focus was on harmonizing Gandhi’s thought with his own positions on the inevitability of conflict in social progress. Because of Niebuhr’s negative views, I will save an analysis of his thought until after a review of the philosophical basis of Gandhi’s views.

Truth as Central

As is indicated by the title of his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, the notion of Truth plays a central role in his thought about political matters. For Gandhi the concept of Truth or “Satya” is at the center of his political theory. For Gandhi truth was a spiritual and intellectual reality central to human spiritual, social and political life. His most famous formulation of his view is “Truth is God.” In a letter to Basil Matthews, Gandhi wrote:

If God who is indefinable can be at all defined, then I should say that God is TRUTH. It is impossible to reach HIM, that is, TRUTH, except through LOVE. LOVE can only be expressed fully when man reduces himself to a cipher. This process of reduction to cipher is the highest effort man or woman is capable of making. It is the only effort worth making, and it is possible only through ever-increasing self-restraint. [5]

This quotation is important to unpack so that we may understand what it means with Gandhi says, “Truth is God.” Gandhi  influenced by the Hindu a notion of God as an absolute impersonal, and so Gandhi does not mean a “Personal God” in the Christian sense of that term. However, Gandhi does also from time to time refer to God as personal. Thus, Gandhi states:

I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever-dying, there is underlying all that change a Living Power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and recreates. That informing Power or Spirit is God. And since nothing else I see merely through the senses can or will persist, He alone is.[6]

Gandhi speaks of God as a “Living Power,” an “Informing Power,” and a “Spirit.” All these are personal attributes. This personal quality of God is particularly true when he speaks of God as love, an idea we will discuss below. Perhaps most revealing, while not a Christian, Gandhi was an admirer of Christ as a person and revelation of God.

God as Love

In the quote above, Gandhi states that “It is impossible to reach HIM, that is, TRUTH, except through LOVE.” In other words, the only sure path to Truth is through Love. For Gandhi the Love that is God or by which God is known is a deep pervasive relationality, not unlike what can be seen in the Chinese Tao. He speaks of this love as follows:

Scientists tell us that, without the presence of the cohesive force amongst the atoms that comprise this globe of ours, it would crumble to pieces and we would cease to exist; and even as there is cohesive force in blind matter, so must there be in all things animate, and the name for that cohesive force among animate beings is love. We notice it between father and son, between brother and sister, friend and friend. But we have to learn to use that force among all that lives, and in the use of it consists our knowledge of God. Where there is love there is love there is life; hatred leads to destruction. [7]

For Gandhi, God was Truth before all things. However, there is a consciousness in Gandhi that to speak of love is to speak of a personal quality. Only a person with some degree of consciousness can love. This would be especially true of any love that would require a aware self-giving attitude, which Gandhi does recognize on occasion in says such as, “Love can never express itself by imposing sufferings on others. It can only express itself by self-suffering, by self-purification.” [8]

Non-Violence

The nature of God as Truth and the importance of Love led Gandhi to a recognition of non-violence or “Ahimsa” as the fundamental principle of political action. [9] Like the Christian virtue of “Agape” or self-giving love, Ahimsa connotes the highest form of love — a universal love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, an unconditional sense of belonging to everyone and everything, and a self-giving restraint for the benefit of the other.

The practical application of Truth to politics is for Gandhi a power that Truth inherently possesses. For Gandhi, the concepts of satyagraha (truth force) and ahimsa (non-violence), were the key to the practical application of Truthto the political realities he faced. Since God is Truth, there is a Truth Force (satyagraha) in the practical application of non-violence to political realities. Truth has a force, a power, that is inherent in its existence.

As one follower of Gandhi’s thought puts it:

The Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha is a natural outcome of the supreme concept of truth. If truth is the ultimate reality, then it is imperative to safeguard the criteria and foundations of truth. A votary of God which is the highest Truth and the highest Reality must be utterly selfless and gentle. He should have an unconquerable determination to fight for the supremacy of spiritual and moral values. Thus alone can he vindicate his sense of ethical devotion. Satyagraha means the exercise of the purest soul-force against all injustice, oppression and exploitation. Suffering and trust are attributes of soul force. The active nonviolent resistance of the ‘heroic meek’ makes an immediate appeal to the heart. It wants not to endanger the opponent but to overwhelm him by the over flooding power of innocence. [10]

These ideas are important if Western democratic society is to undo the damage of the kind of “politics as war” that have characterized the past years. For Christians, who believe that God is Love and Truth, the best way to seek a better social order is through the Truth Force of Non-violent Love. If we believe that God is a kind of transcendent love and wisdom, then we believe that the power of God is found in love.

Niebuhr on Gandhi

It is interesting to compare the difference between Whitehead, an early constructive post-Modernist, and Niebuhr, the  late Modern, in their reaction to Gandhi’s thought and action. Whitehead, whose philosophy is a form of Objective Idealism, recognizing the reality of values, Gandhi is a sign of hope for the future. For Niebuhr, Gandhi is a romantic idealist—whose pragmatic leadership was not always consistent with this ideals.

One of Niebuhr’s students put it this way:

I disagree with Niebuhr on his analysis of Gandhi. I think he didn’t understand Gandhi. He regarded Gandhi as a sentimentalist, the same way he regarded Marx as a sentimentalist: as someone with vaunted expectations about human nature. But Gandhi was more of a realist than Niebuhr assumed, and his method of conflict resolution involves exerting a certain kind of pressure. This is not exactly the coercion Niebuhr accused him of, because Gandhi tried to make a distinction between coercive and non-coercive force. [11]

If my reading of Niebuhr is correct, he receives as a kind of given that the universe is made up of matter and energy, that human beings are fundamentally material, that religious ideals function within the spirit of individuals, but that force and power motivate and control the political sphere of life. Revolution and violence are inevitable and can only be moderated by moral and religious ideals. In Moral Man and Immoral Society we also see the early Niebuhr, who was much less suspicious of Marxian analysis than he became in his later years.

Fundamentally, Niebuhr claims that Gandhi was either unaware or unable to sustain awareness of the difference between his principles of Non-Violence and Truth Force and the reality of the battle for independence. [12] Rather than seeing that Gandhi was constantly under pressure to put his ideals into practice in a complex political situation he feels that Gandhi was unable to recognize what he was doing and subscribe to views similar to his own.

In one revealing passage, Niebuhr writes:

The responsible leader of a political community is forced to use coercion to gain his ends. He may, as Mr. Gandhi, make every effort to keep his instruments under the dominion of his spiritual ideal; but he must use it, and it may be necessary at times to sacrifice a degree of moral purity for political effectiveness. [13]

In other words, spiritual ideals are nice but fundamentally divorced from the exercise of power in politics. It is this view with which I fundamentally disagree and view as destructive.

Conclusion

We will return to Gandhi when we deal with Martin Luther King, Jr and with the American civil rights movement. In the next blog, we will see that Gandhi had an impact on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and shaped a portion of his response to Hitler. In the meantime, it seems to me that Whitehead’s response to Gandhi is the better one.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Mahatma Gandhi, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1983).

[2] A. N. Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (New York, NY: Free Press, 1933), 160.

[3] Id, at 161.

[4] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethic and Politics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001), hereinafter, “MMIS”.

[5] The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 33, p. 452. See also Judith M. Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 199. I found this at Douglas Allen, “Ghandi, Contemporary Political Thought and Other Relations,” https://umaine.edu/philosophy/douglas-allen/publications/gandhi-contemporary-political-thinking-self-relations/ (downloaded August 4, 2022). Dr Allen’s views are important in my understanding of Gandhi and in the preparation of this blog.

[6] See, “My life is My Message,” at https://www.mkgandhi.org/momgandhi/chap10.htm (Downloaded August 4, 2022).

[7] Id, attributed to (YI, 5-5-1920, p. 7).

[8] Id, at https://www.mkgandhi.org/epigrams/l.htm#Love (Downoaded August 4, 2022)/

[9] Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word meaning “non-violence.” The term is derived from the root word himsa, meaning “to cause pain,” and the prefix – ‘a’ means “not.” Himsa, which connotes physical violence). Thus, Ahimsa is not to employ physical violence.

[10] Ramananda Choudhurie, “Gandhian philosophy of Satyagraha” at www.mkgandhi.org/articles/ramanand.htm (downloaded August 4, 2022).

[11] Nathan Schneider, “Mark Juergensmeyer on Gandhi and Niebuhrin Wgaging NonViolience: People Powered News and Analysis at https://wagingnonviolence.org/2010/07/mark-juergensmeyer-on-gandhi-and-niebuhr/(Downloaded August 5, 2022).

[12] MMIS, at 242,

[13] MMIS, at 244.

Whitehead No. 2: God, Eternal Objects, and Persuasion

Last week, we began our exploration of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and his importance as a founder of the “process school” of philosophy. This school of philosophy has, in turn, given birth to a theological movement known as “Process Theology.” Whitehead himself grew up the son of a Church of England minister. In the course of his mathematical, logical, scientific, and philosophical careers, he drifted from what might be called “theological orthodoxy”. However, he did have a place for God in his philosophical system, and his works are replete with kind words about Jesus and the role of Christianity in Western civilization.

Before launching into this week’s analysis, I would like to say a few words to my friends in the Evangelical movement, who often find themselves at odds with the views of proponents of Process Theology. Keep an open mind for the following reasons:

  1. One does not have to be a process theologian to appreciate the thought and work of Whitehead. There are orthodox thinkers who find him enlightening.
  2. One does not have to adopt all of the ideas of process thinking to find some of its ideas important and useful.
  3. For whatever it is worth, the writer believes that many of Whitehead’s ideas can be fruitful within an orthodox, Trinitarian theology and political theology.

God and Eternal Objects,

In order to understand Whitehead’s views on the movement from a society based on force to one based on persuasion, it is important to understand his notions of reality, of God, and of universals, or what Whitehead calls, “Eternal Objects.” For Whitehead, the world in which we live and have our day-today existence (what Whitehead sometimes calls, the “Actual World”) is built up of actual occasions. [1] Those things that we perceive as stable objects (what Whitehead calls, “Enduring Objects”) are simply events that have an enduring character because of their underlying structure. [2]

For Whitehead there are, however, two objects which participate in the emergence of the world of Actual Occasions that are not Actual Occasions. These are:

  1. Eternal objects, which are ideal entities which are pure potentials for realization in the actual world and form the conceptual ground for all actual occasions; [3] and
  2. God, who is both an Eternal Object and also the primordial Actual Entity; God is not an actual occasion but is present in all Actual Occasions. [4]

According to Whitehead, Eternal Objects are the qualities and formal structures that define Actual Occasions and related entities. Each Actual Entity is defined by an infinite hierarchy of Eternal Objects. This feature permits each actual entity to be experienced by future entities in important ways.

  1. Eternal Objects participate in the causal connection of individual entities, functioning as private qualities and public structures, characterizing the growth of actuality in its rhythmic advance from private, subjective immediacy to public, extensively structured fact.
  2. Eternal Objects are ideals conceptualized by historical actual entities. As such, they are the potential elements which provide that the process of nature is not deductive succession but organic growth, creative advance. [5]This characteristic is very important for an understanding of such political notions as Justice.

Eternal Objects are primordially realized as pure potentials in the conceptual nature of that one unique actual entity, which we call “God.” As realized in God, Eternal Objects are ideal possibilities or potentialities, ordered according to logical and aesthetic principles, which can be realized in Actual Occasions. As realized in God, Eternal Objects transcend the historical actual entities in which they are realized. [6]

A God of Persuasion Instead of Force

For Whitehead, God is “actual” (an Actual Entity) but non-temporal and the source of all creativity, the source of innovation, who transmits his creativity in freedom and persuasion. [7] Whitehead’s God has two poles of existence, a transcendent pole, which is primordial and a consequential or physical pole. The transcendent pole is the “mental pole” of God wherein one finds the existence of Eternal Objects.  As primordial, God is eternal, having no beginning or ending and is the ultimate reason for the universe, a factor that was important to Whitehead. [8]

As consequential, God is present in the universe and in all actual occasions, which is the physical pole of God’s existence. In this physical pole God experiences the world and the actualization of Eternal Objects in Actual Occasions. Because of God’s physical pole, God can be impacted by and experiences Actuality. Thus, Whitehead’s God   experiences and grows with creation.

It is with respect to this physical pole that Process Philosophy makes its unique contribution to certain theological ideas. For Whitehead, God is not an all-powerful ruler, a cosmic despot. God is intimately involved in the universe of Actual Occasions and impacts the future not by force but by persuasion. [9] Thus he says, “More than two thousand years ago the wisest of men proclaimed that the divine persuasion is the foundation of the order of the world, but that it could only produce such order as amid the brute force of the world it was possible to accomplish.” [10]

This divine persuasion, the slow working of God in history as love and wisdom is the hope of the world that the constant resort to force and violence in human affairs can be overcome. Writing before the Second World War, before Hiroshima and the wars of the last century, Whitehead saw the important role of Christian faith and of all religious groups as instruments for the evolution of the human race towards a more harmonious world based on persuasion, reason, and love rather than brute force. [11] In a much quoted and beautiful passage, Whitehead writes:

The essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Christ as the revelation of the nature of God and of his agency in the world. The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory. I need not elaborate. Can there be any doubt that the power of Christianity lies in its revelation in act of what Plato taught in theory? [12]

The Victory of Persuasion over Force

Plato had taught that the divine agency was persuasive relying on reason not coercion to accomplish the creation of the world. Plato also taught that it was a part of the reordering of the human person by virtue to recover the primordial reliance on reason and persuasion by which the world was created, and by which human beings recover an original reasonableness and harmony. This view has obvious implications for political philosophy and political practice.

For Whitehead, “The progress of humanity can be defined as the process of transforming society so as to make the original Christian ideals increasingly practicable for the individual members.[13] The project of human civilization and of every human society and political institution is, therefore, achieving the victory of persuasion over force. [14] Recalling the words of Plato, Whitehead writes:

The creation of the world—said Plato—is the story of persuasion over force. The worth of men consists in their liability to persuasion. They can persuade and can be persuaded by the disclosure of alternatives, the better and the worse. Civilization is the maintenance of social order, by its own inherent persuasiveness as embodying the nobler alternative. The recourse to force, however, unavoidable, is a disclosure of the failure of civilization, either in general society or in a remnant of individuals. [15]

Against Hobbes, Whitehead holds that persuasion has always been a part of human society and denies that force is the defining characteristic of human society. He does not agree that human society is nothing but “a war of everyone against everyone else.” The social and persuasive side of society may even be older than the recourse to force. The love between the sexes, the love of parents for children and families for one another, even the communal love of small groups are all probably older than brute force as a fundamental aspect of human society.

This does not mean, however, that force is not an inevitable characteristic of society, for there is and always will be a need for laws, structures, and their enforcement and defense. Forms of social compulsion are an outgrowth of the need for social coordination, but are (or at least should be) of themselves the outgrowth of reason. [16] Interestingly, Whitehead believes that Commerce is an important component in the movement from force to persuasion, for commerce depends upon private parties reaching agreements without recourse to force, which in itself tends to build the capacities for reason and persuasion that a free society requires. [17]

Conclusion

In the end, Whitehead believes that there are four factors which govern the fate of social groups, including our own society: (1) the existence of some transcendent aim or goal greater than the mere search for pleasure; (2) the limitations on freedom which flows from nature itself and the basic needs of human beings; (3) the tendency of the human race to resort to compulsion instead of reason, which is fatal to social growth and flourishing if extended beyond necessary limits; and (4) the way of persuasion, which relies upon reason and agreement for the resolution of social problems. In the end, it is the way of persuasion that holds the hope for social and human flourishing. [18]

We will return to this aspect of Whitehead in the future, for his insights are related to the development of a more dialogical, reasonable, and sympathetic political culture.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: Free Press, 1929, 1957), at 27, 90. Hereinafter, “PR.”

[2] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: Free Press, 1925, 1967), hereinafter “SMM”, at 132-133.

[3] PR, 26

[4] PR, 105

[5]. See, Susan Shottliff Mattingly, “Whitehead’s Theory of Eternal Objects” DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of The University of Texas at Austin in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy. I am indebted to her for portions of this analysis.

[6] It is beyond the scope of this blog to exhaustively look at Whitehead’s notion of God. He did view God as an essential element of his metaphysical system as the ground of the order and creative potential of the universe.

[7] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York, NY: The McMillian Company, 1936), 88, hereinafter “RM”.

[8] In Whitehead’s system all actual occasions have both a physical and a mental pole. Thus, intelligibility and the potential for the emergence of mind goes all the way down into the smallest actual entities in the universe.

[9] AI, at 166.

[10] Id, 160.

[11] Id, at 161. It is beyond the scope of this blog, but Whitehead believes that it is not the existence of dogmatics and religious theories that are the problem with religion, but the attitude of finality with which these opinions are voiced. In this, Whitehead echo’s Pearce. The theories of theologians are evidence of the importance of reason to Christian faith, and reasonableness is one of the ways in which brute force is overcome.

[12] Id, at 167. Plato had taught that the divine agency was persuasive relying on reason not coercion to accomplish his goal.

[13] Id, at 17.

[14] Id, At 25.

[15] Id, at 83.

[16] Id, at 69.

[17] Id, at 70-84. This is a most interesting discussion in which Whitehead deals with Malthusian economics, and its limitations.

[18] Id, at 85-86.