THE ETHICS OF MAHATMA GANDHI
by John Scales Avery
If humans are ever to achieve a stable global society in the future, theywill have to become much more modest in their economic behavior and much more peaceful in their politics. For both modesty and peace, Gandhi is auseful source of ideas. The problems with which he struggled during hislifetime are extremely relevant to us in the 21st Century, when both nuclear and ecological catastrophes threaten the world.
Avoiding escalation of conflicts
Today we read almost every day of killings that are part of escalating cycles of revenge and counter-revenge, for example in the Middle East. Gandhi’s experiences both in South Africa and in India convinced him that such cycles could only be ended by unilateral acts of kindness and understanding from one of the parties in a conflict. He said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.
To the insidious argument that “the end justifies the means”, Gandhi answered firmly: “They say that ’means are after all means’. I would say that ’means are after all everything’. As the means, so the end. Indeed, the Creator has given us limited power over means, none over end... The means may be likened to a seed, and the end to a tree; and there is the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree. Means and end are convertible terms in my philosophy of life.”
Gandhi’s advocacy of non-violence is closely connected to his attitude towards ends and means. He believed that violent methods for achieving a desired social result would inevitably result in an escalation of violence. The end achieved would always be contaminated by the methods used. He was influenced by Leo Tolstoy with whom he exchanged many letters, and he in turn influenced Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela
Harmony between religious groups
Gandhi believed that at their core, all religions are based on the concepts of truth, love, compassion, nonviolence and the Golden Rule. When asked whether he was a Hindu, Gandhi answered, “Yes I am. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.” When praying at his ashram, Gandhi made a point of including prayers from many religions. one of the most serious problems that he had to face in his efforts to free India from British rule was disunity and distrust, even hate, between the Hindu and Muslim communities. Each community felt that with the British gone, they might face violence and repression from the other. Gandhi made every effort to bridge the differences and to create unity and harmony. His struggles with this problem are highly relevant to us today, when the world is split by religious and ethnic differences.
Solidarity with the poor
Today’s world is characterized by intolerable economic inequalities, both between nations and within nations. 8 million children die each year from poverty-related causes. 1.3 billion people live on less than 1.25 dollars a day. Gandhi’s concern for the poor can serve as an example to us today, as we work to achieve a more equal world. He said, “There is enough for every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.”
Voluntary reduction of consumption
After Gandhi’s death, someone took a photograph of all his worldly possessions. It was a tiny heap, consisting of his glasses, a pair of sandals, a homespun cloth (his only garment) and a watch. That was all. By reducinghis own needs and possessions to an absolute minimum, Gandhi had triedto demonstrate that the commonly assumed connection between wealth and merit is false. This is relevant today, in a world where we face a crisis ofdiminishing resources. Not only fossil fuels, but also metals and arable landper capita will become scarce in the future. This will force a change inlifestyle, particularly in the industrialized countries, away from consumerismand towards simplicity. Gandhi’s example can teach us that we must ceaseto use wealth and “conspicuous consumption” as a measure of merit.
Dr. John Scales Avery
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (shared 1995 award),
Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy,