Thursday, February 28, 2008

Ramin Jahanbegloo on Gandhi's concept of freedom

From the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo's new book The Spirit of India, this marvellous passage on freedom as understood by Gandhi both in the personal and in the political sense:

To Gandhi, swaraj did not mean simply replacing British rule with Indian rule. [...] Political independence was not an end in itself. Swaraj was above all about individual autonomy, involving self-respect, self-restraint and maturity. Gandhi appealed for individual Indians to free themselves mentally and through character development from internal and external colonization. [...] In other words, Gandhi aimed to revitalize the idea of civilization as dharma (a sense of order, a quality of the soul and duty towards other human beings) through a redefinition of self-government as self-actualization. [...]

What Gandhi criticizes in modern civilization is the process of reduction of self-restraint and self-actualization to self-interest. According to Gandhi, to value human freedom only as the freedom to pursue one's self-interest lacks moral and spiritual depth and creates a life devoid of meaning and truth. [...] Swaraj means essentially 'being open to others', but at the same time it means building a character for oneself by living one's life as a moral project. [...]

We can now understand why freedom for Gandhi was not merely a right, but was a duty. [...] In Gandhi's philosophy civilization is not just a state of self-proclamation of freedom. True freedom is not merely the freedom to do what one desires, but also the ability to ensure that what one chooses is the result of a sense of duty and self-knowledge. For Gandhi, this choice is not exercised as 'freedom from restraints' but as 'freedom through restraints'. There is an ontological difference between the two formulations. In the first formulation, restraint refers to a situation imposed by an 'other' (for example, colonialism). In the second formulation, restraint refers to a self-imposed situation (Gandhian swaraj).

Therefore, freedom is not only freedom from coercion and domination, it is also self-regulation through self-restraint. Hence, self-restraint forms an indispensable part of Gandhi's concept of civilization. [...] True civilization is a state of self-transcendence through self-restraint. It is a process of making and rectifying mistakes. Freedom should provide conditions of growth for an individual. In the eyes of Gandhi, the civilizing process results from an inner reform of the individual. As for outward independence, it is a yardstick to measure the freedom of self within. There can be no outward self-rule without the experience of truth. And there can be no experience of truth without self-realization and moral freedom. True civilization is the reign of moral freedom. [...] For Gandhi the truth is actually the spirit of search for truth. In his own life, he conducted the search as experiments with truth.

And three older posts: "Talking India with Ashis Nandy", in which it is Jahanbegloo that Nandy is talking India with; a review of Rajmohan Gandhi's recent biography of Gandhi, which also addresses the points made here; and a piece on Jeffrey Goldberg's Prisoners, which takes up some of the thoughts on Gandhi in that book.

A piece by Jahanbegloo, "The Modern Gandhi", is here, and a long conversation between Jahanbegloo and Danny Postel can be found here. A large set of links on Iran's politics, art, and ideas can be found in this post written last year on Christopher de Bellaigue's The Struggle For Iran.

Also, last week's post on David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk is now updated with a passage from the book.

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