Mahatma Gandhi: The Saint as Political Actor and Philosopher

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was trained as a lawyer and an important figure in South African anti-discrimination activism, the campaign for Indian independence, and the first premier of India after its independence from Britain. In India and around the world, he was known by the honorary title “Mahatma,” which means “Great Soul” in Sanskrit. During his lifetime, Gandhi faced opposition, was imprisoned times, and finally assassinated by a Hindu nationalist on January 30, 1948. His autobiography is one of the most important works by a 20th Century political figure. [1] Gandhi was foremost a political activist and secondarily a thinker. His thought, sometimes contradictory, flowed from his commitments to human betterment, and are, therefore, to be respected as the reflections of a person of action.

One reason for covering Gandhi at this point is that he was referenced by both Alfred North Whitehead and Reinhold Niebuhr, both of whom mention his life and work. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to whom we will next turn, was influenced by Gandhi and wanted to meet him. Finally, Martin Luther King, Jr. and, therefore, the American civil rights movement, was influenced by him.

By the time Whitehead published Adventures of Ideas, Gandhi was known throughout Great Britain, and his work and strategies for eliminating British Colonialism in India were legendary In Whitehead’s view, Gandhi’s work in India, and his influence on British public opinion and political action were evidence of the potential importance of religious and moral factors in political life. In Whitehead’s view writing in 1933, Gandhi’s success is used as an example of the potential for divine persuasion to move in public affairs in which a way as to produce social harmony without destructive, revolutionary conflict. [2] Foreseeing the destructive potential not only in that conflict but in the course of post-World War I European history, Whitehead felt Gandhi’s life and work symbolized and gave hope to the potential for religious and moral action and thought to promote a calm and reasonable approach to political progress. [3]

Niebuhr gives attention to Gandhi’s work in Moral Man and Immoral Society, published in 1933 around the same time as Whitehead is writing. [4] Niebuhr’s focus was on harmonizing Gandhi’s thought with his own positions on the inevitability of conflict in social progress. Because of Niebuhr’s negative views, I will save an analysis of his thought until after a review of the philosophical basis of Gandhi’s views.

Truth as Central

As is indicated by the title of his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, the notion of Truth plays a central role in his thought about political matters. For Gandhi the concept of Truth or “Satya” is at the center of his political theory. For Gandhi truth was a spiritual and intellectual reality central to human spiritual, social and political life. His most famous formulation of his view is “Truth is God.” In a letter to Basil Matthews, Gandhi wrote:

If God who is indefinable can be at all defined, then I should say that God is TRUTH. It is impossible to reach HIM, that is, TRUTH, except through LOVE. LOVE can only be expressed fully when man reduces himself to a cipher. This process of reduction to cipher is the highest effort man or woman is capable of making. It is the only effort worth making, and it is possible only through ever-increasing self-restraint. [5]

This quotation is important to unpack so that we may understand what it means with Gandhi says, “Truth is God.” Gandhi  influenced by the Hindu a notion of God as an absolute impersonal, and so Gandhi does not mean a “Personal God” in the Christian sense of that term. However, Gandhi does also from time to time refer to God as personal. Thus, Gandhi states:

I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever-dying, there is underlying all that change a Living Power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and recreates. That informing Power or Spirit is God. And since nothing else I see merely through the senses can or will persist, He alone is.[6]

Gandhi speaks of God as a “Living Power,” an “Informing Power,” and a “Spirit.” All these are personal attributes. This personal quality of God is particularly true when he speaks of God as love, an idea we will discuss below. Perhaps most revealing, while not a Christian, Gandhi was an admirer of Christ as a person and revelation of God.

God as Love

In the quote above, Gandhi states that “It is impossible to reach HIM, that is, TRUTH, except through LOVE.” In other words, the only sure path to Truth is through Love. For Gandhi the Love that is God or by which God is known is a deep pervasive relationality, not unlike what can be seen in the Chinese Tao. He speaks of this love as follows:

Scientists tell us that, without the presence of the cohesive force amongst the atoms that comprise this globe of ours, it would crumble to pieces and we would cease to exist; and even as there is cohesive force in blind matter, so must there be in all things animate, and the name for that cohesive force among animate beings is love. We notice it between father and son, between brother and sister, friend and friend. But we have to learn to use that force among all that lives, and in the use of it consists our knowledge of God. Where there is love there is love there is life; hatred leads to destruction. [7]

For Gandhi, God was Truth before all things. However, there is a consciousness in Gandhi that to speak of love is to speak of a personal quality. Only a person with some degree of consciousness can love. This would be especially true of any love that would require a aware self-giving attitude, which Gandhi does recognize on occasion in says such as, “Love can never express itself by imposing sufferings on others. It can only express itself by self-suffering, by self-purification.” [8]


The nature of God as Truth and the importance of Love led Gandhi to a recognition of non-violence or “Ahimsa” as the fundamental principle of political action. [9] Like the Christian virtue of “Agape” or self-giving love, Ahimsa connotes the highest form of love — a universal love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, an unconditional sense of belonging to everyone and everything, and a self-giving restraint for the benefit of the other.

The practical application of Truth to politics is for Gandhi a power that Truth inherently possesses. For Gandhi, the concepts of satyagraha (truth force) and ahimsa (non-violence), were the key to the practical application of Truthto the political realities he faced. Since God is Truth, there is a Truth Force (satyagraha) in the practical application of non-violence to political realities. Truth has a force, a power, that is inherent in its existence.

As one follower of Gandhi’s thought puts it:

The Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha is a natural outcome of the supreme concept of truth. If truth is the ultimate reality, then it is imperative to safeguard the criteria and foundations of truth. A votary of God which is the highest Truth and the highest Reality must be utterly selfless and gentle. He should have an unconquerable determination to fight for the supremacy of spiritual and moral values. Thus alone can he vindicate his sense of ethical devotion. Satyagraha means the exercise of the purest soul-force against all injustice, oppression and exploitation. Suffering and trust are attributes of soul force. The active nonviolent resistance of the ‘heroic meek’ makes an immediate appeal to the heart. It wants not to endanger the opponent but to overwhelm him by the over flooding power of innocence. [10]

These ideas are important if Western democratic society is to undo the damage of the kind of “politics as war” that have characterized the past years. For Christians, who believe that God is Love and Truth, the best way to seek a better social order is through the Truth Force of Non-violent Love. If we believe that God is a kind of transcendent love and wisdom, then we believe that the power of God is found in love.

Niebuhr on Gandhi

It is interesting to compare the difference between Whitehead, an early constructive post-Modernist, and Niebuhr, the  late Modern, in their reaction to Gandhi’s thought and action. Whitehead, whose philosophy is a form of Objective Idealism, recognizing the reality of values, Gandhi is a sign of hope for the future. For Niebuhr, Gandhi is a romantic idealist—whose pragmatic leadership was not always consistent with this ideals.

One of Niebuhr’s students put it this way:

I disagree with Niebuhr on his analysis of Gandhi. I think he didn’t understand Gandhi. He regarded Gandhi as a sentimentalist, the same way he regarded Marx as a sentimentalist: as someone with vaunted expectations about human nature. But Gandhi was more of a realist than Niebuhr assumed, and his method of conflict resolution involves exerting a certain kind of pressure. This is not exactly the coercion Niebuhr accused him of, because Gandhi tried to make a distinction between coercive and non-coercive force. [11]

If my reading of Niebuhr is correct, he receives as a kind of given that the universe is made up of matter and energy, that human beings are fundamentally material, that religious ideals function within the spirit of individuals, but that force and power motivate and control the political sphere of life. Revolution and violence are inevitable and can only be moderated by moral and religious ideals. In Moral Man and Immoral Society we also see the early Niebuhr, who was much less suspicious of Marxian analysis than he became in his later years.

Fundamentally, Niebuhr claims that Gandhi was either unaware or unable to sustain awareness of the difference between his principles of Non-Violence and Truth Force and the reality of the battle for independence. [12] Rather than seeing that Gandhi was constantly under pressure to put his ideals into practice in a complex political situation he feels that Gandhi was unable to recognize what he was doing and subscribe to views similar to his own.

In one revealing passage, Niebuhr writes:

The responsible leader of a political community is forced to use coercion to gain his ends. He may, as Mr. Gandhi, make every effort to keep his instruments under the dominion of his spiritual ideal; but he must use it, and it may be necessary at times to sacrifice a degree of moral purity for political effectiveness. [13]

In other words, spiritual ideals are nice but fundamentally divorced from the exercise of power in politics. It is this view with which I fundamentally disagree and view as destructive.


We will return to Gandhi when we deal with Martin Luther King, Jr and with the American civil rights movement. In the next blog, we will see that Gandhi had an impact on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and shaped a portion of his response to Hitler. In the meantime, it seems to me that Whitehead’s response to Gandhi is the better one.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Mahatma Gandhi, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1983).

[2] A. N. Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (New York, NY: Free Press, 1933), 160.

[3] Id, at 161.

[4] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethic and Politics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001), hereinafter, “MMIS”.

[5] The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 33, p. 452. See also Judith M. Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 199. I found this at Douglas Allen, “Ghandi, Contemporary Political Thought and Other Relations,” (downloaded August 4, 2022). Dr Allen’s views are important in my understanding of Gandhi and in the preparation of this blog.

[6] See, “My life is My Message,” at (Downloaded August 4, 2022).

[7] Id, attributed to (YI, 5-5-1920, p. 7).

[8] Id, at (Downoaded August 4, 2022)/

[9] Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word meaning “non-violence.” The term is derived from the root word himsa, meaning “to cause pain,” and the prefix – ‘a’ means “not.” Himsa, which connotes physical violence). Thus, Ahimsa is not to employ physical violence.

[10] Ramananda Choudhurie, “Gandhian philosophy of Satyagraha” at (downloaded August 4, 2022).

[11] Nathan Schneider, “Mark Juergensmeyer on Gandhi and Niebuhrin Wgaging NonViolience: People Powered News and Analysis at August 5, 2022).

[12] MMIS, at 242,

[13] MMIS, at 244.