Gandhi's Legacy

- Bhikhu Parekh

I am most grateful to the staff of the Centre of South Asian Studies of the School of Oriental and African Studies for doing me the honour of inviting me to deliver the Annual Lecture. Since the lecture is part of the conference on Gandhi's Legacy, I thought it proper to devote it to that theme. Both the conference and the lecture mark 125th anniversary of Gandhi's birth. The anniversary is particularly important and even poignant because Gandhi had repeatedly declared that he wished to live until that age. Believing in the power of the spirit over the body, he saw no reason why a spiritually and physically disciplined life should remain confined to the conventional maximum of a hundred years.
Even nearly four decades after Gandhi's death, opinions about his achievements remain deeply divided. For some he was too implacably hostile to modern civilization to offer an adequate understanding of its nature, let alone provide answers to its malaise. For them he was basically a man of action whose major or even sole contribution consisted in leading his country's struggle for Independence. Some of his critics regard even this as a mixed legacy. They argue that his basically conservative, puritanical, pro-bourgeois and pacifist thought hindered the development of radical political movements, did much long-term harm to the cause of the Dalits, burdened the Indian psyche with a paralyzing sense of guilt about economic development, hampered the emergence of a strong and powerful State, created a national schizophrenia about the need to acquire and exercise political power, and perpetuated unrealistic and confused ideas about human sexuality.
Gandhi's admirers take a radically different view. For them he was a man of both thought and action, a rare combination. As a man of thought he saw through the malaise and madness of modernity, and offered an alternative vision that combined the best insight of both the pre-modern and modern world-views while avoiding the confusions and contradictions of the currently fashionable post-modernism. Indeed, argue his admirers, if Indians were to be asked to mention their greatest twentieth-century thinker, most would unhesitatingly refer to Gandhi and would feel hard pressed to mention another. Gandhi was also a man of action, and was unique in acting at both political and personal levels. He led the greatest anti-colonial struggle in history, organised his deeply divided countrymen, gave them a sense of collective pride, forged tools of collective action that continue to stand India in good stead, and developed a unique method of struggle that combined the energy and effectiveness of violence with the peacefulness and humility of non-violence. At the personal or moral level, he restlessly strove to create a beautiful soul free of all that was petty, mean, coarse and vulgar, successfully embarked upon a most heroic struggle to conquer all his senses including sexuality, and offered a rare example of how to lead a political life without compromising one's integrity.
Some of Gandhi's admirers go even further and argue that we should not be surprised if one day he were to prove as influential, and be placed on the same footing, as Jesus of Nazareth and the Buddha. Einstein set the tone for such a view when he remarked in a tribute to Gandhi on his seventieth birthday: 'Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this in flesh and blood walked upon this earth'1 Ralph Boultjens echoed Einstein's view in 19842:
Thirty-five years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ there was no indication that Christianity would emerge as one of the great spiritual forces of history. Around 450 BC, three decades after the death of Confucius, nobody could have predicted how influential his ideas would eventually become. And around 1915, thirty years after Karl Marx, the communist movement seemed doomed to be an inconsequential political aberration. Perhaps, then we are too near Gandhi to evaluate his impact on history.
In my view Gandhi's detractors underestimate the originality of some of his ideas, the depth of his political and moral influence on India and on the rest of the world, and the sheer grandeur and moral beauty of his life. By contrast his worshippers make the opposite mistake of ignoring his confusions and ambiguities as well as the dark underside of some of his ideas and actions. Since this is not the occasion to undertake a detailed critical assessment of Gandhi and to arbitrate between his detractors and worshippers, I have decided to concentrate on what I take to be of lasting value in his life and thought. Accordingly I shall take three areas for close examination. I have selected these three because they relate to issues that agonise us today and about which Gandhi has something extremely important and original to say. These are first, the nature of fundamentalism and religious identity; second, the sources of human suffering and an adequate theory of social change; and third, Gandhi's redefinition of fundamental liberal values and his attempt to give them a much-needed moral and ontological depth.


Religious fundamentalism has been a considerable source of violence and suffering in recent years in almost every part of the world, including such developed countries as the USA and such developing countries as Iran, Pakistan, and India. Fundamentalism is a frightened religion's response to the crisis of identity and integrity, and consists in seeking to recapture and uncompromisingly assert what it takes to be its fundamental beliefs and practices. Fundamentalism cannot be countered by abstractly condemning either the religious consciousness itself or its perversions in a spirit of secularist fundamentalism. The best way to deal with it is to understand and criticise it from within, and to show how the fundamentalist approach to religion, although understandable in a specific historical context, profoundly corrupts and ultimately destroys the integrity of the religious consciousness itself. I can think of few who understood the nature of religious consciousness and undermined fundamentalism from within the religious perspective itself as sensitively and effectively as Gandhi did.

For Gandhi every major religion articulated a unique vision of God and emphasised different features of the human condition. The idea of God as loving Father was most fully developed in Christianity, and the emphasis on love and suffering was also unique to it. As he put it: 'I cannot say that it is singular, or that it is not to be found in other religions. But the presentation is unique'. Austere and rigorous monotheism and the spirit of equality were 'most beautifully' articulated in Islam. The distinction between the Impersonal, and conceptions of God, the principle of the unity of all life and the doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence) were distinctive to Hinduism. For Gandhi every religion had a distinct moral and 'spiritual composition'. To a truly religious person all religions should be 'equally dear'.

Gandhi argued that since God was infinite and since the limited human mind could grasp only a 'fragment' of Him and that too inadequately, every religion was necessarily limited and partial. Even the religions claiming to be directly revealed by God were revealed to men with their fair share of inescapable human limitations and were communicated in the necessarily inadequate human languages.

For Gandhi, every man was born into a particular religion. Since no religion was wholly false, he should be able to work out his destiny in and through it. And if he felt attracted to some aspects of another religion, he should be at liberty to borrow them. When Madeleine Slade wished to become a Hindu, Gandhi advised her against it. She should, he insisted, live by her own Christian faith and absorb into it whatever she liked in Hinduism. Merely changing over to a new religion would not improve her conduct or way of life, the only thing that ultimately mattered. When they were overwhelmed with doubts, Gandhi encouraged his Christian friends to draw new inspiration and strength from their own religion. An American missionary, Stanly Jones, spoke for many of them when he said that Gandhi had reconverted him to Christianity. In a different context he told his Jewish friend, Mrs Polak, that she need not 'become' a Christian in order to 'be' one. She could draw inspiration from Jesus's life and teachings and live like a Christian without ceasing to be a Jew.

Religions are commonly thought of as closed worlds, almost like sovereign states zealously guarding their territorial boundaries. No one is allowed to belong to more than one religion, or to borrow the ideas and practices of another, without feeling guilty or threatened at the dilution of his or her religious identity. Interfaith dialogue is therefore expected to occur within and to do nothing to weaken the religious boundaries. Gandhi took a very different view. For him a religion was not a monolithic structure of ideas and practices, but a resource from which one freely borrowed whatever one found attractive and persuasive. As such, it was a collective property and a common human heritage. Every man was born into and deeply shaped by a specific religious tradition which as it were constituted his original family. He also enjoyed varying degrees of membership of other cultural and religious families, to whose achievements he enjoyed an unrestricted right of access. Gandhi said that as a Hindu he was an heir to its rich and ancient heritage. As an Indian he was a privileged inheritor of its diverse religious and cultural traditions. As a human being the great achievements of mankind constituted a collective human capital to which he had as much right as their native claimants. While remaining firmly rooted in his own tradition, he therefore felt free to draw upon the moral and spiritual resources and openness, he often used the metaphor of living in a house with its windows wide open to allow cultural winds from all directions to blow into it and to enable him to breathe fresh air at his own pace and in his own way. Ano Bhadra ritavo yantu vishvatah (May noble thoughts from all over the world come to us) was one of his favourite classical maxims.

Gandhi took full advantage of his self-proclaimed intellectual freedom. He abstracted what he took to be the central values of Hinduism and set up a critical dialogue, even a confrontation, between them and those derived from other religious traditions. Thus he took over the Hindu concept of ahimsa (non-violence), in his view one of its central moral principles. He found it negative and passive and reinterpreted it in the light of the activist and socially-oriented Christian concept of caritas. However, he felt that the latter was too emotive, led to worldly attachments and compromised the agent's self-sufficiency, and so he redefined it in the light of the Hindu concept of anasakti (non-attachment). His double conversion, his Christianisation of a Hindu category after he had suitably Hinduised the Christian concept, yielded the novel idea of an active and positive but detached and non-emotive love. Again, he took over the traditional Hindu practice of fasting as a protest, combined it with the Judaic concept of representative leadership, and the Christian concepts of vicarious atonement and suffering love, interpreted and reinterpreted each in the light of the others, and developed the amazing notion of a 'voluntary crucifixion of the flesh'. It involved fasting undertaken by the acknowledged leader of the community to atone for the evil deeds of his followers, to awaken their senses of shame and guilt, and to mobilise their moral and spiritual energies for redemptive purposes.

For Gandhi a religion was not a sovereign system of authoritative beliefs and practices which its adherents may violate only on pain of punishment, but a great cultural resource which, like great works of art and literature, belonged to all mankind. One did not have to be a Christian in order to feel entitled to adopt Christian beliefs and practices. And a Hindu or a Muslim who did so did not become a Christian. Indeed, the very terms Christian, Hindu, and Muslim were mistaken and a source of much mischief. They reified respective religions, set up rigid boundaries between them, sanctioned false proprietary claims, and created a psychological and moral pressure towards conformity. In the ultimate analysis, argued Gandhi, there were neither Christians nor Hindus, only whole and unfragmented human beings who freely helped themselves with the moral and spiritual resources of these and other great religious traditions.

One could admire Jesus and even accept him as the son of God, but one could also hold the Buddha, Moses, Mahavira, Zarathustra and others in equally high regard. Men and women who did so belonged to their specific religions but also to several others. They were Christians or Muslims or Buddhists in the sense that these religious traditions were their native homes or points of spiritual orientation, and satisfied them the most. However they also cherished and freely drew upon other religious traditions, and carried parts of these into their religion. Whatever one may think of Gandhi's views, he offers the clearest antithesis to fundamentalism and shows that the religious identity, like other kinds of identity, is both rooted and open, both firm and flexible, and is constantly reconstituted in the light of the agent's constantly changing self-understanding. As Gandhi rightly stressed, cultural and religious identities are neither primordial and unalterable as the fundamentalist imagines, nor volitionalist projects to be undertaken and executed at will as the secular rationalist maintains, but products of periodic self-constitution based on the inherited resources of one's tradition as interpreted and enriched in the light of changing needs and knowledge of other traditions.


Gandhi saw more clearly than most other writers both the interdependence of human beings and the ways in which systems of domination were built up and sustained. He argued that all systems of domination rested on a profound misunderstanding of human nature, and wrongly assumed that it was possible for one man or group of men to harm another without also harming themselves. Human beings were necessarily interdependent and formed an organic whole.3 An individual owed his existence to his parents without whose countless sacrifices he would neither survive nor grow into a sane human being. He grew and realised his potential in a stable and peaceful society, made possible by the efforts and sacrifices of thousands of anonymous men and women. He became a rational, reflective and moral human being within a rich civilization created by scores of sages, saints, savants, and scientists. In short, every human being owned his humanity to others, and benefited from a world to the creation of which he contributed nothing. As Gandhi put it, every man was 'born a debtor', a beneficiary of others' gifts, and his inherited debts were too vast to be repaid. Even a whole lifetime was not enough to pay back what a man owned to his parents, let alone all others. Furthermore the creditors were by their very nature unspecifiable. Most of them were dead or remained anonymous, and those alive were so numerous and their contributions so varied and complex that it was impossible to decide what one owed to whom. To talk about repaying the debts did not therefore make sense except as a clumsy and metaphorical way of describing one's response to unsolicited but indispensable gifts.

Since the debts could never be 'repaid' and the favours 'returned', all a man could do was to 'recognise the conditions of his existence and to continue the ongoing universal yajna or system of sacrifices by accepting his full share of collective responsibility. The only adequate response to the fact that he was born in and constantly sustained by yajna was to look upon his life as yajna, an offering at the universal altar, and to find profound joy in contributing to the maintenance and enrichment of both the human world and the cosmos. As Gandhi put it, 'Yajna having come to us with our birth we are debtors all our lives, and thus forever bound to serve the universe'. Not rights, but obligations were the basis of moral life, and one's rights were embedded in and grew out of others' discharge of their duties.

Since humankind constituted an organic whole and since human beings were necessarily interdependent, every human action was both self-and other-regarding. Directly or indirectly, visibly or invisibly, it affected the collective ethos and shaped the quality of the prevailing pattern of human relationship. 'We cannot see this, near-sighted as we are', but it remained an inescapable feature of the necessarily interdependent world.4 'Rot in one part must inevitably poison the whole system.' When human beings developed themselves they awakened others to their potentialities, and inspired, encouraged and raised them as well. And when they acted inhumanely, both they and others suffered. Even a trivial crime was enough to create a general sense of insecurity, to heighten mutual suspicions, and to lower the moral tone of the entire community. 'I believe that if one man gains spiritually the whole world gains with him, and if one man falls the world falls to that extent.'5

For Gandhi humanity was indivisible, in the sense that no man could degrade or brutalise another without also degrading or brutalising himself, or inflict psychic and moral damage on others without inflicting it on himself as well. This was so in at least three ways. First, to degrade others was to imply that a human being may be so treated, and thus to lower the expected level of the moral minimum due to every human being from which all alike suffered. "To slight a single human being is…to harm not only that human being but with him the whole world." Second, to degrade and dehumanise others was to damage their pride, self-respect and potential for good, and thus both deny oneself and the world the benefits of their possible contributions and to add to the collective moral, psychological and financial cost of repairing the damage they were likely to do to themselves and to others. Third, as beings capable of morality and critical self-reflection, human beings could not degrade or maltreat others without hardening themselves against the latter's suffering and cries for help, building up distorted systems of self-justification, coarsening their moral sensibilities, and lowering their own and the collective level of humanity. As Gandhi put it, no man 'takes another down a pit without descending into it himself and sinning in the bargain.' Since humanity was indivisible and since basic human interests were harmonious, every man was responsible to and for others and should be deeply concerned about how they lived.

Gandhi's concept of indivisible humanity formed the basis of his critique of systems of oppression and exploitation. Such dominant groups as the whites in South Africa, the colonial governments in India and elsewhere, and the rich and the powerful in every society, naively imagined that their exploitation and degradation of their respective victims did not in any way damage them as well. In fact they suffered as much as their victims and sometimes even more. The white South Africans could not deprive the blacks of their livelihood and dignity without suppressing their inner doubts and tender feelings, damaging their capacities for critical-reflection and impartial self-assessment, and falling victim to moral conceit, morbid fears, and irrational obsessions. In brutalising the blacks they also brutalised themselves, and were only prevented by their arrogance from noticing how sad, empty and pitiable their lives had become. They did enjoy more material comforts, but they were neither happier nor better human beings. The colonial rulers met the same fate. They could not dismiss the natives as 'effeminate' and 'childlike' without thinking of themselves as tough, hyper-masculine and unemotional adults, a self-image to which they could not conform without distorting and impoverishing their potential. In misrepresenting the natives, they misrepresented themselves and fell into their own traps. They also took home the attitudes, habits and styles of government acquired abroad, and corrupted their own society. Colonialism did promote their material interests, but only at the expense of their larger and infinitely more important moral and spiritual interests. For Gandhi material interests had only an instrumental significance, and were positively harmful when they hampered moral and spiritual development.

On the basis of his concept of human unity Gandhi arrived at a novel theory of social change.6 He readily agreed that no dominant group ever gave up power without a struggle. However he was convinced that such a struggle could not be adequately conceptualised in terms of, and conducted by means advocated by, the fundamentally flawed traditional theory of revolution. In his view the fact that almost every revolution so far had led to terror, devoured its children, and failed to create a better society was proof of this. These failures were not accidental but sprang from the Manichean view of the world lying at basis of the traditional theory of revolution. The theory neatly separated good and evil, and saw human existence as a mortal struggle between them. Since no cause could be nobler than the elimination of evil, everything done to eliminate evil including the use of massive violence was considered justified. The misguided belief that evil had no rights lay at the basis of revolutionary morality. Those identified as evil were deemed to have forfeited their humanity, and the concomitant claims on their fellow-men's understanding and charity.

Gandhi argued that from being mutually exclusive, good and evil were conceptually and existentially inseparable. Nothing was good except in a specific context and within a specific pattern of human relationship; what was good in one context was not so in another; good turned into evil when pressed beyond a certain point; and what was good for one man might not be so for another. Given the scarcity of time, money, energy and emotional resources, a moral agent had to make choices, and sometimes had to sacrifice or forego good in order to achieve what in his view was better. Every moral deed had a price and good was necessarily shadowed by evil. Furthermore in a world full of evil, good could not exist let alone be effective without participating in evil, and no evil could last a day without some basis of goodness to give it strength and organisation. Since good and evil were inseparable and at times indistinguishable, they could not be socially separated and ascribed to different classes or groups. Groups were composed of men, each a bearer of good and evil properties. Even the apparently innocent victims of an unjust social order actively or passively, wittingly or unwittingly, collaborated in their oppression and bore some responsibility for their predicament. Mankind therefore could not be divided into two neat classes one so fallen or corrupt that it forfeited its claim to humanity, the other so privileged that it had a right to punish the rest. This did not mean that some men or groups might not have behaved in an evil manner and deserve to be restrained, but rather that this reflected only one aspect of their personality and did not foreclose the possibility of their future regeneration.

In Gandhi's view the traditional theory of revolution did not fully appreciate the subtle ways in which good suffered corruption in its struggle against evil. The theory located good in the ends of an action, judging the allegedly amoral means in exclusively instrumental forms. Since the so-called ends were in turn means to some other allegedly higher ends, everything ultimately got reduced to a mere means. Violence, mendacity, cunning, duplicity, manipulation of the opponent, and so on were all considered legitimate if used in the pursuit of good ends. By resorting to such means, good subtly became transformed into evil and its victory was really its defeat.

Gandhi argued that we needed a new theory of revolution that was free from the defects of the old and structurally protected against degeneration into terror. Such a theory had to be grounded in the three central principles of the unity of man, the indivisibility of means and ends, and a non-Manichean view of the world. It should stand up not just for the interests of the oppressed but for the shared interests of all including the oppressors, and aim at a society in which all alike led richer and more humane lives. For Gandhi, imperialism damaged both the British and the Indians, and needed to be ended in the interest of both. Untouchability inflicted a grave moral and emotional damage not just on the untouchables but also on the caste Hindus, and its abolition promoted the interests of both. A revolution was justified only if the society it sought to establish did not replace one set of masters by another and put an end to all forms of class rule.
Like Marx, Gandhi argued that revolutionary consciousness sprang from an intense sensitivity to human sufferings, and had had a special affinity with the oppressed, its natural constituency and object of concern. Unlike Marx, however, he insisted that the oppressed were never wholly innocent and free from their share of human failings, nor the oppressors wholly evil and devoid of their share of human virtues. Both alike were caught up in a self-reproducing system which debilitated and brutalised them all and from which they needed to be liberated. Being more deharmonised and brutalised than the rest, the oppressed were more acutely aware of the need for liberation and had to initiate the emancipatory process. However, even as no oppressive system could last without the co-operation of its morally implicated victims, it could not be conclusively ended without the co-operation, however grudging, of its erstwhile masters. The latter had to be assured that the revolution did not intend to physically eliminate them, that it was concerned with their well-being as well, and that it recognised them as human beings entitled to decency and respect.

For Gandhi the means-end dichotomy lying at the heart of the traditional revolutionary theory was fundamentally false. In human life the so-called means consisted not of implements and inanimate tools but of human actions, and by definition these could not fall outside the jurisdiction of morality. Furthermore the method of fighting for an objective was not external but an integral part of it. Every step towards a desired goal shaped its character, and utmost care had to be taken to ensure that the steps taken to realise it did not distort or damage the goal. The goal did not exist at the end of a series of actions designed; it shadowed them from the very beginning. The so-called means were really ends in an embryonic form, the seeds of which the so-called ends were a natural flowering. Since this was so, the fight for a just society could not be conducted by unjust means.

Gandhi's theory of satyagraha, the 'surgery of the soul' as he called it, was his alternative to the traditional theory of revolution. It was not so much a non-violent method of achieving revolutionary ends as a novel way of defining the very idea of revolution.7 Like Trotsky's permanent revolution, it was a form of gentle but sustained social pressure designed to break down emotional, ideological and moral barriers that different groups built around themselves, to unfreeze the flow of social sympathy, and to enrich and deepen their consciousness of independence.

Even as every community required a widespread sense of justice to hold it together, it presupposed a deeper sense of shared humanity to give meaning and energy to its sense of justice. The sense of humanity consisted in the recognition of the fundamental ontological fact that humanity was indivisible, that human beings grew and fell together, and that in degrading and brutalising others, they degraded and brutalised themselves. It constituted a community's vital moral capital without which it had no defence, and no resources to fight against the forces of injustice, exploitation and oppression. The slow and painful task of cultivating and consolidating the sense of humanity, and thereby laying the foundations of a truly moral community, was an essential collective responsibility, which the satyagrahi took upon himself to discharge. He assumed the burden of the common evil, sought to liberate both himself and his opponent from its tyrannical automatism, and helped reduce the prevailing level of inhumanity. He overcame his opponent by refusing to see him as one, and by appealing instead to his sense of decency and their common humanity. As Gandhi put it, 'the old sages returned good for evil and killed it.' The satyagrahi took his stand on this 'fundamental moral truth'.

For Gandhi a satyagrahi relied on the power of suffering love. Confronted with untruth he sought a dialogue with his opponent. When this was denied or reduced to an insincere exercise in public relations, he took a stand and accepted whatever punishment was meted out to him. Since his sole concern was to evoke a moral response in his opponent, he did everything necessary to put him at ease and nothing to harass, embarrass, anger or frighten him. In the meantime, he suffered the punishment without hatred or ill-will in the hope of triggering off in him a slow, intensely personal, and highly complex process of self-examination. The moment his opponent showed willingness to talk in a spirit of genuine good will, he suspended the struggle and gave reason a chance to work in a more hospitable climate.

With all its limitations which I cannot here explore, Gandhi's theory of satyagraha offered important insights into the nature of political praxis. Like the rationalists, he stressed the importance of rational discussion; unlike them, however, he realised that what passed as rational discussion was often little more than alternative monologues or a public relations exercise, and that sticking to it under such circumstances was an act of irrationality. Even as Gandhi was aware of the limits of rationality, he was acutely conscious of the dangers of violence. He knew that narrow rationalism and violence tended to feed off each other, and that the failure of rationality rendered violence morally respectable. Accordingly he sought to break through the narrow straitjacket of the reason-violence dichotomy lying at the basis of traditional rationalism. He imaginatively explored the unchartered terrain between reason and violence and arrived at novel forms of political praxis. His satyagraha was basically a new form of dialogue, a new conception of discussion, embedded in a richer and more realistic theory of rationality. Although not rational in the narrow sense of the term, it was not irrational either. It was a way of enabling human beings to realise the potential for rationality and goodness, and to reach and act on the basis of an inherently tentative and constantly deepening perception of consensual truth.


Gandhi's conceptualisation of political life and redefinitions of such central concepts as liberty (swaraj), equality (samata), citizenship (nagarikata), rights (adhikar), religion (dharma) and tolerance (sahishnuta) also contain important insights and deserve close study. We shall take the first three by way of illustration.
Like many Hindu philosophers Gandhi took little interest in the concept of human nature, largely because he took a radically individualistic view of man. Each individual was unique, followed his own path of moral and spiritual evolution, and had a distinct swabhava, that is, a distinct and firm but relatively open and within limits malleable constitution or nature. It was true that all men shared certain gunas or qualities in common. However these were too general and indeterminate to account for the unique constitution of each individual. The qualities were also largely passive, capable of neither mechanical nor teleological casualty, and unable to explain human conduct. Since the concept of human nature had no explanatory power, it had neither theoretical nor practical significance for Gandhi.

For Gandhi the individual's swabhava had two sources.8 First, he was endowed at birth with a specific physical and mental constitution, temperament, tendencies and dispositions. Gandhi thought this a legacy of his previous life, but we need not accept such an explanation. Second, each individual was a member of a specific community which deeply shaped his habits, character, memories, ideals and values, and gave his personality a distinct tone and colour. The two together shaped his psychological and moral constitution (swabhava), which was thus a unique blend of his socially transcendental and socially acquired characteristics. It held him together, persisted over time, and formed the basis of his personal identity. Since it was the basis of his being and made him the person he was, it constituted his ontological foundation or truth (satya). The Sanskrit word satya, meaning truth, is derived from sat meaning reality or that which endures over time. The opposite of sat is maya, meaning illusory, ephemeral, transient or only relatively real.
The satya or the truth of an individual limited and guided but did not predetermine his choices and decisions. As a rational being endowed with such capacities as introspection, critical self-reflection and choice, he was able to uncover and take a critical view of some of the constitutive elements of his identity and to reconstitute it in a desired manner. Many aspects of his constitution, however, were too deep to be excavated by even the most rigorous self-examination, and remained beyond his control. And some of those aspects of which he did become aware were often too deeply entrenched and tenacious to be changed without superhuman courage. Human beings were therefore neither absolutely free nor totally determined, but free within limits. The depth and extent of the limits were not and could not be the same for all. They depended on such factors as their capacity for self analysis, moral honesty, will-power, and the kind of society in which they lived. A co-operative and relaxed society, whose members freely commented on each other's conduct and contributed to their self-knowledge, was more conducive to their self-transformation and freedom than one in which they scrupulously kept their distance.

Not how to be absolutely free or fully autonomous but how to change in harmony with one's truth was the central moral problem for Gandhi, as for most Hindu thinkers. Faced with a ceaselessly changing world, the self must change or risk disintegration. And critical self-reflection constantly exposed failings and limitations which a moral being should try to overcome. The art of living consisted in how to change and yet 'remain true to oneself', how to grow without losing one's being without losing a sense of balance and coherence. A wise man resisted attractive but impossible ideals, knew and lived in harmony with his constitution, and strove for goals that accorded with his 'truth'.

Unlike the traditional liberal conception of individuality which stresses differences from others and is necessarily comparative, integration or wholeness in Gandhi's sense referred to the individual's relation to himself rather than to others and to his manner of ontologically carrying himself in the world. An integrated individual had integrity and was always 'true' or 'honest' to himself. In being true to himself and changing at his own pace, he retained his uniqueness or individuality, which was thus a by-product of self-integration and not a form of eccentricity or an abstract desire to be different from others. Individuality presupposed inner coherence, and the latter in turn required critical self-reflection. An unreflective person, one not in the habit of reflecting on and reconstituting her being, was constantly in danger of becoming an eclectic collection of borrowed and discordant properties. Critical self-reflection was the source of self-knowledge, and a necessary condition of wholeness and individuality.

As a uniquely constituted and situated being, each individual necessarily saw and experienced the world differently and formed his own beliefs and opinions. To force him to act against his sincerely held beliefs was to violate his truth, to ask him to be untrue to himself, to plant a lie at the very heart of his being. He might be mistaken, but he must discover that for himself. Others might, indeed that had a duty to, argue with him and to show him why he was mistaken. If he remained unpersuaded, they should leave him alone. For Gandhi respect for an individual's integrity or wholeness required that his views should grow out his way of looking at the world and reflect his truth. That was why persuasion was qualitatively different from coercion. Unlike the latter, it respected and reinforced the other's wholeness, and ensured that the new way of looking at the world took roots in and grew out of his changed being. To seek to persuade someone was to co-operate in reconstituting his being. Gandhi thought that an individual could be legitimately compelled only when his conduct had grave social consequences and when he could not be deterred in any other way. And even then no euphemism or verbal sophistry should be allowed to obscure the fact that compulsion violated his truth or integrity and was a regrettable necessity.

For Gandhi freedom consisted in being true to oneself, in living by 'one's own light' and growing at 'one's own pace'. It was a form of wholeness or integrity. It involved knowing and accepting oneself as one was, recognising one's limits and possibilities, and making choices on the basis of that knowledge. If my way life suited me and if I was content with it, I did not cease to be free simply because I had not chosen it. Or if I realised on reflection that a specific desire did not harmonise with my being and decided not to gratify it, I could not be said to be unfree simply because I had to restrain my desire. Freedom did not consist in choice per se as some liberals argue, nor in making choices considered to be higher as the idealists argue, but in making choices in harmony with and capable of being integrated into one's being. It had nothing to do with the number of alternatives available to the agent either. If they did not include the one she needed, they had no significance for her. And if the one she needed was the only one available to her, the absence of others in no way diminished her freedom.
Like many Indian philosophers, Gandhi subsumed freedom under truth. Only the free man, that is, one able to make his choices and decisions himself, was able to discover, develop and live by his unique ontological truth. Freedom was thus the necessary basis and precondition of one's ability to be true to oneself. To deny a man freedom was to force him to be untrue to himself and to live by someone else's truth. For Gandhi the case for freedom was simple, and the same as that for truthfulness. Respect for truth implied respect for human beings as they were constituted at a given point in time, and for their desire to live by their truth. Love of truth involved love of one's fellow-men as they were constituted, and not as one would like them to be. It could never therefore justify 'forcing them to be free' or sacrificing them at the altar of an abstract and impersonal ideal.

Even as Gandhi radically redefined the concept of freedom, he defined the concept of equality. In much of the liberal and socialist literature on the subject, equality is defined in comparative, contractual, competitive and individualist terms. As we saw earlier, for Gandhi men were necessarily interdependent, rose and fell together, and were born subject to non-repayable debts. He located the idea of equality in this context. Relations between human beings were mediated by their membership of the social whole, and thus non-atomic and non-contractual in nature. Human beings grew and fell together, and hence their relations were necessarily non-competitive and non-conflictual. And since they were uniquely constituted and had different needs and capacities, they were inherently non-comparable and could not be treated according to a uniform standard.

Since society was necessarily a fellowship of unique and interdependent beings, the concept of equality had to be defined in non-comparative, non-competitive and non-atomic terms. For Gandhi it basically consisted in each individual enjoying full access to his community's economic, political, moral and cultural resources in order to realise his unique potential; that is, not an abstract human potential as determined by a philosophical conception of human nature or by an arbitrary moral standard, but his potential as an uniquely constituted being. As a progressive and reflecting being each individual grew from truth to truth and strove to enrich, deepen and reconstitute his being. Equality of human beings consisted in all alike being able to do so. It did not mean that I should get what others get, but rather that I should get what I need for my development as I define it. It was not only in my interest but that of all others that they should treat me equally, for in degrading and demeaning me they degraded and demeaned themselves and deprive themselves of the contribution I would make as a rich human being. Equality thus was not a mechanical concept or a synonym for uniformity. It was at bottom a relationship of mutuality and fellowship.

Gandhi also redefined the concept of citizenship. As a political activist he knew that not consent, nor will, nor fear, but co-operation was the basis of the state.9 Every state, democratic or otherwise, depended on the co-operation of its citizens, be it silent or vocal, passive or active, willing or unwilling. Since the state was an agency of action, their co-operation consisted in rendering it such specific services as carrying out its orders, paying taxes, and obeying the law. The state did not exist independently of its citizens, and was ultimately nothing more than a system of institutionalized co-operation between them. Since the state was a vast and complex organization, they did not notice that it was their acts of daily co-operation that sustained it and that they were morally responsible for all it said and did.

Every government was tempted to misuse its power, and the democratic government was in that respect no better than the autocratic. What distinguished the two was the fact that one did and the other did not succumb to the temptation. And that was so because a democratic government knew that if it did, its citizens would refuse to co-operate with it. Notwithstanding all its institutional checks and balances, a democratic government could easily turn evil if its citizens became apathetic, vulnerable to corruption and manipulation, or lost their sense of moral responsibility. For Gandhi the virtues and vices of a government were not inherent in it but derived from those of its people. It was the coward who created the bully, the worm, which encouraged others to trample on it, the morally irresponsible citizen who created a tyrant.

As a moral being the citizen had a duty to decide whom to give his loyalty and support and under what conditions. His self-respect and dignity required that his loyalty should not be unconditional or taken for granted. When a law was just, he had a 'sacred duty' to give it his 'willing and spontaneous obedience'. The duty had a dual basis. As a moral being he had a general duty to do or support good. And as a citizen he had a specific moral duty to the community into which he was born and rooted, by which he was profoundly shaped, whose benefits he had enjoyed, and to whose members he was bound by the ties of loyalty and mutual expectation. If a law was unjust or morally unacceptable, he had a duty to protest against and even to disobey it. To obey an unjust law was to 'participate in evil' and to incur moral responsibility for its immoral consequences.10 In Gandhi's view it was a 'mere superstition' and an attitude worthy of a 'slave' to believe that a citizen should uncritically obey all laws. To be a citizen was to be co-responsible for the activities of the government.11 And to obey a law was necessarily to support the government. Citizenship was not an autonomous and discrete role, but a mode of expressing and realizing one's wholeness and humanity through the medium of the state. No human being could extend uncritical and absolute support to the state without forfeiting his humanity.


I have so far concentrated on Gandhi's thought, and that is only a small and ultimately perhaps not the most important part of his remarkable life. Unlike men of thought whose ideas can be detached from and examined in isolation from their lives, Gandhi's thought, like that of Jesus and the Buddha, is deeply embedded in and of a piece with his way of life. His ideas grew out of his reflection on his experiences, even as his life represented a determined attempt to live out the ideals he espoused. The two formed a unity such that his ideas are best articulated not in the books and articles he wrote but in the kind of life he lived. His life was his greatest book and provides the most reliable clue to his writings.

For the first thirty odd years of his life, Gandhi was a Grihasthi who, in dutiful obedience to the conventions of his society, married, raised children, and discharged his social obligations. After that he felt free to disregard the social conventions and to write the script of his life as he thought proper. His central moral passion from now onwards was to attain moksha, a Hindu concept which had exercised him greatly for the past few years and which he radically redefined in the light of his understanding of his own religious tradition as well as Christianity and Judaism. In this redefinition moksha meant three things, first, total mastery of all the senses including sexuality; second, a mind freed of fear, jealousy, pettiness meanness, vanity, and so on; and third, total dissolution of the sense of selfhood and the consequent identification with all living beings in a spirit of universal love and dedication to the cause of 'wiping away every tear from every eye'. The first two primarily related to the personal, and the third to the social and political areas of life. Gandhi carried on an intense struggle at all three levels and sought to forge a pure and beautiful soul. The struggle was fierce and uncompromising and marked by moments of doubts and despair, but the overall result was a life of rare moral and spiritual grandeur.

A few random incidents of his remarkable life tell the story. During one of his many periods of incarceration, a black warder was bitten by a scorpion. When Gandhi heard his screams, he rushed to the spot, called for a doctor, and in the meantime started sucking out the poisoned blood, without the slightest thought for his life and in utter disregard of his own bleeding teeth. He went on spitting out the sucked blood until the victim felt relief, and quietly left the place as if nothing had happened.12

Indulal Yajnik, his one time close colleague, turned against him and wrote a vicious attack on him. He regretted this later and went to Gandhi to apologize. It was Gandhi's day of silence. He saw Yajnik among his visitors and, before the latter could say anything greeted him with a reassuring smile and sent him a hastily scribbled note complimenting him for changing sides only once whereas he, Gandhi, had done so more often. The poor Yajnik was in tears.13

Maulana Azad, the Congress President, had without Gandhi's knowledge and against his wishes sent Stafford Cripps, the visiting British minister, a confidential note saying that he and the Congress had an open mind on the partition of India. When Cripps called on Gandhi, he was surprised to find that Gandhi knew nothing about the note and left it with him to mull over. When Azad went to see Gandhi the next day, the latter asked him if there was any communication between him and Cripps. Azad lied. Although his note to Cripps was lying on Gandhi's desk, Gandhi kept quiet. After Maulana's departure Gandhi's secretary suggested that the note should be copied and kept for future occasion. Gandhi rebuked him, asked him to return the original to Cripps, and blamed himself for being unworthy of Azad's trust.

At one prayer meetings in 1947, a bomb exploded. As the frightened crowd began to scatter, Gandhi rebuked it for being frightened of a 'mere bomb', and continued to pray unperturbed. When the Government of India insisted that he should henceforth curtail his activities or at least accept protection, he rejoined that both courses of action compromised his commitment to non violence and were unacceptable to him.

When Indian Independence was drawing near, there was extensive intercommunal violence. Gandhi was deeply distressed and thought his entire life a failure. Not given to despair and defeat, he decided to fight the wave of violence single-handed. Disregarding their physical safety, he and his followers fanned out into remote trouble spots and strove to create intercommunal peace. Believing, wrongly in my view, that he would be able to end the violence only if he eliminated all traces of violence and aggressiveness in himself, he embarked upon the dare-devil experiments of sleeping naked with his female associates to achieve total purity.14 Although attacked and shunned by his colleagues, he stuck to his guns. Just because they had made him a Mahatma, he was not prepared to confirm to their expectations of him. His life was his and it had to be based on his truth. If that meant losing his Mahatmahood, he was only too happy to shed the burden, and if it involved public criticism, he was prepared to brave it so long as he was convinced after deepest reflection that his action was right. Such an uncompromising spirit of moral independence is rare in any society; in a largely conventional India, it stood out as an enduring public symbol of dissent and defiance.


It is difficult to say whether or not and which of Gandhi's ideas would prove of lasting value. However there is little doubt that his life has a rare grandeur about it. His uncompromising commitments to truth and justice, his courage to write the script of his life himself, his relentless search for coherence and wholeness, his total lack of fear, his constant experiments with the possibilities of human existence, and so on are lasting sources of inspiration. As Gandhi said in 1937, 'My writings should be cremated with my body. What I have done will endure, not what I have said or written'. His life is surely his greatest legacy. And since it was a carefully crafted text, his thought too shares in its permanence.

(Annual Lecture delivered at SOAS University of London, 6th October, 1995.)
Source: Gandhi Today