One of the achievements of social scientists over the past century has been the leveling of the hierarchical distinction between modern and pre-modern societies. While in the public imagination this distinction dominates, in the social sciences it has become, if not disappeared, at least uninteresting. This is why, for example, a sociologist would even consider the Taliban in Afghanistan to be quite a modern phenomenon.
To say that all societies are modern is absolutely not informative if it is not followed by a reflection on the concept of the new. The new is not the modern, despite their continued confusion with one another. The new is not opposed to the old either. Often what is new is just a repetition of the old. This is what emerges from Jyotirmaya Sharma Elusive Nonviolence: The Making and Dismantling of Gandhi’s Ahimsa Religion, which is an attempt to read MK Gandhi as the creator of something absolutely new: the concept of ahimsa. The question the book revolves around is: what exactly is new about Gandhi’s concept of ahimsa?
Sharma is perhaps one of the greatest Indian intellectual historians of the Hindutva. His turn to Gandhi’s thought must be seen as the conclusion of an investigation into the reformulation of Hinduism. Yet Gandhi, despite the superficial similarity of his attempt to reformulate Hinduism, is unique in his theoretical practice as the creator of a new language: political asceticism. It is this conjunction of mass politics with asceticism that makes Gandhi’s thought unique. The conceptual thread that ties the two together, however, is nothing but ahimsa or non-violence.
Sharma is careful to point out that ahimsa has a long history, but it is only with Gandhi that it becomes a political concept. For Sharma, Gandhi’s policy is circumscribed by his religion. Yet he points out that Gandhi did not passively inherit the tradition but actively rewrote it – creator of a unique form of Hinduism, where all of its components were chosen based on their affinity with the central concept of ahimsa. . For this reason, Sharma argues that Gandhi’s involvement in the Indian freedom movement was not guaranteed by some commitment to a European concept of freedom. For Gandhi, freedom meant nothing other than moksha, freedom from the cosmic error that is the body. Western civilization, with its attachment to the body, was against it. For that, it was necessary to oppose the British domination. However, this opposition had to be nonviolent, because otherwise one would risk becoming what one opposes and the realization of moksha would be abandoned.
According to Sharma, Gandhi’s language of political asceticism is based on ahimsa’s relationship to unattached action and duty. Even violence, if done out of duty, was non-violence. This laid the foundation for Gandhi’s insistence on the importance of varnashrama, like the ideal society where everyone did their duty. For Sharma, it is not enough to say that Gandhi introduced religion into politics. The complete miscibility of religion and politics in Gandhi’s thought is a consequence of their common root in ahimsa. The superficial appearance of inconsistency in Gandhi’s thought is therefore underpinned by a frightening consistency. All of his public positions on political, religious or social issues can be considered to be based on his commitment to ahimsa as a means of moksha.
More surprisingly, Gandhi’s political asceticism makes a virtue of extinction, death and annihilation. All his thought is the creation of a new concept of ahimsa, the content of which eagerly awaits the universal annihilation of the body. It is something radically new that militates against all novelty as nothing but a vast cosmic error that must be corrected. It is the monumentality of this contradiction that is the reason why Gandhi worries all but the most thoughtless among us. Sharma reveals this contradiction in her naked brutality. The merit of Sharma’s book lies in the way it makes unrecognizable both what Gandhi did and what he said.
(This appeared in the print edition as “Correcting the Cosmic Mistake”)