The Cambridge Companion to Gandhi, edited by Judith M. Brown and Anthony Parel, Cambridge University Press, Pp 273, Rs 395.00
NO matter how many books have been written on the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi, it is clear that there is endless scope for many more. Already, probably more books have been written on him than on any other individual, howsoever distinguished. It speaks not just for the Mahatma’s greatness, but for the sheer value of his thinking on a wide range of subjects from politics to spirituality and even an interaction between them.
The Cambridge Companion To Gandhi is as comprehensive as one can imagine with contributions from the likes of Akeel Bilgrami who holds the Johnsonian Chair of Philosophy at Columbia University, Judith Brown, Beit Professor of Commonwealth History at Oxford, Jonathan Hyslop, Professor of Sociology at University of Pretoria, Anthony Parel, Professor Emiritus of Political Science at University of Calgary and Pridip Suhrud, a Cultural Historian – twelve in all. They have chosen to write on subjects such as Transnational Emergence of a Public Figure, Gandhi’s Religion and Its Relations to his Politics, Conflict and Non-Violence, Gandhi’s Moral Economics, Gandhi and the State, Gandhi and Social Relations and Gandhi’s Global Legacy, largely focusing on the Mahatma’s key writings.
The scholars seem breathlessly fascinated by everything Gandhi has said, written and done, such as the conceptualisation of his autography which he called it as his aatmakatha (story of the soul). The English title is better known as Experiment With Truth. He chose to call his method “experiments” prayogo in Gujarati and his efforts sadhana. Gandhi’s explanation for the use of such powerful words has raised much expectation to which his answer has been: “There are some things which are known only to oneself and one’s maker. They are clearly incommunicable. The experiments that I am about to relate are not such.” Then what are they? In his confessional work was the Mahatma indulging in self-delusion or hallucination, considering that he has on occasion heard the voice of God?
What The Cambridge Companion to Gandhi tries to do is to go deep into Gandhi’s thinking, probing his mind in a way which few in the past have done so effectively. Bilgrami, for instance, in discussing Gandhi’s religion has some pertinent points to raise. According to him, even when Gandhi called himself a sanatani (an orthodox Hindu), “he was very sceptical of the idea that there was a high or canonical Hinduism”. As Bilgrami put it, “The appeal of Hinduism for him was precisely that there was no such thing by way of neither doctrine nor authoritative institutions, allowing him to make of it what his temperament wished while allowing others to embrace it in quite other forms deriving from the many influences available in a diverse land and its history”.
Bilgrami’s assessment of Gandhi’s religious thinking in all its facets is challenging, to say the least, frequently reaching heights of sustained brilliance. Bilgrami takes Gandhi at his words, as when he said: “I try to understand the spirit of the various scriptures… I apply the test of satya (truth) and ahimsa (non-violence) laid down by these very scriptures and reject what is inconsistent with that test and appropriate all that is consistent with it”.
In every analysis of Gandhi and Gandhian thought indulged in by the contributors what comes out is a depth of understanding seldom noticeable in books on Gandhi. Jawaharlal once told a distinguished film director who was planning to do a film on the Mahatma, not to deify him. One suspects that is an advice that each of the contributors to this volume has fruitfully followed. Gandhi comes through not as an old bogey stuck up in primitive ideas and concepts but as an astute and revolutionary thinker far ahead of his times.
Anthony Parel, discussing Gandhi’s concept of the modern state is clear, for example, that “there is a philosophical difference between Gandhi’s notion of the secular state and the modern western nation”. Similarly, he says, Gandhi has been portrayed as an idealist, one far removed from the harsh realities of the world of politics. His assessment of Gandhi is that this is not true because there is a “compelling realism in much that he writes and does”.
To sum up, what this book does – and does so well—is to provide an “entry point into a deeper understanding of Gandhi’s life” as Judith Brown says in her introduction, “and the multiple issues it raised and continues to raise”. It is only fair to say that in this Brown has succeeded remarkably well. It could indeed serve as a marvellous introduction to all Gandhian studies. The last chapter on Gandhi’s global legacy, merely confirms the fact.
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