Gandhi: Perfectibility and Moral Learning By Dr. James E. Tepfer

Dr. James Tepfer earned his doctorate in Political Philosophy from the University of California in Santa Barbara in 1974. His dissertation dealt with the Gramdan Movement in India, led by Vinoba Bhave, one of Gandhi’s chief disciples. Over the last 45 years, Dr. Tepfer has given numerous public presentations on Gandhi – most recently at the Institute of World Culture in Santa Barbara, California and at an International Theosophy Conference in Adyar, India. He has presented Gandhian thought in a variety of university and college classes in philosophy, ethics and world religions. He is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Oxnard College in southern California.

Gandhi: Perfectibility and Moral Learning

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Jesus)

“Of all the rest of mankind, make him thy friend who distinguishes himself by his virtue. Always give way to his mild exhortations and take example from his virtuous and useful actions. Refrain, as far as you can, from spurning thy friend for a slight fault, for power surrounds necessity.”   (Pythagoras) 

“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” (Psalms 1:1)

1. Mahatma Gandhi was wholeheartedly devoted to the service of God and the family of man. Because of this, he was able, over the course of his long and fruitful life, to transform himself from an unknown, timid but well-intentioned lawyer into a man of recognized moral genius, boundless courage and transforming social vision. The agent of this inner alchemical transformation was his unconditional vow to uplift the lives of others through concrete acts of truth and love. In time, Gandhi became – through much trial and error – a wise magician of the human heart.

2. As a deep thinker and a courageous reformer, Gandhi was always Promethean; he was forward-looking and eternally optimistic about the human potential for good and for continuous growth in truth and non-violence. Indeed, his life was so prolific, so varied, so dynamic and so full of both deep satisfactions and prolonged suffering for others that it could be readily characterized in a number of different ways: sublimely heroic, visionary, redemptive, tragic and Christ-like.

3. None of the above ways of encapsulating Gandhi’s life, however, would have appealed to him. He disliked personal hyperbole and refused to see himself in either dramatic, tragic or exalted terms. Like the Dalai Lama, Gandhi saw himself as a simple, sincere seeker of God who rendered unconditional service to man. Furthermore, he regarded himself as one following in the footsteps of millions of human beings across continents and throughout diverse eras. He felt that his virtues were universally present in others and his faults common to many.  He was, in a sense, Everyman and, because of that, he became a beacon light for those yearning for self-redemption through service to God and humankind.

4. Nonetheless, if we feel compelled to characterize Gandhi’s life in terms that might prove helpful and instructive to us as moral learners, he could best be characterized as one who consciously consecrated his life to the quest for moral and spiritual perfection. If so, then we could learn and benefit immeasurably from his lifetime of dedicated service to others – one that ultimately brought freedom and dignity to vast numbers of human beings across the globe. From this all-inclusive perspective, Gandhi’s mistakes and his faults would be as instructive to us as were his virtues, wise judgements and successes as a social reformer. Erroneous actions as well as right ones would equally contribute to our understanding of the complex moral dynamics of living for a transpersonal ideal – an ideal intended to inspire and intelligently influence others for the collective good. 

5. As an intuitive dialectician, Gandhi understood that the life of a rational altruist was one of repeated approximations to a self-chosen ideal. In this regard, he understood the distinction between Absolute and relative truth as well as the parallel distinction between perfection and perfectibility. Perfection, like Absolute Truth, is always at a distance. It ever – and forever – exceeds full realization. Perfection is like a mountain whose beckoning peaks continually recede regardless of how high we climb. In the words of Claude de Lamartine, “The ideal is only Truth at a distance.” While truth or perfection is always at a distance, relative degrees of realization are nonetheless, deeply meaningful.

6. There is, then, an immense significance in ascending to higher and higher altitudes of perfection in Truth and non-violence. One’s vision is expanded and one’s experience enriched by virtue of the lessons learned through the persistent exertion needed to gain mental and moral altitude. Perfectibility becomes a deep joy, just as reaching a higher plateau in mountain climbing can be exhilarating. And, what is more, the prospect of ascending to even greater heights and expanding our present mental horizon is motivationally compelling — especially when our aspirations are altruistic.  

7. Gandhi discovered that the earnest quest for truth and love-in-action was one of continually ‘dying into a new life”. Intelligent service, as he discovered, was a conscious life of patient learning, painful unlearning and redemptive self-discovery. It was a life of scrupulous devotion to duty that called for the ready acknowledgement of mistakes, and, most significantly, encouraged humble self-correction. The dignity of deliberately “correcting one’s course” grew out of Gandhi’s metaphysical conviction that the moral law (karma) was ultimately redemptive rather than punitive to the true learner. Sustained efforts to put right one’s moral wrongs were intrinsic to the path of God-realization. In a word, Gandhi’s life was one of dynamic, hard won intellectual, moral and spiritual growth toward a consciously pursued, abundantly rich and ever-receding ideal that was universal and inclusive.

8. We might now ask, “What, in our own times, is the prevailing global image of Gandhi – especially among the destitute and those struggling for social and political justice?” To the teeming millions, Gandhi’s global image is still an uplifting one. The numinous nature of his legacy still manages to inspirit the troubled, modern mind with hope and confidence in “the better angels of its nature”. His well-known commitment to non-violent resistance to social and racial injustice has inspired – and continues to inspire – many mature leaders and thoughtful individuals across diverse cultures. This is true despite the atavistic tendency of the morally confused in every culture to resort to violence — fueled principally in our century by media hyper-ventilation over unresolved historical injustices.

9. While Gandhi’s name still evokes serene images of peaceful protest, his current influence on collective consciousness is clearly subtler than in previous decades. Gandhi is in the revolutionary background these days rather than the confused, anomic foreground. But, while temporarily obscured, Gandhi’s image is still nonetheless potent. This is because, in a Jungian sense, Gandhi’s character as well as his achievements remain a cherished memory in the “collective unconscious” of the multitudes. His image is, in some magical way, still a healing balm to those decent, thoughtful individuals who consciously choose Promethean suffering and undaunted hope over mindless violence and an existential, Sisyphus-like despair. Such noble souls, such quiet dissenters, believe, like Gandhi, “that the best is yet to be” and they never underestimate the ability of the indomitable human spirit to rise out of its own ashes and give birth to a more just tomorrow. 

10. The cognitive content of Gandhi’s still-radiant image is what he taught and instantiated in the realm of civil disobedience and non-cooperation with evil. He made non-violent, civil disobedience a viable alternative to reformers everywhere and because of that he undoubtedly saved many conscientious rebels and reformers from both guilt and despair. (Only the socio-path does not feel some degree of guilt or shame in resorting to violence against the perpetrators of injustice. We are not, as some believe, all consumed by an over-powering desire for revenge.) Few thoughtful socio-economic reformers (and even impatient revolutionaries) can easily dismiss non-violence as a feasible means of achieving lasting social uplift. It is not possible in our very topsy-turvy global village to completely slip into the sleep of forgetfulness of the achievements of intrepid forerunners. Indeed, non-violence has entered into our social consciousness to such a degree that when the dust of violent protest and revolutionary fervor has settled and hoped-for ends lie unrealized, we are forced to go back to the beginning and ask ourselves: “Why didn’t we take guidance from a Gandhi or a King in the first place?” No serious proponent of political and social transformation can easily dismiss non-violence as a potentially feasible as well as a viable moral principle to affect positive social and political change.

11. Gandhi was an “objective idealist” (one who rationally and creatively marries universal ideals to the ever-changing particulars of socio-economic issues.) For this reason, Gandhi realized that his quest to realize truth and non-violence within the expansive orbit of his far-ranging responsibilities called for unfailing vigilance and periodic self-appraisal. While his own conscience was his ultimate critic, he invited constructive criticism from friend and foe alike. As an active contributor to society Gandhi felt that one must be open to the questions, criticisms and viewpoints of others. Much of his personal correspondence addressed criticism of his views, his actions and his proposed programs. And, what is more, he repeatedly presented viewpoints in his own weekly publications that differed significantly from his own. Gandhi, we might say, believed in “thinking out loud together.” What is more, he was well aware of his imperfections (and those of dedicated colleagues) and therefore wished for no disciples or “Gandhians”. Self-correction was, to him, imperative to one whose life was consecrated to social reform. Flattery and flatters were useless if not dangerous. His autobiography is ample testimony of a man dedicated to a life of continual self-testing and of striving to measure the meaning of life in terms of how much he had truly helped the lowest and the least, the overlooked and the outcastes of society. 

12. Despite Gandhi’s global standing and his genuine openness to all viewpoints, his social philosophy, personality and actions have come under increased questioning in the past two decades. This is to be expected and is understandable. Each new generation needs to rediscover the achievements of past social revolutionaries. There are always new lessons to be learned (or relearned) and even increased focus on overlooked foibles and peccadillos can be instructive.  However, criticisms of Gandhi that have surfaced in certain journals, personal websites and social media are often bitter and at best ignorant. They are written by the disillusioned few who neither study Gandhi’s thought nor his life thoroughly nor acknowledge his universally recognized social and political achievements.  And, unfortunately, as the kaleidoscope of global values and cultural perspectives have shifted in the past few decades, many Gandhians now unexpectedly find themselves on the defensive. It appears that Gandhi, like so many heroes and heroines of decades ago, does not now satisfy the populous criteria of unblemished, moral purity and unwavering “political correctness”. Secular puritanism is the new religion of the spiritually disenfranchised and it has acolytes in various guises throughout the globe. 

13. According to his most severe critics, Gandhi’s image is too idealized and is, in some sense, an imperfect mirror of his real personality. There is some truth in this criticism but its moral meaning is misunderstood. All archetypical images of the historically revered lend themselves to the eventual culling out of minor, moral faults and tend toward the mythical. But their quasi-mythical purity is also the source of their potential to inspire, encourage and even heal those who suffer injustice in one or another form. Furthermore, sterling moral exemplars of social justice provide us with “counterpoint models” to the self-destructive propagandists of hate, revenge and anarchic leadership. Humanity needs living examples of men and women who are spiritually and morally heroic, self-critical, and yet loving and generous too. If, at times, we direct or indirect beneficiaries engage in exaggerated praise of our heroes and heroines it does much less harm than if we either damn them by faint praise or make a religion out of brandishing their faults and limitations – thereby obscuring not only their larger, virtuous character but concealing our own cynical views about human nature and positive human potential. All in all, it is a disservice to the mass of struggling humanity to engage in “image crippling” of someone like Gandhi, whose integrity and concern for others towers over so many contemporary political and cultural leaders across the globe.

14. Ironically, it is important to recall that Gandhi, himself, would be the first to defend his critics’ right to find fault with his views or his life. He was not concerned with self-image (positive or negative) but with truth and just action. For this reason, Gandhi would (and did) wholeheartedly respond to whatever criticisms he felt merited response. He believed that constructive appraisal is the heartbeat of the genuine seeker of truth and the conscientious proponent of non-volent social reform. He believed that pertinent criticism helps the ardent devotee and the courageous reformer to true himself to the beckoning pole star of his ideals and to realign his actions according to the correctives of just criticism.  

15. There are various classes of critics just as they are various classes of admirers. In the best sense, admiration and criticism are not mutually exclusive categories. Some of Gandhi’s most loyal supporters disagreed with him the most vehemently on non-violence as a creed, e.g., Nehru. Likewise, some of his most formidable opponents and harshest political critics acknowledged his sterling character and his unshakable moral integrity, e.g., General Smuts, head of the apartheid, South African government. In certain respects, Gandhi (like the Dalai Lama), appreciated critics of his views, policies and personal idiosyncrasies more so than he did moon-eyed followers. What Gandhi wished most of all, however, was not followers or detractors but individuals with an inspiration of their own to improve the lot of those in society most in need of justice and bread. 

16. Unfortunately, it is true that some who choose to defend Gandhi in todays’ “level-down world” either refuse to admit he had faults or limitations (thus putting him on the pedestal of sainthood to be admired but not emulated) or they retreat to the time-worn defense that Gandhi was, after all, “only human.” 

17. But, in what sense can one say that Gandhi was “only human”? The latter, after all, is usually an unconscious genuflection before the antiquated altar of “original sin” or before the modern Darwinian podium of “survival of the fittest”. Neither give credence to Christ’s spiritual imperative: “Be ye therefore perfect.”  Gandhi was human not because he had faults. We all do. He was human precisely because he took Jesus’ imperative to seek perfection seriously – despite his faults and limitations. Gandhi – who daily scanned his attitudes, feelings and actions with great care – never ceased from pursuing the ideals of Truth and Non-violence simply because he or others committed errors in judgment or engaged in imperfect non-violent action. Gandhi was human because he strove to progressively overcome limitations and, as a consequence, make further steps toward realizing his self-chosen, humane ideals. 

18. What is important to understand is that Gandhi believed fervently in the potential for continuous moral and spiritual growth in the saint as well as in the sinner. Self-improvement and self-redemption are possible for all. He believed unabashedly in the potential of each and every person on earth to exemplify (to some degree) truth and love in their own lives. He believed unreservedly in the fact that virtues count far more than vices, that self-reform and social reform are always possible despite injustices and collective perversity and that persistent effort in the right direction is to be treasured as much as hard won social reforms. 

19. When we consider the whole known character of Gandhi, it is clear that his virtues of truthfulness, compassion, intelligence, responsible leadership and commitment to humane ideals were so real and so deep that to ignore them due to moral idiosyncrasies is unjust and ignorant. Furthermore, we cannot honestly assess the social significance of any perceived “flaw” of such a magnanimous soul without being willing to expand and contract our “lens of appraisal” in order to view the moral terrain from different altitudes of distance and nearness. Generally speaking, when we mulishly refuse to examine underlining attitudes and circumstance of social and political pioneers, we are implicitly declaring that we refuse to learn from anyone tainted with any degree of moral fault or ‘sin’. Such captivity to one-dimensional images of perfection evince an unwillingness to examine the particulars of any specific individual or moral situation. It is a form of narrow-hearted judgmentalism which precludes the possibility of growth and a refusal to expand the lens of perception to embrace the whole man. We err on both sides; we neither look at morally relevant particulars nor do we step back and see a moral limitation within the compass of the individual’s larger, accepted character. 

20. In a sense, the harsh verdicts now passed by the few on Gandhi’s personal idiosyncrasies point to the fact that during our own emotionally and socially conflicted times, we have lost our ability to justly appraise great men and women . We no longer know how to put into perspective the simple fact that beauty has blemishes, saints have weaknesses, popes are quite fallible and sages must work within limits. We increasingly wish truth, perfection  and social reform to be effortless or easily won through violent protest and moral outcries. We would find it a wonder to learn that the highly disciplined, cultured artists of ancient China deliberately placed a flaw in their priceless works in order to avoid pride, ward off jealousy and leave the future open to even higher levels of excellence. Indeed, ancient philosophers understood that the presence of personal limitations and the inevitability of errors in action are simply intrinsic to the moral and spiritual logic of growth toward a worthy ideal. In this sense, our focus, like Gandhi’s, should be on efforts toward self-improvement and social uplift and not on the gravity pull of the lesser elements in human nature and society.  

21. In closing, we might wish to look at Gandhi’s life through a different “perspective lens” – one that exposes the degree of self-credibility among Gandhi’s most acerbic critics . We often say that we should defer to the experts on important matters, i.e., to those who study and come to know a subject inside out. They are, in some sense, masters of their disciplines. When it comes to important questions and vital issues, knowledge is needed and not just anyone’s opinions will do – no matter how sincere. Knowledge and earned experience are necessary for credibility with oneself as well as with those one appraises.  

22. There are, relatively speaking, few experts of Gandhi’s thought and life. The handful of academics who take the time to immerse themselves in studying the ninety plus volumes of Gandhi’s writings are humble enough to sense his moral greatness, the subtly of his thought and the original ways in which he responded to the moral and political complexities of human relationships. They sense something about him “as a whole” and do not claim to be able to catalogue him easily. His most caustic critics, however, ignorant as they often are of Gandhi’s extensive correspondence with people across the globe and with the details of his exceedingly robust and disciplined life, see him “through a glass darkly”. They see him only through a two chambered heart and ignorantly presume to pass judgment on him. They rarely express cogent reasons for disagreeing with his views or take the time to imaginatively understand his various “experiments in living”. They succumb to “binary morality” (either you are an unblemished saint or a sinner, a faultless hero or no hero at all). To such armchair pundits, there can be no degrees of rightness, goodness or excellence to admire or from which to learn. Like the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, one senses that those vitriolic critics most willing to magnify Gandhi’s perceived faults or possible mistakes in judgment, are, themselves, failed or impatient idealists who do not know the secret of self-regeneration and so turn their bitterness outward – most especially on those harbingers of a better world who raise the banner of becoming to new heights. And, sad to say, such disillusioned cynics miss the “many splendored thing” because they do not attempt to see Promethean pioneers holistically. They lack the empathic imagination and the intellectual versatility needed to understand the truly great. As a result, they miss life-lessons that could prove invaluable and could, unexpectedly, renew their faith in themselves and in humanity as a whole.

23. In light of the above, it is not difficult to understand that there are times when an ad hominin argument is completely appropriate – when the rhetorical rules of argument may be legitimately suspended. Such is the case with the harsh, unreasoning critics of Gandhi who wish to diminish his stature in the eyes of present and future generations. As is universally acknowledged, Gandhi was a master in the “science of service” to the voiceless and the mistreated in society. If this is so, then we might rightly ask the following, telling questions to the few hyper fault-finders of Gandhi’s life: 

“Who among you are experts in the “science of service”? Who among you are experts in the art of personal, direct service to the poor and the desperate? Who among you has ever personally spent time in a village sharing credibly in the trials and tribulations of the poor and uneducated? Which of you have voluntarily and fearlessly entered areas of deadly plague in order to assist doctors and nurses in treating an incurable disease? Who among you have formed ambulance corps to retrieve wounded and dying soldiers on both sides of the conflict while under fire? Which of you has ever invited lepers into your homes and treated them with loving care? Who among you has ever found a mini-community in which all took sacred vows to serve truth and non-violence and, as a result, admitted untouchables as social equals despite the protest of close friends and even associates? Which of you has ever gone to jail – not for a fortnight with the assurance of being released – but for years on end in the service of your country?  Which of you has ever publicly admitted to having made “Himalayan mistakes” of judgment and immediately gone about setting them right — regardless of personal consequences? Which of you can honestly say that you would be willing to fast unto death for the sake of rectifying millennia of inhumane treatment to the most desperate of the disenfranchised in your communities? 

24. Those who choose to judge – to the extreme point of condemnation – any great person should be certain that they have at least minimal credibility credentials and are not simple taking advantage of the pseudo-democratic view that everyone is entitled to voice an opinion on anyone: regardless of the opinion’s rationale, its potential to illuminate our experiences or its potential to positively encourage future generations to strive for a noble aim. 

25. Only those individuals who are wholeheartedly committed to the august “science of service” are genuinely qualified to appraise authentic heroes and heroines of the Promethean spirit. If so, then what do proven heroes and heroines such as Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Malala Yousufzai say about Gandhi? The latter four all have their “science of service” doctorates and they unanimously affirm Gandhi’s ever-fresh inspiration and his moral greatness – even while recognizing that there is much yet to be learned by future generations about applying the laws of Truth and Love to life’s persistent, ever-changing problems. 

26. In the widest sense then, what we often fail to appreciate is that the personal flaws or limitations of yesterday’s heroes and heroines are part of what makes them especially admirable. Despite persistent weaknesses, most had the courage to live for a vision and a destiny that was greater than their personal selves. They enfolded their egos into the expansive ocean of the common good and of distant human betterment. In this respect, the very taint on their once all-white robes seems to catch our attention only because so much of their essential character still remains white and unsoiled.  

27. In the final analysis, the deeper question here is one that goes beyond Gandhi: “Will we, of the rigid “politically correct” mentality, become moral learners and exercise the divine faculty of moral discretion, or will we continue our current downhill slide into becoming fearful fault-finders of courageous idealists and thereby solidify our unenviable status as perverse ‘non-learners”? In other words, will we find the strength of character to live up to “judge not, least you be judged” or will we continue to sit smugly “in the seat of scorners”? If the latter, then we will not prove worthy of our imperfect but still noble and visionary predecessors – Gandhi included. 

“Revere the heroes who are full of goodness and light.”  (Pythagoras)

Dr. James E. Tepfer

jetepfer@gmail.com

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