Gandhi as a Philosopher

  • IASbaba
  • October 2, 2021
  • 0
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  • GS-4: Human Values – lessons from the lives and teachings of great leaders, 

Gandhi as a Philosopher

Philosophy & Ethics

  • Philosophy was initially practised only in three civilisations — Chinese, Greek and Indian. 
  • In these civilisations, philosophy functioned as a way of life distinct from other ways of life that were rooted in a belief in supernatural powers.
  • But even the philosophical ways of life practised in those ancient times could be divided into two categories — a metaphysics-led philosophical way of life and an ethics-led philosophical way of life. 
  • Except the philosophies given by the Buddha, Socrates and Confucius all other philosophies propagated metaphysics-led ways of life.
  • In ethics-led philosophy, the attempt is to transform the person from his/her state of being to an ethically higher state of existence and in the process making him/her psychologically self-sufficient.
  • In the metaphysics-led philosophical way of life, instead of a higher ethical state of being, the philosopher tries to achieve a higher state of understanding (insight) as well as a communion with the “ultimate”. Here, ethics has only a secondary role to play.
  • Once Christianity banned all non-Christian ways of life in Europe in 529CE, philosophy re-emerged in 17th century Europe as a purely theoretical discipline without advocating life practices. With that, the idea of “philosophical ways of life” became extinct in Europe.
  • This shift from philosophy as a way of life to philosophy as a theoretical discipline is celebrated as the birth of modern Western philosophy. 

Gandhi & Philosophy

  • Gandhi was spiritual, if spirituality means reduction of self-centredness. His shift from “God is Truth” to “Truth is God” in 1929, was aimed at making ethics the “first principle” of his philosophy.
  • Gandhi’ stated way back in 1907 that “morality should be observed as a religion”.
  • Gandhi, like the Buddha, was an ethical consequentialist in that the purpose of his ethical way was to reduce self-centredness and to promote a concern for the well-being of all (sarvodaya). 
  • What makes Gandhi different from the Buddha is that Gandhi, apart from individual moksha (Buddha called it as Nirvana), wanted development of freedoms (through his constructive programmes) for humanity as a whole. Only through political action, according to Gandhian ethics, can we implement this constructive programme. 
  • Therefore, Gandhi’s philosophical way of life is an explicit desire for a socialist society — since an ethics based on the reduction of selfishness can only approve a socialist way of life, for logical reasons.
  • Even though socialist themes like the idea of a “simple life” were part of all philosophical schools of the Subcontinent, it was only in Gandhi that they achieved an explicit political/ideological dimension — Gandhi’s ashrams were such socialist communes.
  • On numerous occasions Gandhi had said that he aspired to “reduce to zero”, that is, totally eliminate selfishness/self-centeredness. For the Buddha, too, the reduction of self-centeredness through the cultivation of virtues like satya, ahimsa, aparigraha, brahmacharya, etc., was crucial for fostering sarvodaya. 


The politically charged, non-violent and ethical style of philosophy propagated by Gandhi is intended to make one spiritual — a practitioner is encouraged to gravitate and work for the welfare of all other beings.

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