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Inaugural Annual M.K. Gandhi Lecture 2012
in Peace and the Humanities

In Search of  Pax Gandhiana

By Dr. Anthony Parel
Professor Emeritus, University of Calgary
[The author retains the copyright of this lecture.]

Let me begin by thanking Carleton University, The College of the Humanities, and the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Council of Ottawa for inviting me to give this lecture.

What Gandhi hoped to achieve for India and the rest of the world was to help create a new nonviolent social, political and civilizational order that I term Pax Gandhiana. And what the world needs today more than at any other time is Pax Gandhiana. Its realization depends on certain social, political and economic conditions being met. The social conditions require that, at a minimum, society be non-hierarchical and egalitarian. The political conditions require that there be a sufficiently coercive state based on the consent of the governed and limited by a democratic constitution.   

The focus of this lecture is on the economic conditions necessary for Pax Gandhiana. Broadly speaking, they require that enlightened self-interest as well as benevolence be the motivating forces of economic activities. They should run as it were on parallel tracks. What is distinctive of Pax Gandhiana is its emphasis on benevolence. But there is a catch to this: it is that nations can become wealthy in the Gandhian sense only when, in addition to proper economic motivation, they have the support of a culture that promotes certain economic virtues.  

I select for a brief analysis four of Gandhi’s economic ideas—wealth, labor, private property, and economic motivation. The realization of these ideas is absolutely necessary for Pax Gandhiana. At the same time, he was aware that they could be realized only with the active support of certain ethical and spiritual values. It is when economics becomes isolated from ethics and spirituality that violent social conflicts follow. The economic key to Pax Gandhiana then is the harmonization of economic values on the one hand and the requisite ethical and spiritual values on the other.  


Economics, being the science of wealth, requires an adequate understanding of the meaning of wealth.  Gandhi was led to this conclusion by John Ruskin. The main object of Ruskin’s Unto This Last was to redefine wealth.1 John Stuart Mill had defined wealth to consist “of all useful and agreeable objects which possess exchangeable value.” Usefulness and agreeableness were thought “to exist in the thing before we can esteem it an object of wealth” and, according to Mill moral considerations had nothing to do with political economy.2

Ruskin disagreed, arguing that “every material utility depends on its relative human capacity”. Thus a horse is useful only to those who can ride it or have the capacity to use it for some other purpose. Similarly, “the agreeableness of a thing depends on its relative human disposition.” Thus whether one will consume milk or cocaine will depend on one’s moral disposition. This gave Ruskin an opportunity to redefine wealth and political economy: “political economy, being a science of wealth, must be a science respecting human capacities and dispositions.”3 Emphasis on human capacities and dispositions shifts the focus of attention from wealth as mere possessions to wealth as people who possess possessions in an ethical way. In a person-centered concept of wealth, the focus is more on the quality of life than on the amount of possessions. To be wealthy, then, it is not enough to have enough possessions of exchangeable value; it is equally necessary to have relative human capacities and dispositions.   

Wealth in the final analysis is only a means to life, not its end. If wealth has an end, it is to be a means to life. Hence Ruskin’s famous dictum: “There is no wealth but life.”4 The wealth of a nation then consists more in persons who enjoy a good quality of life than in the possessions that they own. “That country is richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings”; and that man is richest who, having acquired his wealth with the help of requisite capacities and dispositions will help others to do the same.5    

The great lesson that Gandhi learnt from Ruskin was that wealth was only a means to life, and that to enjoy wealth the consumer needed certain moral capacities and dispositions. To his great delight he found support for this modern idea in the ancient teachings of the Upanishads. The Ishopanishad teaches that wealth is for enjoyment; but to enjoy it you have to meet two moral conditions. First, you have to renounce any claim of absolute sovereignty over physical nature—in today’s terminology, the physical environment. For the Lord alone has such sovereignty.  You are not masters of nature but only its trustees. You have only relative ownership of those things that you need for the good life. Secondly, you should not covet what belongs to others: “covet not the wealth of anyone at all.”6   Covetousness, like greed, is an economic vice.

Gandhi believed that this Upanishad contained in a nutshell Indian philosophy’s basic teaching on economics. The discovery of its teachings seemed to him like “a second or new birth”—a veritable intellectual enlightenment. Putting this teaching into practice, he said, would “satisfy the cravings of the socialist and the communist, of the philosopher and the economist.”7  It will also enable you to live in peace with the rest of society. Renouncing any proprietary claims on nature is the key point here. This is in contrast to the Cartesian license to master and dominate nature. Enjoyment of wealth, writes Gandhi is “the reward of renunciation” and   “renunciation is the condition of enjoyment.”8   

Gandhi found additional supporting evidence for harmonizing economic needs and spiritual needs in the Indian theory of the four purusharthas. Artha, being a purushartha, was necessary for human well being. But so were the other three canonical aims of life—dharma, kama and moksha (ethics, pleasure, and spiritual liberation). Placing the pursuit of wealth side by side with the pursuit of moksha was one of Gandhi’s most important contributions to modern Indian economic thought. He argued that placing an opposition between the pursuit of true wealth and that of spirituality was a huge historical mistake; the time to correct it was long overdue. 

Patanjali’s Yogasutra codified the moral dispositions necessary for the good life under the headings of various virtues--ahimsa (nonviolence), astea (abstention from theft), and aparigraha (detachment from excess). There was a major difference, however, between Patanjali and Gandhi here. Whereas Patanjali had the world-renouncing yogi in mind, Gandhi had the world-affirming citizen in mind. The yogi had to refrain from wealth creation in order to lead a spiritual life, while the citizen had to engage in wealth creation and in spiritual life at the same time—a very difficult task.           

Overcoming this difficulty required strong spiritual commitment from the wealthy. He addressed this issue in a famous lecture that he gave in 1916 to the Economic Society of Muir College, Allahabad.9  

The centre piece of that lecture was a brilliant analysis of the parable of the rich young man, as found in chapter 10 of St. Mark’s Gospel. A rich young man came to Jesus for advice. Though wealthy, he was not happy --he felt a spiritual emptiness that wealth could not fill. “Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus enquires whether he had acquired his wealth ethically. The young man answers in the affirmative, indicating that he wanted to go beyond a mere ethical life to a pursuit of eternal life. Thereupon Jesus looked at him and said: You lack one thing: go sell all that you have, give to the poor, and come and follow me. At this the young man grieved, and went away sad, for he had great possessions.

What made the young man turn away was not so much the amount of wealth as  the degree of attachment to it. It was his attachment that stood between him and his quest for eternal life. In other words, he did not know how to harmonize the pursuit of artha and that of moksha. Gandhi draws an important conclusion from the parable: “That you cannot serve God and mammon is an economic truth of the highest value.”10 And it was this truth that he wanted modern political economy to integrate into its approach to wealth.

Gandhi’s point then is that wealth is necessary but not sufficient for the good life. The good life, taken in its full amplitude, includes wealth and a deep spiritual life.  


Let us now turn to Gandhi’s philosophy of labor. Labor for him was of course a secular activity--its immediate objects being earning a livelihood, creating wealth and the making of the secular self. Yet Gandhi held that it could attain these objects in a humane way only if certain moral conditions were met. Two of these conditions were especially important. First, labor had to be seen as a duty rather than a right; and second, the individual’s labor should be seen as having a social dimension.    

Let us take the idea of labor as a duty rather than a right. The exercise of a right is open to the discretion of the right-holder. But the carrying out of a duty does not allow any discretion—it is obligatory. Every able bodied person has the moral obligation to engage in productive labor. No one is exempt from this, not even the other-worldly yogis, who claimed exemption from the duty to labor.  

Gandhi did not allow for any such exemption. He took this point so seriously that even the Buddha’s stand came under scrutiny. “Jesus was a carpenter” before he started his ministry, noted Gandhi, and wondered “how much manual work the Buddha did before he attained wisdom.”11 Going one step further, he wondered how a work-renouncing monastic tradition took such a hold on Buddhist culture. “Who am I to criticize a great soul like the Buddha?...But did he himself set up the organization (of monasteries) or did his followers do so? Whoever did it, the monasteries … became…stagnant and…acquired reputation as dens of sloth. Even today we find Buddhist monks in Ceylon, Burma and Tibet sunk in ignorance and the veritable images of sloth. In India too, the monks known as sannyasis are not found to be shining specimens of humanity.”12 The wonderment did not end there: “if I had the good fortune to be face to face with one like him [the Buddha], I should not hesitate to ask him why he did not teach the gospel of work, in preference to one of contemplation.”13  

What Gandhi criticizes here is the other-worldly asceticism that sets contemplation against action. He wanted to reconcile the active life and the contemplative life. This explains why he approved of the Benedictine monastic tradition of regarding work as prayer, laborare est orare.14  

Turning now to the social dimension of labor, Gandhi’s stand resonates well in the modern mind. It may be stated as follows: while the laborer has the right to the fruits of his labor, he or she has also an obligation to contribute to the welfare of society through labor. He developed this idea in his commentary on the Gita.15 The argument is that there is a reciprocal relationship between the individual laborer and society at large (lokasamgraha, Gita III, 20 and 25). Accordingly, labor is “any action performed with a view to public good”16 or any activity “for the good of others”17 -- labor as service. Labor in other words is both a means of personal benefit and social benefit. The personal and the social dimensions of labor are morally inseparable.  

If you separate the two, you deprive society of its due share, and to that extent you become a thief.  “Thief” is a strong word, yet that is the word that the Gita uses.18 Gandhi’s gloss also does not mince words: “He is a thief who does not do bodily labor for society;”19 “those who labor only for themselves are sinners and eat the fruit of sin.”20 He is not saying that one should labor only for society, anymore than that one should labor only for oneself. What he is saying is that there is an inseparable moral link between the personal benefits and social benefits that accrue from personal labor. Whoever deprives society of what belongs to it is a thief and a sinner. A stronger defense of the social dimension of individual labor can hardly be found.  A purely individualistic approach to labor makes one as it were a kleptomaniac. 

Labor seen in this way produces two noteworthy effects. First, it can lead the laborer to a deep spiritual life. Secondly, it can lead to peaceful economic relations between labor and management. It is when labor is regarded only as a means to personal enrichment, that it becomes the source of violence and injustice. Had this concept of labor been operative, writes Gandhi, “the rich would not have become masters of immeasurable stores of wealth and the millions would not be suffering in poverty.”21  

The social dimension of individual labor raises the question of the ethics of wage labor. In Marxist thought, for example, wage labor is alleged to reduce the laborer to virtual slavery, and to alienation. If labor is thought of in Gandhi’s way, however, there is no question of the capitalist exploiting the laborer and the laborer suffering alienation. For both parties agree that labor has a social dimension, and that a living family wage constitutes the just wage.


The question of the motivations at work in economic activities received Gandhi’s very close attention. The reason was that modern political economy had reduced them to just one--enlightened self-interest. It did so in order to satisfy the presumed needs of homo economicus, an artificial construct of its own making. For such artificial creatures, the profit motive alone is the constant of economic activities, benevolence being an unreliable and episodic deviation. 

Gandhi rejected all of this and criticized modern political economy for regarding humans as bodies having no souls. “How can such laws possibly apply to man in whom the soul is the predominant element?” he asks.22  The soul-force enters into all the equations of the economist and falsifies them. The best work will be done, he says, not under the pressure of profit but when the soul force is brought to its greatest strength by its own proper fuel, which is benevolence: treat the worker kindly “without any economical purpose, and all economical purposes will be answered.”23 Briefly, benevolence for Gandhi is as constant a motivating force as is enlightened self interest. But to see how this can be so, we have to go beyond artificial entities such as homo economicus, and meet real human beings—bodily entities with a spiritual soul working to meet the needs of both material existence and spiritual existence. Pax Gandhiana therefore draws on both self-interest and benevolence, each working in its own way.

The non-profit sector of the economy, as everyone knows, is vast and it draws heavily on benevolence. The medical and the legal professions are good examples; so are those of teaching, religious ministry, the military, the police, the firefighters and the like. However, Gandhi was afraid that modern political economy was corrupting these professions by undermining benevolence.  His scathing criticism of the doctors and the lawyers in Hind Swaraj was inspired by that concern.

Khadi for Gandhi was a good example of benevolence at work in economic activities. Here we must pay attention to his criticism of Adam Smith. “I am always reminded of one thing which the well-known British economist Adam Smith has said in his famous treatise The Wealth of Nations. In it he has described certain economic laws as universal and absolute. Then he has described certain situations which may be an obstacle to the operations of these laws. These disturbing factors are the human nature, the human temperament or altruism inherent in it. Now, the economics of khadi is just the opposite of it. Benevolence which is inherent in human nature is the very foundation of the economics of khadi. What Adam Smith has described as pure economic activity based merely on the calculation of profit and loss is a selfish attitude and it is an obstacle to the development of khadi; and it is the function of a champion of khadi to counteract this tendency.”24  

Khadi made good economic sense in India in the first half of the 20th century. Its economic importance has receded in recent times. But in its day it gave us a good example of how benevolence worked. Today the place of khadi has been taken by other not-for-profit organizations, the most famous of them being the Amul Milk Cooperative Society pioneered by the late Verghese Kurien.

Gandhi’s point is that the modern economy works better when benevolence comes into play along side enlightened self-interest. For this to happen however, you need the support of certain economic virtues such as the work ethic, self restraint in consumption, and concern for the common good.

Private property

Gandhi believed that the freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor and to have the necessities of life was among the ‘inalienable rights’ of humankind.25 The famous 1931 Resolution on Fundamental Rights and Economic Changes defended the right to private property.26 His training as a lawyer had made him particularly sensitive to the importance of private property for safeguarding civic freedom and self-respect. The main object of the satyagraha movement in South Africa was to secure for Indian immigrants the same rights that the other citizens of the empire enjoyed.

The Ishopanishad, as we saw above, forbade covetousness: in doing so, it implicitly recognized the legitimacy of private property.  The same is true of Patanjali’s prohibition of theft—theft being a violation of the rights of the legitimate owner. The question for Gandhi, then, was not whether humans had the right to private property but whether that right was absolute or conditional. For him it was conditional--conditional to the legitimate needs of the political community in which you lived. It was not absolute, in that it did not include the right to exclude society from the fruits of your labor.    

In an attempt to reconcile the claims of the right to private property with the claims of the legitimate needs of society Gandhi proposed his well known theory of trusteeship. It can be stated as follows: you are only trustees of any excess wealth that you may have acquired. Trusteeship is a self-enforced, ethical virtue. It should be exercised by wealthy individuals as well as by wealthy corporations. Gandhi’s point is that the institutions of private property work best when they are supported by the economic virtue of trusteeship.

The question arose as to what happens when trustees fail to act as trustees. Here Gandhi recognized the need for state intervention. The law, he said, would deal with recalcitrant zamindars and Maharajas.27 At the same time he was wary of increasing the power of the state: “I would be very happy indeed if the people concerned behaved as trustees; but if they fail, I believe that we shall have to deprive them of their possessions through the State with the minimum exercise of violence….What I would personally prefer would be not a centralization of power in the hands of the state, but an extension of the sense of trusteeship; as in my opinion the violence of private ownership is less injurious than the violence of the state. …I look upon an increase of the power of the state with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress.”28 He adds: “if the state suppressed capitalism by violence, it will be caught in the coils of violence itself, and will fail to develop nonviolence at any time. The state represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the state is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its existence. Hence I prefer the doctrine of trusteeship.”29 Gandhi endorsed Thoreau’s minimalist government: “that government is the best which governs the least. This means that when people come into possession of political power, the interference with the freedom of the people is reduced to a minimum. …a nation that runs its affairs smoothly and effectively without much state interference is truly democratic. Where such condition is absent, the form of government is democratic in name [only].”30  

Gandhi’s thought on private property maintains a delicate ratio favoring the persuasive power of economic virtues over the coercive power of the state. But this goes against the modern tendency of looking to the welfare state as the sole arbiter of economic well-being. In modern politics, whether liberal or socialist, appeal to self-restraint seems not only politically disastrous but also morally embarrassing. Economic virtues have no place in it; they are no longer regarded as necessary conditions for the good life. Gandhi’s position is that you cannot have peaceful economic relations if you rely solely on the coercive power of the state and neglect the cultivation of economic virtues. In sum, the institution of private property can play a constructive role in economics only when it is supported by the economic virtue of trusteeship.

Coercion and persuasion

Three things emerge from the foregoing discussion. First, Pax Gandhiana requires the creation of wealth and the elimination of poverty. Second, this requirement can be met only when both enlightened self-interest and benevolence work in tandem. Third, for them to work in tandem you need  five economic virtues--the work ethic, concern for the common good, trusteeship (of the environment and of excess wealth), moderation in consumption, and freedom from greed and envy. Briefly, the solution to economic problems lies, not in economics alone; it lies in economic virtues also.   

On the second and third points there is major disagreement between Gandhi’s economic philosophy and the currently prevailing economic philosophies. The latter has no room for soul force, and the economic virtues that emanate from it. Instead, it reposes its faith in welfare legislation, which has taken the place of economic virtues, and which lets our economic desires to remain limitless.  Gandhi, as we saw, was opposed to the unbridled growth of the power of the state in economic matters. What he wanted in the economic sphere was not the total absence of state coercion, but a new ratio between the persuasive power of economic virtues and the coercive power of the state—a ratio that favored economic virtues.

This point was made elegantly, if very subtly, by one of the 20th century’s foremost writers, E. M. Forster, the author of A Passage to India, and other works. His eulogy of Gandhi made in 1948 contains the following remarkable statement: “‘A very great man’ I have called him. He is likely to be the greatest of our century. Lenin is sometimes bracketed with him, but Lenin’s kingdom was of this world, and we do not know yet what the world will do with it. Gandhi’s was not. Though he impinged upon events and influenced politics, he had his roots outside time, and drew strength thence. He is with the founders of religion, whether he founds a religion or not. He is with the great artists, though art was not his medium.”31  

We can boil down Forster’s points to this: in Pax Gandhiana the ratio between the persuasive power of economic virtues and the coercive power of the state should always be in favor of economic virtues. That is why, as Forster implies, any comparison between Gandhi and Lenin is to Lenin’s disadvantage. Lenin’s kingdom relied on coercion by the state and the party. The moment the coercion was relaxed, the kingdom collapsed.   

Forster placed Gandhi alongside the founders of religion, although he did not found any religion. Forster did so in order to remind us that the secret of the success of Gandhi’s public philosophy lies in its persuasive power, not coercive power.   

But it is Forster’s third point that Gandhi is with the great artists though art was not his medium that is most striking. How can he be with the artists, when art was not his medium? What then was his medium? His medium was of course action—nonviolent action. If Forster is right, what art is to the artist, nonviolent action is to Gandhi. Martin Luther King Jr was persuaded, not coerced, by Gandhi. We go to a Sophocles, a Dante or a Shakespeare, a Mozart or a Beethoven, a Tolstoy or a Ruskin on our own—for intellectual pleasure no doubt but also for moral renewal. Their impact is transformative without being coercive.  

Take Gandhi’s own example in relation to Ruskin. Ruskin did not coerce Gandhi to read him and to reform his life; he undertook these things on his own because of the persuasive power of Ruskin’s ideas. No coercion was involved. Contrast this with the impact of the ideas of a Marx or a Mao or a Castro: it cannot last without the coercion of the party and the state.  

What we need to grasp, then, is that Gandhi’s nonviolent action can move us to act peacefully in the field of economics, the way art can move us in the field of aesthetics. Let us universalize this principle of Pax Gandhiana: in the sphere of economics, nonviolent action based on benevolence has the inherent power to change society and polity for the better.



1 John Ruskin, Unto This Last and Other Works, Clive Wilmer (ed.) (London: Penguin, 1985), 161-62. 

2 Ibid., 206-07.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 222.

5 Ibid.

6 “By the Lord [Isa] enveloped must all this be.
Whatever moving thing there is in the moving world.
With this renounced, thou mayst enjoy.
Covet not the wealth of anyone at all.”  See R. E. Hume (trans.), The Thirteen Principal Upanishads, (Madras: Oxford University Press, 1954), 362.

7   CW, 64: 259.

8   Ibid., 264.

9 For the text of the lecture, see A. J. Parel (ed.), Gandhi, Hind Swaraj and Other Writings, Centenary ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 153-61.

10 Ibid., 157.

11 CW. 42: 489.

12 CW. 50: 410.

13 CW. 62: 85.

14 CW. 32: 164.

15 See SW 32: 152-60.

16 Ibid., 155.

17 Ibid., 163.

18 Gita III. 12.

19 CW. 32: 160.

20 CW. 49: 117.

21 CW. 32: 156.

22 M. K. Gandhi, Unto This Last: A Paraphrase (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1956), 4-5.

23 Ibid., 9.

24 CW. 59: 205-06.

25 CW. 42: 384.

26 CW. 45: 371.

27 Ibid., 373.

28 CW. 59: 319.

29 Ibid., 318.

30 CW. 62: 92.

31 E. M. Forster, “Mahatma Gandhi” in S. Radhakrishnan, ed., Mahatma Gandhi: Reflections on His Life and Work (Bombay: Jaico1995), 315.