Mahatma Gandhi’s Leadership – Moral And Spiritual Foundations
By Y. P. Anand
Mahatma Gandhi is universally accepted as an exemplary model of ethical and moral life, with a rare blending of personal and public life, the principles and practices, the immediate and the eternal. He considered life to be an integrated whole, growing from ‘truth to truth’ every day in moral and spiritual status.
He believed in a single standard of conduct founded on dharma of truth and nonviolence. He successfully led nonviolent struggles against racial discrimination, colonial rule, economic and social exploitation and moral degradation. So long as these manifestations of violence remain, Gandhi will remain relevant. Gandhi was “a good man in a world where few resist the corroding influence of power, wealth and vanity”1
Among the vital messages of Gandhi’s leadership are: even one person can make a difference; strength comes not from physical capacity but from an indomitable will; given a just cause, nonviolence and capacity for self-suffering, and fearlessness, victory is certain; leadership by example is the one most effective. He asserted: “We only wish to serve our fellowmen wherever we may be….” (CWMG 54:233)
Considering Gandhi’s unique and multi-faceted leadership, an attempt has been made to study his leadership under three main headings:
Ethico-social Parameters of Gandhian Leadership;
Gandhian Leadership – The Vision and the Way; and
Gandhian Political-Economic-Social Order.
Gandhi spoke in a low tone and was a hesitant public speaker. Yet people of all classes were drawn to him and instinctively felt him to be a leader of deeply spiritual and moral perceptions, which he sought to realize through the pursuit of Truth. Over 54 years of Gandhi’s public life were lived as an open book. He lived in South Africa for 21 years and then in India from 1915. All through his life he remained a seeker after Truth.
A central quality of his leadership was its natural evolution through intense interaction with the people and the events. He was acutely conscious of his own imperfections. “One great reason for the misunderstanding lies in my being considered almost a perfect man…..I am painfully conscious of my imperfections, and therein lies all the strength I posses, because it is a rare thing for a man to know his own limitations” (CWMG 21:457-9). The more he realized about human fallibility, the more he tried to evolve morally and spiritually. When nothing else availed, he would seek refuge in God and yet carry on.
Gandhi single-handedly made nonviolence a universal substitute for violence and the bed-rock of his leadership. His nonviolence was the way to counter injustice and exploitation, and not run away from a righteous battle. He associated the qualities of humility, compassion, forgiveness and tolerance as corollaries of nonviolence. Humility, to him, is “an indispensable test of ahimsa. In one who has ahimsa in him it becomes part of his very nature,” and, it must not be “confounded with mere manners or etiquette,” but it “should make the possessor realize that he is as nothing” (CWMG 44:205-6).
To Gandhi the spirit of service and sacrifice was the key to leadership. For the spirit of service to materialize we must lay stress on our responsibilities and duties and not on rights. He illustrated it through the example of “concentric circles”: one starts with service of those nearest to one and expands the circle of service until it covers the universe, no circle thriving at the cost of the circles beyond. Service to him implied self-sacrifice. He said: “Sacrifice is the law of life. It runs through and governs every walk of life. We can do nothing or get nothing without paying a price for it….in other words, without sacrifice” (CWMG 4:112).
The commitment to service, however demands a strong sense of conscience (moral imperative), courage (fearlessness, bravery, initiative), and character (integrity). To Mahatma Gandhi, ‘inner voice’ was synonymous with conscience. Leaders need to develop and follow their conscience even more than ordinary people as they set the path for others. Hence, he wrote: “None of us, especially no leader should allow himself to disobey the inner voice in the face of pressure from outside. Any leader who succumbs in this way forfeits his right of leadership (CWMG 34:363-4). For a leader to follow the right path requires courage and its associated qualities: “Courage, endurance and above all, fearlessness and spirit of willing sacrifices are the qualities that are required today in India for leadership” (CWMG 21:152).
Gandhi in his time wielded more power over the minds of people than any other individual but it was not the power of weapons, or terror, or violence; it was the power of his convictions, his pursuit of truth and nonviolence, fearlessness, love and justice, working through incessant service and sacrifice for fellow human beings. His power came from empowering the weak, to lead the masses in the fight against injustice, exploitation, violence and discrimination. Satyagraha elevated the struggle for survival to the highest moral-spiritual levels and ordinary, emaciated people turned heroes. His power arose through the people whom he gave a sense of self-respect, purpose and moral strength.
We may thus conclude that Gandhi’s leadership was a running ethical lesson to his followers as well as his opponents on ‘how to live’. An outline of the basic ethical tenets of Gandhian leadership, proceeding from the eternal verities towards the more applied principles of conduct are given below:
The Vision And The Way
Mahatma Gandhi was not an armchair academician or a cloistered visionary. He was deeply concerned with the world around him. He disclaimed being a visionary. He said: “Mere discipline cannot make leadership. The latter calls for faith and vision” (CWMG 72:217). The core of his vision for the people of India was contained in his concept of Swaraj, the fountainhead from which the whole range of the concepts of Gandhian philosophy flow. It necessarily starts with political self-rule as a means to achieving economic, social and moral freedom. It applies equally to the individual, the society and the state.
His concept of freedom was self-rule, i.e. self-restraint and not freedom from all restraint which “independence often means” (CWMG 45:264). “Swaraj means freedom not only for oneself but “for your neighbour too” (CWMG 60:254), because, “Men aspiring to be free could hardly think of enslaving others. If they try to do so, they would only be binding their own chains of slavery tighter” (CWMG 87:162). He defined Swaraj as a social state “in which the poorest shall feel it is their country in whose making they have an effective voice…..no high class and low class of people…..all communities shall live in perfect harmony…..no room in such an India for the curse of untouchablility or……of intoxicating drinks and drugs. Women will enjoy the same rights as men” (CWMG 47:389).
Inherent in his vision of Swaraj was his vision of democracy: “Democracy, disciplined and enlightened, is the fines thing in the world” (CWMG 47:236).
Gandhi’s Way: Satyagraha
The philosophy of Satyagraha has been explained in simple terms by Gandhi himself, as appearing in the ‘Congress Report on the Punjab Disorders, chap. IV: Satyagraha’ (see CWMG 17:151-58):
“The principles of satyagraha, as known today, constitute a gradual evolution. Its root meaning is ‘holding on to truth’; hence truth-force. I have also called it love-force or soul force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent, but that he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy. For what appears to be truth to one, may appear to be an error to the other. And patience means self-suffering……Satyagraha…..has been conceived as a weapon of the strongest, and excludes the use of violence in any shape or form ….I feel that nations cannot be one in reality, nor can their activities be conducive to the common good of the whole community, unless there is this definite recognition and acceptance of the law of the family in national and international affairs….Satyagraha has therefore been described as a coin, on whose face you read love and on the reverse you read truth….A satyagrahi does not know what defeat is….”
“And as a satyagrahi never injures his opponent and always appeals, either to his reason…..or his heart…..satyagraha is twice blessed; it blesses him who practices it, and him against whom it is practiced. Satyagraha…..is essentially a…..process of purification and penance. It seeks to secure reforms or redress of grievances by self-suffering.”
In the Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha, dialogue and compromise―except on basic principles―play a vital part. He writes in his Autobiography: “All my life through, the very insistence on truth has taught me to appreciate the beauty of compromise. I saw in later life that this spirit was an essential part of satyagraha” (CWMG 39:122).
Gandhian Political-Economic-Social Order
Mahatma Gandhi never sought a public or political office or title. He was in politics for spiritual reasons. He explained in a speech in London (23.9.1931) “….although to all appearances my mission is political….its roots are―if I may use the term―spiritual….I claim that at least my politics are not divorces from morality, from spirituality, from religion….a man who is trying to discover and follow the will of God, cannot possibly leave a single field of life untouched. I found through bitter experience that, if I wanted to do social service, I could not possibly leave politics alone” (CWMG 48:50). Later he said: “The call to lead India did not come to me in the nature of a sudden realization. I prepared for it by fasting and self discipline. My political work grew out of my spiritual preparation” (CWMG 48:63)
He was misunderstood when he said, “I cannot conceive politics as divorced from religion. Indeed, religion should pervade every one of our actions.” He explained that, “Here religion does not mean sectarianism. It means a belief in the ordered moral government of the universe. This religion transcends Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc. it does not supercede them. It harmonizes them and gives them reality” (CWMG 71: 177-8).
“…..if I seem to take part in politics, it is only because politics encircles us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out…..I wish therefore to wrestle with the snake……I have been experimenting with myself and my friends by introducing religion into politics….Religion which changes one’s very nature, which binds one indissolubly to the truth within and which ever purifies (CWMG 17:406).
Early after arrival in India he had exhorted in a speech (8.5.1915): “You and I have to act on the political platform from a spiritual side and if this is done we should conquer the conquerors” (CWMG 13:82).
Patriotism, Nationalism and Internationalism
Mahatma Gandhi’s patriotism and nationalism were not narrow-minded or exclusive, but were part of his search for truth through unity in diversity and through service. These were expressions of his swadeshi spirit, which seeks food of the nearer society as a part of the global good. “I am patriotic because I am human and humane. It is not exclusive. I will not hurt England and Germany to serve India” (CWMG 19:427). For nationalism he said: “Internationalism is possible only when nationalism becomes a fact….It is not nationalism that is evil, it is the narrowness, selfishness, exclusiveness which is the bane of modern nations which is evil (CWMG 27:255). To him nationalism was a step towards internationalism.
He believed in the ideal of self-reliance along with that of interdependence and cooperation. He said: “Individual liberty and interdependence are both essential for life in a society. When a man has done all he can for the satisfaction of his essential requirements, he will seek the cooperation of his neighbours for the rest. That will be true cooperation” (CWMG 82:396). Even his struggle for India’s freedom was imbued with this spirit: “I want freedom of my country so that other countries may learn something from this free country of mine….so that the resources of my country may be utilized for the benefit of mankind” (CWMG 28:129).
The concept of sacrifice under Gandhian thinking became a continuous chain from the individual to the world. He described this in a idiom thus: “The logical conclusion of self-sacrifice is that the individual sacrificed himself for the community, the community sacrificed itself for the district, the district for the province, the province for the nation, and the nation for the world. A drop torn from the ocean perished without doing any good. If it remains a part of the ocean, it shared the glory of carrying on its bosom a fleet of mighty ships” (CWMG 86:23).
A New Meaning of Democracy
All through his public life, Gandhi was thinking how to institutionalize swaraj or true democracy, including Gram swaraj and village panchayats. T him democracy meant “the art and science of mobilizing the entire physical, economic and spiritual resources of all…..in the service of the common good of all” (CWMG 69:50)
In an interview (9.1.1927), he defined the required qualities of leaders under swaraj thus: “My ideal is that every person should realize dharma. In that case there would be no need left for any representatives. That is the ideal swaraj….(CWMG 35: 528-31).
He was acutely conscious of the pitfalls and corruption in parliamentary democracies, and continued to lay stress on purification of the public life and political process. As early as 1934, he would write: “……corruption and hypocrisy ought not to be the inevitable products of democracy as they undoubtedly are today; nor bulk a true test of democracy” (CWMG 59: 11-2)
Towards a Humanistic Social Order
Gandhian vision of swaraj covered all aspects of human life, including the vital area of ‘Political Economy’. Gandhian economics is normative, a means to obtaining a non-violent, egalitarian, sustainable, progressive and happy social order.
To him economics and ethics go together: “True economics never militates against the highest ethical standard, just as all true ethics…..must at the same time be also good economics. As economics that inculcates mammon worship and enables the strong to amass wealth at the expense of the weak, is a false and dismal science….True economics……stands for social justice; it promotes the good of all equally, including the weakest and is indispensable for decent life” (CWMG 66:168).
He had made his first major statement on socio-economic order in his paraphrase of John Ruskin’s ‘Unto This Last’ (1860) in his booklet titled ‘Sarvodaya’ (‘Welfare of all’, 1908). He summed up his understanding of the lessons of Ruskin’s book in his Autobiography as:
“1. That the good of the individual is contained in the good of all.
2. That a lawyer’s work has the same value as a barber’s, in as much as all have the same
right of earning their livelihood from their work.
3. That a life of labour…..is the life worth living” CWMG 39:239).
In a speech delivered (22.12.1916) at Muir College Economic Society, Allahabad, he defined ‘real economics’ thus: “In a well-ordered society, the securing of one’s livelihood should be and is found to be the easiest thing in the world. Indeed the test of orderliness in a country is not the number of millionaires it owns, but the absence of starvation among its masses…. These are real economics” (CWMG 13:312).
The spiritual and moral foundation of the whole range of Gandhi’s leadership may be best summed up in his own words written at the end of his Autobiography:
“To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to truth has drawn me into the field of politics….those who say that religion ahs nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means…..identification with everything that lives is impossible without self-purification; without self-purification the observance of the law of Ahimsa must remain an empty dream; God can never be realized by one who is not pure at heart.
But the path of self-purification is hard and steep. To attain to perfect purity one has to become absolutely passion-free in thought, speech and action; to rise above the opposing currents of love and hatred, attachment and repulsion. I know that I have not in me as yet that triple purity, in spite of constant ceaseless striving for it…..I must reduce myself to zero. So long as man does not….put himself last among his fellow creatures, there is no salvation for him. Ahimsa is the farthest limit of humility.
Albert Einstein’s message on Gandhi’s 75th birthday sums up the essential character of his leadership: “A leader of his people, unsupported by an outward authority, a victorious fighter who always scorned the use of force, a man of wisdom and humility who has confronted the brutality of Europe with the dignity of the simple human being and at all times risen superior….”
Mahatma Gandhi remains the ultimate leader, from whose life and thought there is so much that every one of us can learn and try to absorb in our lives.
1. P.A. Nazareth, Gandhi's Outstanding Leadership, Bangalore: Sarvodaya International Trust, Gandhi Centre of Science and Human Values & Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, 2006
Source: Anasakti Darshan Vol. 3, No. 2, July-December 2007