Gandhi and Grant: Deeper Nationalisms

“The greatest figure of our era, Gandhi, was interested in public actions and in political liberty, but he knew that the right direction of that action had to be based on knowledge of reality-with all the discipline and order and study that that entailed.”                                                  

George Grant

“Masterpiece is not a word to use lightly, but Lament for a Nation merits it. In it Grant distilled his years of study of theology and philosophy, together with his knowledge of history and his acute attention to the daily passage of political events. The former adult educator put it all into a book that was instantly accessible to the broad reading public, but rewarded repeated reading by academic philosophers.”                                          

William Christian



I have, sitting before me in my library, on one side, framed pictures of Mohandas Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy. I have, on the other side, framed pictures of Stephen Leacock and George Grant. The letters between Tolstoy and Gandhi are legendary, and both Gandhi and Leacock were pilloried and mocked by Sir Winston Churchill. When Leacock went to England in 1907-1908, he held high the Canadian nationalist way and dared to question the dated and waning English empire. The youthful Churchill called Leacock’s comments ‘offensive twaddle’. When Gandhi arrived in England in 1931 for the Round Table Conference, the older Churchill said, in the crudest terms, that he was revolted  by ‘the nauseating and humiliating spectacle of this one time Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious fakir, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceroy’s palace’. India and Canada have taken their rhetorical and literal punches and beatings from the English. We both have much in common.

George Grant, unlike Churchill, had a great respect for Gandhi and Indian thought, and there is a good book waiting to be written on Grant and India. The motherlode is there. Spade must be taken to earth to reveal the gold, though. Grant’s grandfather, Principal George Munro Grant (1835-1902) of Queen’s University, wrote one of the first books in Canada on religions other than Christianity: The Religions of the World (1895). In short, George Parkin Grant came from a family with larger interfaith concerns. The Religious Studies Department (at McMaster University) where Professor George Grant taught for 20 years in the 1960s-1970s had one of the best undergraduate and graduate programmes in North America in Indian thought. When I studied at McMaster in the 1980s, the interest in both Peace Studies and Gandhi was high. In fact, there is an annual ‘Gandhi Peace Festival’ each year in Hamilton supported by the McMaster Centre for Peace Studies. There is no doubt Grant’s impact lingered long after he had returned to the Maritimes on the East Coast of Canada.

A former professor of mine in my undergraduate days in the 1970s was quite a specialist in Gandhi/Tagore, and his charming missive on these two eyes of modern India was published in the 1980s: Gandhi and Tagore: Visionaries of Modern India (1989). When I returned to British Columbia in the 1980s on staff with Amnesty International, I was fortunate to spend lingering hours  with the aging Mildred Fahrni (1900-1992). Mildred had spent many a day and hour with Gandhi in 1931 when he was at Kingsley Hall in London, and the recent biography of Mildred, No Plaster Saint: The Life of Mildred Osterhout Fahrni (2001), speaks much about Canadian-Indian relations and the role of Gandhi in bridging these two distant lands and cultures.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that there is a growing interest in both Canadian-Indian relations and Grant-Gandhi. The best thinkers and activists in India and Canada have thought deeply and broadly about the meaning of nationalism, and it is to the wise insights of Gandhi and Grant we now bend our listening ears. 



Gandhi and Grant   

We live at a period of time when nationalism tends to live with a bad and worrisome name. Many of the more thoughtful shake the dust from their feet when such ideas emerge. Others genuflect uncritically to such a notion and ideology. The aggressive nationalism of the Germans, Italians and Japanese in WW II has not warmed many to the idea of nationalism. The ethic cleanings in the Balkans and Rwanda have left the language of nation and nationalism with a bad taste in the mouth of many. The patriotism and nationalist impulse in the USA pre-post 9-11 make many wary and hesitant

about bowing the knee to some unquestioned and questionable good. The rise of militant Islamic nationalism makes many moderates within the Muslim community gun shy, and many non-Muslims keen to bury the body of religious and nationalist impulses. Violence and brutality, ideology and mindless commitments often walk hand and hand with the politics and language of nationhood. The reaction to such a way of understanding the nationalist urge is, often, to spurn any notion of nationhood and celebrate the pluralist rights of the liberated and free thinking individual. But, will not this either-or approach merely take us to a political and cultural cliff’s edge and cul-de-sac?

Is there a saner and sounder notion of nationalism that veers far from the Skylla of a violent and authoritarian nationalism and avoids the Charybdis of a narcissistic and indulgent individualism? And, more to the point of this paper, what can Mohandas Gandhi and George Grant tell us about a deeper, wiser and more just way of approaching the nationalist issue?

M.K. Gandhi (1869-1948) and George Grant (1918-1988) never met, of course. Grant was only a stripling of thirty years of age when Gandhi was killed by a Hindu with deranged nationalist aspirations. There was a tragic irony to Gandhi’s nationalism. Gandhi was a contemporary of the well known Canadian Stephen Leacock (1869-1944) and James Shaver Woodsworth (1874-1942). Woodsworth was the founder of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party in Canada, and some solid work is waiting to be done on Gandhi, Woodsworth and the CCF. Woodsworth had many an explicit affinity with Gandhi, and some of the early CCF platform in the 1930s was indebted to Gandhi’s ideas.  Mildred Fahrni (who was with Gandhi in 1931) took many of his ideas, and joined J.S. Woodsworth to found the CCF in the spring of 1933. The CCF was the main leftist party in Canada that by the early 1960s gave birth to the New Democratic Party (NDP). George Grant had some involvement with the CCF-NDP in the 1950s, hence the Gandhi-Grant connection can be made on a variety of significant levels. What, though, can M.K. Gandhi and George Grant tell us about a way of being nationalist without being ideological? There are four areas I will all too briefly light but not linger on in discussing the nationalisms of Gandhi and Grant.

First, both Gandhi and Grant were not ideologues. The realm of politics could never become an end in itself for them. There had to be something deeper, more profound, more transformative, more ultimate that shaped political theory and action. In short, there had to be a more demanding spiritual vision that defined and animated, disciplined and corrected the political impulse when it became too pragmatic, too given to power, victory and the polls, too quick to bow before political realism and a Machiavellian approach. There is no doubt that Gandhi and Grant viewed politics as a necessary but not sufficient approach to the good life. Both men were ever on the lookout for a deeper theological and philosophic, moral and spiritual grounding and underpinning for the political. This meant that the politics of nationalism could never become an end in itself. There are ultimate, penultimate and antepenultimate commitments and concerns in life, and in the priorizing of such commitments, there is the need for an ordering of such standards and virtues. There must always be interaction between the ultimate, penultimate and antepenultimate issues, but it is the former that feeds, nourishes and is the root of the latter. So, at the outset, it is essential to recognize that Gandhi and Grant held high the importance of the political and nationalism (in opposition to those who retreated from the public fray), but they understood that politics, nationhood and nationalism must be inspired, informed, shaped, defined and disciplined by a more demanding standard than the political. It is from such an ultimate standard or mountain peak the political can be judged, evaluated and rerouted. What, then, are some of those peak virtues or standards that Gandhi and Grant held high and would not budge from?  The answer to this question takes us to the second area of affinity between Gandhi and Grant.

There are three notions that are foundational to Gandhi, and we can see the same notions (in a different language and context) at work in Grant. There is no doubt Gandhi was fully committed to the ideas of Satyagraha, Swaraj and Ahimsa. It is virtually impossible to read the life and writings of Gandhi without being faced and confronted, again and again, with these ideas. Swaraj had to be informed and guided by the deeper notions of Satyagraha and Ahimsa. The decolonization process for India, and the liberty of the Indian people, if not informed by something deeper, could erupt into violence or political realism. This is part of the struggle Gandhi had with the Indian National Congress. Nehru pulled the Indian Nationalist movement in a direction Gandhi argued lacked depth at times. Tagore tended to hold high a more aesthetic, moral and spiritual notion of nationhood. Gandhi found himself poised and positioned between Nehru and Tagore, and he tried, in many ways, to walk the trying tightrope. Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore agreed on the importance of Swaraj, but they tended to disagree on how it should be defined and lived forth in India.

 Gandhi insisted that Swaraj had to tempered and softened by such notions as Satyagraha and Ahimsa. What do these ideas mean in both theory and practice? Satyagraha presupposes there is an order in the universe, and it behooves us to both know and attune ourselves to such an order. At the heart and core of the order is being (Sat), and it is our task to reach from our inner being to the Being of the universe. Satyagraha can also mean ‘clinging to truth’, and the Ashram Gandhi founded in 1915 at Ahmedabad was called Satyagrahashram.  We are to hold tight, to cling to truth, to the very Being of God. Nothing should deflect or divert us from such a journey. It is Being (Sat) that informs and gives shape to all else, and to ignore Being is to slip into Non-Being. It is to such ultimate ends that Gandhi turned to understand how nationhood and politics should be lived and understood. Because Being (Sat) pervades all things, all is sacred and not to be hurt or harmed. This leads to the notion of nonviolence (Ahimsa). These ideas of Gandhi were carefully thought through and spelled out in Non-Violent Resistance. This collection of Gandhi’s essays tells it all. Many of these essays were written for Gandhi’s magazine, Harijan, and the weighty tome is carefully divided into ten sections: 1) What Satyagraha Is, 2) Discipline For Satyagraha, 3)Non-Co-Operation and Civil Disobedience, 4) Vykom Satyagraha, 5) Kheda and Bardoli Satyagraha, 6) Salt Satyagraha, 7) Indian States Satyagraha, 8) Individual Satyagraha Against War, 9) Miscellaneous, 

10) Questions and Answers and 11) Conclusion. There is no doubt that Gandhi thought deeply, at the level of theory and practice, about the meaning and significance of Satyagraha for his notion of Indian nationalism.       The integration of Swaraj, Satyagraha and Ahimsa cannot be missed, and Gandhi’s well thought out Non-Violent Resistance attests to such a fact.   

How, though, does Grant see such ideas? How do he and Gandhi walk the same path? Let me turn to the opening passage of this paper. Grant stated, in the clearest manner, that he was most impressed by Gandhi’s notion of liberty, but he also realized, as many did not, that Gandhi’s notion of liberty was informed by a commitment to a view of the nature of reality, discipline, order and study. Liberty, for Gandhi, like Swaraj, needed deeper roots. Grant shared this idea with Gandhi.  Grant never made politics or nationalism an end in itself. This meant that Grant climbed to the peaks of theology and philosophy to see more clearly how the world of politics and nationalism should be ordered in the valley of Canadian life. Grant, of course, never wrote a book on non-violence in the depth or detail that Gandhi did, but Gandhi was much more involved in the trenches and political fray than was Grant. Grant was engaged with political parties in Canada, and his commitments were never in doubt, but his practical and daily political calling was somewhat different than Gandhi’s. But, both men did insist that politics and nationalism needed higher standards to steer the ship across the water of time.    

Grant had a passion for the national good of Canada from his earliest years.  The Empire—Yes or No?, ‘Have We a Canadian Nation?’ and a book review of Violet Anderson’s Canada and the World Tomorrow between 1943-1945 attest to Grant’s concerns for the larger nationalist questions. Grant, like Gandhi, had to deal with the waning English empire, but Grant, unlike Gandhi, had to confront, as a Canadian, the waxing of the American empire, an empire much greater than Rome or the disappearing British empire. Grant sought to articulate, in the clearest possible manner, his concerns as a Canadian about the American experiment to the south of Canada. Grant’s subtle commitment to the Canadian way was articulated in an exquisite manner in Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965). This ‘masterpiece of political meditation’ did much to stir and awaken a new generation of Canadian nationalists, although many did not fully understand Grant’s more nuanced approach to Canadian nationalism in this evocative missive and political tract for the times. Grant, like Gandhi, had to deal with empires, and both had to articulate a nationalist way in opposition to the empire that threatened to colonize them. India and Canada faced the same problems. 

Lament for a Nation begins with the 1963 federal election in which the conservative nationalism of John Diefenbaker went head to head with the liberal integrationist tradition of Lester Pearson. Canadians voted for Pearson and the integrationist tradition (with the USA), and Grant saw this as a defeat of Canadian nationalism. But, Grant’s argument went much deeper and was more profound than merely a political argument. Grant took the argument in Lament for a Nation to both a philosophic and theological level. He probed the problems of the American addiction to liberty and individualism, and the way such principles, when fleshed out, undermined the commonweal. He questioned the way the USA uncritically genuflected to the modern liberal spirit and how they were the prime evangelists for such a tradition. Grant probed and probed, dug and dug ever deeper into the modern liberal way, and clearly articulated why the USA had to be brought before the dock on many of its theological, philosophical and political traditions. Grant’s nationalism was multilayered and had much to do with being open to a larger reality and attuning the soul and mind to such an order. Grant made it clear that when we banish or marginalize the importance of God, we set ourselves up for much hurt and harm. But, he also made it clear that God and the Good/Justice could not be severed or separated.  God and the Good, for Grant, transcend the ideological politics of the right, centre and left.  

Many of the New Left in Canada were drawn to Grant’s pacifism (which he shared with Gandhi) and nationalism in the 1960s-1970s. Grant made it clear that he had little patience for the aggressive American policy in Vietnam and the military industrial complex and ‘power elite’ in the empire. The New Left was keen on Grant, but they did not fully understand that his brand of nationalism did not square with the leftist liberal nationalism that was emerging. The differences became more obvious by the 1970s-1980s. Grant’s turn to Plato as interpreted by Simone Weil highlighted his commitment to a deeper understanding of the soul and nationhood than most of the New Left could grasp. What were some of these deeper approaches to nationalism, in thought, word and deed that Grant and Gandhi pointed to? The answer to this highlights the third point of affinity between Grant and Gandhi.

Both Gandhi and Grant, given their deeper and more significant ethical and spiritual roots, had questions about the political tribalism of the left. right and centre. Grant and Gandhi saw good in each clan, but they had enough wits and critical insight to also see the limitations of these political tribes. Both men could appear on the left on some issues, and they could appear on the right on other issues. Both men would question the breakdown of the family and the pro-choice movement (which would put them on the right), and both men were critical of empires, corporate wealth and militarism (which would put them more on the left). Gandhi dipped his bucket deep and often in the evocative Indian Classic, The Bhagavad-Gita, while being sensitive and alert to the teachings and life of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. Grant turned to Socrates-Plato and Jesus as the well from which he let low his bucket. Needless to say, the politics of the Gita or the Beatitudes do not square well with the contemporary politics of the right, centre or left. It was this more profound and older textual, theological, philosophical and political tradition that Gandhi and Grant found more nourishing and consistent. The Gita and the Beatitudes take the attentive into the broader Indian and Christian epics: the Mahabharata and the Bible.

There is little doubt that both Grant and Gandhi were committed to a more contemplative and meditative way of knowing and being in opposition to an empirical and frantic activist life. The life of action and public responsibility had to emerge from a stance and state of listening, attentiveness and stillness. Both men, in their different ways, sought to challenge and reverse the dominance of the vita activa and call political activism, political theory, philosophy and theology back to the contemplative way, the vita contemplativa. This turn and reversal as a way of knowing and being was at the heart of much Classical Indian and Western thought, but it had been marginalized by many. Gandhi and Grant were committed to the fact that contemplation and action should not be separated, but the contemplative way had to be the grounding and foundation for all action. This is why Gandhi would spend hours and days in silence before hard personal and political decisions were made, and his life at the ashram and his spinning had profound meditative and contemplative dimensions to it. Unless the hard inner work was done, the outer work could dissipate and fragment in a variety of pointless directions. Gandhi knew that inner discipline was essential if substantive outer change was ever to bud, blossom and bear much fruit in both the personal, political and national life of India.

Grant fought his battles on different fronts than Gandhi, in some ways, but they had many of the same concerns. Grant was a professor at Dalhousie and McMaster universities all of his academic life, and in such a setting he encountered a way of doing philosophy that had little to do with the contemplative tradition of Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Simone Weil, Heidegger and the Christian Orthodox way. He had to battle those who reduced philosophy to empirical hair splitting and logical positivism. He thought many academics in the area of philosophy were merely errand boys for a narrow notion of science or museum archivists. Grant was convinced that good philosophy had to engage both soul and society and do so from deep and substantive places. This is why Grant turned to the contemplative traditions in the West, and why he had an affinity, like Thomas Merton, for the contemplative traditions of Gandhi and the East. In fact, Grant, in his foreward to Dr. Mukerji’s Neo-Vedanta and Modernity, makes it clear why he thinks the deeper contemplative way of the East has much to teach the frantic and driven West. The foreward speaks much about Grant’s interest in the Eastern meditative way of doing ontology, philosophy and theology.  It is true that Grant and Gandhi tended to draw their contemplative vision from different sources, and the content of such a vision did differ, but both men did, for the most part, in thought and deed, hold the vita contemplativa higher than the vita activa. It was not a case of either-or, of course. Both men were fully engaged in the world of rigorous thought and action. It was more a case of what should be primary and what secondary in the ordering of desires and longings.



There is much more that could be said, of course, about the points of affinity between Mohandis Gandhi and George Grant, and this will be done for the longer paper that will be submitted after this seminar. But, in conclusion, Gandhi and Grant had three areas of convergence in their understanding on

nationalism. First, the politics and nationhood should never become an end in itself. There had to be an eternal plumbline that was true to an ultimate order from which political decisions should be thought and made. Second, such ultimate sources had to be grounded in the sacredness of life and the Being that is and breaths life into all things. Third, the contemplative way had to trump the activist way as a means of knowing and being in the world.

It is in these three areas that the nationalisms of Gandhi and Grant converge, and it is in such a deeper and more integrated understanding of nationalism that both men remain towering peaks, lighthouses, prophets and sages in the nationalist issues of our day.                


“The greatest figure of our era, Gandhi, was interested in public actions and in political liberty, but he knew that the right direction of that action had to be based on knowledge of reality-with all the discipline and order and study that that entailed.”                      …

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