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September 8 2014 09:30 | Auditorium Elzenveld

Gandhi: The Experiments with Moral Sovereignty

Vidya Jain

Director of the Centre for Gandhian Studies, University of Rajasthan, India


    Gandhi has been studied and evaluated, projecting a variety of perspectives, overwhelming dominated by the assumption that he was spiritually elevated individual as he sought to transform politics into political ethics. To supplement this strand of predilection, Gandhi has been presented largely as an advocate of ethical imperatives so as to identify his role and impact in South Africa and later in Indian politics. The assumption that Gandhi was basically a "Saint" who had strayed into political activism, or, that he employed and implemented the 'saintly idiom' to resurrect human values in politics explains Gandhi's essential concerns and objectives. Gandhi appears as a unique amalgam of goodness and greatness.
    Gandhi who describes himself in his autobiography as descended from a caste of petty merchants and was in fact the son and grandson of princely state prime ministers, became for many Mahatma'(great soul) (1). How was it possible? How was it done? Gandhi's charisma was historically determined. He was inheritor of the values contained in the infinite flow extant historical determinants. Gandhi's revitalization of tradition involved both, sustenance and entrenched values, practice, and interests. His struggle, for instance, against untouchability and other works of social reforms, traditional symbols, idioms and language was used to convey new meanings and to reconstitute social action.
In the following sections Gandhi’s concepts of religious quest, truth, politics, ethics and morality are discussed to outline a composite view of his personality, thinking and practice.

Gandhi And His Religious Quest
    Gandhi's religious and moral views are admirable, but the practice of them in politics is difficult to understand. Strange it may seem, Gandhi grew up in a devout Hindu household, stepped in Vaishnavism, and was also exposed to Jain influences. The book which became Gandhi's strongest bond was the “Bhagavad Gita”, which he called "Spiritual Dictionary". Two words in the Gita, Aparigraha (non-possession) and Sambhava (equability) opened to Gandhi limitless vistas. Non-possession implied that he had to jettison the material goods which cramped the spirit, to shake off the bonds of money, property and sex, and to regard himself as a trustee, not the owner. Equability required that he must remain unruffled by pain or pleasure, victory or defeat, and work without hope of success or fear of failure.
    Gandhi's religious quest helped to mould not only his personality, but the political technique with which he confronted racialism in South Africa and colonialism in India. In the evolution of satyagraha as a made of non-violent struggle, he acknowledged his debt not only to Tolstoy and Thoureau but to the Gita.
    Asked as to what he would do when there were conflicting counsels from different religions, Gandhi replied: 'Truth is superior to everything and I reject what conflicts with it. Similarly that which is in conflict with non-violence should be rejected. And on matters which could be reasoned out, that which conflicted with reason must be rejected." (2)

Gandhi, Truth and Politics
    Truth was God to Gandhi. I believed that God is Truth" he wrote once, "I now believe that Truth is God". His whole life was an experiment with truth. Truth is the only spiritual charter for free souls. It is the assertion of the dignity of man. If one decides to stand up for the truth as one sees it and backs it up with one's life. The efficacy of Satyagraha depends upon the tenacity to resist evil which, while it abjures force, develops in the Satyagrahi the faculty to face all risks cheerfully.
    Mahatma Gandhi himself wrote in 'Introduction' to his 'An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth' (1927) that Truth was the goal of his life: "I simply want to tell the story of my numerous experiments with truth... my life consists of nothing but these experiments .... If the experiments are really spiritual, then there can be no room for self-praise. They can only add to my humility.... But for me truth is the sovereign principle, which includes numerous other principles. This truth is not only truthfulness in word, but truthfulness in thought also, and not only the relative truth of our conception, but the absolute truth, the eternal principle, that is God .... I worship God as Truth only .... I am seeking after Him. '" But as long as I have not realized the Absolute Truth, so long must I hold by the relative truth as I have conceived it. ... Let hundreds like me perish, but let truth prevail."
    Gandhi had none of the possessions which positions, power and wealth provide; the only possession he cared for was his nearness to God. It is this which gave him an authority over the hearts of men, an authority which was spiritual and moral.  He did not accept the commonly accepted view of politics, because Satyagraha was rooted in morality. It excluded untruth, secrecy and hatred, it rejected violence, it invited suffering at the hands of the oppressor instead of inflicting it on him, and it presumed that it was possible to convert the enemy of today into a friend of tomorrow. Satyagraha could be moral or nothing, it was a form of struggle in which Gandhi could loose all the battles but still win the war.
    He realized that as power creates its narrative rule, moral values also create power and enhance the possibility of individual effectiveness and collective survival. Gandhi was far more interested in challenging the conventional view of domain of power. As early as in 1915, Gandhi declared his aim "to spiritualize" political life and political institution. Politics is as essential as religion, but if it is divorced from religion it is like filth,  only to be kept away. He was concerned with the purification of political life through the introduction of the ashrama or monastic ideal into politics. Gandhi has shown the way of unification of politics through constant/pure heart - searching and the concern to device and declare one's private faith. He pointed out to his colleagues that there is a close connection between politics and social reform. He was certain that he could never be a votary of principles which depended for their existence upon politics or anything else.

While even social work is not possible without touching politics, he believed that power resides in people and not in legislative assemblies. Gandhi would call politics an unavoidable evil. In order to understand Gandhi's position, we must see that he both narrowed and broadened the connotation of politics. He used the word 'religion' in a special sense quite different from its common sectarian implications. Religion sustains a person as nothing else does. It is fundamentally morality. When morality incarnates itself in a living man it becomes religion, because it binds, it holds, it sustains him in the hour of trial. Gandhi was a 'political moralist' or a ‘moral politician’.
    For Gandhi, the spirit of service and sacrifice was the key to leadership. For the spirit of service to materialize we must lay stress on our responsibilities and duties and not on rights. He illustrated it through the example of "concentric circles": One starts with service of those nearest to one and expands the circle of service until it covers the universe, no circle thriving at the cost of the circles beyond. In the same strain he had said in a speech on 'Swadeshi' on February 14, 1916: "It is arrogance to think of launching out to serve the whole of India when I am hardly able to serve even my own family.... The motive will determine the quality of the act. I may not serve my family regardless of the sufferings I may cause to others" . As he wrote in a "letter: "Personal service when it merges into universal service, is the only service worth doing" And he was also clear that the greater beneficiary is the one who serves, not the one served.
    As for my leadership, if I have it, it has not come for any seeking, it is a fruit of faithful service. He exhorted others to do the same. He said in a speech at Gandhi Seva Sangh meeting (Feb. 21, 1940): "We had in us the ambition to forge ahead and become the leaders. But we did not grasp the essential meaning of leadership. 'I shall become the foremost leader' should really mean 'I shall become the foremost servant.' Service should be rendered to him who needs it".
    Service, to him, implied self-sacrifice. Following behind him, millions of people made personal sacrifices in the service. of the nation and the society. They struggled for justice and freedom, against exploitation and discrimination, for Satyagraha and constructive work. As he said: "Sacrifice is the law of life. It runs through and governs every walk of life. We can do nothing or get nothing without paying a price for it. The commitment to service, however, demands a strong sense of conscience (moral imperative), courage (fearlessness, bravery, initiative), and character (integrity). To Mahatma Gandhi, 'inner voice' was synonymous with conscience. One develops it as one grows and it becomes, more and more, a constant guide to keep one on the right path.
    Today science is accepted as a priori knowledge and it is understood that truth has to be justified through rational analysis. Gandhi rejects this notion and believes in other modes of responding to the world like faith, emotions, arts, ethics and many other modes of knowing. "The whole gamut of man's activities today constitutes an indivisible whole. You cannot divide social, economic, political and purely religious work into watertight compartments. I do not know any religion apart from human activity" (3)

Morality and Duty   
    The ethical codes Gandhi sets for an individual are extended to his political thought. As we have already seen, for Gandhi self realization is not a final, eschatological ideal but a historical and pragmatic one to be ceaselessly pursued and achieved. Nor it is a private or individual ideal to be sought in solitude and seclusion and to be attained by one to the exclusion of others. Gandhi affirms that moksha (individual salvation) is impossible until and unless our fellow beings also reach their level of attainments and so in the Gandhian framework, moksha means the liberation of all, i.e. sarvodaya. (4)
    An outline of the basic ethical tenets of Gandhian individual are follows:
1.    Means justifies the end (purity of means is more important than achievement of end).
2.    Primacy of Rights over Duties.
3.    The Deed, not the doer.
4.    Sacrifice.
5.    Humility.
6.    Eleven Vows and their observance.
        a.    Truth
        b.    Nonviolence
        c.    Chastity (Brahmacharya)
        d.    Control of the Palate
        e.    Non-Stealing
        f.     Non-Possession
        g.    Fearlessness
        h.    Non-observance of untouchability
        i.    Bread - labour
        j.    Equality of Religions
        k.    Self - Reliance

An outline of the basic ethical tenets of Gandhian society and polity are follows:
   Doctrine of Trusteeship : All men should have a right to equal opportunity, though they are not equal in their capacities. The rich people should be trustee to the wealth, and their wealth should go to the welfare of society. It is like the earnings of all sons going to the common family. Gandhi believed that all land belonged to God and farming should be done on cooperative basis. It should be tilled and cultivated collectively and everyone should enjoy the fruit of labour. The doctrine of trusteeship advocates self-transformation of the rich. The doctrine of trusteeship has its basis in Indian tradition influenced by Upnishadic saying that the universe is pervaded by God, renunciation is the way to enjoyment and therefore one should not covet the wealth of others.
    To him economics and ethics go together: True economics never militates against the highest ethical standard, just as all true ethics ... must at the same time be also good economics. An economics that inculcates mammon worship and enables the strong to amass wealth at the expense of the weak, is a false and dismal science ... True economics... stands for social justice; it promotes the good of all equally, including the weakest and is indispensable for decent life. It functions in pursuit of 'economic equality', which simply means that everybody should have enough for his or her needs ... Everybody must have a balanced diet, a decent home to live in, facilities for education for one's children and adequate medical relief' .
    Doctrine of Swaraj (self - rule) : Gandhi believed that self - rule or Swaraj was self - determination of the individual while taking decisions without depending on others. The notion of 'Swaraj' first dwells in individual than in society. Swaraj is nothing but assimilation of individual self - role into communal self - reliance. It is moral autonomy of the individual depending upon self - purification, which gives the strength to make socially relevant decisions. Self rule is possible with self-restrain. Swaraj is not getting freedom from foreign rule but having control of one's own senses, desires, wishes and talents. Swaraj is not political sovereignty but moral sovereignty. 
    Although the word swaraj simply means self-rule. Gandhi gave it the content of an integral revolution that encompassed all spheres of life. "On the individual level swaraj is vitally connected with the capacity for dispassionate self-assessment, ceaseless self-purification, continuous self-¬restraint, progressive self-realization and growing swadeshi or self-reliance." (5) Politically swaraj is self-government and not good government, (for ac¬cording to Gandhi good government is no substitute for self-government) and it means continuous effort to be independent of government con¬trol, whether it is foreign government or whether it is national. In other words, 'it is the sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority'. Economically, Poorna Swaraj means full economic freedom for the toiling millions. For Gandhi swaraj of a people meant the sum total of the swaraj (self-rule) of individuals and so he clarified that for him swaraj meant freedom for the meanest of his countrymen. And in its fullest sense, swaraj is much more than freedom from all restrains, it is self-rule and self-re¬straint and could be equated with moksha or salvation. "Government over self is the truest swaraj", remarked Gandhi, "it is synonymous with moksha (salvation)". (6) 
    Doctrine of Ramrajya (Ideal polity): The concept of Ramrajya is the political vision of Mahatma Gandhi, which is the ideal polity in the golden age of history. It is kingdom of God on earth, a perfect democracy without caste, color, class, creed and religious prejudices. Gandhi was aware of the ills of the political institutions.
    The Gandhian indictment of modern civilization represents a moral standpoint that is seen clearly in his attitude of politics. For him, the sickness of our satanic civilization is closely connected with the soulessness of present day politics. In a materialistic society, regardless of its popular commitments the entire system of government became corrupts. All political institutions become merely instruments for the pursuit of power. Man has always desired power. Ownership of property gives that power. The core of Gandhi's position lies in his belief that while "politics today encircles us like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out no matter how one tries". (7) The only way to wrestling with the snake is to introduce religion into politics. "By religion I don't mean formal religion but that religion which underlines all religions”..... (8) Religion for Gandhi, means a spiritual commitment which is total but intensely personal. He firmly believed in the fundamental unity of life, and rejected the distinction between public and private, secular and sacred.     
    Gandhi said that the nearest approach to the purest anarchy would be a democracy based on nonviolence and he used such expressions as true democracy, 'Ramrajya' (Kingdom of God) to denote the government of his vision. Gandhi was a philosophical anarchist. For him swaraj means self-rule and self-restraint. So the true democracy of Gandhi's conception was not 'freedom from all restraints' but it was real self-rule which means 'freedom from all forms of authority'.
    Doctrine of Sarodaya (welfare of all) : Doctrine of Sarvodaya can be referred to as non-violent society. Gandhi visualized the establishment of a new system of moral sanctions in the society based on the idea of the universal harmony. Gandhi viewed life as an organic whole and therefore he never approached life in fragments or segments.
    A closer look at the concept will counsel one that the vision of Sarvodaya is based on the spiritual perception of the oneness of existence. This invaluable piece of ancient wisdom was spelt out by Gandhi in the form of Sarvodaya. Although Sarvodaya means "the rise and prosperity of all". but it is much more than this. It suggests the evolutionary, all - sided development of all human beings without any distinction. This implies the establishment of socio - economic - political and educational structures that would facilitate the development and expression of the latent potentialities of the individuals.    
    Thus, Mahatma Gandhi is universally accepted as an exemplary model of ethical and moral life with a rare blending of personal and public life, the principles and practices, the immediate and eternal. He worked incessantly and died.... to transform the society and individual into a moral order based on selfless services as the way to God and self- realization. His whole life was a process of experiments with moral sovereignty.


1.    Louis Fischer (ed.) The Essential Gandhi, Allen & Unwin,1963,110-15.
2.    Harijan, March 6, 1937.
3.    M.K. Gandhi, My Religion, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1958, P. 117.
4.    M.P. Mathai, Mahatma Gandhi's world view, Gandhi Peace foundation, New Delhi, 2000. P. 115.
5.    Reghavan Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, concerned Grove Press, London, 1983, P.9.
6.    Young India, Dec. 8, 1920, P. 826.
7.    Young India, April, 1920.
8.    J.J.Doke, M.K. Gandhi, Natesan, 1909, P.7.




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