The problematic of truth telling requires us to return to the sense of means and ends – for Gandhi, means and ends are convertible. We do not term the minor premise a means, and the conclusion the end, in the case of syllogisms. That is, “Socrates is a man” is not the means to the end “Socrates is mortal”. The form of syllogism conveys necessity.

In the case of a mechanical law, such as “Momentum is the product of the mass of an object and its velocity,” momentum is not the end obtained through the means of mass and velocity. The form of the mechanical law conveys that each of the terms which constitute the law has a strict relation with the others, and also that any one term can be obtained, given the other two; that is, “Velocity of an object is given by its momentum divided by its mass.”

For a physical law to be available for articulation under the logic of means and ends, the terms of that law will have to be substitutable, except for one term, the end; in the case of momentum, one should be able to entertain the possibility of obtaining it under more than one set of relations between terms, such as, a product of the viscosity of an object and its temperature. Gandhi’s assertion concerning means and ends, that there is no polynomia in any domain, extends the form of mechanical laws into the domain of human freedom: there is no freedom since polynomia is an illusion, and man will inevitably be punished by the Maker, His Law, for surrendering to this illusion.

This convertibility of means and ends is beyond the imagination of the ordinary alchemist who seeks the convertibility of any metal into gold, whereas the Maker establishes the supreme convertibility which dissolves all the illusions of abandonment of man – “God is the supreme alchemist”. The supreme alchemist converts all actions into the value zero.

After all, our concerns with good and bad actions are determined according to the distinctions we entertain between means and ends; in the ratio between the given means and ends men determine the best action there is. The abandonment of mankind, for Gandhi, is effected by the illusion of polynomia. The abandonment of man is his freedom, contrary to the binding of man to the Maker’s Law – “Bond means bandhan.” The man in abandonment is the observer of the convertibility of means by other means, ends by ends, a means for an end, and an end for a means.

We found that Gandhi’s exasperation with language, that one word can mean several things and the same meaning can be conveyed through several words, reflects the acknowledgement of the conflict between polynomia and calypsology. In this sense, the arts are a game of un-truth. That is, they extend polynomia to newer limits with each instance.

Just as Gandhi would remark on the difference between absolute truth and relative truth, he would also practise the relative telling of truth. We found that certain truths have unwelcome consequences, even if their telling is the right means, which should ensure a right end, although it may not be apparent. Even then the passive resister, who is the adherent of Truth, shall tell it at all times – “A devotee of Truth cannot stop to consider if someone will not be injured by his telling the truth, for he believes that truth can never do harm.”

We shall take an example from Kant and set it to work under distinct parameters of a man who took refuge from his pursuers in a hospital. Let’s assume that it was in Nazi Germany, the man who was seeking refuge was a Jewish activist, and the hospital was manned by “native German” doctors. The imperative which commands the doctor is that he shall save all lives without discrimination.

The primum mobile of imperatives for Kant was that one shall tell the truth at all times. The moral value of an imperative is established through a logical examination; if an imperative is partial, such as truth telling, it results in the conditions where one is unable to practise it – the partial telling of truth will encourage men to not trust any statement at all, and if all men were to tell the truth at all times it would establish the faith in the speech of men.

The imperative to tell the truth will, then, establish a society which will require the least policing; the relation between truth by brute force – policing – and continuous and voluntary truth telling was to be one of the pillars of Gandhi’s ideal state of Hind Swaraj...

The doctor in the German hospital is obliged to deliver the Jewish activist over to the Nazis, while knowing that his truthfulness will kill a man. The Jewish activist hiding in the hospital is himself obliged to tell the truth, and reveal himself before his SS pursuers. Gandhi’s own thoughts about the Jewish people in 1938 are difficult to grasp – “The Jews are not angels.” Gandhi’s advisories to the Jewish people, threatened with annihilation, are not surprising:

“The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing, death has no terror.”

The sense of truth in this occasion concerns not merely a thought or a statement but rather the exposure of oneself to the brute force which seeks one’s own destruction. That is, when the Jewish activist tells the truth and submits himself before his captors, he identifies himself before the Nazis according to the Nazi criteria of being a Jew, and receives the fate reserved for the Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Gandhi appears to contradict himself in this case, since the truth to which man ought to expose himself, and the truth of man which will thus be exposed, are in accordance with the Laws of the Maker, whereas, the Nazi laws are still man-made.

Yet, in another sense the calamitous exposure to the truth held by the Nazis would remain a mediate exposure of the Jewish people to the thousand suns of the Maker. This leads us to the tonal centre of Truth – exposure and concealment. Truth is that which remains concealed, and man ought to expose all the hidden markers of Truth, His Law. Truth is also that which brings about suffering; if one obtains truth without suffering, it is not worthy of being called by that name.

We identify a proportional articulation here – in direct proportion to the exposure there is suffering, and in direct proportion to un-truth there is liveable life. This proportional articulation determines the movements of the Gandhian ascetic; he is scorched and baked in the thousand suns of Truth into the hardest terracotta figurine, which will endure forever. It is this mode of suffering, of offering the vulnerability of themselves before the Nazi machinery of genocide, which Gandhi proposed to the Jewish people – to expose oneself to annihilation in order that one is conjoined to absolute truth. In their own annihilation the Jewish people were to have the non-experience of Absolute Truth – “a joyful sleep”.

Gandhi and Philosophy

Excerpted with permission from
Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics, Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi, Bloomsbury Academic.