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Gandhi’s Reflective and Dialogical Approach to Search for the Truth

Gandhi’s search for truth with constant self-introspection led him to admit his own misconceptions and errors. His path of self-reflection and dialogue among different views are the need of the time, to find deliberative ways to resolve conflicts.

This is a revised version of a lecture delivered at the Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinaga on 8 January 2019, and M S University of Baroda on 8 March 2019. I thank Rajeev Bhargava for his comments on the earlier draft of the paper.

Gandhi’s search for truth with constant self-introspection led him to admit his own misconceptions and errors. His path of self-reflection and dialogue among different views are the need of the time, to find deliberative ways to resolve conflicts.

One’s lifeworld is constituted of a consciously or unconsciously imbibed value system about oneself as well as others through socialisation. It is “the reservoir of implicitly known traditions, the background assumptions that are embedded in language and culture and drawn upon by individuals in everyday life” (Cohen and Arato 1992: 427). It is also the source of definitions of the situation; and is the repository of the interpretive work of social thinkers as well as of past generations. Reflective thinking begins with the availability of different kinds of experiences, cognitive know­ledge, and interactions with people of different lifeworlds and world views. This provides a possibility to reflect on one’s lifeworld assumptions, categories, value system, and also cognitive dissonance. In the process of reflective critical thinking, one begins interrogating one’s own lifeworld, gets engaged into dialogue with one’s own self and others, including ideologically holding opposite positions on perception and interpretation of rea­lity (present and historical) and normative values. This enables one to be free from dogmatism and get engaged in a search for alternative explanations of a phenomenon, moral principles, and values underpinning one’s vision for society and its transformation for common good (Habermas 1984).

M K Gandhi was primarily a man of praxis. He had gradually developed a vision for an ideal non-exploitative society with an individual autonomy embedded in moral principles. Self-introspection in his own lifeworld coupled with reflective thinking based on his experiences and dialogue with himself as well as others had been Gandhi’s path to search for the Truth to deal with unfolding contradictions emerging in a social process (Juergensmeyer 2003). He noted that atma-darshan (self-reflection) was a motivating force for his involvement in public activities in South Africa in the early 1890s. His interaction with Christian missionaries and reading of Leo ­Tolstoy and John Ruskin’s books opened a vista to the notion of universal love (Gandhi 1927: 146–47).

His experiments on his own self were his path to discover Truth. He believed that “Caged as we all are in our own exclusive pride of limited truths.” In the last paragraph of his autobiography, My ­Experiments with Truth, a self-narrative of experiments (self-searching) with truth, he observed,

Ever since my return to India I have had experiences of the dormant passions lying hidden with me. The knowledge of them has made me feel humiliated though not defeated. The experiences and experiments have sustained me. (Gandhi 1927: 464)

In its preface, he underlined,

I claim nothing (more for the experiments) than does a scientist who, though he concludes his experiment with the utmost accuracy, forethought, and minuteness, never claims any finality about his conclusion, but keeps an open mind regarding them … I am far from claiming any finality or infallibility about my conclusion. (Gandhi 1927: 2; emphasis added)

He was constantly interrogating himself and believed that inward growth was unending even (as a believer of the soul) “with the dissolution of his body” (CWMG, Vol 61, p 24). He declined to be a slave to precedents or practice which he could not “understand or defend on a moral basis” (CWMG, Vol 23, p 467). With such spirit, he often admitted his mistakes and modified views and subsequent actions.

Gandhi’s early lifeworld was shaped through his socialisation in the upper-caste milieu in mid-19th-century Saurashtra. He belonged to a savarna (upper caste) trading community. His father was a Dewan (chief minister) to princely states. Most of his jati members were ­following the Vaishnava sect. His mother, besides following Vaishnava rituals, was also following the Paranmi sect which has a ­synergetic belief system of Hindu bhakti and Islam Sufi traditions. Jain monks who were often visiting the family also had an impact on him. His family ethos and school education shaped his religious sensitivity and moral values. He was an obedient child, carrying out the orders of the elders, “not to scan their actions” (Gandhi 1927: 6). Popular stories with moral messages—to speak and stand for Truth, be compassionate, be magnanimous, be repentant for mistakes, etc—deeply influenced the young mind. He tried these moral lessons by putting them into practice in everyday life. During his childhood, he introspected ­several times about his actions, admitted blunders, repented for wrong action and tried to improve his behaviour. In his autobiography, he writes, “one thing took deep root in me—the conviction that morality is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all ­morality” (Gandhi 1927: 29). At a later stage, he reformulated “God is the Truth” as “Truth is God.” His search for truth was both cognitive as fact/reality perceived by himself as well as intuitive as inner voice and experimental in relation to social ethics (Puri 2015: 98).

Civilisation and Indian Society

During his early ideological formations of the first three decades—the late 19th century—two important public discourses were prominent on the nature of Indian society. This discourse had idea­list (that is, primacy to the idea) framework for social analysis, in which culture was the determinant category. One of the discourses was on the hierarchical caste-based
social order imposing civil and economic restrictions on lower castes. This was protested by several non-Brahmin and a few Brahmin saints. The Bhakti movement preached the idea of equality before god. In fact, a few saints like Narshinh Mehta in Gujarat were not only against the discriminatory practice, but also intermingled themselves with the communities which were considered as “untouchables.” This milieu made a deep impression on young Gandhi. But, it seems he was not familiar with the anti-Brahmin social movement against the caste system that was prominent in some parts of the country.1

During Gandhi’s formative age, there was another discourse. It was on Indian civilisation in the context of classification of human society in the categories of civilisation. This discourse was initiated by Western intellectuals. It was ­essentially an Occidental concept placing Western society of the post-Enlightenment as ­superior to earlier societies or “more primitive” contemporary ones in other parts of the world (Elias 1994: 5). Some administrators and Christian missionaries working in India imagined Indian society to be static and advocated its change. There was a widely prevalent notion among this elite (including self-styled modernist Indians) that it was the white man’s burden to civilise, that is, modernise the Indian natives. Western indologists of that period conceptualised the Indian subcontinent as Hindu civilisation. Some of them and Brahmin elite social reformers projected golden days of Vedic India with its pristine beauty of village society. They romanticised ancient Indian culture.

Gandhi inhaled such Brahminical discourse from his childhood and that had become the core content of his lifeworld. A section of the first generation of Western-educated upper-caste Gujaratis—­social reformers and littérateurs—were a carrier of the discourse. Like others, Gandhi from his young age believed that Indian civilisation was unique: “the civi­lisation that India has evolved is not to be beaten in the world” (190939: 60). He believed that not only such culture existed during the golden Vedic period, but it could also be recreated in the present era if each individual becomes morally upright and ethical.

When he went to South Africa in 1893, at the age of 23 to serve as a legal counsel to an Indian merchant, like other Indians he was embedded with his lifeworld with a stereotyped mind about the local natives—Habshi as Kaffirs, “savages” or coolies. At that time, he was not a freedom fighter, but a faithful British subject. Having been influenced by European Indologists who placed Africans at the bottom of the hierarchy, Gandhi spoke of the native inhabitants of Africa in patronising and even pejorative language (Markovits 2014). However, his views changed as he experienced humiliating discrimination by white Europeans. He first began to grapple with the notion of self-respect and later equality. In the process, his views on Africans had undergone changes. In 1939, he asserted that Africans, as well as ­Indians, needed to be placed on an absolutely equal footing with Europeans. He pleaded for the unity of all the exploited races of the earth (CWMG, Vol 90, 366).

Gandhi also had undergone a change in his views on Western civilisation. Earlier in Hind Swaraj (1909), he asserted that Indians have “nothing to learn from anybody else.” Later, he confessed that “I have learned a lot from the West” (Parel 1997: 67). In 1936, he compared London to our Mecca or Kashi. However, the grip of cultural essentialism dominated his worldview throughout his life (Shah 2013). His imagination of Indian civilisation was essentially Brahminical as conceived by European and Indian Indologists. It was largely manifested in his notion of Indian “tradition” embedded in the Varna and caste system. He believed in the Varna system as an ideal social order (Gandhi 1945: 52). “Varna thus conceived is no man-made institution but the law of life universally governing the human family … Varna reveals the law of one’s being and thus the duty one has to perform, it confers no right …” (Gandhi 1962: 7). In his opinion, “Varnashrama, as I interpret it, satisfies the religious, social and economic needs of a community (Gandhi 1962: 13–36).” At the same time, he did not endorse scriptures or Puranas as the authority. In fact, he marginalised “the Sastras and deprived them of their religious and moral aut­hority” (Parekh 1997).

When he encountered the ground reality on caste and discrimination, he was often uncomfortable to deal with the situation. Till the 1910s, he did not consider inter-caste marriage and dining “essential for the promotion of the spirit of democracy” (CWMG, Vol 22, p 68). In 1924, his views slightly relaxed on the matter of inter-caste marriage because of the rising number of inter-caste marriages. He observed that “this reform cannot be stopped now” (Gandhi 1954: 116). In 1931, he granted inter-dining and inter-marrying relation between “Harijan” and caste Hindus. Later, he pleaded for breaking the barriers of caste and religion for social relationship (CWMG, Vol 66, p 9). In 1946, he encouraged upper-caste youths to marry “Harijan girls.” At the same time, he could not overcome from his faith in the Varna system. He accepted that “we have not witnessed the Varna System practicing equality, but it might be there during the Satyug (Era of truth) of Hindu religion” (Gandhi 1945: 51). He was not sure when “we shall be able to revive true Varnadharma” (Gandhi 1962: 26). Such a dilemma indi­ates tensions between his faith in the traditional cultural imaginary of society free from social discrimination and the prevailing unjust social milieu. Despite his immense compassion and concern for upliftment of Dalits, he was unable to see the caste system from below, perpetuating Brahminical hegemony.2 Emancipation of Dalits did not become his socio-political agenda. Hence, he failed to see caste discrimination as the core ingredient of the hierarchical system embedded in the ideology that received legitimacy from religious practices, norms and ­social customs coupled with political economy. This could be a reason that even in 1946 he was not supportive of Dalits who were demanding rights. He advised them to do their duties, and rights would follow. He asked them to be patient, though acknowledged “a limit to one’s patience” (CWMG, Vol 91, p 318).

In the 1930s, he emphasised a change of heart of caste Hindus for their behaviour towards Untouchables. Having realised that despite his efforts, the mindset and behaviour of the majority of Hindus towards untouchables remained unchanged, he asserted that it was the duty of savarna Hindus of the Harijan Sevak Sangh to resort to satyagraha against Hindus to get justice to the Dalits. He also agreed that “Bhangis had [a] right to strike work to get justice” (CWMG, Vol 91, p 54). His support to legal measures against the practice of untouchability resulted in the inclusion of Article 17 in the Constitution (Hardiman 2003: 134). In 1935, he said that “even if the whole body of Hindu opinion were to be against the removal of untouchability, he would still advise a secular legislature like the assembly not to tolerate that attitude” (cited in Nauriya 2003).

Similar changes are found in his views about modern institutions and techno­logy. In 1909, he considered machinery a great sin. He was against railways and telegram. After a decade, he said he was not in favour of destroying railways or against hospitals and law courts. He granted that without a few industries, agriculture was not possible. In 1921, he wrote,

My views in regard to mills have undergone this much change. In view of the present predicament of India, we should produce in our own country all the cloth that we need even by supporting, if necessary, mills in India rather than buy cloth made in Manchester. (CWMG, Vol 31, p 399)

He objected to the “craze” for machinery, not machinery per se. He was against machines which are used to “save labour” when “thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die for starvation. I want to save time and labour, not for a fraction of mankind, but for all. I want the concentration of wealth, not in the hands of the few, but in the hands of all” (Gandhi 1939: 8).


His magnum opus Hind Swaraj is in the form of a dialogue between the editor and the reader. He always invited criticism on his views and actions. While ­replying to his critics he rephrased his views, contextualised them, and occasionally conceded the opposite point of view. In 1909, he had dialogues with V D Savarkar and Shyamji Krishna Varma who were champions for the armed struggle for independence. They differed with Gandhi in their ­imaginary of Hindu religion. Gandhi praised the virtues of pacifist Lord Rama and Savarkar extolled Goddess Durga who eliminates evil (Chopra 2016). Both had “quite opposite” interpretations of Gita and Ramayana (CWMG, Vol 37, p 82). In fact, Savarkar called himself an atheist. Whereas Gandhi was a religious person who called himself a Sanatani Hindu. He respected all religions and did not ­believe in superiority of one religion over other. Gandhi however did not close the doors for dialogue with Savarkar. In 1939, he had gone out of his way to win him over, but failed (CWMG, Vol 76, p 403). Both fundamentally differed in their idea of India. They had a different premise and notion of morality and society. For Gandhi, nationalism was plura­listic, inclusive and universalistic. For Savarkar, it was “racial cohesion” with “common blood of Hindu parentage” that could “dictate terms to the whole world” (Savarkar 1999).

Gandhi had frequent exchanges of views with Rabindranath Tagore on the non-cooperation movement, a boycott of Western education, exclusive advocacy to handicraft and charkha, asceticism, and nationalism. They respected each others’ different positions and were open to continuous dialogue. Gandhi had a dialogue with Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru on economic policy and progra­mmes, and B R Ambedkar on caste and untouchability. Despite his disagreement with Ambedkar, Gandhi put pressure on the Congress leaders to make Ambedkar a member of the constituent assembly, and later a minister in Nehru’s cabinet.

Gandhi being a believer was reluctant to give an interview to Gora (Goparaju Ramachandra Rao), an atheist. However, in the course of the interview, he ­began to appreciate the latter’s perspective and logic. In fact, he conceded, “Though there is a resemblance between your thought and practice and mine ­superficially, I must own that yours is far superior to mine.” He also added,

I can neither say that my theism is right nor your atheism is wrong. We are seekers after truth. We change whenever we find ourselves in the wrong. I changed like that many times in my life. I see you are a worker. You are not a fanatic … There is no harm as long as you are not fanatical. Whether you are in the right or I am in the right, results will prove. Then I may go your way or you may come my way, or both of us may go a third way. So go ahead with your work. I will help you, though your method is against mine. (Gora 1951: 34)

And, during the communal violence on the eve of independence, while feeling helpless in his efforts in pacifying fanatic mobs, Gandhi wished that the communities turned atheist if that would serve to stop communal hatred and riots (Gora 1951).

Nehru was not in agreement with Gandhi on his ideology of primacy to ­village economy, small technology, and anti-modernity, that is, modern science and rationality. As early as in 1928, Gandhi wrote to Nehru that “the differences between you and me appear to be so vast and radical that there seems to be no meeting ground between us” (CWMG, Vol 35, pp 469–70). Though differences on economic policies were not sorted out, Gandhi promoted Nehru as the Congress president in 1928. Later, both were the co-authors in drafting Congress resolutions in the Karachi session in 1931 on fundamental rights, economic policies, including related to industries, etc (Tendulkar 1951: 120–24). It is, however, a puzzle for me as to why Gandhi did not then emphasise his idea of decentra­lisation and self-sufficient village eco­nomy a part of economic policy while preparing the resolutions. Later, however, Gandhi declared Nehru his political heir and chose him as the Prime Minister of independent India. On the eve of independence, however, he wrote a letter to Nehru, reminding him about his idea of India’s development expressed in his Hind Swaraj. At the same time, he added and emphasised that he was not opposed to modern knowledge and technology. He wrote:

I can think of many things which will be produced on a large scale. Maybe there will be railways, so also post and telegraph offices. What there will be and what not, I have no idea. Nor do I care.

By that time, Gandhi was in favour of the state’s initiative in restructuring the society and economy; land reform, etc. He reformulated his vision of his village with an industry where “Men and women will live freely and be ready to face the entire world. The village will not know cholera, plague or smallpox. No one will live indolently, or luxuriously” (cited in Sudhir 2013: 45–56). Nehru failed to read Hind Swaraj with Gandhi’s new eye. He wondered how to attain a “self-sufficiency of food, clothing, housing, education, sanitation, etc.” He felt that the picture of village society portrayed in Hind Swaraj was completely unreal. Nehru added, “In your writings and speeches since then I have found much that seemed to me an advance on that old position and appreciation of modern trends” (cited in Parel 1997: 153). He granted that Gandhi was right “in saying that the world, or a large part of it, appears to be bent on committing suicide. That may be inevitable development of an evil seed in civilization that has grown. I think it is so. How to get rid of this evil, and yet how to keep the good in the present as in the past is our problem. Obviously, there is good too in the present” (Parel 1997: 152; emphasis added). Nehru also reminded that the Congress had never considered and adopted the picture of village society drawn in Hind Swaraj. And, Gandhi never asked it to adopt it except certain relatively minor aspects of it. It may be noted that the ­Report of the Economic Programme Committee largely authored by J C Kumarappa (Gandhian economist) and Nehru, was approved by Gandhi in January 1948 ­before his death. It worked out “fuzzy compromises,” a synthesis between large and cottage industries (Lindley 2007: 48).

Moral Principles: Creed and Policy

Gandhi imbibed some of the moral principles from his socialisation, and some he gradually evolved in course of his public life. The most significant is that he himself-practiced steadfastly what he prea­ched. Though he persuaded and exh­orted, he did not believe in the imposition of moral principles on others. Acc­ording to him, these principles needed to be cultivated by one’s conviction. He asked everyone to follow one’s inner voice. His position on moral principles was far from moral smugness. Bindu Puri rightly argues that “Gandhi believed that it is a part of the conception of a ­human moral conviction that it must admit of exceptions in order to count as ‘moral’” (2015: 92). Ahimsa has been the central principles that he championed in public life, which included not only non-injury to others but also “humility, ego-lessness and a love of all dissenting others” (Puri 2015: 121). It was not without exception. Gandhi allo­wed the killing of an ailing calf to prevent further suffering. He once said that “taking a life may be duty … Even manslaughter may be necessary in certain cases. Suppose a man runs amuck and goes furiously about a sword in hand, and killing anyone that comes his way, and no one dares to capture him alive. Anyone who dispatches this lunatic will earn the gratitude of the community and be regarded as a bene­volent man” (cited in Puri 2015: 91).

Gandhi’s concept of non-violent resistance against injustice evolved gradually from experiences. In the very first incident of public humiliation by a white man on a train journey from Durban to Pretoria in Africa, he found himself phy­si­cally unable to counter the white man, he registered his protest silently. Later, he launched a passive resistance campaign against racial discrimination in general and the Asiatic Registration Bill of 1906, limiting the rights of Indians (Gandhi 2007 [1925]). He then articulated passive resistance as a moral prin­ciple of non-violence extended to Satyagraha.3 He worked out techniques and theorised different components of Satyagraha including disciplinary rules for the participants (Satyagrahis). And, he did not hesitate to withdraw the civil disobedience movement in 1922 because of mob violence in Chauri Chora.

But, in 1942, he declared that he would not withdraw the Quit India movement even if masses resorted to violence (Thakkar and Mehta 2017: 249). While giving a call for the movement, he appealed to people to observe a non-­violent struggle against the Raj. At the same time, he clarified that “I want you (people) to adopt ahimsa as a matter of policy. With me, it is a creed” (cited in Thakkar and Mehta: 214). He declared that “Congress would certainly observe non-violence during the struggle (1942), but others were not bound by the rule” (Thakkar and Mehta 2017). A difference between creed for him and policy for collective (organisations) is important. The latter implies a strategy considering one’s strength including an individual’s conviction, sense of discipline for adhering to rules and orientation. Gandhi was increasingly realising that individual conviction for ahimsa called for a long process. In fact, on the eve of independence during communal riots, he ­expressed his anguish that “now after 32 years, my eyes have been opened. I can see that what passed for Ahimsa for all these years was not Ahimsa; rather it was passive resistance. Passive resistance is employed by one who is without a wea­pon. We are non-violent on account of our helplessness, but our hearts were filled with violence. Now British are withdra­wing, we are expanding that violence by fighting among each other” (cited in Sudhir 2016: 35). He was feeling helpless.

He sacrificed his life for his moral principles. His anguish and helplessness on the eve of independence do not make ahimsa irrelevant. In fact, it is sine quo non as a moral principle or policy for sustainable common good. Violence only breeds violence, suspicion, intolerance to dissent and hatred leading to the self-destruction of all. Several thousand Hindus and Muslims were killed by each other during the 1946–47 communal clashes in several parts of the subcontinent. And, this has continued in the last seven decades at the cost of hum­anity, endangering democratic values.

Notwithstanding such a pessimistic scenario leading to self-destruction and perpetual disquiet in society, the significance of ahimsa as a moral principle and policy for the common good and ­humane society has been accepted by sane individuals and social groups everywhere. Gandhian practice in the form of satyagraha had contributed to mass awakening for India’s independence. Satyagraha as an innovative system of collective struggles in the form of passive resistance has been increasingly followed not only in India but also in many parts of the world to fight against injustice, for human rights and also to pressurise the state for the protection of individual freedom. Such non-violent passive resistance struggles involve the participation of the affected people in a large number and in process the participants develop enduring consciousness for self-dignity, rights, and justice for all. The proportion of non-violent struggles for attai­ning their objectives, as empirical studies show, is significantly large (Chenoweth and Stephan 2011; Hardiman 2014). Such a method enlarges the scope for dialogue and sustenance for an open society.

In Conclusion

Gandhi’s search for truth with constant atma-darshan led him to admit his own misconceptions and errors. Notwithstanding, he could not overcome his savarna ­hegemonic mindset, which is indeed difficult for a human being. That might be a reason that he could not interrogate and reinterpret his idea of a glorified ancient civilisation and Indian tradition. During his lifetime and later he could not prevent the overpowering of his reading of Ramayana and Gita by a militant version of Rama and Hinduism.

Notwithstanding, Gandhi’s path of self-reflection and dialogue among different views are the need of the time, more so in deliberative democratic societies to find ways to resolve conflicts. In that search, we (students of social sciences committed to an open egalitarian social order) need to ask ourselves, as Gandhi would have done: Where have we gone wrong in our conceptualisation, approach and analysis in comprehending a changing social reality? With this open mind, considering that there is no ultimate Truth, we need to interrogate our own lifeworld, received categories and app­roaches to address the contemporary challenges that human civilisation is facing to build a better social order (Amin 1989; Guru 2002; Connel 2007; Shah 2015).


1 This was not even cursorily referred to as news not to speak of comment in Gujarati journals published in the 19th century. In fact many of them were advocating reforms in various fields.

2 There are no references in his autobiography and biographies written by others on the non-Brahminical discourse and the struggles of the 19th century. However, we find that in the 1920s, he was critical of the non-Brahmin movement in South India and admonished non-Brahmins for attempting to “rise upon the ashes of Brahmanism” (Vol 23, p 19).

3 In 1908, he coined the term Satyagraha, equivalent for “passive resistance” (CWMG, p 80).


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Updated On : 10th May, 2020
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