Gandhi and the Resurrection of Philosophy

In conversations with Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan, the philosopher Raj Ayyar explores the ‘theological anti-politics’ that comes with the conflation of ends and means in ‘Gandhian’ thought.

Often I ask my friends, “Who are the important intellectuals of India?” and the response will be a list of historians, an economist, a politician, and perhaps some journalists, but no philosopher. As a newly independent country, however, India had begun with a kind of philosophical bang by placing Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the great historian of philosophy, as its first vice president and then the president. A role was announced for philosophy in politics through this corrected Platonic gesture of making a philosopher into the titular king. Radhakrishnan himself thought of M. K. Gandhi, “the father of the nation”, as the most important philosopher in modern India.

Gandhi’s grandson Ramachandra Gandhi, who died in 2007, was a rebel in philosophy, trained at Oxford under P. F. Strawson. Ramu Gandhi was a dear friend of mine. He was more a formal philosopher than M.K. Gandhi and wrote excellent works in several areas of philosophy including metaphysics and religion. Yet not many people outside the academia would know Ramu Gandhi.

He and I would wonder together, “What is our relation to philosophy today?” And what is philosophy’s relation to our politics? A recently published philosophy book on M.K. Gandhi wagers the following answer: “Politics is the fight for freedom and freedom is inseparable from the fight for it”.

If one lingers over this statement, it implies that we never stop being in politics, unless it is to surrender our very freedom. The American philosopher Robert Bernasconi (Ramu and Robert had lectured together years ago about philosophy in India) suggested in a lecture that these sentences from the book deserve to be turned into t-shirts. He was rather serious! This book defines philosophy too in a new way—“philosophy is the creation of freedom”. Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics by Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan, is truly an experiment in philosophical thinking and political acts.

For A. N. Whitehead, philosophy is a practice that is born out of wonder at everything, which is a capability available to us at every moment. Philosophers form a community insofar as they share this wonder, and only thus do philosophical traditions transmit their gifts. This sense of wonder allows each instance of certain knowledge to be capable of exploding into entirely new insights. Dwivedi and Mohan have articulated this ever present possibility as “the anastasis of philosophy” in their book. It makes some of the philosophical dogmas explode. For example, they assert that “resistance” is a necessary component of any system of power and does not contribute anything transformative to politics. Their book rejects “violence” as a concept coming out of a confusion between force and value. “Gandhi and Philosophy” is entirely about making these explosive possibilities available to philosophy again, which it had lost during Heidegger’s “End of Philosophy” phase, in postmodernism, and in postcolonial theories.

The danger of philosophy

I have known Divya and Shaj as ‘the hermetic philosophers’ for some time through common friends, and for their acute philosophical commentaries on politics. But we could never find the occasion to sit down and question each other until recently when Shaj came to speak at a conference on philosophy of technology which I had organised with some German academics at IIIT. Then we started conversations on the technologically determined fascisms of these times, and the possible philosophical counters.

Divya Dwivedi. Photo: Shaj Mohan

One of the first things that came up was the confusion between philosophy and spirituality in India and in many parts of the world—“It is as if our jobs are done better by bottled spirits and gurus, but this state of affairs may have to do with the intimidation of the technical aspects of philosophy?” Shaj said, “Mathematicians and physicists are not expected to abandon their abstractions and rigours, but philosophers are asked to keep things very simple. Perhaps because the questions and the struggles of our lives are addressed in the domain of philosophy alone. Unlike the philosopher, the spiritualist is someone who uses authority, and not thought, to provide solutions in these matters”. Their book is committed to the technical rigour of philosophical thinking while being highly creative.

We share an alma mater, St Stephen’s College, where Divya, Shaj and I (their senior by decades, of course) were students as well as taught there in some capacity or the other. Both are outsiders to the intellectual milieu of Delhi. Divya moved to Delhi from Allahabad to study at the university and Shaj came from Trivandrum.

Shaj remembers my lecture on feminism at Stephen’s when he was still a student in 2003 and I had been teaching in the US, although I don’t remember him at all from that time. Divya was even quieter in those days, to my ears, until I learnt later about some of their ‘philosophical antics’ of those days.

I started meeting with them at their home, albeit with little idea that it would end up in my writing this philosophical allegory of sorts. It was primarily to explore the paths through which philosophy can be meaningfully activated in India. But after only a couple of conversations it struck me that there is a story here to tell, of philosophy in India, through these two young philosophers who insistently describe themselves as “based in the subcontinent”.

It is a joy sinking into the living-room space in Divya and Shaj’s apartment, which is a hospitable oasis. There are books spilling out from the shelves on to the tables and chairs, handwritten notes sticking out from books and vases and, an old crystal cigarette case and a green oxidised Japanese ashtray. Everything is minimal like a Zen container of chaos. Our conversations are distinctly cosmic in scope: ranging from their Gandhi book to Process philosophy, the Indian elections, Heidegger, Advaita, Derrida, Nancy, burlesque, Artificial Intelligence, and everything else under the sun. It was a deliberately timeless, lazy, and yet intense exploration over many sessions, sipping beer or coffee or whiskeys.

I ask Divya jokingly, “Is this a proper neighbourhood for philosophy?” She says “it is possible to do philosophy everywhere, in the “aranyaka” (forest), the academy, the “velivada” (since Rohith Vemula’s suicide it is the meaning of “polis” in India), provided philosophy always agitates the polis, or the domain of politics”.

In our conversations we return to the greater question, “What does it mean to be a philosopher in India?” Especially given that since 2013, three people who called themselves “rationalist philosophers” (M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare) were shot dead. Shaj said “if one’s practice is not dangerous for the decadent components of the present it won’t be philosophy. The danger of philosophy comes through the erotic relation with the future, and what can be called ‘the eternal’, which constitutes the being of the philosopher. This danger was known since Socrates, of course”.

For Divya these assassinations were “an assault on the future of this land” and she edited a special issue of the journal, Revue des Femmes Philosophes (2018) published by the UNESCO to bring attention to it.

I ask them “if it is an unsafe profession in India why didn’t you opt to go to western universities in that fashionable ‘exile’?” It would have been rather easy for them to climb the latitudes from out of St. Stephen’s College. Divya says, “We decided together while we were still students to not do just that. It was important to show ourselves that it is possible to do philosophy from out of the subcontinent. And then we have a kind of immobile constitution, Shaj more than me. You on the other hand, Raj, are the itinerant philosopher!”

This gesture of not obtaining any qualifications from western academies might possibly be seen as a kind of commitment to creating an indigenous or ethnic philosophy. I ask them about this ‘risk’ and Divya says, “The notion that one must go to what is called ‘the west’ to become a philosopher is itself based on a kind of parochialism, namely that there is something called ‘western’ about philosophy! Moreover, there is an even worse kind of parochialism in India based on the fiction that all philosophies and sciences have already been created and exhausted here”.

Shaj adds, “There is a tendency in our ‘species’ to look at ourselves from elsewhere. Homer looked at man from Olympus, Nietzsche saw man in the retina of the over-man, and Jacques Monod in the technologies of life-forms from outside the solar system. We are in a trans-planetary age and we have begun looking at the earth through the eyes of machines of our own making. We are already filled with nostalgia for ourselves! In this era, such parochialisms are at best fantasies”.

Gandhi and the ‘state of philosophy’ in India

This, of course, brings us to Gandhi who, alongside Taylor and Heidegger, was alert to the technologisation of the planet itself and strove to create a nation modelled after the villages to resist it. I found it irresistible to ask “why did you choose to write a book on Gandhi if the goal was to practice philosophy from out of India, without parochialisms? You could have written on Heidegger or Kant, or a fat book with the word ‘Being’ in the title?” I had the series led by Heidegger’s “Being and Time” and Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” in mind.

Shaj said, “Gandhi is not parochial at all since he wanted to overwhelm the world with his politics, and in fact he is one of the few globally recognised intellectual figures today”. He hesitated and added “the time for a book with ‘Being’ in the title came to an end with Heidegger in the last century”. Divya had something more to say about the choice of Gandhi—“a thinker who created his own species of thought.

Shaj Mohan. Photo: Divya Dwivedi

Gandhi forms the conceptual horizon of politics in India, and in a sense of all kinds of liberal politics and environment politics around the world. A critical examination of Gandhi was required to see beyond this horizon. At the same time in India the political consensus about the very idea of the nation was formed through his actions including satyagraha, mixing of religion and politics, and resistance to technical advances.

Divya said, “He was one of the participants in the invention of the new religion “Hindu”. He made tactical adjustments to the caste order so that it could function well under a modern state. He was the father of postcolonial politics, preferred around the world to Frantz Fanon. For these very reasons we faced a bit of resistance when we began looking at Gandhi critically while questioning the absence of philosophy in the public space”.

While Shaj and Divya were still students, they organised a conference in 2006 in the Delhi School of Economics on the state of philosophy in India. They had assumed the state to be rather poor, of course correctly. They approached Rabindra Ray of the Department of Sociology for help. Lallu Ray, as he was fondly called, was a poet, a mischievous visionary, also a Stephanian. He passed away this year. I knew Lallu when he had taken the extreme left turn – “joined the movement” – and then he would turn again later, and would go to Oxford University for further studies. Divya said, “Dr Ray’s first reaction was in Hindi ‘bahut buraa anjam hoga, lekin zaroor karna chahiye!’ (the consequences will be terrible, but this surely must be done) and he started adding to the concept note”.

This note, which had previously made its way to me, is more pertinent today than ever. One of the questions it raises is about the freedoms with respect to what is called “the tradition”, whether of Asia, Africa or Europe which we are not allowed to take, and it asks “But, perhaps we allow Europeans a certain freedom which we deny ourselves?” I suggest this note itself should be published. “How did that conference go?” I ask.

Divya lit up, “Imagine a three-day saturnalia in sombre mode! There was participation from international academics, from independent scholars, students, but it left us broke.” It raised critical questions about the thoughtless import of American theory, the quasi-Hindutva potentials of postcolonial theory, the avoidance of philosophy in the media, and the neglect of the discipline by governments. It was met with definite disapproval.

This almost darkly comic story of two students (one could say philosophy activists!) running a conference on “the state of philosophy in India”, and then getting exiled to silence hints at a less discussed truth about the health of our intellectual milieu and academic praxis. We have neglected most humanities disciplines in India, other than history and English literature. Most English departments today practice history by examining the colonial and postcolonial historical weight on the literary works. We fight our politics and conduct our television shouting matches on the basis of historical facts (and even fiction) and the constructions of history. In this exercise history itself has been turned into a caricatured discipline. But this neglect of philosophy and critical thinking has created a public sphere which has become fearful of arguments and reason. It is symptomatic that the Hindu right has invented a new creature in their lab called “intellectual terrorism”.

Breaking down the walls

In the final years of his life Jacques Derrida asked a question “Who is afraid of philosophy?” In Gandhi and Philosophy, Shaj and Divya use the neologism ‘calypsology’ to identify the trait of this phobia. Calypso according to their book means the one who hides. In The Odyssey, Calypso is a woman with magical powers who imprisons Odysseus, the Homeric hero destined to roam the world. Calypsology, then, is the tendency to identify means and ends, which in effect imprisons human freedom. Calypsology, then, is the tendency to conflate means and ends. Calypsology imprisons the human freedom to choose between means and ends

Gandhi certainly insisted on this identity. For example, for him non-violence was both the means and the end. I relished the passages of their book where Gandhi’s experiments to obtain the “zero” sum of this means-ends identity are likened to a burlesque performance. I ask, “Did you have this new culture of fear of the intellect in mind when you constructed this concept, calypsology?”

Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi, Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics. Bloomsbury, 2018.

Divya brought down Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment from the bookshelf, opened a page and smiled, “Here in this text we can see that the present condition of philosophobia is continuous with their criticism of Odysseus, of his freedom with respect to means and ends. There is a moment in The Odyssey where he surrenders this freedom to Calypso and is imprisoned in her island. But our condition today is that of the elevation of the moron; the resentment and hatred of the moron smothering our language; the petrification of all before techno-capitalism; and, at the same time a terror, prevailing across geo-political and religious lines, of the future which is essentially philosophobia. The fear of philosophy is not confined to India, although it is most acute in India”.

Shaj who had been speaking in another corner with the technologist Anish Mohammed was suddenly alert to the word “moron”, and he joined in. “In Sanskrit “mura” means wall, from which comes ‘muri’, meaning a walled area or room. In the book we discuss “immurement”—being held within the wall—as an exercise in calypsology. Mura are those who are afraid of new ways of life, new conditions of sensations, new configurations of Philia and Eros, and new imaginations of politics. The moron leads us to immurement, within the “Mura”; and philosophy’s responsibility is to break down the walls”. Immurement of thought and praxis, mura, moron – what a deliciously satirical connection! Their book has such moments in plenty.

These observations are based on the concept, “hypophysics”, with which their book opens. They took an adjective used just once by Kant, “hypophysical”, to name a hitherto unnamed and unexplored territory in thinking, which is to equate value with nature, “nature = the good”. Deviating from nature is the only evil for hypophysics, and hence for Gandhi according to Divya and Shaj. We can observe this concept everyday in our obsession with ‘natural products’, which is relatively innocent. But hypophysics is also found in the typologies about people from distinct geographical regions and cultures, which is racism.

They show that hypophysics as a concept runs parallel to metaphysics. Metaphysics reduces all things to just one thing. I am afraid I am simplifying too much here. Still a few examples of the kind of metaphysical statements will help: “Everything is god”; “Everything is matter”; “Everything is spirit”. Jean-Luc Nancy, who is arguably the most important philosopher alive today, has remarked that Gandhi and Philosophy shows a path beyond metaphysics and hypophysics, which had been the goal of philosophy since Heidegger and Wittgenstein.

I ask them, “Hypophysics, or the perception of the good in nature alone, is closely linked to calypsology which confines oneself in effect to a kind of nature. You have suggested a criticism of Gandhi’s relation to caste through these concepts, which is very different from the other critics. Could we go a bit more into it?”

Shaj said, “If what is called ‘the ends’ are deployed in order to reproduce ‘the means’ or the conditions, and vice versa, we have something like a calypsology of caste”. Divya joined in, “Caste is the primary functional isolation of a person’s body into either “touchable” or “untouchable”.

Functional isolation is a new concept from “Gandhi and Philosophy”. It explains the freedom inherent in things. For example, the hand can perform many functions such as gripping, sewing, writing, and typing. The eye can perform only one function, that of seeing. But what is important is that functionally isolating the hand for a while allows us to write. This applies to groups of people too. A group of people functionally isolated to fight is an army, to play is a football team.

Divya continued, “Then, there are specific functional isolations such as caste-based labour—carpenter, manual scavenger, tradesmen—which one inherits. The caste system’s task is to reproduce itself faithfully through anti-miscegenation laws and other functional isolations. Then, caste as the means reproduces caste as the end. Gandhi was faithful to this interpretation of caste as the self-reproduction of the social order and he thought this was the essence of what was by then called the ‘Hindu’ religion, and India”. She paused and added,This is calypsology as the end of politics”.

There are now two dominant philosophical styles coming out of the recently crafted traditions – analytical philosophy and continental philosophy. Their book Gandhi and Philosophy sits outside these two styles while keeping some elements of both. The highly argumentative and formalistic style of analytic philosophy is joined perfectly with the intuitive and exegetical style of continental philosophy by Divya and Shaj. For these and other reasons, Robert Bernasconi commented that the authors are re-inventing philosophical language. But my question is something else, “You have created a new voice in philosophy, but one can’t help hear in it the voice of prophesy”.

“The earlier meaning of prophesy was to speak before things became apparent, that is, the prophet is the pre-apparition,” Shaj replied. “The prophet spoke ahead of the manifestation about the ground of the manifestation. In this sense he was not the mere ‘predictor’ who could say such and such things will happen tomorrow in the afternoon. In Plato there is a discussion of this peculiar power of the philosopher as grounded in mania which courses between the philosopher and the eternal. Later ‘prophet’ came to designate those who spoke on behalf of the gods. But the earlier sense of prophesy, whether grounded in mania or Eros, is present in all the interesting works of philosophy”.

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze said that there should be “innocence” to practice metaphysics. At the end of these exploratory dialogues, Divya and Shaj both appeared vulnerable and innocent to me, and it is this receptivity to the world that has allowed them to produce these conceptual inventions. This is the danger of philosophy that one must risk being destroyed by it, or for it. At the same time the prophetic voice resonant in their language is very assuring.

Raj Ayyar is Visiting Professor, Humanities and Social Sciences, IIIT-Delhi.