Thursday, November 04, 2010

Gandhi's answer to libertarians

In the words of Bhikhu Parekh:

Gandhi saw more clearly than most other writers both the interdependence of human beings and the ways in which systems of domination were built up and sustained. He argued that all systems of domination rested on a profound misunderstanding of human nature, and wrongly assumed that it was possible for one man or group of men to harm another without also harming themselves. Human beings were necessarily interdependent and formed an organic whole.

An individual owed his existence to his parents without whose countless sacrifices he would neither survive nor grow into a sane human being. He grew and realised his potential in a stable and peaceful society, made possible by the efforts and sacrifices of thousands of anonymous men and women. He became a rational, reflective and moral human being only within a rich civilization created by scores of sages, saints, savants and scientists. In short, every human being owned his humanity to others, and benefited from a world to the creation of which he contributed nothing.

As Gandhi put it, every man was 'born a debtor', a beneficiary of others' gifts, and his inherited debts were too vast to be repaid. Even a whole lifetime was not enough to pay back what a man owned to his parents, let alone all others. Furthermore the creditors were by their very nature unspecifiable. Most of them were dead or remained anonymous, and those alive were so numerous and their contributions so varied and complex that it was impossible to decide what one owed to whom. To talk about repaying the debts did not therefore make sense except as a clumsy and metaphorical way of describing one's response to unsolicited but indispensable gifts. Since the debts could never be 'repaid' and the favours 'returned', all a man could do was to 'recognise the conditions of his existence' and to continue the ongoing universal yajna or system of sacrifices by accepting his full share of collective responsibility. The only adequate response to the fact that he was born in and constantly sustained by yajna was to look upon his own life as yajna, an offering at the universal altar, and to find profound joy in contributing to the maintenance and enrichment of both the human world and the cosmos.

As Gandhi put it, 'Yajna having come to us with our birth we are debtors all our lives, and thus for ever bound to serve the universe'. Not rights but obligations were the basis of moral life, and one's rights were embedded in and grew out of others' discharge of their duties.