Gandhi Society of Calgary

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Gandhi’s Philosophy

There is a fundamental unity to Gandhi’s philosophy. Humans are body-soul composites. They are goal-setting and goal-seeking beings. Indian philosophy had grouped human goals under four canonical headings: artha (wealth and power), dharma (duty, righteousness, religion), kama (pleasure, sexual and aesthetic), and moksha (the pursuit of spiritual liberation.

The good life consists in the coordinated pursuit of each of these goals. This requires that the range and intensity of violence in personal, social and political life be reduced, and the scope of peace and nonviolence increased.

The following are the main elements of his philosophy.

1. Civic nationalism

The first necessary condition for the pursuit of the diverse human goals is the availability of a secure and unified territorial political community. Gandhi called such a community a civic nation (praja). The idea was first articulated in his major theoretical work, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule. The foundation of such a political community is neither religion nor race nor ethnicity nor language, but the free individual considered as a bearer of fundamental human rights and as a subject capable of political swaraj or self-determination or self-development in a political community.

Such a political community is secular in its structure and in its aims: in its structure, because it is not grounded on any particular religion; in its aims, because it exists to protect the individual and to enhance his or her capacity for diverse strivings.  The creation and the maintenance of a civic nation is an indispensable condition for peace and prosperity, especially in religiously or ethnically pluralistic societies.

2. The state

A civic nation requires an independent sovereign state as its adjunct. A nation without the steadying hand of the state remains unstable and prone to violence. The nation in other words should have political swaraj or the sovereign state. Swaraj in Gandhi’s philosophy has two meanings: one political and the other spiritual. Political swaraj means sovereign state. Spiritual swaraj means internal capacity to pursue ultimate liberation or moksha.(more about this below).

The state that Gandhi proposes is a constitutionally limited liberal state. It remains neutral towards religion but is not hostile to it. His secular state is sui generis; it is unlike any in the West or elsewhere. The major functions of the state are the protection and promotion of human rights, and the securing of internal order and external secularity.

While the state has an interest in the maintenance of social justice and economic justice, the modern welfare state that perpetuates dependency of the citizen on the state is not consistent with Gandhi’s political philosophy. Gandhi called his preferred state surajya (the good state). Apart from being limited by the constitution, it shares power with the free institutions of civil society (the non-governmental organizations). This point is articulated in his second theoretical work, The Constructive Program.

3. Economic Philosophy

Sarvodaya is the name that Gandhi gave to his economic philosophy. It is also the title of his summary of Ruskin’s famous work Unto This Last. A just economic order should seek the welfare of all, not just of the majority. The welfare of the worst off of society should be its first concern. The work ethic and the right to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor were fundamental to his economic theory.

Poverty, he held, was the result of the mismanagement of a nation’s labor. The poor had a moral obligation to get out of their poverty through the sweat of their brow, rather than through the largesse of the state—a point he made forcefully in his famous debate with the poet Tagore. While he approved of “legitimate self-interest” as a motive force of economic activities, he wanted the motive of benevolence also to play its role in economic activities.

Economic activities that produced the necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing-- should be guided more by the motive og benevolence than by that of enlightened self-interest. On this point he chose to depart from Adam Smith (Collected Works, vol. 59, pp. 205-6, and vol. 58, pp.353-4). He rejected the notion of homo economicus on the ground that humans are endowed with a spiritual soul and that the soul-force in the form of benevolence is active in a just economic order. It was therefore misleading to judge human beings as just money-making machines.

While opposing the l9th century type of industrialization, he was in favor of a new kind of industrialization that suited the needs of India, with emphasis on development from below, on small scale industries, on appropriate technology, on health, hygiene and sanitation, on art and architecture, on moderation in consumption, and on concern for the ecological system. The most famous symbols of his economic philosophy were the spinning wheel and the khadi.

4. Private property and the trusteeship principle

Capitalism and Marxism were both trying to win adherents in India in Gandhi’s time. The key issue here was the question of the right to private property. Gandhi took a middle position here. While he recognized the right to private property was a fundamental human right, he was careful to make the exercise of this right conditional on two factors.

First, the exercise of the right to private property ought not damage the welfare of all (sarvodaya) or the common good. Secondly, what is surplus to meeting the legitimate needs of the private proprietor, had to be held in trust for the welfare of all. This in substance is what he means by the trusteeship principle. It is, however, a moral principle, and it could have legal force only if backed by legislation. And Gandhi was open to the intervention of legislation here.

 5. Satyagraha

Satyagraha is probably the most celebrated of his ideas. Even an opera has been written on it (by the American composer Philip Glass). Satyagraha (meaning firmness in holding on to truth) presupposes soul-force or truth-force as an effective force in politics.

It further presupposes that the state, though necessary for human well-being, is prone to err in its behavior, as when it violates the rights of citizens or seeks to increase its power over them under the guise of doing them good. Whenever this happens, humans have the right and the duty to resist the state. But resistance must be nonviolent in thoughts, words and deeds. It is not enough to desist from violent acts against the opponent; it is necessary also not to wish the opponent any harm.

More, the satyagrahi ought to wish the good of the opponent also. In satyagraha there are no winners and losers: both parties to a conflict compromise and both gain. These aspects of satyagraha separate him from many other proponents of civil-disobedience. Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha was most famously and very successfully adopted by Martin Luther King Jr in the United States.

6. Nonviolence

Gandhi’s name is universally associated with the idea of nonviolence. In his philosophy there are two types of nonviolence, one personal and the other civic. Personal nonviolence is abstention from physical violence in interpersonal relationship. Gandhi adds abstention from violent thoughts and violent speech as well. This is the sort of nonviolence practiced by monks and nuns.

In Gandhi’s terminology it is sometimes called nonviolence as creed. Civic nonviolence is the other kind of nonviolence. It is abstention from violence in one’s relationship to social groups and the state. In Gandhi’s terminology it is called nonviolence as policy. Its goal is social and political peace, especially between religions, castes and tribes.

Civic nonviolence seeks the removal of structural violence from society, wherever it is found, whether in religion, caste or tribe. In addition, it seeks to resist the state itself when it violates human rights and natural justice. Satyagraha was invented specifically for such resistance.

Finally, civic nonviolence strives to create and maintain a secular civic order, i. e., a civic order in which no one is discriminated against by reason of religion or personal beliefs. Such a civic order is indispensable for the maintenance of peace in multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies. The coercive state plays a critical role in maintaining civic nonviolence.

A failed state adds nothing but civic unrest if not civic violence. At the same time, the powers of the coercive state, according to Gandhi, should be severely restricted; they should not extend areas where the freedom of conscience and the freedoms of non-governmental organizations are concerned. Gandhi’s stand on the role of the coercive state for the maintenance of civic nonviolence sets him apart from pacifists such as Leo Tolstoy, for whom the state is nonviolence’s chief enemy. For Gandhi, however, civic nonviolence , with the assistance of the coercive state, provide the conditions necessary for peace and order.

7. Celibacy (Brahmacharya)

This virtue played a key role in Gandhi’s spiritual philosophy. It is abstention from sexual relations and, on the positive side, a means of approximating the mystical union with the divine. Celibacy has a long history in the monastic tradition of Indic religions. Gandhi adapted it in his own way to suit his spiritual needs. He took the vow of celibacy in 1906, at the age of 36, after he had raised four children, and while he remained married to his wife.

His justification for taking this vow was that it helped him in his spiritual life, and also in his political life: he was able to dedicate his life to the service of others in a single minded way. The members of his ashram were expected to practice celibacy so long as they remained in the ashram.

8. Ethics or dharma

Gandhi’s ethics requires the practice of eleven virtues. Two of these, nonviolence and celibacy, have already been discussed. The remaining nine are truth, courage, non-stealing, freedom from greed, control of the palate, manual labor, rejection of Untouchability, equal respect for all religions, and cultivation of swadeshi (that which pertains to one’s own country, which comes close to patriotism). Truth is foundational to all the virtues, ie., the practical truth that is realized in each act of virtue.

9. Spiritual swaraj

The path to spiritual swaraj (liberation) is a life devoted to self-less service or anasakti yoga or karma yoga. Ethical life and spiritual life converge on anasakti-yoga or karma yoga, the high point of Gandhi’s philosophy. Anasakti-yoga means self-less action that gradually leads to the final fulfillment of all human strivings, which is union with the divinity. The final fulfillment can take place only outside time, but the ground work for it is laid within historical time.

Karma yoga means the same thing as anasakti-yoga, except that its emphasis is on action (karma), as distinct from contemplation or devotional piety. Whatever label one uses, the good life means living by right action. An action to be right has to meet the following four conditions.

First, it has to be free from such ordinary vices as greed, aggression, egoism and lust. Secondly, it should be good in itself, i. e., good according to the requirements of one’s vocation in life (swadharma). Thirdly, it should be such that it does not preclude others (lokasamgraha) from its benefits. Finally, action should focus more on the purity of intention, i. e., on the element of duty in what one does than on any personal gain that might accrue. Not that personal gain is unworthy, but that egoism and the unmitigated pursuit of illicit personal gain are the chief obstacles to right action.

The inspiration for this theory of right action is derived from the ethics of Bhagavad Gita. To attain personal happiness and the happiness of the political community in which one lives, one needs to do nothing more than practice anasaskti-yoga, the key to both temporal happiness and spiritual happiness.


Gandhi’s philosophy, as noted, is ultimately about human strivings through right action. The four canonical strivings (technically called purusharthas—artha, dharma, kama and moksha--), provide it general theoretical framework. It is remarkable how a majority of the nine elements of his philosophy listed above—Nos. 1 to 5--belong to the field of artha (wealth and power). Nos. 6 and 8, belong to dharma, No. 7 to kama, and No. 9 to moksha.

The preponderance of the strivings for wealth and power should not surprise students of Gandhi. For in modern times it is striving for wealth and power that preoccupy humans. Gandhi is aware of this fact and addresses it extensively, which make him a very modern thinker. At the same time, he cautions us about the dangers of pursuing wealth and power without at the same time pursuing the other canonical goals. A well-lived life should maintain a balance between the pursuits of material welfare and spiritual welfare.