If philosophy is wisdom, Mahatma Gandhi was among our foremost philosophers. He had the wisdom of Socrates, the humility of St Francis of Assisi, the mass appeal of Lenin, the saintliness of the ancient Indian rishis and the profound love of humanity of the Buddha.
He was a revolutionary who was committed to the overthrow of all forms of tyranny and social injustice, but who never bore ill-will towards anyone; who led a mighty movement against British imperialism, but never allowed the movement to be accompanied by hatred, rancour or resentment against Englishmen. He was not an intellectual in the conventional sense of the term. He was not an academic philosopher propounding his philosophy in a precise, dry and formal manner.
It would not be difficult to find inconsistencies and contradictions in some of his statements. He was supremely consistent in his devotion to truth. He was like the ancient sages, an earnest seeker of truth, a spiritual explorer or a scientist experimenting all his life to discover truth, and apply it to the practical problems facing man.
His sources of inspiration were not confined to his country or to his religion. His receptive mind was open to various influences. From his very childhood, he was brought into contact with religious and moral ideas. He studied the Ramayana, the Bhagvata, the Vaishnava poets of Gujarat and the popular writings of the Jains.
During his stay in England he studied Buddhism and the Gita, met quakers and missionaries, read the Upanishads in translation, Ruskin’s Unto This Last, theosophist literature and books on Islam. He was also profoundly impressed by Thoreau and Tolstoy.
Thoreau taught him that it was more honourable to be right than to be law-abiding a revolutionary concept which inspired his philosophy of passive resistance. Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You taught him how man could liberate himself and control evil through suffering.
Gandhiji was throughout his life a God-conscious, God-fearing man. He never passed through the valley of doubt and darkness. Nothing could shake his confidence and faith in God and His scheme of life. God with him was not an abstraction or a mere metaphysical concept, but an intensely felt reality. Belief in God was with him a question of faith and conviction. He needed no arguments to establish God’s existence. His whole being was permeated with God-consciousness; his heart vibrated with it. Gandhiji was no mystic who communicates with God in his trances or in moments of ecstasy, but a man of action. He had, however, the ability to withdraw himself from the life of excitement and meditate even amidst action.
Mahatma Gandhi’s bold affirmation of faith in God, in the moral nature of the universe, in human society as an association of kindred souls, and in free will may be criticised by the modern cynics on the ground that no valid intellectual grounds have been offered, but none can dispute the fact that his faith leads to a way of life which is in complete harmony with the needs of the times.
If God is love or truth, there can be no bar to the realisation of God through diverse ways. Religion does not divide people, unless it is understood in the sense that it is a matter of dogma, a church, a holy book; it emphasises the fundamental unity of the human race.
The Gandhian way is the way of universal love and tolerance, of profound reverence for all great religions, which are so many ways of apprehending the reality and identifying ourselves with its purposes.
Distinctions of race, nationality and sect have no room in Gandhian ethics. Patriotism is not enough. A truly religious man does not restrict his allegiance to any country or nation. His loyalty is to the whole of humanity. He acknowledges all great religions as embodying the truth and, therefore, worthy of deep reverence.
Mahatma Gandhi was an admirer of all religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity and others. This does not mean that he accepted everything they preached. “He does not mouth the name of the Founder of Christianity”, writes Will Durant in his appreciation of the Mahatma, “but he acts as if the Sermon on the Mount were his perpetual guide.” If God is truth and truth is God, then there is nothing which stands in the way of persons of various religious affiliations coming together on the same platform, as seekers after truth.
Even an earnest atheist trying to explore the reality is a truly religious man. What is repugnant to the Gandhian way of life is dogmatism, fanaticism, intolerance, selfishness. Mahatma Gandhi was a secularist in the sense that he was against any discrimination between citizens on grounds of religion, sect or caste. But, he firmly believed that a State or society would be stable only to the extent to which it was based on ethical and spiritual ideals.
What Gandhiji condemned most was cowardice, weakness of will, acquiescence in evil. He wanted man to create an ideal society by his soul- force, not to remain satisfied with things as they were. He was a great revolutionary, a great rebel, a great social reformer, but his weapon always was man’s defiant spirit permanently committed to non-violence and love.
Gandhiji was an apostle of non-violence and love because, while violence and hatred brutalised men, love ennobled them and brought out the best in them. Non-violence as a method of agitation, the Mahatma believed, was bound to succeed, because there was no man, however tyrannical, domineering and acquisitive, who could indefinitely hold out against Satyagraha, against the appeal of the fighter for justice voluntarily submitting himself to suffering and sacrifice.
Those who were not moved by appeals to reason, or by display of physical force, would not fail to respond to the appeal to their heart and to their soul. Underlying Gandhiji’s faith in Satyagraha is his belief that man is fundamentally a spiritual being, and cannot long deny the spirituality within himself.
Satyagraha ennobles both the fighter for justice, as well as the wrong-doer. Fasting, civil disobedience and non-cooperation with the tyrant are the means through which the conscience of the evil-doer is aroused. They are not a kind of blackmail or pressure tactics. They are not intended to coerce a man or to intimidate him. They are not a form of exploitation.
Mahatma Gandhi was a great idealist whose thinking was always on the highest level. But he also claimed to be a realist. He did not think that Satyagraha as he conceived it was beyond man’s power. Nobody can say what man can or cannot do. Is man still at heart a naked ape or is he capable of being an angel? It was said about Gandhiji that he had the power of making heroes out of clay.
If-society is organised on the Gandhian ideals and the people are educated on the right lines, force would disappear. It is now universally recognised that war is not a necessary evil which must periodically appear, but something abhorrent, which can be ended if mankind is organised on an international basis and individuals are educated to respect the rule of law. There is nothing utopian about Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals and techniques.
Satyagraha is one way of eliminating injustice and oppression. The other way is to create a social order in which all forms of exploitation may disappear and the need for Satyagraha or for the employment of force may be obviated. Such a social order implies a world government, democratically elected, a democratic national State, socialist economy and decentralisation of power.
The world government would establish the rule of law among nations and exploit world resources on a scientific basis for the benefit of the human race as a whole. It would have some force at its disposal to deal with any act of aggression or with a recalcitrant nation.
Nobody can object to the use of this force because it will always be employed to uphold the rule of law. The democratic State will look after a people’s internal affairs and maintain the police to crush anti-social forces. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with the use of force by a duly constituted, public-spirited authority, in defence of the rule of law. This force would be very sparingly used because causes of social tension and social conflicts are very few where every citizen is guaranteed the basic conditions of good life and disparities in the standards of living are not Very marked.
Force is reduced to the minimum possible in a healthy social order in which it is a safeguard against unruly elements. Mahatma Gandhi would have preferred the technique of Satyagraha for undoing wrongs and bringing erring persons to the path of virtue, but he would not have objected to the use of force by the community in self-defence.
Mahatma Gandhi was a kind of philosophic anarchist in whose ideal society the coercive authority of the State would disappear, economic activity would be organised, not on the basis of acquisitiveness and self-interest, but on that of co-operation and service, and every individual would perform his duties and work for the common good. He distrusted the highly centralised modern State, because, while apparently doing well by minimising exploitation and promoting welfare, it destroyed individuality and thereby impeded progress.
The State in his view represented force in a most concentrated and organised form. With all his sympathy for the poor and the down-trodden, he was no socialist using the instrument of the State to relieve distress, ensure an equitable distribution of wealth and provide employment through planned scientific exploitation of the national resources.
He was a decentralist who wanted all political and economic power to be decentralised so that the people might really feel free and not slaves of a centralised authority. Gandhiji advocated village autonomy, each village, more or less, autonomous and self-governing through panchayats, and a loose federation of villages for the satisfaction of common needs.
As a spiritualist, he urged social reform, not through legislation but through self-discipline, moral restraint and persuasion. Gandhiji had no love for capitalism. Its acquisitive nature, its stress on self-interest, its exploitation of the poor was all repugnant to him. He did not, however, want to abolish capitalism by law, but to transform it by moral force, by appealing to the rich to act as trustees of the national wealth.
Mahatma Gandhi was thoroughly dissatisfied with the present economic system and the growing trend towards materialism. He was against the modern craze for multiplicity of wants and ostentatious living, and against ever-increasing mechanisation of production and huge industrial combines relentlessly expanding their operations and pushing out small producers. He favoured simple and noble living, production through cottage and small- scale industries, village self-sufficiency, manual labour and self-help. He wanted everyone to be employed and assured of the basic conditions of good life, such as food, clothing and shelter. He was not opposed to the employment of machinery, but he wanted machines to serve man, not to enslave him.
It would be wrong to call Gandhiji a conservative in his views. His views were conditioned by his knowledge of life in the country where the standards of living were deplorably low, unemployment had assumed staggering proportions and the privileged few were leading a most sophisticated life.
Mahatma Gandhi was a great champion of individual freedom, but while he conceded to the individual certain fundamental rights, he laid equal stress, if not more, on duties. Gandhiji was no individualist as the term is ordinarily understood a man impelled by self-interest, working for self- aggrandizement and conceding to society the minimum right to regulate his conduct. He was an advocate of individualism in the moral and spiritual sense of the term in the sense of man whose nature made him an end in himself, who needed freedom to develop his moral nature and contribute to the enrichment of the corporate life of the community, and who was always God-conscious, bound in his actions by Dharma.
Gandhiji was against every custom that degraded man and made a mockery of his spiritual nature. He saw in the pernicious practice of untouchability man’s most deadly sin. He never subscribed to the theory that women were in any way inferior to men or less intelligent or wise. Widows in his view had as much right to marry as widowers. He condemned child marriage. He denounced intoxicating drugs and drink as brutalising men and doing violence to their spiritual nature. Gandhiji’s views on education were also inspired by the consideration for forming a sound character.
Education should not only help in acquiring knowledge and arousing intellectual curiosity, but should inculcate right ideals through knowledge of the nation’s social and cultural heritage. The Mahatma rejected the caste system based on birth as immoral. He wanted the organisation of the economy on the basis of hereditary occupations on the ground that they helped to transmit knowledge and skill to the succeeding generations.
His greatest contribution to modern thought lies in his insistence that man is fundamentally a spiritual and moral being and that society is an association of human spirits an association which is not limited in any way by considerations of nationality, race, creed or sex. This is a simple doctrine, yet how profoundly revolutionary.
He wants men and women who are noble, public-spirited, disciplined, who are always bound by the laws of Dharma, who are fully conscious of their social obligations, and who think not in terms of self-interest and self-aggrandizement, but of service to the community and its corporate life. He also wants a society in which every man would be able to live in freedom and achieve creative self-expression.
In this world, divided by nationality, race, religion, sex and caste and class, in the world where a large part of humanity lives under a totalitarian tyranny, in this world where man seeks only endless pleasure in the acquisition of the material things of life, in sex and drugs and drink, in new sensations and excitements, the message of the Mahatma has a significance which mankind cannot afford to ignore. With all his limitations as a thinker, he represented a great moral force and a new way of life which promises to relieve the anxiety of the modern age and put humanity on the road to sanity and health.