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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Cristiano Gianolla
Publicado em 2020-07-13

Thoughts and Deeds of the Mahatma


The reformer of the Indian National Army and senior freedom fighter, Subhas Chandra Bose, named him “Father of the Nation”. His collaborators called him ‘Bapu’ (father) but he is worldly known as the ‘Mahatma’ (great soul), title originally assigned to him by the poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in 1869 in Porbandar (Gujarat, India) and was assassinated on 30 January 1948 in Delhi. A few months earlier, on 15 August 1947, India had achieved independence from British colonialism under his nonviolent leadership; but India’s independence is just one of the faces of the life of this Teacher. He was a political leader, social reformer, spiritual and moral progressive crusader, journalist, popular educator, civil resistant planner, alternative and sustainable development strategist and a post-colonial critic of western-centrism and colonialism. He was also a father of four children. Gandhi married Kasturba when they were children (respectively 14 and 15 years old) after the tradition that himself harshly criticised afterwards.

Mohandas studied as barrister lawyer at the Inner Temple of London for three years before shortly returning to India and then emigrating to South Africa to serve as lawyer for Indian Muslim merchants starting from 1893, at the age of 24 years old. Besides short returns to India, and without anticipating such perspective, he lived for 21 years in South Africa. His experiences overseas have been extremely significant in his biographical development. In England, he strengthened his awareness of vegetarianism and inter-religious knowledge and worldviews (in particular Christianity). In South Africa, he deepened his inter-cultural, anti-capitalist and anti-colonial understandings and served the Indian emigrant community, strengthening personal and social skills as activist and political leader and creating a communal form of living by serving society.

Shortly after his arrival in South Africa, he gained the confidence of the Indian community to defend their civil rights and this is what he focused on as social activist. He did not escape the racial prejudice imposed by the colonial system; he suffered it as a ‘coolie’, pejorative term for Indians who were classified between the Europeans and the natives in the racial scale. He was an ontological and epistemological victim of racism. He began to struggle for ontological emancipation of the Indians in South Africa (not the natives) and along the years he matured the epistemological conscience that made him a champion of the struggle against colonialism, racism, capitalism, communal radicalism and patriarchy. Before leaving South Africa, he had acquired the sympathy of African natives that he supported and encouraged to seek their own emancipation and he became an icon of the African National Congress. Initially Gandhi struggled within a racial system but not yet against the system itself and Hind Swaraj (1909) marks the epistemological rupture with the system.

It is reductive to see Gandhi only as a post-colonial thinker and fighter. He tackled several oppressive systems, the colonial empire, its racial structure and development model, the Hindu caste exclusion and traditional patriarchy by bringing women to public life. Gandhi existence moved from the semi-periphery (Indian westernized lawyer) towards the extreme margin, since he identified and struggled for those considered outside the varnas or caste, the outcaste and untouchable (later known as Dalit). Gandhi pragmatism was to decide on the base of the positive effects that such choice would have for the weakest and the poorest of the poor. They became his living subjectivity and meter of action. He struggled against social discrimination inviting untouchables to live in his ashrams and encouraging inter-marriages between caste Hindu and outcaste, actions that were so socially sensational that some supporters abandoned him. Ashrams were laboratories of Gandhi’s social reformism and training centres for his struggle against imperialism. He intensified his efforts for the removal of untouchability after his historical fast of 1932, opposing the creation of a separate electorate for the untouchables. He believed this would lead to the social and political fragmentation of India and would strengthen discrimination against outcastes. After long talks, he agreed with Dr. Ambedkar (outcastes’ leader) that instead of a separate electorate there would be more reserved seats for untouchable in Indian institutions and social welfare. He promoted Ambedkar to be chairman of the constitution drafting committee and therefore to the legal abolition of untouchability from Indian Constitution.

The Mahatma rose as a national political strategist a few years after his return from South Africa. The India National Congress had been founded in 1885 to foster the political dialogue between British and Indian elites; Gandhi opened it to the support of the masses. Gandhi travelled several times throughout India to foster his closeness with Indian people, to experience their oppression, support their struggles and to work with them. He was able to work with the poor but received contributions from rich industrialists able to support emancipatory causes and unite the country beyond class division. Gandhi was an attentive strategist, faithful to his ideals. He engaged in consultations and was open to compromise, but he was not ready for negotiation about truth and non-violence. He was extremely careful in planning the struggle. For instance, at the time of the salt march, Gandhi felt that India was ready (after the ‘purna swaraj declaration of independence) to reinvigorate the struggle against the British. Salt is an essential element in human life, widely used all over India, and the tax was deemed unjust. People willingly uphold the struggle that achieved resonance and united people throughout the country. Gandhi also knew that the tax revenue was controversial in British opinion, it was arguably marginal for the government and therefore the expected response from the British was not to be too harsh. With the march, Gandhi obtained attention and unity in India and at the same time achieved resonance worldwide. Many of his fellow satyagrahis (practitioners of satyagraha or civil disobedient), and thousands of other people that joined the struggle were beaten up but did not use violence in return, demonstrating the validity of his methodology and the injustice of the colonial rule.


Political independence from the British was a primary political objective but only with a rupture; he wanted to achieve a renovation of India’s civilisation and true self-rule of Indian people – that is the meaning of ‘swaraj’. This explains why after independence he renounced to any position of power at an institutional level and carried on his constructive work, recognised the existence of diverse points of view and allowing a plurality of forces to build the future of the country and its peoples.

Swaraj is democracy without state centralism, without its bureaucracy, cultural alienation and violence. He proposed the balance of a very light and marginal representative system (universal suffrage), through which civil servants (not an elite) ensured the rule of the communities with respect for the majority and minorities. Swaraj is a participatory and decentralised model of social organisation without political parties but organised in in the oceanic circles starting from individual, and then building the community, region, nation and the world. Swaraj included a simple social, political and economic organisation in which the individual was her/his own selfless master at the service of the community, in an inner non-violent harmony with Nature and God. In this view, rights and duties are mutually reinforced; non-capitalist self-sustainable and self-reliant economic development, avoiding the excesses of modern development. Technology is important in the measure that it does not substitute or enslave the human being but rather improves her/his working conditions and life quality, avoiding increasing the gap between rich and poor.

Gandhi had in mind Indian peoples beside India as a country. He developed and propagated the ‘constructive programme’, a set of pragmatic measures to uplift and provide self-sufficiency and wellbeing to the overwhelmingly majority of Indian rural population. He made clear that mere political independence from the British rule would not imply democracy – or self-rule – if the adopted democratic system remained based on the institutions and methods of the colonisers. Gandhi advocated an alternative model of democracy that encompassed the political, economic, social and spiritual dimensions, through an alternative way of thinking about development, prosperity, quality of life and people participation in public life. Building the alternative model of democracy implied the adoption of a different educational model (nai talim) where practical training was combined with literary and spiritual education.

Gandhi claimed to be a practical idealist and developed his theoretical and pragmatic methodology into the satyagraha, a philosophy and a practice of self and social purification. ‘Insistence on truth’ via nonviolent means is the scope and form of this philosophy that served the individual trough self-realisation and the community trough civil disobedience and constructive work. As a method of civil disobedience, satyagraha is a struggle without malice, revenge, will to harm, but rather aimed at the conversion of the heart of the adversary through self-suffering. Satyagraha underlies the recognition of the inner power of the individual opposed by oppression and injustice; to such recognition, satyagraha opposes resistance, without fear or passiveness, until the oppression can no longer endure. Basic conditions for the satyagrahi include: no hatred for the opponent, struggle for a true and substantial issue and resistance against offensive and violent acts without reacting, accepting the consequence of infracting a law. A satyagrahi continues to be open to dialogue and compromise in honourable terms and is very critical of herself/himself and her/his own mistakes, gentle and open to the mistakes of the opponent. The struggle of the satyagrahi may take very long, but Gandhi maintained that if maintained with courage, there would be no possible defeat for Satyagraha.

Satyagraha may adopt different direct actions such as fast, march, open breach of a law, hartal or strike, non-cooperation, boycott and other forms of resistance. After the invention and training of satyagraha in South Africa, Gandhi adopted it in India to approach local, social and political problems, for instance, about unjust working relationships leading to poverty and famine (in Champaran, 1916) and unfair rise of taxation in times of famine (in Kheda, 1918). The more struggles Gandhi took up, the more his method and leadership became more effective and renowned. At the beginning of the 1920s he challenged the Rowlatt Act, a British decision to prolong the restrictions to civil liberties applied in India during the World War I. In this period, Gandhi worked to fortify a different economic model through the concept of swadeshi – centred on the use of national products as opposed to those imported by the coloniser – through the self-production of khadi (cotton hand-made local cloth) and its adoption as national symbol (it still is). The campaign implied a thorough boycott of the colonisers by stopping working for them and using their imported products. It was also a moment to strengthen Indian cultural and patriotic basis that fortified the boycott against western product and western culture. India would achieve independence only a quarter of century later, but the capacity of the Mahatma to achieve it through satyagraha was increasing. The Quit India movement (1942) was the last step towards national independence and it mobilised the whole country and urged the British to pave the way to independence.

Three pillars characterise Gandhi’s thought and deeds. The first two are well highlighted by the title of his autobiography, ‘experimentalism’ and ‘search for truth’, the third is the method: ahimsa – nonviolence. Truth is the objective, the method is nonviolence, and experimentalism is the practice or concrete path.

Truth is the eternal horizon of Mahatma’s thoughts and acts because for him ‘Truth is God’. For Gandhi, God does not refer merely to a religious deity, it embraces all human beings regardless of their faiths. Truth is the English translation of the Sanskrit word satya, which root (sat) is the eternal being that exists behind everything. Truth is God, life and knowledge, renunciation to the self (as illusory knowledge) in the search of the infinite. Knowledge identifies the ultimate existence in God. The aim of each being, besides truth, is to seek the identification with God and the renunciation to untruth, which corresponds to possession and selfishness. Gandhi sustained that he had experienced nonviolence in a scientific form in his life for over 50 years. Aimsha is an active force to fight and defend human dignity, a renunciation of violence, eradicating its root-causes, possession and passion. Everyone and every people can experience nonviolence trough training and by adopting it as a way of life which includes honesty, humility, kindness, tolerance, truthfulness, perseverance, courage, sacrifice and self-restraint. Whatever force comes from arms or violence relies upon an external source or instrument, while the force of nonviolence relies in the true and infinite force coming from the soul and faith in the ultimate truth, God.

Besides Gandhi’s harsh criticism of western civilisation (starting from the handwritten ‘Hind Swaraj’ of 1909), he developed his philosophy of truth with western as well as Indian texts. Gandhi was influenced, by religious texts such as the Bible, Upanishads and Gita, by classic religious personalities such as Buddha, Socrates, Jesus and the Prophet of Islam, and by modern thinkers, political and spiritual leaders such as Raychandbhai (or Shrimad Rajchandra), Gopal Krishna Gokhale, William Mackintire Salter, Henry Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin. Gandhi, on his turn, influenced eastern and western social activists, politicians and scholars including Vinoba Bhave, Jayprakash Narayan, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, Anna Hazare, Lanza del Vasto, Gene Sharp, Arne Naess, Johan Galtung, Bhikhu Parekh, Ramachandra Guha and Boaventura de Sousa Santos.

Gandhi was a very prolific and unsystematic writer; however, the organisation of his thought has been guaranteed by his fellows. He wrote a number of books including ‘Hind Swaraj’, ‘Satyagraha in South Africa’, ‘An Autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth’ and ‘Constructive Programme, Its Meaning and Place’. Generally, Gandhi wrote in form of letters, speeches or newspaper articles and included ideas, observations, directions and criticism. The Mahatma used his texts as a tool to achieve the basic principles of truth and non-violence, to stimulate experimentalism and self-improvement, to lead his followers in the ambition of creating an alternative society and to lead the various satyagrahas undertaken in his life. With this purpose in mind, he created, edited and wrote in a number of journals, including the English ‘Indian Opinion’ (in South Africa), ‘Young India’ and ‘Harijan’. His closest associates, who have also translated most of Gandhi’s work to English and other Indian languages, have edited many compilations of Gandhi’s theorisations, grouping pieces of Gandhi’s texts. Hence, many volumes were published such as ‘India of My Dreams’, ‘Truth is God’, ‘Village Swaraj’ and many others. Gandhi’s writings are gathered in the ‘Collected Work of Mahatma Gandhi’, 100 volumes in the English version, 82 in Gujarati and 94 in Hindi. Although he is considered a moral and intellectual guide, for him writing was primarily a way to communicate. He wrote to work and did not work to write – writing was an instrument.

Humble, open and with a staunch personality, welcoming improvement and dialogue, Gandhi was a master communicator who influenced theory and practice of XX centuries in areas such as peace, civil conflict, politics, religion, development and ecology just to mention a few. He had the visionary ability to connect with the people of India, feel their needs and identify with their sufferance. He led by example. He was imprisoned 19 times for a total of 6,5 years during his life. He became the symbol of India and popularised other symbols such as his simple dressing style, the charkha (spinning wheel), white cap, and khadi that united the diverse people of anti-colonial India. He increasingly incorporated his mission into the civilizational potential of India, not only with the intention to free it from colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy, but also from their root causes including possession, inequality and violence. Gandhi stressed the importance of Indian Civilisation to increase self-consciousness and self-respect of its peoples, but also to diminish the prestige of the British and to fortify the idea of the unity of India that had been hampered by colonialist education. He fostered the use of national languages that made easier to involve people at all levels. He did not see a bright future in the western cultural monologue, and he proposed a dialogue of cultures by working towards an Indian alternative based on renewed moral standards. He had the dream of and, to some extents, experimented a decentralised democratic order, equality for the marginalised (primarily women and untouchables), sustainable economic organisation based on human-centred production (as opposed to technology centred), development of the wholeness of the human being (as opposed to economic development) and harmonious relationship within the community, Nature and the transcendent. All of this made him into the Mahatma.



Gandhi, M. K. (1940 [1st vol. 1927 and 2nd vol. 1929]) An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Translated by M. Desai. Ahmedabad: Navajivan.
Gandhi, M. K. (1941) Constructive Programme. Its Meaning and Pace. Ahmedabad: Navajivan.
Gandhi, M. K. (1938 [1909]) Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule. Ahmedabad: Navajivan.
Gandhi, M. K. (1950 [1928]) Satyagraha in South Africa. 2nd edn. Translated by V. G. Desai. Ahmedabad: Navajivan.



Como citar

Gianolla, Cristiano (2019), "Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi", Mestras e Mestres do Mundo: Coragem e Sabedoria. Consultado a 23.02.24, em https://epistemologiasdosul.ces.uc.pt/mestrxs/index.php?id=27696&pag=23918&entry=30455&id_lingua=2. ISBN: 978-989-8847-08-9