Gandhi’s Synthesis of Liberal and Communitarian Values (a guest post by Sanjay Lal)

This is a guest-post by Sanjay Lal (Clayton State University). For further info on guest-posts on the Indian Philosophy Blog, check this page.


I would like to share some of what I’m working on with the readers of the Indian Philosophy Blog. Recently made available on the web-site of The Journal of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research (and uploaded on is my article “Gandhi’s synthesis of liberal and communitarian values: Its basis and insights” ( In this piece, which I expect to appear in the journal’s June print issue (vol. 33 issue 2), I argue that an underlying harmony can be found in Gandhi’s philosophy among seemingly contradictory liberal and communitarian values (e.g. the right of conscience, and honoring one’s inherited social place) given his overall views on Self-realization. Ultimately, I aim to show that if we interpret Gandhi’s thoughts on the Self in a way that is in line with the Advaita Vedānta tradition (an interpretation textually justified) we can better understand his basis for thinking seemingly disparate liberal and communitarian concepts make up a coherent whole. Additionally, I argue that Gandhi’s synthesis of such concepts has relevance for present day conflicts which consume the “real world” (such as those relating to secular and religious understandings of the right kind of society).   It is my belief that Gandhi shows there exist little noticed resources within classical Hindu philosophy which are useful for a world coping with sectarian conflicts and that are much more profound than the standard pluralistic interpretations of Hinduism suggest.

My article places a special focus on Gandhi’s thoughts regarding both religious conversions and caste distinctions. I note that his views on these matters show significant agreement with and sensitivity toward central liberal as well as communitarian concerns. To summarize my main argument:

  • 1. For Gandhi, realization of the Self is the aim of all legitimate communities (and indeed it is what all of us seek however conscious we may be of this goal).
  • 2. To realize the Self we must first becoming worthy of exercising the individual rights and freedoms important to political liberals. These rights and freedoms can be properly understood only when they are anchored to a system of religious thought.
  • 3. To become so worthy we must first learn the partial truths specific communities (e.g. the religious ones we are born into) emphasize; keeping in my mind that such truths can be seen as more or less viable given the specific places in which they have strived.
  • 4. Thus, the primary role of the state for Gandhi should not be to indiscriminately preserve and promote liberal rights and freedoms but to develop citizens who can first become worthy of such rights and freedoms—a project that requires the state to advance the well-being and flourishing of particular communities (including religious ones but in a way that does not favor any one group and which facilitates mutually beneficial interaction among diverse communities).

My argument implies at least two interrelated areas of additional research:

  • 1. Does it make sense to think of the realization of the Self (as understood in the Advaita Vedānta tradition) as a universal goal shared by all legitimate communities? (Indeed one can even ask if the values of diverse religious groups—as well as secular proponents of liberalism—are indeed commensurate in the way Gandhi assumes.)
  • 2. Is such a view in line with the Advaita Vedānta school itself?

In regard to the first question, we can also wonder whether understanding Self-realization as the universal goal of diverse religious communities does justice to how these communities see themselves. Perhaps a comparative study of the philosophically minded exponents of different religious communities (e.g. Śaṅkara, Augustine, Rumi, etc.) that are at the center of so much present day polarization does indeed lend itself to such an interpretation.   Of course, it would also be necessary to show that such exponents both accurately represent their respective traditions and that the ideas they put forth for living in a diverse world are philosophically acceptable.   I welcome any comments readers of this blog may have.


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10 Replies to “Gandhi’s Synthesis of Liberal and Communitarian Values (a guest post by Sanjay Lal)”

  1. Thanks for sharing, Sanjay. There are two things I could not understand in your post:
    1. Why choosing Advaita Vedānta? You write “I aim to show that if we interpret Gandhi’s thoughts on the Self in a way that is in line with the Advaita Vedānta tradition (an interpretation textually justified)”. Could you elaborate on this textual basis?
    2. I am not sure I get the second step in your summary. Does it mean that each truth is always situated, especially within a given religious system?

    • Thanks Elisa for your inquiry. The textual basis I’m referring to includes Gandhi’s comments in Young India in which he asserts “the oneness of God and therefore of humanity”.(quoted in M.K. Gandhi, Non-violence in Peace and War). Also, Gandhi speaks of “the innermost center of us all where Truth abides in fullness”. (quoted in Iyer, The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi). Additionally, Gandhi speaks of atman as “purest essence” (Gandhi quoted in Smith). While it is true Gandhi often acknowledges a personal conception of ultimate reality it is clear that he favors an impersonal conception that gets personalized simply out of necessity for human understanding. Finally, many places in his collected works show that Gandhi maintains Truth and Being are one and that nothing else but Truth exists.

      In regard to the second point in my summary, it seems to me that Gandhi holds that concepts like freedom, autonomy, and rights can only make sense within a religious/spiritual context. Ultimately, I would argue that such concepts for Gandhi are hollow when we attempt to speak of them free from any religious framework. This follows given the centrality of dharma to his overall philosophy.

  2. Thank you for your post, Sanjay.

    I must say, though, that it seems to me that the claims you highlight are consistent with multiple versions of Vedanta, and more importantly, with a generic view inspired by the Upanishads and Gita without any specific affiliation. Indeed, they are also consistent with multiple non-Indian religious and philosophical views.

    Using Advaita Vedanta as an interpretive lens here seems forced, and given the Advaita denigration of karmayoga, it seems somewhat inapt as well.

    • You are correct of course. However that is Gandhi’ s point. Indeed he would say that those claims are in line with all legitimate religions and philosophies. Part of what I’m also trying to do in my piece is show there is in fact ample room to think of Gandhi as both a Hindu and a “reformed liberal”. I bring up the particular school of Vedanta I do simply because it is the most well known Hindu philosophy. Also Gandhi saw no conflicts between Vedanta and action but sought to explain the disparaging you mention in terms of the different social structures the early Vedanta thinkers were part of. Thanks for your feedback!

      • Sanjay, Margaret Chatterjee (“Gandhi’s Religious Thought”) argues that Gandhi shouldn’t be understood as an Advaitin, but is more like a neo-Vedāntin, and Glyn Richards, in his article, ” Gandhi’s Concept of Truth and the Advaita Tradition”, which is a paper directly relevant to the one you’ve posted here, says something similar:

        “This brings us to the question posed at the outset, namely, in what sense can Gandhi be called an Advaitin? Does his claim to be a believer in Advaita relate only to the concept of the essential oneness of existence? I have tried to show that certain comparisons can be drawn between his position and that of classical Advaita but that the differences are too basic to enable us to call him an Advaitin in that sense. The similarities between his view and the views of Vivekananda, however, are sufficient to enable us to say that he is closer to the neo-Vedantic position than to classical Vedanta and that the similarities extend beyond the concept of the essential oneness of existence.” (Religious Studies, 03/1986, Volume 22, Issue 1)

        Would you say that your position is opposed to theirs in your characterization of Gandhi’s thought? Or do you think your view is compatible with theirs?

        • I would actually say that my views are compatible with theirs in so far as both the classic and neo-Vedanta views can be understood as compatible with one another and I, along with Chatterjee and Richards, can agree that Gandhi affirms the essential oneness of existence (which, at the very least, would be sufficient for classifying Gandhian thought within the neo-Vedanta tradition). I, actually, am comfortable though with thinking that affirming the essential oneness of existence is enough for being an Advaitin in the classic sense. That, of course, is a matter that goes beyond the scope of my paper.

  3. Thanks for your answers Sanjay. Now a different question: How do you think one can address Amartya Sen’s critique of communitarianism (namely that it solidifies identities, whereas real individuals are always more complex than a single description) from a Gandhian perspective?

  4. I appreciate the interest that is being shown toward my points.

    Not having studied Sen in any great detail, I’m hesitant to comment much beyond noting that Gandhi very much advocates a “living contact” among different communities so that they can learn from one another and grow. I think it is clear to him (in spite of what may seem to be the case from his attitudes toward modernity) that a community (or culture for that matter) should be understood as something that is constantly changing and that the members of any community should consciously seek to improve it. Underscoring this point is the many passages in which he cites (what he takes to be) a progression of nonviolent attitudes from earlier (more communal) times in making more broader points about ahimsa being the law of life. Thus, Gandhi would probably find that the understanding of community Sen criticizes is not an accurate understanding of how communities actually are. Additionally, I would argue that for Gandhi our identifications with specific communities is something we will gradually overcome (you could even say outgrow) as we further progress spiritually. I hope this offers some clarity.

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