Learning from the legacy of Gandhi

- Samir Banerjee, Bangalore

For some time I have been working on putting together a compendium on Gandhian thought. What this should contain and why it is necessary are perhaps the core questions. Over the decades we have seen Gandhi, his work and his ideas quoted, extolled and generally used for all kinds of social involvement and analysis. Strategies, tactics, policies and a wide range of insights have been crafted around or out of what Gandhiji stood for. While he himself was against the creation of a ʻGandhismʼ, his world-view, lifestyle and sociopolitical involvement practices have contributed to a wide range of original and seminal ways of articulating social discourse. As a matter of fact, over the years these specific believes and practices propagated by Gandhi such as ahimsa, swadeshi, satyagraha, etc. have evolved into concepts, even heuristic aids.

In many ways while we recognize the rich potential of Gandhian thought, yet being unclear about what it constitutes, we remain wary about its use, particularly because Gandhi himself had warned against creating an ʻismʼ around his thoughts and practices. He wrote, “Gandhi is one thing, Gandhism is another and Gandhi-ites are a third thing. There are always, and will remain, such differences. Immature people may identify themselves with one or the other group”. Maybe as a consequence, a rich potential is shrivelling.

Obviously the following question can be asked: ʻwhat is Gandhian thoughtʼ? ʻThe spirit behind Gandhian thought as distinct from Gandhismʼ, could be one answer; it was also ʻthe way Gandhi understood traditionʼ. He wrote, “The true dharma is unchanging, while tradition may change with time”. Thus Gandhian thought is not just quotations of what the Mahatma said. It is more. It includes the rich heritage from which he drew insights, elaborations of people who explicitly followed him as his disciples, usage as in Gandhian practices by Gandhi and his followers, as well as the insights offered by Gandhian scholars and critics. In effect, in a very broad sense Gandhian thought is a world-view and an engagement with the human dilemma of necessity and choice as well as that of change and continuity.

This is a large canvas. But, Gandhi in his extensive writings, communications and practices, gives a lot of ideas about what as social beings we need to retain and what to change, what is necessary and what we can choose if we have a choice in the processes of social transition and transformation. Above all, while Gandhiʼs canvas was society, his focus always was the individual human being, particularly the dispossessed, the disabled and the discriminated. Our job now is to recognize the essential thrust of his narrative, and this can be done by understanding the concepts which initiated and instructed his narrative.

This, of course, is a long-term project. I am happy that the Gandhi Research Foundation (GRF) offered me a fellowship to pursue my efforts. I was at the GRF from the middle of August to the beginning of October 2019. Obviously I have not been able to complete the project in the short time that I was at the GRF, although the facilities helped me do some useful work. However, let me share some of the work that I was able to do. The following are a couple of concepts which I was able to elaborate while at the GRF.


Since Gandhi was a man of action who played a seminal role in contributing to Indian Independence, in that sense for many in the post-independence era, he was supposed to have empowered us or enabled us to get rid of repression, domination, and particularly inhibitions. But this element of our moral-political vocabulary cannot be called Gandhian. While empowerment does talk about distinguishing between the powerful and the powerless, its principle focus is on replacement, assertion, hegemony and consolidation, which are essentially elitist and coercive attributes.

Post-Gandhi, Gandhians have started using this term quite liberally. Gandhi did help us empower ourselves. But this empowerment or enabling and the moral-political vocabulary it seems to enjoin is not Gandhian, neither in form nor in spirit. While power and empowerment talk about the powerful and the powerless, of ʻmeʼ and the ʻotherʼ, of replacement, assertion, hegemony and consolidation, the concepts, nevertheless, remain self-centered in their ethos, and ignorant of self-restraint and non-attachment. For Gandhi ʻthe otherʼ is not external, it is within. And therefore he talks of ahimsa, moral self-rule, self-reliance, self-restraint, and swaraj. For Gandhi action is yagna, a sacred duty. And this sacred duty consists of exerting oneself for the benefit of ʻothersʼ, that is, through service. Thus, for him “Swaraj has to be experienced by each one for himself”. While self-rule is not just self-government, the central point of Gandhian thinking is an emphasis on self-rule as self-transcendence, which must be “realized in this world”. Empowerment, on the other hand, can easily degenerate into self-centeredness and self-indulgence. Above all, for Gandhi, “the world crushes the dust under the feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him.” In effect this discourse of empowerment is for Gandhi a non-starter.

The notion of power is based on authenticity and conviction. In this sense Gandhi derived his power from his conviction about the authenticity of ahimsa and truth. Whether it was swaraj, sarvodaya or satyagraha, each one of these notions was intended to enable and ennoble the adherents. The radical shift in Gandhi is that, while power in the normal parlance seeks to covet and control, for him power is to, “enjoy the things of the earth by renouncing them”. “If we could erase the ʻIʼsʼ and the ʻMineʼsʼ from religion, politics, economics, etc., we shall soon be free and bring heaven upon earth”, he claimed. In effect, he was suggesting that the basis of power is both flawed and unsustainable, particularly because via ownership power coercively mediates between the personal and the social. Behind this was his conviction that all the resources of the earth belong to God alone. Thus for him, “begin with a charter of Duties of Man and I promise the rights will follow as spring follows winter”.


Ahimsa for Gandhi is not mere non-killing. It is ethical, moral and moksha-inspiring. Since it is an attribute of the soul and every soul is indispensable, ahimsa as a social concern cannot accept the greatest good of the greatest number as a standpoint. It insists on the good of all. “Complete nonviolence is complete absence of ill-will against all that lives”. Thus it is good will towards all. For Gandhi, “Ahimsa means the largest love, the greatest charity. If I am a follower of ahimsa, I must love my enemy. I must apply the same rule to the wrong-doer who is my enemy or a stranger to me, as I would to my wrong-doing father or son”. “Ahimsa is a two-way process. While what I think is good for me, I think the same is also good for you. Simultaneously I accept that what you think is good for you, is good for me too.” This anticipating the other as non-antagonistic is integral to and a promise of satyagraha.

Ahimsa is a social ethos characterizing personal and social relationships. For Gandhi it is “the law of oneʼs being” and a reflection of the individualʼs hope and will to tread the path of satya: “to see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself” is to engage with ahimsa. For him it is the pause between satya as freedom and agraha as insistence. Ahimsa is the law of oneʼs being and the individualʼs hope to tread the path of satya. However, the interface between freedom and insisting on it can be very stressful. For Gandhi ahimsa is the means, while satya is the end. Therefore for him, “to see the universal and all-pervading spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself”. Gandhiʼs appeal to ahimsa was ultimately an appeal to the conscience and reason of the individual, an affirmation of purity of means in the pursuit of any social or political goal. Ahimsa enjoins giving scope to compassion and dispassion. This requires krodha-tyaag or renunciation of anger, an offspring of passion and possession. It is not a non-response, in that it does not encourage avoidance. It is a cultivated quality of the conscience and a product of such a personʼs constant dialogue with personal likes and dislikes. It leads to satya while simultaneously encouraging critical analysis of trust and transparency. But dispassion by itself begs the question. It is only half the decision. The other is dedicated commitment to aspire to something. Gandhi sought equanimity and self-control through krodhatyaag. Controlling and managing anger are not the same as renouncing anger. While controlling or managing anger seeks to restrict responses to gain necessary competences, the objective is to replace the sources of anger, the other and not necessarily the reasons why such sources create anger. Gandhiʼs ahimsa stresses renouncing. As such there is no other.

Obviously the first question is what Gandhi expected from ahimsa. Ahimsa reveals but does not eliminate ignorance; that is a task only satya can accomplish. Ahimsa focuses on the contradictions behind conflicts within society. Contradictions indicate the homing quality of conflicts, and ahimsa, by returning back to the individual, indicates sustainable solutions. This is the abiding distinctiveness of ahimsa linking the individual to morality. Illustrating this are Gandhiʼs experiments, accepting the necessity of politics and not accepting the paramountcy of any one religion.

Ahimsa is a cognitive course which creates a certain well-being by cautioning and reminding us of the coercive qualities of possessiveness. Ahimsa indicates and encourages reflective and voluntary practices to help us set up meaningful rules of conduct to help us transform ourselves towards more propitious ways. It, thus, becomes an aid to morality which helps us distinguish and understand processes of how discernment and reflection help us go beyond the instinctive nature-ordained parameter of himsa. Ahimsa evolves through discussions, experiments and commitment. With Gandhi it started with goodwill and friendliness, incorporated fearlessness, abstention from harming others, and consolidated as an attitude of nonenmity towards all. Effectively it meant absence of malice and hostility and a total abjuring of violence. As agency it necessitates non-separation from the victim because most violence in society is systemic and therefore intentional. As such, the use of violence necessarily involved strong passions, especially anger and hatred, and disturbed the equanimity and moral harmony of the agent. For yet others, it corrupted his consciousness, defiled his soul and hindered his spiritual progress. Thus for Gandhi, nonviolence is not a cloistered virtue to be practised by the individual for his peace and final salvation, but a rule of conduct for society if it is to live consistently with human dignity.

Courtesy: Khoj Gandhiji Ki, March 2020