Whether ends justify the means may depend on contexts but the paths taken should be constitutional
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At the campus of an Indian law school a few years ago, after I ended my talk about the human- rights responsibilities of business, a student walked up to me and said he had a question. Of course, I said. “You said in your talk that the means you use to achieve your goals are important," he said, “That is what I have also learned from the Ramayana. But then the Mahabharata says that ends are important. Which is the right answer?"
I was intrigued by his question. The debate between ends and means is as old as time. You could make a reasonable argument justifying either, and the response would depend on the context. The student sought his answer from a literary epic that is revered by many devout Hindus. But seeking guidance from a faith-based text that’s important to many but not all people was puzzling, especially for a law student.
So I said that Gandhi had said both ends and means are important and I’d suggest he turn to Gandhi. He shook his head vigorously. “I am a Hindu, sir, I want to follow only my books," he said.
But Gandhi was a Hindu, I reminded him, and there are many Indians who are not. So what should they do? I asked.
He kept shaking his head. He would follow his books, not others’ books, he said quite firmly.
But you are a law student, I reminded him. Shouldn’t you follow the law, and the Constitution, and not a religious book? He pursed his lips, shook his head again, and left.
Two things were apparent from our exchange. For the student, the basis of what was right and what was wrong, or what was just and what was fair, was rooted in faith, his own faith, and not in national law or international standards, nor in reason. That would be fine up to a point, but just as most faiths have good points such as strictures against lying, cheating, stealing and so on, they also have uniquely unjust aspects embedded within, including in their scriptures. Those who are blinded by their faith defend those injustices; those with slightly more evolved thinking insist that it is misinterpretation and the ones with a fundamentalist view are deviant; and some accept the faith’s limitations and draw their inspiration from other sources as well. But the student I had met seemed to believe that his faith had all the answers.
The other interesting aspect was the certainty with which he spoke—he was certain that the Ramayana glorified means, that the Mahabharata elevated ends, thus missing in this process the rich philosophical discussions within those texts that evaluated ideas by challenging them. The opposite of faith is not necessarily ‘reason’; that would be too binary. The opposite of faith, as Salman Rushdie writes in The Satanic Verses, is doubt. It is doubt that compels us to think through things and examine evidence before arriving at a conclusion. Before embracing Buddhism, Babasaheb Ambedkar explored all faiths. While undergoing his apprenticeship towards mahatma-hood in South Africa, Mohandas Gandhi read about all faiths and learnt from traditions that were new to him.
Gandhi learnt enough to keep the windows and doors of his mind open; he made sure his feet were planted firmly on the ground and he would never get swayed by the breeze. This was not obstinacy; it was unshakeable because Gandhi had figured out a way to reach moral clarity. In 1939, when B. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, a candidate most closely aligned with Gandhi’s thinking, lost the Congress presidency to Subhas Chandra Bose, Congress leaders aligned with Gandhi resigned. Gandhi told Bose that since Bose had a different approach, or different means to attain independence, those who felt loyal to Gandhi should not encumber Bose, but allow him the freedom to constitute his team as he saw fit. In the end, Bose stepped down. Gandhi wrote to Bose, who was at his home at Elgin Road in the city then known as Calcutta, wishing him well. He pointed out their profound differences. They must inevitably sail in different boats, Gandhi wrote, unless either could change the mind of the other. Their destination may appear to be the same, but that was the appearance, not reality.
That clearly stated where their big difference lay, between the means and ends. Both Bose and Gandhi wanted independence. Both had different views on how to get there. It was not only about distance, nor about the path’s topography. It had to do with how you were going to walk the road. Gandhi knew that the path he would not take may appear to take him to a destination, but it was not where he wanted to reach. Freedom obtained by spilling blood was not the freedom he wanted. Violence would only breed more violence, and violence used to justify a goal, however desirable, would convince others in the future that their goals too should be obtained through violence. That is why the ends did not justify the means.
To be sure, the Indian Constitution is not a philosophical treatise. But it shows the path the nation must take, and the rules it must abide by, to honour the inalienable rights of every Indian, regardless of language, sex, caste or faith. That’s the broader identity that envelops Indians. However well written and well intentioned, religious epics are inevitably narrower.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi
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