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The objectivity of truth

By Unto Tahtinen

When I for the first time came to India, 1954, I stayed for two weeks at Sabarmati Ashram and then at Sevagram. My first impression was that they were a sort of museums. The ashrams carried on activities which had been a few years earlier revolutionary and most useful. My problem was - and is still - what is "Truth".

Gandhi answered to the question, what is Truth, by saying that "it is what the voice within tells you". This idea is purely formal, it does not reveal any content. It rather refers to the method, how one may get the required insight. Gandhi adds that "the human mind works through innumerable media and the evolution of the human mind is not the same for all." The answer also includes the idea, that it is a person, an individual, who is the authority of this knowledge. It is not the cultural tradition, a Holy Book nor any social or state organisation to determine the content of Truth. It is an individual and he alone, in the final analysis, after discussion with others and seriously pondering, to make the decision.

Gandhi said that in the march towards Truth "anger, selfishness, hatred, etc., naturally give way, for otherwise Truth would be impossible to attain". In the Western philosophy we may call this method "ascetic-phenomenological". "Ascetic" in this context refers in strict moral requirements, used e.g. in the Western Medieval philosophy- not so much in the contemporary phenomenology.

Gandhi used to say that "Truth" and "God" were synonyms. He said that "my own experience has led me to the knowledge that the fullest life is impossible without an immovable belief in a Living Law in obedience to which the whole universe moves".

Whenever satyagraha is used, Truth seems to indicate, as a role, a goal for a group of people. Here the Western term "natural law" or "natural right" could be used as an adequate translation of satya. The doctrine of ius naturalia implies a higher law opposed to the positive law of the state or a strict custom of a nation.

According to Gandhi, satyagraha means "scrupulous regard for truth". This regard itself seems to be individual. Gandhi says that "no power on earth can make a person do a thing against his will". In this respect satyagraha as a "soul-force" is based on the recognisable will of an individual. Yet the goal where action is directed is not an individual salvation or moksha. Moksha can be, anyway, a by-product of an individual, not the end or goal of the campaign.

The remedy for himsa, Gandhi says, is ahimsa, for untruth truth. This seems to imply that the source of satyagraha is recognition of untruth, injustice or evil and, besides, the discard of it. Thus apprehension of untruth is the source of the acknowledgement of truth also. Truth is initially the opposite to untruth. That is how we often come to get a primary glance at truth.

The source of understanding the nature of truth is not analytic nor synthetic reasoning, at least not that alone. According to Gandhi, "put all your knowledge, learning and scholarship in one scale and truth and purity in the other and the latter will by far outweigh the other. Gandhi does not much regard a mere intellectual conception of the things of life. It is the spiritual conception which eludes the intellect. God must rule the heart and transform it.

Here lies a difference of opinion between the Western Natural Law-scholars and Gandhi. According to the Western tradition, the higher law is discoverable by reason alone. This is so because Natural Law ideology has grown up in opposition to the positive law. But Gandhi calls to fasting and prayer to purify the mind. The moral requirements are self-purification and inward search.  Gandhi claims that truth is by nature self-evident. It shines clear as soon as you remove the cobwebs of ignorance that surround it. It appears that knowledge of truth has primarily moral and spiritual requirements, reasoning is secondary and cannot succeed without those primary conditions.

The most clearly moral meaning of truth, again, is truthfulness, adherence to truth. Gandhi said that a devotee of Truth must always hold himself open to correction. One should primarily be honest to the self, give up precarious views, thereafter one has the mental capacity to be honest to others as well, be socially truthful.

Honesty or truthfulness appears to be a means to truth, not the end itself. Anyway, Gandhi often said that truth is the end, not a means to something beyond itself. The ultimate meaning of Truth, in Gandhi's words, is "to find Truth completely is to realise oneself and one's destiny, that is, to become perfect". So moksha is the ultimate end for an individual. This sense of Truth, however, does not imply nations or groups of people reaching their destiny simultaneously.

Gandhi said that it was in the course of his pursuit of truth that he discovered non-violence. He did not conceptually derive non-violence from truth, but got to know about it because of the course of pursuit. Not truth, but seeking truth, may reveal the means to the goal.

Besides, Gandhi says that non-violence is the surest method of discovering the truth. "Our progress towards the goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of our means".  The problem is, how we know the right means, if we do not first know the nature of the goal.

Gandhi says, that means must be within our reach, and so ahimsa is our supreme duty. If we care of the means, we reach the end promptly. This view allows certain relativity concerning the use of right means. He says that there is nothing (morally) wrong in every man following Truth according to his rights.

In a number of writings Gandhi seems to deny the objectivity of the statements concerning truth.   "Though you have emphasised the necessity of a clear statement of the goal. but having once determined it, I have never attached importance to its repetition". He said that the opinions he has formed are not final. He may change them tomorrow. "In our endeavour to approach  absolute truth we shall always have to be content with relative truth from time to time".  Thus our knowledge about truth is relative, it may be partial and seen from some limited angle.

"All progress", Gandhi claims, "is gained through mistakes and their rectification". He even admits that what may be truth for one may be untruth for another, and adds that certain conditions are to be observed in making experiments to find truth. Yet there are no objective tests of truth, truth is what our "heart assents".

Gandhi said, that "the goal ever recedes from us". Thus truth as a goal appears to be a broader-value. Whenever we approach the goal, it gets a new form and the process to reach it continues. Truth-seeking is ever-lasting and we can never reach the goal completely. We may able to reach half-way-goals only.

However, although our personal knowledge about truth is relative and depending on our capacity to search it, the seeker of Truth finds out that all religions melt and become one in God. God is one and same for all. Gandhi believes that the world as a phenomena is changing every moment and is therefore unreal, yet it has something about it which persists and is therefore to that extent real. God is the purest essence. According to Gandhi, God is "that indefinable something which we all feel but which we do not know." God transcends speech and reason. Perfect Truth we can only visualize in our imagination. In the last resort one must depend on faith.

It seems that Gandhi did not oppose the Advaita Vedanta view of reality. Hence the truth of a satyagrahi has only a relative validity, it is a pragmatic truth and it can be changed when the circumstances, the priorities or the acting subjects change. But beyond maya or the pragmatic reality there is the absolute which is beyond our capacity to imagine.

There is also, curious enough, in this respect a resemblance to the famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant. According to Kant we cannot know "things-in-itself" and we know things only as "phenomena".

Thus, Truth, in the final analysis is for Gandhi purely formal. But in action, we have to act as if it were real.

Since Gandhi's death many changes have occurred in the international field, not the least in India. May I try to visualize some of them. Most of the colonies are politically free. Colonialism as an ideology has hardly any outspoken support. It is now rejected in vocabulary and philosophy everywhere. A few years ago the Soviet Union collapsed as a colonial power. Its power was undermined by changes in the minds of people.

But we have other acute problems which were not so rampant earlier. In all so called "development countries", also in the ex-socialistic countries, we have large-scale corruption. Earlier it was less a problem, now it seriously hampers the progress in all those countries which would badly need improvement. To reduce corruption, I think, truth would be needed in the sense of revealing and illuminating corruption in all its forms.

Thus the idea of truth and the forms of its practice may change from time to time. New situations require revision and correction of our views. What remains constant is truth seeking. We may ask again and again, what Gandhi meant by Truth - in the future.

Source: International Seminar on GANDHI and THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, January 30 - February 4, 1998, New Delhi - Wardha