Clarifying Gandhi # 11: Self-Governance with the ideal of Non-possession

You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an Ocean. If a few drops of the Ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty. – Gandhi

We should have been prepared for it, yet CT State layoffs have come as a shock. We had forewarning, everyone knew about the budget shortfall; Gov. Malloy went to public meetings and addressed the issues. Yet, with all the taxes we pay, are layoffs the only answer?

As a leader, Gandhi gave the planet a demonstration of great governance by adhering to the ideal of voluntary poverty. He insisted austerity measures begin in personal lives of leadership, and blazed trails showing how power could be transformed from social status, gain, swank, to humbling service. A political leader, he knew creating meaningful employment was critical for social progress and stability. All financial donations he received were utilized for the public good. He created Trusts ensuring employment through localized artisan work; building a new economic system based upon mutual assistance, not exploitation.

Shades of recognition of the moral imperative of this understanding are seen daily in our universal collective awareness across the country. The chief CEO of a company, facing financial shortcomings, “in the red” so to speak, decides to lay-off employees, but keeps their own salary – the highest – intact. The commonsense of the people wonders – “Why can’t they take a cut so that others can continue to keep their homes and families fed? Why couldn’t they take less to begin with?”

Inwardly, we have a recognition that it is reprehensible to remain personally unaffected, profiting, and excessively rich, while those who are dependent upon the company or institution suffer. To do so violates deeper knowing: our innate equality, rights and duties to respectful relations, if not actual love from one another. Gandhi never denied those relations.

Gandhi yearned for the simplicity of life found in the voluntary poverty of St. Francis, but his well meaning friends and supporters never let it come to pass. About the spiritual value of poverty Gandhi said:

“Please remember that it is good to live in poverty. Poverty shapes a man’s character. In plenty one does not know at all where one is going. Moreover, most of the world lives in poverty. We see very few living in plenty. I have never envied such people. Sometimes I pity them.”i

Gandhi was globally recognized as an ascetic. India’s ethos honors the ascetic – the one who would renounce personal interest in the attainments that secular society holds to be desirable: name, status, fame, wealth, etc., in favor of seeking to understand, know, merge into the Reality/truth/God. In India, the ideal of renunciation of temporal goals receives a good measure of secular support, and is generally recognized as righteous action.

Gandhi’s experience of human suffering caused him to hasten towards personal poverty. He observed,

“Non-possession1 is allied to non-stealing2. A thing not originally stolen must nevertheless be classified as stolen property if we possess it without needing it. Possession implies provision for the future…ii

In my opinion, it is wrong to possess unnecessary things that presuppose defense of things possessed against those who may covet them. They require care and attention which might well be devoted to more important matters and loss of them always leaves a pang no matter how detached you may feel about them.iii

Gandhi’s arrival at non-possession, as with everything, was evolutionary. His early days in South Africa saw him living very comfortably with his family. He was popular, renown, brilliant; a rich lawyer, a ‘yuppie’ in the 1890’s. Drawn to noble causes, and well-intentioned, he enjoyed the positive admiration of friends and foes alike. Inwardly however, he felt an increasing and unquenchable thirstiv to find a way to help humanity. Describing his steps towards recognizing the ideal of non-possession, he recorded:

I must confess to you that progress at first was slow. And now, as I recall those days of struggle, I remember that it was also painful in the beginning. But, as days went by, I saw that I had to throw overboard many other things which I used to consider as mine, and a time came when it became a matter of positive joy to give up those things. And, one after another then, by almost geometric progression, the things slipped away from me. And, as I am describing my experiences, I can say a great burden fell off my shoulders, and I felt that I could now walk with ease and do my work also in the service of my fellow-men with great comfort and still greater joy. The possession of anything then became a troublesome thing and a burden. Exploring the cause of that joy, I found that, if I kept anything as my own, I had to defend it against the whole world.v

This renunciation has an outer aspect of simplicity, leading to a holy poverty. As Gandhi grew and changed in light of his ideal of non-possession, he sensed the reality of the spiritual fruit that comes to those who truly become deeply self-reliant upon the universal harmony within them. His words seem to paraphrase Jesus in the Bible, whose teachings were to profoundly influence him, voicing a truism known by India’s innumerable wandering ascetics:

“Perfect fulfillment of the ideal of non-possession requires that man should, like the birds, have no roof over his head, no clothing and no stock of food for the morrow. He will indeed need his daily bread, but it will be God’s business, and not his, to provide it.”vi

When this renunciation is full, or ripe, the fruit of this effort is known inwardly by a ‘re-alignment’ of the individual, back into a larger harmony. This type of poverty we see and admire deeply in those who are adorned with it: Mother Theresa, St. Francis, in Americans as Dorothy Day, Peace Pilgrim and others. Gandhi saw that:

And those who have actually followed out this vow of voluntary poverty to the fullest extent possible (to reach absolute perfection is an impossibility, but the fullest possible extent for a human being)3, those who have reached the ideal of that state, they testify that when you dispossess yourself of everything you have, you really possess all the treasures of the world. In other words, you really get all that is in reality necessary for you, everything. If food is necessary, food will come to you.vii

“Saints and men of faith have always found justification for it [non-possession] from their experience. Our ignorance or negligence of the Divine Law, which gives to man from day to day his daily bread and no more, has given rise to inequalities with all the miseries attendant upon them. The rich have a superfluous store of things which they do not need, and which are therefore neglected and wasted; while millions starve to death for want of sustenance…”viii

It was not easy for all to understand the extent to which Gandhi was willing to sacrifice his personal inclinations in the fire of love for his ideal. His intentional community (ashram) had no locks; on several occasions was subject to thefts. In the following anecdote, his vigilance to his vow of poverty is related:

“When Bapu4 was staying in the ashram at Sabarmati, now and again some thieves would break in and take away clothes and pots and pans of the inmates. As the inmates were all under a vow of poverty, they could not lay their hands on anything more precious. Once, however, Ba’s [Kasturba, his wife] two boxes, containing clothes were stolen. Their contents were removed, while the empty boxes were thrown away in the neighboring fields.

Gandhi and Kasturba

Gandhi and Kasturba in Ashram hut, Sevagram.

Referring to this, Bapu asked, “What I fail to understand is how Ba could at all have two boxes of clothes? For, she does not wear a different saree every day.”

Ba replied, “Rami and Manu5 have lost their mother, as you know. Sometimes they come to stay with me. I kept away all the sarees and pieces of Khadi given to me as presents from time to time, so that I can give these things as gifts.”

Bapu rejoined, “But we cannot do that at all. Even the articles, given as gifts, if they are not of immediate use to the erson to whom they are given, have to be deposited in the office.”

In the evening after prayers, he continued the argument: “We, who are under a vow of poverty, cannot afford to give any gifts. Such an action is unbecoming of us. All that we can do is to extend only hospitality to the girls whenever they come to stay among us.”

From that day onward, Ba did not accumulate even two extra articles of wear, being quite content with the clothes which were absolutely necessary.ix

Gandhi was not a dreamy-eyed idealist, but eminently practical in his search for truth:

No human being can keep these observances to perfection. The body too is a possession, and so long as it is there, it calls for other possessions in its train. But the seeker will cultivate the spirit of detachment and give up one possession after another. Everyone cannot be judged by the same standard. An ant may fall from grace if it stores two grains instead of one. An elephant on the other hand will have a lot of grass heaped before itself and yet it cannot be charged with having `great possessions’.x

Simply walking away from duties and responsibilities and material possessions, becoming irresponsible, is not genuine non-possession, but self-deceit. The state of inner harmony, achieved through experiential faith in God, truth, reality, harmony, whatever name one wants to call it, is an gift of one’s own inner alignment. Gandhi recognized that what he appeared to be seeking seemed impossible of attainment:

“Only very very few, if any at all, can reach this ideal…But we must keep the ideal constantly before us, and in the light thereof critically examine our possessions and try to reduce them…”xi

Can non-possession be a part of an alternative solution to our budget crisis? Self-governance in light of non-possession, educating our children about this ideal, and reflecting upon it ourselves, may be the best way we have to get ‘out of the red’ financially.

April, 2016.



1 Non-possession is the English translation of the quality, apari-agraha, which in Sanskrit, means “not holding on to” a nuance of meaning that opens a different inner attitude towards life, not only materially but intellectually as well.

2 Asteya – (English: non-stealing) in Sanskrit translates more to an abjuring withdrawal, an ‘abstaining from’.

3Gandhi’s own parentheses.

4Gandhi was also known as ‘Bapu’, an endearing address for ‘Father’ by the nation and associates at large.

5Daughters of Gandhi’s eldest son, Harilal.i

Gandhi, M.K. (Swaminathan, K. Ed.) (1956–1983). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. 68: 76. October 29, 1938. Age 69.

iiGandhi, M.K. (Swaminathan, K. Ed.) (1956–1983). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. 44: 103–104. August 24 -26, 1930. Age 60.

iiiGandhi, M.K., (Hingorani, A.T. Ed.) (1998). Gandhi for the 21st Century. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Mumbai. 18: 12–14

ivThis thirst is described well by Gandhi in his “Story of My Experiments with Truth.”

vGandhi, M.K., (Hingorani, A.T. Ed.) (1998). Gandhi for the 21st Century. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Mumbai. 18: 12–14

viGandhi, M.K. (Swaminathan, K. Ed.) (1956–1983). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. 44: 103–104. August 24 -26, 1930. Age 60.

viiGandhi, M.K., (Hingorani, A.T. Ed.) (1998). Gandhi for the 21st Century. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Mumbai. 18: 12–14

viiiGandhi, M.K. (Swaminathan, K. Ed.) (1956–1983). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. 44: 103–104. August 24 -26, 1930. Age 60.

ix Kalarthi, M.(Compiler) (1962). Ba and Bapu. Navajivan, Ahmedabad: 27–28.

xGandhi, M.K. (1955). Ashram Observances in Action. Navajivan, Ahmedabad.

xiGandhi, M.K. (Swaminathan, K. Ed.) (1956–1983). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. 44: 103–104. August 24 -26, 1930. Age 60.

PK Willey

PK Willey, Ph.D., is an American, a Gandhian scholar, author and entrepreneur, who has delved deeply into Gandhi's Earth Ethics. Willey seeks to enhance philosophical discourse around the world where globalization has altered ethical values, particularly in the USA. Willey finds Gandhi's ideas, thoughts, and example, to be invaluable in this effort. Currently, besides numerous articles and book projects,Willey is developing a new framework for qualitative research that employs Earth Ethics, guided by a Gandhian compass and Weibust's Transformative Paradigm.

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