Advocating life of restraint

Advocating life of restraint


Sitting posture statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Sabarmathi Ashram, Ahmedabad, Gujarath, India, Asia

This year witnessed alarming outcries against Mahatma Gandhi that were expressed in the defacement of his statues in the United Kingdom, the United States and Africa. Yet this is not new and ever since his time, Gandhi has been targeted by a mindboggling number of groups across the spectrum.

This includes Marxists, feminists, liberals and Hindu political and religious groups—who simply view him either as an incurable idealist or far too radical for his time. But how is it possible that his critics do not tally into any neat order and belong to contradictory ideological hues? Are we missing something here?

Even his most passionate defenders hide their shame and instead show alternative textual evidence to settle what they see as part of his personal evolution, especially his views on race and caste. However, this conflict is caught up in the business of reassembling Gandhi’s words and ignores his comprehensive account of living when assessed from the narrow frame of modern equality. I suggest here a different mode of ethical conduct where it is impossible to separate equality from ahimsa and its application in spheres of living such as religion, diet and sexuality.

The starting point of Gandhi’s thinking about equality was the grave disparities in Indian society in all walks of life. While everyone was born equal and entitled to equal opportunity, not everyone has the same capacity. Equality for Gandhi could not be turned into a “dead uniformity” because it would take out the very initiative of individuals to utilise their talents. Further, a blind adherence to notions of equality posed a graver problem of equating all desires on the same plane and becoming incapable of discerning good and bad.  

The theory of socialism was an irresistible panacea for all evils during his time. It advocated a classless society by forcibly abolishing private property and maintaining collective ownership of all resources. Its insistence on “to each according to his need” made a great impression on Gandhi. But what puzzled him was how a theory without adherence to a spiritual force or the inexhaustible power within, could seek to effect such a large-scale transformation.

In other words, the problem as he understood, was that social change could not be brought without individual transformation. So, equality should be analysed in terms of individual conduct (and role) in the social system. In his search, Gandhi sought answers to difficult questions that took him far beyond the economic realm to the practical. The resolution of how much is enough for each lay in self-restraint, which was a way of life in Indian ethical and moral traditions.

Gandhi never used the term “equality” with any systematic or doctrinal seriousness in mind. Instead, he developed his ideas of sarvodaya (welfare for all) and trusteeship that stressed on the relationship between material laws and morality. He emphasised the importance of sharing tasks of society such as physical labour and local government. The rich were not owners of their riches but were trustees who held their wealth on behalf of the poor.

Equal distribution

It was based on the idea of non-possession, implying that each individual shall have only that much as he needs and there would be an equal distribution of all resources for satisfaction of basic wants. The model was founded on common aims of both the individual and society. It sought voluntary and non-violent conversion of people into trustees and rejected outright any class war.  

Critics who have dubbed his ideas as naive have failed to recognise his insights into social life. First, it is true that he does not do enough about social relations of power by dismantling existing hierarchies within society. The reason for this is that Gandhi found such a radical form of revolution merely temporary, as it was an act of force. His central and profound emphasis was in giving people an ability to act irrespective of their status in the social hierarchy.

For instance, when he spoke about the co-dependence of labour and capital on each other, he did so by stressing that labour must realise its indispensability without which the capital class cannot survive in the first place. Second, each class possessed know-how and skill which was ignored by those radical calls that altogether demanded abolishing the capital-owning class.

Gandhi was aware that just as labour possessed a special skill about its tasks, the capital-owing class also had an expertise that could not be done away with. Accordingly, he argued for seeing both classes as equal partners and without superior interests. He did not discard the option of non-cooperation or civil disobedience if any class failed to cooperate. In sum, he did not seek to pull down social structures but give everybody an agency within it.

A deeper dimension of this issue for Gandhi is linked to the spiritual plane, tenets of which hold a fundamental spiritual reality underlying all objects, and individuals had to realise their connection with other beings. For Gandhi, this could not be gained through theory but making adjustments in living. His vows of voluntary poverty and non-possession were linked to practices of self-control in spheres of diet and sexuality. Put this way, the notion of possession included the body which, while could not be done away with, had to be restrained.

Gandhi astonishingly reversed modern political ideas whose latent aim was prosperity, which surely enough lapsed into pure greed. He overturned this into voluntarily seeking poverty, or in other words, implying a life of restraint. The question, in the end, is not whether Gandhi had a theory of equality, but rather, do we need to be fastened to a normative doctrine of “equality” to assess his ethical practices? In the final, for him, equality was an ethos or a certain way of living, and inequality was a state of violence conditioned by enslavement to appetites and desires.

(The writer teaches at O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat. He is currently working on his manuscript on Gandhi’s ethical thought)