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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948) was an Indian lawyer, anti-colonial nationalist, and political ethicist, who employed nonviolent resistance to lead the successful campaign for India's independence from British Rule, and in turn inspire movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. The honorific Mahatma first applied to him in 1914 in South Africa, is now used throughout the world. It was in South Africa that Gandhi raised a family, and first employed nonviolent resistance in a campaign for civil rights. He set about organising peasants, farmers, and urban labourers to protest against excessive land-tax and discrimination. Later assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for easing poverty, expanding women's rights, building religious and ethnic amity, ending untouchability, and above all for achieving Swaraj or self-rule. The same year Gandhi adopted the Indian loincloth, or short dhoti and, in the winter, a shawl, both woven with yarn hand-spun on a traditional Indian spinning wheel, or charkha, as a mark of identification with India's rural poor. Thereafter, he lived modestly in a self-sufficient residential community, ate simple vegetarian food, and undertook long fasts as a means of self-purification and political protest. Bringing anti-colonial nationalism to the common Indians, Gandhi led them in challenging the British-empire and later in calling for the British to Quit India in 1942. He was imprisoned for many years, upon many occasions, in both South Africa and India.

Gandhi's vision of an independent India based on religious pluralism was challenged in the early 1940s by a new Muslim nationalism which was demanding a separate Muslim homeland carved out of India. India was partitioned into two dominions, a Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan and India witnessed religious violence, especially in the Punjab and Bengal. Eschewing the official celebration of independence in Delhi, Gandhi visited the affected areas, attempting to provide solace. In the months following, he undertook several fasts unto death to stop religious violence. The last of these, undertaken on 12 January 1948 when he was 78, shot by Nathuram Godse. Gandhi's birthday, 2 October, is commemorated worldwide as the International Day of Nonviolence. M. K. Gandhi revives Buddha’s ethics of ahimsa, and applies it to social, economic and political problems. He evolves a new outlook on life based on the doctrine of ahimsa and sees to solve all social, political and economic problems in the light of this principle. He gives a new orientation to the problems that face humanity today and offers a new solution. Gandhi says, “My contribution to the great problem lies in my presenting for acceptance Truth (satya) and Ahimsa in every walk of life, whether for individuals, or nations”, Gandhi was influenced by Tolstoy who believed in absolute altruism.

  • Truth (Satya):
    Mahatma Gandhi is an apostle of ahimsa. The basic principle of life is based on Truth. Gandhi gives a succinct account of his philosophy. He says; “I often describe my religion as religion of truth. Of late, instead of saying God is Truth, I have been saying Truth is God, in order more fully to define my religion. We are sparks of Truth. The sum total of sparks is indescribable as-yet-unknown Truth, which is God.” The bearing of this religion on social life is or has to be seen in one’s daily social contact. To be true to such religion one has to lose oneself in continuous and continuing service of our life. Realization of Truth is impossible without a complete merging of oneself in an identification with this limitless ocean of life.
    Gandhi says, ‘God is life, He is the Supreme Good. God is truth and love’, God is fearlessness. God is the source of Light and Life, and yet He is above and beyond all these. He is the most exciting personage in the world. Gandhi declares, “I do perceive that, whilst everything around me is ever-changing and ever- dying, there is underlying all that change, a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves and re-creates. That informing Power or Spirit is God.” Gandhi looks upon God as an impersonal, omnipresent power or Spirit that pervades the universe, and that is imminent in the human soul. God can be known only through love or non-violence. Means and ends are inseparable. God is the end. Therefore He can be known through truth and love or non-violence. “Truth is God. When you want to find Truth as God the only inevitable means Love, i.e., non-violence, and ultimately means and ends are convertible terms.”

  • Ahimsa:
    It is not merely a negative virtue of non-killing and non-injury, but a positive virtue of doing good to others. Ahimsa is supreme kindness and supreme self-sacrifice. It is non-violence in thought, word and deed. It is not only abstinence from killing and doing harm. It is also abstinence from causing pain through word or thought and resentment. But non-violence or non-injury in thought, word and deed constitutes the negative aspect of ahimsa. It has positive aspect, which is more important than the negative aspect. It is not only complete absence of ill-will towards mankind and sentient creation but involves over-flowing love and affection for them. We can realize Truth by loving the whole animal world including mankind. The only means for the realisation of Truth is ahimsa. A perfect vision of Truth can only follow a realization of ahimsa.”

    Gandhi says, “There is only one whom we have to fear, that is God. So we shall fear no man; and if you want to follow the vow of Truth, then fearlessness is absolutely necessary.” This doctrine of fearless pursuit of truth is called Satyagraha (firmness in truth). Life should be ruled by the law of Truth regardless of consequences. Gandhi says, “Non-violence implies as complete self-purification as is humanly possible.” It implies “a living faith in the existence of the soul as apart from the body.” Non-violence is soul force. It is power of Atman. It is power of Love. “It is uttermost selflessness. Selflessness means complete freedom from a regard for one’s body.” “Anger is the enemy of Ahimsa; and pride is a monster that swallows it up.” Ahimsa implies conquest of anger and pride. “A Satyagrahi will always try to overcome evil by good, anger by love, untruth by truth, and by ahimsa.” Ahimsa implies absence of hatred. Hate ought to be conquered by love. “Hate is the subtlest form of violence. “In its positive form, ahimsa means the largest love, greatest charity. If I am a follower of ahimsa. I must love my enemy. Active ahimsa necessarily includes truth and fearlessness. The practice of ahimsa calls forth the greatest courage. Non­violence is the weapon of the strongest and bravest.”

    Ahimsa is the opposite of cowardice. It is not flight from the attack of the evil-doer. It is better to be violent than to be a coward. “My creed of non­violence is an extremely active force. It has no room for cowardice or even weakness.” A violent man can become non-violent. But a coward’ can never become non-violent. “Ahimsa requires true humility for it is reliance not on self, but on God alone.” Non-violence implies restrained upon one’s desire for vengeance. Vengeance is weakness. It springs from fear of harm. Vengeance is better than helpless submission. But forgiveness is higher than vengeance. “Ahimsa is the extreme limit of forgiveness. Gandhi believes that, “Hate the sin and not the sinner.” “For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite. To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being but with him the whole world.”

    Evil cannot stand by itself. Non-co-operate with evil, and it will die of inanition. “It is quite proper to resist and, attack a system but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself.” And we can effectively attack an evil system by non-co-operation with it in a non-violent manner. His moral weapon of non-violent non-co­operation is a most potent weapon to fight an evil system with. It took the forms of passive resistance and civil disobedience in the field of politics to fight the evil of foreign domination in India. Mahatma Gandhi wants to evolve a new social order on the basis of love and self-sacrifice. He wants to give every opportunity to an individual to rise to the height of his personality. But he does not want to apply force to divest the privileged classes of their wealth, like Marx. He does not believe in class war.

    He is not a socialist or a communist. He believes in change of heart and voluntary surrender of superfluous possessions for the benefit of the poor. There is no place of brute force and violence in his scheme of the new social order. Non-violence, truth and love is a slow but sure process. It avoids bloodshed, chaos and confusion. Love is unifying. Hatred is disintegrating. According to Gandhi a Satyagrahi must take the vow of non-possession and voluntary poverty. Gandhi says, “A seeker after truth, a follower of the law of love, cannot hold anything against tomorrow. God never stores for the morrow. If we repose faith in His Providence, we should rest assured that He will give us every day our daily bread.”

A Satyagrahi must observe the five vows of:

  • truthfulness,
  • non-violence,
  • non-thieving,
  • non- possession,
  • sex-control
Gandhi says. “Realization of God is impossible without complete renunciation of the sexual desire.” Sex-urge is a fine and noble thing. It is meant for the act of creation. Any other use of it is sin against God and humanity.” “Brahmacharya must be observed in thought, word, and deed.” It means not only control over sex, but control over all the senses. Gandhi advocates rigid ethical discipline, severe sense- control, almost an ascetic morality. A Satyagrahi should cultivate humility, silence, renunciation, self- sacrifice, sense- restraint, non-violence in thought, word and deed, love, goodwill, and compassion for all, and abstemiousness for drinks and drugs.

Gandhi does not believe in war, because:

  • it is mass slaughter of men
  • it is against the law of human nature
  • against the rule of Truth and Non-violence.

In the new social order war will be eliminated. He says, “Exploitation is the essence of violence.” The principle of non-violence necessitates complete abstention from exploitation in any form. Economic equality is the master key to non-violent independence. The rich cannot accumulate vast wealth without exploiting the poor. Exploitation involves violence. Equal distribution can be brought about through non-violence. Every person should reduce his wants to a minimum, exercise self-restraint in every sphere of life, and live a simple life.
The wealthy should act as trustees of their superfluous wealth and use it for the good of society. Gandhi believes in the “trusteeship of the wealthy”. Sri Aurobindo also says, “All wealth belongs to God, and those who hold it are trustees, not possessors.” Gandhi says, “Everything belongs to God. Therefore it is for his people as a whole, not for a particular individual.” Gandhi advocates non-violent socialism. Gandhi is dead against dictatorship. He is a staunch advocate of democracy. In a democracy established by non-violence, there will be equal freedom for all. He says, “True democracy can only be an outcome of non-violence.” “The structure of a world federation can be raised only on a foundation of non-violence, and violence will have to be totally given up in world affairs.” “Isolated independence is not the goal of the World States. It is voluntary interdependence!” Gandhi as an idealist, advocates greatest good of all (utilitarian). He says, “A votary of Ahimsa cannot subscribe to the utilitarian formula of the greatest good of the greatest number. He will strive for the greatest good of all. The greatest good of all inevitably includes the good of the greatest number.”

Ends and Means:

God-realization is the Supreme End according to Gandhi. He says, “I believe in absolute oneness of God and therefore of humanity. Though we have many bodies we have but one soul. The rays of the sun are many through refraction. But they have the same source.” “I believe in Advaita. I believe in the essential unity of a man and for that matter of all lives.” There is unity of life in all lives. There is unity of Spirit in all mankind. Man’s ultimate aim is the realization of God, and all his activities, social, political, religious have to be guided by the ultimate aim of the vision of God. Gandhi says, “The immediate service of all human beings becomes a necessary part of the endeavour, simply because the only way to find God is to see Him in His creation and be one with it. This can be done by the service of all. I am a part and parcel of the whole, and I cannot find Him apart from humanity.” “My creed is service of God and therefore of humanity.” Identification with everything that lives is impossible without self- purification. God can never be realized by one who is not pure in heart.” Perfect self-control depends upon God’s grace. Absolute self-surrender to God is necessary for complete self-control including sex-restraint. Jesus Christ says, “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

Criticism of Gandhi’s Ethics of Ahimsa:

Gandhi is not an academic philosopher. So he has not evolved a system of ethics on the firm foundation of philosophical reflection. There are elements of intuitionism, rationalism or asceticism, and eudaemonism in his ethical doctrine, which are not reduced to a coherent unity. But still his voice is that of a prophet in this age of darkness. He is a great moral reformer and political leader. He is a major contributor to the achievement of India’s freedom from the British rule. He is fittingly called Father of the Indian nation. He is a great humanist. Gandhi holds that man has the freedom of the will. He can choose between right and wrong. God has given a man freedom. Conscience is the voice of God in man. It intuitively apprehends Tightness or wrongness of particular actions. In complex situations God reveals the Truth to us through the intuition of conscience. This is the element of Intuitionism.
Gandhi offers almost an ascetic doctrine of morality. Suppression of instincts and desires and living the life of pure reason constitute the moral life. Our wants should be reduced; our desires should be suppressed: pleasure should be shunned; perfect equanimity and stoical indifference to pleasure and pain should be cultivated. The life of fearless and uncompromising pursuit of Truth, regardless of consequences, is the highest ideal. Sex instinct should not be gratified except for procreation; it is an evil, and as such, should be eradicated. Violence or injury to others should be eschewed altogether. All these show that Gandhi’s ethical doctrine contains elements of asceticism, ringoursim rationalism or moral purism, and suffer from its defects.
Gandhi believes in the existence of God. God is the Supreme Good, Truth and Love. He is the moral governor. Finite spirits are sparks of infinite Truth or God. They can realize Truth of perfection by social service—by identifying themselves with the whole creation—mankind and sentient creation and realizing the oneness of life. Ahimsa or non­violence in thought, word and deed, is the means to the realization of Truth. Ahimsa is love and good will and active service. The world is rational constituted. It is the sphere of moral life, and not dead to moral values. This is the element of the eudaemonism in Gandhi’s ethical doctrine. Truth and Ahimsa are the keystones of Gandhi’s ethics. Truth is God. Ahimsa is love. God is Love. Realization of Truth means realization of God. It is possible only through Ahimsa, non-violence or love. God can be realized through love and service of humanity. He makes too much of truth. He does not clearly explain the meaning of the Infinite. Truth is the supreme good. His ethical doctrine is vague as to the nature and content of the Supreme Good.
Gandhi makes too much to reason. Human nature is complex. It is a mixture of sensibility and reason. It will always continue to be so. Sensibility is not, in itself, irrational. It should not be suppressed. It should be regulated by reason. Even the sex instinct, which is dominant and irrepressible, is not necessarily irrational. Within its proper sphere, duly regulated and controlled by reason, it generates love and affection which bind man and woman closely together and develop their personality. Moral purism, rigourism, rationalism or asceticism is a one-sided doctrine. Gandhi makes too much of non-violence. He holds that non-injury in thought, word and deed ought, under all circumstances, to be cultivated. But human nature is a mixture of good and evil. Non­violence, under all circumstances, is neither practicable nor justifiable.
An individual or a nation ought to attack, injure, and thwart another individual or a nation in self-defence violence under certain circumstances, is morally justified. Extreme non-violence in the face of aggression is neither practicable nor justifiable. Fasting for self- purification is justified. But it is also a method of moral coercion to realize an ulterior purpose. It is never a method of moral persuasion. Gandhi’s doctrine of ‘trusteeship of wealth’ is impracticable. The wealthy will have to be divested in order to feed the poor and the needy. Every citizen in a State will have to be given the economic minimum. Every welfare State must dispossess the wealthy and give the poor the right to employment and right to food, clothing, health, house, and education. The poor must not live on the doles of the rich. Gandhi wants to build a new social order on non­violence and love. The trend of human progress is inevitably and unmistakably towards a federation of free nations based on non-violence and mutual understanding. Humanity cannot be enslaved by imperialistic capitalism or imperialistic communism with atom bombs, hydrogen bombs, and other destructive nuclear weapons which threaten humanity with extinction.