Gandhi’s Political Ethics. Part One: One Basic Principle and Six Fundamental Hypotheses

by Arne Naess

Gandhi did not claim that the methods he used could be adopted as general models for all people and in all sit­uations. He claimed they had no special significance or validity as methods independent of the personality and attitude of those who employed them. By this Gandhi did not mean to imply that everyone who adopts them must share his religion and basic attitude; but he did mean that nonviolent methods can only be used in har­mony with views of life characterized by certain com­mon features. It would be beside the point to conjecture what philosophical views these would be; the best we can do is to study Gandhi’s own position, especially in so far as it directly concerns group conflict. In what fol­lows, therefore, we shall try to sketch a picture of Gan­dhi’s political morality in terms of its principles and of its description of the world and man.

However, before proceeding, a possible misunder­standing must be reckoned with. We cannot assume, just because we can now construct a system based on our study of him, that Gandhi himself was systematic. It would be particularly wrong to assume that he arrived at his plans of action by applying a definite set of hypotheses and principles. This assumption would be es­pecially unfortunate if it led us to judge Gandhi’s actions solely in terms of his “system.” For even if we were to reject one or more of the principles or hypotheses of that “system” we would still have to accept the fact that there was considerable value in the courses of action he initiated and himself undertook.

Confining ourselves to that part of Gandhi’s teaching, which directly concerns group conflict, we can find only one basic proposition of a normative kind. It can be expressed: “Seek complete self-realization.” Thus, briefly put, self-realization is the manifestation of one’s potential to the greatest possible degree.

As Gandhi understood it, this principle can generate every other commandment or principle, that is, once we add to it certain hypotheses about man and the universe. In this context, hypotheses are not meant to suggest uncertainty, the main distinction being that we keep hypotheses distinct from principles, hypotheses being descriptive and confirmable.

The principle can be better understood, then, once we have stated the following three hypotheses:

(1) Self-realization presupposes that one search for the truth.

(2) In the last analysis, all living beings are one.

(3) Himsa against oneself makes complete self-realiza­tion impossible.

Himsa may be translated as “violence,” but it is better to retain the word “himsa,” since it signifies rather more than we ordinarily mean by “violence.” Primarily, it is true, himsa does mean physical violence, or violence as we usually think of it, but it also covers coercion and duress in general, not all instances of which are neces­sarily physical. Resentment, for example, might be men­tioned as a kind of himsa; for himsa covers not only inter-personal conduct, but also inner mental activity, that is, a person’s feelings, attitudes and thoughts. In fact, the more we try to set limits to himsa, the clearer it becomes that what Gandhi was trying to express simply cannot be conveyed by any English word used in its normal sense.

The opposite of himsa is ahimsa, and this expression, in Gandhi’s time, was translated into English as “non­violence.” We shall, in what follows, leave out the hy­phen, reserving “non-violence” with a hyphen for a more general concept.

The second hypothesis, that “in the last analysis” all living beings are one, can be expressed as the claim that all living beings are fundamentally one; this, of course, presupposes some standard for judging what is funda­mental and what is not. And what is this standard?

Even the quite ordinary considerations of everyday life make us each realize that it is impossible to consider ourselves simply as individuals occupying one narrow corner of space. We seem to extend beyond the very narrow confines of our hats and coats, however hard it may be to say exactly in what way and how far. If we ask ourselves what we want in this world, we inevitably discover that what we consider our own largely coincides with what other people consider their own. The hap­piness of other people is our happiness, their sorrow is ours; and so also with aims, ambitions, and the like. On the psychological and social plane, moreover, we find that an individual’s development is continually depend­ent upon his capacity and willingness to identify him­self with something more than himself, something with a greater individuality which yet comprehends his own. Usually we have no definite maximum in mind when we think of how far our relationships can go in this world, but for Gandhi there was such an ultimate basis of identification; he felt that the needs of his own self-expansion could only be satisfied by identifying himself with every living being. The “set” of which he saw him­self a part was the total class of all living creatures.

Let us say by way of explanation that a progression can be traced, from an infant’s inability to differentiate himself from the world he experiences, through the “solipsism” of his early childhood, to the affiliations of more or less mature citizenship in which he identifies himself in some degree with a particular country or form of government. He may even reach the elevated position of the cosmopolitan, the citizen of the world, in which, temporarily at least, he actually lives through the sorrows, doubts or pains of all who are in sorrow, uncertainty, or pain. By following Gandhi’s train of thought, we should not only discover our own selves in their entirety, but should also thereby be able to realize our selves to the fullest possible extent.

Gandhi felt that man should know of both his place in the cosmos and of his own relation to other living things, and thereby discover, firstly, something he shares in common with all his kind, and secondly, the fact that the most important truths are precisely what is com­mon to all life. Hence the law of human life is not at all “the law of the jungle.” The laws of life and of the jungle were contrasted by Gandhi, and he believed that history would show a gradual abandonment of the lat­ter, even in the affairs of governments and large groups, political, economic, social, and so on.

What validity can such a belief have? What can be the basis of Gandhi’s interpretation, what the basis of an idea which Indian philosophers and philosophers of other countries supporting Gandhi, philosophers per­haps more original than he, have assented to? Any at­tempt we make to found the idea on an argument can only appeal to intuition; therefore an unequivocal ap­peal to intuition should be the one best source of ver­ification. What we should say, moreover, that this ap­peal should be to is no doubt an experience of the kind we have in mind when we say: “When I was really con­centrating, then I felt, though not in a way I can easily describe, that others and myself are one.”

To confirm intuition, we often point to actual conduct which we take to be inspired by such intuition: a man acts toward another as if that man were himself, seeking what is best for him in the spirit in which he would seek it for himself. But clearly if we mean by confirma­tion some conclusive proof of intuition, or even some strong piece of evidence in support of it, then con­firmation cannot be found; not surprisingly, therefore, it is difficult to find in Gandhi’s writing any explicit foundation for this first hypothesis. In fact, he makes the search for truth a principle independent of his teach­ings on nonviolence. Nonetheless, implicit in his teach­ing on nonviolence is the conviction that it is only by a constant attempt to be truthful and objective in one’s appraisal of the world around one that one can hope to realize the nonviolent principle.

The third hypothesis, that himsa against oneself makes complete self-realization impossible, as­sumes that by using violence we destroy something of ourselves, and hence preclude the possibility of develop­ing our whole selves. The proposition that, in the last analysis, all living beings are one, presupposes a prin­ciple generated from these two hypotheses and the first principle, namely that one should avoid violence against any living being; otherwise complete self-realization would be impossible. The third hypothesis implies that “violence” in the widest sense against any living being at all makes complete realization impossible for the per­son who commits the violence.

Another important distinction has to be made: if I commit himsa against another, I necessarily work against my own realization, but not necessarily against his. If I hate somebody, it may be only myself that my hatred hurts.

Thus we have one principle and three hypotheses. Let us now add to these a fourth hypothesis, which we de­rive from the first two. It is this: (4) Himsa against a living being is himsa against one­ self.

Then we may add a fifth hypothesis, derived from this last hypothesis and from the third hypothesis. It is this: (5) Himsa against a living being makes complete self-realization impossible.

Finally, a sixth hypothesis, whose connection to the previous one is admittedly somewhat hard to determine: (6) The type of means used predetermines the end that can be attained.

As we shall see in what follows, Gandhi stresses that falsity can never lead to the victory of truth, nor violence lead to peace.

This presentation, despite the inclusion of some weak formulations, enables us to get an impression of the core of Gandhi’s teaching on nonviolence. (As we noted before, it would be quite wrong to look on Gandhi as the originator of these teachings. They are to be found, for instance, in Indian philosophy long before the birth of Christ.) The most essential element of Gandhi’s teach­ing on group conflict can be summed up in the follow­ing principle: Seek truth and realize ahimsa.

One last note: The term “pacifism” is used in many ways. Typically, however, it is the conscientious objector who comes to be labeled a “pacifist.” The main belief of such a person, it seems, is that, on religious or moral grounds, he should not kill. However, his compunction about taking life does not necessarily include any equally strong maxim about engaging in nonviolent opposition to those who use violence. As a consequence some pacifists, simply wishing to have no part of violence, have withdrawn themselves from areas where violence reigns. Such with­drawal may, of course, require courage and may even result in great hardship. But the principle of conscien­tious objection in itself goes no further than the refusal to engage in violence. The Gandhian principles, how­ever, do go further. There is therefore no reason to try to define the use of the terms “pacifism,” and “Gandhianism” (or “satyagraha” or “Gandhian nonviolence”) in such a way as to make them synonymous. Quite dis­tinct political moralities can emerge out of the different ways in which one takes the assertion “Himsa against any living being is himsa against oneself.” According to the traditional pacifist principle of restraint from vio­lence, the violence of other people is not damaging to one’s own prospects of self-realization or to one’s moral status. Consequently, the pacifist program leans toward withdrawal from, rather than engagement in, areas of conflict. However, by the principles Gandhi used in developing his program, it was consistent, indeed essential, actually to engage in conflict since one’s self-realization was prejudiced as much by the violence of others as by one’s own.

In the last few years, active anti-militarists and ad­herents of pacifist organizations have with increasing zeal tried to develop the constructive elements of pacifist traditions. They have tried to convert defensive and passive anti-militarists into active participants in the con­flicts of their age. This is certainly a development in ac­cordance with the spirit of Gandhi.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This essay by Arne Naess is from the long out of print, Gandhi and the Nuclear Age, Totowa (New Jersey): Bedminster Press, 1965; Part Two, Chapter 1, pp. 27-35. We are grateful to Mrs. Arne Naess for permission. Copyright © 2013 Mrs. Arne Naess/Estate of Arne Naess. We are also grateful to Alan Drengson for his assistance.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An extensive editor’s note is appended to our earlier Naess postings, as at the end of the “Gandhi and Group Conflict” articles. For an example click here.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi