Arundhati Roy writes:
For centuries before Gandhi and for years after him, Hindu rishis and yogis have performed feats of renunciation far more arduous than Gandhi's. However, they have usually done it alone, on a snowy mountainside or in a cave set in a windblown cliff. Gandhi's genius was that he yoked his other-worldly search for moksha to a very worldly, political cause and performed both, like a fusion dance, for a live audience, in a live-in theater.
It was precisely the idea that saints should retreat to caves that Gandhi wanted to challenge. The history of Hinduism is marked by the tension between the hermit tradition (which emphasized turning away from the world for enlightenment) and the householder tradition (which emphasized engagement with the world). Gandhi wanted to embody an enlightened householder. An unenlightened householder is one who views life either as a burden or as an indulgence. An enlightened householder is one who lives like a householder but thinks like a hermit; who is engaged in everything but is possessive of nothing.
Gandhi was venerated as a saint but he did not fit the conventional Hindu saint. In his project of trying to unite politics, ethics and spirituality, he went beyond all the great figures of modern India. His spiritual mentor, Raychandbhai, had warned him not to involve himself too deeply in the politics of Natal for the good of his soul. Many years later, Ramana Maharshi said that Gandhi was a good man who had sacrificed his spiritual development by taking too great burdens upon himself. Even Swami Vivekananda urged Indians to participate in social action, philanthropic activities, etc. but not politics. Horace Alexander, a British Quaker who worked with Gandhi, said that if Gandhi was a mystic, he was 'a very matter-of-fact mystic'.
It was Gandhi who found a way of overcoming this fear of the political on the part of the spiritual and he found the inspiration for it in the Gita. In his opinion, there was no evidence in the Gita of any opposition between these two pursuits. Rather, it taught that in performing one's duties rightly - whatever they might be whether related to the family, society, nation or state - one could attain the goal of moksha. He was of the opinion that since man had a soul - the spark of the divine - in them, it was their natural obligation to love and respect one another. He rejected religious quietism or purely private piety and his religious vision compelled him to participate in a range of public activities.
He didn’t believe in just talk about religion but kept reminding people that actions speak louder than words. Things had to be done rather than merely contemplated. He believed that true religion was not a matter of rules and regulations but a journey through life's realities and challenges during the course of which dharma must be worked out. He was never comfortable with the purely contemplative tradition but believed passionately that each man must find his God in encounter with his fellow men. In 1936, he told a Polish visitor, '. . . If I could persuade myself that I could find Him [God] in a Himalayan cave, I would proceed there immediately. But I know that I cannot find him apart from humanity.'
The exclusive cultivation of inwardness leads one to neglect the practical aspects of life which does not necessarily have a beneficial effect on society. He therefore does not advocate a retreat into the ‘cave of the heart’ like Indian holy men but the power of religion to move the heart must be used to bring people together when a course of action is being planned. He said that if religion is concerned with practical life, it is also concerned with politics. Religion, morality and ethics, for him, are closely interwoven. Similarly, politics was nothing but a major instrument of service to the people totally free from all games of power politics. Gandhi realized that he couldn't do even social work without politics. He told a group of missionaries in 1938:
I could not be leading a religious life unless I identified myself with the whole of mankind and that I could not do unless I took part in politics. The whole gamut of man’s activities today constitutes an indivisible whole . . . I do not know of any religion apart from activity. It provides a moral basis to all other activities without which life would be a maze of sound and fury signifying nothing. He said, '. . . religion that takes no count of political affairs and does not help to solve them, is no religion.'
Gandhi said that a truly spiritual person had to be engaged with society – he could not be indifferent to the social ills that he sees around him. If he is indeed an indifferent spectator of these ills and prefers to pursue his spiritual quest in isolation, then there is something wrong with his concept of spirituality. He felt that the most challenging moral problems for a religious person came from politics. As early as in 1926, Gandhi asserted that "'moksha' or self-realization was impossible today without service of and identification with the poorest." What Gandhi meant by service was not relief or charity, but radical restructuring of the present exploitative economic system. Raghavan Iyer writes in The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi:
Gandhi thought that the saint and the revolutionary are not incompatible, although the former is more concerned with his inward integrity and the latter with his outward effectiveness. The saint must not be a self-deceiving escapist who refuses to act, while the revolutionary politician must not become a self-seeking opportunist who is ever-ready to sacrifice his declared principles.
The true saint must be effective in society, while the true revolutionary must be possessed of the deepest integrity; in the end, the two categories merge into each other. In this way Gandhi upheld what Archbishop Temple called 'the error of medieval monasticism', the belief that it is possible to live in a society that is altogether at variance with the prevalent moral standards.
He recognized a key feature of modernity that had never been present earlier - the elevation of vices like greed and selfishness to the status of virtues resulting in the institutionalizing of irresponsibility. He argued that the modern version of material advancement is a regression rather than a higher stage of human evolution, because it displaces dharma (as ethics) from its primacy. He argued that all efforts to improve the human condition are bound to fail unless they put dharma, or a moral framework and a sense of higher purpose, above the pursuit of artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure). He considered modern civilization to be without a moral center with its emphasis on progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, and technology without cost.
Gandhi felt that Indian civilization needs a realignment of the aims life with an end to the predominance of the ascetic tradition. He felt that India needs to have modern type of political and economic institutions with Western values like human rights, gender equality, civil liberty etc. But he felt that those who rely only on this philosophy tend to believe that perusing spiritual transcendence is anti-modern and that the modern state can justify any end it pursues. His concern had been based on his perception that modernity over-emphasized the material comforts of life and under-emphasized the ethical dimension – it encouraged the pursuit of bodily needs without the framework of ethics i.e. it did not provide any 'inducement for morality'.