Many people think that Gandhi stands for vegetarianism, and passive resistance. Yet does he really? What did his stance on these topics really mean?
Gandhi (1869-1948) was an evolutionary revolutionary. He kept on reforming and expanding his outlook and personal philosophy throughout his life. You can find a Gandhi quote to back up anything. Yet of his written works, at age 63, Gandhi said:
I would like to say to the diligent reader of my writings and to others who are interested in them that I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search after truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things. Old as I am in age, I have no feeling that I have ceased to grow inwardly or that my growth will stop at the dissolution of the flesh. What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of truth, my God, from moment to moment, and therefore, when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he has still faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the latter of the two on the same subject.i
During my own Ph.D. research on Gandhi, trying to grok his environmental perspective, I took this recommendation from the man himself as a requirement. I ended up going through the entire Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (every page of 103 volumes! And more!) and evolving my understanding of his mindset as I went. I didn’t stop there, but went on to India, to live 12 years in an ashram setting, seeking to absorb and understand the ethos and ideals that his example inspired me with, to raise my children in light of these ideals – more on that later.
This article begins a series on clarifying Gandhi’s Earth Ethics. Gandhi covered a wild array of topics, each with an ideal and principle behind it. Throughout this series, I will endeavor to present the core kernel of these principles. To enable readers to be mindful of Gandhi’s instructions above, I will note his age at the time of the quotation, where possible.
Defining Earth Ethics
Language and meaning are in constant change. Here, I define ethics according to Webster’s 7th Collegiate Dictionary, (1967:285) as:
2a: A set of moral principles or values b: a theory or system of moral values c: the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group. (emphasis mine)
Like gravity, Earth ethics are the intangible laws which we hold as pure ideals, that govern the universe – the largest group we are a part of – whether or not we choose to be aware of them. Ideals we have an inner knowledge of through our conscience: truth, justice, loving kindness, duty. Morals are the means we employ to place ourselves in harmony with these laws, and morality is the responsibility a person takes for his or her thoughts, words and deeds.
Understanding Gandhi’s perspective and thought is relevant to all truth seekers, which we all, in one way or another, sooner or later, become. Most people know of Gandhi’s political work, through Attenborough’s movie, history books, or through Dr. King, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, to name some famous people who have sought to apply his ethical perspective in their own lives. Today, India’s Irom Sharmila Chanu of Manipur stands unparalleled, even by Gandhi, in her utter fidelity to conscience. On a nonviolent fast as protest for nearly 14 years, she claims Gandhi’s teachings have inspired her.
Gandhi unified India, which was fragmented into princely kingdoms, not unlike Europe, into singular nationhood. He brought into national and then global awareness righteous, humane, and practical means to become free of the choke-hold of that early global corporate economic pattern – the British Raj.
Gandhi stands as a beacon of hope for many as to the innate sanctity of the human heart, knowable through sincere integrity and effort. Somehow we regard him with reverence and awe; for he demanded of himself and went within that self where we all know we ought to go, but haven’t yet mustered up the gumption to go to, for whatever reason.
He was not infalliable, and peering critics abound. At times he was arrogant, perhaps even full of himself, yet the ideals that he strove for, carried him forward and are synonymous with his name today. In this article, we look at the ideals, not the personality of Gandhi.
Gandhi’s Definition of Truth and Ahimsa
Gandhi termed this quest for truth, `religion’. In a talk with Mirabehn (an inmate of Gandhi’s ashram community who was, incongruously, the daughter of an English Colonel) around age 74, he said:
…in `God is truth,’ it certainly does not mean equal to nor does it merely mean is truthful. Truth is not a mere attribute of God but He is That. He is nothing if He is not That. Truth in Sanskrit means Sat. Sat means `Is’. Therefore truth is implied in Is. God is, nothing else is. Therefore the more truthful we are, the nearer we are to God. We are only to the extent that we are truthful.i
Another area of befuddlement around Gandhi is seen in the words `passive resistance’ and `nonviolence’. They are misnomers for the tremendous power that Gandhi unleashed through the moral authority he gained by sticking to the truth. When he saw how the word `passive resistance’ handicapped people’s understanding of the powerful force he was introducing to society, he changed the name to satyagraha – truth force. Gandhi was clear. In a letter he wrote at age 61:
You have now perhaps learnt that the best way of resisting injury is to never to injure the injurer, but ever to refuse, no matter how much suffering the refusal costs us, to do his will when we know it to be wrong.ii
Gandhi was not a passive pacifist! He said:
Never has anything been done on this Earth without direct action. I rejected the word `passive resistance’ because of its insufficience.iii
Ahimsa in Sanskrit means `that which is not himsa’ (harming or violent). This is not the opposite state of violence, but a transcendent state of positive nurturing of truth. As a young man, age 27, he recognized that real strength was of the mind:
Let me not be misunderstood. Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.iv
To love those who love us is easy, but the test of love has no play on these grounds. To actively love and point out the dishonoring of that love, takes real guts and courage. By 77, Gandhi came to see that the exercise of ahimsa is our real work with our own selves and one another:
Ahimsa is the highest duty. Even if we cannot practice it in full, we must try to understand its spirit, and refrain, as far as is humanly possible, from violence.v
Vegetarianism is not the point
Some, seeking to follow Gandhi, are adamant vegetarians. It is less known that Gandhi was opposed to the view that vegetarianism is some sort of evidence of `spiritual evolution’. When he was age 58, he wrote:
In conclusion, though the question of diet is very important for a religious man, yet it is not the be-all and end-all of religion or nonviolence; nor is it the most vital factor. The observance of religion and nonviolence has more to do with the heart. He who does not feel the necessity of abstaining from meat for inner purification need not abstain from it.i
At age 76, he wrote:
The man who coerces another not to eat fish commits more violence than he who eats it…Coercion is inhuman. Those who quarrel among themselves, those who will stoop to anything in order to amass wealth, those who exploit or indulge in forced human labor, those who overload or goad or otherwise torture animals, all these knowingly commit such violence as can easily be stopped. I do not consider it violence to permit the fish-eater to eat fish. It is my duty to suffer it.ii
the universal human being
From India, conditioned by the Indian ethos, Gandhi arrived at the universal human being inside himself. It is obedience to conscience that creates the expansive universal human being. Gandhi tells us:
…the only lesson to be learnt is that East and West are no more than names. Human beings are the same everywhere. He who wants will conduct himself with decency. There is no people to whom the moral life is a special mission. Everything depends on the individual himself. One can pursue the principles of morality at any place, in any environment, or condition of life.i
Sixty-eight years ago, in his last public message to Americans on October 21, 1946, at age 78, Gandhi advised the USA as a world leader to:
Dislodge the money-God called Mammon from the throne and find a corner for poor God. I think America has a very big future but in spite of what is said to the contrary, it has a dismal future if it swears by Mammon. Mammon has never been known to be a friend of any of us to the last. He is always a false friend.ii
Our present education and media has ignored the discussion of conscience. Yet this faculty within us is our most sacred possession. We must revive its study, explore its depths, and its pristine heights. In turning to support our children’s fidelity to their conscience, we will hail the advent of positive evolution for human society, and a wiser personal outlook upon life.
It is our prayer that the continued discussion of these ideals will encourage us all to be fearlessly true to our conscience, to call out to conscience in each other, and through these means, to touch each other with the profound nobility of our human spirit.
iGandhi, M.K. (April, 1908). Indian Opinon. (A newspaper Gandhi started in South Africa)
iiReddy, Dr.E.S.(Ed.) (1998). Mahatma Gandhi: Letters to Americans. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Kulapati Munshi Marg, Mumbai:335.
iIbid. Vol. 35.381.
iGandhi, M.K. (1956-1983) Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Vol 77: 102 (1942-1944). Navajivan, Ahmedabad, India.
iiIbid. Vol. 46: 202-203.
iiiTendulkar, D.G. (1920). Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Vol. 2. (7 Volumes). Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi..
ivIbid. Vol. 2:5 ( 1896-1897).
vIbid. Vol. 83:241 ( Jan 20. 1946 – April 13, 1946).
iGandhi, M.K. (1933) Harijan (a newspaper he started in India to spread his ideas).