The Religion of Gandhi: A Conversation About Satyagraha With Ajay Skaria

Ajay Skaria talks about his new book, Unconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance

Mahatma Gandhi. Credit: Philippe Davisseau/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Mahatma Gandhi. Credit: Philippe Davisseau/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Ajay Skaria, faculty member at the University of Minnesota, one of the co-editors of Subaltern Studies Vol. XII and author of Hybrid Histories: Forests, Frontiers and Wildness in Western India (1999), spoke to The Wire about his new book, Unconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance. The book examines Mahatma Gandhi’s critique of the liberal ideas of freedom and equality and his own practice of a freedom and equality organised around religion. Excerpts:


Ajay Skaria
Unconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance
University of Minnesota Press, 2016

It is rare to speak of “religion” in the political domain these days and you mention your own difficulties in breaking out of the secular mould to read Gandhi in this light. Could you explain?

I must confess that like most others who had come of intellectual age as part of the Indian left, I was for long suspicious of Gandhi because of his overt religiosity. Certainly, if you had asked me as late as 2000, whether there was any chance that I would work on Gandhi, I would have emphatically said “no.” And I would have said so partially because both as a college student and later in my work in Adivasi regions, I often encountered too many Gandhians running ashrams that effectively practiced an upper caste Hinduism. Even now, to my mind, his Hinduism as a social phenomenon likely enabled the later rise of Hindutva.

I was drawn into Gandhi’s writings completely by accident. In 2000, I was teaching the English Hind Swaraj in an undergraduate class and a passage from it intrigued me. Since I happened to have the Gujarati text close at hand (I had in fact just bought it during my trip earlier that year to Ahmedabad since the person I was then working with, Indulal Yagnik, was first an associate and then a critic of Gandhi), I consulted it. There was considerable divergence between the Gujarati and English. As I read more, I realised that the divergences were quite frequent. It became increasingly clear to me that Gandhi’s writing was doing something quite different from what he may have intended it to do.

Gandhi is one of the most tenacious thinkers of dharma or “religion.” But it is the fate of all thinkers of the new that their context and the very working of language obscures their newness even from themselves. So it is with Gandhi. What I try and do in my book is elicit both what Gandhi thinks and what he cannot think. Sometimes doing the latter requires bringing out how Gandhi’s explicit arguments come undone in his own writing. This undoing is not my interpretation of Gandhi, nor is it a criticism.

I have found Gandhi’s religion in this other sense increasingly unsettling and thought-provoking. Gandhi describes satyagraha as the religion that stays in all religions. He says there can be no politics without religion. He describes “modern civilisation” as adharm, irreligion. But what is this religion? Most evidently, it articulates a profoundly conservative politics. On closer attention to the fissures and divergences, however, it is clear that Gandhi’s writing also offers, often against his explicit intentions, maybe even against his desires (unlike intentions, one is not in control of one’s desires), a far-reaching critique of liberal secularism and liberal equality; it potentially offers us some terms for thinking about the equality of all being.

You mention how Gandhi emphasised that the British themselves were trapped by modernity and that we must be free of both the British and Britishisms, such as parliament. How coherent was this thought? What alternative forms of governance did Gandhi realistically expect to work?

This is not a coherent thought. When we are engaged in the task of interpretation, we are often trying to tease out a coherent argument from a text. But when as in this book we are attending to arguments that Gandhi may even explicitly oppose but that nevertheless emerge from his writing, this question of coherence is not as important. What we are attending to instead is the moment of danger when the coherence of the text may be undone. If we attend to Gandhi’s writing in this spirit, then we could say that one most unsettling (again, notice, not most evident) trope is the way it questions the equality of ‘modern civilisation’, of what we are today likely to identify as liberal equality.

Gandhi is deeply disturbed by this liberal equality, describing it as an ‘equality of sword’. As that phrase indicates, he senses that liberal equality is based on domination. And one can sense how. As I have argued in the book and elsewhere, first, this order grants equality only to those beings presumed to possess the power to reason and measure, and in this way systematises domination over all other beings — equality can only be between humans. And because the line between the human and the animal passes through humans, this equality also requires domination over other humans — there are those humans who are presumed to be not quite human, such as women, slaves, the colonised or in our times terrorists and anti-nationals. Second, autonomous beings inflict a massive violence on themselves, for they lose the power to love, which in Gandhi’s writings requires the surrender of autonomy and even sovereignty (it is because of this loss that in Gandhi’s writing the English deserve ‘pity’). In both these ways, autonomy institutes a rule of the major, even an equality of the major. Here, freedom and equality is possible only through domination over the minor. What is lost is the possibility of an exit from subalternity that does not participate in domination or majority. It is in part because of these hierarchies that Gandhi can describe “modern civilisation” as adharm or irreligion, that the editor in Hind Swaraj describes parliaments as ‘emblems of slavery’.

The alternative to the equality of measure for him is satyagraha. But he is acutely aware that satyagraha is not an alternative form of governance. Satyagraha instead requires abandoning sovereignty or governance over both others and oneself. So satyagraha is not an institutional or governmental alternative to the equality of measure. This is why even as he criticises parliaments, he retains a strong taste for parliamentary democracy. As the leader of the Congress, he is constantly demanding parliamentary representation; it may also be partially why perhaps he affirms Nehru over Bose or Patel.


There is an anecdote which I have discussed in one of my essays that illustrates this point very well: Somewhere in the 1920s, one of Gandhi’s associates writes to him, reporting a theft in his house. In keeping with what Gandhi argued for, the associate writes, he had not registered a case with the police. But he still felt angry at the thief. Gandhi responds by arguing that if the associate was resentful of the theft, then it was his duty to report it to the police; he should refrain from registering a complaint, Gandhi adds, only if he could forgive or practice satyagraha against the thief. In other words, if the satyagrahi cannot abandon the desire for police action against the thief, then the satygrahi should by all means seek it. The point is to relinquish rather than master the desire for state action against the thief. In a similar vein, satyagrahis can discipline themselves so that they are more capable of relinquishing the desire for mastery, measure or parliament. But they cannot choose to relinquish that desire; rather, the relinquishment must seize them. This is perhaps also one sense in which Gandhi often says that he does not choose to do satyagraha, that the compulsion to satyagraha seizes him.

Why do you describe his political philosophy as a religion?

It is Gandhi who describes his politics as a religion, who insists repeatedly that there can be no politics without religion. All I am trying to do is figure out what this religious politics entailed and entails. From the perspective of the liberal secularism that is our common sense, Gandhi’s assertions seem downright dangerous. Liberal traditions, because they privilege autonomy, necessarily regard religion with some suspicion. From their perspective, religion is constituted by affect or faith. And to be religious in the public sphere is to be unfree, for it is to function by laws that one has not given oneself.

This is not, of course, to say that liberal traditions dismiss religion. Rather, they institute some version of the distinction between political society or the public sphere and civil society or the private sphere. Here, the public sphere is where the ‘rights of citizen’ are exercised and the private sphere is where the ‘rights of man’ or what we today call human rights (the private individual’s rights) are exercised. This is not only a freedom from religion in the public sphere; it is also a freedom for religion in the private sphere, which is why religion becomes a private matter. And the secularism that is created in the process could be described as a theological secularism: now secularism provides the highest values in the immanent world.

There have been some very powerful secular critiques of liberal secularism. This for example is what the young Marx offers in On the Jewish Question. He points out that even though the two spheres are supposed to be distinct, with political society dominating civil society, actually things are the other way round and civil society dominates political society. In other words, the secular state is the ‘perfected Christian state’. As I have argued elsewhere, this does not mean that the state surreptitiously preserves some Christian values, or even that it embodies a secular version of Christian values — not at all. That kind of Hegelian argument, which is still surprisingly widespread amongst scholars, is what the young Marx is criticising. For Marx, the secular state is the perfected Christian state in a profoundly ironical sense. What the young Marx is arguing is that Christianity — and religion more broadly — is marked by man’s alienation from his “species being” and this alienation is perfected by the liberal and secular state. Marx thus has a critique simultaneously of religion and liberal secularism. We have usually picked up his critique of the former, but glossed over his critique of the latter. (This may be partially because Marx himself does not follow through on his critique of the latter, but that is a different issue).

But Gandhi is not offering a secular critique. He is instead insisting on a religious critique. And with this, we are on unfamiliar ground. To engage with it, we must begin with the question: what is religion in Gandhi’s writing (notice that I do not say ‘for Gandhi’). I think we must remember that Gandhi writes after the death of god — that is to say, after secularism has emerged in the world as a force that must be confronted. And what is striking about Gandhi’s writing is the way it stages that confrontation.

Doesn’t this ask us to reframe what the term “religion” itself is?

Yes, what Gandhi does is indeed a reframing of religion. I would only add: here, reframing is also a return: he is returning to what is central to the ‘concept’ of religion. JacquesDerrida offers in one of his essays a beautiful “pre-definition” of religion: “it is always a response that is prescribed, not chosen freely… There is no doubt that it implies freedom, will and responsibility, but let us try to think this: will and freedom without autonomy.” I like the caution of this word “pre-definition”. I take it that while a definition would identify the formal contours of the object being defined, a pre-definition describes the opening within which these contours are unfolded. And I like the pre-definition too. It avoids the usual secular conceit — shared for example by Marx — which sees religion as a realm of unfreedom. Rather, there is here a freedom where one does not give oneself one’s laws (as one does in autonomy, the freedom of citizens). You can sense why Derrida prefaces his pre-definition by saying, “let us try to think this”. It is indeed difficult to think: how can one be free if one is following laws prescribed by another, laws that one cannot claim to have assented to freely and rationally (as we are broadly presumed to have in a liberal democracy, though again Marx reminds us that we are doing nothing of that sort)?

If on this question Gandhi is so compelling to think with, then that is because his writing reactivates an old distinction — that between theology and mysticism. You find both these traditions ‘in’ almost all the religions (in Hinduism, for example, in the contrast between wandering mendicants and the priesthood of the stable caste order): doctrines and institutions are organised around theologies, whereas mysticism recoils from such groundings and founding — seeking god, it encounters the abyss, it keeps missing god. (Of course, one can say mysticism only in a non-historical sense: the moment we look at anything as a historical phenomenon, we shall find social integuments that necessarily constitute every historical mysticism. Nor even would one ever find a pure mysticism — historically, mysticism and theology are always entangled phenomena. My point is only that mysticism as a ‘concept’ has an agonistic relation with its integuments, its social locus.) Gandhi’s writing — once again, not always Gandhi in his explicit pronouncements — activates and intensifies religion in this mystical sense.

Second, and this is what is strikingly new about Gandhi, his is a political mysticism. That is to say, unlike many mystical traditions, which are concerned with a freedom that requires shedding social bonds, Gandhi’s mysticism involves a freedom in society. This is what brings it so forcefully in conversation with liberal secularism, with autonomous or republican democracy, which too is concerned with freedom in society. But where liberal secularism organises its freedom around an equality of measure, Gandhi’s writing (though not his explicit formulations) offers a freedom organised around unconditional equality.

A key part of your descriptor of Gandhi’s “religion” is his idea of immanence, of god being a living force in the world. How does Gandhi resurrect god after Nietzsche’s eloquent burial of him?

Nietzsche’s eloquent burial, as you so nicely put it, is of the theological god — of the god who would be sovereign over us, of the god embodied in various institutions. And he does not only bury the god that we usually associate with religion. As Heidegger says, when Nietzsche says ‘God is dead’, this also signals the death of the suprasensory world — of that world of ideas and ideals which has been taken in so many traditions, including those in the South Asian subcontinent, to be more true and real than the changeable and sensory world. After the death of the suprasensory world, there can no longer be a straightforward assertion of ‘higher values’ such as those involved in humanism or what I have been calling theological secularism. This is why, Heidegger says, for Nietzsche now “nihilism, ‘the most uncanny of all guests’ is standing at the door”. Nihilism: this word signals, in an entirely different register, the critique we saw the young Marx making — that the higher values presumed to be embodied in political society are constantly suborned dominated by the values of civil society, of ‘egoistic man’.

But Gandhi is concerned with a mystical god, not a theological god. And though he invokes god all the time, Gandhi inhabits a world after the death of god. To begin with, he finds it difficult to affirm a ‘kinglike’ or sovereign god. Instead, he says repeatedly, that satya (truth) is god. And this satya itself is not sovereign or kinglike — it cannot command everybody’s loyalty. Rather, satya is a matter of faith — one knows satya only through bhakti (devotion). This emphasis on bhakti implies that now satya is only one’s own satya and there is a plurality of satya. As he wrestles with the question of how to demand justice where there is a plurality of satya, he comes to his formulations about ahimsa and satyagraha.

Your reference is to “equality”, but much of Gandhi’s thought also focussed on propriety, you call him a “radical conservative”. And although this evolved – you mention how his words went from “Kaffir” to “Zulu” – it continued to be a problem in his imagination of the caste system, as did his inability to imagine those out of their “proper” places, such as prostitutes.

I would rather say: how to think about equality and propriety together is among the questions that Gandhi poses for us. Questions of the swa or the proper or the “ownmost” are crucial to Gandhi. Just think of so many of the words that matter to him — swaraj, swadeshi, swadharma or swabhav. His critique of ‘modern civilisation’ brings him to this emphasis on the proper. For him, even in his explicit formulations, the fundamental violence of ‘modern civilisation’ is that it knows no limits, that it breaches limits and makes finite beings infinite. Indeed, becoming infinite through measure — specifically, the citizenly measure condensed in autonomous reason — is the violence distinctive to modern civilisation. To this, Gandhi contrasts ‘true civilisation’, which is organised around self-limitation.

In the book and elsewhere, I describe Gandhi’s religion as a radical conservatism. Here, radical does not refer to left or right. Rather, I wish to recall the etymology of radical — that which goes to the roots, whether to uproot or reroot. Gandhi is drawn to conservatism perhaps because it offers the most powerful way (I sometimes fear the only way) of questioning ‘modern civilisation.’ But he seeks to conserve something strange — faith without ground or equality without conditions. These are not substantive values of the sort that conservatism usually affirms. In order to conserve unconditional equality, for example, it would be necessary to destroy caste, as also gender hierarchies. There is thus a tension, even dare one say an aporia, in Gandhi’s writing between the conservatism that he must start from and the equality or faith he must conserve.

It is perhaps because of this aporia that there is a fundamental and even undecidable instability in Gandhi’s politics, that there are two radical conservatisms rather than one. On the one side, very often the conservatism that he starts out from makes it impossible for him to think unconditional equality. You can find many symptoms of this all over — his remarks on varnadharma, the very concept of Harijan and the way that he is unable to consider the possibility that prostitutes of Barisal can offer satyagraha. For example, when Gandhi defends varnadharma, he does not do so by providing a functionalist account of it as a division of labour (of which defence Ambedkar acerbically remarks that caste is a division of labourers, not labour). Rather, for him, varnadharma names the idea that people limit themselves to their caste and its associated obligations, and that such self-limitation allows them to focus on what is really important — their spiritual well-being. Going by this argument, the inequality between castes is a later accretion and can be taken away so that varnadharma is left in its purity. This conservatism is radical in the sense that it pushes conservatism much further than ever before; but the proper remains sovereign in this new conservatism. Not only that, the sovereignty of varnadharma might even be strengthened since its propriety can now be maintained with a clear conscience.

On the other side, there are those moments, rarer but nevertheless often destabilising or even breaking through into his explicit pronouncements, where conservative sovereignty is destroyed by the emphasis on a faith without ground and an equality without conditions. Here, satyagrahis practice the impropriety proper to unconditional equality. Much of the book is devoted to teasing out this second ‘form’ of radical conservatism.

All that is perhaps everywhere visible is only the first radical conservatism. Does he ever practice conservatism in the second sense? The problem with this question is that it is impossible to answer. If conservatism in the second sense has ever been practiced, it belongs to its nature that it has been practiced unknowably and invisibly, not least of all from the practitioner. Which does not mean without power.

Like the death of religion, there has also been a death of the state – in that those who had faith that modernity would lead to a more moral life seem to be confounded by the amorality, even immorality, of states. Does Gandhi’s philosophy allow us out of this trap?

There has indeed been the death of the ideal of the state — whether the communist state or the liberal state. That death may in part be because of the realisation (not of course cast in these terms) that political society or the public sphere is always being undone by civil society in its various forms: capitalism, caste and the theological religions, to name some. The communist solution — the abolition of civil society — led to what Arendt has so powerfully described as totalitarianism. The rise of neoliberalism and the neoliberal state is amongst other things a symptom of this disillusionment with both the socialist and the liberal state.

I do not think Gandhi allows us a way out of this bind — that the state and political society is constantly dominated by civil society. But he does indicate one way, one very compelling way, to responsibly inhabit this bind. In quite a prescient manner, he attacks ‘modern civilisation’. Satyagraha is deeply suspicious of both civil society and political society, and it offers another sociality, another discipline. This sociality does not overcome civil and political society. It remains outside them and seeks to make them more responsible.

Today, how are these thoughts and this approach to philosophy relevant?

I wish I could say that Gandhi’s thinking provides some answers, that now it is only a matter of the political will necessary to follow or implement them. But with the most rigorous thinkers things are never that clear. What we receive from them is not answers but new questions and even more new ways of formulating old questions. And Gandhi’s writing, read carefully, offers many questions to think with.

Most of all, he gives us the question of religion as political mysticism. Recall: political mysticism (as distinct from political theology) emerges from being struck by the apprehension (but not knowledge) that there is only faith without ground and that proper to such faith is the equality without conditions of all being. To his articulation of this political mysticism Gandhi gave the name satyagraha. Given how deeply the first radical conservatism runs through Gandhi’s writing, perhaps neither that name, satyagraha, nor his articulation of it need necessarily be retained today (though I would worry that any effort to begin anew too quick might end repeating old mistakes in new ways).

Still, I often worry: is political mysticism even relevant at a time like this, when the vicious violence of the BJP threatens to replace the measured equality of theological secularism with Hindutva as a cultural theology? Is posing new questions or reframing one’s questions even a valid concern at a time like this? Should we not simply push for the implementation of — even the will for the implementation of — the answers that we already somewhat know? I am not sure of this, nor am I sure that these two options are opposed to each other. But I also remind myself that satyagraha itself is formulated during British rule, a time likely even more viciously violent than now.

  • Kirti Trivedi

    The first problem arises by translating ‘Dharma’ as ‘Religion’. ‘Order’ is a more accurate translation. Thus ‘Sanatana Dharma’ means ‘Eternal Order’ – the order which exists and will continue to exist and govern the working of the universe. ‘Satyagraha’ is not political mysticism but an ‘Insistence on Truth’. The word ‘Satya’ means ‘That which is’. It may help Skariaji to understand this better if he reads Gandhiji’s ‘Satya hi Ishwar hai’.


    Gandhi thoughts on religion !mostly centered around ‘ varna dharma’ and he proposed the values of ‘sanatana dharma’ as more valuable than the tenets of other religions. His excessive leanings towards Hindu scriptures made him casteist which was the main contention of Ambedkar. Gandhi should have stressed the fact that the dalits empowerment politically and socially is more important than striving for ‘ equality’s when in fact, there is no ground for equality as brahminism has continued domination. Gandhi philosophy has never crossed the fetters of divided Hindu caste system. This was the main disillusionment of Dr. Ambedkar ho had to come out in open criticism. Similarly, Jinnah disposed Gandhi’s overtones of Hindu dominance in politics. Arundhati Roy has clearly brought out the partisan attitude of Gandhi. Thus, Gandhi religious thought was a retro hate step with self- contradictions. His conservative thoughts alienated all other castes and Ambedkar choice of budhism reflects Gandhi’s failure politically and culturally and his efforts of upholding Hindu thought (,different to RSS fanatic ideology) was a disaster.