It is not often that Gandhi is portrayed as a philosopher. To me, Gandhi is as significant as the Buddha of the Nikayas and the Socrates of Plato’s early dialogues. These three men are unique because, like Confucius of China, they can be credited with inventing philosophical ways of life that were led by ethics as opposed to others led by metaphysics. The Buddha’s philosophical way of life, within a few centuries, got morphed into two different “religious” forms of life — Theravada and Mahayana. Socrates’ philosophy, however, did not suffer the same fate. Hellenistic philosophy, like Stoicism, is still capable of inspiring people the way Confucianism does in China. Unfortunately for Gandhi, the understanding that he was a philosopher is only slowly getting recognised. The credit for recognising Gandhi as a philosopher goes to two philosophers belonging to the Analytic tradition of philosophy — Akeel Bilgrami and Richard Sorabjee. The latter is a historian of Greek and Hellenistic philosophy.
My position is, however, slightly different from that of these two Analytic philosophers. Philosophy was initially practised only in three civilisations — Chinese, Greek and Indian. In these civilisations, philosophy functioned as a way of life distinct from other ways of life that were rooted in a belief in supernatural powers. But even the philosophical ways of life practised in those ancient times could be divided into two categories — a metaphysics-led philosophical way of life and an ethics-led philosophical way of life. Barring the philosophies enunciated by the Buddha, Socrates and Confucius all other philosophies propagated metaphysics-led ways of life.
The basic difference between these ways is that in ethics-led philosophy, the attempt is to transform the practitioner from his/her baser state of being to an ethically higher state of existence and in the process making him/her, at least in the case of Socrates and the Buddha, psychologically self-sufficient. The Buddha called such a condition “Nirvana”. Socrates articulated it by saying “a virtuous person cannot be harmed” to indicate the disappearance of selfishness-induced fears in the practitioner.
However, in the metaphysics-led philosophical way of life, instead of a higher ethical state of being, the philosopher tries to achieve a higher state of understanding (insight) as well as a communion with what is taken to be the “ultimate”. In the latter, ethics has only a secondary role to play.
In the 20th century, Gandhi reinvented a very original ethics-led philosophical way of life. But Gandhi’s philosophical significance has largely remained unrecognised. The reason, I think, is that once Christianity banned all non-Christian ways of life in Europe in 529CE, philosophy re-emerged in 17th century Europe as a purely theoretical discipline by shedding its life practices. With that, the idea of “philosophical ways of life” became extinct in Europe. This shift from philosophy as a way of life to philosophy as a theoretical discipline is celebrated as the birth of modern Western philosophy. By the end of the 18th century, philosophy had become an academic discipline, with only academics functioning in philosophy departments being treated as philosophers. With colonisation, these European ideas started influencing public discourse in the rest of the world. Viewed against these standards, Gandhi did not qualify as a philosopher. It was, therefore, not surprising that to the people at large, it was only Gandhi’s political dimensions that became visible. The ethical dimension and the associated way of life got subsumed under the category of “religion”. But Gandhi was not religious even though he constantly used the Vaishnava vocabulary. Nevertheless, he was spiritual, if spirituality means reduction of self-centredness. This is clear from his introduction to his translation of the Gita. His shift from “God is Truth” to “Truth is God” in 1929, was also aimed at making ethics the “first principle” of his philosophy. A precursor to this can be seen in his 1907 free translation of William Salter’s “Ethical religion” when he said, “morality should be observed as a religion”.
Gandhi, like the Buddha, was an ethical consequentialist in that the purpose of his ethical way was to reduce self-centredness and to promote a concern for the well-being of all (sarvodaya). Till the end of his life, he constantly tried to get rid of his own self-centred behaviours and thoughts. On numerous occasions he had said that he aspired to “reduce to zero”, that is, totally eliminate selfishness/self-centeredness. For the Buddha, too, the reduction of self-centeredness through the cultivation of virtues like satya, ahimsa, aparigraha, brahmacharya, etc., was crucial for fostering sarvodaya. According to the Buddha’s empirical theses, once the concern for the well-being of all (sarvodaya) is well stabilised, psychological self-sufficiency would ensue and this, in turn, would cause unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and its concomitant fears to disappear. Gandhi named that state of being as “moksha” instead of “nirvana”.
What makes Gandhi different from the Buddha is that Gandhi, apart from individual moksha, wanted development of freedoms (Gandhi’s constructive programme, if correctly interpreted, aims at the attainment of a set of basic freedoms such as freedom from hunger, thirst, illiteracy, avoidable diseases, etc.) for humanity as a whole. Only through political action, according to Gandhian ethics, can we implement this constructive programme. Therefore, Gandhi’s philosophical way of life is an explicit desire for a socialist society — since an ethics based on the reduction of selfishness can only approve a socialist way of life, for logical reasons. Anything that enhances selfishness, like a capitalist economy, is anathema to Gandhi’s philosophical way of life. As a philosophical practitioner, a Gandhian philosopher can only live in a community based on the fundamental principles of socialism, such as equality and the absence of private property. Even though socialist themes like the idea of a “simple life” were part of all philosophical schools of the Subcontinent, it was only in Gandhi that they achieved an explicit political/ideological dimension — Gandhi’s ashrams were such socialist communes. Gandhi’s constructive programme sought to generate socialist enclaves within a capitalist social set up and he called that swaraj.
The politically charged, non-violent and ethical style of philosophy propagated by Gandhi is intended to make one spiritual — a practitioner is encouraged to gravitate and work for the welfare of all other beings. I hope the philosophical way of life enunciated by Gandhi does become a substitute for religion in a post-religious world.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 1, 2021 under the title ‘Mahatma, the philosopher’. The writer taught philosophy at St Stephen’s College, Delhi University.