Educational Resources

The Eleven Vows of Mahatma Gandhi-Their Observance and Relevance

Kurangi Desai

Any of us who has attended a prayer meeting at a Gandhian institute is likely to remember a chant beginning:-"Ahimsa Satya Asteya." The two verses beginning with these words enumerate the eleven vows that Gandhiji considered almost mandatory for the inmates of his Ashram, in Sabarmati as well as in Sevagram.

The eleven vows are:

(1) Satya-Truth, (2) Ahimsa-Nonviolence, (3) Brahmacharya-Celibacy (4) Asteya-Non-stealing, (5) Aparigraha or Asangraha-Non-possession (6) Sharira-Shrama; Physicallabour or Bread Labour. (7) Asvada-Control of Palate, (8) Abhaya-Fearlessness, (9) Sarva-Dharma-Samanatva- Equal respect for all Religions, (10) Swadeshi-Duty towards Neighbour and (11) Asprishyatanivarana - Removal of Untouchability.

Of these eleven, the first five are found in most of the religions of the world and are called 'Pancha Mahavratas' - the Five great Vows. The remaining six are somewhat new ideas that have been given the importance of vows to fulfill the need of the time.

The image of Gandhiji in the minds of his contemporary Indians was that of a political leader - of one who brought Swarajya. Essentially, however, Gandhi was a Sadhaka, one who was in search of God. His ultimate goal was Moksha or the realization of God. Since he believed that service of man was the best way to realize God, he lived and died in the service of India, which in a mircrocosm, was the service of Mankind. That was his pilgrimage towards realization. In this context, the eleven were very important to him. They were a part of 'Tapa' Austerity and Self - denial for Purification. Tapa is considered necessary in all religions for elevating oneself spiritually, for control over desires, as a check upon an unruly mind and for paving the way to sacrifice for others - all these leading to Moksha. But Gandhiji was a 'Sadhaka' with a difference; his 'Sadhana' did not end with himself. He wanted to include society in his spiritual efforts and so he gave a new dimension to the Five Great Vows and extended them into the remaining six.

Let us have a closer look at these vows and their observance:

    1. Satya -Truth

    Truth is the most important vow, being the very basis of all the others. The word 'Satya' is from 'Sat', which means 'Being'. On 'Sat' depends true knowledge, known in Sanskrit as 'Chit' and Bliss that is 'Ananda'. The three together form the word 'Sachhidananda' which is one of the epithets of the Supreme Being. According to Gandhiji, Truth is God. Satya, therefore, was the pivot of the life of an Ashramite. Observance of Truth was expected not only in speech but also in thought and in action.

    One may wonder what one should do if what appears to be truth to one person does not appear to be truth to another. Gandhiji suggests that after due deliberation and humble consideration of the opinion of the other person, if one still feels his own truth to be truth for himself, he should follow it according to his own light. In order to be convinced about one's ability to understand truth, one should use as the measuring rod those who have suffered for Truth and should himself be ready to suffer similarly.

    2. Ahimsa - Non-Violence

    Truth and Non-Violence are like the two sides of a coin - one cannot exist without the other. Using another imagery, Ahimsa is the path along which one reaches truth. Violence leads to more violence and hampers the clear vision which is essential for the pursuit of Truth.

    At a personal level; Ahimsa consists in not only forbearing from physical violence; in order to achieve non-violence it is necessary to remove from the mind all hatred, all jealousy and all desire to harm even those who harm us. The next step would be to extend our love to all living beings, including living beings like snakes, tigers, etc.

    At a social level, the goal of Ahimsa is to create a society where there would be no need to act in an anti-social manner and hence no need for any punishment. This can happen only when the economic differences between the classes get considerably narrowed down and when the erring members of society are considered as their own brothers by the righteous.

    3. Brahmacharya- Celibacy or Chastity

    Brahmacharya normally connotes a rigid control over sexual urge. An unmarried man who shuns sex is called a Brahmachari.

    According to Gandhiji, however, this is a very narrow meaning of the word. 'Brahmacharya' really means 'Moving towards, Brahma' that is, towards truth. For such a person, a control over all senses is necessary. So also, it is necessary to keep himself away from attachment to social connections. In achieving this end, control of sex is perhaps most helpful, because sex is one of the strongest temptations to cause one to stray from the narrow path of truth. Again marital relations are the cause of the strongest social bond, that of the family. Hence the importance attached to the control of sex, which became synonymous with Brahmacharya. Control of sex, can also help the Sadhaka to gain control over his other senses.

    Gandhiji believed that a celibate life was most congenial for the pilgrim to truth. However, married couples could also tread that path by subtracting sex from their marital life. Such a step would free them from undue attachment for each other and free them for service of mankind.

    It is obvious that Brahmacharya, like truth and Non-violence, should be adhered to not only at the physical level, but also at the level of thought. To harbour a passion in the mind, while practicing physical control of the senses is not really Brahmacharya.

    On one point, however, Gandhiji differed radically from the orthodox believers in Brahmacharya - he did not believe that a Brahmachari should shun the company of women. He wanted the Brahmachari of his Ashram to live a life of service to society; so it was inevitable that he would come into contact with women social workers. In Gandhiji's opinion a Brahmachari should keep his public contact with women workers and learn to look upon them as sisters and mothers. If someone could adhere to Brahmacharya only when there were no women around, according to Gandhiji, he was not a real Brahmachari.

    While laying all this stress on Brahmacharya, Gandhiji was not unmindful of the difficulty experienced by the Ashramites in its day to day observance.. We are told by persons near to Gandhiji that he was completely aware that a number of the Ashramites were only partially successful in their attempts at Brahmacharya. Since Gandhiji himself never claimed complete success, he was satisfied that the Ashramites sincerely tried their best.

    4. Asteya - Non Stealing

    In an ordinary sense, very few people actually steal anything from others, partly because of the social stigma attached to stealing.

    Gandhiji, however, gave a far wider connotation to stealing. According to him those members of the family who help them-selves to better facilities depriving the other members, are thieves. Even those who enjoy luxuries not available to the lower strata of society are also thieves.

    So, a person who wishes to apply Asteya in his life ought to lead such a simple life that he takes for himself from society only his minimum requirements.

    In the Ashram, one aspect of Asteya, namely avoiding waste, was strictly observed. Nothing was to be wasted-food, water, clothes or even paper. As a matter of fact, Gandhiji would reply to a letter in the blank half; he used to open addressed envelopes on all sides, gum them up inside out and use them again; the idea was something more than mere frugality - he wanted to use as little of the people's money as possible for his own purpose and thus be as little indebted to society as possible. It was on this principle that he did not allow Kasturba the personal use of the gifts she received in South Africa for his public service.

    5.Aparigraha - Non-Possession

    Aparigraha is almost a corollary of Asteya. In order to follow the dictum of non-thieving one must have as few pos-sessions as possible.

    For Gandhiji, Non-possession was also a proof of one's faith in God. He used to quote instances of devotees who did not believe in keeping back a little food even for the next meal. Aparigraha also helped one in slowly giving up the attachment towards wordly possessions, an essential condition of a seeker of truth, which every Ashramite was expected to be.

    And yet Gandhiji realized that giving up possessions was no easy matter. So, for non - Ashramite she propounded the ideal of trusteeship. Possessions, particularly in the form of business ../assets or land, could not be given up without complications. So he suggested that businessmen and landlords should consider themselves not owners but trustees of their property. A trustee is expected to use the income of the trust solely to the advantage of the beneficiaries. In the case of wealthy people the beneficiaries are all the employees and underlings connected with the wealth. So, all income from the business or the land should be shared-with the employees or tillers of the land. The owner turned trustee should avail himself of the bare minimum, thus narrowing the economic gap between himself and his dependants. The concept of trusteeship can be called a, slightly diluted social extension of both Asteya and Aparigraha.

    These, then, are the interpretations of Panch Maha Vratas. Let us now turn to the other six vows, which project the social application of these five.

    6. Sharirashtrama - Physical Labour or Bread Labour

    Gandhiji got the idea of Bread labour from Tolstoy. The idea is that everyone must put in some physical labour to earn his daily bread. An intellectual or an artist or a person with any other ability should utilize that ability for the service of society, while bread should be earned through physical labour alone.

    Economic differences in society can be mitigated in this way. Even those professions essential to society-those of a teacher, a doctor, a pleader-the wages of the professional should not be more than those of a physical labourer.

    Gandhiji modified this idea into the concept of shrama-yagna. He suggested that even those who earned their livelihood through other professions should devote at least one hour every day to some kind of physical labour performed in the spirit of oneness with the poor. At the time when Gandhiji presented this concept to India, cheap foreign cloth was being dumped in the country by the British rulers to the detriment of our indigenous industry. So, Gandhiji revived the art of spinning and decided that spinning the Charkha should be the symbol of Shrama-yagna. The Ashramites were expected to spin for an hour every day without fail. This exercise was called Sutrayagna.

    Over and above this, he made it a rule that all domestic chores should be performed by the Ashramites themselves, including a reformed method of scavenging - the last out of respect for the 'Bhangi', whom he later called 'Harijan', the lowest of the low in the Hindu caste system.

    7. Asvada - Control of Palate

    Palate being one of the senses, its control is obviously a part of Sadhana of the pilgrim to Truth.

    Gandhiji gave it a special place as a separate vow because he believed that control of the palate was inevitable for Brahmacharya that observance of Brahmacharya became easier if taste was conquered. Besides, conquest of taste was helpful in the conquest of other senses too.

    The most important condition of Asvadawas the conviction that food is meant only to sustain the body for service of others. So, to indulge the taste by a variety of culinary delicacies was against the spirit of Asvada.

    This vow was adhered to rather rigidly in the Ashram. The food in the common kitchen was as simple as possible, without any condiments, some times even without salt. Individual families who cooked at home did not always develop Asvada to the extent desirable. All the same most of these families had their own rules regarding simple diet more or less in keeping with the concept of Asvada.

    8. Abhaya - Fearlessness

    Psychologists tell us that fear is a natural reflex in all living beings on par with hunger, sleep and the sexual urge. How then can one vow, "I shall not experience fear" ?

    And yet fearlessness is the backbone of most other virtues. Gandhiji appreciated the importance of fearlessness partly because he used to be a timid child, full of all kinds of fears. Later on he consciously trained himself into fearlessness.

    The Gita places Abhaya at the head of divine attributes. Many poet-devotees sing the praises of fearlessness in spiritual life.

    Fears are innumerable. All of us are afraid of disease, injury, death; of loss of wealth, loss of prestige, loss of loved ones; of displeasing our dear ones, of displeasing the boss, of displeasing society and so on. Some people can get rid of some of these fears, others struggle to conquer other fears. In order to realise truth, it is necessary to remove all fear, which is hardly possible. A Sadhaka should, therefore, endeavour to rid himself or herself of as many kinds of fears as possible.

    The fear of God, which in other words means the fear of wrong doing, is one fear which no one should give up. This fear keeps us on guard against further growth of unwholesome traits of the mind and perhaps helps us in going beyond ordinary fears.

    9.Sarva-Dharma-Samanatva- Equal Respect for all Religions

    This is a very important vow in a multi-religious country like India. One has a natural respect for one's own religion, and rightly so. But that respect need not lead one into disrespect for other religions. All religions help their adherents to proceed towards an ideal life. All religions have had devotees who realised God in their own way. And yet no religion is perfect. Quest of truth being the moving spirit behind all religions, they are always subject to a process of evolution and re-interpretation. So one should never consider one's own religion to be the only perfect religion. On this ground, Gandhiji was against conversion unless it was desired by some one through conviction. All should study first one's own religion and then as many others as possible and appreciate the good points of all of them.

    In the daily prayers of the Ashram, there were chantings from the Koran, the Buddhist prayer, the Bible and so on. In South Africa a bhajan was being sung which said "Dear to me is the name of Rama." A Parsi friend once suggested, "Why don't we sing 'Dear to me is the name of Hormuzd?" The congregation took up the idea. That was the spirit generated by Gandhiji's ideal of Sarva-Dharma-Samabhava.

    10. Swadeshi - Duty Towards the Neighbour

    As early as 1909 Gandhiji had found that India was filled with items of every day use imported from England. This was one of the main causes of the impoverishment of the country. Then again, it was necessary to induce Indians to be proud of their country.

    In order to achieve this, Gandhiji after returning to India in 1915,researchedon Khadi, reestablished the forgotten Charkha and unfolded his theory of Swadeshi, for the rejuvenation of Indian economy and Indian self-respect...

    But then, Gandhiji was never satisfied with only the economic or political aspect of ideas. He gave Swadeshi a deeper significance based on an ancient ideal which says that one's first duty was not one's neighbours. Fulfilled in the spirit of love, that duty was not to at variance with one's duty to mends further away either.

    It was in this light that Gandhiji said that the Swadeshi movement was not harmful to the British mill hand, as it saved him from exploitation of his Indian brethren. This spirit of love made the labourer in Manchester his mend when Gandhiji went there even though Gandhiji was instrumental in bringing about unemployment of the British textile labourer.

    11. Asprishyata - Navaran- Removal of Untouchability

    This vow meant that Ashramites would mix as freely with so called untouchables as with all other people.

    This was, perhaps the vow most difficult to be practiced. Among the Ashramites themselves all were not free from the age-old Hindu belief that a person born in certain castes pollutes others by his touch.

    For Gandhiji ever since his twelfth year the ideal that any human being was inferior to another was not palatable. He always resisted the very basis of untouchability. He called it a cancer of Hindu Society. He had already started practicing the removal of untouchability while in South Africa.

    Then, soon after he returned to India he accepted an untouchable family in the Ashram. Several of the inmates, including Kasturba were quite upset at this step; the financial aid that the Ashram was receiving all but stopped. Gandhiji, however did not flinch from his decision. The resentment soon died down and sympathetic friends solved the financial problem as well.

    Later on Gandhiji gave the name 'Harijan' to the untouchables and gave a great deal of his time to their amelioration. So these were how the eleven vows were observed in Gandhiji's Ashram. They were quite well known in his lifetime. Even non-Ashramites studied them and tried to follow some of them to some extent.

    People ask us: "Are Gandhiji's vows relevant today?" My husband once asked a counter question: 'Is a lamp relevant in darkness?"

    The eleven vows cover such a vast canvas of life that one cannot say enough about their relevance today and tomorrow.

    In ending this resume we hope that these spiritual lamps would shed enough light on the paths of the people of India, nay on the paths of the people of the world to enable them to make this poor troubled Earth a better place to live in.

[Source: Pushpanjali - Essays on Gandhian Themes, edited by - R. Srinivasan, Usha Thakkar, Pam Rajput]