First published in  Asian Philosophy 11:1 (March, 2001), pp. 41-54

Linked with permission of the editors

Edited as Chapter Seven, The Virtue of Non-Violence: From Gautama to Gandhi (SUNY Press, 2004). 


Both Confucius and Gandhi were fervent political reformers, and this paper argues that their views of human nature and the self-society-world relationship are instructively similar.   Gandhi never accepted Shankara=s doctrine of maya and the Gandhian self never dissolves into the Atman-Brahman.   Gandhi=s view has been best described as an organic holism in which, much like the Confucian view, individuals preserve their integrity within the interdependent web of society. Both of them also balance a belief in human dignity and integrity with a belief in divine providence.  I will also demonstrate that both have their own method of experiments in truth.  On the fundamental issue of the unity of truth, goodness, and beauty they are in profound agreement.  On the basis of this fusion of fact and value I will suggest that they both share an aesthetics of virtue that prizes inner moral beauty, which is manifest in elegant behavior rather than a beautifully formed body. 




I see and find beauty in Truth and through Truth. All Truths, not merely true ideas, but truthful faces, truthful pictures, or songs are highly beautiful.  People generally fail to see beauty in Truth, the ordinary man runs away from it and becomes blind to the beauty in it.  Whenever men begin to see Beauty in Truth, then true Art will arise.                                                       

BM. K. Gandhi[1]


Moral beauty is an exceptional and very striking phenomenon.  He who has contemplated it but once never forgets its aspects.  This form of beauty is far more impressive than the beauty of nature and of science.  It gives those who possess its divine gift a strange and inexplicable power. . . . It establishes peace among men. Much more than science, art and religious rites moral beauty is the basis of civilization.                                         BAlexis Carrel [2]



T. K. Fann once challenged members of an audience to name any two thinkers, even the most unlikely allies, and he boasted that he could write a full-length paper comparing them.  The point of Fann's challenge is that comparative philosophy is not only an easy exercise, but this facility implies that we should not expect very profound results from such obvious similarities.  It is true that some comparative philosophy amounts to no more than the compare and contrast questions that we, when we cannot think of something really original, ask our poor students.  When at its best, however, comparative philosophy can produce constructive insights and can offer fresh perspectives on the perennial issues that beset us.  The best comparative philosophy produces anything but obvious results.

Contrary to the cultural solipsism of some current postmodern schools I believe that we can still affirm a common humanity.  The rank Orientalism of Rudyard Kipling=s AEast is East and West is West and never shall the twain meet" is not only odious but wrong.  Asian and European thought is converging today just as it met on common ground in ancient times.  The new translations of the Analects are consummate scholarly creations and they are further witness to the truth of Hans-Georg Gadamer's principle of Horizontsverschmelzung, that no matter how different the cultures it is still possible to meet and to communicate.  Roger T. Ames' and Henry Rosemont's introduction to their new translation of the Analects a most insightful and sensitive appreciation of distinctive features of the Chinese way of thinking and writing, but this process/event philosophy is not unknown in the Europe; rather, it has been with us since Heraclitus and his descendants: Hegel, the Lebensphilosophen, Bergson, James, Whitehead, and Hartshorne. In other work I have reinterpreted Gandhi as a process thinker, because I believe this is the only way one can make intelligible his claim that humans can turn from violent to nonviolent action.[3]

The comparison of Gandhi and Confucius appears at first blush to be the sort of inane exercise that Fann has warned us about.  I proposed to show, however, that even on the points that they seem farthest apart--Gandhian asceticism and Confucian centralized political philosophy--they are closer that we initially think they are.  I maintain that their views of human nature and the self-society-world relationship are instructively similar.  Both of them also balance a belief in human dignity and integrity with a belief in divine providence.  I will also demonstrate that both have their own method of experiments in truth.  On the fundamental issue of the unity of truth, goodness, and beauty they are in profound agreement.  On the basis of this fusion of fact and value I will propose that they both share an aesthetics of virtue based on inner moral beauty that should be the model for ethical practice today.  The body of the text will be divided into an initial section discussing significant differences between Confucius and Gandhi; two middle sections discussing instructive similarities and their respective experiments in truth; and a concluding section on virtue aesthetics.                                                                          

When Buddhists first arrived in China the Chinese were baffled by their asceticism and monasticism.  Even though fair-minded Chinese realized that the monks' severance of family ties did not mean that they necessarily lacked filial piety, they were nonetheless very much concerned about the advocacy of celibacy in a society built on the integrity of the family.  Asceticism of course was not unknown to the Chinese, because they had a long tradition of mountain hermits who rejected society and the conventional family.  But the prospect of thousands of monks living in and requesting alms from the general population was a completely new situation for them.  To their eternal credit the Chinese, except for the persecutions of the Tang Dynasty, integrated Buddhism into their society without major conflict.    

One of the most famous lines in the Analects is "the ruler must rule, the minister minister, the father father, and the son son" (12.11).[4]  It is clear, however, that Confucius allowed many exceptions to this social ideal.  First, if any of these agents do not have the requisite virtue, then the moral or political imperative is null and void.  Second, when a certain Sima Niu despairs because he has no brother, the Confucian answer is a declaration of universal brotherhood (12.5), implying that having a family is just as much a moral concept as it is a biological one.  (The lesson here is even more dramatic because we know that Sima Niu does indeed have a brother, but he has disowned him because he made a threat on Confucius' life.)[5]  Third, Confucius himself paid far more attention to his disciples than to his own family.  His wife is never mentioned and his austere relationship to his son is very similar to Gandhi and his sons.  Confucius' rebukes his son Boyu for his moral laxity and showers excessive paternal affection on Yan Hui, his favorite disciple.  On the occasion of Yan Hui's death  Confucius was beside himself with grief and performed the mourning rites as if he were his own son.  It is in these practices that the Chinese have their own austerities. Mourners were required to wear coarse clothes, give up music, eat thin gruel, and seclude themselves for three years in rustic huts near their parents' graves.  At Analects 7.13 it is said that Confucius took Aspecial care@ with fasting and he claimed that his greatest pleasures were Ato eat coarse food, drink plain water, and pillow oneself on a bent arm@ (7.16).

The Confucian idea of a central government under the rule of the "Son of Heaven" stands in stark contrast to Gandhi's completely decentralized village republicanism.  A few observations, however, mitigate the differences here and also reveal some ironies. With the demise of the Zhou dynasty, there was no central authority during Confucius' era, the so-called warring states period.    The Chinese were not fully organized again until the Han Empire and imperial Confucianism soon forgot many of the innovative elements of its founder.  Although Confucius praised the ancient sage kings, there is no necessary connection between Confucian virtue ethics and a centralized state.  Indeed, a fully personalized ethics of Confucius, drawn from the concepts of ren* and yi and depersonalized by later Confucians, would be  more compatible with small scale political units.  (I will follow the convention of distinguishing between ren, representing the character of a human being, and ren* standing for the virtue.)  Confucius repeatedly denied that he was a sage and he knew of no others who qualified for the title, so he could only envision the continued existence of small states with the faint hope that they would adopt the rule of virtue rather than that of law and heredity.  Later texts contain more utopian views but such optimism is not present in the Analects.

Before the advent of the British, India was also a loose collection of over 500 princely states.  Under their charismatic leadership, Gandhi, Nehru, and others managed to unify the disparate peoples of the Indian Subcontinent under the banner of the Congress party.  Even with the tragedy of partition this was a remarkable achievement and the continued unity of twenty-five states, fourteen major language groups, and six principal religions is nothing short of a political miracle.  Even though lip service has been paid to village autonomy, Gandhi is today the uncrowned sage king of a huge central government in New Delhi.

Although we will find common ground between Confucius and Gandhi on the virtue of love, we do not find any strict Confucian prohibition against injury or retribution by the state.  In fact, traditional accounts tell of Confucius as police chief ordering the execution of a criminal without due process of law with only the expedient hope of deterring future crimes. Gandhi would have of course condemned Confucius' relishing of roast meat, and would have also been appalled by the fact that animal sacrifices to the emperor, the gods, and even Confucius himself continued up until 1917.  At Analects 3.17 we find the story of a disciple who wishes to spare the sheep at one of these sacrifices, but Confucius chides him for straying from the strict requirements of li, the proper code of ritual observance.

It appears that Gandhi would have sided with Christians, Daoists, Mohists, and Buddhists with their common doctrine of unconditional love as opposed to the Confucian principle of "graded" love, the requirement that we love those closest to us more than those distant from us.  The following passage from the Analects contains Confucius' answer to the Daoist version of unconditional love:

Someone asked: "What do you think about the [Daoist] saying: "Repay ill will with beneficence (de)'?"

The Master replied: "Then how would one repay beneficence? Repay ill will by remaining true.  Repay beneficence with gratitude (de)" (14.34).

This is the Confucian reply to the Daoist version of "love your enemy" and "turn the other cheek."  This response to unconditional love contains at least two major arguments.  First, it is only natural to love those closest to you than those who are distant; loving everyone equally is not only impractical but unnatural.  (In his character the Self-Taught-Man in Nausea Jean   Paul Sartre implies that the person who loves everyone actually loves no one in particular.) Second, loving the wrong doer ignores the crucial question of justice.  Confucius believes that it is essentially irrational for one to reward vice with virtue.  Recall that in the case of Sima Niu, justice demands that he forego filial piety to his brother.  Note, however, that Confucius does not recommend retribution or even personal judgment.  (This presumably is the prerogative of the state.) This has always been an obscure passage for translators (Wing-tsit Chan offers "repay evil with uprightness" and Chichung Huang has Arequite enmity with impartiality@), but Confucius appears to recommend that we should remain firm in our virtue, presenting it as a model for the moral rehabilitation of the wrong doer.  Heaven remains steadfast, does not retaliate, and does not take sides.  Emulating Heaven we should remain true and impartial in the same way.

If we look at the way Gandhi responded to wrong doing, we might conclude that he is actually much closer to Confucius= position.  A typical Gandhian response to the misdeeds of others was to shame them completely by doing their penance for them.  This proved to be very effective not only against the British but with his own family and followers as well.  These actions cannot be described as a passive turning of the cheek, but as an active attempt at the moral transformation of others.  Gandhi=s fasts forced the British and his fellow Indians to look inside of themselves and reassess their attitudes and actions.  Gandhi responded by remaining true to himself and to his principles.  (In response to his wife=s refusal to clean the latrines at the ashram, he commanded her to comply with the rules.) In order to make sense of doing penance for acts that Gandhi had not committed, he could say that he could not demand moral purity in others if he were not completely pure himself.  Even though Gandhi had more austere ideas about moral purity, he also, in his own way, Arepaid evil with uprightness.@ 

Gandhi and Confucius diverge significantly on the issue of the relation of mind and body.  Gandhi believes in a strict dualism between soul and body, and he speaks constantly of a Manichean battle between our spiritual natures and our animal natures.  The body is given to us because of our karma: AWe are enslaved in the body because of our sinful deeds.@[6]  The body Aa filthy mass of bones, flesh and blood@= and Awhen it is under the control of God it is a jewel, but when it passes into the control of the Devil, it is pit of filth.@[7]  Gandhi=s Vedantist monism mitigates somewhat the negative effects of this dualism, but it still remains the most problematic aspect of Gandhi=s moral philosophy.

The Chinese character xinBtranslated as Amind@ or Aheart@ but best rendered Aheart-mind@B represents the center of the Confucian self.  Reason and the passions are united in xin so the dichotomy that has plagued Indo-European thought is simply nonexistent.  Assuming a thoroughly somatic soul, the Confucius of the Analects does not even oppose heart-mind to the senses and appetites, although this dichotomy does appear later in Mencius and Xunzi.  Even so Mencius believes that the body is nevertheless constitutive of personal identity, because the virtues of the good person while Arooted in his heart@ manifest themselves Ain his face, giving it a sleek appearance.  It also shows in his back and extends to his limbs....@ (7a21)[8] This means that sages revealed the virtues in their bodies and make even more evident the fusion of the good, the elegant, and the beautiful that we will address in the final section.


There are instructive similarities in Gandhi=s and Confucius= view of God or Heaven (tian).  They even share the same ambivalence between personal theism and impersonal Providence.  The worship of Rama, which was the Gandhi family religion, was always part of his spiritual practice.  At several crucial passages in the Analects Confucius appeals to Heaven in a very intimate way.  When his favorite disciple died, Confucius strongly implied that Heaven had forsaken him (11.9); and when his disciples criticized him for visiting the notorious Madam Nan he called on Heaven as his personal witness (6.28).  Other than these examples, however, Heaven as impersonal Providence completely dominates Confucian philosophy.  When pressed to reconcile the tension between personal and impersonal theism, Gandhi was usually quick to explain that he definitely did not mean Rama, the historical incarnation of Vishnu and King of Ayodhya; rather, Rama was simply a way to name the impersonal Godhead.

The most innovative way that Gandhi named ultimate reality was to call God ATruth,@ and it is at this point that Gandhian and Confucian theology converge very nicely.  The regularities of Heaven and Earth were basic guidelines for the ancient Chinese.  When the Confucians attribute sincerity (cheng) to Heaven, which to all of them is essentially impersonal Providence, they mean that Heaven will always be true to itself.  Social custom (li), the proper way to do things, is modeled on Heaven because it is always constant and predictable.  The sincerity of the sage kings also meant that they will be true to themselves and could always be counted on to guide the people properly.  This government would operate by moral example and not by law and order:

Lead the people with administrative injunctions and keep them orderly with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame.  Lead with excellence (de) and keep them orderly through observing ritual propriety (li) and they will develop a sense of shame, and moreover, will order themselves (2.3).

Gandhi=s village republicanism most definitely requires the rule of virtuous men and women.  The special way in which Gandhi and the junzi perform experiments in truth is discussed in the next section.

Turning now to family government, Gandhi=s revised caste system suggest some instructive Confucian parallels.  Gandhi=s proposal that the son should follow the vocation of the father (unless the work violated fundamental ethics)[9] can been seen as a strong example of filial piety.  Confucius and Gandhi agree that one=s station in life is something that is determined by karma or Heaven, and therefore free choice is not a relevant issue on this point.  Here is Gandhi=s strongest statement on caste:

Some people are born to teach and some to defend, and some to engage in trade and agriculture and some to manual labor, so much so that these occupations become hereditary.  The Law of Varna is nothing but the Law of Conservation of Energy.  Why should my son not be a scavenger if I am one?[10]

Gandhi=s most significant change to the traditional caste hierarchy is his attempt to make it egalitarian. "Caste" he explains, Adoes not connote superiority or inferiority.  It simply recognizes different outlooks and corresponding modes of life."[11]  However, the body analogy that he uses to argue this point is hierarchical and authoritarian--giving, for example, more value and authority to the brain than to the lowly gall bladder or feet, the loss of which a person can survive.  Gandhi, comparing organs of the body to the four castes, disagrees: AIs the head superior to the arms, the belly and the feet, or the feet superior to the other three?  What will happen to the body if these members quarrel about rank?@[12]  One might well answer AYes@ to the first question and strongly advise the lower parts to obey the brain.  (If the brain did not outrank the rest of the organs, occasionally suppressing the actions of errant members, then Gandhi=s ethics of nonviolence would never be possible.)  Confucians generally would endorse the hierarchical logic of the body analogy, but would gladly join Gandhians in using organic analogies to explain both society and reality.

Although Confucius presents no explicit or even consistent ethics of nonviolence, his virtue ethics could be interpreted as such.  The pacifying power of virtue can be seen in this text from the Zhou dynasty:

The marquis declared: AFighting with these multitudes, who can withstand me?  What city could sustain their attack?@

The reply was, A If you, my king, were to pacify the feudal lords through the power of virtue (de), who would dare not to submit?@[13]

Both Confucius and Laozi proposed that any person, not just royalty, could develop the power of their virtue.  P. J. Ivanhoe explains that having de gradually changed from having a special relationship with powerful spirits to having Asomething like moral charisma: the natural attraction one feels toward morally great individuals, the same kind of feeling that people claim to have experienced in the presence of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.@[14  Reiterating the Heaven-moral individual correlation, the Confucian texts claim that the virtuous leader draws in and regulates the behavior of the masses in the same way that the North Star controls the heavenly bodies orbiting it.  Yet another instructive parallel to Gandhi is the Confucian doctrine that the leader who puts himself as risk is the one whose de increases, a view that is found as early as the Shang dynasty.[15]  (This is opposite to most Daoists who celebrated hermits who withdrew to mountain refuges, preserved their de, and avoided the cities of the plains.)  A final parallel to Gandhi is the problematic concept of leaders accepting blame for the wrong doing of their people.  King Tang states that Aif any of the many states do wrong, the guilt lies with me personally@ and King Wu states that Awhere the people go astray, let the blame rest with me alone,@ and King Tang expands the area of blame dramatically: AIf any of the many states do wrong, the guilt lies with me personally.@[16] The most intelligible way to understand Gandhi=s doing penance for other people=s sins was his confession that his own virtue was not yet perfected.  Although Gandhian and Confucian concepts of spiritual purification are quite different, the basic principle is the same: the common people can thrive morally only with moral paragons as examples.    


Both Confucius and Gandhi steadfastly claimed that they were not innovators; rather, they wished to renew traditional views of religion, morality, and politics.  Gandhi states that "I have presented no new principles, but have tried to restate old principles"; and "I do not claim to have originated any new principle or doctrine.  I have simply tried in my own way to apply the eternal truths to our daily life and problems."[17]  The last sentence reveals an essential proviso that proves that Gandhi is a bold innovator at least within the Indian tradition.  The application of eternal truths to daily life meant Gandhi's famous experiments in truth.  (I change "with" truth to "in" truth for stylistic reasons.)  Because of the exigencies of his time, Gandhi added four new vows, some of which were contrary to Hindu tradition.   They were vows  to remove untouchability, to practice daily physical labor, to respect all religions, and to commit oneself to local self-sufficiency (swadeshi). Gandhi also adds "control of the palate" (asvada) to the traditional religious vows in order to emphasize the point that the vow of chastity (brahmacharya) does not simply abstinence from sex but self-control in all actions.  And most controversially, Gandhi believed that the ultimate test of self-control involved sleeping unclothed and untempted with young women.  We will return to this issue shortly.

Confucius also added something new to the Zhou traditions that he embraced.  His concept of ren*, best translated as "being truly humane," is his own unique contribution.  It can be defined as the one comprehensive virtue in which all others are perfected. Commentators as well as his own disciples bemoaned the fact that the Master never defined ren* very well.  The answer to this puzzle is that Confucius was simply being honest about how context-dependent the virtues actually are.  Therefore, what was ren* to one person may not be ren* to another.  Ames and Rosemont explain it well: "Confucius based his specific response on the question on the specific perspective--lived, learned, experienced--from which he thought the disciple asked it."[18]  For one disciple Zilu Confucius advised him to wait before he acted on what he had learned, whereas for Ranyou he urged him to act.  When asked the reason for the contrary advise, Confucius said: "Ranyou is diffident, and so I urged him on.  But Zilu has the energy of two, and so I sought to rein him in" (11.22).  What we see here is Confucius' own method of specific experiments in truth and how he wants his disciples to test their actions according to their temperaments and circumstances.      

 The Chinese word yi is another essential aspect of Confucius' virtue ethics. The Analects state that virtuous people Aare neither bent on nor against anything; rather, they go with what is appropriate (yi)@ (4.10).  Ames and Rosemont  have given the most intelligible reading of this passage so that the personalism and contextualism of yi comes forth.  (The traditional translation of yi as "righteousness" is very misleading unless it is read as "right for you.") Just as phronesis is Aristotle=s guide to a personal mean so is yi for the Confucian dao.[19]  Confucius says that he acts on his Asense of what is appropriate (yi) to extend [his] way (dao)@ (16.11).   Although the Dao is common to all, each and every person must create his/her own specific path down this road.

Confucius says that the junzi gives yi  Afirst priority,@ and then and then goes on to argue that one achieves only semblances of the virtues without yi (17.23).  One could, for example, be physically brave but lack true courage, or one could be clever without being very wise. Confucius also claims that yi is our Abasic disposition@ that allows us to put li into practice (15.18). Without yi Confucian morality would a mere moralism based on strict conformity to li.  Therefore, for a contemporary virtue ethics of self-creation, one could formalize the Confucian position as ren + yi + li = ren*. Even for something as seemingly rigid as the five social relationships, there are as many ways to be a filial son or daughter as there are sons and daughters.[20]

The Chinese ren is the character for a individual human who is transformed in the process of moral cultivation.  The character ren is combined with the glyph for the number two to produce the character ren*.  Right at the center of Confucius' premier virtue is the idea of relationality.  Tu Wei-ming sums up this concept very well:

The more one penetrates into one=s inner self, the more one will be capable of realizing the true nature of one=s human-relatedness. . . . The profound person [junzi] does not practice self-watchfulness [shen du] for the intrinsic value of being alone.  In fact, he sees little significance in solitariness, unless it is totally integrated into the structure of social relations.[21]

Gandhi also believed that people are constituted by their social relations, and they are required to expand their moral influence in the world.  Ramashray Roy correctly describes Gandhi's philosophy as an "organismic vision" that involves:

The necessity of harmonizing oneself with an ever-enlarging network of relationships . . . .  Thus this extended self becomes the ground for sociality.  Society then turns out to be a network of extended selves rather than a mechanical aggregate of enclosed selves or an all-consuming totality of a fictional abstraction.[22]

This is a thoroughly Confucian vision that serves Gandhi's purposes far better than the traditional Vedantist framework in which the reality of the individual is always in question and in which Gandhi's contextual pragmatism is not supported.  There is no Ved~ntist equivalent for Aristotle's phronesis or Confucius' yi.  The concept of organic holism, preserving real functioning parts as integral to the whole, better describes Gandhi's philosophy than Vedantist monism or even pantheism.

It is essential to keep in mind that Gandhian or Confucian experiments in truth are not conducted according to personal whim, so this method does not necessarily lead to moral relativism.  People who are mindful discover objective facts about themselves--temperament, metabolism, general physiology, and physical limitations--and facts about other people and the world that are not mere subjective constructions.    If people ignore these objective factors then their bodies or something in the world, sooner or later, will tell them that they are out of their respective means.

I have deliberately used the word "mindful" as a way to introduce Buddhism to this discussion. The Buddha's famous statement "a person who sees causation, sees the Dharma"[23] implies that people know how to act, not because of abstract rules or absolutes, but because of their past, their present circumstances, and their basic dispositions.  Those who are mindful of who they are and how they relate to themselves and others will know what to do. The "mirror of Dharma" is not a common one that we all look into together, as some Mahayana schools believe, but it is actually a myriad of mirrors reflecting individual histories.  Maintaining the essential link between fact and value, just as Greek and the Chinese did, the Buddha holds that the truth about our causal relations dictates the good that we ought to do.  As David J. Kalupahana states: "Thus, for the Buddha, truth values are not distinguishable from moral values or ethical values; both are values that participate in nature."[24] I believe that we can find this same ethical naturalism in Gandhi's and Confucius' experiments in truth, which, because their purpose was always directed to how we should live, were basically empirical experiments in Dharma.

The Buddha's Middle Way is therefore a distinctive personal mean between extremes, much like Aristotle's mean and Confucius' concept of yi. If this analysis is correct, then the traditional translation of the moral imperatives of the Buddha's eight-fold path may be misleading. Translating the Sanskrit stem samyag- that appears in each of the words as the "right" thing to do makes them sound like eight commands of duty ethics.  Instead of eight universal rules for living, they should be seen as virtues, i.e., dispositions to act in certain ways under certain conditions and personal circumstances.  (Samyagajiva, right livelihood, is particularly unintelligible by the absolutist reading.)  The translation of samyag- more appropriate to Buddhist pragmatism would be "appropriate," "suitable," or "fitting," but "right" could remain as long as we understand it to be "right for you." It is only fitting, for example, that a warrior eat more and more often than a monk, or it is only appropriate that the warrior express courage in a different way than a nonwarrior does.  Both are equally virtuous, because they have personally chosen the virtues as means, means relative to them.

Although Gandhi expressed faith in eternal Truth, he always reminded himself and his followers that finite beings could only know finite truths. Bedekar is the one Gandhi scholar who sees the implications of this most clearly:

He unmistakably refers to the finite truth which can be grasped by a finite mind, and boldly asserts that we, as finite human beings, must chart our voyage with this compass, as our only guide.  Here Gandhi appears a humble seeker of human truth, as distinguished from eternal Truth sought by ancient seeks of Moksha, Nirvana or the eternal Bliss of Brahma-jnana.

He continues:

It appears to me that Gandhi bypasses metaphysical clarity, and he wants to confront issues directly.  He wants to experiment with Truth and Ahimsa; in others words, he has no use for definitions and concepts, but wants to live out, or try out, certain tentatively held beliefs or instinctively felt urges.[25]

If Bedekar is correct, and I believe that he is, then Gandhi cannot appeal to his Higher Self, as he sometimes calls Atman, for particular ethical guidance. Atman is a universal self and can only give universal answers; but as totally undifferentiated it may not be able to do even that.  Therefore, Vedantist philosophy cannot possibly be the guide for Gandhi=s experiments in truth.

Gandhi's controversial experiments with brahmacharya are an instructive example of how Gandhi put aside traditional rules and found his own way, dictated solely by  his own experience, his own dispositions, and his very unique way of purifying himself of sexual desire.  He made it perfectly clear to his followers that no one should imitate the quasi-Tantric methods he used.  This was his own personal mean between the excess of sexual indulgence and the deficient of complete withdrawal from women. (He thought yogis who did so were cowards.) Sleeping with his grandniece was right for him, and Manubehn Gandhi claimed that it was as innocent as sleeping with her mother, whom she claimed Gandhi had replaced.  One critic, convinced that Gandhi had corrupted himself and had ruined his entire political program, visited Gandhi and expecting the worst. Gandhi=s sleeping area was open for all to see, and he found Manu and him sleeping peacefully and innocently.  Gandhi=s visitor was completely disarmed in his criticism.

One might choose Confucius' encounter with Madam Nan as comparable test in Confucius' life.  Madam Nan was the notorious concubine of the Duke Ling of Wei.  Madam Nan invited Confucius to her inner apartments and his disciples advised him not to accept her invitation.  Presumably caught between the wrong of declining hospitality and the vice of indiscretion, Confucius decided to visit her.  All the laconic Analects reports is that afterwards Confucius swore an oath to Heaven: "For whatever I have done to offend, my tian abandon me! May tian abandon me!" (6.28) One implication is that, in contrast to Gandhi's experiment with his grandniece, Confucius somehow failed or thought that others would perceive that he failed.  One could conclude that Confucius' failure was a lack of courage either to decline the invitation or to see the visit through without embarrassment. Gandhi's bedroom was open for inspection whereas Madam Nan's boudoir was not. The least we can say is that Gandhi appeared much more confident that he had done no wrong than Confucius was.

This particular incident notwithstanding, we can say that Confucius generally exhibited as much courage as Gandhi.  Confucius' campaign of political reform throughout the warring states was filled with danger and intrigue and this took as much courage as Gandhi's programs in India.  Both of them also carefully distinguished between mere bravery and true courage, a virtue possible only in a person of ren* or Gandhi's spiritually pure satyagrahi.  (Both appeared to agree with Aristotle's concept of the unity of the virtues: if one truly has one virtue then one must have them all.)  The courage of Confucius and Gandhi is the unswerving commitment to be true to oneself and to be true to others.

Confucius' disciple Zilu is called "bold" but Confucius reminded him that truly virtuous person puts yi first, because it is the enabling virtue that can bring any particular virtue into its proper mean (17.23).  The bold person without yi will become "unruly."  Earlier Confucius had praised Zilu because he thought that Zilu would be the first disciple to join him on a dangerous journey, but he was also uncertain whether Zilu had sufficient personal resources to survive the trip (5.7).  Although they do not put as strongly as Gandhi, the Confucians, especially Mencius, also agree with him that courage is the key virtue for the good life.  As Gandhi wrote in 1930: "Fearlessness is a sine qua non for the growth of the other noble qualities."[26] Again we see a holistic view of the unity of the virtues.


Most Euro-American philosophy has unfortunately severed the time-honored connections between truth, goodness, and beauty.   A Chinese poet of the Book of Odes conceives of moral development as similar to the manufacture of a precious stone.  At birth we are like uncut gems, and we have an obligation to carve and polish our potential in the most beautiful ways possible.  The ren* person is a work of fine art, something wholly unique and distinctive.  Whereas the craft potter takes thousands of mugs from the same mold, the ceramic sculptor makes one singular work.  Ames and Rosemont=s inelegant translation of ren* as Aauthoritative person@ plays on the dual meanings of authority and creative authoring and leads to helpful translations such as ABecoming authoritative in one=s conduct is self-originatingBhow could it originate with others@ (12.1).  Ames and Rosemont also observe that li is Aprofoundly different from law@ because it can be personalized and stylized.  A common translation of li as Apropriety@ takes on deeper meaning when we are reminded that the English word comes from the Latin propriusBAmaking something one=s own."[27]

The Confucians were both dancers and expert musicians, and it is the performing arts that is the best model for a contemporary aesthetics of virtue. Confucian sages were moral virtuosos who used their yi to create their own unique style of appropriating the social patterns of their community (li). This achievement is both moral and aesthetic because it results in the embodiment of the good (li) and the personal creation of an elegant, harmonious, and balanced soul.  Confucius claimed to have the ability to read the character of composers by listening to their music.  It is also said that in his later years Confucius put the Book of Odes to music in the proper way, presumably based on a correlation between  notes and virtues (9.15).  For Confucius the beauty of the sage kings lies in their virtue; the beauty of any neighborhood is due to the goodness of its residents; a person without ren* could not possibly appreciate music; and a society without li and music would not be just; indeed, li cannot be perfected without music.[28]   Gandhi once said that he could not Aconceive of an evolution of India=s religious life without her music."[29] He would also have celebrated the fact that the Analects reports that the fusion of li and music first came with the commoners and then was adopted by the nobility (11.1).

Although he was not at all as active in the arts as Confucius, Gandhi is committed to the same ancient unity of truth, goodness, and beauty.  More so than Confucius Gandhi is committed to prioritizing truth: "Truth is the first thing to be sought for, and Beauty and Goodness will then be added unto you."[30]  Gandhi's focus was also more on the inner beauty of the pure heart rather than natural or artistic beauty. "Purity of life is the highest and truest art. . . .The art of producing good music from a cultivated voice can be achieved by many, but the art of producing that music from the harmony of a pure life is achieved very rarely."[31]  Confucius would certainly have agreed with this statement.  Gandhi rejected the concept of art for art=s sake and its amoral aestheticism and there is no question that Confucius would have agreed with the proposition that art must be an ally of the good life or it loses its value.  While in England Gandhi experienced the controversy surrounding Oscar Wilde and he joined Wilde=s critics with the charge that he was guilt of Abeautifying immorality."[32]

From the standpoint of Heaven the Confucians would have agreed with Gandhi that its truth [cheng=sincerity] is most important, and its beauty and goodness follows second and third.  Gandhi may have subordinated beauty to both truth and goodness so as to forestall any philosophy of life that would place the acquisition of artworks before basic needs of the people.  Gandhi believed that for the masses to appreciate beauty it must come through truth.  AShow them Truth first and they will see beauty afterwards.  Whatever can be useful to those starving millions is beautiful to my mind.  Let us give today the vital things of life and the graces and ornaments of life will follow.@[33]  In this passage Gandhi=s passion for justice appears to have led him to reduce beauty to utility.  He may, however, have a more sophisticated aesthetics in mind, one in which form follows function, one that is manifested in the exquisitely beautiful and simple Shaker furniture.  This is how Gandhi relates asceticism to aesthetics: AAsceticism is the highest art.  For what is art but beauty in simplicity and what is asceticism if not the loftiest manifestation of simply beauty in daily life, shorn of artificialities and make-believe?  That is why I always say that the true ascetic, not only practises art but lives it.@[34] In a personal conversation with Gandhi=s grandson Ramachandra, a creative writer and philosopher in his own right, he described the way that Gandhi led his daily prayer services as a form of minimalist art.

Gandhi once asked a disciple if a Awoman with fair features was necessarily beautiful?@  The initial affirmative answer was quickly withdrawn when Gandhi followed with Aeven if she may be of an ugly character?@  For Gandhi beauty is always be Aan index of the soul within.@[35]  He also observed that although they say that Socrates was not a handsome man, Ato my mind he was beautiful because all his life was striving after Truth. . . ."[36] M. Kirti Singh has remarked that Gandhi was perhaps as ugly as Socrates, "yet there was a rare spiritual beauty that shone in his face."[37]  This is a moral beauty that comes from the courage of being true to one's self and being true to others.  Gandhi=s virtue aesthetics is best summed up in this passage: ALife must immensely excel all the parts put together.  To me the greatest artist is surely he who lives the finest life.@[38]

Moral aesthetes may be tempted to judge those who are not well formed in body or in action as morally unfit and not suitable for human interaction.  For example, the beggars on the streets of large Indian cities are not a pretty sight, and an aesthetics of virtue might lead one to be less compassionate towards them.  Both Confucius and Gandhi remind us, however, that moral beauty is primarily an inner quality.  (Zhuangzi=s story of the ugly man of Wei whose virtue was Awhole@ and who was chosen by the Duke to be prime minister is a good Daoist reference for this point.)[39]  The external beauty of some aesthetes may blind us to the fact that they may be too glib and too self-conscious about the gems they have created.  Natural moral beauty is never showy and ostentatious; if it is, it is false and only a semblance of virtue.  In answer to the conundrum of the evil artist, Gandhi=s answer is as good as any professional philosopher I know:  AThat only means that Truth and Untruth often coexist: good and evil are often found together.  In an artist [sometimes] the right perception of things and the wrong coexist.@[40]  An alternative answer is that the Chinese gem simile claims only an analogy between beauty and morality not an identity.

Along the same lines one might test the unity of truth, goodness, and beauty with this thought experiment: two people have exactly the same virtuous dispositions, but the one is outwardly beautiful and the other is ugly.  One might be tempted to conclude that the former is more admirable than the latter.  But moral beauty is not simply a sum of inner and outer qualities, and Gandhi and the Chinese will insist that the inner qualities will always trump any external features.  Furthermore, one can imagine even the most crippled and deformed presenting themselves with elegance and dignity.  The literary examples of the monster in Beauty and the Beast and The Elephant Man make this point dramatically.  The final line of the former is ATo judge by appearance is to miss the beauty of our inner souls.@  (In the ballet version the Beast=s movements become increasingly elegant as he realizes his true nature as a prince.) In real life President Jimmy Carter=s Veteran Affairs Administrator, a Vietnam War survivor with only one arm and no legs, was remarkably elegant on the basketball court.  His experience had given him a moral beauty that was not only an inspiration for other disabled veterans but for handicapped people everywhere.  These examples prove Gandhi=s thesis that beauty always begins from the inside and is produced by a pure spirit: AThe outward forms have value only in so far as they are the expression of the inner spirit of man.@[41]  In answer to the question of natural beauty, the experience of which he preferred to art, Gandhi, not surprisingly, said that it comes from God, the purest spirit of all.

Not only did Jahalwar Nehru see Gandhi's inner beauty but he also observed a external aesthetic as well:

According to the teachings of the Gita, he laboured dispassionately without attachment to results, and so results came to him.  During his long life, full of hard work and activity. . . there is hardly any jarring note anywhere.  All his manifold activities became progressive a symphony and every word he spoke and every gesture that he made fitted into this, and so unconsciously he became the perfect artist, for he learnt the art of living. . . . It became apparent that the pursuit of truth and goodness leads among other things to this artistry in life.[42]

Robert Payne adds his own elegant version of this point:

He acted many roles and never wearied of his performances. Since he played these changing roles so well, he was sometimes accused of being a virtuoso performer with extraordinary powers of improvisation.  In fact, he was the author of the play, the stage manager and most of the players.[43]

The test of a true Chinese sage was to act in such a way that things came spontaneously and effortlessly.  This is where Daoism and Confucianism meet: the sage king simply sits facing south and all is right with his realm (Analects 2.1). The virtuous person never looks to profit but simply to the joy of virtue itself. Even though Confucius rejected the title sage he still claimed that at the age of seventy he "could give [his] heart . . . free rein without overstepping the boundaries" (2.4).

        One of the problems with a rule-based ethics is applying the rules to specific cases.  The imperatives of virtue ethicsBbe true, be patient, be kind, be compassionate, be courageous--better equip an individual to negotiate the obstacles of the moral life.  The virtue ethics approach is not to follow a set of abstract rules, but to develop a unique ensemble of behaviors, dispositions, and qualities that lead to human excellence.  Virtue ethics may not have exact answers to specific cases--no ethical theory could offer this--but it does prepare the moral agent for adaptation, innovation, and self-discovery. As opposed to a rule based ethics, where the most that we can know is that we always fall short of the norm, virtue ethics is truly a voyage of personal discovery. Buddhist, Confucian, Aristotelian, and Gandhian ethics always aim at a personal mean that is a creative choice for each individual.  Virtue ethics is emulative--using the sage as a model for virtue--whereas rule ethics is based on simple conformity and obedience. The emulative approach engages the imagination and personalizes and thoroughly grounds individual moral action and responsibility.  Such an ethics naturally lends itself to an aesthetics of virtue: the crafting of a good and beautiful soul, a unique individual gem among other gems.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS.  For financial support I would like to thank the research office of the University of Idaho, the Martin Institute of Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution, and the conveners of the National Seminar on Civic Virtue at Santa Clara University.  I am especially grateful to the faculty of the Department of Gandhian Studies at Panjab University for hosting me during three trips to India and Rashmi Puri in particular for inspiring me to begin my study of Gandhi while on sabbatical there in 1992.  Special thanks also goes to Ramachandra Gandhi, visiting professor at Panjab University, for some very stimulating talks about his grandfather.



1. M. K. Gandhi, Young India 6 (November 13, 1924), p. 377.

2. Alex Carrel, Man the Unknown (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935), pp. 130-31.

3.  See my "Ahimsa, the Self, and Postmodernism," International Philosophical Quarterly 35:1 (March, 1995), pp. 71-86; "Gandhi and Mahayana Buddhism" (in Japanese), Journal of Oriental Studies 35:2 (1996), pp. 84-105; "Gandhi: Premodern, Modern, or Postmodern?" Gandhi Marg 17:3 (Oct.-Dec., 1996), pp. 261-281; and AGandhi, the Buddha, and Atman: A Response to Roy," Gandhi Marg 21:4 (January-March, 2000), pp. 447-459.

4. See Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998).  Unless otherwise noted the Analects will be cited from this translation.

5. See ibid., p. 250, note 192.

6. M. K. Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: Government of India Publications, 1959), vol. 12, p. 375.

7. Ibid., p. 165.  When he writes about his philosophy of education, he calls for a harmony of intellect, heart, and body.  See Harijan 5 (May 8, 1937), p. 104.

8. The Lau translation will be cited in the text unless otherwise indicated.  D. C. Lau, Mencius (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970).

9. See Gandhi, Young India 9 (October 20, 1927), p. 355.

10. Gandhi, Harijan 5 (March 6, 1937), p. 27.  In the same source a questioner counters that, according to this logic, Abraham Lincoln should not have aspired to become president of the United States.  Gandhi only deflects the question by answering, unsatisfactorily, that the scavenger, as long as he keeps his profession, can otherwise be anything that he wants to be.

11. Gandhi, The Collected Works, vol. 19, p. 175.

12. Gandhi, Harijan 2 (September 28, 1934), p. 258.

13. Quoted in P. J. Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self Cultivation (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 2000), p. xiii. 

14. Ibid.


15. "Because of [the king=s] willingness to put himself in danger on behalf of another, his de is magnified"(quoted in Ivanhoe, op. cit., p. xv).

16. Analects 20.1 (Ames & Rosemont).

17.  M. K. Gandhi, Young India 8 (December 2, 1926), p. 419; Harijan (March 28, 1936), p. 49.

18. Ames and Rosemont, p. 5. 

19.  See my "The Dancing Ru: A Confucian Aesthetics of Virtue," Philosophy East and West 51:3 (July, 2001) for more on the comparison of Aristotelian phronesis and Confucian yi.

20. In the process of writing AThe Dancing Ru@ I came to this insight before reading Ames and Rosemont=s identical observation (p. 27).

21.  Tu Weiming, Centrality and Commonality (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989), p. 27.

22.  Rameshray Roy, Understanding Gandhi (New Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1996), p. 89.

23Majjhima-nikaya I.190-1, quoted in David J. Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1976), p. 64.

24. Kalupahana, p. 63.

25.  D. K. Bedekar, Towards Understanding Gandhi, ed. R. Gawande (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1975), pp. 117, 119.

26. Gandhi, Young India 12 (September 11, 1930), p. 1

27.  Ames and Rosemont, pp. 51-52.

28. Analects 1.12 (following Lau, Huang, Leys, and Waley with Abeauty@ rather than Chan=s Aexcellence@); 4.1 (following P. J. Ivanhoe=s private translation); 3.3; 13.3; 8.8.

29.  Cited in Madan Gandhi, AGandhian Aesthetics,@ p. 266.

30.  Gandhi, Young India 6 (November 20, 1924), p. 386.

31.  Gandhi, Harijan 6 (February 19, 1938), p. 10.

32.  Gandhi, Young India 6 (November 13, 1924), p. 377.

33.  Gandhi, Young India 6 (November 20, 1924), p. 386.

34.  Cited in Madan Gandhi, M. Gandhi, A Gandhian Aesthetics (Chandigarh: Vikas Bharati, 1969), p. 69.

35.  Gandhi, Young India 6 (November 13, 1924), p. 377.

36.  Ibid.

37.  M. Kirti Singh, [The] Philosophical Import of Gandhism (New Delhi: South Asian Publishers, 1994), p. 136 note 3.

38.  Cited in Ibid., p. 135.

39.  The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), p. 72.

40. Gandhi, Young India 6 (November 13, 1924), p. 377.

41.  Ibid.

42. Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi (Calcutta: Signet Press,  1949), p. 159.

43. Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi (New York: Dutton, 1969), p. 14.