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Ramchandra Gandhi and Contemporary Indian Philosophy

Interview by Richard Marshall.

A. Raghuramaraju is Professor of Social Philosophy at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Tirupati. His research covers social and political philosophy, contemporary Indian Philosophy, postmodernism and postcolonialism, bio-ethics, science, technology and society and philosophical perspectives on desires. Here he discusses Ramchandra Gandhi, Gandhi’s early work on Grice and the distinction between ‘eliciting’ and ‘soliciting’, the Self and the Other, Gandhi’s attitude to religion and art, Gandhi’s break from the analytic tradition, Gandhi’s non-sectarianism and anti communalism, Vivekananda and contemporary Indian philosophy, Krishna Chandra Bhattacharyya and Akeel Bilgrami, Daya Krishna and Satchidananda Murty,absorbing Buddhism into Hinduism, whether Indian philosophy could interface with Islamic philosophy as well and the dominant structures and paradigms of philosophy as currently practiced in India.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

A. Raghuramaraju: I think it was by accident that I took to studying philosophy. Though I got my BA degree in commerce, I was not interested in pursuing commerce. I was in an indecisive state with regard to my career. One option for me was to continue with my family profession of agriculture. The other was to study commerce and make a future in the Banking sector, which I never liked. I was also willing to join Ramakrishna Math as a monk but I couldn’t because of family pressures. I applied for an MA in International Relations from JNU, New Delhi but could not secure a seat. On one fine day in the month of July 1978 I was returning to my village from Tirupati by bus. It was the evening time. When the bus stopped at Renigunta I accidentally bought the English news daily The Hindu that had a notification for admission to an MA in Philosophy of the University of Hyderabad. I applied and was admitted onto the program by Professor Ramchandra Gandhi even though I had not written the examination well as my English was pathetic, being a Telugu medium student throughout till then. He admitted me because I had diploma in yoga! I was not able to cope with the classes and made three attempts to discontinue my studies but each time the train to my native village got cancelled. So, I resigned everything to fate and took to the subject seriously, learning both philosophy and English simultaneously.

Consequently, my class performance gradually got better. My teachers, classmates and other friends helped me immensely. This journey has been largely learning a new subject, a new language, and identifying limitations and defects that I sought to overcome and consolidate.

3:AM: You call Ramchandra Gandhi one of the most creative Indian philosophers. He started working in speculative philosophy and analytic language, didn’t he? Can you sketch for us an overview of his philosophical interests, and say whether you think his use of both western and Indian philosophical traditions is what makes him such an interesting philosopher? Is he an example of a philosopher working to find convergence between tradition and modernity, the west and India?

AR: He is the best example of the convergence of tradition and modernity; the West and India. He is the only philosopher in the entire span of the twentieth century who provided a philosophical perspective to understand the modern Indian thinkers like Ramana Maharshi, Alagamma, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Sri Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, The Mother, Mahatma Gandhi, and J. Krishnamurti. He thus performed one of the major tasks of philosophy by providing a philosophical perspective on pre-philosophical visions just as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas did for Christianity and Samkara for Vedanta and Nagarjuna for Buddhism. He also gave a critical evaluation of the system, giving new interpretations or offering comparisons between two allied or rival systems. The first task is more fundamental than the second one, and Ramchandra Gandhi stands tall in brilliantly undertaking this task throughout 20th century India.

Another important task undertaken by Gandhi was bringing a rigorous analytical philosophy from the West together with the speculative philosophy of Whitehead to discuss both classical and modern Indian philosophy and ideas. As well as undertaking the arduous task of handholding modernity and tradition, India and the West, he also resisted the temporal imbalance created by comparing the classical India with the modern West, something found in the work of B. K. Matilal, Daya Krishna, J. N. Mohanty and their students where India invariably loses the game. The other philosopher who resisted this imbalance is Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. I have discussed the nature of this form of imbalance in my book, Debates in Indian Philosophy: Classical, Colonial and Contemporary.

[Ramchandra Gandhi]

3:AM: You suggest that his early work on Grice and the distinction between ‘eliciting’ and ‘soliciting’, as well as work on ‘cooperative communication’ signal his future philosophical interests. Can you say something about this?

AR: Thank you for asking this seminal question. My strong hunch on this point is that there is a peculiar way in which the Self and the Other are formulated and used in the West. Despite many differences in the various combinations of these two concepts, what is common is the fact that the Self comes first and the Other later. This sequential relation is founded by modern philosophers such as Descartes. The temporal ordering, where the Self comes first and the Other later, invariably renders the Other as secondary. One consequence of this is solipsism where the Other is photo-shopped, and the other is inter-subjectivity. While they succeeded in incorporating the Other along with the Self, the sequential relation renders the Other as secondary. Philosophies from the West have been struggling with this issue in various forms.

An alternative, the reversal of this ordering, is available in King Ashoka, the follower of Lord Buddha. He maintained in his 12th Rock Edict that welfare of the other community is the precondition for the welfare of my own community. Here the Other comes first and the Self later. This classical idea, where the sequence is reversed in a nascent way, seems to operate behind Ramchandra Gandhi’s analysis of Grice’s distinction between ‘eliciting’ and ‘soliciting’. Here, in soliciting from the Other rather than eliciting, the Self gives more importance to the Other than in other theories of communication dominant during his time; further, it is not a transaction between two individuals but is the activity where others other than just the Other is either implicitly or explicitly present. So, Gandhi’s theory of communication seems to inhabit the classical Indian philosophical idea where the Other comes first and the Self later and where both Other and Self are closely imbricated within the community where cooperation is dominant. This is my hunch behind Gandhi’s idea of soliciting rather than eliciting but we need to do more work on this theme.

It is another matter in some schools of classical Indian philosophy, such as Buddhism and Nyāya, that what is advocated is an apoha theory of knowledge, seeking to move away from what lies within the domain of knowledge to what lies outside it. According to this theory, knowledge consists not in knowing what it is but what it is not. And what it is not is infinite. The implication of this to Foucault’s knowledge and power is discussed in my recent book, Modern Frames and Premodern Themes in Indian Philosophy: Border, Self and Other .

3:AM: What was his attitude to religion? What were the philosophical underpinnings to his approach to art?

AR: For Ramchandra Gandhi, both religion and art, while making sense to the common people, have to be strictly free from any kind of sectarianism included within communalism. But he was not a secularist in the liberal sense of the term as he was of the opinion that this brand of secularism is located outside and does not understand the notion of community. Religion and art are expressions of universalism and truth and he was against all those who made use of universalist religion for sectarian politics. This he rejected outright. He tried to highlight the non-sectarian universal ideas of religion that prevail in Hinduism, Christianity and Islam through modern Indian sages.

3:AM: Why did he break with the analytic tradition, and why do some think that ‘I Am Thou’ signaled a decline in his philosophy? Was it a decline?

AR: His relation with the analytical tradition is not simple and straight forward. Analytical philosophy has two aspects. One, its nature, and the other, its relation to its adversaries. Idealism, metaphysics, and religion in relation to modern sciences set a huge agenda for philosophy in the early twentieth century. The analytical tradition developed its philosophy in this context. Gandhi, who was on a temporary and brief visit to the West, did not find the same adversaries back home in India. He learned about the themes and techniques of the analytic philosophers then gradually turned to India and started using analytical philosophy to make philosophical sense of Indian themes. In India he faced a different and peculiar problem. While idealism and metaphysics were present in western philosophy he did not find them in India, largely due to colonialism. He reintroduced them but in a different way from both the classical and modern academic scholars in India. So in a way he fell in between these two groups but succeeded in pursuing his own path using analytical technique, bending them gradually to the point of discarding it. From I am Thou, he reclaimed classical themes, particularly through modern Indian thinkers. Since he was moving away from both orthodoxy and academic protocols, neither of which were doing well, his adversaries thought his work marked a decline. This judgement comes from those who had not read him properly. There was hardly any academic engagement with his writings by his critics. However, unlike his adversaries, he authored seven full length books along with editing and publishing papers both in professional and non-professional journals.

3:AM: He worked across so many themes and genres that the work can look fragmentary. Do you detect a common theme or set of interests running through his different approaches?

AR: There is no common theme as he was hopping restlessly from one theme to the other. He is a relentless, habitual and compulsive explorer. He experimented with different styles of writing, beginning with the speculative philosophy of Whitehead. He moved to a rigorous analytical style and offered creative interpretations of art, literature and painting. He wrote a fiction, though he declares it to be non-fictional work. Despite the changing nature of his themes and interests what is common in Ramchandra Gandhi is his rigour and his adventurous attempt to bring together different themes in stunningly novel ways. This continuity in treatment is common despite the discontinuity in themes.

3:AM: How important is he as a political philosopher? What was his approach and what did he defend?

AR: He is non-sectarian and anti-communal without rejecting community. He saw communalism not only as an aberration of community but found it quite the opposite to community. Following the advaitic non-dualist path mostly routed through Raman Maharshi and Ramkrishna Paramahansa, he argued that the Other is part and extension of the Self. So, doing any injury to the Other is injuring oneself. Though not a systematic political philosopher, he was sensitive like a thermometer to the ills of society. However, he sought to process the ills in society in his philosophy lab, clinically examining the nature of the illness of communalism and violence.

3:AM: Another seminal thinker you’ve looked at is Vivekananda. Is your aim to get behind the hagiographic and emotional writings and find his intellectual worth?

AR: My work on Vivekananda is part of my larger project on contemporary Indian philosophy. I find handling this as very risky and like rag picking in a diamond merchants’ colony. More than what they said, the ideas contained in their remarks attracted and preoccupied my attention. They attempted some good ideas and experiments but they lacked a systematic academic algorithm. What is interesting is that most of them managed to write extensively despite their political activism in India’s freedom struggle. M. K. Gandhi’s writings are collected in 100 volumes, Aurobindo’s and B. R. Ambedkar’s in 30 volumes each, and Vivekananda in 9 volumes. This is unique globally – we usually have politicians or writers, but not both in one and in such a large number. This fascinated me. However, their writings are not systematic and there are very few writings about them. So to begin with, I decided to put together a work in the form of either debates about them or potential debates, avoiding having to take up any crude political side. I was aiming to help facilitate different perspectives on their writings. I was wanting to avoid writing, reading or speaking about them that endorsed their ideas. As philosophers we do not and should not only read those with whom we agree. According to the debating manuals of classical India, the person who disagrees with a view should know more about it than the upholder of that view. Just as Western academics’ writing about fascism does not amount to endorsing it, it is still necessary to present the idea in a systematic way so that the reader has the facility to read objectively.

So, this is what I tried to do to someone like Vivekananda and earlier to M.K. Gandhi. My project is to get behind the hagiographic and emotional writings of these writers. My focus is to reduce excessive emotional and political responses. I want to examine them academically without being moved by them emotionally.

In addition I have also searched and identified a neglected metaphysical text by Vaddera Chandidas, titled, Desire and Liberation: The Fundamentals of Cosmicontology. This book was first discovered by Kalidas Bhattacharyya who wrote an introduction to this book which was published in 1975. For nearly 17 years no one read this book. I started reading it in 1993, and the uniqueness of this philosopher brought me to the conclusion that he is was one of the few scholars, like Sartre, who was both a philosopher and a creative writer. He wrote basically in Telugu, one of the Indian languages. There has not been a new philosophical text from the Indian sub-continent in the last 300 years, and to my surprise, I found Desire and Liberation as a complete metaphysical text. I worked on this for 16 years and consequently wrote a book titled, Enduring Colonialism: Classical Presences and Modern Absences in Indian Philosophy. I have now curated a republication of this book along with other related works in a single volume, titled, Desire and Liberation: Biography of a Text by Vaddera Chandidas. I think in today’s India we need we need more compilers and editors than those who actually contribute new knowledge to the richest knowledge system existing today.

3:AM: What do we find? Was he ‘the resounding voice of a new and confident India’ or merely a ‘whimper of the wounded pride of a subject people’?

AR: The latter is a clear possibility. It can be circumvented however with a serious and concerted effort to find out those aspects that are unique. As I said earlier contemporary India produced those who were both active in politics and managed to write extensively, though the writings were not very systematic. But there is a need to present them in a systematic way. This is the reason why I am more active as an editor and compiler than a writer of my own ideas. Left to itself, Indian thought can be reduced to a whimper but if one works hard then it can be seen as having confidence without arrogance. One interesting feature of Indian thinking is the way in which there is no clear and complete opposition between religion and science. This is at variance with the experience in the West. This is a place where modernity coexists with the premodern. This relation is governed by conflict, coexistence and subversion. For instance, most of the cities which are products of modernity are extensions of villages from the premodern. And there are instances of modernity extending premodernity in thinking. Take Gandhi who produced one of the most remarkable feats of hermeneutics when he went against the prevalent view that saw the Bhagavad Gita as a text that promotes violence. He found a new interpretation by drawing on resources both from within and outside the text to claim it to be a text of non-violence. All these developments if they are left untouched and disorganised can be reduced to a mere whimper. But as I said before, if one works on them then they can contribute to the making of a more confident India.

3:AM: You’ve looked at philosophy as practiced now in India. Key themes running through the work are modernity, colonialism, classical Indian philosophy and modern Western philosophy. Krishna Chandra Bhattacharyya and Akeel Bilgrami saw their project as offering Indian solutions to Western philosophical problems. Obviously this is a huge subject, but could you give us a flavour of how they approached this project.

AR: I follow the protocols of the modern Western academics, and classical India and take my immediate predecessors seriously. That made me engage with Krishna Chandra Bhattacharyya and Akeel Bilgrami. It was common to say that because of colonialism Western scholarship did not take India seriously. I wondered whether there were other reasons for this neglect. I found two structural problems in the writings of Bhattacharyya. One is that because of his total preoccupation with the colonial slavery of the native he does not provide resources for his recommendation of Swaraj in ideas. If the slave is in a state of total slavery, then where does the slave get the idea of achieving Swaraj? There are no clues in his essay, “Swaraj in Ideas”. The other problem with him is that he made the mistake of recommending to the West, particularly to Kant, an Indian solution in the form of Advaita.

This tendency of recommending Indian solutions to the Western problems are also found in Bilgrami. Bilgrami makes an adventurous and bold move where he equates moral philosophy in the West to moral principles. In contrast he says Gandhi offers an alternative approach, claiming that instead of mere principles he offered his life as a moral example. I find this move problematic as it fails to take into consideration similar exemplars from the West, including the life of Socrates, not necessarily Plato’s Socrates; and the life of Christ.

3:AM: How successful do you think they were in what they wanted to achieve?

AR: They are successful to the extent that they succeeded in placing this problem of India on the table. But the problem with Bhattacharyya lies in his reading of the Other. While he takes the Other from the outside as an oppressor I want to explore those instances where the Other is an enabler. For instance, Reverend Hastie, a Christian outsider, introduced Ramakrishna Paramahamsa to Vivekananda (Narendra Nath Dutta) in his class where he was studying; and the Bhagavad Gita in translation was first brought to the notice of Gandhi in England by two theosophists. So, in both these instances we see the Other as enabler. I think Bhattacharyya’s success lies in formulating the problem but his failure lies in not being able to see these other aspects of the Other.

Similarly, while Bilgrami’s success lies in bringing Gandhi on to the global academic platform his failure lies in his reading of the West.

3:AM: You’re critical of Daya Krishna and Satchidananda Murty in their attempts to engage traditional Indian philosophy with Western philosophy, in Krishna’s case, and looking at the state of Indian universities, in Murty’s. Again, a huge subject, but can you say something about why you think they missed key thinkers like Gandhi, who we discussed earlier, and what they missed by failing to look at these thinkers?

AR: The larger reason for this is Daya Krishna’s obsession with the West and his failure in not seeing what is in front of him. In contrast, Ramchandra Gandhi refrains from such mistakes. I find that the reality of contemporary India is a spectacle; some part of it is expressed in the writings of the contemporary Indian thinkers. However, academic philosophers in India utterly failed in engaging with these thinkers to date. This general failure, I think, is due to their engagement with ancestors and outsiders, and their neglect of their predecessors. Murty’s problem lies in the purview of his study, namely the state of philosophy in India and his seeking solutions within the purview of the university when solutions are available outside in the form of contemporary Indian thinkers and contemporary Indian society.

3:AM: Another live area for philosophy is the attempt to absorb Buddhism into Hinduism. Who are the leading philosophers in this work, and how do you understand the issues they face. Are you optimistic about this project?

AR: Two important philosophers who made this attempt are S. Radhakrishnan and A. K. Coomaraswamy. They undertook this to show the unity of India and to combat the onslaught of colonialism. But outside this, I don’t find this project desirable. Unlike these who saw difference as a sign of weakness, I find difference as providing raw materials for debate and that strengthens and polishes ideas. Though I have these reservations about this project, I am excited about the project where Vedanta is brought in creative comparison with Buddhism by Gaudapada who was the great grand teacher of Samkara in his Mandukya Karika. This provided for the first time a foundational methodology for comparative philosophy in India. I am excited about this.

3:AM: The close proximity to Pakistan might lead one to wonder whether philosophers should be working to find ways of absorbing Islamic philosophy as well. Is there anything like such a project happening or is it too toxic for India at the moment? Does this tell us something about the context of Indian philosophy that needs to be addressed?

AR: I do not know about philosophy in Pakistan as my preoccupation with India keeps me busy. However, there are those like Alam Khundmiri from India whose work on Islamic philosophers like Al-Ghazali and Iqbal is very important and needs to be taken seriously. Iqbal’s Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam and many other works need serious attention. For example, Macaulay in his minutes rejecting the works written in both Sanskrit and Arabic offered himself as a common enemy to both of these languages. After independence from the British, they should have become allies having a common enemy in the fight against the aftereffects of colonialism. Partition prevented this. While Macaulay equally rejected both these languages and their scholarship there was no commonality by way of response. There is a need to do more on this and relook at the way in which each referred to the other in their writings. The other reason for doing this is to reclaim what was rejected by colonialism along with incorporating things from colonialism. This requires a lot of attention. In this respect there is no need to see this within the arena of communalism. Similarly Bollywood cinema can become an inspiration for philosophy.

3:AM: As a take home then, could you summarize what you think the dominant structures and paradigms of philosophy as currently practiced in India? How well do you think Indian and Western (Anglo/American) philosophy can speak to each other, or are the interests and approaches too different?

AR: As depicted by Murty, philosophy is not in a good state. There is a disproportion between the number of philosophers engaged with Western philosophy and its academic production both locally and globally. When I was getting the courses ready for U. G. C e-pathshala, I found the teachers writing modules on Indian philosophy were more enthusiastic and productive than those who were to write on Western philosophy. This is disheartening as there is a disproportion between the number of philosophers doing Indian philosophy and those doing Western philosophy. This is despite the good number of talented philosophers in India. So the problem is not with agency but with structures. I have come across very bright teachers in India. In some of them I found that they are very good on a thinker or on a theme and can really explain the idea clearly, but they are not aware about the context of the idea. A good teacher of philosophy will not be able to explain why Wittgenstein highlighted the ordinary in language. They will just go on repeating what he said about ordinary language. This is one of the failures. Ramchandra Gandhi is one of the few people who saw this problem and tried to overcome it.

The other problem is that academia failed to identify a common area and recruit people who could share work and become collaborators in research projects. Most of the teachers work in isolation without a common human resource to share their work. Most of the research papers in journals in India do not contribute to a cumulative scholarship. Instead, most of these contribute to an accumulation that runs parallel. This practice, which is rampant in academia in India, makes scholarship burdensome when it is supposed to sharpen and polish ideas. So research needs to become more focused. It needs to take into consideration existing scholarship before adding something new. In this respect I am fascinated and guided by the Western academic bureaucracy and protocols.

I have recently read the biography of Pratapsethi by G. R. Malkani A Life Sketch of Srimant Pratapseth and A Brief Account of the Advaitic System of Thought. Sethi was a mill owner who founded the Centre of Philosophy at Amalner where many stalwarts from 20th century India including Krishna Chandra Bhattacharyy (his now famous book Subject as Freedom was written in and first published by this Institute), G. R. Malkani, R. D. Ranade, Rasvihari Das, Kalidas Bhattacharyya, S. N. Dasgupta, T. M. P. Mahadevan, T. R.V. Murti, G. C. Chatterjee, S. K. Maitra, Daya Krishna and many other have either directly worked there or collaborated within this Institute. But Sethi and his spiritual Guru Savalaram did not know whom to recruit and how to run an academic institution. They were forced to ‘depend upon others; and he (Sethi) could sufficiently efface himself, as occasion required, to get things done for him by others’. In this context they had two resources from where they could recruit: one “pick of … young men [who] went to the universities’ or those ‘who were somehow deficient either in means or in ability, or who were through their orthodoxy isolated from the current of modern life, to the study of Shastras in the old stereotyped way’. They did not find ‘much hope in the latter’ as they ‘were bookish, dogmatic… accepted everything, because the Shastras said it. What went outside the four walls of the Shastras was just worthless and erroneous. They would not use their own intelligence. They locked the compartment of reason for good. The young men, on the other hand, who passed out of the universities, had at least liberalized views, and they used reason.” (p. 10-11) I found this preparation of decision making very useful to get at the history of setting up Indian institutions of philosophy in the 20th century.

3:AM: And for the readers at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend (other than your own) that would take us further into your philosophical world?

AG: Though Plato’s Dialogues, Descartes Discourse on Method and Husserls Crisis in European Science has shaped my understanding of West, yet the books that I would recommend are:

Badarayan’s Vedanta Sutras;

Gaudapada’s Mandukya Karika;

M. K. Gandhi’s Essays on Gita; Ashis Nandy’s “The Final Encounter”; and Vaddera Chandidas’ Desire and Liberation: The Fundamentals of Cosmicontology, reprinted in Desire and Liberation: Biography of a Text by Vaddera Chandidas.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 24th, 2018.