Obama, the Inattentive Student of Gandhi

On his recent trip to India, President Obama was lavish in his praise for Mahatma Gandhi. Obama maintained that Gandhi's message of being "the change we seek in the world" was instrumental in inspiring his own journey from community organizer to President of the United States. "I might not be standing here today," said the president, had it not been for the Great Soul's influence.

Knowing, however, that Gandhi's political philosophy included highly persuasive polemics against big government, the welfare state, foreign aid, affirmative action, identity politics, divisive rhetoric, and malice toward one's opponents, it's hard to imagine the president devoting much time as a student in quiet and humble contemplation with the great guru's writings.

Gandhi, for example, would have lasted about twenty seconds in Rev. Jeremiah Wright's Trinity "United" Church in Chicago. On the other hand, Barack Obama and his family dutifully attended Wright's church for twenty years. Wright's racially divisive theology of "liberation" would have constituted for Gandhi a direct assault on one of the main pillars of his own political philosophy: "liberation," or swaraj.

While swaraj literally means "independence," for Gandhi, the term was much more importantly associated with intense self-examination and self-mastery. True freedom, according to Gandhi, meant an inward journey of liberation from the kind of anger, fear, and hatred that served only to perpetuate cycles of domination and division in society. 

Gandhi argued, for example, that national liberation from the British would actually create a more harmful situation in India if the new Hindu political class failed to cleanse themselves of longstanding resentments and ill will. Gandhi understood quite rightly that the internal "weaknesses and failures" that might continue to animate the new rulers "would then be buttressed up by the accession of power."   

It's quite impossible, in other words, to conjure up a picture of Gandhi unleashing the kind of unbridled rhetoric ("I don't mind cleaning up after them, but don't do a lot of talking") that President Obama has often used to characterize his own conservative countrymen. In addition, when the president advised Hispanic voters to think of the recent election as an opportunity to "punish our enemies" and "reward our friends," he was giving painful evidence to the suspicion that someone other than Gandhi had in fact inspired his own run for the White House. 

Swaraj is also the reason why Gandhi was deeply suspicious of big government. Gandhi saw an inverse relationship between disciplined self-mastery and the need for the welfare state. Indeed, the Bhagavad-Gita -- Hinduism's holiest scripture -- is a beautifully arranged set of eighteen sermons by the avatar Krishna to the warrior Arjuna on the philosophical intricacies of self-control, or yoga, which forms the basis of an individual's moral and spiritual progress. Said Gandhi:

I look upon an increase of the power of the state with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress.

Gandhi observed that while individuals have souls, the state is "a soulless machine" that "represent[s] violence in a concentrated and organized form." Rather than rely on the state, then, to redistribute wealth and reduce inequality, Gandhi proposed what he called "trusteeship." Trusteeship meant persuading the affluent to think of their wealth as something held in trust for the indigent poor. Again, Gandhi was trying to couple the freedom inherent in Hindu philosophy with the faith in a man's ability to master and overcome his often self-centered proclivities: "We know of so many cases where men have adopted trusteeship, but none where the State has really lived for the poor."

The great Gandhi scholar Dr. Dennis Dalton, who taught for years at Columbia University, has said that when Gandhi used the term "welfare for all," he meant "economic justice and equal opportunity, not dependency on the welfare system as we know it in America." [Emphasis added.] Professor Dalton adds:

Gandhi's idealism is usually associated with compassion and charity, but in his appeal to discipline and hard work there is an undeniable strain of what we might call ‘Yankee individualism.'  He identified with the gospel of self-reliance in the philosophy of two of the Americans that he admired most, Thoreau and Emerson.

For Gandhi, the dangers of welfare-state dependency extended beyond individuals to nations as well. To those advocating global wealth redistribution, Gandhi made the quite startling observation that a nation that accepts economic aid succeeds only in crippling itself:

There is nothing more degrading for a country than to beg from others when it cannot meet its requirements.  It is a practical principle that if you want to be friends with someone and you want the friendship to endure, you should not seek economic aid from them.

Like all of history's great moralists from Aristotle to Kant, Gandhi recognized that the source of benevolent moral relationships included both freedom and a healthy sense of personal responsibility. Gandhi's fear of welfare-state dependency was remarkably similar to the concern Adam Smith had about the bureaucratic state "pushing too far" and destroying the basis for human benevolence. "Beneficence is always free," said Smith. "[I]t cannot be extorted by force."

In addition, swaraj was also the reason why Gandhi objected to the affirmative action and quota policies that many social reformers were advocating for India's untouchables back in the 1930s. Gandhi was strikingly clairvoyant in his belief that quota policies -- such as reserved legislative seats and separate electorates -- would serve only to inflame identity politics and perpetuate the bondage of the untouchables:

I am certain that the question of separate electorates for the untouchables is a modern manufacture of a Satantic Government ... Separate electorates to the untouchables will ensure them bondage in perpetuity. ... Do you want the untouchables to remain untouchables forever?  Well, the separate electorates would perpetuate the stigma.

Gandhi believed that freedom also meant the freedom to explore opportunities beyond what seemed appropriate for one's station in life. True national unity would be predicated on individual social mobility and the ability to transcend rigid boundaries. Since affirmative action policies tend to reinforce rigid and divisive beliefs about identity, they both limit the range of future opportunity and foster ugly labels such as "sellout" for those who affirm individual achievement over group inertia. And once again, self-mastery is compromised by a reliance on the state to confer benefits.

In sum, Gandhi argued that Western socialism is predicated upon a entirely dismal view of human potential compared with Hinduism, which holds that free individuals had the capacity to "respond to the spirit" within them and rise above the petty forces of bitterness and self-indulgence. As Krishna tells Arjuna in the final stirring passages of the Bhagavad-Gita:

I give you these precious words of wisdom; reflect on them and then do as you choose.  These are the last words I shall speak to you, dear one, for your spiritual fulfillment.

In other words, whether or not Arjuna fulfills his dharma in life is entirely up to him. Krishna's role is to convey Hindu philosophy in all of its brilliance and hope that Arjuna is moved by its lushness and logic into doing the right thing.

Ralph Waldo Emerson -- an early American admirer of the Bhagavad-Gita -- understood, like Gandhi did, that personal initiative and a faith in human potential constitute the keys to both individual and collective flourishing. In his great essay, Self-Reliance, Emerson says:

The secret of fortune is joy in our hands.  Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man.  For him all doors are flung wide; him all tongues greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire.

Gandhi would have also certainly endorsed Emerson's critical attitude toward various types of community organizers and "social justice" crusaders: "All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves."

Newsweek editor Evan Thomas once called Barack Obama a "great teacher" who "stands above everybody." The problem with "great" teachers who were indifferent students, however, is that they have a tendency to stand above everybody.


Dalton, Dennis, ed. Mahatma Gandhi: Selected Political Writings.  Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc, 1996.

Killian, Lewis M. "Gandhi, Frederick Douglass, and Affirmative Action."  International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society.  Vol. 5, No. 2, 1991.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Self-Reliance" in Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  New York, NY: A.S. Barnes & Co.
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