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Hinduism Was Wellspring of Gandhi’s Ethics

Western writers have sometimes dismissed Hinduism as “otherworldly,” but the life of M.K. Gandhi illustrates the world-transforming potential of Hinduism. Far from being otherworldly, Gandhi was a politician, pragmatist and activist who integrated spirituality with the practical realities of life.

Western writers have sometimes dismissed Hinduism as “otherworldly,” but the life of M.K. Gandhi illustrates the world-transforming potential of Hinduism. Far from being otherworldly, Gandhi was a politician, pragmatist and activist who integrated spirituality with the practical realities of life. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
As he said of himself, “I am not a man who sits down and thinks out things syllogistically. I am a man of action.”
 
Hinduism is the quest for reality, spirituality, integration and liberation, according to Troy Wilson Organ, author of The Hindu Quest for the Perfection of Man and Hinduism: Its Historical Development. Gandhi’s life incorporates all of these goals into a living testimony. As Gandhi said, “my life is my message.”
 
The thirst for reality drives the spiritual quest of Hinduism. Underneath the maya (illusions) of life is the Truth. A prayer from the Upanishads (ancient Hindu texts) says, “From the unreal lead me to the real! From the darkness lead me to light!”
 
This concern for reality led Gandhi to debunk the myths of benign colonialism and Western cultural superiority. While insisting he did not hate the British, Gandhi clearly saw colonialism’s destructive effects on Indian culture. He believed Western dependence on technology kept people from living simply and robbed them of the fruit of their labor.
 
Organ notes that the symbol of Gandhi’s protest against Western civilization was the spinning wheel. He devoted a portion of each day to spinning. “I claim that in losing the spinning wheel we lost our left lung. We are, therefore, suffering from galloping consumption,” Gandhi said. “The restoration of the wheel arrests the progress of the fell disease.”
 
Hinduism also provides a rich spirituality that was the wellspring of Gandhi’s ethics. Gandhi’s spiritual example earned him the appellation of Mahatma (great soul). He lived simply and engaged in daily prayer and meditation.
 
While drinking deeply from his Hindu roots, he also sought wisdom in sources outside of Hinduism, such as Tolstoy, Thoreau and the Sermon on the Mount. He said of his openness: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet.”
 
The quest for integration in Hinduism is fueled by the belief that there is a fundamental unity holding the pluralities of life together. This unity is often described in metaphysical terms in Hindu sources. The Upanishads say, “As small sparks come out from a great fire, even so from this Self come forth all vital energies, all worlds, all gods, all beings.”
 
Gandhi, in his pragmatic bent, saw this unity in moral and ethical terms. The integrating concern of his ethics was ahimsa, respect for life that leads to non-violence. He called ahimsa “the chief glory of Hinduism” and held that “it is the way of life and India has to show it to the world.”
 
The cutting edge of this central value of ahimsa is what Gandhi called satyagraha (Truth-force). Non-violence is not passive, rather it presses aggressively for change and actively challenges immoral laws and policies.
 
Finally, the goal of Hinduism is moksha (liberation). Classically, this liberation was conceived as freedom from the cycle of suffering and rebirth. Gandhi also applied this spiritual goal to practical ends. He rejected the notion of “untouchability.” His crowning achievement was sparking and nurturing a non-violent revolution that resulted in Indian independence.
 
Ninian Smart writes in The World’s Religions: “Gandhi with his spiritual power, his wiliness, his humor, his kindliness, and his creativity of life, was to influence many others, including Martin Luther King. There are many Christians who look to his example … He represents the practical poise of the new Hindu ideology.”
 
James Browning is senior pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.
 
This article is indebted to two books by Troy Wilson Organ:
 
The Hindu Quest for the Perfection of Man and Hinduism: Its Historical Development
 
Other resources:
 
Gandhi and Satyagraha
 
Salmon Rushdie’s Profile of Gandhi at Time