Contribution of Moral Thinkers to Ethics: Mahatma Gandhi

The ideals and ideas of Mahatma Gandhi emanated partly from four major sources as follows:

  • His inner religious convictions including ethical principles embedded in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Christianity
  • From the exigencies of his struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the mass political movements during India’s freedom struggle.
  • Influence of Tolstoy, Carlyle, and Thoreau etc.

In fact, ethics provides underpinning to Gandhian Thought and is so deep rooted in it that it is almost impossible to segregate the two. The key aspects of Gandhian Ethics are discussed here:

Gandhi’s Religion

Gandhi was born in a Hindu family and was a devout Hindu throughout his life. However, he was strongly influenced by the ideas of other religions and had deep interest in comparative religion. He was raised in a Hindu family deeply influenced by Jain religious ideas (particularly Ahimasa). When he visited England to study law, he was inspired by Theosophists to learn more about our ancient texts such as Bhagvad Gita. He spent 20 years in South Africa working for civil rights over there and devoted himself to study variety of religious literature. On his return to India, he established Ashram for his family and followers. Despite of having religious fervour, the Ashrams did not follow any particular orthodoxy. His religious virtues can be discussed summarily as follows:

Although Gandhi was font of Lord Rama, yet his concept of Rama and Krishna was not that of historical / epic age Gods Rama & Krishna.  He said: “My Krishna is not the historical Krishna. I believe in the Krishna of my imagination as a perfect incarnation, spotless in every sense of the word, the inspirer of the Gita, and the inspirer of the lives of millions of human beings.” Further, he believed in oneness of God. He said: “one God is the cornerstone of all religions. But I do not foresee a time when there would be only one religion on earth in practice. In theory, since there is one God, there can be only one religion.” His view on Hinduism is also clear, as he said: Hinduism tells everyone to worship God according to his own Faith or Dharma and so it lives at peace with all the religions. He considered Buddha and Jesus Christ as great moral teachers of humanity. About Bible he said: ‘Make this world the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness and everything will be added unto you’. On Islam he said: “Islam’s distinctive contribution to India’s National Culture is its unadulterated belief in the Oneness of God and a practical application of the truth of the Brotherhood of Man for those who are nominally within its fold.”

As per Gandhi, religion is not sectarianism. It is a belief in moral government of the universe. Religion harmonises the religions and gives them reality.

Regarding Bhagwadgita, Gandhi said that it has been his light and hope.  He said that: “…when doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me and when I see no one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagawad Gita and find a verse to comfort me and immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow.

Ethical Conduct

Gandhi believed that as human beings, men can never reach the perfection of divine virtues. Still, they should strive with all their strength to follow the virtues of truth, love, nonviolence, tolerance, fearlessness, charity and service to mankind. Men have to uphold the right, regardless of the personal consequences they may face. He urged Satyagrahis to adopt to these Virtues.

Truth

Gandhi equated God with truth and designated his religion as religion of truth. He used to say God is Truth, which he later changed to “Truth is God”. However, his idea of truth was not taken from epistemology or theory of knowledge. Rather, he viewed truth in the form of an ideal of human conduct. He regarded that Indian struggle for freedom stands for truth and represents a just struggle for national and individual autonomy.

Service to Society

Service to the Society was another way in which Gandhi’s concept underpins his practical actions. He believed that “only way to see God is to see him through his creations and identify oneself with it”. This is possible through service to humanity. He maintained that there is no escape from social service to those in search of God.

He believed that as a part of God’s creation, all men share the same life and there is no real difference between them.  This principle of unity of life explains is concepts of secularism, religious toleration, human equality. It also underpins his long battle against untouchability and social backwardness.

Cleanliness

Gandhi emphasised on internal (mental) and external (physical) cleanliness. There was no litter or dirt or filth in his Ashrams and surroundings. He said: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness“. He advocated moral self-purification.

Ends and Means

Gandhi believed that Men should adopt only good means to attain noble objectives. As per him: “No good can follow from bad deeds, even if they are well intentioned.”  He believed that the path to hell is paved with good intentions; thus leading to so called “ends and means” debate. It is contrary to the view that bad means can be used to achieve good ends, and what matters is the end.

Ahimsa

Gandhi’s Ahimsa was not only refraining from killing but also show love for the whole mankind and all living beings. He believed that Man can only realize God by pursuing Ahimsa. He also maintained that truth and non-violence are inseperable and truthfulness and fearlessness is prerequisite for a pursuit of Ahimsa.

Satyagraha

Gandhi’s later work rested largely on a spiritual principle of satyagraha that he developed while working in South Africa. For Gandhi, Satyagrahi was the foot soldier of Passive Resistance Movement. One has to adopt the virtues of truth and violence to be a Satyagrahi. He/ She should be honest and eschew material possessions and sexual desires. Gandhi prescribed a severe code for the, Satyagrahi which includes harsh moral discipline, control of Senses and ascetic self-denial.

Doctrine of Trusteeship

Gandhi regarded Rich as trustees of wealth. He said that ultimately all property belongs to God, the excess or superfluous wealth which the rich possess belongs to society and should be used for supporting the poor. Wealthy people have no moral right to what is more than their proportionate share in national wealth. They simply become trustees for the disproportionate share of God’s property they hold. They have to use it for helping the poor.

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