Civilization, Politics and Religion


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was too modest to be comfortable with the title of “Mahatma”, and too candid to be readily understood by his contemporaries. Throughout his life he saw himself and his ideas distorted or oversimplified by others. Patiently, he kept on affirming and amplifying his ideals so that those who cared might comprehend. Politically, he sought to touch people’s hearts so as to awaken their faith both in themselves and in his abiding vision of social transformation. At the same time, he was able to sidestep those contentious pundits who prefer verbal combat to patient assimilation or courageous experimentation. Through his remarkable capacity for self-criticism, his freedom from the complex reactions of others, and his firm insistence on essentials, he nurtured an enormous strength and moral toughness. Revered as a saint and reviled as a demagogue, Gandhi made so powerful an impact that we are still not ready to assess it. If he has already suffered the fate he was anxious to avoid – being lionized at a safe distance, only to be overlooked in daily practice – he nonetheless left mankind a challenging, and even haunting, image of the nobility of self-conquest. This memory will grace the corridors of history for centuries to come. It will long serve to disturb the complacency, and to question the unspoken assumptions, of modern life.

Within the tangled worlds of both polities and religion Gandhi moved freely; challenging sacrosanct dogmas about the limits of the possible, he explored daringly simple alternatives. Owing to his early experience of the meretricious glamour of modern civilization, he could at once declare that its influence was insidious, and deny that it was inescapable. Rather than retreat into stoical aloofness, he lived insistently in the world to show that even an imperfect individual could strive to purify politics and exemplify true religion – thereby restoring the lost meaning of humanity. By holding out at all times for the highest potential in every person, he raised the tone and refined the quality of human interaction.

An unsuspecting reader might be rather surprised at the range of Gandhi’s writings. Although he recognized the power of the written word (his collected works fill ninety large volumes), he wrote no extensive treatises, devised no definitive theories, and refused to cultivate a written style in the usual sense of that word. A remarkably pellucid thinker, he was always a man of action, a karma yogin devoted to the moral transfiguration of mankind. For himself he asserted, “Action is my domain, and what I understand, according to my lights, to be my duty, and what comes my way, I do. All my action is actuated by the spirit of service.”1

As a thinker, Gandhi was more resilient than rigorous. Having laid down the foundations of his thought during the pioneering days of his campaigns in South Africa, he elaborated upon its diverse applications as problems arose in his eventful life. With his superb sense of occasion and his assured faith that God provides what is needed by the aspiring soul, he used the enquiries of correspondents, speaking engagements, and the demands of day-to-day business to set the pace and scope of his pronouncements. Convinced that he should never take the next step until he was ready, Gandhi preferred to lead when persuaded, without claiming any messianic mantle. He would not be prompted or pushed; instead he waited for his inner voice to show the way, and often halted large-scale movements because that voice was silent. On one such occasion, when many were clamouring for his counsel, Gandhi simply explained his reticence by saying: “I am trying to see light out of darkness.”2 He was unerring in perceiving opportunities without becoming an opportunist, serving as an effective leader without recourse to expediency.

Gandhi was more inclined to underrate than to overstress the significance of his written words, largely because of his deep distaste for fathering a sectarian cult. Just as he disdained the title of “Mahatma”, he also disowned the notion of anything like “Gandhism”. Leaving The Story of My Experiments With Truth to stand as his sole account of himself, he unwittingly invited readers to imagine him as an unusually honest, but self-absorbed, individual. In his pathbreaking social experiments, Gandhi saw himself as an ethical scientist conducting an incomplete laboratory study of an imperfect specimen. He was, he stressed, an ordinary man who evolved by setting himself extraordinary, seemingly impossible, standards. As he wrote in more than one place, The Story of My Experiments with Truth was never intended to serve as an autobiography. It originated, rather, as a series of short notes on his life, written in gaol during the twenties, and subsequently issued in book form. By themselves, these fragments portray a deeply sensitive personality, but they do not, of course, touch upon the last twenty-five years of his life. A thoughtful reader can gain a more rounded perspective of Gandhi by consulting his wide-ranging correspondence, his significant speeches and his weekly essays.

Gandhi’s moral and political insights grew out of a coherent set of concepts, the nuances of which he explored over six decades. Even the claim that he was a man of action rather than of introspection could be misleading. Gandhi worked from within outwardly. Through praying each day, repeatedly consulting his “inner voice”, probing his own motives, he would reach general conclusions. Then, after carefully considering the views of others, he would decide upon a course of action. This elusive and indefinable process, which he called “heart churning”, itself arose out of his unwavering conviction that constructive thought and timely action are inseparable. If skill in action can clarify and correct thought, soul-searching deliberation can purify action. Gandhi stressed fidelity to the greater good even when it remained hidden from view, together with the perseverance that springs from trust. Maintaining such faith was for Gandhi true bhakti He also demonstrated that this practice need involve neither indecisiveness nor ineptitude in worldly matters. A keen alertness to detail can, he showed, be accompanied by a cultivated disinterest in immediate results. Upon a basis of unalterable conviction, one can confidently refine thoughts and redirect action. For Gandhi, this bedrock was spiritual truth gained through intense search and deep meditation; a developed art of fundamental commitment to satya and ahimsa, a moral dedication to self-chosen vows and sacrificial action.

Gandhi did not think that all human beings are alike, but he did fervently believe that all humanity originates in the same transcendental godhead. Recognizing that he could not define that sacred source, he found in satya or truth its best expression. God is Truth, and Truth is God. Since every human being can know and exemplify some truth – and indeed cannot live otherwise – every human being participates in the Divine. From this conviction, one is compelled to affirm universal brotherhood while attempting to enact it through authentic tolerance, mutual respect and ceaseless civility. If Truth is God, man, who cannot exist without some inward truth, must at some level be sincere. Each individual enjoys both the ability and the sacred obligation to grow in Truth whilst acknowledging disagreements.

Gandhi could say without exaggeration that his all-absorbing goal in life was to seek and to serve God as Truth. Longing to obtain moksha, spiritual freedom, he maintained that it could not be won through great learning or preaching, but only through renunciation and self-control (tapascharya). Self-control was to be won through action, and the course of action to which Gandhi gave his life was the service of the downtrodden. Service of humanity alone could generate the disinterested self-control essential to spiritual emancipation. Through the selfless embodiment of ahimsa and satyagraha, Gandhi believed theophilanthropists could ameliorate human misery whilst freeing themselves from worldly hopes and fears. Freedom, he felt, lies in anasakti, selfless service. He was certain that he could never be a votary of principles which depended for their existence upon mundane politics or external support. While even social work is impossible without politics, political work must ever be judged in terms of social and moral progress, which are in turn inseparable from spiritual regeneration.

Gandhi viewed civilization as that which assists moral excellence, moving individuals and society to truth and nonviolence. True civilization aids self-realization and nurtures universal brotherhood. Gandhi decried modern civilization because he felt that it is less an instrument for soul-growth than a supposed end in itself. Its vaunted intellectual and technological achievements deflect it from any authentic concern with moral welfare. Its “isms” and social structures, sciences and machines, are not evil in themselves – though in a true civilization many of them would not exist – but they actively participate in the contagion of corruption that pervades it. Modern civilization is diseased in the Socratic sense because it blinds the soul and eclipses the truth. It is, as Tolstoy also thought, bondage masquerading as freedom.

Gandhi contended that the earth has enough resources to provide for human need, but not human greed. He held, therefore, that every man, woman and child would eat adequately, clothe and shelter themselves comfortably, if there were a greater sharing of wealth in all parts of the world. Spurning equally the insatiable acquisitiveness of capitalism and the mechanistic materialism of communism, Gandhi condemned the very basis of modern civilization. In his notion of authentic civility, a sense of spiritual and social obligation is fused with a spontaneous sense of natural reciprocity. He further upheld the belief, steadily undermined since the eighteenth century, that social institutions and political actions are by no means exempt from ethics. For social institutions are, he felt, the visible expression of moral values that mould the minds of individuals. It is therefore impossible to alter institutions without first affecting those values. Since modern civilization is one complex tissue of intertwined evils, no plan of partial and gradual reform from within the system can produce a lasting remedy. Gandhi sought to destroy systems, not persons; but he argued that the “soulless system” had to be destroyed without its reformers themselves becoming soulless.

Holding that one should repudiate wrongs without reviling wrongdoers, Gandhi could not bring himself to condemn the British for their mistakes and even their misdeeds in India. They too, he felt, were the hapless victims of a commercial civilization. The theme of Hind Swaraj was not just the moral inadequacy and extravagant pretensions of modern civilization, but its treacherously deceptive self-destructiveness. “This civilization is irreligion”, he concluded, “and it has taken such a hold on the people of Europe that those who are in it appear to be half mad.”3 Yet, he added, “it is not the British that are responsible for the misfortunes of India but we who have succumbed to modern civilization.”4 For Gandhi, the villain is hypocritical materialism, the judge is he who frees himself from the collective hallucination, and the executioner is the Moral Law (Karma) which inexorably readjusts equilibrium throughout the cosmos.5

Gandhi did not preserve his feeling for common humanity by remaining conveniently apart from it. He knew poverty and squalor at first hand; he knew too the desperate violence found in those who have lived on the edge of starvation. Yet he could still extol the Indian peasant with ringing authority:

The moment you talk to them and they begin to speak, you will find that wisdom drops from their lips. Behind the crude exterior you will find a deep reservoir of spirituality…. In the case of the Indian villager an age-old culture is hidden under an encrustment of crudeness. Take away the encrustation, remove his chronic poverty and his illiteracy and you have the finest specimen of what a cultured, cultivated, free citizen should be.6

Gandhi’s longing to transform contemporary civilization was mirrored in his political thought and action. No more than civilization is politics an end in itself. Gandhi invoked Indian tradition in rejecting the modern dichotomy between religion and politics, but he went much further than most classical Indian thinkers in dispensing entirely with notions of raison d’etat and in hoping to counter the propensity of politics to become corrupt. Even if all wished to shed their pretensions and nurture the “enlightened anarchy” of an ideal world community, politics would be necessary since human beings differ in their perspectives, needs and desires. Accepting, then, that politics cannot simply be abolished, Gandhi sought to purify politics by showing that its sovereign principle is neither coercive nor manipulative power, but moral and social progress.

Gandhi rejected collectivist theories of both State and society. He argued that only the individual could exercise conscience, and, therefore, morally legitimate power. Refusing to hold political office himself or to endorse those compatriots who did, he saw power as a by-product of social activity at the family and community level. Through satyagraha he sought to introduce religious values into politics by extending the rule of domestic life into the political arena. Ascribing the underlying continuity of mankind to the sacrificial exercise of soul-force within families, he was convinced that the same energies could be brought to bear self-consciously in the larger sphere of life. For the satyagrahi, the individual committed to Truth, the only power that can be legitimately exercised is the capacity to suffer for the errors of others and on behalf of the welfare of all whether it be the family, the nation or the world.

The individual is therefore always to be treated as an end in himself, while social institutions are always to be treated as corrigible means to some greater end. The satyagrahi should be active in politics if he can stand firmly for social justice and initiate constructive change. Where he cannot, he must practise non-cooperation. One can at least refuse to participate in evils that one cannot directly alter, even if the satyagrahi soon finds that he can alter more than he previously supposed. Far from denying the existence of conflicts of interest, Gandhi evolved ahimsa so as to resolve such conflicts by limiting, if not wholly removing, their himsa (violence). Gandhi further advocated voluntary poverty as an essential prerequisite for any social or political worker who wished to remain untainted by the wasteful greed of power politics. He even maintained that possessions are anti-social: it is not enough to continue possessing goods in practice under the sincere illusion that one has given them up in spirit. Possessions, he believed, should be held in trust at the disposal of those who need them. Furthermore, those who trusted the community to provide for essential needs could come to experience true freedom.

Firmly believing in the fundamental unity of life, he rejected any distinction between public and private, between secular and sacred, and ultimately, between politics and religion. Religion, for Gandhi, signifies a spiritual commitment which is total but intensely personal, and which pervades every aspect of life. Gandhi was always concerned more with religious values than with beliefs; more with the fundamental ethics that he saw as common to all religions than with formal allegiance to received dogmas which hinder, rather than aid, religious experience. He staunchly refused to associate religion with sectarianism of any kind. “Isms”, he thought, appeal only to the immature; through religion he sought nothing less than the Truth itself. In his vision, each soul resembles a drop of water from the ocean of divinity, fallen into a muddy pool. To experience consanguinity with God it must cleanse itself of the mud. Whatever its tenets, assumptions or practices, every true religion holds out this hope of self-regeneration. All true religions are therefore equal in Gandhi’s estimation. He regularly advised enquirers to discover the true meanings of the faiths they were born into under karma. The seeker pledged to Truth must, however, abstain from proselytizing others. He should rather encourage, or inspire, others to elevate the inner and outer practice of their own faiths. Different religions and sects emerge only because no tradition and no individual can be the exclusive receptacle for boundless Truth.

Gandhi found no difficulty in accepting his own religion, while also acknowledging that he was at heart a Christian, a Jain, a Muslim and a Buddhist. He thought that accepting the Bible did not require rejecting the Koran, just because one scripture speaks more directly to an individual than another. The Bhagavad Gita was Gandhi’s “spiritual dictionary”,7 but his continued recourse to it did not negate any other sacred texts. He thought that the Bhagavad Gita was the most accessible text in the Indian tradition. As it affirmed that God represents perfect Truth, and that imperfect man, whatever his path, can follow its precepts and come closer to God, the Gita has universal application. Gandhi felt that enduring help could come only from within, from what one learns through tapascharya.

For Gandhi, religions and religious concepts grow through human experience just as individuals mature morally, socially and spiritually. No religion can claim to be complete in time. No formulation is final. He could thus say, without condescension, that Hinduism included Jainism and Buddhism, while freely criticizing Hindu sectarian disagreements and dogmatism; he praised Islamic brotherhood, while decrying the intransigence of some Muslim zealots; he upheld Christianity as a “blazing path of bhakti yoga” and the Sermon on the Mount as a model, while dismissing most theology because it invidiously tends to explain away what should be taken to heart and applied. Gandhi’s radical reinterpretation of Hindu values in the light of the message of the Buddha was a constructive, though belated, response to the ethical impact of the early Buddhist Reformation on decadent India.

Given such beliefs, religion is ultimately priestless, because the capacity for prayer lies latent within human nature. Prayer and all devotion (bhakti) are, for Gandhi, a kind of petition. The noblest and purest petition is that one should become outwardly what one is inwardly – that one’s thoughts, words and deeds should ever more fully express the soul’s core of truth and non-violence. Prayer is to God as thought is to Truth, but since God and Truth are beyond all limiting conceptions, they cannot accommodate egotistic petitions. Prayer is truly an intense supplication towards one’s inmost ineffable nature, the source of one’s being and strength, the touchstone of one’s active life. Just as politics and religion should endeavour to reduce the gap between theory and practice, so too prayer must narrow the gulf between one’s real being and one’s manifest appearance.

Gandhi’s heartfelt reverence for all religions and for their spiritual founders and exemplars, together with his restraint in attributing to any of them uttermost divine perfection, arose from his concept of Deity. God is alien to no human being, not even the atheist who risks sundering himself from his own source. “To deny God”, Gandhi believed, “is like committing suicide.”8 Since the divine is reflected within every individual as his inalienable core of Truth, God will appear in as many forms and formulations as there are possibilities of human thought. There are, at least, as many definitions of God as there are individuals, and God transcends them all. Beyond the boundaries of reason and imagination, God is ineffable, indescribable, without form or characteristic. Gandhi thought that the concepts and images used to express the divine, including his own formulations, were at best derived from glimpses of immense but partial truths. As aids, these images may assist human growth; but as dogmas, they tend to breed sectarianism and violence. As aids, they may foster the universal religion of duty and detachment (dharma and vairagya); but as dogmas, they tend to reinforce a harsh insistence upon rights and privileges. For Gandhi, all conceptions of God are merely means to be used in the service of Truth.

By upholding vows, any person, Gandhi held, can align his conduct to the motionless centre of the wheel of life. But the individual must first adopt stern measures to control the mind in its everyday vagaries, monitoring or even selecting his every thought. Only in this way can one become single-minded and so incarnate one’s beliefs in one’s sphere of dharma. Gandhi felt that conscience is kept alive not by a preoccupation with intention, but by concern for rectitude of action. He deliberately shifted emphasis from the spiritual emancipation of the individual to the collective benefit of all.

Gandhi’s fundamental convictions constitute a world-view of far-reaching dimensions. They cannot be proved, for “truth is its own proof, and non-violence is its supreme fruit.”9 But Gandhi never doubted that if these ideals were practised with sincerity and humility, aimed not at the applause of the world, but at the support of the soul, they would gradually prove to be self-validating, helping the individual, painfully but assuredly, to mature into a joyous state of spiritual freedom and self-mastery. It is awe-inspiring, but hardly surprising, that upon receiving his assassin’s bullets, Gandhi made a final gesture of forgiveness and whispered, “Hey Ram! Hey Ram!”

Gandhi did not wish to be considered an inspired prophet. His metaphysical presuppositions only deepened his disarming faith in a human solidarity that admits of no degree. He persisted in seeing himself as a somewhat unworthy exemplar of his exacting ideals. And yet, by his lifelong fidelity to his vows, Gandhi demonstrated the liberating and transforming power of any attempt to fuse metaphysics and conduct, theory and practice, through an enormous effort of the will. A few months before the assassination, Sarojini Naidu, the poetess who had played a leading role in the Salt March, tried to capture something of the enigma of Gandhi in the context of the twentieth century:

With Christ be shares the great gospel that love is the fulfilling of the law. With the great Muhammad he shares the gospel of brotherhood of man, equality of man and oneness of man. With Lord Buddha he shares the great evangel that the duty of life is not self-seeking but to seek the truth, no matter at what sacrifice. With the great poets of the world, he shares the ecstasy of the vision that the future of man is great, that the future of man can never be destroyed, that all sin will destroy itself but that love and humanity must endure, grow and reach the stars. Therefore, today, a broken world ruined by wars and hatred, a broken world seeking for a new civilization honours the name of Mahatma Gandhi.

In himself, he is nothing. There are men of learning, greater than his, and there are men of wealth and power, and men of fame, but who is there that combines in one frail body the supreme qualities of virtue enshrined in him: courage indomitable, faith invincible, and compassion that embraces the entire world? This transcendental love of humanity that recognizes no limitations of race, no barriers of country but gives to all, like a shining sun, the same abundance of love, understanding and service. Every day – today and yesterday and tomorrow – every day is the same story of the miracle of Gandhi in our own age.

Who said that the age of miracles is past? How should the age of miracles be past while there is such a superb example of embodied miracle in our midst?… He was born like other men, he will die like other men, but unlike them he will live through the beautiful gospel he has enunciated, that hatred cannot be conquered by hatred, the sword cannot be conquered by the sword, that power cannot be exploited over the weak and the fallen, that the gospel of non-violence which is the most dynamic and the most creative gospel of power in the world, is the only true foundation of a new civilization, yet to be built.10


1 M.K. Gandhi, “Two Requests”, Harijan, Mar. 3, 1946; reprinted in The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, by Raghavan Iyer, ed., Clarendon (Oxford, 1986-1987), vol. 1, p. 39 (hereafter cited as MPWMG).

2 M.K. Gandhi, “Message to Bengalee”, Amrita Bazar Patrika, Nov. 7, 1924; MPWMG, vol. 1, p. 20.)

3 M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, ch. VI; MPWMG, vol. 1, p. 214.

4 M.K. Gandhi, Preface to second Gujarati edition of Hind Swaraj, May 1914; MPWMG, vol. 1, p. 277.

5 For a fuller treatment, see by Raghavan Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Oxford University Press (New York, 1973, 1978); second edition, Concord Grove Press (Santa Barbara, 1983), chs. 2 and 3.

6 M.K. Gandhi,”Discussion with Maurice Frydman”, Harijan, Jan. 28, 1939; MPWMG, vol. 3, p. 530.

7 M.K. Gandhi, Preface to Gitapadarthakosha, Harijanbandhu, Oct. 25, 1936, MPWMG, vol. 1, p. 97.

8 M.K. Gandhi, Letter to Hanumanprasad Poddar, Mahadevbhaini Dairy, vol. 1, p. 82; MPWMG, vol. 1, p. 587.

9 M.K. Gandhi, “Meaning of the Gita”Navajivan, Oct. 11, 1925; MPWMG, vol. 1, p. 80.

10 D.G. Tendulkar, Mahatma, vol. 8, p. 144; MPWMG, vol. 1, p. 12.

Hermes, February 1988

by Raghavan Iyer

Published by permission of


In the same Category

Skip to content