Unconditional Equality

Gandhi's Religion of Resistance

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A Cultural Critique Book
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    University of Minnesota Press
    , February
     2015.
     408 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780816698660.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, popularly known as Mahatma Gandhi, is credited with having rekindled the ancient Indian discourse of an interrelation between spirituality, religion, and politics. This has been mostly studied from the perspective of faith or spirituality. The last five decades or so have seen rising scholarship on the not-so-spiritual perspectives of Gandhian thought on politics. Ajay Skaria presents the most recent, and arguably the most engaging to date, scholarship on Gandhi’s idea of religious or spiritual politics in Unconditional Equality. Skaria is careful to be clear about his secular roots and deftly sifts the philosophical and historical from the spiritual or religious in Gandhi’s writings. 

Skaria argues that there is much struggle in Gandhi’s understanding of satyagraha, and he traces it to, among other things, the difficulties of translating the original Gujarati texts or ideas into English, which many times led Gandhi himself to settle for a not-so accurate translation. Skaria takes the reader through the intricacies of the original Gujarati, clarifying and retranslating concepts wherever necessary. In this exercise, he proves him to be a teacher par excellence, guiding the reader through the various etymological difficulties involved in understanding Gandhi’s expansive corpus. 

Unconditional Equality is divided into two parts, “Before Satyagraha” and “The Aneconomies of Satyagraha.” Skaria states in the preface that the objective of this book is to address these questions: “What is Gandhi’s religion? … What is the religiosity of his politics? What is the politics of his religion? And what is its universality?” (viii). Skaria situates satyagraha with “the apprehension of the death of God” (xiii). This is where Skaria’s brilliance shines the most: he correlates Gandhi’s writings with analytical readings from influential thinkers like John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt, Étienne Balibar, Félix Guattari, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Ralph Ellison, Søren Kierkegaard, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Emmanuel Levinas, Ernesto Laclau, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Partha Chatterjee. While engaging with such thinkers, Skaria never wavers from his interpretations of satyagrahaand does not move away from the contexts in which that concept was born.

This book gives a complete account of the origin and development of the concept of satyagraha and puts such evolution in perspective from a strictly secular lens. Skaria dissects concepts like daya or charity, fearlessness, sacrifice according to the Bhagavad Gita, conservatism, and forgiveness. He frequently analyzes the original Sanskrit or Gujarati words, as he believes that “religion looms … large in Gandhi’s” writings (10). Skaria closely reads Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj to understand the true characters of the “Editor” and “Reader” who are in conversation in that text. With this exercise, he makes it amply clear that understanding Hind Swaraj is vital to understanding satyagraha. He brings to the reader the connection between Gandhi’s “religion of resistance” and individual emancipation: “In a dizzying departure from secular traditions of thinking the political, then Gandhi insists on the absolute equality of all beings; indeed, this absolute equality is satya or the realization of being” (xv).

Skaria has successfully established a novel way of studying Gandhi by not being content with readings and re-readings of the original text, but also comparing notes with contemporary thought, all the while paying attention to the original cultural context. Unconditional Equality brings the subaltern and the minor to the fore of Gandhian discourse, particularly in the context of satyagraha. Skaria declares “absolute equality” to be the “miracle of satyagraha” (298). With a notes section that is, to say the least, an additional volume, this book brings to center stage the question of what defines pure faith, pure equality, and more importantly, pure secularism. This book would interest students of Gandhian thought, political science, Indian history, pacifist studies, and would also serve as a model for analyzing indigenous thought frameworks in juxtaposition with world thought. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Swami Narasimhananda is the editor of Prabuddha Bharata.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ajay Skaria is professor of history at the University of Minnesota. He is the author ofHybrid Histories: Forests, Frontiers, and Wildness in Western India and coeditor ofSubaltern Studies XII: Muslims, Dalits, and the Fabrications of History.

Keywords: 

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