There is a powerful school of thinkers who concede the propriety of observing certain rules but do not acknowledge the necessity of vows. They go even so far as to suggest that vows are a sign of weakness and may even be harmful. Again they say that, if a rule is subsequently discovered to be inconvenient or sinful, to adhere to it after such discovery would be positively wrong. They say: "It is a good thing to abstain from liquor, but what harm is there in taking it occasionally, say on medical grounds? A pledge of total abstinence would be a needless handicap; and as with liquor, so with other things. Why may we not even speak an untruth for a good end?" This argument does not convince me. A vow means unflinching determination, and helps us against temptations. Determination is worth nothing if it bends before discomfort.
The universal experience of humanity supports the view that progress is impossible without inflexible determination. There cannot be a vow to commit a sin. Such a vow represents a wicked nature. In the case of a vow first thought to be meritorious but later found to be sinful, there arises a clear necessity to give it up. But no one takes, or ought to take, vows about dubious matters. Vows can be taken only on points of universally recognized principles, which, however, we do not habitually act upon. The possibility of sin in such a case is more or less imaginary. A devotee of Truth cannot stop to consider if someone will not be injured by his telling the truth, for he believes that truth can never do harm. So also about total abstinence. The abstainer will either make an exception as regards medicine, or will be prepared to risk his life in fulfilment of his full vow. What does it matter if we happen to lose our lives through a pledge of total abstinence? There can be no guarantee that our lives will be prolonged by liquor, and even if life is thus prolonged for a moment, it may be ended the very next through some other agency. On the other hand, the example of a man who gives up his life rather than his pledge is likely to wean drunkards from liquor and thus become a great power for good in the world. Only they can hope some time to see God who have nobly determined to bear witness to the faith that is in them even at the cost of life itself.
Taking vows is not a sign of weakness but of strength. To do at any cost what one ought to do constitutes a vow. It becomes a bulwark of strength. It makes no difference whether such a resolve is called a vow or known by some other name. A man who says that he will do something "as far as possible" betrays either his pride or his weakness, though he himself may attribute it to his humility. There is, in fact, not a trace of humility in such an attitude of mind. I have noticed in my own case, as well as in that of others, that the limitation "as far as possible" provides a fatal loophole. To do something "as far as possible" is to succumb to the very first temptation. There is no sense in saying that we will observe truth "as far as possible". Even as no business man will look at a note in which a man promises to pay a certain amount on a certain date "as far as possible", so will God refuse to accept a promissory note drawn by a man who will observe truth "as far as possible".
God is the very image of the vow. God would cease to be God if He swerved from His own laws even by a hair's breadth. The sun is a great keeper of observances; hence the possibility of measuring time and publishing almanacs. He has created in us the faith that he always rises and will forever continue to rise, and thereby given us a sense of security. All business depends upon men fulfilling their promises. There could be no commerce if merchants did not regard themselves as bound by their word to one another. We thus see that keeping a vow is a universal practice. Are such promises less necessary in character building or self-realization? We should, therefore, never doubt the necessity of vows for the purpose of self-purification and self-realization.
M. K. Gandhi