Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869 – 1948) never set foot in the United States. Yet the man called "Mahatma" ("the great soul") had an enormous influence on the idea of nonviolence in the United States. During the 1920s, as he led the movement for India's independence, he became well know to all those who followed world affairs. In 1930, Time magazine made him famous by declaring him "Man of the Year." However, only a few Americans studied his ideas carefully and shared his commitment to principled nonviolence. They could be found largely in two groups. One was the FOR. The other was the African-American intellectual community. A number of African-American thinkers traveled to India to meet Gandhi and learn about the movement he led. There was as much, and perhaps more, written about Gandhi in African-American periodicals as in white periodicals. The African-American intellectuals played a key role in bringing Gandhi’s thought and work to the U.S.
Most whites and blacks who shared Gandhi’s commitment based their own nonviolence on religious faith. Ironically, though, few of them paid much attention to Gandhi’s own religious foundations. They studied him as a brilliant political strategist who was showing how to make nonviolent resistance work. Most studies of Gandhi to the present day have followed the same course. The largest proportion of books on Gandhi still pay little attention to the details of his religious thought. Therefore they give a rather misleading view of this greatest of nonviolent activists. Gandhi himself said many times that his political work was merely a branch of his larger commitment to social change, and his commitment to social change was merely a branch of his fundamental life's work, his quest for spiritual truth. If he ever had to make the choice, he would give up his political work and even his social efforts rather than forsake his religious quest. Yet he could not imagine having to make such a choice. In his view, political and social life was inextricably tied up with religion, and vice versa.
Gandhi's collected writings fill more than 100 volumes. In a brief essay, it is not possible to do more than hint at the complexity of his ideas on nonviolence. Many issues that he considered very important must be omitted here. The following paragraphs aim only to suggest the basic foundations of his idea of and commitment to nonviolence. Gandhi will probably be a major influence as long as the nonviolence tradition continues, in the U.S. and around the world. So it seems best to explore his idea of nonviolence on his own terms, in the broadest possible context, in order to understand his fullest potential influence. That means beginning with his religious foundations.
To be true to Gandhi's own thought, it is not enough to say that his foundations were religious. More precisely, the basic foundation was in Hinduism. He was raised as a Hindu and never left that tradition. Yet he was also open to other influences. As a youth he absorbed much from the Jain tradition, an indigenous religion of India which was especially popular in his native state of Gujarat. When he studied law in London in the early 1890s, he took a great interest in Christianity, especially in the New Testament. As a young lawyer in South Africa, he became the leader of the movement for legal rights for all Indian people living there, the Muslims as well as the Hindus. He received help from some Jewish friends too. This was the setting in which he first experimented with what he called satyagraha: nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. But he soon recognized that, for him, political action had to be grounded in religious truth. Since his movement embraced Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews, he developed a deeper appreciation of the resources of all these traditions.
When he returned to India in 1915, to lead the movement for independence, he had to deal directly with the tensions (often fanned by the British) between Hindus and Muslims. So he took a special interest in seeking common ground between the two religions. At the same time, he broadened his scope to encompass Buddhist and Parsi influences, finding in every religious tradition an avenue to truth. Yet living in India tied him even more closely to his Hindu roots. Hinduism remained the foundation and framework of all his thought and life. Tragically, Hinduism was also the source of his death. Gandhi never felt bound by every detail of Hindu tradition. He claimed that the way to make it a living faith was to adapt it to changing circumstances. This outraged many Hindu traditionalists, who saw him undermining essential elements of their religion. In 1948, just a year after India finally gained its independence, one of these outraged Hindus shot him.
The fact that one Hindu could kill another is a sharp reminder that Hinduism is not, and has never been, a single monolithic religion. It encompasses a tremendously wide variety of experiences, beliefs, and practices. To study Gandhi's religion is to study his own unique blend of traditional and modernized Hinduism. Ironically, Gandhi's blend was influenced substantially (probably far more than he knew) by the very British rulers who were his political foes. During the 19th century, middle class Indian families like Gandhi's adapted to British rule by taking on many elements of Western culture, in varying ways and varying degrees. This often included a more or less Westernized understanding of Hinduism. Their religion was a rather abstract version of Hinduism, which could make sense to Western scholars and their readers. It was usually based on a philosophical interpretation of two classical sacred scriptures: a large collection known as Upanishads and a brief text, the Bhagavad-Gita, which Gandhi came to treasure as the most valuable of all scriptures. To understand Gandhi's idea of nonviolence, the first step is to understand Hinduism as he understood it.
Gandhi never wrote down his basic ideas in any unified, systematic way. He was not an abstract philosopher. He was too busy helping people organize to improve their lives, both spiritually and materially. He never thought that systematic theories were of much help in those efforts. So his writings were almost entirely letters, short articles, editorials, and the like. From this fragmentary evidence, though, it is possible to construct a fairly clear systematic picture of his idea of nonviolence.
TRUTH IS GOD
In the Upanishads, the spiritual essence of all that exists—the fundamental reality—is called brahman. "The wonderful implication of the great truth 'brahman is real; this world is not real' grows on me from day to day," Gandhi wrote. Hindu thinkers have struggled for many centuries to define precisely the difference between the real and the unreal. Some say that brahman is literally the only reality; all else is illusion (in Sanskrit, maya), no more real than a dream or a hallucination. For most interpreters, though, maya is more than mere illusion. It has some existence. But it is impermanent; it has a beginning and therefore an end. Only brahman, the imperishable, is permanent. Maya is sometimes described as "spun out" from brahman, as a spider spins a web out from itself. Brahman is sometimes said to be the innermost essence, or the thread on which all reality is strung, like pearls. Brahman is also described as the sun, with maya being the rays of the sun. As this metaphor suggests, brahman pervades everything, yet is above and beyond everything. All interpreters agree, though, that only brahman is ultimately real; in Sanskrit, it is sat, that which really is.
To put it that way, however, gives a false impression of a static being, like the unchanging God of Western philosophy. Brahman does have a static aspect. And relatively Westernized Hindus like Gandhi felt perfectly comfortable using the English word God as a synonym for brahman. But since brahman is the essence of all reality, brahman is also the cosmic process. At times, Gandhi seemed to understand it as the pattern of relationships among all things; the way that all realities are bound together and interact as parts of the single ultimate reality. Those interactions are dynamic and constantly changing. Therefore, Brahman is the eternal pattern of endless change. In this sense, brahman is not only the way thing really are, but the way things really ought to proceed in the cosmos. It is the dynamic moral order at heart of reality.
"All the other forces are static, while God is the Life Force, immanent and at the same time transcendent." The word transcendent is important here. It warns against simply equating brahman with a collection of "everything in the whole world." Gandhi did write: "God is the sum total of all life." But God, or brahman, is not only the sum total of all reality that can be experienced, from the tiniest pebble up to the grandest god. Brahman is also much more than that. Even a collection of "everything in the whole world" would ultimately perish; in that sense, it is unreal. Only the imperishable brahman is sat, the really real, the essential being of the endless process we call reality. Things come and go, but the pattern by which they interact is eternal.
For Gandhi, the most crucial insight is that sat is truly real, the only real truth. In Sanskrit, the word for truth is satya:
The word satya is derived from sat, which means that which is. Satya means a state of being. Nothing is or exists in reality except Truth. That is why sat or satya is the right name for God. In fact it is more correct to say that Truth is God than to say that God is Truth. But as we cannot do without a ruler or general, the name God is and will remain more current. On deeper thinking, however, it will be realized that sat or satya is the only correct and fully significant name for God.…Devotion to this Truth is the sole justification for our existence. All our activities should be centred in truth. Truth should be the very breath of our life.…God as Truth has been for me, at any rate, a treasure beyond price.
Here is the crux of Gandhi's Hinduism and, as far as he could tell, of all religion. He repeated over and over again that religion is the life-long quest for absolute Truth.
"Pure and absolute truth should be our ideal…reaching it is attaining moksha." Moksha is the term used in the Upanishads for the highest state of spiritual perfection. A person who attains moksha experiences directly the key insight of the Upanishads: tat tvam asi, you are that. Your essential self (in Sanskrit, atman) is identical with that brahman. There is no difference at all. The atman transcends what we normally call the self (body, thoughts, feelings, personality, ego), just as brahman transcends all existence that is maya. As Gandhi put it: "One ought always to remember, while dwelling on Him, that one is but a drop, the tiniest of creatures of the ocean that is God." The goal of all spiritual life is to know oneself, totally and at every instant, as brahman, a spark of the divine, a drop in the infinite sea of Truth.
What exactly does it mean to know oneself as brahman? Hinduism offers many different answers to this question, because it offers so many different interpretations of brahman. Since Gandhi never adhered to one clear and consistent view of brahman, he had no single view of the relationship of self to brahman. He sometimes seemed to say that the only way to know truth is for the individual self to disappear entirely: "Realization of Truth is impossible without a complete merging of oneself in and identification with this limitless ocean of life." This suggests that the sense of separate self is totally illusory; moksha means experiencing the truth that brahman is the only reality.
More specifically, Gandhi could speak of this merger in terms of a cosmic consciousness: "Where there is Truth, there also is knowledge which is true.…To the man who has realized this truth in its fullness, nothing else remains to be known, because, as we have seen above, all knowledge is necessarily included in it." In moksha, one's own knowledge becomes the ultimate Truth itself. One realizes that what we call "the self" is actually the sum total of all reality. One's own consciousness is the cosmic consciousness that is brahman. Our own knowledge, the limited truths that we discover in life, are all parts of the ultimate, infinite Truth. Whenever we know something to be true, and whenever we adhere to that truth in our thoughts and deeds, we participate in Truth, in the process that is brahman. "The most ignorant among mankind have some truth in them. We are all sparks of Truth. The sum total of these sparks is indescribable, as-yet-Unknown Truth, which is God." From the instant of conception, we are all essentially drops of pure consciousness in the ocean of pure consciousness that is Truth.
Sometimes, though, he spoke of the individual self as if it had real existence: "We are all sparks of the divine and, therefore, partake of its divine nature." If brahman is the force or pattern of relationships among all things, then each self must partake of the divine nature, simply by virtue of being alive. The individual is in some sense a separate self. Yet the essence of each individual’s life is being woven into the cosmic web of endless interactions, which is brahman. The essence of life is not what separates one from all others, but what binds one to all others. The essential truth is not separation but interconnectedness: my life is fully and eternally united with all life.
Sometimes, Gandhi captured the ambiguity of his thought quite precisely: "The soul [atman] is unborn and indestructible. The personality perishes, must perish. Individuality is and is not even as each drop in the ocean is an individual and is not. It is not because apart from the ocean it has no existence. It is because the ocean has no existence, if the drop has not, i.e., has no individuality. They are beautifully interdependent." Had he been interested in systematic precision, Gandhi might have gone on to explain brahman in terms of this interdependence. But he was content to say different things at different times and let the question of self and brahman remain only vaguely answered. The essential point was not theoretical definition, but a life devoted to realizing in direct experience the truth of tat tvam asi: you are that brahman. Once that realization is attained, Gandhi might have said, precise definitions are irrelevant.
Why does it take such strenuous spiritual effort to realize the truth directly? The simple answer of Hinduism is that we are ignorant of the truth. Why are we ignorant? To answer that question, Gandhi turned to his beloved text, the Bhagavad-Gita. The Gita's simple explanation for ignorance is, in one word, desire. Every desire stems from the mistaken notion that the person who desires is separate from whatever he or she desires. Every desire reinforces this mistaken notion of being a separate individual. Desire stems from and reinforces our sense of ego; when Gandhi spoke of desire, he always meant selfish, egotistical desire. Conversely, when there is no desire, there is no illusion of separate existence: "He who has achieved extinction of the ego becomes the very image of Truth; he may well be called the brahman."
The way to Truth and to moksha is to restrain and control all desires until, ultimately, there is no desire at all. "In working out plans for self-restraint, attention must not for a single moment be withdrawn from the fact that we are all sparks of the divine and, therefore, partake of its divine nature, and since there can be no such thing as self-indulgence with the divine it must of necessity be foreign to human nature." The divine has no desire because it is the totality of all the processes that make up reality. It lacks nothing; therefore it can want nothing. Essential human nature—the atman—is that totality, so it too can want nothing. "If we get a hard grasp of that elementary fact," Gandhi continues, "we should have no difficulty in attaining self-control." That claim is rather misleading. In fact, Gandhi struggled mightily his whole life to attain self-control, as he admitted: "It is always a case of intense mental struggle. It is not that I am incapable of anger, for instance, but I succeed on almost all occasions to keep my feelings under control. Whatever may be the result, there is always in me a conscious struggle." Traditional Hinduism has developed many different kinds of spiritual disciplines, all aiming at greater control of emotion and desire.
Gandhi's great contribution in the realm of religion was his distinctively modern method of spiritual discipline: serving other people through organizing for social, economic, and political change. Not that Gandhi was the first to do this. But he was certainly the greatest and most influential exponent of this spiritual path. For Gandhi, the logic was clear. Ego is self-love. The way to transcend ego is to love others. Love of others is not primarily an emotion. It is an attitude translated into action. Love is most real when we put aside our own needs to serve others. "God is TRUTH. It is impossible to reach HIM, that is TRUTH, except through LOVE. LOVE can only be expressed fully when man reduces himself to a cipher [i.e., a zero, nothing]. This is the only effort worth making, and it is possible only through ever-increasing self-restraint." "True development consists in reducing ourselves to a cipher. Selfless service is the secret of life. To rise above passions is the highest ideal."
From the Gandhian perspective, it makes no sense to speak of balancing one's own needs against the needs of others. That would only foster the illusion that there is a separate self with its own separate needs. There should be no limit on service of others, because serving the needs of another person is actually serving ultimate reality itself:
Realization of Truth is impossible without a complete merging of oneself in and identification with this limitless ocean of life. Hence, for me, there is no escape from social service; there is no happiness on earth beyond or apart from it.…The purpose of life is undoubtedly to know oneself. We cannot do it unless we learn to identify ourselves with all that lives. The sum total of that life is God. Hence the necessity of realizing God living within every one of us. The instrument of this knowledge is boundless selfless service.
Service to others is the only way to merge with the limitless brahman, because the essence of brahman is service. Sat is a process in which the innumerable creatures sustain themselves by meeting their basic needs. Truth includes the truth that all beings should be able to sustain themselves in their particularly appointed ways. But sat is a single unified process, in which all elements of reality are bound together. Sat encompasses the infinite web of interconnections and interactions that make up reality. Those interactions are essential for every creature's survival, since every creature depends on others to meet its own needs.
More specifically, Gandhi stressed, every creature survives only because others make sacrifices. Every manifestation of brahman requires and receives something from some other manifestation. Each helps to sustain all the others by sacrificing for others. All are linked in this endless chain of mutual giving. Love is the name of that chain, the force that binds all beings together. Each one of us exists only because others have already made innumerable sacrifices so that we could exist. Now we have the opportunity to sacrifice for others.
This opportunity is also our sacred duty. To do one’s duty, by making the required sacrifice, is the only act of love; the only way to love is to do one’s duty. Loving dutiful sacrifice is the eternally true pattern, the moral order at the heart of reality. Any act that helps keep that pattern going is participation in Truth and brings the doer closer to Truth. Therefore serving others is not serving discrete individual beings. It is serving sat, ultimate reality itself. Any act that aims to serve sat is a manifestation of sat. It is satya, a true act, an act of Truth.
Seen from the spiritual perspective, reality "is an undivided and indivisible whole; and, therefore, what is or may be good for one must be good for all.…Never have I taken up any activity—be it sectional or national—which would be detrimental to the good of humanity as a whole." The Gandhian path to moksha is to serve Truth by setting aside personal likes and dislikes and serving the totality by serving all creatures equally:
Just as the sea accepts the water of all rivers within itself, purifies it and gives it back again, so you too, if you make yourselves as the sea, will be able to accept all people. As the sea makes no distinction between good rivers and bad, but purifies all, so one person, whose heart is purified and enlarged with nonviolence and truth, can contain everything in that heart and it will not overflow or lose its serenity. Remember that you aim at being such a person.
Serving Truth also means overcoming fear. Fear and desire are two sides of the same coin of concern with self. When we desire something, we fear not getting it. Once we have it, we fear losing it. When we are afraid of something, we are usually just desiring to avoid the unpleasant consequences it can bring. To serve Truth, one must overcome fear as well as desire. "If you want to follow the vow of truth in any shape or form, fearlessness is the necessary consequence.…We fear consequences, and therefore we are afraid to tell the truth. A man who fears God will certainly not fear any earthly consequence." "Fear and love are contradictory terms. Love is reckless in giving away, oblivious as to what it gets in return." Love is also oblivious of what is risked or might be lost. Indeed, once we experience ourselves as ciphers, as drops in the ocean, we realize that there is nothing that can be lost, for we are already and always the sum total of eternal reality: you are that. "In order to be fearless we should love all and adhere to the path of truth."
TRUTH AND NONVIOLENCE
The quest for Truth is the foundation of Gandhi's understanding of religion. Therefore it is also the foundation of his understanding of nonviolence: "A truthful man cannot long remain violent.…As long as there is the slightest trace of violence in him, he will fail to find the truth he is searching for." This was not an ethical assumption or presupposition. For Gandhi, it was a logical conclusion, based on his definition of violence. He used the Sanskrit term for violence, himsa, which means (in his view) acting toward others with selfish desire or intent, trying to force them to comply with one's own desire. Perhaps the best translation of himsa, as Gandhi used the term, is "coercion." "Coercion means some harmful force used against a person who is expected to do something desired by the user of the force." Thus coercion is always an expression of desire: "There is violence always in the attachment to one's ego. When doing anything, one must ask oneself this question: 'Is my action inspired by egoistic attachment [i.e., desire]?' If there is no such attachment, then there is no violence."
When speaking of nonviolence, Gandhi typically used the Sanskrit term ahimsa, which literally means "without himsa." Any action that is not motivated by selfish desire, but aims to serve and benefit others, is an act of love. Therefore it is ahimsa. Ahimsa is an attitude of full, conscious awareness that one is participating in sat, the process of reality, and that one can never separate oneself from the process of reality. Since each of us is already the fullness of reality, there is nothing to desire.
Ahimsa, or egoless action, "implies as complete self-purification as is humanly possible." But Gandhi had an extraordinarily high standard of what is possible: "Nonviolence is impossible without complete self-effacement." Gandhi never claimed that he had reached this state of perfection. Over and over again, he said things like, "I do not know that I have in me purification enough to realize true peace or nonviolence." But he never doubted that moral perfection was a valid and meaningful ideal:
To say that perfection is not attainable on this earth is to deny God.…There is no occasion for limiting the capacity for improvement. Life to me would lose all its interest if I felt that I could not attain perfect love on earth. After all, what matters is that our capacity for loving ever expands. It is a slow test. How shall you love men who thwart you even in well-doing? And yet that is the time of supreme test.
The test is the one posed by Jesus in the New Testament: Can we love our enemies? More precisely, according to Gandhi, the question is: Can we love those who consider themselves our enemies? "For one who follows the doctrine of ahimsa, there is no room for an enemy; he denies the existence of an enemy." Those who follow ahimsa are acting on the truth, the oneness of all reality. They know that their own best interests can never be separated from the best interests of all reality, including every other person. To love, to want the best for the entire process, is also to want the best for every individual part of the process. Those who coerce others in order to gain advantage are acting untruthfully. By treating their own well-being as something separate from the well-being of others, they are denying the essential truth that self and other are facets of the same single reality. Denying that truth is the basis of all evil and suffering.
But when others consider themselves enemies and try to do us harm, then we are put to the test. Can we continue to serve them and want their best interests, too? As in the New Testament, it is a matter of inner attitude as well as outward action: "You may not harbour an uncharitable thought…wishing that some harm should be done to the enemy, or that he should be put out of the way.…If we harbour even this thought, we depart from this doctrine of ahimsa." This is not only a matter of moral precept, but also of simple logic. If you do not experience yourself as a separate being with separate interests, then you cannot want to promote your interests over others. You cannot want to defeat others or get the best of them. You can only want what is best for all, what the infinite process of reality itself requires. Therefore, you must do ahimsa—act without desire.
Gandhi was quick to recognize the obvious problem here. Different people have different ideas of what is best for all. If everyone's truth is a part of the ultimate Truth, how is it that one person's truth can flatly contradict another's? Who is to decide what the truth really is? In so many conflict situations, both sides are sincerely convinced that they are in the right. All too often, that certainty leads one group to impose its views upon the other. Yet what is the alternative? Should we simply stand by and watch others do something that we are sure is morally evil or unjust?
To resolve this dilemma, Gandhi said, it is necessary to distinguish between essential and non-essential truths. On non-essentials, it is best to compromise for the sake of peace and harmony: "The test for brotherhood is that each party always makes allowances for the weaknesses of the other and I know that on the Judgment Day that party will win the day which will be able to show that it has always surrendered on non-essentials."
But if an essential truth or moral principle is at stake, a person should not compromise. To give up resisting at that point is cowardly; Gandhi called it "the nonviolence of the weak." He insisted, many times, "It is any day better to use brute force than to betray cowardice." "The nonviolence of the strong" is nonviolence that keeps resisting, even to the death, rather than compromise on a matter of fundamental principle. ("Nonviolence of the strong" also implies that one has the capacity and the courage to do violence, but refrains from violence on principle.)
This does mean insisting on one’s own view of truth. But there is no alternative for a person of conscience. As long as people are nonviolent,
there is nothing wrong in every man following Truth according to his lights. Indeed it is his duty to do so. Then if there is a mistake on the part of anyone so following Truth, it will be automatically set right. For the quest of Truth involves tapascharya, self-suffering, sometimes even unto death. There can be no place in it for even a trace of self-interest.…The question is asked why we should call any rule unjust. In saying so, we ourselves assume the function of a judge. It is true. But in this world, we always have to act as judges for ourselves. That is why [the nonviolent person] does not strike his adversary with arms. If he has Truth on his side, he will win, and if his thought is faulty, he will suffer the consequences of his fault.
By taking all the risk of suffering upon oneself and protecting the other against any threat of suffering, one maintains the attitude of love. And, if there is a mistake, only the person who made it will suffer, since no suffering is imposed on those with a different truth. So "the absolutist's sphere of destruction will be always the narrowest possible."
An uncompromising, yet nonviolent, struggle for one’s truth is also the only way to come closer to absolute Truth. "Absolute truth alone is God. It is beyond reach. At the most we can say it is neti, neti ['not this, not that'; neither this truth nor that truth is the full truth]. The truth we see is relative, many-sided, plural and is the whole truth [only] for a given time." Even those truths that seem most certain must be viewed as tentative. It is always possible that a wider perspective will open up, revealing what we held as true to be false. So it is always a mistake to feel absolutely certain about anything. Every time we affirm some truth and act on it, we should consider it as an experiment. Indeed, Gandhi titled his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth.
If the experiment is going to be valid, there must be no selfish motivation in the quest for truth. "There is no scope for vanity in it and the only way of reaching it is through ahimsa." This was one of Gandhi's main arguments for ahimsa. If we coerce others to promote our own view of truth, then we are acting as separate individuals and detaching ourselves from the totality of reality. We are more concerned about winning the contest than discovering Truth. Then we close ourselves off to the possibility of discovering new truth, which moves us further away from absolute Truth. When we pursue Truth for its own sake, not motivated by any desire, we participate in the desireless totality, which is Truth itself. Thus we come closer to the absolute Truth. And being desireless means being nonviolent. The sole motivation of ahimsa is to discover Truth, not to gain a victory. That is the only way to have a valid experiment with truth.
Ahimsa means remembering that everyone's truth is partial, that there is always another way to interpret the situation and respond to it. The nonviolent person "gives his opponent the same right of independence and feeling of truth that he reserves to himself, seeing if he wants to fight for truth he will do so by inviting injury upon his own person." Therefore the nonviolent person never coerces another, no matter how wrong the other appears to be.
In a sense, the opponent is secondary in any conflict situation. The real test is between Truth and the person committed to nonviolence. It is an experiment, to discover the depth of commitment to a particular truth. The real question is: How much suffering can you endure for the sake of what you now hold to be the truth? If you value your pleasure, your well-being, or even your life more than this truth, then this truth turns out to be something other than ultimate Truth, and should be abandoned. But if you impose your truth upon another, you can never truly test your own relationship to this truth. If every conviction of absolute certainty is seen as an experiment with oneself, rather than a battle against an enemy, then absolutism and tolerance can co-exist. This approach to truth combines uncompromising certainty with tolerance for differences. It offers the virtues of both absolutism and relativism simultaneously. Again, though, the price is to take all the suffering in the situation upon oneself.
Self-suffering is a fundamental part of all spiritual purification, Gandhi assumed. The less sense of ego or separate self we have, the more suffering we can endure, and the more we are free from the fear of suffering. Conversely, the more we accept suffering in a spirit of love, the more we learn to overcome fear and the illusion of ego. The more we transcend the illusion of ego, the closer we come to Truth itself. Only those who are willing to endure suffering even unto death can totally transcend ego and know Truth.
Attachment to the body is the last barrier to Truth, and therefore to ahimsa. "The body exists because of our ego. The utter extinction of the body is moksha." Moksha means a life of perfect love, because it is the end of all desire to possess anything, even our physical being. However, "in actual life, we can hardly exercise perfect love, for the body as a possession will always remain with us. Man will ever remain imperfect, and it will always be his part to try to be perfect." As long as we live a bodily existence, we must destroy some other life (even if only vegetable life) in order to live. We must do himsa. "Still we have to live a life of ahimsa in the midst of a world full of himsa, and we can do so only if we cling to Truth. That is why I can derive ahimsa from truth. Out of Truth emerge love and tenderness. A votary of Truth, one who wold scrupulously cling to Truth, must be utterly humble. His humility should increase with his observance of Truth." Ahimsa, by taking all suffering upon oneself, teaches one to let go of attachment to the body. It brings one closer to the ideal of moksha. Therefore it teaches love and Truth.
From Gandhi's perspective, the only vital question in any situation is: How can I be more perfectly selfless and loving and thus come closer to absolute Truth? The answer, he insisted, always turns upon the way one conducts oneself, not the outcome of the situation. He pointed out that we cannot control the outcome of any situation, in any event. The only thing we can control is our own decision-making process. We can choose to think and act more or less selflessly. Once that choice is made, the true significance of the occasion is already determined. Everything else is secondary. As the Bhagavad-Gita puts it: "You have the right to act, not to the fruits [results] of the act." That is why nonviolence should always be judged by the intention, not the outcome: "A votary of ahimsa…will strive for the greatest good of all and die in the attempt to realize the ideal.…That he may therefore make grievous mistakes is irrelevant to the fact of the motive."
It is not quite accurate to say that Gandhi focused on means and ignored ends. He put it more precisely when he said: "Nonviolence is the law of life for human beings. For me it is both a means and an end." In other words, there is no essential difference between means and ends, for at least two reasons. First, the outcome of a situation is basically determined by the means used to achieve it. To take one especially important example: whenever violence is used as a means, the result will always embody violence and therefore lead to more violence. Whenever nonviolence is used as a means, the result will always embody nonviolence and reduce future violence.
There is a second reason that the means is the end. If a loving motive is the only thing that really matters, then the process of acting lovingly, for the good of all reality, is the goal in every situation. As long as one intends the good of all and acts on that intention, then nothing more can be desired. The goal has already been achieved. Gandhi admitted that it is possible to deceive oneself. That is why, all his life, he set an example of the most careful (sometimes agonizing) self-scrutiny.
He also admitted that the results of an action should not be totally ignored: "To be detached from fruits of action is not to be ignorant of them." If every act is an experiment in truth, it makes sense to pay attention to the outcome of the experiment. That can help give a more accurate understanding of what the good of all demands: "One should never be content with one’s purity of motive alone. The necessity of knowledge [i.e., knowing the results of an action] has been accepted for the reason that one may not commit an error in spite of a pure motive." Still, as long as an action is done with the best of loving intentions, it should be considered strictly nonviolent, and thus the right thing to do. The rightness depends on the motive, not the result. Therefore, a person should never avoid or abandon an action simply because the contemplated results may not follow.
Many people may ask: If I am not motivated by desire for some gain or benefit, what would motivate me to act at all? How can I know what to do unless I aim at some desired outcome? Even the most ordinary everyday act seems to have some goal. How can I live a full, rich life without being goal-oriented? Gandhi tried not to think about life in these terms. In any situation, he tried to ask only: What is my duty here and now? The Bhagavad-Gita teaches that every person must do the duty imposed on them by their particular caste identity. Although Gandhi did not reject the caste idea completely, he applied it very flexibly. Most notably, he waged a vigorous campaign to end oppression of the very lowest caste, the so-called "untouchables." (This was one of his most grievous offences, in the eyes of some Hindu traditionalists.)
However, Gandhi's idea of duty was much broader than caste duty. He assumed that, at every moment, every person would be aware of some basic need in the world, which that particular person can help to meet. Whatever need is closest to hand, our duty is to try to fulfill it, which means always to act with love. Gandhi taught that political action, even among the most oppressed, should aim not at securing rights but at responsibly discharging duties: "All rights to be deserved and preserved come from duty well done. Thus the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world. "
There are certainly times, however, when the clearest duty of every person is to stand up for human rights. As a subject of the British colonial empire for virtually his whole life, Gandhi was acutely aware of the evils of political and economic oppression. He was convinced that all forms of oppression are wrong because they are untruthful. Truth, or sat, as a universal moral order, includes the freedom for individuals, groups, and nations to make the fundamental decisions that shape their lives. Gandhi called this swaraj (literally, self-rule). Anything that abridges swaraj denies the proper moral order and hence denies Truth. To serve Truth, then, is to serve and promote swaraj. Beyond the physical suffering it inflicted, British colonialism was evil because it worked every day to deprive the Indian people of swaraj. So he focused primarily on the quest for swaraj in India—so much so that many people understood swaraj as a synonym for Indian independence.
For Gandhi, though, political independence was merely one facet of swaraj: "I am not interested in freeing India merely from the English yoke. I am bent upon freeing India from any yoke whatsoever.…Hence for me the movement of swaraj is a movement of self-purification.…Work of social reform or self-purification of this nature is a hundred times dearer to me than what is called purely political work." Gandhi worked to purify India of the social prejudices that set some Indians oppressing others. He worked to purify India of ignorance, illiteracy, greed, and all the other factors that perpetuated massive poverty.
Ultimately, though, his idea of swaraj was a religious one. He defined it as "disciplined rule from within." Freedom, self-rule, and self-control would be achieved only by purification from all forms of desire. Gandhi drew a direct link between freedom and overcoming desire. Anyone who is motivated by desire is controlled by that desire. Since all people are interconnected in society, it is usually hard to fulfill a desire without involving some other person. That other person then has it within their power to bestow or withhold the desired reward or the feared punishment. So people motivated by desire will usually bend to the will of the more powerful. They will follow the course of action dictated by the more powerful, in order to reach the desired goal. In most cases, therefore, desire means being controlled by another person.
Real freedom, for Gandhi, meant inward freedom: the freedom to do what is true and right in any situation, regardless of the consequences. People who are truly free will pay attention to the responses of others, but they will never let their own actions be dictated by the responses of others. People who have inward freedom cannot be coerced. They may face an oppressive government with a huge army and other trappings of political power. They may have deadly violence directed at them. But the oppressors have no power over them, for there is no way to coerce inwardly free people—not even with deadly violence. "The outward freedom therefore that we shall attain will only be in exact proportion to the inward freedom to which we may have grown at any given moment. And if this is the correct view of freedom, our chief energy must be concentrated upon reform from within.…Everyone's freedom is within his own grasp." In other words, swaraj and ahimsa are two sides of the same coin. Violent people are motivated by their desire for a particular goal. Therefore they are enslaved to others. Only through nonviolence and detachment from desire can one be free to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. For Gandhi, that was the only genuine freedom.
Gandhi applied this principle to India. He said that the Indians were enslaved to the British only because they let themselves be. On the day that they chose to embrace nonviolence, rise above their fear, and refuse to follow British rules and rulers, they would begin to act like free people. Then they would, in fact, be free. Having taken back their own rights, they would begin to fight for the rights of others too: "Through the deliverance of India, I seek to deliver the so-called weaker races of the earth from the crushing heels of Western exploitation in which England is the greatest partner."
Gandhi saw nothing wrong with fighting, when basic rights were being violated. He refused to speak of ahimsa as "passive resistance," because he wanted to stress that it must be an active process of continual, forceful resistance to injustice. Indeed, for him the word ahimsa meant not simply "without himsa," but actively resisting "against himsa." He insisted that it is better to resist moral wrongs violently than not to resist at all. But resistance can serve Truth only if it is done nonviolently, for the sake of promoting the Truth rather than for the sake of winning victories. For this kind of resistance, he coined the term satyagraha, which he sometimes translated as "truth force," or even "soul force." Literally, it means "hanging on to truth," or "persevering in truth." Perhaps the best translation is "persisting in truth" or "persistence of truth."
In practice, satyagraha means organized efforts to resist nonviolently any kind of political, social, or economic wrongs. In order to be genuine satyagraha, resistance must be done for selfless reasons. "Whatever is done with a selfish motive cannot be called satyagraha. That would be like insisting on untruth." So satyagrahis (those who practice satyagraha) are motivated by their duty to serve others, not by any desire to secure their own rights or privileges. Having no desires, they depend on no one to satisfy their desires. Therefore they rule themselves; they alone have swaraj. "Real swaraj is possible only where satyagraha is the guiding force of the people." Because satyagraha is by definition selfless, it is also, by definition, nonviolent. Where there is no desire, there can be no enmity. "Satyagraha is gentle, it never wounds. It must not be the result of anger or malice.…It is a breach of satyagraha to wish ill to an opponent or to say a harsh word to him or of him with the intention of doing harm."
Satyagrahis do what is right, regardless of consequences. They do not try to force others to bend to their will. They simply go about their business of seeking truth and doing truth, allowing others to choose freely how they will behave. In effect, a satyagrahi says to others, no matter how violent or oppressive they may be: "It is not my place to tell you how to act. That is up to you. But regardless of how you act, I will do what I believe is right." If that involves refusing to follow laws, or receiving physical violence, satyagrahis accept whatever consequences come their way. But the consequences do not affect their own actions. So they can never be coerced.
Precisely because satyagrahis are not seeking to change others' behaviors to achieve their goals, they actually have more power to change others' behaviors and achieve their goals. "The truth is that power resides in the people.…Imagine a whole people unwilling to conform to the laws of the legislature, and prepared to suffer the consequences of non-compliance. They will bring the whole legislative and executive machinery to a standstill." The judicial machinery may still function; satyagrahis show their respect for law and order by lovingly accepting whatever punishments are meted out. They never try to avoid punishment, because they never try to avoid suffering: "Satyagraha cannot proceed a step without fearlessness. Those alone can follow the path of nonviolent resistance who are free from fear, whether as to their possessions, false honor, their relatives, the government, bodily injuries or death."
Since satyagrahis are not swayed by fear or desire, their inward freedom will bring them outward freedom as well. There is nothing anyone can do to force them to deviate from the way of truth, as they see it. Sooner or later, the oppressors will see that they are powerless to impose their will. The judicial punishments and the oppression will then cease. The oppressors’ violence and punishments will only speed up the end of oppression. Gandhi was sure that the sight of nonviolent people suffering unjustly, yet still loving their tormenters, would "melt the stoniest heart." He was sure that showing friendship and compassion to even the harshest oppressor was the fastest way to end the oppression.
Yet he never advised satyagrahis to love their enemies or provoke unjust suffering as a tactic, in order to gain sympathy and thereby win the battle. Satyagrahis must never calculate their actions in order to achieve a certain result. Letting the end justify the means always leads eventually to compromise, even if the means are peaceful. In satyagraha, the sympathy, and the victory, will come of themselves, Gandhi affirmed, as long as the right means are strictly followed.
Some critics have charged that Gandhi did not always focus on means rather than ends. His words sometimes make it sound as if he did base his decisions on political goals. For example, although he once wrote, "I am not interested in freeing India merely from the English yoke," he also wrote: "I long for freedom from the English yoke. I would pay any price for it." Some have also charged that Gandhi focused on results, not principles, when he needed to enlist the Indian masses in the independence movement. His ideal of nonviolence was simply too demanding for most people (and still is), these critics contend. So he sometimes argued for nonviolence based on the results it could bring, although he always denied he was doing so. Related to this charge is another: Gandhi's political strategies did cause the British to suffer, and thus were coercive. The British gave India its independence not because they were persuaded that Gandhi was right, but because Gandhi made the cost of colonialism too high. In sum, the critics say, his political practice contradicted his spiritually-based theory.
Clearly, he was a first-rate political strategist, always finding ways to undermine British power. He knew that in politics there is always a strong temptation to do whatever it takes to achieve your goals. There is an equally strong and related temptation to maximize your own power. The best way to maximize power is to choose whatever means are most likely to achieve one's own goals; i.e., whatever means are most likely to coerce the other side to capitulate. And if capitulation is not possible, the politician's temptation is always to compromise. Politics is often defined as the art of the possible.
Knowing all this, Gandhi walked a fine line. He tried to chart effective political strategy without ever letting politics determine his choices, without intending to coerce, without admitting a difference between means and ends. He knew what a great challenge this is, and how easy it is to go astray. At times he may have slipped off the fine line and gone astray. In Gandhi's defense, though, it should be said that he viewed all people as free agents. If many Indians decided to use nonviolence merely as a tactic, or if the British decided to leave India because they wanted to avoid suffering, those were decisions they made. It is at least logically consistent to say that he was not responsible for those results, because he never shaped his own decisions to force others in those directions; he merely did what he thought was right at every moment. Perhaps not even Gandhi himself could ever know for sure exactly what his motives were. But it is logically possible for someone to be concerned always with means, never with ends.
Gandhi's approach to nonviolence has been criticized for other seeming contradictions, too. For example, he seemed to have contradictory views about bodily needs. On the one hand, he took a vow of poverty and owned little more than he could carry in his two hands. Yet he pointed to the vast poverty of India as one of the worst results of British rule. He was tormented by the thought of millions having too little to eat and no decent place to live. Why care about poverty, if the body is the primary barrier to perfect Truth?
Gandhi tried to resolve this contradiction by distinguishing between voluntary and forced poverty. The millions of poor who have not chosen their poverty have been coerced into it by those who control and profit from the economic system. Mass poverty is therefore a manifestation of structural violence: coercion and suffering woven into the fabric of society. Voluntary poverty, according to Gandhi, is the best way to serve the needs of the masses forced into poverty. But he may have been trying to synthesize the Hindu ideal of detachment from the body and the world with the Christian ideal of sympathy for those who suffer in the world. He may never have escaped from that contradiction.
Gandhi's vow of poverty opened him to another criticism. He adopted poverty to help him toward the ideal of having no physical desire. But perhaps he carried it too far. His writings include long discussions of his efforts to eliminate physical desire. To overcome all desire for food, he spent a great deal of time seeking a perfect diet, to keep him healthy with the minimum of food. He was also quite concerned with finding ways to eliminate sexual desire. Is all this necessary to transcend selfish desire? Or is it actually an indirect way to remain preoccupied with oneself? Indeed, critics say, such strenuous efforts to transcend desire actually make us more preoccupied with desire and thus more tied to the self and its individual desires.
In response to this and all other criticisms, Gandhi would surely have admitted that he may have been guilty of logical contradiction. He was not a strict rationalist. Reason is a useful check to tell us when we are veering away from truth, he said. But reason alone cannot bring us to truth. That is ultimately the task of religious faith. So he was willing to tolerate some inconsistency in his experiments with truth. And surely he would have admitted that his experiments sometimes failed. He was the first to insist that he was just as imperfect as everyone else. The only difference, he would say, is that he never stopped striving for the ideal of perfection. An individual's failure should cast doubt on the individual, not on the ideal. The important thing is to keep on experimenting with truth. Gandhi’s great achievement, in his own eyes, was not that he attained perfect Truth, but that he dedicated his whole life to the experiment. Yet he could keep on experimenting, and discover satyagraha as a new mode of spiritual live, only because he had faith that perfect Truth, however elusive, can ultimately be attained.
Notes to Chapter 7: Mahatma Gandhi