The first class I took in college was a history of India structured around the life of Gandhi. I wasn’t all that interested in India, but I was concerned about my role in the world. I wanted to be a good person – or at least a better one. I wanted to leave the world a better place. I wanted to do no harm. I wanted to live a good life, an ethical life, one that I could be proud of when it was all over.
But what is the right thing to do? Ever since Aristotle, people have been trying to create ethical systems that would tell you. John Stuart Mill thought the right thing was whatever contributed to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. More recently, ethical thinkers have parsed evolutionary research for understanding and instruction.
Gandhi, I thought at the time, must have something to offer along these lines. After all, using a nonviolent approach, he defeated British colonialism. He developed a philosophy that revolved around satyagraha, or soul force, and ahimsa, or doing no harm. Things, for him, seemed clear: He knew what was right and wrong and what to fight for and how to do it. He lived according to his principles. I wanted to live like that too. Gandhi was known as “Mahatma,” or the Great Soul. I wanted my soul to be great too.