Symbols of a stateless society: Satyagraha, swaraj, and Gandhi’s vision-casting of a society without limits

Mohandas Gandhi, better known as Mahatma (venerable) Gandhi, was a man of complexities and paradox. Born into the Brahmin caste and into a wealthy merchant family, he became an expatriate in South Africa where he lived for most of his adult life, finally returning to India and by the end of his life advocating economic and political freedom from Great Britain and the abolition of the Indian state, with self-sustaining villages replacing the state government in a political philosophy known as swaraj. He wielded a two-armed approach to reform: satyagraha, which was a practical methodology and school of political philosophy teaching the art of self-suffering, patience and compassion as a means to an end, and the elimination of antagonisms (not antagonists); the second arm was known as swaraj, a political reform discharging the state from duties of rulership and granting power directly to independent villages, free from any power be they colonial or national. While the latter was never fully implemented (and thrown out by India’s national government), the former was used as a vehicle for showcasing the Indian desire for freedom from the British Empire and was a key factor in the reformation of Indian political philosophy for self-rule, including the desire for Pakistani and Sri Lankan independence from the Indian sub-continent.

        Gandhi understood the power of symbols. While he stood above most Indians (from his caste), he continually surrounded himself in community, and wherever he lived he worked with other Indians in energizing local expatriates or learning with each other what it meant to be Indian. For Gandhi, living in London or living in South Africa, knowing who he was and where he came from was incredibly important, but taking the lessons of cultures that he lived in was equally as important. He understood the power of the Indian mindset of disciplines and over the course of his life, satyagraha became more than just a methodology for achieving political results, but a life-calling and school of philosophy. Satyagraha and swaraj were more than just concepts like democracy or representative rule. They were living embodiments of being; they were transformative vehicles for people to grow in and within; they were catalysts for not only personal change, but national and cultural change. While satyagraha was the ethos to follow, swaraj was the gleaming model of perfection at the end once satyagraha had been practiced, mastered, and weaved into the being of each and every Indian. Gandhi embedded these two concepts with cultural power, and through that connected each man, woman, and child with a common goal. However, when his concepts are deconstructed, they show far more similarities to enlightenment and modernist philosophies than the holistic and religious observances of traditional Indian philosophies. Gandhi took the trappings and heartstrings of Indian philosophy and used it as a cloak for reforming political standards, even if he was a bit ahead of his time.

        The Salt March was Gandhi’s practical offspring of satyagraha, and the experiment of Bihar Village was the model for swaraj. However, much of Gandhi’s vision for India never came into the public arena. His Indian National Congress was criticized by many as an exercise in communism, and India’s independence has often been more attributed to the lack of funds for Great Britain to maintain her colonies than any movement Gandhi may have organized or any national consciousness he may have stirred. Gandhi was first and foremost a community organizer, secondly a philosopher, and thirdly an Indian. While I marvel at his dreams of reforming not only the landscape but the soul of his country, I wonder how effective change is when so much philosophy but so little accountability has been infused into the principles. Gandhi was known as ‘Venerable’ Gandhi, and was considered by many to be a sage; there were many cults that sprang up in India following him, which he not only accepted but nurtured in his discipleship of satyagrahis, or followers of satyagraha who studied in specific schools and had to follow highly regimented rules, more like a martial training centers for pacifism than a traditional Indian school of philosophy.

​        The concepts of satyagrahi and swaraj, while in theory sound invigorating, leaves me wondering if Gandhi’s place as a cultural icon bedeviled him from the start without proper criticism and conceptual reformation. Gandhi said at one point that he believed the Jewish people in Germany should adopt the standards of satyagraha in their quest for relief from Germany, even during the Holocaust when they were being baked alive in giant ovens, their remains tossed into ditches, and the German elites stealing their jewels, properties, and bank notes. I’m not sure when Gandhi lost sight of the objective, or when his objective ran so far ahead of him that he could not catch up.

        Contextualization is the dangerous middle-ground between all-out syncretization and cultural conformity. The tenets of contextualization consider a cultural principle that is considered to be absolutely good, and then clothe that principle in different words, robes, and philosophies to match the target culture. Contextualization has primarily been used in the spread of the Gospel, particularly from the United Kingdom and the United States, in the goal of teaching Christian ideals and tenets to various cultures that are predominately not based on Judeo-Christian foundations. The primary use of contextualization is to transport and transform belief systems.

​        When I look at Gandhi’s contextualization of modern principles into Indian culture, the philosophy he espouses seems more like the applique on a fancy robe, whereas the robe itself is composed of Marxist principles; at the basic level, Gandhi’s primary villain in the subjection of the Indian people lies in his own Hind Swaraj, with the claim that Indians are suffering because Great Britain has impoverished India by taking away their money, important jobs, and subjecting the people to a form of economic slavery. In essence, Gandhi’s claim is that the material wealth of India has been taken away by the Imperialists (the final evolution of capitalism) and so freeing India of the ‘capitalists’ makes Gandhi a tantamount Marxist who believes that Great Britain has engineered India’s degradation by offering her the trinkets of security in exchange for her soul, the material wealth of the country. For me, recognizing the source of leadership philosophy is key to unraveling the source of discontent and desire for change. We must analyze leadership suppositions for not only cultural foundations, but the underlying incentive for change and the proposed end goal of such changes.