Non-violence Relative Economics And A New Social Order: Nonviolence and Self-Rule A Hierarchical Perspective

Published: 15.06.2015
Updated: 09.07.2015

Gandhi's approach to social change involves a very coherent pattern whereby any reliance upon coercion, including legal or governmental action, is to be reduced as far as possible. The ideal of compulsion rather than of coercion - of promoting a reflective search for what is True rather than forcing an acceptance of a particular vision - has been shown to motivate Gandhi's satyagraha approach from its beginnings in South Africa.

However, certain apparent contradictions in Gandhi's approach and practice will be subject to analysis. His support for legal prohibition of alcohol and of the possibility for confiscation of property without compensation would seem to be particularly blatant examples of positions quite contrary to satyagraha principles. Positions like these, moreover, may later appear to be moderate departures in comparison with Gandhi's famous preference for overtly violent action as opposed to cowardly inactivity. Such apparent irregularities, even so, will in due time be demonstrated as integrally consistent with an understanding of satyagraha in the context of its central political objective: swaraj.

No less an associate of Gandhi than Jawaharlal Nehru has observed that Gandhi was often confusing in his reference to "swaraj". Gandhi would variously use the word to include "self-rule", "self-restraint", and "self-government" as well as "political independence", "home rule", "true democracy", the "rule of justice" and the "Kingdom of God". Indeed, the ways in which the term was used would appear to be almost endless and its potential for fostering misunderstanding correspondingly immense.

As in the case of the word "satyagraha", however, the confusion surrounding "swaraj" can be significantly reduced as one recognizes that Gandhi's views assumed a hierarchical perspective, just as satyagraha could be seen from at least three levels of understanding, so also "self-rule" or swaraj can be analyzed according to three levels of meaning. These three levels include 1. Purria Swaraj, 2. Personal Swaraj, and 3. Hind Swaraj. While, for Gandhi each level in this hierarchy is inseparably related to the others, to analyze each in its turn may help provide a clearer basis for understanding Gandhian nonviolence as practiced.

We are told that Puma or Parliamentary Swaraj "denotes a condition of things when the dumb and lame millions will speak and walk." At this lowest level of understanding, "self-rule" means the "rule of Indians by Indians". It means "the government of India by the consent of the people" as reflected in their ability to select their own representatives through free and open elections. According to Gandhi, to not have achieved this low level of self-rule tends to produce in a population a subconscious (if not conscious) feeling of low self-worth and cultural inferiority. For these reasons, even as early as 1908, Gandhi endorsed the idea of parliamentary independence for India since "It is wrong normally for one nation to rule over another." Even if the rule were benevolent, Gandhi would still be concerned about its effect in breeding a complacent or slave mentality.

Puma Swaraj, as conceived by Gandhi, demands that the political ruler's primary duty is to encourage all individuals within a society to become progressively more self-ruled. In other words, parliamentary swaraj is to be based upon an image of "true democracy" in which the primary units would consist of decentralized villages where citizens would be encouraged to actively participate in making such decisions as directly affect their own lives. Each village unit would select sub-provincial representatives who would then select other representatives until "the capacity to regulate national life through national representatives" is achieved. Each higher administrative level would involve itself with more and more of a coordinative than a dictative function and, in fact, would become unnecessary to the extent that the villagers are able to rule themselves and assist other geographical areas in times of need. "True democracy" thus may ultimately approach a state of "enlightened anarchy":

In such a state every one is his own ruler. He rules himself in such a manner as not to be a hindrance to his neighbour. In the ideal state, therefore, there is no political power, because there is no State. But the ideal is never fully realized in life. Hence the classical statement of Thoreau that government is best which governs least.

Governing least, in this context, involves utilizing only those laws which are clearly reflective of the current state of public opinion. Accordingly, with regards to the legal prohibition of alcohol, Gandhi maintained that the vast majority of people in India already agreed that it is both morally wrong and socially harmful to obtain and drink liquor. Legislation would, from this viewpoint, remind the drinkers of their own "shame" as well as strengthen the hands of temperance workers by enabling them to appeal to the "law abiding sentiment" of the population. Already conscious that what they were doing is wrong, the lawbreakers could thus be encouraged to hold firm to the truth as they themselves see it.

Gandhi would admit, however, that wherever the physical enforcement of any law enters into a situation, to that extent there is a departure from the ideal of non-coercion. While he would not oppose a minimum departure in cases where people were failing to rule themselves, Gandhi continued to see such unfortunate action as undesirable. The ideal of "pure" or "sattvic" politics, as Raghavan Iyer has pointed out, reinforced Gandhi's emphasis upon persuasion rather than coercion. Yet as the ideal (by definition) cannot be fully realized in practice, a "rajasic" or coercive "danda" element will always be present in any government. The greater the degree of coercion present, the lower the moral level of a society is perceived to be. A "morally progressive society", accordingly, would be one in which:

... neither the State nor any social organization is allowed to flcut 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.

Put another way, a morally progressive society is one which is becoming progressively more "moral". Morality is firmly associated with the attainment to moksha or spiritual liberation for the individual soul. Significantly, in this context, in its second level of meaning swaraj becomes "synonymous with moksha or salvation." In personal swaraj the puma swaraj ideal of a people progressively growing in the capacity to rule themselves becomes inseparable from the ideal of encouraging all individuals to allow their selves, or inner soul, to rule over their bodies. A truly moral person thus becomes one who not only gains a sense of self-respect but also learns to respect the self or soul in themselves and others.

We are told that the "Swaraj of a people means the sum total of the Swaraj of individuals." Put quite simply, this means that to the extent to which the individuals in a society have approached spiritual moksha (Personal Swaraj) to that degree they cannot be ruled over by others and the stateless ideal of puma swaraj is attained. While a low level perception of swaraj involved the mentality of achieving a rule of India by Indians, this higher level perception holds that:

I should be uninterested in the fact as to who rules (in Government). I should expect rulers to rule according to my wish otherwise I cease to help them rule me.

This higher level of understanding of swaraj, it should be emphasized, nevertheless presupposes a significant degree of self-respect and empowerment in the understander. A person who is not at all conscious of his or her internal resources for courageous action is not likely to resist oppression from any source that may exercise it. For such a person, the sense of helplessness - or lack of the will for freedom - is, from Gandhi's perspective, the first opponent to be overcome. Once this goal is sufficiently achieved, then the empowered masses may understand Gandhi's observation of how

"real Swaraj will come, not by the acquisition of authority by a few, but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.

Most observers of the Independence Movement in India have failed to recognize how revolutionary were Gandhi's objectives. His goal was not to merely free India from British bondage but to liberate the masses "from any yoke whatsoever" in the process. From Gandhi's point of view the British were able to rule over India only because of the disunity, immorality and ignorance of the masses. To the extent his people attained to Personal Swaraj, purifying their own lives and consciously rejecting their oppressive habits and customs, the British would leave "of their own accord". Political Independence, or puma swaraj, in other words, would become a consequence of a massive movement towards personal swaraj or righteousness. His lesson in summary, thus came to involve the following teaching:

If we keep our own house in order, only those who are fit to live in it will remain.

The question, however, remains as to how a society is to put its own house in order prior to the significant evolution of a sense of empowerment in the masses. Gandhi recognized, for example, that a people who are primarily concerned with the hungry state of their stomachs are not going to listen patiently to the virtues of nonviolence or the power of their souls. They don't have time to focus their attention upon their souls when their bodies are in such need. Under the heel of extreme and consistent poverty, the self -respect of a person may be as thoroughly destroyed at it is in the case of a drinker for whom alcoholism has become integral to life.

What is one to do in this situation if the rich, who control the resources which the poor need so badly, are themselves "enslaved by the temptation of money and of the luxuries that money can buy." In such a case, Gandhi observes how "I do not want to dispossess anybody; I should then be departing from the rule of non-violence." But if the moneyed people are unable to break the chains of their own desires and utilize their wealth as trustees for the welfare of all, "I believe we shall have to deprive them of their possessions through the State with the minimum exercise of violence." Indeed, as reported by his former secretary N.K. Bose, by 1931 it had become Gandhi's position that

...if the priority of the interests of the poor demanded, there would he confiscation without compensation when any interests, even when legally established, came into conflict with the best interests of the masses.

The contradictions involved in allowing the State or other social organizations to undertake such blatantly coercive action are obvious. Not only are virtually all of Gandhis satyagraha guidelines violated, but the State which "represents violence in a concentrated and organized form" can only become more powerful and centralized as a result of its being used as an instrument. To support state control or "ownership" would appear to merely enhance rather than reduce the authority of the State which "can never by weaned from the violence to which it owes its very existence."

Let us be clear at this point. Gandhi would never describe the confiscation of property without compensation as a satyagraha action. Indeed, as a satyagrahi, he admits that there is neither basis for such coercion nor for belief in private property as such. He would nevertheless hold that those who selfishly hold onto what the world needs are committing violence - just as those who build their wealth through the sweat of others are thieves. Violence which takes the form of overt coercion as exercised by the poor in the process of their realizing greater control over their own lives is, in this context, clearly preferred by Gandhi to the continued and systematic violence that the wealthy exercise by virtue of their wealth.

It is at this point, prior to exploring Gandhi's perception of swaraj on the level of Hind Swaraj, that Gandhi's hierarchical perception of nonviolence may be best analyzed. Thus far we have seen how Gandhi could look with favour upon legislative enforcement of prohibition and even support coercive action by the State on behalf of the poor under circumstances in which society is at a low level of self-rule. Under no circumstances, however, would Gandhi himself participate in the destruction of one human body by another. What, then, would be his attitude towards those who, having no faith in more nonviolent alternatives, chose to kill others in the process of developing a sense of self-respect and empowerment? Says he:

I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence. I would advise violence...I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her dishonor.

There have been those, including the respected "Gandhian" Jayaprakash Narayan, who have used this statement forgetting how Gandhi had continued to say "But I believe that non-violence is infinitely superior to violence." Ignored also is the fact that "where there is only a choice" connotes a mental awareness or understanding far more than any material circumstance. Because of Gandhi's own conscious recognition of the power of nonviolence, therefore, there was always a choice where he was concerned. But for others, without his consciousness, and for whom his exemplary life seemed to make no sense, Gandhi had other advice: to hold firm to the truth as you see it, even if that "includes the power as much to commit errors as to set them right."

For those who conceive of violence and nonviolence in "either or" terms, Gandhi's attitude has been a source of confusion often open to pacifist attack. Others who similarly see the choice as either violence or nonviolence may be more pleased with what they perceive as Gandhi's realistic willingness to admit of the appropriateness of violence under certain circumstances. As Hutchins has noted, such people fail to realize that

When Gandhi gave advice it was never a simple matter. Gandhi ordinarily supplied a hierarchy of recommendations, starting with what he considered ideally preferable, and ending up with what he considered better than nothing... Gandhi did not confuse his recommendations: he ranked them carefully from top to bottom, offering advice to those who were receptive whatever their level of dedication and sophistication.

For Gandhi, we must remember, to attain to Truth, Nonviolence, or perfect Self-Suffering are ideals which can be approached but not fully realized. In practice, "Truth and Untruth often co-exist, good and evil are often found together." Violence and nonviolence, accordingly, are "subtle forces" which are often found intertwined. Indeed, depending upon one's point of view (anekantavada) virtually any action can be viewed as both violent and nonviolent at the same time. It is in this context that Gandhi observes how:

Strictly speaking, no activity and no industry is possible without a certain amount of violence, no matter how little. Even the very process of living is impossible without a certain amount of violence. What we have to do is to minimize it to the greatest extent possible.

What is "possible" ideally is thus tempered by Gandhi for adaptation to a concrete circumstance. Unlike Tolstoy, for example, Gandhi did not want to devote his efforts first to presenting the Ideal of Love in all its beauty. As one of Gandhi's secretaries observed, "The Ideal is like solid food to the baby - it usually can't be digested." Rather than describe satyagraha on level three, therefore, he often emphasized level one. Similarly, when the idea of even tactical nonviolence had no appeal, Gandhi would advise people to do their duty as they saw it - even if this was likely to result in damage to property and loss of life.

It is difficult for an "either/or" pacifist to conceive of anything being more violent than the intentional killing of one person by another. For Gandhi, however, there was something even more violent than that. He tells us that "I cannot conceive a greater loss to a man than the loss of his self-respect" or sense of "honour". A thorough-going coward, from Gandhi's perspective, develops an internalized sense of honourlessness as a consistent pattern is reenacted which always prefers inaction to self-assertion. While one who kills out of fear of being killed is cowardly in so far as there is an unwillingness to die without retaliation, such a coward may at least survive with some sense of self-worth.

As an illustration for his contention that extreme cowardice is worse than a willingness to commit injury, Gandhi would sometimes resort to the analogy of the cat and the mouse. In that analogy Gandhi maintains that as long as the mouse lives in extreme fear of the cat, there can be no basis in the mouse either for loving himself or the cat. For the mouse to Fight back with violence constitutes a reduction of fear and an increase in self-esteem. Thus Gandhi would admit that

Yes, the very act of forgiving and loving shows superiority in the doer. But that way of putting the proposition begs the question, who can love?... You do not love him whom you fear. Immediately you cease to fear, you are given a choice - to strike or to refrain. To refrain is proof of awakening of the soul in man; to strike is proof of body-force. The (mental) ability to strike must be present when the power of the soul is demonstrated.

Over and over again the same theme is repeated: "There is hope for a violent man to some day become non-violent, but there is non for a coward." At least the one in whom violence is more prevalent than nonviolence can, in other words, have hope for reversing the balance. More importantly, "Cowardice can never be moral" as "Fearlessness is the first requisite of spirituality." To become progressively free "from all external fear" accordingly, constitutes a major factor in one who may adopt satyagraha as a means of attaining to the equated goals of personal swaraj and spiritual moksha. At one point, in fact, Gandhi goes so far as to say that those who have cultivated mental fearlessness in the process of engaging in military combat may well make the best satyagrahis when the willingness to kill is renounced.

The question remains, with regards to the development of personal swaraj, what is the committed satyagrahi to do in relationship to those who are exercising over violence in a cause that is agreed to be just? Generally speaking, it is quite clear that Gandhi would advice his satyagrahis to continue to act according to satyagraha guidelines to bring about the "rule of justice". The satyagrahi, moreover, will continue to advise all parties to a conflict to experiment in nonviolence even as effort is devoted to visibly demonstrate the viability of alternatives to violence. If the satyagrha forces are judged to be of sufficient strength, the satyagraha might oppose all sides to the conflict who are exercising over violence. On the other hand, the satyagrahi might both refuse to oppose and refuse to support violent forces engaged in fighting for a just cause.

While planning his own course of action around these issues, Gandhi was forced to admit that "In the last resort, every case has to be judged on its own merits," While honestly observing how "it is not always easy to achieve in practice what one has found to be true in theory," Gandhi would thus exercise a broad flexibility in his specific positions which well earned him a reputation of being"highly unpredictable" in the short run.

From a long-term perspective, however, Gandhi's approach remained amazingly consistent and in harmony with his stated guidelines. While reflecting a "both/and" mentality in conjunction with a hierarchical perception of nonviolence on a continuum, he generally sought to maximize all progress towards personal and parliamentary swaraj while seeking to minimize such elements of coercion and violence as are inevitably present. In other words, while being conscious of his distance from his ideal of perfect self-sacrificing love, Gandhi nevertheless engaged himself in the highest effort of approaching a state of Hind Swaraj.

Gandhi tells us that "to me Hind Swaraj is the rule of all people, is the rule of justice." Ultimately, it consists of "the sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority." The goal of puma swaraj which involves encouraging a people to rule themselves rather than be ruled over by others is joined by the progressive surrender of rule to one's inner self or soul on a personal level. Thus, in Hind Swaraj, the extremity of Gandhi's ideal reveals itself as he observes how:

The Independence of my conception means nothing less than the realization of the "Kingdom of God" within you and on this earth.

The ideal of "Ram Rajya" or the Kingdom of God is the goal towards which all satyagraha movements are designed to progress. It is a condition approached as the collective efforts of individuals towards moksha are totaled. It is a condition of "true democracy" where "the power is shared by all" and the state ceases to exist in any coercive sense. It is a condition where the mass of humanity has been so willing to voluntarily suffer for their love that they have approached as perfect a realization of Truth as is possible in embodied existence.

The various levels of meanings which Gandhi attributes to the word "swaraj", it can now be seen, are enmeshed in a hierarchical continuum very similar to that constructed for the word "satyagraha". Just as satyagraha as "soul force" includes satyagraha as a "method" (see diagram -1) so also each higher level of understanding for swaraj includes all of the lower levels (see diagram - 2).

Diagram - 1         Diagram - 2

Throughout "Hind Swaraj", most broadly speaking, "real home rule" is built upon "self-control" both on an individual and on a collective (puma swaraj) level. Satyagraha, practiced as a mere "method" would appear to be capable of approaching the ideal of perfect political participation of groups in a decentralized parliamentary process. Undoubtedly, however, Gandhi would argue that this ideal will be impeded in direct proportion to the lack of personal swaraj exercised by individuals. Personal swaraj, for its part, requires the adoption of satyagraha as a religious discipline to be able to advance very far. Similarly, the development of Hind Swaraj presupposes that the level of satyagraha (as soul force) is increasing in a society.

"Self-rule" on any level, moreover, involves "self-restraint, and not freedom from all restraint which 'independence' often means. As we have seen, Gandhi's hierarchical perspective regarding the nature of the relationship between violence and nonviolence consistently advocated the ideal of encouraging completely voluntary (hence, moral) self-restraint even as it would allow for more coercive options to be wielded according to different situations. Gandhi's habit of giving advice involving a hierarchy of recommendations was, in this context, quite consistent with his overall objective of encouraging people to act according to their own perceptions of truth in ways which will maximize their own growth towards the personal and collective swaraj which is moksha.

As we have been able to see, Gandhi's positions with regards to the legal prohibition of alcohol, legal or illegal confiscation of property without compensation, and his general preference for outward violence as opposed to cowardice (inward violence), all make sense within the swaraj context. Instead of advising women, for example, that they may only defend themselves with the "purity" of their souls and thus render potential rapists as harmless as poisonous snakes are in the presence of a highly developed satyagrahi, Gandhi pragmatically took into account the mental states of ihe people in any given historical situation. While including the ideal in his advice to women, therefore, he would also advise such lower levels of response as tactical non-cooperation and overt violence with nails and teeth-most anything except for the dishonour inherent in cowardly acquiescence.

Similarly, on a collective basis, Gandhi would advise the British in World War II to refrain from conducting retaliatory air raids on Germany even as he could understand (and respect) their failure to heed his advice. As the diagram - 3 shows, to be willing to kill, even in a planned premeditated manner, is preferred by Gandhi to cowardly acquiescence. He would even go so far as to say that the Polish resistance to Hitler was, on the balance, "almost nonviolence" in so far as it was conducted by people who "have no capacity for proportionate violence" in "spontaneous" and physically "defensive action" in order to defend one's sense of "honour" in a cause Gandhi agreed was "just". While neither opposing nor actively supporting violent (killing) actions under some circumstances, Gandhi nevertheless continued to hold forth his satyagraha alternative and muster support for its implementation.

Realizing that the purest individual or collective satyagraha effort "can exist only in theory". Gandhi still sought to make his practice correspond with his ideals "as nearly as possible". As he attempted

Diagram - 3

to regulate his movements in accordance with satyagraha guidelines and declared how "I will not kill anyone for any cause whatsoever, but be killed by him if resistance of his will renders my being killed necessary," tensions eventually developed. Understandably, there were many who would hear him say things like "India must learn to live before she can aspire to die for humanity." and would resist that willingness to die. There thus came a time when Gandhi's personal positions became too divergent from those officially accepted by the Congress Party he had helped to build, and he resigned his membership. Few people could share his conception of nationalism and the extent of nonviolence which was explicit in it: idea of nationalism is that my country may become free; that if need be the whole country may die, so that the human race may live.

As should now be very clear, Gandhi's approach to social change was guided by principles he believed to be as applicable to individuals as to nations. While holding firm to his perceptions of Truth, Love and Self-Suffering, he sought to make them pragmatically understandable to people of different backgrounds, historical situations, and spiritual development. In so doing, he may be open to criticism for departures from perfection but would likely argue that such departures are inevitable and such guidelines as are developed to minimize them contribute to making his approach of satyagraha both distinctive from and superior to more intentionally coercive alternatives.


Title: Non-violence Relative Economics And A New Social Order
Publisher: Jain Vishwa Bharati University, Ladnun, India
Editors: Prof. B.R. Dugar, Dr. Samani Satya Prajna, Dr. Samani Ritu Prajna
Edition: First Edition, 2008

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Anekantavada
  2. Body
  3. Consciousness
  4. Danda
  5. Discipline
  6. Fear
  7. Fearlessness
  8. Gandhi
  9. Moksha
  10. Non-violence
  11. Nonviolence
  12. Ram
  13. Soul
  14. Swaraj
  15. Violence
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