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Gandhi – The Practical Idealist

By Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

The appreciation of Gandhi below by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, philosopher and former President of India, was written as the introduction to All Men are Brothers, a selection of the Mahatma's writings first published by Unesco in 1958, and now reprinted in a new edition to mark the centenary of Gandhi's birth on 2 October 1869.

Gandhi’s life was rooted in India’s religious tradition with its emphasis on a passionate search for truth, a profound reverence for life, the ideal of non-attachment and the readiness to sacrifice all for the knowledge of God. He lives his whole life in the perpetual quest of truth: ‘I live and move and have my being in the pursuit of this goal.’

A life which has no roots, which is lacking in depth of background is a superficial one.  There are some who assume that when we see what is right we will do it.  It is not so.  Even when we know what is right it does not follow that we will choose and do right.  We are overborne by powerful impulses and do wrong and betray the light in us.  ‘In our present state we are, according to the Hindu doctrine, only partly human; the lower part of us is still animal; only the conquest of our lower instincts by love can slay the animal in us.’  It is by process of trial and error, self-search and austere discipline that the human being moves step by painful step along the road to fulfillment.

Gandhi’s religion was a rational and ethical one.  He would not accept any belief which did not appeal to his reason or any injunction which did not commend his conscience.

If we believe in God, not merely with our intellect but with our whole being, we will love all mankind without any distinction of race or class, nation or religion.  We will work for the unity of mankind.  ‘All my actions have their rise in my inalienable love of mankind.’ ‘I have known no distinction between relatives and strangers, countrymen and foreigners, white and coloured, Hindus and Indians of other faiths whether Mussalmans, Parsees, Christians or Jews.  I may say that my heart has been incapable of making any such distinctions.’ ‘By a long process of prayerful discipline I have ceased for over forty years to hate anybody.’  All men are brothers and no human being should be a stranger to another. The welfare of all, sarvodaya, should be our aim. God is the common bond that unites all human beings. To break this bond even with our greatest enemy is to tear God himself to pieces. There is humanity even in the most wicked.


Non-Violence – The Law of Man

This view leads naturally to the adoption of non-violence as the best means for solving all problems, national and international. Gandhi affirmed that he was not a visionary but a practical idealist. Non-violence is not merely for saints and sages but for the common people also.  ‘Non-violence is the law of our species, as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of physical might.  The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher lawto the strength of the spirit.’

Gandhi was the first in human history to extend the principle of non-violence from the individual to the social and political plane. He entered politics for the purpose of experimenting with non-violence and establishing its validity.

‘Some friends have told me that truth and non-violence have no place in politics and worldly affairs.  I do not agree. I have no use for them as a means of individual salvation.  Their introduction and application in everyday life has been my experiment all along.’  ‘For me, politics bereft of religion are absolute dirt, ever to be shunned.  Politics concerns nations and that which concerns the welfare of nations must be one of the concerns of a man who is religiously inclined, in other words, a seeker after God and Truth.  For me God and Truth are convertible terms, and if any one told me that God was a God of untruth or a God of torture, I would decline to worship Him. Therefore, in politics also we have to establish the Kingdom of Heaven.’

In the struggle for India’s independence, he insisted that we should adopt civilized methods of non-violence and suffering. His stand for the freedom of India was not based on any hatred for Britain.  We must hate the sin but not the sinner.  ‘For me patriotism is the same as humanity.  I am patriotic because I am human and humane. I will not hurt England and Germany to serve India.’  He believed that he rendered a service to the British in helping them to do the right thing by India. The result was not only the liberation of the Indian people but an increase in the moral resources of mankind. 

In the present nuclear context, if we wish to save the world, we should adopt the principles of non-violence. Gandhi said: ‘I did not move a muscle, when I first heard that an atom bomb had wiped out Hiroshima. On the contrary I said to myself: “Unless now the world adopts non-violence, it will spell certain suicide for mankind”.’ In any future conflict we cannot be certain that neither side will deliberately use nuclear weapons.  We have the power to destroy in one blinding flash all that we have carefully built up across the centuries by our endeavour and sacrifice.  By a campaign of propaganda we condition men’s minds for nuclear warfare.  Provocative remarks fly about freely.  We use aggression even in words; harsh judgements, ill-will, anger, are all insidious forms of violence.

In the present predicament when we are not able to adjust ourselves to the new conditions which science has brought about, it is not easy to adopt the principles of non-violence, truth and understanding.  But on that ground we should not give up the effort.  While the obstinacy of the political leaders puts fear into our hearts, the common sense and conscience of the peoples of the world give us hope.


The Silent Stars

With the increased velocity of modern changes we do not know what the world will be a hundred years hence.  We cannot anticipate the future currents of thought and feeling. But years may go their way, yet the great principles of satya and ahimsā, truth and non-violence, are there to guide us. They are the silent stars keeping holy vigil above a tired and turbulent world. Like Gandhi we may be firm in our conviction that the sun shines above the drifting clouds.

We live in an age which is aware of its own defeat and moral coarsening, an age in which old certainties are breaking down, the familiar patterns are tilting and cracking. There is increasing intolerance and embitterment. The creative flame that kindled the great human society is languishing.  The human mind in all its baffling strangeness and variety produces contrary types, a Buddha or a Gandhi, a Nero or a Hitler.  It is our pride that one of the greatest figures of history lived in our generation, walked with us, spoke to us, taught us the way of civilized living.  He who wrongs no one fears no one. He has nothing to hide and so is fearless. He looks everyone in the face. His step is firm, his body upright, and his words are direct and straight. Plato said long ago: ‘There always are in the world a few inspired men whose acquaintance is beyond price.’