Understanding Gandhi's Concept of Liberty

- By Meena Deshpande

"Freedom from restraints" becomes "freedom through res-traints" in Gandhian thought. The difference between these two theoretical formulations changes the nature and content of restraints which has a strong impact on the central theme, namely liberty. In the first formulation, restraint refers to the other-imposed restraints, whereas in the latter to the self-imposed. Self-regulation and self-discipline, instead of limiting the freedom of individual, enhance it. The principles of truth and nonviolence, and not the state, regulate individual and collective behaviour and protect the integrity of human society. Gandhi emphasised the contribution of the individual to social harmony and considered state intervention as a disgrace.

The divergent thought forms relating to the perceptions of one's relation with oneself and others shape and reshape the theoretical formulations and constructions which in turn are moulded by a variety of socio-economic factors. Historically the obsession of the West with the notion of liberty and an yearning to free the individual from all kinds of temporal restraints can be traced back to the existence of strong centralised power, either religious or temporal. In India, on the contrary, the ethico-religious principles defined individual and collective behaviour and determined the limits of all human institutions including the state. Kingship was basically an executive power rather than legislative, implementing the laws that were already in existence an hence ended up as a weak temporal institution with limited powers.1

In the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth century, the West was obsessed with the concept of liberty that got reflected in political theorising. The fight between terrestrial and ecclesiastical powers was a typical feature of the modern European history. Many socio-economic factors coupled with industrialisation led to the secular securing an upper hand over the religious, adversely affecting the effectiveness of religion as a control mechanism. Individuals, groups, and institutions slowly escaped the hold of religion and came within the strong whipping hand of the state. Religious institutions lost their control on the temporal matters and, to that extent, became weak and the state emerged victorious. An authoritarian state was born enhancing its power and reducing individual freedom. This development evoked strong reactions from different sections of society, the philosophers and activists, who either became the supporters or enemies of the state, justifying or opposing the emerging trend respectively which got reflected in the ensuring political theory. Liberty was brought to the forefront2 to fight against the evils of an all-powerful state, and regaining the lost liberty became the ultimate objective of many movements.

The Eurocentric political theory is engrossed with the problem of reducing restraints on individual freedom, especially those emanating from the state, contrary to which one notices two dominant trends in modern India. One set of scholars influenced by Western notions viewed the ethico-religious sanctions as the main source of loss of individual freedom and hence tried to nullify them, and the second found a solution in the holistic oriental approach and advocated revitalisation of the ethico-religious restraints keeping in mind the changed circumstances.

Modern India faced many upheavals in the socio-religious and politico-economic spheres with the advent of the British rule that brought in some new streams of thought and elements of Western culture unknown to the Indian soil that clashed with the existing primordial structures. The notion of individual liberty was one such thing. These circumstances triggered a series of reactions within which three major strands of thought demand our attention which indicates the tumult of that period. Firstly, the pro-Western strand was highly impressed by whatever the West offered and subsequently tried to copy the Western model in its ideology, institutions, and structures with least resistance and slavish submission to the new thought form undermining the Indian. Secondly, the oriental strand was opposed to all that the West stood for with a strong belief in maintaining the status quo and believed in going back to the pre-modern system. Between these two extremes lies a third set of moderates who tried to synthesise the good in the Western and in the Indian and tried to bring about reforms accordingly. Among this group of reformers again, one finds thinkers and activists oscillating between the Eastern and the Western models. Gandhi obviously belonged to the third group in his theory and praxis leaning more towards the Eastern model.

Liberty in political theory is closely associated with the nature of state. In India neither the state nor an individual had the privilege of trespassing the preordained limits which created an altogether different and unique notion of liberty that stood in contrast to the prevailing Western notions. Allegiance to the existing pattern of restraints rather than freedom from them became the central theme of Oriental thought. But later, loyalty to the established pattern disintegrated with the entry of the Western notion of state and other related concepts. The nature of political theory in India was different from that of the West because at no point of history was there any kind of a major fight between the temporal and the spiritual that could balance the existing power structure and power relations. Religion cons-tantly remained a reference point as far as the organisation and function-ing of state, individual, and group behaviour are concerned.3 Aihika and paramartha were not separated.4 They were given equal importance and a working relationship existed between the two, the former always operating within the confines prescribed by the latter. The placing of four purusharthas5 in the life of an individual strengthened this position. During the Moghul rule also, some kind of a harmonious relationship existed between the secular and the religious.

The excesses of individualism have cost dearly to human society. The individual gets preference over the collectivity at a very high social cost which is evident in the present-day problems like increase in the rate of broken families, juvenile delinquency, crime, poverty, conspicuous con-sumption, corruption in all walks of life, and mass production unrelated to demands. All such problems are accentuating the imbalances in the society by diverting man from his social obligations,6 and making him more and more self-centred.7 Gandhian understanding of the notion of liberty sheds light on the root cause of present-day problems and shows a way out of it by upholding social obligation which cannot be taken lightly and dismissed without giving a trial.8 Gandhi, denying the Western notion of the state and individual liberty, took a different stand and subjected the individual to socio-political and ethico-religious restraints, giving predominance to self-restraint that emanated from the latter and fixed the sphere of state action to the minimum.

Theoretically freedom was perceived as absence of restraints, whether self-imposed or imposed by others. Hence the relationship between liberty and restraints remained proportional. "Less the restraints, more will be the freedom" became the dictum of individualism which received more attention in the history of political theory, and individual liberty became a single significant determinant of state's jurisdiction. Though state inter-vention reduced personal freedom, it was viewed as an unavoidable and inevitable bargain for freedom by the social contractualists and the same was rejected by the communists and anarchists. As a corollary, the state came to be viewed either as a source and protector or as the enemy of individual liberty.

With this broad outline, let us now proceed to our main pursuit of how Gandhi looks at the concept of liberty that is more Western than Indian. Contrary to the Western notions of his times that overemphasised indivi-dual liberty, Gandhi emphasised restraints on both individual and collective behaviour as a precondition for personal, collective, as well as national liberty. Social concern and social obligation, rather than individual comfort, determined the course of Gandhian thought.9

The concept of liberty in the Gandhian framework is interwoven with his socio-political philosophy. Like all his theoretical constructions, liberty too did not remain absolutely a theoretical concept defined and analysed in isolation from life but was closely associated with his life situations in which the metaphysical and the empirical merged. He noticed the drift between the actual and the ideal. The necessity of conceptualising liberty arose while assessing and evaluating the British rule and the existing primordial socio-economic structures, both of which violated the universal principles of Truth and Nonviolence.

Freedom, essentially an abstract notion, was sought to be understood in its concrete aspects. Gandhi's public as well as private life directed and moulded his perception of liberty. Liberty was an integral part of his view of life. State, which was looked upon either as a source or as an opponent of individual freedom, occupied a secondary place playing a marginal and an insignificant role in the Gandhian framework, since the core of liberty remains untouched by this external institution.

Instead of defining liberty positively, Gandhi's quest began with a critical assessment of the then existing situation to find out the reasons for the loss of individual, group, and national liberty. Absence of self-restraint in the case of individuals, primordial social groups, religious sects, and nations, he felt, led to many socio-economic problems that ultimately resulted in loss of liberty for the respective segments. Therefore there emerged a need to restrict individual, collective, and institutional behaviour, with an intention to regain the lost liberty.

The Unhealthy Repercussions of Restraint-Free Human Action

Gandhi reflected on the unhealthy repercussions of restraint-free human action at the individual and collective level that led to many socio-economic problems limiting the area of freedom of action.

Firstly, the unrestrained behaviour of individuals motivated by greed, Gandhi contemplates, was the root cause of a chain of socio-economic evils like exploitation, concentration of wealth, poverty, mass production, consumerism, and alcoholism, which paradoxically went on reducing the sphere of action for the individual concerned. He considered these as evils and abhorred consumerism as it represented physical voluptuousness with the absence of social concern. Self-regulation in the form of minimising one's wants, trusteeship (holding excess property as a trust of the society and using it for the benefit of the community), bread labour (compulsory physical productive labour), and other such measures served dual objec-tives of freeing the individual practitioner from social sin and creating conditions for the enjoyment of freedom for the victims. Abstinence, for Gandhi, never meant philanthropy or sacrifice, but was a voluntary and self-directed act backed by social concern.

Secondly, at the collective level, lack of restraint on the part of nations and groups had led to the evils of imperialism, colonialism, cultural and offshoots of it. The way to national freedom too, Gandhi suggested, lay through "sweetness, persuasion, and humility."10 These three paths indicate a concrete and limited expression of the abstract principle of nonviolence. As he handled the abstract notion of liberty in concrete life situations, the link had to be established between the abstract and the concrete.

The other means proposed by Gandhi were fearlessness and sacrifice, the basic virtues to be cultivated in order to win and enjoy freedom. A capacity not to be afraid of "rustication, poverty, and even death"11 also became a necessity. Strength in this context does not refer to the physical or the intellectual strength but relates to moral courage arising out of faith in one's case.12 With Gandhi, even freedom cannot be claimed as a matter of right: preconditions preceded claim. This conceptualisation differentiates him from others. Truth and nonviolence performed the task of a torch illuminating the path of freedom.

Kinds of Freedom

Theoretically Gandhi recognised two interrelated aspects of freedom- external or outward and internal or inward-and his views on these form the substance of his notion of liberty. Internal freedom was a state of mind which can be attained only through the means of nonviolence and truth.13 Through human mediation, an abstract notion of freedom becomes part and parcel of concrete human life situations. Freedom, when conceived purely as a state of mind/becomes too abstract and metaphysical. Gandhi's perception comes very close to that of Tolstoy who, sitting within the four walls of prison, enjoyed absolute freedom. Therefore, viewed from this angle, the content and extent of individual liberty remains untouched and unaffected by the restraints imposed by an external agency like state. Apparently liberty transcended all the elements of mundane existence that were external to man like the state, society, and other human institutions and associations and, when logically it is stretched to the farthest limits, even human body becomes an absolute unlimited concept. Freedom, looked from this angle, is not new to either Western or Eastern philosophical con-ceptualisations.

The emphasis on inward freedom forms part of Gandhi's general theory. Freedom provides conditions of the growth of man. He asserted: "I want the freedom to make mistakes, and freedom to unmake them, and freedom to grow to my full height, and freedom to stumble also. I do not want crutches."14 It is obvious that he denied the right to any external agencies including the state to impose restrictions on the individual, even with a noble and justifiable intention. Here one is reminded of his pre-ference for means than ends. Under no circumstance can end justify means. Rather, it is the other way round. It was his firm belief that if we take care of the means, the end will take care of itself.

Growth of an individual, Gandhi assumed, was possible only through self-effort and not with the effort of others. The freedom of self within was not an inherent right but had to be won through moral development, the process which he called "inner reform."15 Once the process was under way, nobody could hinder its onward march towards freedom-be it individual, collective, or national.

The outward or external freedom existed in proportion to the inward freedom attained by an individual in the case of personal liberty and by the people iii the case of national liberty. None was spared the trouble of fulfilling the preconditions before they could have any kind of freedom. External freedom provides a yardstick to measure the "freedom of self within."16 Since the inward freedom determines the external, the latter is an index to the former. Internal freedom refers to one's relation with oneself. On the other hand, external freedom refers to one's relation with others, both of which occupy a pivotal place in his political theory.

Gandhi could not escape the impact of the Western thought form and the force of historical circumstances which provoked him to reflect on freedom of thought, expression, organisation, and association that were indispensable parts of the notion of freedom in the West.

Unanimous opinion is a far-off cry as far as human beings are concerned. Each one is different in his thought and action. The basic premise in Gandhi for the freedom of expression was that "everyone cannot be of the same mind and none is perfect"17 and "freedom to err and even sin" was a precious right that God had given to man and no human being could be deprived of that by others.18 Differences were bound to exist. Uniformity was not possible and none was perfect. Under such circumstances, employment of force to bring an agreement could hardly be justified. Each could be right in his own way. This position ties in with another fundamental premise in Gandhi's theory-that the use of force to subjugate others is always and at all times unjustified. Therefore freedom of opinion is worth maintaining.19 Freedom to express one's opinion without interference from others holding contradictory opinion leads to ordered life.20 If different opinions were provided a free atmosphere to compete amongst themselves through the employment of force, then ordered life becomes impossible. Freedom of speech and writing, which were regarded by Gandhi as the foundation of Swaraj, was nothing but an extension of freedom of expression.21

Freedom of association, expression, and organisation were three essential freedoms in public life22 which were regarded by Gandhi as the breath, food, and drink of public life. On the national plane, he fought for regaining these three freedoms. Any restriction on these was unpardonable to him.23 Hence these freedoms restricted the sphere of state activity and created an unencroachable area of action for the individuals. Gandhi was against all forms of restraints but those acceptable to him had their origin in the Indian thought form. Nonviolence was simultaneously a source and a limiting factor of individual freedom.

Freedom was a value-laden concept in the Gandhian framework as he viewed freedom as dharma.24 Dharma, the higher moral law of life, should be protected even at the cost of life. British rulers denied Indians "freedom-intellectual, spiritual, and economic"-which provided justifi-cation for the rejection of that particular state. The denial of freedom on the part of the state mechanism would delegitimise the state and, as a corollary, justify and legitimise protest against such a state.

Gandhi considered denial of natural liberty to the untouchables in India as "starvation of the soul."25 The forceful denial of any freedom calls for a revolution-either social, political, economic, or religious, depending upon the freedom that had been denied. Denial of freedom thus had serious consequences and calls for a swift action by the sufferers. As the pioneer of direct action at the individual and social level, Gandhi tried the strengths and weaknesses of the techniques during his lifetime and hence could leave some workable and practical suggestions to the posterity.

Restraints Define Freedom

Gandhi's basic contention was that freedom, both individual and religious, was not absolute but relative.26 It could never be claimed as a licence. It rather presupposes self-restraint and self-discipline. In the absence of self- restraint, social and political restraints should be evoked. Gandhi notices three sources of restraints on individual freedom: (i) self-imposed restraints; (ii) social restraints imposed by society; and (iii) political restraints imposed by the state.

In the case of all forms of limitations, the motives and manner of imposition were considered by Gandhi before they were declared as tenable. The first two varieties involving the individual and society were accepted without any hesitation. But when it came to the third, Gandhi was very sceptical. He felt that "any man who subordinates his will to that of the state surrenders his liberty and thus becomes a slave."27

In some cases where it was difficult to revive and revitalise individual restraints and the problem was acute requiring an immediate action, Gandhi preferred limitations and restrictions imposed by the outward agencies and organisations and, in extreme situations, the state also became tolerable. For example, in the case of successful implementation of prohibition, though the ultimate effective measure is self-control, the remote possibility of its effectiveness forced Gandhi to welcome state intervention to solve the problem. State intervention was preferable to the damage caused by the evil of drink to the individual, family, and society at large. Religion too supported a state action as it prohibited the degrading revenue from excise. Prohibition, though it limited personal freedom, was justified as it served the larger purpose of personal and social well-being. In maintaining order in the society, state intervention was accepted. It was not the intrinsic value of state intervention but the inability of each person to rule himself that forced Gandhi to accept state intervention.

Self-restraint formed an indispensable part of Gandhi's notion of satyagraha-an instrument of social, political, religious, and economic reform and a guide to individual and collective action whenever liberty was denied. The eleven vows to be taken by a satyragrahi illustrate the significance of self-regulation.28 Self-restraint was one of the preconditions for waging the war of independence.29 A man, who selected the path of restraint-free life, became, in the eyes of Gandhi, a bonded slave of passions. On the contrary, he who accepted restraints and rules released himself.30 Thus self-restraint paradoxically limited and enhanced the frontiers of liberty.

Social restrictions were acceptable only when they served the interest of the society as a whole and not of any particular section. If society as a whole benefited at the cost of the individual, then individual loss is compensated for by the benefits of social life. Community life required an arrangement where the restraints on individual liberty were tolerated. He wrote: "Anyone who lives in a country should submit to its restrictions. This is what an institution means. Anything different from this means rule of one person."31

Individualism in Gandhi was thus not an absolute but a relative concept. He felt that man being a social animal can enjoy freedom "only to a certain extent, and it has to be curtailed at every step."32 Individual suffering for the sake of society was approved by Gandhi but not its converse.33

Society cannot be sacrificed for the sake of an individual or a group of individuals or even a nation. Gandhi elevated society above the state and the individual.

Notes and References:

  1. There is ample evidence in proof of this fact. A look at studies on ancient and medieval polity in India done by scholars like A.S. Altekar, K.P. Jayaswal, U.N. Ghoshal, P.V. Kane, and Padma Udgaonkar supports the fact that the state was secondary in comparison with religion.
  2. Declan Quigley, The Interpretation of Caste (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 41. He agrees with Dumont's thesis that modern society places a historically unique premium on the individual.
  3. Religion in this context transcends the Western notion of religion as a disciplining and organising factoi>creating a separate identity for its followers but relates to the universal principle of truth.
  4. See M. Williams, A Sanskrit Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1899). The English equivalent ofaihika is terrestrial, temporal, or worldly and "paramartha" means that which transcends the temporal, refers to the universal, relating to the supreme truth.
  5. Dharma, artha, kama, and moksha within the peripheries of which an individual is expected to function in his personal and public capacity.
  6. The concept of rina in the Indian thought form meaning "a debt to be repaid" in its various connotations includes Samaja-rina or social obligation which is binding on all.individuals, irrespective of their status in society. One is obliged to society for all the benefits one gets from the membership of society and has to repay the debt in the prescribed mode as specified in the Dharmashastras.
  7. Robert Wright,"The Evolution of Despair' Time, Vol. 146, No. 9, pp. 40-46.
  8. The Gandhian paradigm needs to be objectively assessed without any prejudice. Barring a few micro-level attempts at implementing Gandhi's ideas and some serious academic exercises, it is sad to note that he is being used and misused in Indian politics.
  9. In Gandhi's preferences, one can see the traces of traditional society as noted by Louis Dumont, who, while referring to the ideas of Emile Durkheim in his Homo Hierarchicus (1980, Ch. X, p. 8) writes: "As opposed to modern society, traditional societies, which know nothing of equality and liberty as values, which know nothing, in short, of the individual, have basically a collective idea of man, and our (residual) apperception of man as a social being is the sole link which unites us to them, and is the only angle from which we can come to understand them."
  10. The Hindu, 6 April 1921.
  11. Young India, 12 July 1928.
  12. Navajivan, 19 August 1928.
  13. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: Publications Division, Government of India), Vol. 38, p. 346. Hereinafter referred to as CWMG.
  14. Ibid., Vol. 36, p. 127.
  15. Young India, 1 November 1928.
  16. Navajivan, 4 November 1928.
  17. Ibid., 12 April 1925.
  18. Young India, 12 March 1931.
  19. Navajivan, 2 August 1925.
  20. Young India, 13 August 1931.
  21. Harijan, 29 September 1919.
  22. Young India, 9 February 1922.
  23. Ibid., 9 March 1921.
  24. CWMG, Vol. 19, p. 36.
  25. Harijan, 26 October 1934.
  26. Navajivan, 26 October 1934.
  27. Indian Ojrinion, 8 January 1910.
  28. Ahimsa, satya, asateya, brahmacharya, asangraha, shareershrama, aszvaad, swadeshi, sparshbhavana etc. All these vows to be taken by a satyragrahi put limits on his freedom to will and act.
  29. CWMG, Vol. 26, p.45.
  30. Young India, 23 February 1930.
  31. CWMG, Vol. 38, p. 86.
  32. Harijan, 10 June 1939.
  33. Young India, 1 May 1930. Gandhi represented what Louis Dumont referred to as the traditional ideology that placed highest moral value on the idea of society as against the modern ideology that placed highest moral value on the idea of the individual.

Courtesy: Gandhi Marg, Volume 17, Number 3, October-December 1995