After spending a week with M. K. Gandhi at Sevagram Ashram in 1942, the American journalist Louis Fischer described Gandhi as “a remarkable natural phenomenon, quiet and insidiously overwhelming." Intellectual contact with Gandhi, wrote Fischer, “was a delight because he opened his mind and allowed one to see how the machine works." This was possible because Gandhi thought aloud, revealing each step in his thinking, so you could follow him as he moved to a conclusion.

While an exchange of views was important for Gandhi, noted Fischer, he was more interested in the establishment of a personal relationship—in reaching out to the other person. These personal qualities made Gandhi somewhat of a master of nuance.

Are such qualities a pre-requisite for seeing the world and its conflicts in subtle, nuanced ways rather than the binary divides that now dominate much of public discourse? Or are there some core principles that anyone could adopt regardless of their personal modes of relating to other people and diverse world-views?

These questions have become urgent at a time when utterly condemning and ‘calling-out’ the other, the offender, is deemed to be a virtue. To do less is seen as complicity with injustice—be it a physical violation of rights or perceived offences against a preferred ideology. It is often suggested that the polarisation of public discourse can be addressed by more people seeking out a middle-ground, by being more moderate. But the idea of the middle still holds you captive to the notion of binary divides.

What if the most creative possibilities lie not in the middle but in another field? Of course, this endeavour calls for patience. Even more ambitiously, it requires a willingness to be comfortable with ambiguities; to not fear uncertainties.

For instance, when Gandhi rejected the claim that the world had to choose between two clear choices—capitalism or communism—he opened himself to attack from both sides. What can we learn from Gandhi’s confidence in transcending the two dominant and bitterly conflicting ideologies of his time? This question will, in turn, lead us to an exploration of non-violence—the essence of Gandhi’s life quest and the area in which he most refined his gift for nuance.


Even in his own lifetime Gandhi was often accused of being a collaborator of Indian capitalists and protector of the interests of the Indian bourgeoisie. At the Second Communist International in 1920, M.N. Roy said that Gandhi had an instinct for preserving property rights and this betrayed “the class affiliation of Gandhi in spite of his pious outbursts against the sordid materialism of modern civilization."

Gandhi did indeed believe that abolishing property rights would not solve the problems of exploitation. But this was not because he had class affiliations. His deep friendships with Jamnalal Bajaj and G.D. Birla were a consequence of his ability to forge bonds of love with a wide range of people across classes. Therefore, the bond with Birla thrived despite serious ideological differences on the future of industry and wealth-generation in India.

Gandhi could reject both capitalism and communism because while these camps fought over who should control the means of production—private individuals or government—Gandhi’s focus was on the purity of means in the production process. Gandhi’s logic was impeccable when he made a case for trusteeship as a superior way of managing resources and generating surplus.

First of all, he appreciated the importance of entrepreneurial ability. He recognized that not everyone has the aptitude to be an entrepreneur. Since it is a special skill, those who are so gifted have a responsibility to use their ability to generate wealth to serve the larger good—thus, ruling out any profits made by exploiting either labour or others in the business eco-system. This was a departure from the capitalist’s claim that both skill and risk-taking ability entitled the entrepreneur to rake in as much profit as his or her cleverness allows.

Gandhi’s second departure from the binary of capitalism-communism was to invoke the primacy of samaj or community and society as the anchors of civilization. Since the entrepreneur always draws on a larger societal and civilizational context, be it institutions or material infrastructure, no wealth is ever entirely private. Thus, the generator of wealth is only a trustee—an idea that has roots in many pre-modern cultures.

It was in how this vision is to be actioned that Gandhi exhibited a radically different imagination. In an age when capitalists and communists alike celebrated ‘might is right’, Gandhi turned his back on force in any shape or form. Even trusteeship, if imposed through a dictatorship, would prove fatal. Gandhi wrote:

“Neither will the rich vanish, nor will the poor be protected. Some rich men will certainly be killed and some poor men will be spoon-fed. As a class, the rich will remain, and the poor also, in spite of dictatorship labelled benevolent.The real remedy is non-violent democracy, otherwise spelt true education of all. The rich should be taught the doctrine of stewardship and the poor that of self-help."

On Violence

In Gandhi’s time, the question of violence was similarly governed by a binary in which both sides agreed that violence is a dominant human impulse. The difference was between those who argued that violence is a necessary evil to be deployed in order to gain and retain power, while the opposite camp called for piety and fear of sin to control the violent impulses and prevent avoidable suffering.

Gandhi challenged the core premise of both sides by rejecting what scientists call the ‘killer ape’ theory— namely, that interpersonal aggression was the driving force behind human evolution. On the contrary, Gandhi argued, it is non-violence—and related impulses like love, compassion, and cooperation—that has allowed our species to thrive.

This insight has, over the last 70 years, been validated by multi-disciplinary research which shows that biology does not make violence our dominant impulse. “It is scientifically incorrect to say that war or any other violent behaviour is genetically programmed into our human nature" leading scientists and philosophers wrote in the Seville Statement on Violence—a platform convened by the UNESCO in 1986.

Psychological studies have also validated another of Gandhi’s key insight— that violence is not easier to ‘learn’ than non-violence. Ahimsa seems harder to learn because when we are angry or frightened, our forebrain, which is unique to human beings, becomes less powerful than the midbrain—which is indistinguishable from the mind of an animal. The good news is that even the midbrain can be trained for constructive and creative, rather than destructive, responses.

Even more importantly, it has been found that when people who have a history of violent behaviour are enabled or taught to channel their energy towards social competence, they are able to reorient their urge for “power over" somebody to “power with" others. Herein lies the definitive clue on building a non-violent public discourse. Even when there is morally a valid ‘high’ or ‘low’ ground in a dispute—what leads to violence is not the details of the issue itself but rather that both sides want power ‘over’ each other.

But what about those situations where some use of violence is unavoidable? Then, Gandhi repeatedly said, a violent counter response is better than cowardice. For instance, Gandhi helped to enlist men for service in World War I. Why did he do this when nothing was more important to him than Ahimsa? Though he himself was against the institution of war, Gandhi said, he was leading men who believed in war. For such men to refrain from enlisting out of cowardice or because of anger against the British Government would be wrong.

What about infamous cases of one-sided violence? Jesus versus the Roman Pilate may be the quintessence of one-sided violence—but it was Jesus who came out the victor. Jesus’ act of non-resistance and forgiveness released forces of good in society. This happened, Gandhi argued, because of the ‘ancient law of self-sacrifice’. Satyagraha was nothing but a new name for this ancient law and, wrote Gandhi, “the rishis, who discovered the law of non-violence in the midst of violence, were greater geniuses than Newton." This is why he saw non-violence as the root of Hinduism.

Above all, it was this claim about Hinduism that bred hatred for Gandhi among Hindu nationalists—who accused him of encouraging weakness and meekness. On the contrary, Gandhi offered an impeccable logic for his espousal of ‘the ancient law’. Firstly, non-violence is not a cover for cowardice. On the contrary, it is the “supreme virtue of the brave" because it presupposes the ability to strike. Secondly, non-violence is “a conscious, deliberate restraint put upon one’s desire for vengeance". It is the urge for vengeance, which arises from fear of harm, be it real or imaginary, that is a form of weakness.

Therefore, forgiveness is higher because it is the source of true strength and valour. “A man who fears no one on earth would consider it too troublesome even to summon up anger against one who is vainly trying to injure him" wrote Gandhi in Young India in 1926. “The sun does not wreak vengeance upon little children who throw dust at him. They only harm themselves in the act."

Superimposed on this reasoning was Gandhi’s sharp awareness that life is governed by a multitude of forces. This meant engaging with the reality of violence—not looking the other way in order to feel good. So, even though he was a confirmed war resister and refused to take training in destructive weapons, Gandhi explained why he had participated in the Boer War by creating an ambulance corps:

“…so long as I lived under a system of government based on force and voluntarily partook of the many facilities and privileges it created for me, I was bound to help that government to the extent of my ability when it was engaged in a war, unless I non-cooperated with that government and renounced to the utmost of my capacity the privileges it offered me."

Perhaps, it was this rigorous commitment to duty, which Gandhi always put above rights, that gave him the confidence to claim that good is self-existent while evil is not. Evil, he argued, was like a parasite that thrives only as long as its host gives it sustenance. So, the answer to the question we started with—the search for core principles that would enable each one of us to bring more nuance and non-violence to public discourse—is that first and foremost we are called upon to have a wider sense of moral agency. When hatred and violence are proliferating around us, there are moments when you can feel overwhelmed. That comes from a feeling of helplessness, which in turn is a consequence of the debilitating doubt that perhaps evil is stronger, more tenacious, more effective than good. It is this which shrinks our sense of moral agency—that is, undermines our confidence not only that good is self-existent, but that every individual who consciously lives this truth is immensely powerful.

One way to overcome this condition is to cultivate the art of thinking things through with those who appear to us as the ‘other’. The pre-requisite for this is deep listening—the willingness to listen for the hurt, the concern, behind the other’s complaint or even vitriol. This, often painfully difficult endeavour has neither a clear path nor landing lights. But Gandhi’s experiments, including his failed efforts, with truth and nuance are at the very least a light house.

“He himself was sometimes surprised at the things he said. His thinking was fluid. Most persons like to be proved right. So did Gandhi. But frequently he snatched a victory out of an error by admitting it.’— Louis Fischer.

Mint Short Story

In the final years of Gandhi’s life, the world was (and still is) deeply divided between competing social and political ideologies. There exists little space for taking a nuanced view toward solving contemporary problems.

Seeing the world and its conflicts in subtle ways, rather than binary divides, has become urgent at a time when utterly condemning and ‘calling-out’ the other, the offender, is deemed to be a virtue by all sides.

Approaching a problem in a manner different from binary viewpoints can help immensely. That was the philosophy that animated Gandhi, who straddled the binaries of communism and capitalism.

Rajni Bakshi is the author of the books ‘Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi’ and ‘Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: For A Market Culture Beyond Greed and Fear’.

To mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Mint is running a year-long series on the life, times and relevance of Gandhi in the great Indian dream.