Gandhi, Mohandas

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GANDHI, MOHANDAS (18691948), political leader, social reformer, and religious visionary of modern India. Although Gandhi initially achieved public notice as a leader of India's nationalist movement and as a champion of nonviolent techniques for resolving conflicts, he was also a religious innovator who did much to encourage the growth of a reformed, liberal Hinduism in India. In the West, Gandhi is venerated by many who seek an intercultural and socially conscious religion and see him as the representative of a universal faith.

Religious Influences on Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born into a bania (merchant caste) family in a religiously pluralistic area of western Indiathe Kathiawar Peninsula in the state of Gujarat. His parents were Vaiava Hindus who followed the Vallabhācārya tradition of loving devotion to Lord Ka. His father, Karamchand Uttamchand, the chief administrative officer of a princely state, was not a very religious man, but his mother, Putalibai, became a follower of the region's popular Prānāmi cult. This group was founded in the eighteenth century by Mehraj Thakore, known as Prānaāth ("master of the life force"), and was influenced by Islam. Prānaāth rejected all images of God and, like the famous fifteenth-century Hindu saint Narsinh Mehta, who came from the same region, advocated a direct link with the divine, unmediated by priests and ritual. This Protestant form of Hinduism seems to have been accepted by Gandhi as normative throughout his life.

Other enduring religious influences from Gandhi's childhood came from the Jains and Muslims who frequented the family household. Gandhi's closest childhood friend, Mehtab, was a Muslim, and his spiritual mentor, Raychandbhai, was a Jain. Early contacts with Christian street evangelists in his home town of Porbandar, however, left Gandhi unimpressed.

When Gandhi went to London to study law at the age of nineteen he encountered forms of Christianity of quite a different sort. Respecting vows made to his mother, Gandhi sought meatless fare at a vegetarian restaurant, where his fellow diners were a motly mix of Theosophists, Fabian Socialists, and Christian visionaries who were followers of Tolstoi. These esoteric and socialist forms of Western spirtuality made a deep impression on Gandhi and encouraged him to look for parallels in the Hindu tradition.

When, in 1893, Gandhi settled in South Africa as a lawyer (initially serving in a Muslim firm), he was impressed by a Trappist monastery he visited near Durban. He soon set up a series of ashrams (religious retreat centers) supported by Hermann Kallenbach, a South African architect of Jewish background, whom Gandhi had met through Theosophical circles. Gandhi named one of his communities Tolstoi Farm in honor of the Christian utopian with whom he had developed a lively correspondence. While in South Africa Gandhi first met C. F. Andrews, the Anglican missionary to India who had become an emissary of Indian nationalist leaders and who eventually became Gandhi's lifelong friend and confidant. It was through Andrews that Gandhi met the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in 1915, after Gandhi had returned to India to join the growing nationalist movement. Tagore, following the practice of Theosophists in South Africa, designated Gandhi a mahatma, or "great soul."

Gandhi's Religious Thought

Although the influences on Gandhi's religious thought are variedfrom the Sermon on the Mount to the Bhagavadgītā his ideas are surprisingly consistent. Gandhi considered them to be Hindu, and in fact, they are all firmly rooted in the Indian religious tradition. His main ideas include the following.

  1. Satya ("truth"). Gandhi equated truth with God, implying that morality and spirituality are ultimately the same. This concept is the bedrock of Gandhi's approach to conflict, satyāgraha, which requires a fighter to "hold firmly to truth." While Gandhi did not further define the term, he regarded the rule of ahisā as the litmus test that would determine where truth could be found.
  2. Ahisa ("nonviolence"). This ancient Indian concept prohibiting physical violence was broadened by Gandhi to include any form of coercion or denigration. For Gandhi, ahisa was a moral stance involving love for and the affirmation of all life.
  3. Tapasya ("renunciation"). Gandhi's asceticism was, in Max Weber's terms, "worldly" and not removed from social and political involvements. To Gandhi, tapasya meant not only the traditional requirements of simplicity and purity in personal habits but also the willingness of a fighter to shoulder the burden of suffering in a conflict.
  4. Swaraj ("self-rule"). This term was often used during India's struggle for independence to signify freedom from the British, but Gandhi used it more broadly to refer to an ideal of personal integrity. He regarded swaraj as a worthy goal for the moral strivings of individuals and nations alike, linking it to the notion of finding one's inner self.

In addition to these concepts, Gandhi affirmed the traditional Hindu notions of karman and dharma. Even though Gandhi never systematized these ideas, when taken together they form a coherent theological position. Gandhi's copious writings are almost entirely in the form of letters and short essays in the newspapers and journals he published. These writings and the accounts of Gandhi's life show that he had very little interest in what is sometimes regarded as emblematic of Hinduism: its colorful anthropomorphic deities and its reliance upon the rituals performed by Brahmanic priests.

It is not his rejection of these elements of Hindu culture that makes Gandhi innovative, however, for they are also omitted by the leaders of many other sects and movements in modern India. What is distinctive about Gandhi's Hinduism is his emphasis on social ethics as an integral part of the faith, a shift of emphasis that carries with it many conceptual changes as well. Gandhi's innovations include the use of the concept of truth as a basis for moral and political action, the equation of nonviolence with the Christian notion of selfless love, the broadening of the concept of karmayoga to include social service and political action, the redefinition of untouchability and the elevation of untouchables' tasks, and the hope for a more perfect world even in this present age of darkness (kaliyuga ).

Gandhi's religious practices, like his ideas, combined both social and spiritual elements. In addition to his daily prayers, consisting of a simple service of readings and silent contemplation, he regarded his daily practice of spinning cotton as a form of mediation and his campaigns for social reform as sacrifices more efficacious than those made by priests at the altar. After Gandhi retired from politics in 1933, he took as his central theme the campaign for the uplift of untouchables, whom he called harijan s ("people of God"). Other concerns included the protection of cows, moral education, and the reconciliation of Hindus and Muslims. The latter was especially important to Gandhi during the turmoil precipitated by India's independence, when the subcontinent was divided along religious lines. It was opposition to Gandhi's cries for religious tolerance that led to his assassination, on January 30, 1948, by a fanatical member of the Hindu right wing.

Gandhi's Legacy

Since Gandhi's death, neither Indian society nor Hindu belief has been restructured along Gandhian lines, but the Gandhian approach has been kept alive in India through the Sarvodaya movement, for which Vinoba Bhave has provided the spiritual leadership, and Jaya Prakash Narayan the political. Gandhi has provided the inspiration for religious and social activists in other parts of the world as well. These include Martin Luther King, Jr., and Joan Baez in the United States, E. M. Schumacher in England, Danilo Dolci in Sicily, Albert Luthuli in South Africa, Lanza del Vasto in France, and A. T. Ariyaratna in Sri Lanka.

Over the years, the image of Gandhi has loomed larger than life, and he is popularly portrayed as an international saint. This canonization of Gandhi began in the West with the writings of an American Unitarian pastor, John Haynes Holmes, who in 1921 proclaimed Gandhi "the greatest man in the world today." It continues in an unabated flow of homiletic writings and films, including David Attenborough's Gandhi, one of the most widely seen motion pictures in history. At the core of this Gandhian hagiography lies the enduring and appealing image of a man who was able to achieve a significant religious goal: the ability to live simultaneously a life of moral action and spiritual fulfillment. For that reason Gandhi continues to serve as an inspiration for a humane and socially engaged form of religion in India and throughout the world.

See Also

Ahisa; Bhave, Vinoba; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Tagore, Rabindranath.


Gandhi's own writings are assembled in his Collected Works, 89 vols. (Delhi, 19581983). Many briefer anthologies are available, however, including The Gandhi Reader, edited by Homer Jack (New York, 1961). A reliable biography is Judith Brown's Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (New Haven, Conn., 1989). The religious ideas of Gandhi are best explored in Margaret Chatterjee's Gandhi's Religious Thought (Notre Dame, Ind., 1983) and Raghavan Iyer's The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (New York, 1973). The concept of satyāgraha is explicated and put into comparative perspective in Joan Bondurant's Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict, rev. ed. (Berkeley, 1965), and my Gandhi's Way: A Handbook of Conflict Resolution (Berkeley, Calif., 2003). Gandhi's saintly politics are described in Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph's Gandhi: The Traditional Roots of Charisma (Chicago, 1983), and his image as a universal saint is discussed in my essay "St. Gandhi," in Saints and Virtues, edited by John Stratton Hawley (Berkeley, 1986).

Mark Juergensmeyer (1987 and 2005)