Concord Grove PressConcord Grove Press

Professor Iyer elucidates the central concepts in the moral and political thought of Mahatma Gandhi, bringing out the subtlety, potency, and universal importance of his concepts of truth and non-violence, freedom and obligation, and his view of the relation between means and ends in politics. Gandhi's indictment of modern civilization, his conception of an unassailable moral commitment, his vision of human perfectibility, and his perception of the role of individual conscience and of heroism in society are all carefully considered in this volume.

Enriched by allusions to a wide range of political thinkers, classical and modern, the book makes a significant contribution to contemporary thinking on a global scale about the relevance of moral values to political actions. "In seeing beyond the confinements of past creeds and present 'isms,' Gandhi drew from the reservoirs of the untapped moral energies of mankind, and pointed to the spiritual foundations of the civilization of the future."

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Table of Contents

          Religion and Politics    
          The Concept of Power    
          The Doctrine of Double Standards    
          Moral Commitment    
          Absolute Values and Eternal Principles    
          The Need for Vows    
          Pledges and Contracts    
          The Concept of Human Nature    
          Original Goodness and Human Perfectibility    
          The Interpretation of History    
          The Individual and Society    
          The Exaltation of Conscience    
          The Socratic Daimon and Gandhi's Inner Voice    
          The Concept of Conscience in the West and in India    
          The Heroic Ideal    
          Political Leadership and the Masses    
          Conscience and Heroism    
          The Concept of Satya    
          "Truth Is God"    
          Absolute and Relative Truth    
          The Vow of Truth    
          Truth in Politics and Society    
          The Significance of Satya    
          The Meaning of Ahimsa    
          Ahimsa in Politics and Society    
          Ahimsa as a Creed and as a Policy    
          Unavoidable Himsa    
          Critics of Ahimsa    
          Appendix: Attitudes Toward Nonviolence before Gandhi    
          Satya and Ahimsa    
          Moksha and Tapas    
          Tolerance and Civility    
          The State and the Citizen    
          The Doctrine of Passive Resistance    
          The Doctrine of Satyagraha    
          The Scope and Application of Satyagraha    
          The Limits and Abuse of Satyagraha    
          Criticisms and Assessment    
Appendix: Normative Systems and Gandhian Thought    


Take a Look Inside

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Moksha and tapas- freedom and self-sacrifice Sat and Satya: Absolute and Relative Truth Ahimsa, harmlessness Ahimsa, true harmlessness Pursuit of purity through satya and ahimsa Dharma, the moral law

From "Satyagraha" (p. 258-260):

...Gandhi wanted to find place in his conception of the State both for active loyalty and for the sacred right of disobedience. He no doubt came closer to the anarchist than to the absolutist view of the State, insofar as he thought a stateless society was conceivable, but he wished to leave it open to the citizen to decide in any given State, inevitably imperfect and unavoidably coercive, whether he felt obliged to show active loyalty or total opposition to that particular State, to resist none or all or a few of its laws. The onus of responsibility lies upon the conscience of the citizen, who is required to uphold satya and display ahimsa. The citizen cannot relinquish a portion of this responsibility in the name of a social contract or legal sovereignty or tacit consent or the rule of law or similar notions implicit in democratic constitutionalism. For Gandhi there can be no unconditional consent for the sake of peace, even if secured under majority rule, nor can the limits of State action be laid down in advance in a manner that will automatically secure the citizen his natural rights. Gandhi showed a Marxist distrust of even a democratic state under conditions of class conflict, and he also had a Rousseauite suspicion of mere institutional safeguards, especially when factions are strong. He felt that the majority could easily be wrong, regardless of the nature of the political system. It is true that the theory of consent moralizes political authority and obligation by admitting their legitimacy only when certain moral criteria are satisfied, but it cannot let the individual, as Gandhi wanted to, retain the power of veto over State action at all times.

For Gandhi, as for Kant, the individual alone is a moral personality, and this no institution and no State could ever be or become. He could never agree with Durkheim's view that the State is an entity, the principal function of which is to think for the sake of guiding collective conduct. He was deeply attracted to the Socratic standpoint in regard to the State. The citizen can always, like Antigone, appeal to the eternal unwritten laws against the laws of men and of States and the commandments of religion, but he must, like Socrates, willingly accept the consequences of his challenge to the laws of States. Gandhi felt that such an attitude was even more, not less, necessary in the States of today, with their increasing centralization of power and greater impersonality, their augmented power of material himsa, their cynical disregard of satya, even in representative democracies in mass societies.

The State, as an institution, has gradually acquired an immense prestige in the long period since the doctrine of jure divino gave way. The religious aura of authority around the State in modern society is not unconnected with the monarchic and monistic conception of God in the cosmogony of early theological systems. If the State is viewed as a monadic whole superimposed on the body politic or absorbing it into itself, it comes to be credited with a quasi-mystical sovereignty, a supreme power which is absolute and may be exercised without accountability even when there are institutional safeguards and political fictions meant to prescribe limits to State authority. The rapid increase of State activity and the diminution of social power is more and more seen as one of the greatest dangers facing the mass societies of today. The whole of life becomes bureaucratized and the individual citizen feels helpless before the governmental machine. Since the late nineteenth century there has been a strong tendency to set off civil laws from all rules which, like the principles of morality, are enforced by an indeterminate authority, and the idea has even grown up that social morality consists solely or mainly in respect for the laws of the State.

It is in the context of present-day attitudes to the State and the seeming impotence of the individual citizen that Gandhi's view of the State and the citizen must be seen. The Nuremberg trials have raised the question whether men are to be held responsible for heinous acts which they were required to perform by the laws of tyrannical States. No doubt, a legal system cannot exist without a widely diffused sense of moral obligation to obey the law, but morality itself becomes meaningless if this cannot be overridden by a stronger obligation not to obey particular iniquitous laws, or to oppose wholeheartedly a wholly unjust or corrupt or tyrannical State. No authority can be absolute because no set of individuals can lay claim to absolute truth. The derivative authority of any institution, as apart from its force or power, presupposes the moral authority of its members, their right to recognize its commands as reasonable or unreasonable, as worthy or unworthy of acceptance, as morally and legally valid or invalid. The final court of appeal must be truth and right, satya and ahimsa, not as disembodied archetypes but as embodied, however partially, in individual citizens, and the right to resist an oppressive measure or system must belong equally to all in a just and free society.


From "Means and Ends in Politics" (p. 370-371):

Gandhi did not lay down the law for all men or impose on nature a rigid, teleological pattern of his own. He merely argued from the proposition that all men have some idea of truth (satya) but no adequate conception of Absolute Truth (Sat), to the prescription that society should regard the pursuit of satya as a common end. He further pointed out that in seeking the truth, we cannot help being true to our "real" natures (identical with that of all others) and this means exemplifying a measure of nonviolence in our attitudes and relations toward others. It is possible (though questionable) for people to argue that the unhappiness of some is required to maximize collective happiness, that individual citizens have to be coerced for the sake of general freedom, that the maintenance of public virtue sometimes requires subjects to choose (or support) privately corrupt but efficient and outwardly respectable rulers. It would, however, be difficult to contend that the collective pursuit of truth is compatible with the adoption of dishonest devices or the condoning of untruth. This could be advanced if a preordained, collectivist conception of truth were imposed on the members of a society. A dogmatic ideology may be propagated by dishonest and ruthless methods. Asatya necessitates himsa.

Gandhi explicitly believed that no person or group could speak in the name of Sat or Absolute Truth for the very reason that all are entitled to their relative truths, to satya as it appears to different people. As truth in this conception is identical with integrity (fidelity to one's own conscience), Gandhi could claim that no man can pursue greater integrity as an end by adopting means involving a sacrifice of the integrity he already has. The test of one's immediate moral integrity is nonviolence; it is a test of one's genuineness in the pursuit of truth (i.e., of intellectual integrity) through one's actions in the midst of society. If we understand the concept of satya and accept its pursuit as a common end, we cannot make a hard-and-fast distinction between this end and the means toward it that we employ. On the other hand, it is particularly if we regard the promotion of happiness as the whole duty of man that we become careless about the means and violate the "laws of morality." "The consequences of this line of thinking are writ large on the history of Europe," said Gandhi in his introduction to his paraphrase of Ruskin's Unto This Last. For Gandhi the polis is nothing more or less than the domain in which all men are free to gain skill in the art of action and learn how to exemplify satya and ahimsa; the arena in which both the individual quest could be furthered and the social virtues displayed among the masses of citizens in a climate of tolerance and civility; a morally progressive society in which neither the State nor any social organization is allowed to flout with impunity the sacred principle that every man is entitled to his relative truth and no one can claim the right to coerce another, to treat him as a means to his own end.

Raghavan N. Iyer

The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi

The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi was first published in 1973 by Oxford University Press and reissued in 1978 as a Galaxy Book. It was a main selection for the Library of Political Studies in 1974 and an alternate selection for The Library of Political Affairs in the same year. It has received international acclaim as an authoritative and masterly exposition of Gandhi's thought.

"A book that is of first-class importance"
— Arnold Toynbee

"This fine restatement of Gandhi's philosophy of political action as a variant of spiritual worship is well worth reading."
— Washington Post

"The virtue of this study is that it takes Gandhi's thought with ultimate seriousness, and exposes it to a sophisticated level of theoretical analysis that it has not received before ... an indispensable contribution."
— Political Science Quarterly

"Iyer constructs from the hundreds of articles and addresses of Gandhi a consistent, significant political-moral philosophy which if not the equal of those of Plato and Aristotle, is at least a major contribution to the classical tradition. Iyer is an excellent, persuasive writer."
— Reviews of Religions

"A substantial and significant book, finely argued, solidly founded on a wide range of source material, and elegantly written."
— Judith M. Brown, Cambridge

"The author's analysis, in depth and detail, of Gandhi's thought is penetrating as well as vast."
— K. Swaminathan, Chief Editor,
The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi

"Professor Iyer diagnoses a fascinating conflict in the Gandhian mind between the Tolstoyan socialist belief that the Kingdom of Heaven is attainable on earth and the Dostoevskian mystical conviction that it can never be materialized. . . . This is a book demanding and deserving close and patient study."
— The Times Literary Supplement