Gandhi often thought about the nature of moral and political action through his reading of the Bhagavad-Gita. For him Krishna’s advice to Arjuna emphasised the superiority of duty over choice in defining such action. Arjuna’s horror at killing his friends, relations and preceptors in the army of his enemies, and his desire to flee the battlefield, were rejected by Krishna as futile. Krishna tells Arjuna that such a choice is superfluous, for whether he stays or goes the war will be fought.
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Gandhi argued that its futility apart, choice is also elitist because it is based on a knowledge that is unequally distributed among individuals, favouring the educated and privileged over others. Rather than choice, he based moral and political action on duty (dharma), not as something generic but specific to each person given their circumstances (swadharma). One has to discover and do one’s duty rather than choose on the basis of a result which can never be fully known.
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Doing one’s duty therefore meant focussing not on the ends so much as the means of moral and political action (nishkama karma). And this meant inhabiting the present in such a way as to make the future more open to goodness, something Gandhi described as attending upon the incarnation of Vishnu. The present, he thought, was the true site of nonviolence and should not be sacrificed for an unpredictable future.
Rights and duties
Aside from choice, Gandhi also contrasted duty with rights, which are at the heart of liberal societies. He claimed that since rights can always be taken away, they are not inalienable and cannot define moral and political action. Duties, however, truly belong to individuals and can never be taken away. And while the primary right is that to life, the most important duty is the sacrifice of life in killing or dying.
And yet Gandhi thought that this attention to death was more likely to protect life than rights could, for it was invariably the desire to guard and strengthen one’s own life that produced violence in the effort to reduce and eliminate the lives of others. Non-violence was therefore linked to the duty of sacrifice and even death, since it was defined not by life but truth (satya) as the ultimate value.
Evil depends upon goodness
In Gandhi’s view, the Gita teaches us that even evil depends upon goodness. After all, the evil army of Duryodhana could only hold together by virtues such as friendship, loyalty and courage as well as sacrifice among its soldiers. This was why it contained good people like Bhishma, Karna and Drona. By withdrawing goodness from evil, then, the latter would collapse of its own accord, which was what the Non-Cooperation Movement was meant to do.
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Goodness can be withdrawn from evil by the nonviolent warrior laying claim to virtues such as friendship, loyalty, courage and sacrifice in a more powerful way than his or her violent enemies can. By representing these virtues that no society can do without, the votaries of nonviolence were able to convert even their enemies. It was these teachings from the Gita that Gandhi put into practice in his own moral and political actions.
Faisal Devji teaches history at Oxford University