Note on Gandhi’s Understanding of Means & End

Most political and social thinkers have been concerned with the desirable (and even necessary) goals of political system or the common and competing ends that men actually desire, and then pragmatically considered the means that are available to rulers and citizens.

Most schools of thought accept a sharp dichotomy between ends and means; and discussions about means are always related with their moral implication and property, or about the extent of their theoretical and contingent compatibility with desired ends. It has been observed that in the western tradition there is a tendency of claiming that the end entirely justifies the means – moral considerations cannot apply to the means except in relation to ends.

Gandhi, however, rejects the dichotomy between means and ends and goes to the other extreme and states that it is means, rather than ends, that provide the standard of morality. Although we can choose our ends, we do not have much control over it – we cannot know in advance whether these ends will be achieved. The only thing that is completely within our control is therefore the means with which we approach our various ends. It is not the end that we can work with but only means. Different means will lead to different ends. This is not to say that both violence and non-violence cannot both lead to the independence of a country, but that the country thus created will be one based on violence if the means are violent and pacific if the means are non-violent. Violence and non-violence cannot be different means to secure the same end; since they are morally different in quality and essence, they must necessarily achieve different results. The progress towards the goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of the means. “They say ‘means are after all means.’ I would say, says Gandhi, ‘means are after all everything. “As the means so the end.”

In his moral and political thought, Gandhi gave Satya and Ahimsa the highest importance and said that ahimsa is the means to reach satya, which is the end. The pursuit of satya leads to the recognition of the need for ahimsa to a point where we hold to ahimsa as the immediate, tangible part of the ultimate Truth. Gandhi sometimes also equated satya with ahimsa – they are like two sides of a coin, he said – for they are intertwined and it is impossible to disentangle and separate them. But at other times, Gandhi clearly distinguished between the two.

Gandhi emphasized mostly on ahimsa – for it is within our reach (it is the means) – but he constantly maintained that satya is superior to ahimsa, if a comparison must be instituted between inseparable concepts. He, in fact, distinguished between the positive and negative meanings of ahimsa and satya, but regarded ahimsa as negative in relation to satya; this because of his identification of satya with reality – the derivation of satya from Sat.

We have said, that Gandhi’s view of the relation between ahimsa and satya is of means and end and yet also of identity. To better understand the relation between these two concept we can formulate three propositions. The pursuit of satya gives us the humility to accept the need for ahimsa in our relationship with other fellow men. That is, satya implies ahimsa. Secondly, the pursuit of ahimsa shows that himsa is rooted in fear which can only be removed by the strength which comes from satya. So, ahimsa presupposes satya. Thirdly, that although satya is higher than ahimsa, ahimsa is in practice more important – for it the means, which is the only thing directly available to us. This last proposition also tells us that the degree of ahimsa we display is a measure of the degree of satya we posses.

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