Mahatma Gandhi was an intensely active personality. He was interested in everything that concerns the individual or society. He is best known as the matchless political leader who evolved the new technique of “satyagraha”. His fight against untouchability and the notions of superiority and inferiority by birth are also fairly well known. For India, his greatest service was, perhaps, the emancipation of Indian women.
It is generally known that he lived an austere life, practised strict vegetarianism and abstained from alcoholic drinks, tobacco and even the milder stimulants like coffee and tea. His attachment to simple natural remedies against illness and disease and his radical ideas on education are not so well known to the outside world and, even in India, they have not made much impact. Gandhi deliberately refrained from making these public issues and thereby confusing the people. The only exception was prohibition of intoxicating drinks which became a tool in the armoury of satyagraha. Therefore it became a plank in the Congress program but it was well known that many an important supporter of Gandhi was privately addicted to drink and the great leader did not take undue notice of it. Even though it got into the Constitution in the form of a Directive Principle, there has been no honesty about prohibition among the Congress Governments and Congressmen in general. Gandhi’s views on language, government and economics played a considerable part in his political movements; and in the program of Khadi and Village Industries included in the Five Year Plans and in the Panchayat Raj which has recently been established, they have been accepted and implemented to some extent.
If all these ideas and activities are viewed in isolation, they constitute a miscellaneous and rather archaic collection, the importance of which will dwindle and fade away with time. It is only when it is realised that Gandhi was fundamentally a moral and social philosopher and that, through these items, he sought to experiment with certain far-reaching fundamental principles, of whose absolute truth he was convinced beyond all doubt, that their true significance becomes clear.
The Gandhian Principles
The first principle which guided all his thoughts and activities is the complete unity and integrity of body, mind and soul in the individual human being. He was never tired of saying that the body should be controlled by the mind and the mind by the soul. But this control is not to be achieved by despising or neglecting either the body or the mind or in the mystic exaltation of the soul by itself. He attached to physical health and well-being as much importance as to plain and logical thinking or moral responsibility. He was one of the most logical and powerful writers; yet, he was never tired of decrying all idle and purposeless playing with words and ideas or deification of thought as such. He was convinced that real thought must be organically connected to moral purposes on the one side and useful and right action on the other.
It has been claimed that the greatest achievement of Gandhi was the spiritualization of politics. This is undoubtedly true; but he had no faith in spirituality by itself as an abstract virtue. He conceived it as a kind of illumination or fragrance which should accompany every thought and action. It is difficult to define it, except, perhaps, through the verses of the Bhagavad-Gita which constituted his daily prayer.
The second principle of Gandhian philosophy may be stated as follows: All social action should be governed by the same simple set of moral values, of which the main elements are selflessness, non-attachment, nonviolence and active service. It will take me too long to define and elaborate his ideas in respect of each of these; but he believed that the growth of a mans personality is proportionate to his faith in and practice of these virtues. This is possible only when he identifies himself more and more with an ever-increasing circle till it embraces all humanity and even all living beings. He judged the value and vitality of social institutions by their capacity to foster such growth.
His third conviction was that no society, state or any other institution has any worth or importance apart from its part in contributing to the growth of the individuals of which it is composed. The State, the Nation, the community and other traditional groupings had no intrinsic value for him. In the pages of Young Indis in the earlier years, he defended the caste system as a great scheme of social and sexual discipline; but in the light of actual experience he abandoned it as an impractical system, though to the end he believed in some kind of voluntary and ideal social groups based on qualifications and capacity for service.
It was Gandhi's firm conviction that means are at least as important as, and often even more important than, ends. It is, of course, desirable that ends should be good and reasonable. But they merely give a direction to life while the means adopted constitute life itself. Therefore, if the means are right, that is, if they conform to the tests of truth and nonviolence, even mistakes, errors and failures aid the growth of the individual. On the other hand, wrong means corrupt the soul and no good can ever come out of them. Gandhi repudiated categorically the idea that ends justify the means. This implies the rejection of war, espionage and crooked diplomacy, even when they are adopted for the so-called noble ends of defending the country, religion or humanity.
Faith in God is, according to Gandhi, the foundation of all moral values. He never defined God and was prepared to allow every person to have his own idea of God. For himself, he was inclined to think of Him as the Upanishadic Brahman. But, so long as a person believes in some source of spiritual life and holds it superior to the material universe, he is a believer in God. Gandhi had no objection even to a formal profession of agnosticism, so long as a person demonstrated by his attachment to moral values that this outlook was essentially spiritual in essence.
I believe that the influence of Gandhi in the future will depend more and more on the realisation that these fundamental principles constitute the core of his teachings and that all his actions were merely illustrations of their application. He considered his life as a series of experiments with truth. Therefore, it is his conception of truth that is central to his life and work. I do not claim that the principles I have indicated exhaust his conception; but I believe that they constitute its basic elements.