TRUTH AND NON-VIOLENCE
The ethical potency of Gandhian thought was grounded in moral clarity and metaphysical simplicity. Without succumbing to either the illusion of infallibility or the delusion of indispensability, Gandhi sought to achieve a balance of intellect and intuition, warning his followers against both rationalization of weakness and erratic emotionalism. Again and again he found that the powerful combination of faith and experience, pure reason and daily application, was both self-transforming and infectious, and he felt that his own life vindicated its strength. Spurning all Manichaean tendencies as snares, he deepened his conviction that God is formless and utterly beyond formulation. Individual integration and self-transcendence, he thought, can be achieved through considering and consolidating the close connection between truth and non-violence, satya and ahimsa. His unassailable belief that the conceptual foundation of his ethics was strong and sound though he would refine his insights whenever his daily experience required him to do so enabled him to find flexibility amid constancy.
Gandhi was a practical idealist. Untrammelled by the dead weight of convention, he was equally unconcerned with formal consistency. As a karma yogin, he had neither the time nor the aptitude for constructing a systematic philosophy. Instead, he discerned archetypal patterns and eternal possibilities for growth in the shifting conditions of human interaction. "Men are good," he wrote, "but they are poor victims making themselves miserable under the false belief that they are doing good."1 To overcome the false basis of thought and action, human beings must learn to question themselves and others, for, said Gandhi, "we are all bound to do what we feel is right". In translating his metaphysical assumptions into ethical principles, Gandhi always pointed to the basic impulses that underlie all action. Holding that there is a universal human nature which mirrors the Divine and may best be characterized as pure potential, he found it natural to use his own life as a crucible in which to test his principles and precepts. He felt that the extreme burden of expectation which the masses thrust upon him expressed the yearning of men and women for a freedom and self-reliance they could sense but seldom experienced. Conscious of his own limitations, he in turn drew strength from the latent goodness of the untutored peasants he sought to help.
Gandhi held that intelligent submission to the laws of cosmic interdependence and natural harmony would result in enduring fulfilment of one's true being. "Has an ocean drop an individuality of its own as apart from the ocean? Then a liberated soul has an individuality of its own." For Gandhi, this hoary metaphor enshrined the key to the metaphysical problem of the individual and the whole, and to what Plato formulated as the problem of the One and the many: "I do believe that complete annihilation of one's self-individuality, sensuality, personality whatever you call it, is an absolute condition of perfect joy and peace."2 However bestial in origin, man is human because he is potentially and essentially divine. Any pattern of thought, direction of energy or line of action hostile to that primordial unity leads eventually to frustration and misery; those acts in tune with it will initiate a happy, if sometimes unanticipated, outcome. Thus the individual who would be truly human must reduce himself to a zero in the eyes of the world. Then he can mirror infinitude in his heart and in his life.
Any feasible conception of human nature, Gandhi felt, must allow for the heights as well as the depths of human attainment and longing. Satya and ahimsa, truth and non-violence, were the two ultimate and universal principles he used to clarify the chaos of sense-impressions and conflicting desires. Human beings are, at heart, amenable to moral persuasion. Any compelling moral appeal must, therefore, be addressed to the human soul, not to the assemblage of habits and traits that make up the separative personality. A constant awareness of the primacy and supremacy of Truth (sat) frees one from needless over-assertion or violent appropriation of any partial or particular truths. "My anekantavada [belief in the manyness of reality] is the result of the twin doctrine of satya and ahimsa. "3
Gandhi castigated much in modern civilization because it withers human dignity and impedes moral growth. It establishes a social structure based on the law of the jungle, a tense and competitive rat race relieved only by spasms of furtive self-indulgence. If the salty drop cannot exist without the ocean, the ocean itself has no existence independent of its myriad drops. Using another metaphor, Gandhi wrote that "we are all sparks of the divine and, therefore, partake of its nature, and since there can be no such thing as self-indulgence with the divine, it must of necessity be foreign to human nature".4 The process of igniting the spark must, therefore, begin within individual consciousness, then spread among the masses, before ultimately transforming the entire social order. To effect such a change, the questions which the mentally lazy and morally cowardly set aside as irrelevant must be honestly confronted. Inverted notions must be corrected. And fundamental issues the scope of self-consciousness, the purpose of life, the role of the individual must be considered and reconsidered.
For Gandhi, one central truth becomes the starting-point for all such enquiries. "The purpose of life is undoubtedly to know oneself. We cannot do it unless we learn to identify ourselves with all that lives. The sum total of that life is God."5 Though individual perfection may be distant, human perfectibility is omnipresent. "To say that perfection is not attainable on this earth is to deny God.... Life to me would lose all its interest if I felt that I could not attain perfect love on earth."6 The permanent possibility of perfection can be translated into a continuous expansion of love and truth as embodied in selfless service. Nonetheless, the gap between the elusive ideal and an existing reality will inevitably distort one's understanding of individual perfection. Each individual must constantly rethink and renew his sense of the relation between ideal and reality. He must contemplate these matters with a faith that is beyond knowledge, but not incompatible with reason. "Faith is not a thing to grasp, it is a state to grow to",7 and "the fact is that perfection is attained through service".8 Firm faith prompts selfless service, as selfless service preserves firm faith. Such is the time-honoured pathway to individual perfection and universal enlightenment.
Faith is not itself to blame if some who profess religious faith prove corrupt. In men of great intellect, mental agility can sometimes obscure the intuitions of the heart. Only when the intellect is in harmony with the heart can it be rescued from the tyranny of egotism and enlisted in the service of humanity. But the process of purification is arduous indeed. For even if self-centeredness and hostility are transcended, irrational fears and doubts, tensions and pressures, may remain.
The moral culture of man must begin, then, not with an external improvement of morals, but with a basic transformation of the mind, a systematic training of the will. Only sustained tapas self-suffering is permanently purifying. Prolonged suffering is therapeutic only when undertaken for the sake of all and for Truth. "Progress is to be measured by the amount of suffering undergone by the sufferer."9 Suffering for the truth facilitates self-knowledge; in addition, it may subtly heal the individual and those around him. Whilst Gandhi saw no reason to assume a linear historical process of collective ascent, his view of tapas as a foreshadowing of moksha or emancipation, and his conviction that the human spirit is one with the divine, fortified his optimism. "Only an atheist can be a pessimist."10 By optimism, he meant not that everything will invariably augment the happiness of every person, but that all moral strivings will ultimately find their fruition.
Since individuals can intuit ethical principles when the veil of forgetfulness and fear is lifted, and since the patient application of principles is strengthened by self-correction, no one needs to be taught what is right. Nor does anyone need to be shown the practice of self-examination. Instead, everyone must be encouraged to exemplify what he or she knows to be right. True religion is identified by moral vigour and contagious example, not by theological sophistry or hortatory skill. Gandhi constantly shattered the hypnotic spell cast by sanctimonious beliefs in collusion with hypocritical practices. He knew that mere moralism cannot redeem a materialistic social structure estranged from the rhythms of Nature or an economic framework which fosters greed and exploitation. "Is it not most tragic", Gandhi lamented, "that things of the spirit, eternal verities, should be regarded as utopian by our youth, and transitory makeshifts alone appeal to them as practical?"11 The penetrating clarity of W.M. Salter's Ethical Religion spoke to Gandhi's heart, and he paraphrased eight of its chapters in Gujarati. He strongly endorsed Salter's reasoned conviction that an ethical idea is useless unless put into practice, even though right action may not always be recognized or repaid. Fidelity to conscience, however, needs no public approval; it is its own reward.
However strong the moral impulse in men and women, living in the world seems to demand intolerable yet inescapable compromises. In response, Gandhi advised all social reformers to assume responsibilities willingly, accept the limitations they involve, and trust in Truth, which is God. "As the sea makes no distinction between good rivers and bad, but purifies all, so one person, whose heart is purified and enlarged with non-violence and truth, can contain everything in that heart and it will not overflow or lose its serenity."12 Divine discontent and a natural longing for moksha or emancipation should not be distorted into selfish salvationism or crafty escapism. Liberation from the bonds of conditioned existence admits of no short-cut or escape-route, but comes unsought from assiduous perseverance in dharma, the path of duty. For Gandhi, dharma has no more to do with ritual or convention than true religion has to do with church-going or temple-worship. Dharma is nothing less than progressive concern for lokasangraha, the welfare of the world. Just as self-realization depends upon self-conquest, so both must be cherished in terms of their contribution to the common good. Dharma is to be ceaselessly discovered. Its avenues are self-chosen.
Gandhi drew a firm distinction between ultimate values, which must be impervious to concessions or compromises, and concrete applications, which derive from patient efforts to discern meaning and truth within the flux of events. "You may have faith in the principles which I lay down," he wrote, "but the conclusions which I draw from certain facts cannot be a matter of faith."13 This elusive ideal is interpreted differently by each individual. But it is always true that dharma lies, not in securing uniformity of conception, but in striving for the ideal without allowing its remoteness to tempt one into shrinking or twisting it. Under all circumstances, "the striving should be conscious, deliberate and hard."14 Self-discipline is not a matter of technique; it must become a way of life. Moreover, the temptation to compromise grows stronger as it becomes subtler. "Man's ideal grows from day to day and that is why it ever recedes from him."15 Since true knowledge and free action consist in conformity with an order which is prior to human action, Gandhi felt that man's moral stature depended on a constant readiness to hold certain values as sacred and absolute. At first, one must relinquish everything that distracts one from the universally valid ethical order. One must free oneself from passion and prejudice, from whatever bears the stamp of the conditioned personality and the circumscribed environment. To think and live universally the height of true individuation necessitates a purificatory discipline. Such discipline, at any level, can best be undertaken with the help of a binding oath.
Such a vow is not merely a promise to oneself to do the best one can, for any conditionality betrays a lack of self-confidence as well as a shallow conception of human potential. "If we resolve to do a thing, and are ready to sacrifice our lives in the process," wrote Gandhi, "we are said to have taken a vow."16 The assumption of unconditional vows acknowledges lapses, but provides criteria and incentives for growth. It is far better to fail and to learn, Gandhi thought, than to live with so much moral ambiguity that growth becomes impossible. "A life without vows is like a ship without anchor or like an edifice that is built on slip-sand instead of a solid rock."17 With the aid of vows, tapas becomes more catalytic than mere suffering. It is transformed into creative self-restraint and therapeutic self-sacrifice; it purifies consciousness and clarifies vision. Vows can help to induce self-knowledge and enhance self-transcendence. They can spur one to refine dharma, to discharge one's duties with skill and timeliness, and to hold true to a programme of progressive self-reform.
For Gandhi, the English term "vow" carried with it all the meanings of the original Sanskrit terms vrata (a solemn resolve or a spiritual decision) and yama (a spiritual exercise or a self-imposed restraint). In its oldest meaning, vrata refers to a divine will or command, which establishes and preserves the order of the universe. Since this divine nature is inseparable from essential human nature, individuals can, through their vows, reflect cosmic order by deliberate and vigilant performance of dharma. Gandhi did not set limits to the degree of moral development and spiritual resolve of which any person is capable. Taking vows beyond one's capacity betrays thoughtlessness and lack of balance; the essential value of a vow lies in a calm determination to hold to it regardless of all difficulties. By holding the vow intact within one's heart, the energies of the soul may be released, transforming one's nature.
Conscience remains a potential force in every human being, but in all too many it remains half asleep. "Conscience has to be awakened"18 through the power of a vow. Emotions which are stimulated by unconscious social and environmental pressures cannot count as conscience. Indeed, a person who has not consciously sought to strengthen and sharpen conscience cannot be said to possess one. "Youngsters as a rule must not pretend to have conscience. It is a quality or state acquired by laborious training. Wilfulness is not conscience.... Conscience can reside only in a delicately tuned breast."19 Conscience is, moreover, the single strongest force against the degradation of human dignity; once man is stripped of conscience and reduced to a mechanical aggregate of perfunctory acts, he becomes an object rather than a subject, a passive instrument rather than an intrinsic end. By casting the cultivation of conscience in terms of vows, Gandhi sought to socialize the individual conscience rather than internalize the social conscience. At once compelling and self-validating, the awakened conscience is an inner voice, the voice of God or Truth. The veracity of such an inner voice can be confirmed only by direct experience resulting from training in tapas; indirect evidence, however, can be seen in the inner consistency and transparent integrity of a Socrates or Gandhi. A well-nurtured conscience results in heroisrn, humility and high saintliness. Such virtues are the ripe fruit of tapascharya a consecrated life of austere yet unanxious commitment.
Heroism is a quality of the heart, free of every trace of fear and anger, determined to exact instant atonement for every breach of honour. More than any rule-governed morality, heroism can enable a person to stand alone in times of trial and isolation. It can also establish a deep concord between like-minded men and women loyal to their conscience. But for Gandhi, the greatest obstacle to the incarnation of the heroic ideal in society is, paradoxically, the absence of humility. When human beings do not adequately recognize their fallibility, they will not make sufficient effort to arouse individual conscience. Foundering in a delusive sense of security, they are caught in a "mobocratic" state of collective helplessness. Only after the heart is touched by the enormity of divine truth will the distance between the ideal and reality become painfully evident. And only then will genuine humility flow forth. Whilst heroism is cultivated skill in action (karma yoga), humility is the virtue of effortlessness (buddhi yoga).
Gandhi's conception of human nature, social solidarity and historical promise compelled him to rethink constantly his ultimate principles. Throughout his life, he was convinced that God is Truth. But if sat or Truth is the essence of Deity, every relative truth is a reflection of God from some particular angle. Since every standpoint or perspective contains some kernel of truth, God is everywhere. In 1929 Gandhi subtly altered the emphasis by declaring not that "God is Truth", but that "Truth is God." This simple juxtaposition of equivalencies radically changed the questions Gandhi felt he had to ask and answer. One can always ask if a certain proposition is true, but one need not strain to prove the reality and pervasiveness of Truth. That one can ask the question, or even breathe, is proof enough. Further, Gandhi's formulation curbs the itch to anthropomorphize. It also clarifies the close relation between truth and love. If truth is corrupted, it ceases to be truth, even though corrupt love may still be love. When one obtains the assurance of truth, one's love is purged of consoling illusions. In metaphysical priority, one must say "Truth is God", then add "God is Love", and yet "the nearest approach to Truth is through love."21 Like Plato, Gandhi here distinguished between how one knows and how one learns. Fifteen years later he wrote: "I do not believe in a personal deity, but I believe in the Eternal Law of Truth and Love which I have translated as non-violence. This Law is not a dead thing like the law of a king. It's a living thing the Law and the Law-giver are one."22
Gandhi saw no sense in the claim that one must know all truths to adhere to Truth. One need merely follow the truth one knows, little or partial though it may be. The individual who would be faithful to what he knows and who aspires to greater wisdom will work to reduce himself to a cipher in his quest. For Gandhi, there can be no beauty and no art apart from truth. When one finds truth beautiful, one discovers true art. When one loves Truth, one expresses a true and unconditional love. The seeker must only be honest with himself and truthful to others. Where he cannot speak the truth without doing great harm, he may be silent, but Gandhi, like Kant, insisted he must never lie. The truth-seeker cannot be so concerned with his own safety or comfort that he abdicates from his larger duties. "He alone is a lover of truth who follows it in all conditions of life."23 The virtues stressed by most religious and philosophical traditions cannot be dismissed by the genuine seeker of truth as alien or beyond his concern. He must, rather, synthesize these virtues in ahimsa or non-violence, the moving image and decisive test of truth. If all existence is a mirror of the divine, violence in any form is a blasphemous repudiation of Deity itself; if all souls are sparks of the divine, rooted in the transcendental Truth, all violence is a species of deicide.
Just as humility is the natural accompaniment of true heroism, ahimsa is the necessary correlate of fearlessness. In Gandhi's vision, the maintenance of moral stature and spiritual dignity must be based upon the practice of ahimsa. He conceived of ahimsa as an integral part of yajna or sacrifice, a concept rooted in the Indian conception of a beneficent cosmic order and a humane discipline requiring self-purification and self-examination. The moral force generated by ahimsa or non-violence was therefore held by Gandhi to be infinitely greater than any force founded upon selfishness. The essential power of non-violence was viewed alternatively by Gandhi as being "soul-force" and "truth-force". The two terms are fundamentally equivalent, and differ only in their psychological or ontological emphasis. For Gandhi, ahimsa represented not a denial of power but a renunciation of all forms of coercion and compulsion. He held in fact that ahimsa had a strength which no earthly power could continue to resist. Although Gandhi was noted for his advocacy of ahimsa in social and political arenas, its most fundamental and intimate use lay for him in the moral persuasion of free souls.
Just as Gandhi sometimes inflated the word ahimsa to encompass all virtues, he equally broadened the notion of himsa or violence to include all forms of deceit and injustice. Himsa proceeds from fear, which is the shadow of ignorant egotism. Its expulsion from the heart requires an act of faith which transcends the scope of analysis. Gandhi held, however, that just as intellect plays a large part in the worldly use of violence, so it plays an even larger part in the field of non-violence. The mind, guided by the heart, must purge all elements of egotism before it can embody ahimsa. Gandhi postulated that the willingness to kill exists in human beings in inverse proportion to their willingness to die. This must be understood in terms of tanha the will to live which is present to some degree in every human being and reinforces the concept of the separative ego. As that ego is illusory and transitory in nature, it has a necessary tendency to fear for its own future, and with that an inevitable propensity towards violence. Gandhi held that ahimsa could be taught and inculcated only by example, and never by force. Coercion, indeed, would itself contradict ahimsa. The roots of violence and himsa lie in the mind and heart, and therefore mere external restraint or abstention from violence cannot be considered true ahimsa. Gandhi chose the term ahimsa because himsa or violence is never wholly avoidable; the word ahimsa stresses that which is to be overcome. Whilst acknowledging that some violence can be found in every being, Gandhi could never concede that such violence was irreparable or irreducible. He held that those who begin by justifying force become addicted to it, while those who seek the practical reduction of himsa in their lives should be engaged in constant self-purification.
Ahimsa, in the widest sense, means a willingness to treat all beings as oneself. Thus ahimsa is the basis of anasakti, selfless action. It is equivalent to the realization of absolute Truth, and it is the goal towards which all true human beings move naturally, though unconsciously. Ahimsa cannot be realized alone; it has meaning only in the context of universal human interaction and uplift. Like truth, ahimsa, when genuine, carries conviction in every sphere. Unlike many forms of love, however, ahimsa is embodied by a truth-seeker not out of longing or lack, but out of a sense of universal obligation. It is only when one takes the vow of ahimsa that one has the capacity to assess apparent failures in terms of one's own moral inadequacies. Ahimsa means, at the very least, a refusal to do harm. "In its positive form, ahimsa means the largest love, the greatest charity."24 Gandhi's refusal to set different standards for saints and ordinary men, combined with his concern to give ahimsa a practical social function rather than a purely mystical use, led him to extend and employ the word in novel ways. The political strength which ahimsa can summon is greater and profounder than the impact of violence precisely because ahimsa is consubstantial with the immortal soul. Any programme of social or political reform, including civil disobedience, must, therefore, begin with the heroic individual, for only when such pioneers radiate the lustre of ahimsa will all humanity be uplifted.
Anyone may practise non-violence in the absence of support and even in the face of hostility. Indeed, ahimsa in the midst of adversity becomes the sovereign means of self-purification and the truest road to self-knowledge. Ahimsa is the anti-entropic force in Nature and the indefeasible law of the human species. Just as unconditional commitment to Truth can lead to limited truth in action, so too the universal creed of ahimsa may yield an appropriate policy of non-violence. As a policy, non-violence is a mode of constructive political and social action, just as truth-seeking is the active aspect of Truth. Truth and non-violence are the integrated aspects of immutable soul-force. "Non-violence and truth together form, as it were, the right angle of all religions."25
One must be sure, however, not to believe conveniently in ahtmsa as a policy, whilst doubting the creed.26 Whether or not any specific policy is demonstrably effective, it is imperative to hold true to the creed. Gandhi distinguished, moreover, between policy and mere tactics. Some successful tactics might at times be inappropriate, but the policy itself continues to be apt. Gandhi marvelled at those who, conceding that his non-violent programme worked in the case of the British, insisted that it must inevitably fail against a Hitler or Mussolini. Such a view romanticized the benevolence of the British and altogether denied that tyrants are a part of the human species. Gandhi's own experience had shown him that the British could be utterly ruthless or devious, even though his firm faith forbade him from excluding anyone from the possibility of growth, change of heart and recognition of necessity. Something more reasonable than subtle racism would be required to challenge the universal relevance of ahimsa.
It is in the application of ahimsa to the issues of war and peace, however, that Gandhi's teachings can be seen to be uncompromising. Non-violence does not signify the unwillingness to fight against an enemy. But, he argued, the enemy is always ignorance and the evil which men do: it is not in human beings themselves. Even though he loathed war and violence in all its forms, Gandhi could not be classified as an orthodox pacifist. Indeed, he held that the courage and heroism often displayed by war-struck individuals reflected well upon their moral character, even if war itself was a dark moral blot on those who encouraged or allowed it to happen. For himself, he rejected indirect participation in war, and refused to let others fight his battles for him. "If I have only a choice between paying for the army of soldiers to kill my neighbours or to be a soldier myself, I would, as I must, consistently with my creed, enlist as a soldier in the hope of controlling the forces of violence and even of converting my comrades."27
Training for war demoralized and brutalized people, Gandhi believed, and its after-effects brought nations down to abysmal levels of dissolution and discontent. He therefore strove to show how non-violence was the cleanest weapon against terrorism and torture. He asserted that the man who holds to a high sense of dignity and brotherhood, even to the point of death, confounds aggression and may even shame his attackers. Whilst insisting that non-violence was the only means for bringing to an end the familiar vicious cycles of revenge, he recognized that this required expert timing. Poor timing could lead through foolhardiness to a form of suicide or martyrdom, and Gandhi held that there was a higher truth in living for non-violence than in inadvertently dying in its name. Witnessing the course of warfare from the Boer War through the Second World War, he only strengthened his conviction in regard to the basic creed of non-violence. Indeed, when he heard of the bombing of Hiroshima, he declared, "Unless now the world adopts non-violence, it will spell certain suicide for mankind."28 In a non-violent state, it should finally be possible to raise a non-violent army, which could resist armed invasion without recourse to arms. However distant such a prospect, Gandhi refused to relinquish it, for he knew that violent triumphs guarantee nothing but the brutalization of human beings and the perpetuation of further violence.
The individual who would strive to be fully human to embody satya and ahimsa to the fullest possible extent should not rely on others to display a moral courage which is the mature product of an inward transformation. Nonetheless, like-minded seekers and strivers can offer each other moral support and mutual encouragement. If the political life of any nation is to be spiritualized, the process must begin in intentional communities. Gandhi's ashrams were such pioneering attempts small communities committed to embodying the principles they upheld. Chief amongst these principles were the vows of satya and ahimsa. Self-restraint and purification involved mental, verbal and physical continence, control of the palate, and the vows of non-possession and fearlessness. Also essential were non-thieving, in the broadest sense of the concept, and the vow of swadeshi, self-reliance. The strength of the ashram lay not so much in the establishment of detailed rules for living as in the conscious effort to exemplify a shared perspective and to conduct "experiments with truth".
The ashram may be seen as a sphere of fellowship in which one can test oneself, taking truth one step beyond oneself. Anasakti could be nurtured, errors corrected, solutions tried, tapas magnified. The fortunate could discover that "the secret of happy life lies in renunciation".29 For Gandhi, the ashram was a microcosm which might come to mirror the full potential of the macrocosm, a minute drop that reflects the shimmering sea. The progressive renunciation of puny selfhood could, he felt, open minds and hearts to the Self of all humanity. Embracing the globe, Gandhi's hopes were addressed not only to his own generation but also to all posterity.
1 M.K. Gandhi, Letter to A.H. West", The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, K. Swaminathan, ed., Navajivan (Ahmedabad, 1958-1984), vol.10, p. 127 (hereafter cited as CWMG); reprinted in The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, by Raghavan Iyer, ed., Clarendon (Oxford, 1986-1987), vol. 2, p.16 (hereafter cited as MPWMG).
29, 1946; MPWMG, vol. 2, p. 455.