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Gandhism is a body of ideas and principles that describes the inspiration, vision and the life work of Mahatma Gandhi. It is particularly associated with his contributions to the idea of nonviolent resistance, sometimes also called civil resistance.

The term "Gandhism" also encompasses what Gandhi's ideas, words and actions mean to people around the world, and how they used them for guidance in building their own future. Gandhism also permeates into the realm of the individual human being, non-political and non-social. A Gandhian can mean either an individual who follows, or a specific philosophy which is attributed to, Gandhism. Eminent scholar, Professor Ramjee Singh has called Gandhi the Bodhisattva of the twentieth century.[1]

However Gandhi did not approve of 'Gandhism', as Gandhi explained:

There is no such thing as "Gandhism," and I do not want to leave any sect after me. 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...The opinions I have formed and the conclusions I have arrived at are not final. I may change them tomorrow. I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills.[2]


Main article: Satyagraha

Satyagraha is formed by two Sanskrit words Satya (truth) and Agraha (holding firmly to). The term was popularised during the Indian Independence Movement, and is used in many Indian languages including Hindi.


The pivotal and defining element of Gandhism is satya, a Sanskrit word usually translated into English as truth, whose literal meaning is 'what actually is' (deriving from the root verb as meaning 'to be'). The principle of Satya as espoused by Gandhi needed that Truth must pervade all considerations of politics, e the pure, existing facts of life to make his decisions.

Gandhi's commitments to non-violence, human freedom, equality and justice arose from his personal examination.

Truth is interpreted subjectively. Gandhism does not demand that its adherents agree to Gandhi's own principles to the letter, but in spirit. If one honestly believes that violence is sometimes necessary, it is truthful to believe in it. When Gandhi returned to India in the middle of World War I, he said he would have supported the British in the war. It would have been wrong, according to Gandhi, to demand equal rights for Indians in the Empire, and not contribute to its defence. On the other hand, by the time of the advance of the Japanese in World War II, Gandhi had given up notions of fighting alongside the British and argued for nonviolence instead. Gandhi was a proponent of Ahimsa.

Gandhi developed a way of life by his constant "experimenting with truth" — a phrase that formed the subtitle to his autobiography. He was prepared to learn through trial and error, often admitting to mistakes and changing his behaviour accordingly. This was particularly notable when Gandhi stopped all nationwide civil resistance in 1922 after the Chauri Chaura incident. He would forsake political independence for truth – believing that Indians should not become murderers and commit the very evils they were accusing the British of perpetrating in India.

Gandhism is more about the spirit of Gandhi's journey to discover the truth, than what he finally considered to be the truth. It is the foundation of Gandhi's teachings, and the spirit of his whole life to examine and understand for oneself, and not take anybody or any ideology for granted.

Gandhi said: “The Truth is far more powerful than any weapon of mass destruction.”[3]

Gandhi’s philosophy encompassed ontology and its association with truth. For Gandhi, "to be" did not mean to exist within the realm of time, as it has in the past with the Greek philosophers. But rather, "to exist" meant to exist within the realm of truth, or to use the term Gandhi did, satya. Gandhi summarised his beliefs first when he said "God is Truth", which his experimenting later prompted him to change to "Truth is God". The first statement seemed insufficient to Gandhi, as the mistake could be made that Gandhi was using truth as a description of God, as opposed to God as an aspect of satya. Satya (truth) in Gandhi's philosophy is God. It shares all the characteristics of the Hindu concept of God, or Brahman, and is believed by Gandhians to live within each person as their conscience while at the same time guiding the universe.

Brahmacharya and ahimsa

See also: Brahmacharya, Ahimsa, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy

The concept of nonviolence (ahimsa) and nonresistance has a long history in Indian religious thought and has had many revivals in Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Muslim and Christian contexts. Gandhi explains his philosophy and way of life in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. He was quoted saying:

"What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?"[4]
"An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind".[5]
"It has always been easier to destroy than to create".[6]
"There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for".[7]

At the age of 36, Gandhi adopted the vow of brahmacharya, or celibacy. He committed himself to the control of the senses, thoughts and actions. Celibacy was important to Gandhi for not only purifying himself of any lust and sexual urges, but also to purify his love for his wife as genuine and not an outlet for any turmoil or aggression within his mind.

Ahimsa, or non-violence, was another key tenet of Gandhi's beliefs. He held that total non-violence would rid a person of anger, obsession and destructive impulses. While his vegetarianism was inspired by his rearing in the Hindu-Jain culture of Gujarat, it was also an extension of ahimsa.

On 6 July 1940, Gandhi published an article in In this article, Gandhi stated,

I appeal to every Briton, wherever he may be now, to accept the method of non-violence instead of that of war, for the adjustment of relations between nations and other matters [...] I do not want Britain to be defeated, nor do I want her to be victorious in a trial of brute strength [...] I venture to present you with a nobler and braver way worthier of the bravest soldier. I want you to fight Nazism without arms, or, if I am to maintain military terminology, with non-violent arms. I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite our great leader and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them [...] my non-violence demands universal love, and you are not a small part of it. It is that love which has prompted my appeal to you.[9]


Main articles: Gandhian economics and Swadeshi

Gandhi espoused an economic theory of simple living and self-sufficiency/import substitution, rather than generating exports like Japan and South Korea did. He envisioned a more agrarian India upon independence that would focus on meeting the material needs of its citizenry prior to generating wealth and industrialising.


Gandhi also adopted the clothing style of most Indians in the early 20th century. His adoption of khadi, or homespun cloth, was intended to help eradicate the evils of poverty, social and economic discrimination. It was also aimed as a challenge to the contrast that he saw between most Indians, who were poor and traditional, and the richer classes of educated, liberal-minded Indians who had adopted Western mannerisms, clothing and practices.

The clothing policy was designed to protest against the violence of British economic policies in India. Millions of poor Indian workers had been left unemployed and entrenched in poverty, owing to the industrialisation of cotton processing in Britain. Gandhi promoted khadi as a direct boycott of the Lancashire cotton industry, linking British imperialism to Indian poverty. He focused on persuading all members of the Indian National Congress to spend some time each day hand-spinning on the charkha (spinning wheel). In addition to its point as an economic campaign, the drive for hand-spinning was an attempt to connect the privileged Indian brahmins and lawyers of Congress to connect with the mass of Indian peasantry.

Many prominent figures of the Indian independence movement, including Motilal Nehru, were persuaded by Gandhi to renounce their smart London-made clothes in favour of khadi.


To Gandhi, fasting was an important method of exerting mental control over base desires. In his autobiography, Gandhi analyses the need to fast to eradicate his desire for delicious, spicy food. He believed that abstention would diminish his sensual faculties, bringing the body increasingly under the mind's absolute control. Gandhi was opposed to the partaking of meat, alcohol, stimulants, salt and most spices, and also eliminated different types of cooking from the food he ate.

Fasting would also put the body through unusual hardship, which Gandhi believed would cleanse the spirit by stimulating the courage to withstand all impulses and pain. Gandhi undertook a "Fast Unto Death" on three notable occasions:

  • when he wanted to stop all revolutionary activities after the Chauri Chaura incident of 1922;
  • when he feared that the 1934 Communal Award giving separate electorates to Untouchable Hindus would politically divide the Hindu people;
  • and in 1947, when he wanted to stop the bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal and Delhi.

In all three cases, Gandhi was able to abandon his fast before death. There was some controversy over the 1934 fast, which brought him into conflict with the Untouchable leader B.R. Ambedkar. In the end, Gandhi and Ambedkar both made some concessions to negotiate the Poona Pact, which abandoned the call for separate electorates in turn for voluntary representation and a commitment to abolish untouchability.

Gandhi also used the fasts as a penance, blaming himself for inciting Chauri Chaura and the divisive communal politics of both 1934 and 1947, especially the Partition of India. Gandhi sought to purify his soul and expiate his sins, in what he saw as his role in allowing terrible tragedies to happen. It took a heavy toll on his physical health and often brought him close to death.


See also: Bhagavad Gita, Dharma, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism

Gandhi described his religious beliefs as being rooted in Hinduism and, in particular, the Bhagavad Gita:

"Hinduism as I know it entirely satisfies my soul, fills my whole being. When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita, and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of tragedies and if they have not left any visible and indelible effect on me, I owe it to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita".[10]

He professed the philosophy of Hindu Universalism (also see Universalism), which maintains that all religions contain truth and therefore worthy of toleration and respect. It was articulated by Gandhi:

"After long study and experience, I have come to the conclusion that [1] all religions are true; [2] all religions have some error in them; [3] all religions are almost as dear to me as my own Hinduism, in as much as all human beings should be as dear to one as one's own close relatives. My own veneration for other faiths is the same as that for my own faith; therefore no thought of conversion is possible."[11]

Gandhi believed that at the core of every religion was truth (satya), non-violence (ahimsa) and the Golden Rule.

Despite his belief in Hinduism, Gandhi was also critical of many of the social practices of Hindus and sought to reform the religion.

"Thus if I could not accept Christianity either as a perfect, or the greatest religion, neither was I then convinced of Hinduism being such. Hindu defects were pressingly visible to me. If untouchability could be a part of Hinduism, it could but be a rotten part or an excrescence. I could not understand the raison d'etre of a multitude of sects and castes. What was the meaning of saying that the Vedas were the inspired Word of God? If they were inspired, why not also the Bible and the Koran? As Christian friends were endeavouring to convert me, so were Muslim friends. Abdullah Sheth had kept on inducing me to study Islam, and of course he had always something to say regarding its beauty".[12]

He then went on to say:

"As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his side".[13]

Gandhi was critical of the hypocrisy in organised religion, rather than the principles on which they were based.

The concept of Islamic jihad can also be taken to mean a nonviolent struggle or satyagraha, in the way Gandhi practised it. On Islam he said:

"The sayings of Muhammad are a treasure of wisdom, not only for Muslims but for all of mankind".

Later in his life when he was asked whether he was a Hindu, he replied:

"Yes I am. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew".[14]

Gandhi's religious views are reflected in the hymns his group often sang:

Nehru's India

Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, but his teachings and philosophy would play a major role in India's economic and social development and foreign relations for decades to come.

Sarvodaya is a term meaning 'universal uplift' or 'progress of all'. It was coined by Gandhi in 1908 as a title for his translation of John Ruskin's Unto This Last. Later, nonviolence leader Vinoba Bhave used the term to refer to the struggle of post-independence Gandhians to ensure that self-determination and equality reached the masses and the downtrodden. Sarvodaya workers associated with Vinoba, including Jaya Prakash Narayan and Dada Dharmadhikari, undertook various projects aimed at encouraging popular self-organisation during the 1950s and 1960s. Many groups descended from these networks continue to function locally in India today.

While the problem of the desperate poverty of tens of millions of landless farmers across the country had to be addressed, Gandhi did not believe that class warfare was inevitable, as Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin did. Bhave and other Gandhi disciples organised the Bhoodan campaign encouraging landlords across the country to award land to their farmers. They were encouraged to acknowledge the desperate poverty and mistreatment of these farmers, to accept them as fellow Indians and their brethren. This peaceful land distribution program was frowned upon by supporters of free-market economics, the Communists and socialists alike, but did enjoy good successes.

The Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, was often considered Gandhi's successor, although he was not religious and often disagreed with Gandhi. He was, however, deeply influenced by Gandhi personally as well as politically, and used his premiership to pursue ideological policies based on Gandhi's principles.

Nehru's foreign policy was staunch anti-colonialism and neutrality in the Cold War. Nehru backed the independence movement in Tanzania and other African nations, as well as the American Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and the anti-apartheid struggle of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in South Africa. Nehru refused to align with either the United States or the Soviet Union, and helped found the Non-Aligned Movement.

Nehru also pushed through major legislation that granted legal rights and freedoms to Indian women, and outlawed untouchability and many different kinds of social discrimination, in the face of strong opposition from orthodox Hindus.

Not all of Nehru's policies were Gandhian. Nehru refused to condemn the USSR's 1956–57 invasion of Hungary to put down an anti-communist, popular revolt. Some of his economic policies were criticised for removing the right of property and freedoms from the landowning peasants of Gujarat for whom Gandhi had fought in the early 1920s. Nehru's socialism sometimes conflicted with Gandhism.

Nehru's biggest failure is often considered to be the 1962 Sino-Indian War, though his policy is said to have been inspired by Gandhian pacifism. In this instance, it led to the defeat of the Indian Army against a surprise Chinese invasion. Nehru had neglected the defence budget and disallowed the Army to prepare, which caught the soldiers in India's north eastern frontier off-guard with lack of supplies and reinforcements.


See also: Apartheid, Tienanmen Square protests of 1989, American Civil Rights Movement

Gandhi's deep commitment and disciplined belief in non-violent civil disobedience as a way to oppose tyranny, oppression and injustice has inspired many subsequent political figures, including Martin Luther King Jr. of the United States, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko of South Africa, Lech Wałęsa of Poland and Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar.

Gandhi's early life work in South Africa between the years 1910 and 1915, for the rights of Indian residents oppressed by the racist, white minority South African regime inspired the later work of the African National Congress (ANC). From the 1950s, the ANC organised non-violent civil disobedience akin to the campaign advanced by the Indian National Congress under the inspiration of Gandhi between the 1920s and 1940s. ANC activists braved the sticks and bullets of the police, water-hoses, tear gas and dogs to protest against tyranny, racism and oppression in South Africa. Many, especially Mandela, languished for decades in jail, while the world outside was divided in its effort to remove apartheid. Steve Biko, perhaps the most vocal adherent to non-violent civil resistance, was allegedly murdered in 1977 by agents of the regime. When the first universal, free elections were held in South Africa in 1994, the ANC was elected and Mandela became president. Mandela made a special visit to India and publicly honoured Gandhi as the man who inspired the freedom struggle of black South Africans. Statues of Gandhi have been erected in Natal, Pretoria and Johannesburg.

Martin Luther King Jr., a young Christian minister and leader of the American Civil Rights Movement seeking the liberation of African Americans from racial segregation in the American South, and also from economic and social injustice and political disenfranchisement, travelled to India in 1962 to meet Jawaharlal Nehru. The two discussed Gandhi's teachings, and the methodology of organising peaceful resistance. The graphic imagery of black protesters being hounded by police, beaten and brutalised, evoked admiration for King and the protesters across America and the world, and precipitated the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The non-violent Solidarity movement of Lech Wałęsa of Poland overthrew a Soviet-backed communist government after two decades of peaceful resistance and strikes in 1989, beginning the downfall of the Soviet Communist empire.

Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest, and her National League for Democracy suppressed in their non-violent quest for democracy and freedom in military-controlled Myanmar. This struggle was inaugurated when the military dismissed the results of the 1991 democratic elections and imposed military rule. She was released in November 2010, when free elections were to be held.

"Without truth, nothing"

Mohandas Gandhi's early life was a series of personal struggles to decipher the truth about life's important issues and discover the true way of living. He admitted in his autobiography to hitting his wife when he was young,[15] and indulging in carnal pleasures out of lust, jealousy and possessiveness, not genuine love. He had eaten meat, smoked a cigarette, and almost visited a prostitute. It was only after much personal turmoil and repeated failures that Gandhi developed his philosophy.

Gandhi disliked having a cult following, and was averse to being addressed as Mahatma, claiming that he was not a perfect human being.

In 1942, while he had already condemned Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and the Japanese militarists, Gandhi took on an offensive in civil resistance, called the Quit India Movement, which was even more dangerous and definitive owing to its direct call for Indian independence. Gandhi did not see the British as defenders of freedom giving their continuance of imperialist domination in India. He did not feel a need to take sides with world powers.


There have been Muslim Gandhians, such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, known as the "Frontier Gandhi"; under the influence of Gandhi, he organised the Pathans of the Northwest Frontier as early as 1919.[16] Christian Gandhians include Horace Alexander[17] and Martin Luther King.[18] Jewish Gandhians include Gandhi's close associate Herman Kallenbach. Atheist Gandhians include Jawaharlal Nehru and Anna Hazare.[19]

Promotion of Gandhian Ideas

Several journals have also been published to promote Gandhian ideas. One of most well-known is Gandhi Marg, an English-language journal published since 1957 by the Gandhi Peace Foundation. [20]

Criticism and controversy

See also: Partition of India, Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi's rigid ahimsa implies pacifism, and is thus a source of criticism from across the political spectrum.

Concept of partition

As a rule, Gandhi was opposed to the concept of partition as it contradicted his vision of religious unity.[21] Of the partition of India to create Pakistan, he wrote in Harijan on 6 October 1946:

[The demand for Pakistan] as put forth by the Moslem League is un-Islamic and I have not hesitated to call it sinful. Islam stands for unity and the brotherhood of mankind, not for disrupting the oneness of the human family. Therefore, those who want to divide India into possibly warring groups are enemies alike of India and Islam. They may cut me into pieces but they cannot make me subscribe to something which I consider to be wrong [...] we must not cease to aspire, in spite of [the] wild talk, to befriend all Moslems and hold them fast as prisoners of our love.[22]

However, as Homer Jack notes of Gandhi's long correspondence with Jinnah on the topic of Pakistan: "Although Gandhi was personally opposed to the partition of India, he proposed an agreement [...] which provided that the Congress and the Moslem League would cooperate to attain independence under a provisional government, after which the question of partition would be decided by a plebiscite in the districts having a Moslem majority."[23]

These dual positions on the topic of the partition of India opened Gandhi up to criticism from both Hindus and Muslims. Muhammad Ali Jinnah and contemporary Pakistanis condemned Gandhi for undermining Muslim political rights. swadeshi.

Of this criticism, Gandhi stated, "There was a time when people listened to me because I showed them how to give fight to the British without arms when they had no arms [...] but today I am told that my non-violence can be of no avail against the [Hindu-Moslem riots] and, therefore, people should arm themselves for self-defense."[27]

See also


  • Gandhi today: a report on Mahatma Gandhi's successors, by Mark Shepard. Published by Shepard Publications, 1987. Excerpts


  • Fischer, Louis. ISBN 1-4000-3050-1
  • Hardiman, David. Gandhi in His Time and Ours: The Global Legacy of His Ideas (2004) ISBN 0-231-13114-3

External links

  • Gandhian Philosophy in Short
  • Gandhian ideals
  • Relevance of Gandhism in Modern Polity
  • Gandhian Trusteeship as an "Instrument of Human Dignity"
  • Review of "Gandhian economics"
  • Gandhian economics is relevant
  • Gandhism and Buddhism PDF
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