Gandhi’s Imagination on Civil Society Focuses on ‘Live and Let Live’ Spirit

“If national life becomes so perfect as to become self-regulated, no representation becomes necessary. There is then a state of enlightened anarchy. In such a state, everyone is his own ruler. He rules himself in such a manner that he is never a hindrance to his neighbour.” -M. K. Gandhi

Just in the above short statement of the Mahatma, we could more or less perceive a civil society of his imagination. In other words, we could draw an outline of the civil society of his dreams. How? Before comprehending and realizing it, and that too along with its significance in the current perspectives, it is contextual if we become familiar with the word meaning and general concept of civil society.


There are two words in civil society: civil and society. Here civil in fact connotes to civilized, which again is an adjective of the word civil. Civil undoubtedly relates to the human being, a civic. Moreover, along with civic, referring to his place, the city, it specifies characteristics, works and programmes of both of them. Similarly, the word civilized reveals high qualities of man, the civic, evolutionary culture, behaviour and work. Particularly, features like good conduct, control, organization, and the wish for peace are within its ambit. They are essentially included in it. System, cooperation and continuous steps towards development are its foremost signs.

Human society, with which only the word civilized can be associated, is generally a group of people related to each other through persistent relations; people share the same geographical territory under one authority and within the ambit of one culture in general, more or less, carried out in their day-to-day practices. They step forward for the safety of existence and progress.

If we define society from the word meaning viewpoint, it is in fact derived of the Latin word ‘Societas’; that again is the creation of ‘Socius’, a noun of the same Latin, which describes unity of the people, organization and the process of their harmony. Hence, society is an organization, which connects those who come within its ambit culturally. It accords unity to them and make them co-sharers of all the gains.

In short, a civil society is the revelation of social structure of men, which is full of high values, human characteristics and practices.

After becoming familiar with word meaning and concept of civil, civilized and society, now it is appropriate to examine the statement of the Mahatma, which has been quoted in the beginning of the discussion at hand.

From the above-mentioned statement of Mahatma Gandhi, the following four points emerge categorically:

1. Perfect national life;

2. State of enlightenment;

3. Self-rule [self-control and discipline]; and

4. No hindrance to neighbour [Harmony and cooperation with others]

A civil society of the imagination of the Mahatma could be well perceived in these four points existing in his statement. These points may seem us hypothetical, moral and simple, but in reality they are full of high human values and the acid test of a civilized life. As much, these points are made the subject of human behaviour as the true development of society is feasible; success for the establishment of a civil society of the imagination of Mahatma Gandhi is possible. Let us now discuss these points one-by-one!

Perfect National Life

A perfect national life of the perception of Gandhi, although cannot astray of Ahimsa [non-violence] with morality and ethics in public affairs as its foremost features, but the Mahatma especially and essentially desired respect of freedom of each and every one in such a national life. In other words, he stressed on freedom in equal proportion for one and all. In his own words, .” ..Weakest should have [along with freedom] the same opportunity as the strongest.”

On the basis of this, Mahatma Gandhi visualized a national life. More or less it was the reflection of his concept of Swarajya, stepping towards the establishment of the Ramarajya.

State of Enlightenment

The second feature of civil society of Gandhi’s imagination could be observed in his stress on the state of enlightenment. In it, one and all individuals, society and nation are expected to be fully conscious of their respective duties. In place of asking for rights, to know and perform duties are in fact the basis of a true state of enlightenment. With the performance of duties, one attains rights naturally. In the words of the Mahatma himself, “Rights accrue automatically to him who duly performs his duties. [Not only this], in fact, the right to perform one’s duties is the only right that is worth living for and dying for. It covers all legitimate rights.”

It is the duty, if performed well, which along with making individuals conscious, lead them to the true pathway to all-round development. For this, it is necessary that all, individuals, communities, societies and nations, well perform their respective duties. Therefore, Gandhi laid the stress on it. Categorically, enlightenment by performing duties and by enlightenment the rise and welfare of all [Sarvodaya] was, for him, a concrete means of Swarajya, therefore, the Ramarajya.

Self-rule [self-control and discipline]

Self-control by discipline is the acid test of a true human being that paves the way to self-rule in the best manner. It is the state opposite to such liberty, which burdened some others. Rather, it must continuously develop humanity on the one hand, and should make freedom meaningful on the other. Moreover, it should accord strength to the rule of the people and develop the spirit of sacrifice in one and all.

Mahatma Gandhi was of the firm opinion that discipline develops the spirit of sacrifice in man and where discipline and sacrifice both exist, people while fighting non-violently against injustice and oppression, march forward towards the establishment of a civil society.

Thus, self-control by self-discipline plays an important role in preparing concrete ground for self-rule, which is necessary for true human development, worldly and spiritually, in other words, for a civil society of the imagination of the Mahatma. Moreover, Gandhi considered it to be the foremost duty. To quote him, “[Those] who accept the ideal of attaining self-control as the highest duty of man, and are fired by a genuine and undying faith in their mission, and are sleeplessly vigilant and active, their labour will light the path…”

No hindrance to neighbour [Harmony and cooperation with others]

The fourth feature of civil society of Gandhi’s imagination, particularly having the statement of the Mahatma, quoted at the commencement of this discussion, as the nucleus, could be observed in his own words ‘never a hindrance to his neighbour’, which means not to interfere in others’ affairs while carrying out day-to-day practices. In these words remains the spirit of ‘Live and Let Live’, which is symbolic of tolerance and forbearance. Further, certainty of others’ freedom and fraternity also seems to be there. With cooperation and coordination of people, there is a call to step forward for large scale welfare at individual, community, society and national levels.

Especially, tolerance and forbearance always escalates the spirit of cooperation and coordination in men. They, by transforming conflicts and resolving disputes, pave the way for peace. In the state of peace, people after becoming free from confusion, fear, terror and violence, march forward continuously for welfaristic causes with courage and zeal. Hence, they strengthen human values and contribute in getting society more and more civilized.

Thus, the above four points from Gandhi’s own statement, to a large extent, clarifies the imagination of the Mahatma about a civil society. All the four points – perfect national life, state of enlightenment, self-rule and no hindrance to neighbor – in fact, instead of being important for a civil society of the imagination of Gandhi, are equally essential and inevitable for any of the civil societies. These points are filled with morality that itself is one of the fundamentals of civilization, ethics, equality in opportunities, and simultaneously, they ascertain freedom to one and all.

Further, in them there is a call for duty, consciousness, self-control and sacrifice in the larger welfare of humanity. High human values along with the expectation of ‘Live and Let Live’ emerge in them. The role of any of these in the making of civility cannot be denied or underestimated. Therefore, the Gandhian vision of a civil society can also not be undervalued.

Critical Analysis

All those who are familiar with Gandhian philosophy, know that it is fully within the ambit of Ahimsa. Not a single aspect of his views is untouched by non-violence and its complementary values including morality. How then a civil society of his imagination can be unaffected by it? For this reason many in the world, while commenting on Gandhian views, try to declare them to be just hypothetical. They talk of their being the part of ethics and moral studies, which have been taught by others also from time-to-time. They question of a further ideal in them.

In reply to these kinds of suspicions, it could be asserted with certainty that despite making Ahimsa and other values complimentary to it the basis of his views, the Mahatma never asked to bring any viewpoint within the domain of perpetuity. He called for bringing every human value, including Ahimsa, a subject of refinement so that it could prove to be all- welfaristic in prevailing circumstances of space. Many of his Ahimsa-based actions well prove this fact and they are simultaneously capable of removing all such suspicions. Further, they are capable of proving significance of Gandhi’s ideas in the current perspectives.

Mahatma Gandhi categorically called for not to adhere to any view or philosophy just for the reason that it had been the most effective on a certain point of history. He declared any of the blind following to be foolishness. Refinement in ideas as per the demand of time and space is necessary; their conduciveness and practicability in a prevailing situation is inevitable for the larger welfare of humanity. Hence, it is enough to prove the relevance of Gandhian views. There is a need to make fair examination of Gandhi’s ideas pertaining to a civil society of his imagination and along with this, to work in this direction.

Dr. Ravindra Kumar is an eminent writer, Indologist, political scientist and a former vice chancellor of Meerut University, India, who authored and edited over 100 works on great personalities like Mahatma Gandhi and on various social-cultural issues.