“Gandhi was a ‘non-political’ thinker?”

A revisionist view will critique Gandhi as a man who kept changing his ideas and beliefs from time to time however, I argue that his conceptual framework and foundational thoughts were not altered. He never claimed himself as an original thinker as all his thought process comes from different Eastern and Western philosophical systems. After reading and following so many political backgrounds, he did not agree with any of them. His understanding of life, politics, and society came from the perspective which makes him a philosopher. He wanted to look for the “larger purpose”. Gandhi’s idea of democracy emanates from his imagination of an ideal individual and he imagines an individual having the qualities of self-rule, transparency, accountability, inclusiveness within the life and daily living practice. This paper examines the nature of Gandhian political ideas: the concept of state, rights and duties, swaraj and the non-violent state and what these meant for Gandhi and his vision for India.

Gandhi’s philosophy is difficult to understand, some think it as a political theory, some as a religious theory and some as a theory of conflict resolution and non-violence. There is, of course, a great deal of truth in what these interpretations have to say. Taken individually, each gives some in-depth but unavoidably partial understanding of the whole. The fact is they all make sense if seen together. It is not enough to just understand his doctrine of non-violence, for that one needs to understand his position on the war, or his theory of the state and the relationship of the individual with the state. So, in my paper, I am going to examine Gandhi’s political stance covering some of his life ideologies.

Some of us think that Gandhi’s actions are in itself political in nature, it is simply because of the belief that all collective actions or transformations have a political purpose. Gandhi rejected this concept of the teleological perspective of progress and the accompanying valorization of politics and the state. Gandhi never saw the world just in political terms. He said “One must forget the political goal to realize the naturalness of life. To think in terms of the political goal in every matter and at every step is to raise unnecessary dust.” Unlike other political philosophers like Aristotle or Marx, Gandhi saw the world and collective actions as non-instrumental in nature. Uday Mehta in his essay on “Gandhi on Democracy, Politics and the ethics of Everyday Life” talk about four aspects of modern politics: “politics that pertains to the interaction between individual and state, not just the individual…politics that involves instrumental forms of reasoning and acting…politics include the warrant to deploy violent means and politics that has inherent idealism…” And, according to me that these four aspects undoubtedly not matching with the thought process of Gandhi. I will write this paper focusing on those aspects and will highlight how this contrast makes Gandhi a non-political thinker.

Politics in general meant by the rule of the representative by the organized dispute about power and its use. Political power means the capacity to regulate the nation. It is a means to create a more organized and peaceful society through civil discussions and rational discussions. However, it carries the potential to incite violence in certain situations. But, Gandhi said “to me, political power is not an end but one of the means of enabling people to better their condition in every department of life. Political power means the capacity to regulate national life through national representatives. If national life becomes so perfect as to become self-regulated, no representation becomes necessary. There is then a state of enlightened anarchy. In such a state everyone is his ruler. He rules himself in such a manner that he is never a hindrance to his neighbor.” According to him, politics is a game to get power, to regain power and to retain power. The very idea of politics is just about power politics and there is no scope for morality and ethics in the western concept of politics that India has adopted. And, hence Gandhi’s ideologies of life would not cover the four aspects of modern politics as explained by Mehta.

Gandhi’s Ahimsa is active and not confined to religion, but he has provided a practical approach to non-violence. His life was a constant, unceasing endeavor in seeking the truth employing non-violence, both of them at individual social planes. Gandhi was an uncompromising supporter of truth and non-violence. He says, “For me, non-violence is not a mere philosophical principle. It is the rule and the breath of my life.”As per Gandhi, an act can be considered autonomous if and only it has been separated from the purpose(effect); for him “means are after all everything”. And, non-violence was a mean for him and nothing external follows from non-violence. Moreover, he believed that act subsumes its effect. He questions every form of violence. The once used by the state to regulate the priorities of the state and the kind of violence used by the democratic countries against terrorism to maintain peace and order. Since all the modern wars have been authorized in the name of peace and order, Gandhi would question such powers and such demands for peace.

Satyagraha was not a political weapon for Gandhi, it is a way of life. It was the relationship between rights and violence; Gandhi questioned the existence of such a relationship is just historical or a necessity. By introducing the elements of personal sufferings, he made the process of securing rights less violent and more peaceful and this is what Satyagraha all about. Satyagraha ought to improve the moral and psychological environment in which the arguments about the rights were approached. It made both the parties to do the self-examination. By self-examination, all the sides will reflect on what the truth of the matter was and what their respective duties are toward the truth. And, after such reflections, people would understand the need for the compromise. The closer rights were brought together to the duties, the greater the chances of resolving disputes without resort to violence. Satyagraha provided with the new theory of rights and freedoms. Furthermore, freedom of the individual, for him, would be from any internal or external alien power and this should be an indication of an independent India. This peaceful and yet revolutionary innovation is an internal value that takes the inner self to the higher plane. The development of the individual and society are intertwined. Gandhi through Satyagraha was consistent in his premise that the goal of the truth and non-violence is the way to reach the larger purpose. The end and the means have to be consistent and satyagraha was both the means and the end. He favors the relationship of one to oneself over a relationship with the state or others. He believed that changes come within not by any external force. He never supported the violence used to assert the state priority, as he said “…universal experience. We have assumed that we can get a man to do things by force and, therefore, we use force.” He expected politics to be the cooperation, And he named such political order as Sarvodyaya to implement social good, rationality and communal harmony.

For him, the nation is like an individual who is an indivisible whole.  The nation should be established on the universalization of self-government, that is, Swaraj. Swaraj is a basic concept of Gandhi’s political philosophy. Swaraj, he means, self-rule which is a self-transformative activity. He speaks self-reflection and hence never supported inherent idealism that modern politics have. He wanted people to think of the world not just in the light of politics but also in terms of self-reflection, through which social and political conscience remains active and truthful. He believed that unless the spiritual and moral qualities of people are apt, the best political system and constituencies will not work. He wanted self-rule not just for the individual but also for the nation. A form of ruling in which the nation rules itself and not other nations rule and therefore he wanted India to be free. For Gandhi, freedom, and self-rule are two different things. He wanted India to be free from the vices of greed and power and adopt swaraj by following decentralization, freedom of speech, partyless democracy, and moral politics. Gandhi followed the celibacy, spinning, and silence because it makes human self-conscious; all these are the internal domain of the self. Gandhi said that only self-consciousness can help us to withdraw from the instrumental political action. All these are practices and practices are not the act of political action. However, he also points out that these things would not give any real external output and hence there is no motivation in such investment for people. But, these practices would lead to the better of the self and ultimately the world. He had the vision to have a world where people will use their freedom in the spirit of unselfishness. He wanted to build the political order where there is no space for the politics of power-the power which punishes and scares people.

To understand Gandhi’s politics, it is important to understand the rift between the state and the civil society. Gandhi was against western civilization because of its very core aspect of self-centrism and egocentrism. He considered the British parliament as a ‘sterile women and a prostitute’, parliament with the only display of party interest which led to modern woes. He considered politics is running through some path of delusion. He was a religious person and he wanted politics to be something that looks for the truth. He would want to look for morality that can make this world peaceful and insightful. He was not against the politics per se, but he was against the modern politics which Uday Mehta pointed out in the essay; the relationship between individual and state, and this relationship between them, Gandhi would say it transactional in nature.

Lincoln said that democracy is the best form of government because it has less threat to the autonomy of all the people. Therefore people are independent in a democracy. He said that “There is no human institution but has its dangers. The greater the institution, the greater the chances of abuse. Democracy is a great institution and, therefore, it is liable to be greatly abused. The remedy, therefore, is not the avoidance of democracy but the reduction of the possibility of abuse to a minimum.” Although for him good government is no substitute for self-government. In this system people are connected with the system directly and indirectly at every level; it offers the utmost opportunity to the people for their advancement or growth. It should be based upon non-violence. “I am fully aware that my mission cannot be fulfilled in India alone,” Gandhi once wrote to an American correspondent. “I am pining for the assistance of the whole world…But I know that we shall have to deserve it before it comes.” The quest for an alternative to war is now our common task in which Gandhi pioneered so significantly and he remarks that it will only come by self-reflection.

To conclude, Hobbes lived in the condition of civil war and wanted a sovereign state and on the other hand, Gandhi lived in a colonial country and he was preoccupied with rights and freedom of the individual. Gandhi used soul-force or truth-force (Satyagraha) in various forms like civil-disobedience, non-cooperation and fasting to achieve his political ends like self-rule (Swaraj), trusteeship to attain his economic end of self-reliance (Swadesi). Gandhi emphasized the purity of means in every walk of life. In Gandhian thought, means and ends are considered as constituting a continuous process and organic whole. According to him, man can choose the right means, but he cannot command the results. By nature, non-violent means justifies the peaceful ends. All these belief systems and expectations for a free India makes Gandhi a non-modern political thinker.


  • Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand. Hind Swaraj or Indian home rule. GA Natesan and Company, Madras, 1921.
  • Mehta, Uday Singh. “Gandhi on democracy, politics and the ethics of everyday life.” Modern Intellectual History 7.2 (2010): 355-371.
  • Mehta, Uday S. “Patience, inwardness, and self-knowledge in Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj.” Public Culture 23.2 (2011): 417-429.

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