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Positive Peace in Gandhian Philosophy

Dr. Shantha Wanninayake                                                                                                                                                                    Senior Lecturer (Sociology), Department of Sociology,                                                                                                               Faculty of Arts, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.                                                                                                                         Tel. Office: + 94(0)81 2392611 Mobile: + 94(0)71 8480806,  


Peace is now becoming a multidisciplinary subject that every discipline tries to define peace as relevant area that should be understood. Various cultures, roughly translated as “peace” are put into the matrix, reflecting at least some major connotation of these important wards. Thus the Roman pax in the usual sense of absence of war, Greco- Arabic-Hebraic concepts pick up peace as justices, equity, equality, freedom. The Hindu-Janise-Buddhist tradition stands out: shanti, as indicative of transpersonal peace, peace of the mind, peace of the inner self. Chinese and Japanese concepts indicate peace as harmony and order in the world (Galtung, 1986).

However, peace is normally defined and studied in relation to war and violence. There is merit in that, because peace is an urgent pressing need when there is war or violence. But there are other long-term needs associated with peace. Development is one. Justice is another. Harmony with the environment is yet another. Therefore, people today tend to study peace in its broadest and long-term meaning (Fernandu, 2000).

The holistic approach to the peace is often called an eco-political approach. Eco-politics is a term to describe a cluster of economic, political, ecological and ethical issues. A more traditional view argued that “peace is the absence of war”. But this is not completely correct. War may be absent. But violence may continue. There is a difference between war and violence. War is a large scale conflict. Violence may be a state of small-scale conflict, yet inimical to peace. For example electoral violence, is not war. But it is a major threat to peace. War may end with a peace agreement. But peace thus achieved can be temporary. The reason for war might remain and continue. War might erupt again or transform into small scale series of violence. Therefore, a broader definition is necessary to understand peace.

The traditional argument can be enlarged to define “peace as the absence of war and violence.” It makes better sense, but does not fully cover our complete concern for peace. The definition still transpires a negative meaning, the absence of war and violence. This is like what is called “negative healthiness,” the mere absence of sickness, but also the physical fitness and good muscle tone. Peace should be like that, a positive one.

Peace should not only end war, the symptom, but also injustices, the underline causes. This does not mean that wars are usually waged perpetuate injustice or for injustice. Hitler waged war against other nations to dominate them on the basis of race. The elimination of racism is therefore necessary to avoid wars of the type of Hitler. Peace should not only end war through agreement, but also bring harmony between warring nations otherwise; peace will not be a lasting one.

However, according to above explanation, concept of peace can be put into main theoretical method of distinction using two qualifiers: positive and negative. Negative peace is defines as a state of ‘no war’ or no violence’. In other words, it defines peace negatively by describing what is not occurring. Negative peace exists in any environment where people are not rioting in the streets, not killing each other, not overthrowing the government, not attacking others, and so on. Two different groups of people can live as neighbors and hate each other, but as long as no violence occurs we can call this a state of negative peace. With negative peace, external actions take precedence over internal feelings (Leonard, 2000). Negative peace temporarily prevents violence, but they largely ignore the internal understanding of psychological or even metaphysical wounds that necessitated the need for the bandage in the first place.

In contrast, positive peace seeks to heal internal psychological and metaphysical wounds. A mere toleration of the other becomes and open acceptance of the other. Reconciliation and understanding wash over feelings of hatred. Positive peace exhibits values such as cooperation and partnership as opposed to values like competition and domination characteristics to negative peace. There will be no need to enforce peace through the threat of violence. Each side will recognize, respect and cherish the differences that mark uniqueness and hopefully, even discover the larger unity underlying that diversity. Each side would embrace the other as mutual partners in an interconnected world where all affects all. Going even further, this paper argues that the strongest form of positive peace involves direct experiential knowledge of metaphysical ontology[1]. A belief in the insights gained by those who have tested the depths of metaphysical ontology is the second strongest form of positive peace. For most people, this second form, belief, is the most realistic method.  Therefore, here, this study will focus specifically on belief, not experiential knowledge. The hope, however, is that spiritual belief will eventually lead to contemplative practices such as mediation. Then, one person who embodies the beliefs, embodies the identities, embodies the actions, and embodies positive peace. Mohandas K. Gandhi was just such a person.

 Gandian Philosophy and Positive Peace

When we study about positive peace, a wonderful example is Gandhian philosophy. Some scholars introduce it as a perennial philosophy. But they said that Gandhi never used the term ‘perennial philosophy’ to describe his beliefs. However, Gandhi formed his beliefs from his life experiences, most notably his Hindu upbringing in India. He took some traditional Hindu ideas, some reinterpreted Hindu ideas from the other major religions, and some personal intuitions to form his philosophy. Then, we will see how Gandhian philosophy and beliefs closer to a state of positive peace. We have a main two questions for it: what did Gandhi believe? What were the social implications of Gandhi’s beliefs?

In Gandian philosophy, the core or central concept is ‘Truth’ or ‘Satya’. Understanding what Gandhi means by ‘Truth’ Glyn Richards’s idea is very important. Richards gives his thesis as it relates to Gandhi’s notion of Truth:

Followers of Gandhi explicitly maintain that he was essentially a practical man with no concern for metaphysics or philosophical speculation, yet it is clear that when he attempted to explain what he meant by Truth, he was involved in metaphysical speculation whether he or his followers realized it or not. My contention is that the unity of Gandhi’s thought and the interrelatedness of the various aspects of his teaching spring from firmly held metaphysical beliefs… Certain fundamental metaphysical and religious beliefs underlie all his teachings (Richards, 1991).

Thus, Richards argues that Gandhi’s metaphysical beliefs deeply informed the way in which he lived. Gandhi, therefore, makes a near ideal example of how a particular set of metaphysical beliefs can incite one to act towards a state of positive peace.

Any discussion of Gandhian metaphysics must begin with Truth or Satya, which was fundamental to Gandhi’s beliefs system, underscored by the subtitle of his autobiography ‘The Story of my Experiments with Truth.’ In his autobiography, Gandhi identifies Truth with God.  For Gandhi, the primary connotation of both words is non-personal: “he has no hesitation in expressing a preference for the idea of God as formless Truth” (Richards, 1991). Yet Gandhi also recognized some people’s need for a more personal god and did not regard one idea of God as superior to the other. However, according to Gandhi, the best way to think about this trans-mental reality is to call it Satya or Truth, derived from the Sanskrit Sat, which literally means “that which is or exists” (Richards, 1991). Because, Gandhi regarded Truth as being beyond the mind’s capacity to grasp, his affirmation of Truth was a matter of belief that informed every aspect of his daily life.

As Gandhi would explain it, there is relative truth and absolute Truth. Recognizing the inevitable imperfection of mode to communication, he knew he could not express or mentally grasp absolute Truth. As a result, no worldly truth can ever be final or exact because it necessary falls short of absolute Truth. Furthermore, “since (Gandhi) views Truth as the substance of morality and the basis of existence rather than a concept to be analyzed and investigated in the abstract, it is not surprising that relative truth should be his beacon and guide in life”(Richards, 1991). Nonetheless, every truth derives from Truth. In other words, every relative truth contains sparks of universal Truth and in this way, Gandian philosophy is perennial philosophy. The perennial philosophy admits that absolute Truth can be neither transmitted linguistically nor even held in the mind. Any truth capable of being the object of a belief will always be relative.

A skeptic may question how Gandhi maintained his acceptance of all religions while maintaining a belief in an absolute Truth. To the logic minded Westerner, the inclusiveness of Gandhi’s belief system often times appears paradoxical and contradictory.  Unruffled, Gandhi stared paradox in the face with a smile and said, “I am a Christian and a Hindu and a Muslim and a Jew” (Fischer, 1982). Another time Gandhi commented, “I do believe that in the other world, there are neither Hindus, nor Christians, nor Moslems”. These two remarks beautifully demonstrate Gandhi’s philosophical use of the relative and the universal in regard to religion. Just as Gandhi caught glimpses of absolute Truth through instances of relative truth, he tasted the universal Religion through particular historical religions (Richards, 1991).

Religion with a capital ‘R’ connotes that which underlies all religions. Gandhi’s belief in Religion is the key to understanding his acceptance of all relative religions. No religion has a monopoly on Truth because Truth underlies them all. On this point, Gandhi said, “If a man reaches the heart of his own religion, he has reached the heart of the other too” (Fischer, 1982). He was convinced of the essential unity of all religions; they all share the same heart of Truth. That heart; the one true and perfect Religion, is “beyond predication and not capable of being realized within finite existence” (Richards, 1991). Though particular religions help to convey the meaning of religion, no one particular religion could ever embody the fullness of religion (Richards, 1991).  

Perhaps Hinduism’s biggest influence on Gandhi was the belief that all is one. Gandhi found this radical metaphysical unity not in Hinduism, but in all the major religions. Gandhi’s metaphysical belief in unity led him to identify with his fellow man on the spiritual level, the highest level in holarchic identification theory. His spiritual identification brought him a profound sense of interconnectedness and identity with his fellow human beings. The unity of life, according to Gandhi, is such that “if one man gains spiritually, the whole world gains with him and, if one man falls, the whole world falls to that extent” (Richards, 1991). Gandhi trusted his vision of ideal peace because he believed everybody was ultimately on the same team.

Lastly, Gandhi recognized that the empirical body in which he found himself was not his   truest self. This plus all his other metaphysical beliefs up to this point leads to the conclusion that Gandhi believed in levels of reality. Though he never much talked of ontological levels, his spiritual beliefs permeated his every word and action. His conclusion was simple: the empirical realm, although an impotent realm, is not the only realm. Gandhi was not a scientific materialist; he did not believe that matter was all; he believed in ontological levels beyond the physical or, in other words, the Great Chain of Being. Thus we have almost every element of the perennial philosophy in Gandhi’s philosophical belief system. Next step will be to show how his metaphysical beliefs translated into a social action aimed toward Positive Peace. 

Gandhi Philosophy in Action

To onlookers, Gandhi’s actions over the course of his life appear to be an effortless lifestyle rather than a conscious program. He regularly made the impossible seem simple thanks to the ideals underlying his lifestyle. These ideals informed his every thought, word, and action. One can link every change Gandhi caused in the social realm to a certain philosophical ideal he held. He brought his spiritual ideals down into the realm of matter and society.

He used those universal values to spiritualize politics. As Richards puts it, “ To talk of leaving religion for politics or politics for religion was incomprehensible to him for he conceived of every activity as determined or governed by one’s religious outlook” (Richards, 1991). Hence, Religion for Gandhi necessitates political participation. Religion provides the metaphysical and moral foundation for all forms of human activity (Richards, 1991).

Gandhi once said, “You must watch my life, how I live, eat, sit, talk, behave in general. The sum total of all those in me is my religion” (Richards, 1991). It is not difficult to understand why Gandhi asked to be judged by the way in which he lived. His external life reflected his internal life.

Gandhi felt compelled to fight against many social injustices because they stood in direct opposition to his most cherished metaphysical beliefs. The social injustices in question include the caste system, the status of the untouchables, and the role of women, colonialism, religious persecution, economic independence, and racism. He believed all social change is a corollary of inner change (Richards, 1991). Thus the solution to all the above social problems can be found in the depths of the self. Gandhi felt at least a great kinship and at most a direct identification with his fellow human beings, including those who appeared different from him such as women, untouchables, Muslims, the British, etc. Gandhi’s metaphysics connected him to all by a process of expansive identification, leading him to teach Sarvodaya, a Sanskrit word meaning universal uplift or the welfare of all.

The way in which Gandhi approached these social injustices was more important than the final result. That is to say the means transcend the ends. Gandhi believed that the moral basis of the means adopted will qualitatively change the end pursued. He commented, “Though this method might seem long and very long but in fact it is the shortest because bad means distort our end also. Life is unity. Means will affect our thinking and behavior” (Singh, 1998). Going further, he refers to means and ends as convertible terms by saying, “Means are after all everything” (Singh, 1998). The means are the end because the two are inexorably interconnected.

Ahimsa or non-violence became Gandhi’s primary means. If the end is positive peace, which was Gandhi’s ultimate social goal, then ahimsa is the only valid means. Gandhi believed that ahimsa could overcome every social injustice. Gandhi always retained a deep trust in the basic goodness and spiritual depth of the human being. Ahimsa seeks to appeal to each individual’s moral center. By appealing to the good inherent in each person, Gandhi believed that in the long run ahimsa would always work. However, ahimsa was for Gandhi the only course of action that made any logical sense (Leonard, 2000).

Finally, we can come to Gandhi’s vision of peace. Gandhi believed that a world where positive peace flourished was not only possible but that both social and individual evolution already pointed in that direction. Ramjee Singh writes, “Peace as Gandhi envisaged is far more than an absence of war and violence. It is a state of positive and constructive worldview and world order, where individuals, groups and nations eschew to dominate or exploit each other and live in cooperation and mutual aid”(Singh, 1998). His vision remains a long term goal. But to doubt its possibility is to doubt the spiritual core of the human being: “Not to believe in the possibility of permanent peace, in his view, is to doubt the divinity or godliness of human nature” (Richards, 1991).

Positive peace was Gandhi’s earthly goal which he embodied through both his beliefs and actions. For Gandhi, the means were the ends. If a state of positive peace would exhibit mutual love, respect, and cooperation, then Gandhi used exactly those same tools to move toward that ideal. If people solved their conflicts by ahimsa in a state of positive peace, then Gandhi practiced and taught ahimsa. In a way, Gandhi often acted as if he already lived in an environment of positive peace. His means mirrored his desired ends.


Gandhi realized that the present state of the world was far removed from his positive peace ideal. Changes obviously must take place in order for positive peace ever to flourish. Those changes, moreover, must begin in the mind. Internal change leads to external change; what one thinks he becomes. The charter of the United Nations states that if war begins in the mind of men, the defenses of peace should also is built there. Gandhi certainly recognized the need to contribute toward a future ideal peace is through belief in the metaphysics of perennial philosophy:

Permanent peace is possible when men know themselves, and recognize their essential unity with Truth or God, and when they realize the things that belong to their peace, such as the renunciation of imperialistic designs, territorial claims and the use of weapons of destruction. War is a reflection of man’s greed and the spirit of exploitation. When these are removed the need for armaments is removed (Richards, 1991).

Whether one matches Gandhi’s optimism or not, his reasoning process becomes clear to all those willing to study it. Actions are never blind. A mental motivation, either hidden or apparent, resides in back of every action. Those mental motivations take the form of beliefs about reality, either consciously chosen or culturally conditioned. When beliefs change, then actions change correspondingly. The set of beliefs loosely called the perennial philosophy facilitates mental changes toward action that advance the positive peace effort.




Galtung, J. (1986), “Peace theory: an introduction” I World      Encyclopedia of Peace, (WEP), Vol.2 p. 251-59.

Fernandu, L. (2000), “Peace Studies” in Uyangoda, J. (Ed.), Conflict      Resolution and Peace Studies, Fredrich Ebert Stiftung,                 Colombo.

Leonard, A. B. (2000), Gandhi’s Spiritual Politics: Perennial      Philosophy in Action, Georgetown University.

Richards, Glyn. (1991), “The philosophy of Gandhi”. Richmond:            Curzon Press.

Singh, Ramjee. (1998), “The Gandhian Vision. New Delhi: Manak         Publications.

[1] Metaphysical ontology refers to a spectrum of levels in reality, the material level being just one of many. One attains direct experiential knowledge of the full spectrum usually from many years of grueling meditative practice. Because of the commitment and discipline required, it would be difficult for the general masses to reach such knowledge unless there was a massive shift in collective consciousness.

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