Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On Sentence Holism and Intuition With special focus on verbal incompleteness yet complete meaningfulness in sentences

The title of the paper suggests, to a large extent, the purpose of the present enquiry. In essence, the present paper would try to figure out the actual reason of the comprehension of the meaning in cases where the sentences are not complete. How does this happen that, at times, one understands and acts on the sentences which are not even half complete? Is it because, as Bhartrhari would argue, sentences are intrinsically indivisible/ holistic; is it purely intuition; or is there something else which the grammarians wont discuss because it is mundane yet hazardous to their philosophy, things like habit or experience? What do we do of those cases where no sentence is used and yet the acts take place, for instance, in cases where a strict disciplinarian gets everything he wants on time, without any utterances whatsoever? In light of Bhartrḥari’s philosophy, how far is it commendable that there be an incomplete verbal utterance but the apprehension of the meaning is complete? These are some of the questions which would be discussed here in light of Bhartrḥari’s Vākyapadīya II.

This paper is roughly divided into three sections. The first section discusses Bhartrḥari’s stand on sentence holism, the second analyses the concept and role of Intuition or pratībhā in the process of communication (this section would also address the question: if pratībhā is something innate or intrinsic to all beings then what goes wrong in case of failed communication?), and the last section analysis the commonsensical reasons of the cases where sentence incompleteness does not hinder the action prospects.

For a humble beginning it would suffice to say that Bhartrḥari’s Vākyapadīya II carries with it, the view that the sentential meaning is an indivisible idea grasped in an intuitive flash, and the individual words in a sentence have no independent prominency whatsoever. Before getting to elaborate on the task at hand, it would be interesting to trace the historical origin of the need to address language in general and grammar in particular. As I interpret, Bhartrḥari assumed that there is a descriptive task about reality that uniquely belongs to grammar. And further that the passing time has corrupted the usage and understanding, thus hindering the possibility of revelation through grammar. These might have been the reasons that prompted Bhartrḥari to take up the task of analyzing and interpreting cognition as revealed by language in usual communication.


Bhartrḥari’s philosophical position was monistic. Language, according to him, is spanda, i.e. the vibration of inner consciousness. He asserts that there is a single content in a sentence, and also that the meaning of a sentence is to be taken as one entity. And this according to Bhartrḥari is both, externally and internally existent. Internally, a sentence is a piece of cognitive awareness received in a flash; and externally, it is a solid linguistic unit bound by a tone. K.A. Subramania Iyer, in his book Bhartrḥari gives a lucid account of akhaņdapakşa, a position held by Bhartrḥari in opposition to sakhaņdapakşa ( a view held by Mīmāmṣakas which looks upon the sentence as a whole having parts, where the parts are as real as the whole). He writes;

Bhartrḥari puts forward the view that the sentence and the sentence-meaning are indivisible units and that they alone are real and fit for communication…the indivisible sentence is either external or internal. When it is fully manifested through utterance, it is external. Before that, when it is still in the speaker’s mind, it is internal. In either case, it is an indivisible unity.

Another prominent scholar Dr Malaya Gangopadhyay, explains the stages and development of language in Bhartrḥari. She writes;

…language is the mediator of the inner and the outer world. When a logical construct (meaning) and a sound/graphic construct (form) are cognized in an intuitive flash (pratibhā), the message is conveyed, the reality or object is revealed or communication takes place.

Now if this account is true of Bhartrḥari, then it would also be granted that this flash of insight which causes the grasp is indescribable in ordinary language, that is, if there be any non verbal cognition, then its substratum would be pratibhā. In historical parlance, the objectives of all brahmanical systems were to establish the truth exemplified in the śruti. Bhartrḥari’s holistic approach exposes the monistic view. Well, if language is monistic then what rationale supports the plurality in language? Bhartrḥari would say that the plurality in language is the product of analytical faculty of human mind. His ideas clearly convey that the non-verbal cognition and the verbal utterances are the gradual process of revelation. His account of language and grammar establishes that the ‘speech potency’ (śabda bhāvana) is latent in consciousness. And though Bhartrḥari accepts the reality of individual word, he does so only in a pragmatic sense. Words are required because of grammatical necessity. Besides, the individual words change their forms according to the meaning requirement. The meaning is dependent on the speaker’s aim/intention.

B.K. Matilal in his book The Word and the World labels Bhartrḥari’s akhandapakşa as ‘Sentence Holism’ and provides valuable insights to the fundamental question- ‘How is a sentence constituted?’, and ‘how is the meaning of a whole sentence cognized by the hearer after the utterance is made?’ To even begin thinking about answering this question (which, by the way, would also resolve the age long debate regarding the primary units of meaning, and the contextuality of meaning), it only makes sense that we first see what sentence holism means and how far does it corroborates the other essential facts about the indivisibility of sentence and sentence meaning. Matilal observes that in sentence holism, sentences are wholes and they are the unanalysable units of meaningful discourse.

But why would sentence be an unanalysable unit of meaningful discourse? Bhartrhari’s genius lies in the answer that he provides to this question. The answer to this question is also the one where the indivisibility of sentence is emphasized the most. Bhartrhari asserts that the chief component of communication is a sentence, not words. The thoughts in the speaker’s mind and the words which he would employ to express the thoughts are united in a very special way. And this special unity is the sentence. So, when the adamant grammarian splits up the sentence into words and the words into roots or stem and suffixes, all he is doing is unnecessarily complicating the communication process. It is so because, as Subramania Iyer also mentions, with these completely differentiated elements, there cannot be communication…there cannot be worldly transaction (lokavyahāra).

So, we see that though for Bhartrhari everything is a manifestation of the ultimate reality (the Brahman Śabdatattva), he does not bring in this metaphysics while explaining the practicality of sentence and sentence meaning. He is very clear when he says that the communication is most effective when it submits to lokavyavahāra, i.e. communication leading to worldly transaction. Of course, śāstravyavahāra which justifies the splitting up of sentences into words and stems et cetera is important too, but not so much for the practical purposes.

Now, the indivisibility of sentence proves alongside, the divisibility of words. In order to understand fully, Bhartrhari’s concept of sentence, it would be interesting to brief up the debate between the Mimamsakas or the padavādins on the one hand and Bhartrhari or vākyavādins on the other. In normal day to day circumstances, everyone would agree that, for all practical purposes, there are times when a substitution of the meaning of a word is needed. But this can be possible only when the word is taken as an expresser (independently of a sentence). It so happens that at times we don’t find the exact expresser (word) and thus substitute some other meaning similar to the primary meaning. The meaning known by such imposition of the primary meaning is called a substituted meaning or ‘pratinidhi’. Taking this as a lead, the padavādins argue that if words are not the real, independent expresser, and if the whole indivisible sentence is the expresser, then hoe can we account for the process of substitution? For instance the case of performing rites with the help of rice. If there is an absence of rice then this means that we can substitute the rice with other some other ingredient. But if the indivisibility of the sentence is true then that means that substitution of rice with anything else is not allowed because in such cases the meaning and consequences of whole ritual will change. Thus the padavādins show that substitution is justified only if word (pada) is taken independently as an expresser.

Mīmāmsakā’s second objection to Bhartrhari’s notion of indivisibility of sentence is that, in case of sentences which are not so clear to the hearer, why is it that the hearer asks the meaning of the particular word (which is unclear to him) and not the meaning of the whole sentence? Such an enquiry into the meaning of particular words shows that words, not sentences, are the chief units in grammar and language.

These are the two important objections against Bhartrhari’s indivisibility thesis. Bhartrhari for his turn, gives a host of arguments in order to turn down the padavādins position and to establish his own. In brief, Bhartrhari’s stand is that as the cognition revealed by the sentence is indivisible, sentence as a meaning-revealing unit is also indivisible awareness. It is only for grammatical or practical purposes that an indivisible is divided by grammatical analysis into words, and then further into stem, suffixes or prefixes, which are explained differently by different persons. Bhartrhari asserts that just as there is no actual division in light, yet in lamp, bulb, lightening, heater, etc, the indivisible light is taken to be different; similarly a sentence, reveling indivisible cognition is an indivisible unit and is made understandable by artificial divisions of it into different words, etc.

As to the first objection of the problem of substitution of meaning of a word, Bhartrhari says that substitution (pratinidhi) is for practical purposes, and this phenomenal divisions of sentences into words and other further divisions, is accepted as grammatically real. The problem arises when this artificial division is confused as real. D.N. Tiwari in his book The central Problems of Bhartrhari’s Philosophy analyses the proposition through an acute analogy. He writes:

From the point of view of cognition and communication, to search a word (pada) in a sentence (vākya) is similar to searching ‘naratva’ and ‘simhatva’ in “nŗsimha” which is a compound word conveying an integration of meaning of a sentential meaning.

As to the second objection Bhartrhari answers that the person is deluded for sure if he thinks that he is doubtful about the meaning of only a word out of the whole sentence because, in such a case, it is not the single word but the meaning of the whole sentence that is doubted.

The whole debate between padavādins and the vākyavādins is based on an acute distinction. Whereas padavādins are concerned with explaining the sentence from a syntactical point of view, Bhartrhari aims at explaining communication; the padavādins (constructionists) explains sentential meaning on the basis of the word as the original/real unit of language, the sententialists (akhandvākyavādins) try to explain language as the meaning of indivisible sentence.

Establishing sentence holism, Bhartrhari opines that meaning is more than a semantic unit. His theory is different from other sententialists who interpret sentential meaning as a meaning different from the meaning of a sentence. Meaning, for Bhartrhari, is a cognitive being. Sentence, for him, is an inner, indivisible and a real unit of awareness in nature, i.e. sphota and a sentential-meaning is that which it reveals non-differently. A flash of awareness in the mind, for which Bhartrhari uses the word pratibhā, is sentential meaning. This brings us to our second section on Intuition (pratibhā). But discussing pratibhā, it should be remembered that ‘sphota’ for Bhartrhari is sentence, and the meaning it expresses in the mind is ‘pratibhā’.


Bhartrhari sustains grasp as a flash of insight, a kind of inner flow of the inner consciousness, which exists in all living beings, it is a divine endowment, it is the ground and source of language. This is pratibhā. Bhartrhari defines pratibhā in the following manner:

When the meanings (of the individual words) have benn understood separately, a flash of understanding takes place which they call the meaning of the sentence, brought about by the meanings of the individual words. It cannot be explained to others as such and such. It is experienced by everyone within himself and even the subject (of the experience) is not able to render an account of it to himself.

The doctrine of pratibhā is comprehensively discussed during the enumeration of the pramāņas. When it is logically established that the knowledge gained through sense contact is fallible, the question arises: is there any other kind of knowledge which is reliable? Bhartrhari answers that there is. And the peculiarity of that knowledge is that it is rooted in our very own self. It works even when we are occupied with the fallible process of sense contact. Bhartrhari points out that all sentient beings, from highest to the lowest, have it, and he declares it to be ‘pratibhā’(intuition). It so happens that when we have understood the meaning of the words of a sentence, a flash of understanding of the meaning of the whole sentence takes place. Another interesting dimension to the notion of pratibhā is that the meaning of a sentence is understood even before the whole sentence has been uttered. But it is really nearly impossible to explain this flash of understanding to others. So, just because it cannot be explained doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Pratibhā can be grasped only through experience. There is absolutely no other way. The chief effect of pratibhā is that binds or connects together meanings conveyed by different words in a sentence. This is where pratibhā is found. So, even it is indefinable, we have an idea as to how and where lies its substratum.

The above account makes it clear that Bhartrhari conceives pratibhā as something very comprehensive. It is a flash of understanding which takes in a situation and prompts one to do something to meet the situation. Subramania Iyer mentions that pratibhā includes the intelligence of a higher order, intuitive knowledge, the instinct of birds and animals, and the spontaneous activities of newly born babies. He also reinforces the ancient seer’s claim that this kind of knowledge is far more reliable. It comes from within.

Bhartrhari further suggests that pratibhā arises in us in many ways, and of them, six causes and therefore six kinds of Intuition is recognized. The six causes are: svabhāva (nature), caraņa (vedic school), abhyāsa (practice), Yoga, adŗşţa (indivisible force from previous births), and viśişţopahita (grace of special person). These are the six causes of pratibhā; pratibhā arises through these various mediums in all beings, at all levels. Without going into the details of each source, it would only suffice if we could somehow answer the question posed in the beginning of the paper: if pratībhā is something innate or intrinsic to all beings then what goes wrong in case of failed communication?

I understand that Bhartrhari would try and relate this question to the padavādin’s error of taking word to be the final, indivisible unit. Pratibhā functions well provided that we do not commit the error of attaching with it, something that is not real but pure construction. The whole complexity of meaning misapprehension comes into being because of diversion from the real, defined path of sentence holism and unitariness in sentential meaning. If, as Bhartrhari asserts in Vākyapadīya I, revelation comes through the correct apprehension of grammar, then it explains to a large extent, the reasons why there are cases of miscommunication. Miscommunication happens when I fail to grasp the essence of the sentence; and this failure comes from the admission of everything except the fact that it is actually the sentence and the sentence-meaning which is a unitary, indivisible whole. This brings us to our third and the last section, where there is an analysis of the commonsensical reasons of the cases where sentence incompleteness does not hinder the action prospects.


Sentence holism and the doctrine of pratibhā (intuition) taken together give us a good toast of the way in which we can successfully detect the vulnerable areas in grammar and work accordingly to move towards enlightenment. The chief question addressed here is: which force is at work when in spite of incomplete sentences, we grasp (guess?) the intended meaning? Is it mere chance or luck? Is it co-incidence? Is it because of habit? Or is there something inherent, innate which is at work all the time? Bhartrhari, of course, would choose the last option as the answer to the question. His contention would be that it is solely because of pratibhā that sentence is grasped. The sentence-meaning is nothing but pratibhā. The reason why he would say this has already been dealt with in the previous section. The thing to be discussed, briefly, here is that why cannot it be the other things mentioned? Why can’t it be a matter of habit, or why can’t it be a freakish co-incidence all the time? If we grant that the reason why we grasp the sentence meaning even after the entire sentence is unknown to us, is because we have somehow inculcated it in us via habit, this would still remain problematic because then there would never be surety or certainty in the knowledge claim. We cannot grant the reason of there being co-incidence in such cases because the very word ‘co-incidence’ means something which happened to meet/fit this one time, and might not fit the very next time.

Bhartrhari or any grammarian for that matter would never ever admit of such excuses because it would shake their entire foundational belief system to ground. If philosophy was nothing but a matter of habit or co-incidence then, there is absolutely no point in looking for concrete truths and the means to reach them. In such cases, phenomenal truths would be enough to grant ad hoc revelation. But since philosophy is much more than habit and speculation, the eternal journey on paths leading to truth would continue to grab attention for many more years to come.

Uncertain Skepticism in Wittgenstein’s On Certainty

In On Certainty Wittgenstein entered a new stage in his philosophical growth. Here he argues that there are always certain propositions that cannot be doubted if language is to have meaning. This development does not show a change in his descriptive method with its emphasis on ordinary language. On the contrary, he remained committed to the notion that in order to resolve philosophical problems one must look closely at what goes on. The present paper analyses Wittgenstein’s stand in On Certainty where he doe not try to refute the skeptical doubts about the existence of external world so much as he tries to sidestep them, showing that the doubts themselves do not do the work they are meant to do. The paper analyses this take on skepticism in response to one of Moore’s papers titled Proof of an External World.

In Proof of an External World, Moore tries to prove that there is a world external to our senses, by holding up his hand and saying ‘here is a hand’ . Via this proof, Moore questions the reasonableness of doubting such a claim. Wittgenstein admires Moore’s step but he also suggests, at the same time, that Moore fails because his claim that he knows that he has a hand automatically invites the question of how he knows, a question that would push Moore in the sort of skeptical debate he is trying hard to avoid.

Before beginning with the examination, it would be an interesting exercise to trace the nature and root of skepticism, historically. The whole idea of doubting the existence of a world external to us, gains a foothold from the fact that any knowledge claim can be doubted, and every attempt at justifying a knowledge claim can also be doubted. The search of a knowledge that is immune to all possible doubts, from Descartes to Moore, has always come across problems. Wittgenstein asserts that claims like ‘here is a hand’ or ‘the earth has existed for many years past’ have the form of empirical proposition but that in fact they have more in common with logical propositions. That is, these sorts of propositions may seem to say something factual about the world, and hence be open to doubt. But in real sense, they function they serve in language is to serve as a kind of framework within which empirical propositions can make sense. In other words, such propositions are taken for granted so that we can speak about the hand or the tree and hence, such propositions are not meant to be subjected to skeptical scrutiny. It is for this reason that Wittgenstein compares such propositions to a riverbed which must remain in place for the river of language to flow smoothly, and also compares it to the hinges of a door which must remain fixed for the door of language to serve any purpose. The key, therefore, is not to claim certain knowledge of propositions like ‘here is one hand’ but rather to recognize that these sorts of propositions lie beyond questions of knowledge or doubt.

It is in this context that Wittgenstein draws a distinction between two kinds of propositions: hypothetical and non-hypothetical. Hypothetical propositions are those that can describe a possible state of affairs in the world, and which can be tested, confirmed, denied, doubted, believed, or known to be true or false. Non-Hypothetical propositions, though, are similar to the empirical propositions in form, are not hypothetical in any of the above mentioned ways. The non-hypothetical propositions are meant to play a different and peculiar ‘logical role’ in a language game. Such propositions are the ‘unmoving foundations of language-games’ and they are necessarily immune to the doubt of the skeptic. What Wittgenstein does is to ask us to consider the following propositions: ‘There are physical objects’ . Now if this is seen as fundamental proposition, i.e. a proposition that constitutes part of a language game’s depth grammar and thus helps to make empirical propositions meaningful, then it cannot be doubted in a way empirical propositions may be doubted (because it is a fact that human action is intentional, goal oriented, and purposive, if it to be intelligible as human actions at all). To doubt such a fundamental proposition is to go beyond the reasons we could give for doubting propositions within a language-game. Doubt in such cases is free floating and without meaning.

Despite these strong assertions, the skeptic might argue that the analysis of linguistic meaning does not endanger the skeptical challenges for doubting the existence of fundamental propositions. One of the quick reasons is that of there being a ‘logical possibility’ to doubt anything under the sun. that is, it is always logically possible to see a basis for doubting the veracity of any proposition, however fundamental or autonomous Wittgenstein makes it to be.

Secondly, even if it were impossible to question the propositions of depth grammar, it would still be possible to doubt the veracity of any particular proposition uttered within a language-game, since it is always logically possible to be mistaken in any particular case. So, we see that if we take knowledge claim one by one, it is possible to be mistaken about any and every particular knowledge claim. No proposition in any language-game would be immune to doubt. Thus, it looks like that skepticism remains untouched by Wittgenstein’s language-game analysis of linguistic meaning, even after complete autonomy is granted to fundamental propositions.

Douglas Huff in Wittgenstein and the futility of Sceptical Doubt discusses or rather tackles a similar problem, and as a solution, points out that there are at least two reasons which exposes the absurdity of skepticism and its mission. He writes-

…first, logical possibility is not basis for doubting knowledge claims about the world, and, second, a resort to epistemic possibility is not sufficient to generate skeptical doubts.

Let us analyze both the possibilities- logical and epistemic, and see how far can the skeptic succeed in establishing that there is always a possibility for doubting even the most fundamental propositions.

Logical Possibility

Knowledge claims never really exclude the logical possibility that they are false because knowledge claims are contingent and not necessary propositions. It is thus futile to even attempt to exercise skepticism on there being a logical possibility of mistake in contingent proposition.

Secondly, logical possibility is irrelevant as a basis for doubt, for reasons inherent in the language-game analysis itself. Wittgenstein had a plan when he argued that contradictions are not false and are of no real danger to anyone especially philosophers. This said, it should not imply that we can not assert contradictory propositions in a language-game; the point is that contradiction do nothing at all in a language-game. We avoid contradictions, not because they are dangerously false, but because they are useless. As Wittgenstein himself puts it in words-

A contradiction prevents me from getting to act in the language-game.

The bottom line is that contradictions do not play any role in the language-game.

Epistemic Possibility

A modern skeptic might argue that skepticism is more a matter of epistemic possibility than logical possibility. Doubt based on epistemic possibility is a doubt that rests on the possibility that some causal connection might have occurred somewhere in the world, which places the veracity of the knowledge claim in question. For instance, I cannot claim to know that I will my friend day after tomorrow because it is possible that I’ll meet with an accident, or that she’ll have to leave the country in emergency, or I’ll totally forget about it due to my pre-occupations. In other words, for al I know, I’ll not be able to meet up with her the day after tomorrow. On these lines, the skeptic claims that epistemic possibilities lead to skeptical doubt.

Though this looks like a fairly good ground, still there is a limit to the role, epistemic possibility can play in doubting a knowledge claim. For instance, the skeptic who this epistemic possibility must not know the true state of affairs because raising a doubt with prior knowledge is not to raise a doubt, it is something else. Secondly, the person invoking the epistemic possibility must be able to introduce reasons as to why we should take this epistemic possibility seriously, e.g., meeting with accidents, forgetting, my friend going abroad on a short notice, et cetera.

We see then that Wittgenstein’s language-game is such a knitted theory that makes it impossible for the skeptic to doubt with out cessation. Doubt has a meaning only relative to the internal criteria within a language-game. That is, wherever doubt is expressed there must exist, reasons within the language-game to sanction its relevance. In any case, skepticism can summarily be dismissed.

On Certainty presents Wittgenstein’s third great idea, ‘a remarkable discovery connected with the concept of a language-game’. By a language-game Wittgenstein meant a slice of human activity, such as giving orders, reporting an event, forming and testing a hypothesis, play-acting, solving mathematics and so on. But in On Certainty his descriptive focus results in a new insight: that every such game rests on a foundation/ground that is certain. The book’s main idea is that certainty is to be identified with what is foundational, i.e., with the ground (s) that underlie and support a language game. In other words, this point also amounts to saying that certain epistemic concepts such as knowing, doubting, believing, justifying, truth, falsity, etc have their use or uses within language-games but are inapplicable to what is foundational. As a matter of fact, they ‘come to an end’ in language-game. Wittgenstein writes:

Giving grounds, however, justifying the evidence, comes to an end…it is our ‘acting’ which lies at the bottom of the language-game.

Wittgenstein’s trilogy- Tractatus, Philosophical Investigations, and On Certainty, holds that philosophical perplexity arises because we do not understand the ‘logic of our language’. When he says ‘logic of our language’ he is actually operating at two levels- describing how language actually works and describing, via language, how the world is. If we get clear about language, we can then see the world rightly. Wittgenstein is not merely speaking about the differences in the uses of such terms as ‘belief’, ‘know’, ‘certain’, ‘doubt’ etc, but also about that which those words normally denote, that is, about belief, knowledge, justification, etc. These are the features we find in everyday human life; that is, people believe, doubt, justify and provide evidences for or against various claims. It is these features of human activity that primarily interests Wittgenstein. Language is important because it is the medium of giving us an accurate picture of what goes on.

So we see that when Wittgenstein asserts that to avoid complexity, we should understand the ‘logic of our language’, he meant that each word in everyday language has a restricted range of application. The everyday activities are circumscribed by rule-governed boundaries, and it is these boundaries that determine when an activity makes sense. If words are stretched beyond their normal limits they cease to make sense. Thus, words can be used either correctly or incorrectly. To say that they are used correctly means that they confirm to the way in which the native speakers use them in the language-game.

Thus, Wittgenstein’s On Certainty arrive at profound insights both about language and human activity. For instance, doubting is something which is tackled very carefully in On Certainty. Wittgenstein asserts that doubting is an everyday practice that has its limits; where the limits are defined by rules that govern what actually takes place in the language-game. He writes-

If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.

…A doubt without an end is not even a doubt.

And when Wittgenstein says that doubting has certain characteristic manifestations but ‘only in particular circumstances’ he calls to attention the limited nature of the practice of doubting. When he gives the example of one who claims to doubt the existence of his hands, he is making the point that such extreme behavior is not a case of doubt at all. Whatever game that person is playing, it is definitely not playing the game of doubting. His point is that philosophers like Moore are playing a similar game, thus misdescribing the nature of doubt. Their game is senseless. The reason of such a game being senseless is gives as follows in the form of an analogy.

It would be as if someone were looking for some object in a room; he opens a drawer and doesn’t see it there; then he closes it again, waits, and opens it once more to see if perhaps it isn’t there now, and keeps on like that. He has not learned to looked for things…he has not learned ‘the’ game that we are trying to teach him.

Thus Wittgenstein hints that the skeptic who doubts obsessively is like the person who actually endlessly opens and closes a drawer. Moore, to some extent, belonged to this category and that is one reason why his attempt to rebut skepticism failed. Through On Certainty Wittgenstein proved that there actually is no position that has to be rebutted. We also see that behind Wittgenstein’s belief that ‘here is one hand’ is an odd proposition (either to assert to doubt), there lies his insistence on the importance of context. The very idea of doubting the existence of external world is a immensely philosophical activity. A philosopher can doubt away, but it is practically impossible to live out this sort of skepticism. In essence, skepticism only has a foothold when we abstract it from the activity of everyday life. According to Wittgenstein, a proposition has no meaning unless it is placed within a particular context. ‘Here is a hand’ by itself means nothing, though those words might have meaning in the context of, say, a parent teaching the child to speak. Once we give propositions a particular context, the doubt cast by a skeptic lacks the kind of generality needed to doubt the existence of external world. Only by removing language from all possible contexts, and hence rendering language useless, can skepticism function.

Gandhi on Women

The two words which define Mahatma Gandhi’s essence are “constant experimenter”. Spirituality, religion, self reliance, health, education, clothing, medicine, child care, status of women, no field escaped his search for truth. During his lifetime, Gandhiji sowed the seeds of several revolutions: revolution against consumerism and unlimited materialism; revolution against technology beyond human control, the revolution for decentralization of socio-economic, political and cultural system; the revolution for non-violent and peaceful methods of social change; the revolution for ecological balance and pollution free society; the revolution for gainful employment, the revolution to set the Indian the Indian women free from the cruel shackles of illogical tradition and depressing values; and the revolution for maintaining cultural identity of nations, small communities against monocultures. Gandhiji worked for a major change in human nature, a change of heart. His thoughts when appeared in the form of talk or article became official words of action with the masses of India. He was a man who did what he said and led an exemplary and transparent life. Now the irony of leading a transparent life is that there is bound to be controversies. And Mahatma Gandhi was no exception.

For the present purpose we would focus on the Gandhi’s position on the status of women, one of the most controversial aspects of his social and moral vision. It is interesting to see that Gandhi went beyond Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Swami Vivekananda in linking womanliness with political emancipation. Gandhi sought to break down the barriers between the private and the public demesne and to encourage women to assume a greater responsibility in public life. But noted feminists like Sujata Patel and Madhu Kishwar allege that Gandhi’s stand on women was primarily to fulfill his own political agendas; that he was and still continues to be an essential paradigmatic pillar which argues that women, no matter how advanced, ought to first serve her household. He is charged of being a biological essentialist. They doubt whether Gandhi actually could free himself of his stern patriarchy.

This paper is divided into three sections which focuses on Gandhi’s take on women, position of his critics, and finally an impartial analysis of how far are the critics logical in imposing their charge.


It would make an interesting beginning to see what exactly the condition of women was during the time in which Gandhi functioned. When Gandhi assumed India’s leadership, the average life span of an Indian woman was only twenty seven years. Babies and the pregnant women ran a high risk of dying young. Child marriage was very common and widows were in high numbers, statistically. In short, the condition of women in India was out rightly pathetic. Further interesting observation is that the question of women’s status was considered as one of the indices for the measurement of modernization and traditionalism in India in the late 19th and 20th century. In the early 19th century, a women’s place in the society invariably meant that her actual place is in the household under the rule of the elders, her in laws and her husband. It is also interesting to see that while there was a modicum of freedom in the lowest rung of the society, the upper and the middle class women hardly enjoyed any freedom at all. But this was not because the lowest rung of Indian society was more liberal or permissive, it’s just that the dire financial stress forced the peasant women to participate in the process of production and do odd jobs. In the upper classes, this distinction between man and woman was considerably vast and they belonged to two groups- ‘the ruler’ and ‘the ruled’.

But with the advent of western education and the impact it had on society, the position of women started undergoing subtle changes. The banning of sati and the widow remarriage act were the important milestones in the process of change. The national movement provided the women of India, a unique opportunity to break from this social conservatism. The swadeshi era roused positive hopes. Gandhiji realized their problems, recognized them as ‘repositories of moral strength and stamina’ that could constitute an important ingredient in his conquest by non violence. Gandhiji wanted to effect a complete re-structuring of society in which women and other depressed classes would be given due recognition. He always advocated a complete reform which he called “Sarvodaya” meaning comprehensive progress. He believed that the difference between man and women was only physical and has expressed this notion several times in his writings. He advocated that in many matters concerning especially those of tolerance, patience, and sacrifice, the Indian women is any day superior to men. The peculiarity of Gandhi’s treatment of women is that he never had a specific programme for women, but women had an integral role to play in almost all of his programmes. And this fact gets approved by the historical evidences of the overwhelming amount in which women participated in his programmes.

Gandhiji declared that there is no school better than home and there is no teacher better than one’s parents. It would be an insightful exercise to see the extent to which he derived his determination from the strengths of his mother Putli Bai and his wife, Kasturba Gandhi. He writes:

If you notice any purity in me, I have inherited it from my mother and not from my father.

As for the way Kasturba influenced him, he writes:

Her determined submission to my will on the one hand and her quite submission to the sufferings of my stupidity involved on the other, ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of my stupidity in thinking that I was born to rule over her…and in the end she became my teacher in non-violence.

These words drop enough hints to impress the point that Gandhi’s concern for the upliftment of women rose from his very own house, amidst his very own people. True to his words, Gandhiji was an ardent follower of his own beliefs. He shared the works like cooking, cleaning, fetching water, washing clothes, etc- works which were considered as belonging essentially to women. For this, he even faced the taunt of being an effeminate. But he regarded this as a proud symbol of his manhood. And though Gandhi advocated equality for women, this did not mean that women had necessarily to prove their strength in performing the same tasks as men. Rather he felt that men and women should follow different vocations suitable to their different physical and emotional temperaments. His opinion was that men and women are equal, but not identical. He writes:

Intellectually, mentally, and spiritually, woman is equivalent to a male and she can participate in every activity.

Now, the moment Gandhiji utters that men and women are equal but not identical, he becomes the object of skepticism and cruel scrutiny. We’ll get back to it in the second section, where we discuss the critics of Gandhiji’s ideologies, but first there is more of what Gandhiji did to improve the status of women. The most significant contribution of Gandhiji to the cause of women lay in his absolute and unequivocal insistence on their personal dignity and autonomy in the family and in the society. Out of his personal experience, he learnt how ‘man has regarded woman as his tool, and how woman has learnt to be his tool and in the end found it easy and pleasurable to be such, because when one drags another in his fall, the decent is easy.’ Nevertheless he wanted the Indian women to work for self upliftment. Women ought to protest against being treated as sex objects. He writes:

If you want to play your part in the world’s affairs, you must refuse to deck yourself far pleasing man and revolt against any pretension on the part of man that woman is born to be his plaything.

But all things said, Gandhiji realized that the chief problem lay at the very foundation of the customs and scriptures. The custom’s attempt to abuse the women by giving her into child marriage is no custom. It is rather, sin. In Gandhiji’s view this is perhaps the most glaring abuses of Indian womanhood. Let us see for far can he adhere to his much adored scriptures as far as the issue of child marriage is concerned.

Gandhi on Child Marriage and Widowhood

Gandhiji saw the evil of child marriage as intimately related to that of child widowhood. He realized that it is actually the past customs constructed by purely patriarchic set up that led to the plight to women, disguised in forms of child marriage and child widowhood. The scriptures give the opinion that if the women are not married off before puberty, then they might indulge in immoral sexual acts which would cause a major harm to the sanctity of the society. It is thus good that they should be married off before they even begin to feel grown up. But Gandhiji challenged this opinion on the grounds that why should it be only and always women who should be tested on that scale. Why should men not be held accountable for their puberty sexual misdemeanor?

Gandhiji also came up with this idea that the parents who committed the sin of marrying their daughters at tender age should expiate for their sin by remarrying these daughters, should they become widowed while they are yet in their teens. He was of the opinion that women should have the same freedom to remarry as men had. To Gandhiji, it was a serious menace that such large number of child widows be in the country. It is understandable that Gandhiji advocated child widow remarriage because of his interest in social health. He writes:

It is better that a widow married openly than that she should sin secretly.

Thus, every sexual relationship outside of marriage was seen as sinful, and that is why Gandhiji was emphatically in favor of remarriage in cases of child widows. Madhu Kishwar in one of her articles titled Gandhi on Women, quite insightfully notices that while Gandhiji was strict about the remarriage of child widows, he was equivocal as far as the young widows were concerned. She elaborates in the paper how Gandhiji favored asceticism as one of the purest marks of being a Hindu; and if a young widow wishes to walk that path then there is nothing better than this. According to him, if a young widow wants to live a pure ascetic life by her own rational will then she only and truly makes Hinduism proud. Such women are the rightful owners of the society and its upliftment. He believed that the widows of India carried real potential to be the true servants of the nation.

Gandhi on Dowry

Apart from child marriage and widowhood, another practice found unfavorable by Gandhiji was the custom of dowry. Dowry was an oppressive custom which was prevalent in the materially illumined society. Gandhiji preferred girls to remain unmarried all their lives than to be humiliated and dishonored by marrying greedy men who demanded dowry. He appealed that marriage must cease to be a matter of arrangement made by parents for money. According to him, the only honorable terms in marriage are mutual love and consent. Gandhiji’s wide appeal brought about remarkable changes in the workings of the society. There began simple, ritual-free wedding which came to be known as ‘Gandhi lagan’. Lagan is a Hindi term to denote a marriage ceremony. Gandhi lagan consisted of the exchange of garlands by the bride and the groom in the presence of friends and family.

Gandhiji also foresaw how important education was as an essential means for enabling women to uphold their natural rights, to exercise them wisely and to work for self improvement. He argued that there really is no justification for men to deprive women or to deny them equal rights on the grounds of illiteracy. Gandhiji also advocated property rights for women and generated unlimited employment opportunities for them. The reason why Gandhiji advocated opportunities for the women was because he could see the immense untapped power that lay in Indian women. To Gandhiji, women is the companion of man gifted with equal mental qualities. He urged the women to take part in the Indian struggle for freedom because it is only then that the women would be able to break free from their long imposed seclusion. He further saw that his non-violent agitation is particularly suited for women because it required not physical strength but moral courage and spiritual determination, which the women held in abundance. He writes:

If non-violence is the law of our being then the future is with women.
To Gandhiji, non-violent agitation was a great equalizer, for, the women could play same part as men. Gandhiji found women to embody the three essential qualities required of a satyagrahi, namely, love, nonviolence, and self-sacrifice. He remarks:

For the courage of self sacrifice, woman is any day superior to man.

If by strength is meant moral power then women is immeasurably man’s superior.

Another remarkable way in which Gandhiji made women an important social base for the movement was through the program catering around boycott of foreign goods, spinning and wearing khadi. This program enabled the women to participate and get employed from within their own household. Gandhiji promoted the function of spinning because apart from being imperative fro the economic regeneration of the country, it was a source of income for middle class, a means for livelihood for poor women, and if well-to-do women spun, it would make yarn cheap. This makes it crystal clear that whenever Gandhiji talks about the emancipation of women, he is not only bothered about the downtrodden class but associated himself to all the classes. What follows from the above discussion is that Gandhiji did not see women only as objects of reform and humanitarianism but rather as conscious subject who had a definite social role to fulfill as active self conscious agents of social change. Gandhiji’s main concern was to bring about a radical reconstruction of society by creating an atmosphere in which women would be able to regain the self confidence she had lost through years of subjection.

Gandhiji’s unique approach is revealed by the fact that while Swami Vivekananda recognized the power of women in Indian society by linking the traditional image of sacred motherhood, Gandhiji tries to give a new dignity to women by striking a new equation between womanliness and political potency. In the process, he denied the western association between maleness and statecraft, rejected the partial tradition in India which debased the womanhood, and also abrogated the colonial identity which equated feminity with passivity, weakness, dependence, subjugation, and absence of masculinity. Through this, he aimed at a social reconstruction and was confident that in the process of reconstruction, the women would free themselves from the bondages that affected them as women. It is turn now to look at some of the finest criticisms leveled against Gandhiji, on various charges ranging from him being a biological essentialist to selfishly using the women power to fulfill his political agendas.


The following criticisms mainly focus on Gandhiji being a biological essentialist, and also promoting the view that Gandhi led nationalistic movement is an example of his policy of first mobilizing and then subordinating women. It is alleged that Gandhiji know that his fight for swaraj would be incomplete without the support of women who constituted one half of the population. To Gandhiji’s critics, this looks more like a part of his political strategy because Gandhiji, somehow, did not challenge the oppressiveness rampant patriarchal tradition within his own home.

While Gandhiji believed in equality of sexes and said that ‘women is gifted with the same mental qualities as men’ and that ‘she has the same right to freedom and liberty as he’, he also admitted that three are important physical and emotional differences. She is passive, he active. It is an irony that Gandhiji saw men and women in those very terms which wre used to reinforce the disability of women to acquire power in the family or the society. It seems that by making woman a complement of man, Gandhiji ended up extending the dominion from which he had tried to free women. Gandhiji made a clear cut distinction between women’s private domain where she is the queen and the outside world of which he is the master.

Madhu Kishwar in one of her articles Gandhi on Women, explicitly writes that Gandhiji’s thoughts were mostly misunderstood and distorted for personal gains and convenience. She writes:

Gandhi’s legacy in the contemporary political culture has been distorted to mean encouraging ‘tokenism’ at the very top without bringing about any real changes at the bottom.

Another objection leveled against Gandhiji’s treatment of women is that why should Gandhiji ask the women to transcend the sexual need? This stand shows that, for Gandhiji, the sexual life of women was not significant. In his mind women’s need seem to exist only in response to men’s needs, which is not in line with the impartial freedom he has planned for women. What of women’s sexual expression, if all she has to do is to totally renounce her own sexual urges to keep the man in control? It is also interesting to see that what Gandhiji objected was to the excessive subordination of the wife to the husband, not the fact of women generally playing the role of a ‘subordinate’. As a good patriarch, the maximum he could do was to rationalize authority, make it look just and humane. Madhu Kishwar observes:

…the best he could do was to advocate and expect harmony and not tyranny in the social division of labor.

These are some of the minor things which are present as little loopholes in the vast program Gandhi had for the emancipation of Indian women. Nevertheless, there are loopholes in the critics arguments too, which should be mentioned in Gandhiji’s fairness.


Standing on the threshold of twenty first century, we confuse and criticize Gandhi’s view on women’s role in domestic and public sphere as essentially narrow and constricted, not realizing that like any other person, Gandhi too was the product of the age in which he lived and struggled; the age in which we did not live and we did not have to struggle. Moreover he came from a traditional patriarchal bania family which was certainly not free from the structural bias conducive to the subordination of women. It seems that Gandhi could overcome some limitation and could not overcome others which he subconsciously imbibed from his family. It is for this reason that Gandhi did not see his advocacy of women’s participation in satyagraha as contradictory to his basic concept of women as nurturer and care taker. In fact, he considered women’s participation in stayagraha as an extension of her special mission as the care taker of the humanity.

But though Gandhi did not advocate radical reform of family structure, he was certainly aware that the problem lay deeply ingrained in the very fabric of society. Critics make a valid point when they say that Gandhi failed to perceive that the capacity for silent self suffering which he so idealized in women, happened to be one of the ‘key symptoms of her subordination’. Despite all these, there is not one point in Gandhiji’s thought which has the potency to prove his approach as that of a biological essentialist. He is correct when he says that women’s first station is her household because if the household is not in place, the society cannot be in place, and if the society is misplaced then the entire nation can never achieve the national stability it strives for.

To sum up, we must never forget that Gandhiji’s real achievement with regard to women’s issue lies not in the extent to which he materially altered their situation but on the process of self realization which he worked up in their minds.