Gandhi – A Religion of the Question: Ajay Skaria

[The following is the ‘Preface’ to AJAY SKARIA’s recent book, Unconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance by Ajay Skaria. The preface raises interesting questions not only about Gandhi’s politics but also about the idea/s of secularism and religion in what we might call a postsecular world – a world that is, where the naive and uninterrogated binary between the two terms is constantly put into question. Also of interest to readers might be the attempt made by the author to read Gandhi’s writings as a long and ongoing struggle to articulate or ‘understand’ his own politics – a politics that Skaria claims is as much premised on equality among humans as it is on the equality of all being/s.]

Unconditional Equality by Ajay Skaria
Unconditional Equality by Ajay Skaria

Somewhere in the early 2000s, while preparing to teach Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s English translation of Hind Swaraj to my undergraduate class, a passage about history in the text intrigued me. Since I happened to have the Gujarati version of that text at hand, I consulted it. The divergence is striking. The Gujarati text criticizes “history” (the English word occurs in the Gujarati text) and contrasts  it to itihaas [usually translated as “history”]. The English text criticizes “history,” but in it there is no equivalent for itihaas; the contrast between history and itihaas is thus obscured. The gap between the Gujarati and English texts, I have since come to realize, is symptomatic of Gandhi’s struggles to think his politics. What this politics involves is by no means clear to him; perhaps he writes so prolifically and indefatigably (his collected works run to ninety-eight volumes in English) precisely in order to try and understand his own politics. This politics becomes even more intriguing when we attend not only to Gandhi as an author or “intending subject,” but to his writing.[1] By dwelling in and on the gaps (between Gujarati and English and also within each of these languages) in his writing, this book tries to draw out his politics.

For me, writing this book has been difficult also because of another gap—that between Gandhi’s insistence that there can be “no politics without religion” and the secular inheritance that I have, as far as I know, no desire to abandon. Gandhi repeatedly describes satyagraha (his most famous neologism, which he coins initially as a translation of “passive resistance”) as his “dharma” or “religion,” even as the religion that stays in all religions.[2] Symptomatic of my difficulty with this religious politics was my inability for long to even recognize it. When Vinay Lal first asked me in 2007 to write an essay on Gandhi’s religion for a volume he was planning on political Hinduism, I protested that I was not interested in this aspect of Gandhi. But with his characteristic persistence, Vinay did not accept my protests, and I ended up writing that essay, which became a precursor of this book.

In the process, my own understanding of dharma and religion as “concepts” has been transformed.[3]

What is Gandhi’s religion? Which, given his remarks, is also to ask: What is the religiosity of his politics? What is the politics of his religion? And what is its universality? This book is an attempt to address these concerns. In preparation for later chapters, here I would like briefly to attend to an issue that, though not explicitly thematized in the book, is yet perhaps the specter animating it—the relation between Gandhi’s religion and secularism, or (to briefly signal the argument about this relation) how Gandhi’s satyagraha is a religion of the question.

  • ••••

Hegel notes already in 1802 “the feeling that ‘God himself is dead’ upon which the religion of more recent times rests.”[4] Hegel can assert this partially because, by the time he writes, God-centered ethics are on the decline among philosophers, and many philosophers think morality and ethics in secular terms, without reference to God.

The apprehension of the death of God is not only a characteristic of “more recent times.” It is already borne (if only as nonpresence) by the various negative theologies that one finds “in” each of the various “religions,” including the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jain, and Judaic. But it surely does gather an increasingly inescapable force in “more recent times.” Justifiably or not, all modern religions and ideologies share the apprehension about the death of God. This apprehension is the mark of their modernity. It forms these religions and ideologies regardless of whether they accept or deny the death of God, whether they denounce or accept secularism.[5]

Gandhi’s writing occurs under the shadow of this apprehension of the death of God. He comes to his religion after crossing the “sahara of atheism.” And while he considers “modern civilization” “godless,” and thinks of his politics as striving for a godliness, his religion and godliness are themselves marked by reason. Thus, condemning the practice of untouchability, he argues: “Hinduism like every other religion, apart from the sanction of Shastras, has got to submit itself to the test of universal reason. In this age of reason, in this age of universal knowledge, in this age of education and comparative theology, any religion which entrenches itself behind Shastric injunctions and authority is, in my own humble opinion, bound to fail.”[6] Moreover, he often stresses his affinities with atheists such as “Bradlaw” (Charles Bradlaugh, whom he admires greatly, and whose funeral he attends while a student in London), whose “atheism was only so-called. He had faith in the moral government of the world.”[7]

Most strikingly perhaps, Gandhi cannot conceive God as a sovereign or kingly being; God becomes a shorthand for sat or satya—words that can be glossed, respectively, as being and truth in the sense of the realization or accomplishment of being. While he is willing to accept a “personal God for those who need his personal presence,” he also insists that it is inadequate to think God in human terms, and treats the very word “God” as an example of such humanization; for him, therefore, “satya is God.”[8] Such formulations are symptomatic of how satyagraha is concerned not with the transcendent world, but rather with the immanent one. Even his apparent invocations of a transcendent or sovereign God—as, for example, his claim that the 1934 Bihar earthquake was “a divine chastisement sent by God” for the sin of untouchability, or his claim that he seeks moksha (“salvation”)—turn out on closer scrutiny to be concerned with the immanent world.[9]

This immanent religion organized around satya is all the more intriguing given how his neologism satyagraha conjoins two terms: satya and agraha—force, firmness, insistence, or even seizing. It is not as though the satyagrahi, the practitioner of satyagraha, already knows or possesses satya and seeks only to enforce or spread it; rather, the satyagrahi is engaged in a “quest for satya.” And this quest is also a questioning because satyagrahis do not know what satya is—they are only constantly aware of being part of and yet abysally separated from satya, of striving to be seized by satya.

All of this is symptomatic, I would like to argue, of how in Gandhi’s writing at its most intriguing, the apprehension of the death of God is accompanied by satyagraha as a religion of the question.[10]

  • ••••

But what is this—a religion of the question? We could perhaps begin with that last sentence of Martin Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology,” which reads: “For the question is the piety of thought.”[11] That sentence condenses within it an immense paradox whose implications were already being thought before Heidegger’s forceful formulation. The paradox lies in the conjoining of questioning and piety.

Had Heidegger said that the question, and questioning, is the essence of thought, he would only have succinctly restated a powerful and long-standing tradition. For the privileging of the question is shared across various philosophical traditions, most famously but by no means only in the Socratic tradition, which has resonated across the Arabic world, the Indian subcontinent, and Western Europe. Indeed, one of the ways in which what is as a shorthand called the Enlightenment would distinguish itself would be precisely through the claim that, more thoroughly than any other tradition, it makes the question the essence of thought. This relentless privileging of the question is precisely what anchors secularism, with its commitment to a certain vision of science and the public sphere. Where and when the question is privileged, the death of God becomes an especially potent possibility.

But Heidegger does not simply say that questioning is the essence of thought. He says something quite different: that questioning is the piety, piousness, or devoutness of thought.[12] This formulation presumes that even if the question bears the possibility of the death of God, that death is not a privative one. Rather, the question as a concept conserves something of the spirit or perhaps specter of religion.

What is this piousness? And how would the question as a concept be transformed if it is the piousness of thought?

It could be argued that the piousness of the question has two modalities. First, there are the dominant traditions of the Enlightenment. These traditions usually privilege the question quite emphatically, and apparently accord only a secondary or subordinate place for piousness. These traditions also presume a distinction between the public and the private, where the public is the realm of the question and the private is the realm of faith, where the question is not allowed access. It is in this spirit that Kant famously says: “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.”[13]

This opposition between faith and knowledge does not erase piousness (and is not meant to by either Kant or Hegel) from the secular public sphere. Now knowledge provides both an ontology (it grounds the world) and a theology (it names what is highest: as Francis Bacon says in the sixteenth century, “the sovereignty of man lieth hid in knowledge”). Knowledge is here constantly produced, revised, and governed by a certain kind of question—one that from its sovereign and autonomous (giving itself its own law) position seeks to know itself and its object. Knowledge is thus premised on an enshrining of the sovereign question.

In this enshrining, moreover, the question inaugurates modern secularism, for it allows the secular state to claim the grounding and the sovereignty associated with religious authority. Secularism appropriates the very terms of theology: as Karl Marx notes already in the 1840s, “the perfected Christian state” is “the atheist state, the democratic state,” the secular state.[14] (Carl Schmitt restates this insight from an idealist perspective in the 1920s, “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”)[15] The most powerful of these newly sacralized terms is perhaps “citizen”—the figure who restlessly asks questions of the state, who demands to participate in the state’s sovereignty, and who by this very demand already begins participating in at least the form of that sovereignty. Man as citizen worships the sovereign question as the essence of thought, as Being, but this question he worships is himself.

One form of questioning as the piety of thought, then, is this theological secularism.[16] And theological secularism emerges along with the modern concept of religion, which now names the heteronomous realm— the realm of laws given by the other. Hence the challenge that theological secularism formulates for itself: How to limit religion to the private realm? How to sustain an autonomous politics?

Gandhi’s religion questions and relinquishes this theological secularism. While he acknowledges the need for a secular state, this is a very different secularism, for he repeatedly insists that there can be “no politics without religion.” His “religion” of satyagraha or “passive resistance” is equally difficult to understand in the terms provided by theological secularism: it is neither a private religion (for it operates in the secular public sphere) nor a public religion (for it does not seek an institutionalized political or social space for specific religious practices).[17]

In what sense, then, is Gandhi’s satyagraha a religion of the question?

  • ••••

Even more than the sovereign question, the second sense in which questioning is the piety of thought predates Enlightenment traditions. It receives for example an especially succinct formulation in Saint Augustine’s cry, “I have become a question to myself.” Here, to become a questioning being is to become bereft of one’s own sovereignty. Augustine’s question, as Hannah Arendt notes, is indicative of how “man initiates the quest for his own being. . . . This quest for his own being arises from his being created and endowed with a memory that tells him he did not make himself.”[18] Many religions respond to this memory by becoming theological—by claiming to ground themselves in either knowledge or revelation. At least at this moment of his anguish, Augustine finds himself unable to do this: his religion remains a groundless faith, a faith that accepts that it cannot find grounds for itself—this is why he becomes a question to himself.

In one of the few remarks he makes about Augustine, Gandhi’s attention is drawn to this absence of sovereignty: “But one thing is sure that the humility which feels itself nothing before God is necessary for mystical experiences, such as those of Saint Francis and Saint Augustine. On the other hand, a Bradlaw [Charles Bradlaugh] or a Marcus Aurelius, though following conscience, felt themselves to be self-made men and not dependent on God, and so they could get no mystical experiences or joy.”[19] The contrast here with Bradlaugh, who, recall, has “faith in the moral government of the world,” is telling. Unlike Bradlaugh’s secular conscience, which retains sovereignty over itself, Gandhi’s “mystical experience” or religion involves a surrender of sovereignty.[20] This makes the humility involved in secular conscience very different from that involved in religion in Gandhi’s sense. Even where secular conscience humbles itself before the sovereign question, it only humbles itself before man—this is the sense in which secular conscience remains sovereign. By contrast, the question that Gandhi’s religious experience humbles or surrenders itself before is the other experienced in groundless faith. But this humbling is also freely offered, and so it is never a subordination to the other. Religion bears always, in however obscured a manner, this surrender without subordination.

Gandhi associates several persons with aspects of the experience of religion in this sense—among them Augustine, Jalaluddin Rumi, Jesus, Mohammed, Narsinh Mehta, Mirabai, Rabia Bibi, and Tulsidas. He claims, moreover, that satyagraha is the way of being most faithful to this experience of religion, that it is most proper to religion, that it is the “religion that stays in all religions.”

This claim turns on the distinctive way he conceives satya as “love.” Exemplary of this way is his explanation (in the sixth of the Rowlatt Satyagraha pamphlet series, which is written during that movement to explain what satyagraha is): “An axiom of religion [dharma] is that satya itself is religion. Love [prem] itself is religion is a second axiom. But since religion cannot be two, so religion itself is love or love is religion. And if we sit down to reflect further, we shall find that without love, conduct based on truth [satya] is impossible. This is why truth force [satya shakti] is love force [prem shakti].”[21] Religion now becomes “universal love.”

As this and other similar formulations unfold, a striking difference opens up between satyagraha and the other conceptions of “universal love.” For example, the Augustinian love of the neighbor (of which the twenty-three-year-old Hannah Arendt provides a breathtaking reading in her dissertation) is for a transcendent and sovereign God. Here, first, as Arendt notes, “For the lover who loves as God loves, the neighbor ceases to be anything but a creature of God. All meet in this love, denying themselves and their mutual ties. . . . he loves his neighbor neither for his neighbor’s sake, nor for his own sake. Love of neighbor leaves the lover himself in absolute isolation, and the world remains a desert for man’s isolated existence.”[22] Second, “In the equality of all people before God, which love of neighbor makes thematic,” the concretely temporal question of whether my neighbor is my friend or foe, or how my neighbor regards me, becomes a matter of indifference. What matters rather is that “in the being before God all people are equal, that is, equally sinful.”[23]

The critique that Arendt makes of Augustine could very easily be made of Gandhi’s explicit formulations. Indeed, he never thematizes and is perhaps never even explicitly conscious of his divergences from Augustine. But his writing at its most intriguing is marked by irreconcilable differences from Augustine or other thinkers of a transcendent religion. In contrast to Augustinian Christianity, satyagraha is a religion that becomes immanent because of its apprehension of the death of God. Here the segue from satya and religion to universal love is not mediated through a higher entity such as God. It is rather the very impossibility of God as a sovereign being that sustains the emphasis on a universal love. Because of this very different starting point, even same or similar phrases, such as “universal love” or “equality before God,” rotate away on very different trajectories.

For example, even though Gandhi emphasizes universal love, in his writing such love becomes inseparable from swadeshi [staying with one’s own desh—country or place]. He insists:

One rule of swadeshi is that in serving people we should first serve [seva] those who live near us. There is also an opposite rule, that we should first serve those who are distant from us and then those who are near us. Near in the first rule means physically near, and distant in the second rule means distant from us mentally. . . .

The reason behind this rule of swadeshi is that we cannot reach all human beings in this world. If instead of serving the person near you, you ignore your neighbour and seek to serve someone living far away, that would be pride on your part.[24]

“Universal love” is thus reinscribed in the local; it must first take up precisely the local friend or enemy, and from there proceed locally to other friends and enemies. This extremely local way of proceeding, which loves the neighbor for the neighbor’s and satyagrahi’s sake, and then strives to universalize itself, is quite at odds with Augustinian love.

Equality with and of all beings also undergoes a similar transformation, whose incendiary implications are perhaps even more striking. In transcendental religions, equality is sustained by a Creator: love of that Creator, or emergence from that Creator, makes for equality. In satyagraha, as I will indicate at greater length, we encounter an equality that comes after the death of God; we now have creatures without a sovereign Creator. Their absolute equality, moreover, is irreducibly and tumultuously plural because it must include all being (not only humans but also animals and things).

This absolute equality of all being, an absolute equality that does not in his explicit formulations seem to demand any specific political or institutional form (though there is perhaps a hesitant taste for republican democracy), is the most crucial stake of Gandhi’s thinking of religion, of “no politics without religion.”[25]

But even our radical traditions of thinking politics and the political often quite obscure from us this absolute equality of all being. In order to indicate how this happens, we could start with another essay by Arendt, this time the controversial “Reflections on Little Rock.”[26] Arendt identifies three different spheres: the political realm, or the realm of citizens, which is organized around the principle of equality of “different men”; the realm of society, “that curious, somewhat hybrid realm between the political and the private,” which has discrimination along various lines (such as “profession, income, and ethnic origin”) as its organizing principle; the realm of privacy, where “our choice is guided, not by likeness or qualities shared by a group of people—it is not guided, indeed, by any objective standards or rules—but strikes, inexplicably and unerringly, at one person in his uniqueness, his unlikeness to all other people we know.”[27]

Arendt’s essay is not at all tenable as an analysis of school desegregation (Ralph Ellison powerfully pointed this out at the time).[28] Nor even perhaps is its distinction between the three realms tenable when it is made so rigidly.[29] The uncanny salience and brilliance of her essay lies rather in its distinctive double move: on the one hand, it identifies equality as the principle of the political, and on the other hand, it precisely identifies some apparently unavoidable restrictions placed on that principle by the other two realms.

This double move has also been found unavoidable by many thinkers whose commitments we might usually consider, unlike Arendt’s, to be close to the radical left. Thus Étienne Balibar, in Equaliberty, his incisive exploration of how equality and liberty are coeval rather than (as much liberal theory would have it) equality coming after liberty as a way of limiting it, is quite clear that he is concerned with the “trace of equaliberty in the history of modern citizenship.”[30] In this formulation, one may say (and I make this point not so much to criticize the book as to bring out its founding presuppositions), equaliberty is restricted to humans. Even if “fraternity” no longer does the work it has since at least the French Revolution of simultaneously repressing sexual difference and mediating equality and liberty, even if “fraternity” is no longer explicitly invoked, it persists now as an anthropology. Implicitly excluded thus from equality are all those incapable of modern citizenship—most evidently, animals and things (though perhaps the lines between humans, animals, and things must always pass through humans).[31]

To offer another example, Jacques Rancière, after identifying politics as “that activity which turns on equality as its principle,” goes on to describe politics in terms of disagreement, which is “a determined kind of speech situation: one in which one of the interlocutors at once understands and does not understand what the other is saying”; it is “the conflict between one who says white and another who also says white but does not understand the same thing by it or does not understand that the other is saying the same thing in the name of whiteness.”[32] Thus, though Rancière would include the social and the private within the political, his own conception of the political must exclude all those who do not have speech, who do not have the power of agreement or disagreement—most massively, again, animals and things. It is symptomatic of this exclusion and anthropocentrism that Rancière conceives equality in terms of the demand for emancipation—a demand, in other words, that presumes the potential for an everyday exercise of sovereignty, which it would be difficult to attribute not only to animals and things but also, in many situations, to humans.

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. That insistence makes satya synonymous with justice—now the seizure by the demand for equality and against inequality is ownmost to being. To this seizure, Gandhi gives the name satyagraha. Gandhi repeatedly describes satyagraha as an “ancient truth.” There is of course something new about satyagraha, but “like the name itself,” it is only “a new presentation of an old doctrine.” Gandhi can make these claims because in his writing satya always already is this absolute equality and absolute plurality, and it bears practices that sustain this equality and plurality, practices condensed especially in the word satyagraha, but also in all those words that Gandhi uses as synonyms for satyagraha and for each other: among them, “pure means,” “love,” and “pure self-sacrifice.” These practices are the originary answer that satya bears.

But that answer, satya, dehisces into many questions, for what satya “is” is constitutively obscured. Justice among such radically different beings cannot be thought in the usual terms; what is now required is a justice without sovereignty. It is only satyagraha as a religion of the question that can apprehend, in trembling and without knowledge, this other justice— satya as the equality of all being. Conversely, it is only as a religion of the question that those of us who find it impossible to abandon their faith in secularism can at all think with—as distinct from think about—Gandhi’s religion. Unconditional Equality attends to this never-ending dehiscence of the answer, satya, into the question, satyagraha.

Ajay Skaria teaches at the Department of History, University of Minnesota.

[Copyright 2016 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Reproduced with permission from the University of Minnesota Press. All rights reserved. South Asia edition by Permanent Black.]

[1] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The Politics of Translation,” in Outside in the Teaching Machine (New York: Routledge, 1993), 190.

[2] Each of these words, “dharma” and “religion,” has of course a complex and storied genealogy, and at least some of the uncanniness of Gandhi’s writing comes from the way these words occur there as also always translations of the other. This infection often activates and foregrounds what is usually recessive in either term by itself. For brevity’s sake, I shall in this book often use only one of these words at a time, but it should be stressed that neither word can in Gandhi’s writings be understood without its infection by the other.

[3] The quotes around the term “concepts” are to acknowledge its simultaneous indispensability and inadequacy as a way of thinking. “Concept,” with its connotation of mastery and sovereignty—of subsuming, without significant remainder, the particular under the universal—is in a sense always already ruined, for no concept ever masters its particulars. That ruination becomes especially acute where we are concerned with thinking such as Gandhi’s, which at its most intriguing involves a vertiginous questioning of hierarchies of power. And yet, perhaps no questioning of power can ever erase power and domination—this is why the concept remains indispensable even where ruined; it must be drawn on under erasure. Many of the concerns of this book—for example, conscience, death, forgiveness, friendship, gift, trust, question, religion, and sacrifice—are concepts only in this ruined sense. Conversely, all these concerns are also “impossible” in the sense that they can never knowably occur in their purity; we can know them only in their ruined form.

[4] G. W. F. Hegel, Faith and Knowledge, trans. and ed. Walter Cerf and H. S. Harris (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), 190.

[5] It would be inadequate to think the apprehension of the death of God only in the terms that Hegel provides. Another and more radical sense of that apprehension rustles through the proclamation that Nietzsche’s madman, who proclaims in the marketplace, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 181. As Martin Heidegger points out, here the assertion “God is dead” is not only a “formula of unbelief ” (63). Rather, “‘God’ and ‘Christian god’ in Nietzsche’s thinking are used to designate the suprasensory world in general. God is the name for the realm of Ideas and ideals”—the world that since Plato has been considered to be the only true world,” as more real than the sensory world. “The deposing of the suprasensory does away with the merely sensory and thus with the difference between the two.” This devaluing of all values is in Heidegger’s reading the nihilism that Nietzsche identifies with the death of God. Martin Heidegger, “The Word of Nietzsche: God Is Dead,” in Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays,  trans. William Lovitt (New York: Garland, 1977), 63, 54, 61.

[6] “Speech at Public Meeting, Vykom,” March 10, 1925, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, 98 volumes (New Delhi: Publications Division Government of India, 1999), available online at, 30:311; Gandhijinu Akshardeha  [Gandhiji’s Collected Works], 81 volumes (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Press, 1967–92), 26:174f. For Gandhi’s writings apart from Hind Swaraj, citations are from his collected works in Gujarati (henceforth Akshardeha) and English (henceforth Gandhi, Collected Works). The endnotes first refer to the language in which the text is originally written, and then the language into which it is translated. Where the original is in English, I have provided a reference to the Gujarati version only if the translation (it is often impossible to know the identity of the translator) flags some interesting issues. I have also often modified the official translation of Gandhi’s Gujarati writings, trying to bring the sentence structure and lexical sense closer to the Gujarati version, even if this involves sacrificing some of the apparent clarity of the English version. Interested readers should compare my translations with the official English translations available online. On some of these occasions, I have provided the original Gujarati phrase and also, where necessary, the official English translation in parentheses within quotation marks. In places where I have retained the official English translation, but sense an especially striking dissonance with the Gujarati, I have indicated the Gujarati word, and another possible translation of it, but without quotation marks. I have been especially fortunate in having extended conversations with Tridip Suhrud and Babu Suthar, which enabled me to draw on their deep knowledge of Gujarati language and literature. I have also drawn extensively on the brilliant critical edition of Hind Swaraj, which has been published recently: Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj: A Critical Edition, annotated and edited by Tridip Suhrud and Suresh Sharma (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan,  2010). Gandhi’s collected writings in both Gujarati and English are now available online at This website carries the first edition in English of Gandhi’s Collected Works; my references are from the second edition, available online at the website mentioned earlier.

[7] “Letter to Edmond and Yvonne Privat,” February 5, 1925, Gandhi, Collected Works, 93:366–67.

[8] For an erudite and comprehensive discussion of the relation between satya and God in Gandhi’s writing, see Sushil Kumar Saxena, Ever unto God: Essays on Gandhi and Religion (New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 1988), 8–28.

[9] For a discussion of the Bihar earthquake, and Gandhi’s departure from the secular version of the immanent-transcendent distinction, see my “‘No Politics without Religion’: Of Secularism and Gandhi,” in Political Hinduism: The Religious Imagination in Public Spheres, ed. Vinay Lal (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[10] In this preface, my focus is on the most intriguing way—which is to say, the way that remains untimely, touching on and yet exceeding both his time and ours—that religion is articulated in Gandhi’s writing. Later chapters will indicate how this untimeliness is only one possibility in his writing.

[11] Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, 35.

[12] The German sentence reads, “Denn das Fragen ist die Frömmigkeit des Denkens.” This could be translated as: “Then/thus the question/questioning is the piousness of thought” (John Mowitt, personal communication).

[13] Immanuel Kant, “Preface to the Second Edition,” Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), 29.

[14] Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” in Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 55. An interesting implication of Heidegger’s suggestion, noted earlier, is that Marx, because he deposes the suprasensory, can no longer be a materialist.

[15] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 36.

[16] I use the adjective “theological” in order to acknowledge that not all secularism is necessarily theological, that the commitment to the theologico-political is primarily today a mark of liberal secularism.

[17] The phrase “public religion” is from José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.) My concerns here are, of course, quite different from Casanova’s: he is concerned with the sociological question of whether the secularization thesis is valid, while my concern here is with how the apprehension of the death of God is constitutive of modernity. Perceptions of secularization would be one factor that could provoke these apprehensions.

[18] Hannah Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine, ed. Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 57.

[19] “Talk with Mars Chesley,” on or before December 15, 1934, Gandhi, Collected Works, 65:461.

[20] Gandhi sometimes resorts to the term “mystical” as a broad adjective for the religion he affirms; that resort is symptomatic of the groundless nature of his faith. He regards himself as a mystic, and satyagraha itself as closely related to mysticism. In 1942, for example, he says in an interview: “For the first time in history nonviolence instead of being confined to individuals, religious enthusiasts and mystics, has been brought down to the political field and been experimented on by vast masses of mankind.” “Interview to Foreign Correspondents,” July 15, 1942, Gandhi, Collected Works, 83:106.

[21] “Satyagraha Leaflet–6,” Akshardeha, 15:240; Gandhi, Collected Works, 17:448.

[22] Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine, 94. For my limited purposes here, I accept Arendt’s reading of Augustinian Christianity as adequate. It is likely that other readings may not allow for the distance I posit here between Augustine and Gandhi.

[23] Ibid., 95–96.

[24] Gitashikshan, Akshardeha, 32:180; Gandhi, Collected Works, 37:212. The sense of desh influential in Gandhi’s time is “country” in a nationalist sense. That sense occurs in Gandhi’s writings at many places, but as the passage above indicates, the term also often takes on an emphasis on place, tipping swadeshi over thus into a politics of neighborliness.

[25] Ernesto Laclau reminds us that in mysticism God is “radically not representable,” and that a long tradition has described this experience of the impossibility of representation as the “experience of finitude.” Nonrepresentability and the associated experience of finitude are constitutive of Gandhi’s religion, too. But the way these are articulated in Gandhi’s writing may reveal some of the elisions of Laclau’s formulations. First, for Laclau, God’s ineffability requires that his name not be granted “any determinate content”; his name “has to be an empty signifier, a signifier to which no signified can be attached.” At the same time, since this empty signifier names God, it also stands for the universal, for “Oneness.” Second, this empty signifier of mystical discourse “reveals something belonging to the general structure of experience.” The example “from the field of politics” Laclau gives of this general structure is the experience of hegemony—“a relation by which a particular content assumes, in a certain context, the function of incarnating an absent fullness.” Ernesto Laclau, “On the Names of God,” in The Rhetorical Foundations of Society (London: Verso, 2014), 46, 44, 48.

While I share Laclau’s extremely important emphasis on the experience of finitude, it may be necessary to reformulate the arguments about it. Laclau’s emphasis on the empty signifier may not adequately describe even his Christian examples—Meister Eckhart and Pseudo-Dionysius. Be that as it may, an emphasis on the empty signifier is especially inadequate as a way to think the religion that emerges from Gandhi’s writing. In Gandhi’s writing, first, the impossibility of representing God entails the destruction of God as a sovereign being, and the location of divinity instead in the immanent plurality and equality of all beings. God is thus experienced as a radical and singularizing finitude. Second, religion as such an experience of radical finitude must constantly relinquish any claim to hegemony. This is so because here oneness with the universal must be experienced in such a way as to recognize the truth of other universals, even as these universals are contested. Drawing on Gandhi’s writing, we might even suggest, contrary to Laclau, that what separates groundless faith or “mysticism” from theological “forms” of religion (and these other forms could more appropriately be described as organized around an empty signifier), is precisely its relinquishment of sovereignty and hegemony.

[26] Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,” Dissent 6 (Winter 1959). I thank Simona Sawhney for urging me to read this essay.

[27] Ibid., 50–54.

[28] Ellison remarks: “I believe that one of the important clues to the meaning of experience lies in the idea, the ideal of sacrifice. Hannah Arendt’s failure to grasp the importance of this ideal among Southern Negroes caused her to fly way off into left field” [emphasis in original]. See the interview with Ellison in Robert Penn Warren, Who Speaks for the Negro (New York: Random House, 1965), 343. Ellison’s reading of sacrifice diverges in significant ways from that we shall see offered by Gandhi—like Gandhi’s critic Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, he is much more acutely sensitive to the violence involved in the demand for sacrifice. But in the emphasis on the “ideal of sacrifice,” Gandhi and Ellison also come curiously close.

[29] When the three principles are conceived as “realms” that effectively exclude one another, phenomena like feminism and civil rights movements become incomprehensible (as in some ways they were to Arendt). Already by the time Arendt was writing, citizenship was recognized as not only political but also social: T. H. Marshall had made this point in a famous essay almost a decade before Arendt’s intervention. See T. H. Marshall, Citizenship and Social Class and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950).

[30] Étienne Balibar, Equaliberty: Political Essays, trans. James Ingram (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 3.

[31] For Balibar’s discussion of the mediation of the “modern, subjective remaking of right” through fraternity and property, see Equaliberty, 52.

[32] Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), ix–xi.

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