Recognising Gandhi the philosopher

Synopsis: Philosophical dimensions of Gandhi are often ignored. It is time to pay attention to his ethics-led philosophical way of life.


Often, Gandhi is portrayed as a political leader. His philosophical contributions are often ignored. But much like Buddha of the Nikayas and the Socrates of Plato’s early dialogues, he is an ethical philosopher. The credit for recognising Gandhi as a philosopher goes to two philosophers belonging to the Analytic tradition of philosophy — Akeel Bilgrami and Richard Sorabjee.

What are the philosophical dimensions?

Philosophy was initially practised only in three civilisations — Chinese, Greek and Indian. In these civilisations, philosophy functioned as a way of life and not a belief system rooted in supernatural powers.

Even the philosophical ways of life practised in those ancient times could be divided into two categories — a metaphysics-led philosophical way of life and an ethics-led philosophical way of life. Except for the philosophies of Buddha, Socrates and Confucius all other philosophies propagated metaphysics-led ways of life.

What is the difference between these two philosophies?

In ethics-led philosophy, the attempt is to transform the practitioner from his/her normal state of being to an ethically higher state of existence. During this process, the practitioner becomes psychologically self-sufficient. The Buddha called this state as “Nirvana”. Socrates declared this state as “a virtuous person cannot be harmed”.

However, in the metaphysics-led philosophical way of life, the philosopher tries to achieve a higher state of understanding (insight). It also seeks communion with what is taken to be the “god”. In this philosophy, ethics has a secondary role to play.

Why Gandhi’s philosophical aspect was ignored?

Initially, Christianity banned all non-Christian ways of life in Europe in 529CE. When philosophy re-emerged in 17th century Europe, it was as a purely theoretical discipline. With that, the idea of “philosophical ways of life” became extinct in Europe. With colonisation, European ideas started influencing public discourse in the rest of the world. Viewed against these standards, Gandhi did not qualify as a philosopher.

What was Gandhi’s philosophy?

Gandhi, like the Buddha, was an ethical consequentialist. According to him, the purpose of his life was to reduce self-centredness and to promote a concern for the well-being of all (Sarvodaya). What makes Gandhi different from the Buddha is that he also wanted the development of freedoms (freedoms such as freedom from hunger, thirst, illiteracy, avoidable diseases, etc.).

According to Gandhi, only through political action, the constructive programmes can be implemented. Anything that enhances selfishness, like a capitalist economy, is antithetical to Gandhi’s philosophical way of life.

Source: This post is based on the following articles:

  • Recognising Gandhi the philosopher” published in the Indian Express on 1st October 2021.
  • ” Gandhi timeless advice: Be the change you wish to see”  published in Live Mint on 1st October 2021.
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