Gandhi from A to Z

This article was published as Douglas Allen, “Mahatma Gandhi,” in Great Thinkers A-Z, edited by Julian Baggini and Jeremy Stangroom (London: Continuum, 2004). Pp. 103-105.
Mahatma Gandhi


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma (‘Great Soul/Self’), is arguably the most admired human being of the twentieth-century. Not an academic philosopher, Gandhi was never concerned with abstract philosophical analysis. When asked his philosophy, he typically responded, ‘My life is my message.’ And yet one could make a strong case that Gandhi is more philosophically interesting and significant than most professional philosophers.

Gandhi, like Socrates, was a gadfly, and he was often an embarrassment and an irritant, even to his friends and allies. He challenges unacknowledged assumptions and uncritically accepted positions and allows us to envision different ways of seeing things. He explodes myths and arrogant provincialism and challenges power positions that pretend to be based on sound knowledge and morality.

Best known as a proponent of nonviolence (ahimsa), Gandhi challenges our analyses of violence and nonviolence. Violence and nonviolence, for Gandhi, include overt physical acts, but they include so much more.

As with Kant and many other philosophers, Gandhi focuses much of his attention on motives and intentions. Violence is often equated with hatred, and nonviolence with love. However, Gandhi goes beyond most philosophical analysis by focusing on the violence of the status quo: economic violence, cultural violence, psychological violence, linguistic violence, and so forth. For Gandhi, if I am accumulating wealth and power, and my neighbour is in great need, and I do nothing to help alleviate the suffering of the other, then I contribute to and am complicit in the violence of the status quo.

Unlike most philosophers, Gandhi, like Levinas, emphasises the primacy of morality. Gandhi has little sympathy for detached theories of knowledge that are not grounded in morality, or for theology and metaphysics which pretend to transcend morality.

In his approach to morality in general and violence in particular, Gandhi is well known for his emphasis on the integral, mutually reinforcing relationship between means and ends. One cannot use impure or immoral means to achieve worthy goals. This is the major reason he rejects utilitarianism. Although there may be short-term desired results, violent immoral means inevitably lead to defective ends. We fuel and become trapped in endless escalating cycles of violence and mutual destruction.

Gandhi’s approach expresses an activist philosophy, which he often relates to the action-oriented philosophy of karma yoga in the Bhagavad-Gita: Act to fulfill your ethical duties with an attitude of nonattachment to the results of your actions. In this way, Gandhi experimented with ways to intervene nonviolently to weaken endless cycles of violence and mutual destruction and allow us to realise ethical goals.

Although Gandhi’s emphasis on intentions and duties often allows us to relate him to Kant, he is not really a Kantian. First, Gandhi describes himself as a ‘pragmatic idealist’. He focuses on results. When he acted with good intentions and according to moral duty, but did not succeed in resisting hegemonic British imperialism, alleviating poverty and suffering, or overcoming caste prejudice and oppression, he evaluated his position as a ‘failed experiment in truth’.

Second, Gandhi opposes any abstract, formalistic, universal, decontexualised approach which is then applied to particular situations. Gandhi contextualises his analysis and is always experimenting with an open-ended truth reflecting imperfect understanding.

In this regard, Gandhi presents views that are relevant to recent philosophical developments regarding pragmatism, phenomenology and hermeneutics, relativism, anti-essentialism, and postmodernism. How do we deal with the inadequate dichotomy of universal, absolute essentialism versus particular, relative anti-essentialism? Gandhi, avoiding a kind of facile relativism, embraces absolute universals, such as nonviolence, truth and the unity of all life. But Gandhi also maintains that as particular, relative, embodied human beings, none of us fully comprehends the absolute. The unity is always a unity with particular differences. The absolute may serve as a regulative ideal, but at most we have ‘glimpses’ of truth that is always relative.

Therefore, we should be tolerant of the other, who has truths that we do not have, and we should realise that the movement toward greater truth is an action-oriented, cooperative, mutually reinforcing effort. This philosophical approach to truth necessarily involves dialogue, recognition of integral self-other relations, and embracing an open-ended process that resists the domination of false attempts at philosophical, religious, cultural, economic, or political closure.

Douglas Allen

Suggested reading

Iyer, R. 1993 (ed). The Essential Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gandhi, M. 1982. An Autobiography, Or, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Iyer, R. 1987. (ed.) The Moral and Political Writings Mahatma Gandhi: Non-violent Resistance and Social Transformation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.