Category Archives: 2. Karma Yoga

Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi, the famous proponent of peace and non-violence in conflict-torn India during the early 1900’s, devoted his life to achieving an independent, egalitarian and united India. His life experiences led to his discovery of satyagraha, non-violent protest, and he implemented this tool in his work to free India from British colonial rule and to quell the civil disputes occurring within the country. In his attempts to bring India to peace, through well planned satyagrahas and his detailed Constructive Programme, he himself became a symbol in India and around the world.

Gandhi was born in Porbandar India on October 2, 1869 (Parekh 1, Chatterjee 15, Fischer 13-14). His family were members of the merchant class (Vaisyas) [Gandhi directly translates as grocer (Parekh 1, Fischer 12)] but rose to high political positions. His father, Karamchand, was prime minister of Porbandar (Fischer 13) and had many close Jaine friends [Jainism is a religion that employs strict non-violent and peaceful ideologies] (Parekh 1). His mother, Putali Bai, was a member of the Pranami (Prananath) religious sect that combined various beliefs and traditions including those of Hindus and Muslims (Parekh 1, Chatterjee 15). She was a deeply religious woman, and observed many religious fasts over her lifetime (Parekh 1, Fischer 15). Thus, Gandhi’s own political work, religious beliefs and morals were likely influenced by his early life and the beliefs of his parent’s.

Gandhi moved to England in 1888 to pursue an education as a lawyer (Fischer 27) and while there, was engulfed in western traditions and religion. He was introduced to Christianity, the Bible, especially the New Testament (Nanda 12). It was here that Gandhi began cultivating his own religious beliefs and practices in Hinduism which, over time, became infused with aspects of multiple religions including Christianity. It was at this time that Gandhi first discovered the Bhagavad Gita (one part of the larger Mahabharata epic), and its yogic teachings, especially those of Karma Yoga which epitomizes the path of selfless action to achieve spiritual liberation (Fischer 29-33, Hick 90). This text was so important to Gandhi that it became his ‘spiritual dictionary’ (Nanda 13). Upon returning to India, Gandhi experienced little success as a lawyer and eventually moved to South Africa to practice.

In South Africa at this time, Hindus were often used as indentured laborers (Parekh 3, Fischer 46) and suffered from restricted rights and freedoms. Gandhi himself was subject to many indignities, and in response became a strong proponent of Indian rights and legal equality in South Africa (Fischer 48), thus exemplifying the Karma Yoga path taught to him by the Gita. It was here that Gandhi developed and implemented his very first satyagraha. This was the use of non-violent protests to achieve, not victory over an enemy, but instead a compromise or reconciliation (Nanda 4). It was considered a form of civil disobedience, which could involve public demonstrations, non-cooperation with government policies, and even fasting as a personal satyagraha. All forms required the graceful acceptance of the consequences of their actions (Parekh 3). Gandhi achieved many successes in regards to Indian rights while in South Africa, but was also able to unify Hindus and Muslims living there. This can be credited to the fact that many shared a common language and tradition and faced similar challenges in a foreign country. To unite Hindus and Muslims in India would prove to be more difficult in the years ahead.

While in South Africa, Gandhi explored religion further, often incorporating new religious facets into his unique brand of Hinduism, including aspects of Judaism and Christianity, which he learned from various friends (Parekh 5). However, his knowledge of religion came mainly from reading influential texts, such as the Hindu epics of the Ramayana [Gandhi believed it to be “the greatest book in all devotional literature” (Chatterjee 16)], the Mahabharata and most importantly the Bhagavad Gita (Chatterjee 7, Fischer 29-30). The Gita inspired Gandhi to begin his life path of becoming a Karma yogi, and a man of action (Fischer 35-36). For Gandhi, religion was embodied in dharma (righteousness) and was the “sustaining order which upholds the individual and society and in turn has to be upheld by them” (Chatterjee 18). Thus religion was simply a moral framework for the conduct of daily life (Nanda 24). Gandhi eventually came to realize that religion played an important role in politics (Nanda 24) and was critical in maintaining a stable society (Chatterjee 18). After a period of 21 years, Gandhi returned to India, armed with his new religious views and powerful political weapon: the satyagraha.

India, at this time, was suffering from great civil unrest and religious disputes. Hindu-Muslim relations were strained and there was increasing opposition and animosity towards the British colonial government. The Indian National Congress, which had been established as a means of channeling Indian resentment of colonial rule into constitutional reforms and legal moderation (Fischer 132), had become ineffective due to poor leadership (Parekh 7). This ineptitude resulted in public revolts erupting throughout India. Gandhi, a supporter of the colonial rule at first, became unconvinced of its ability to maintain control over the increasing civil unrest. He did not agree with the oppressive measures taken to maintain order, but also could not agree with the Indian National Congress’s ineffective political strategy. Gandhi decided to implement his Constructive Programme which included measures to restructure India and restore peace and order to the country to prepare it for independence from the British government (Parekh 8).

The Constructive Programme focused both on large sweeping changes as well as small, mainly symbolic, changes including: abolishing the caste system and untouchability, equality for women, the use of indigenous languages and the adoption of a common, national language. It also promoted economic equality (including tribal peoples), the development of village industries and banning the use of foreign cloth (Parekh 8-9, Nanda 8). Gandhi believed that in order to restore peace and stability to India, Indian society would first have to become more dharmic, which could be attained if society became more egalitarian (Chatterjee 20). This idea of a dharmic society stems from the teachings of the Gita and Gandhi once said, God’s grace and revelation are not the monopoly of any race or nation; they descend equally upon all who wait upon God” (Nanda 69). Thus any person can become close to their God through personal, loving devotion (bhakti), regardless of race, gender or class (Hick 131-132). He also realized the importance of symbols as a way of attaining and maintaining equality through their ability to convey strong emotional responses in the public. He used symbols such as the spinning wheel, khadi (home spun cloth) the cow and the Gandhi cap. Gandhi himself eventually became a symbol in his own right (Parekh 9). He believed that his Constructive Programme combined with carefully thought out and meaningful satyagrahas would be the key to India’s independence (Parekh 8).

Gandhi implemented his first national satyagraha in 1919 which involved nation wide cessation of work (hartal) and mass demonstrations, in response to the further losses of civil liberties and freedoms imposed on India by the colonial government (Parekh 12). It was Gandhi’s first nation wide defiance of the British government (Fischer 176). The hartal proved to be very successful in Bombay with six hundred followers. However, when the hartal reached Delhi some demonstrations turned violent and Gandhi had to abandon it, calling it his ‘Himalayan miscalculation’ (Parekh 12, Fischer 177-178). Further oppression by the British government by banning group gatherings and demonstrations, escalated tensions in India, and on April 13, 1919 colonial forces opened fire on unarmed civilians, killing hundreds (Parekh 12, Fischer 179-180). This event was a turning point in Indian history and the stability of the British rule began to be threatened.

In response this tragic event, and in the face of exponentially increasing violence in the country, Gandhi implemented his second nation wide satyagraha: The Non-cooperation Movement of 1920 (Parekh 12, Fischer 187). Gandhi based it on his belief that the government could no longer rule effectively if its citizens refused to cooperate with its policies and set up their own alternative governing institutions (Parekh 12, Fischer 187). Gandhi also attempted to incorporate the Muslim community into his nationalist movement for independence (Nanda 97). The Non-cooperation movement was unsuccessful for two reasons: alternative governing bodies were not created because the public was not willing to give up their hard earned careers (Parekh 14) and it inadvertently caused further strain in Hindu-Muslim relations. The majority of Muslims were supportive of the British governing body as it provided them with an English education and government careers (Nanda 97).

Gandhi became increasingly concerned over the growing Hindu-Muslim conflict. The emerging Muslim middle class felt that their progress was being impeded, as they were in constant competition, with the Hindus, over jobs. Most middle class Muslims did not have the access to the level of education needed to obtain these jobs and thus felt they were at an unfair disadvantage (Fischer 220). To address their frustrations Gandhi began a twenty-one day fast to promote unity and a mutual respect and tolerance and support of a Hindu-Muslim friendship (Parekh 15, Fischer 221). However, civil unrest continued to increase until he felt that another satyagraha was necessary to avoid explosive violence, and edge India closer to independence. He decided to protest against the British salt tax of the 1930’s by having thousands of people along India’s sea coast produce salt illegally (Parekh 15-16, Fischer 268-269). Gandhi chose his salt satyagraha for several reasons: salt was important to all Indians and Muslims, and bore heavily on the poor, and showed the how corrupt and cruel the British government was (Parekh 15-16). The salt satyagraha was successful as it was able to show colonial rule was weak and could be defeated (Parekh 16). It has been considered Gandhi’s most successful attempt at non-violent civil disobedience as a means to promote compromise, through the use of powerful symbolism (Nanda 81).

Hindu-Muslim relations continued to worsen and partition of India was immanent. In light of economic and political trouble Muslim’s feared they would no longer be in control of their people and that a partition was necessary to maintain Muslim religious integrity (Parekh 20). Pakistan and the Indian Union were eventually formed out of the partition (Fischer 476). The newly formed Pakistan contained millions of Hindus, and likewise the Indian Union contained millions of Muslims. These newly formed minorities were concerned with their status under the new majority rulers and fighting erupted from within (Fischer 476). Gandhi disagreed with the partition on religious and traditional grounds and predicted the violence that resulted. Thus, he devoted the remainder of his life to quelling violence between the disputing parties, and bringing about Hindu-Muslim religious equality through pilgrimages of peace (Parekh 23, Nanda 147), because he felt that all religions could be considered equal (Hick 131). His own life became a weapon in the war against violence, and he hoped that his sacrifice would act as a catalyst promoting peace and equality throughout India, as well as Pakistan (Parekh 23).

India achieved its independence on August 15, 1947 (Parekh 23). Gandhi remained focused on his pilgrimage and on January 13, 1948 began his final satyagraha, a fast unto death (Fischer 494), which was ultimately successful in ending the religious riots in both Pakistan and the Indian Union (Fischer 502). People, moved by his selfless action, pledged to ‘establish real peace’ between the dominions (Fischer 499). However, while he had many followers, there were still some who disagreed vehemently with his ideals and as a result Gandhi had many threats on his life (Parekh 24, Fischer 503-505). Instead of worrying for his life, Gandhi believed his death would act as a symbol to the country and achieve what he could not accomplish in his lifetime (Parekh 25). On January 30th, 1948 Gandhi was assassinated (Parekh 25).

Gandhi’s death proved to be incredibly influential in the events that would follow. It effectively united people in mourning the loss of India’s most beloved political peace activist, and calmed the conflict torn nation, and was instrumental in achieving the egalitarian society Gandhi has strived for during his life (Parekh 25). Gandhi exemplified the Karma Yoga path of selfless action, and he never wavered in his attempts to achieve a dharmically stable Indian society through religious and social equality. Gandhian policies and ideologies remain in Indian society and have also spread around the world in a ‘nonviolent revolution’ (Hick 203-204). His emphasis on morality, religion and non-violent cooperative negotiations have often been used as a template to base political decisions as well as decisions made in day to day life.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Chatterjee, Margaret (1983) Gandhi’s Religious Thought. Notre Dame: University of

Notre Dame Press.

Fischer, Louis (1950) The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Harper and Row Publishers Incorporated.

Hick, John and Hempel, Lamont, C. (1989) Gandhi’s Significance for Today. New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc.

Nanda, B. R. (2002) In Search of Gandhi: Essays and Reflections. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Parekh, Bhikhu (1997) Gandhi. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation





Islamic religious beliefs and traditions

Hindu-Muslim conflict

The partition of India

Indian National Congress

British colonialism

Constructive Programme

British salt tax and the salt satyagraha

The Non-cooperation Movement

Indian Class (Varna)/Caste system

Untouchables (Candala)

Pranami (Prananath) religious sect




Karma Yoga



Bhagavad Gita



Related Websites

Article written by: Karma Tiberg (April 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

Karma Yoga

Karma Yoga is the path of action. It is a means of preparing oneself for the attainment of moska, self-realization, which is the final goal of life in Hindu tradition (Rao 45). The concept of Karma Yoga has long been acknowledged in Hinduism, but it was not until the emergence of the Bhagavad Gita, a text dealing with the concepts of religion within one’s daily life, that it was viewed as a path toward self-realization. The Bhagavad Gita is based upon a scene in the epic Mahabharata, in which Arjuna is faced with the dilemma of obeying his dharmic duty to fight his cousins, the Kauravas, for rulership of the kingdom, or to ignore dharma, and renounce into a peaceful life, in which he may strive for moksa. Krsna, who identifies himself as the manifestation of god, advises Arjuna to enter battle (see Rodrigues 227-236). Traditionally, moksa was cultivated in the final stages of life, in which one renounces their life within society, to live as a forrest-dweller and samnyasin (see Rodrigues 148-159). This conflict, to choose between a life within a society or a life in which one may become liberated, is resolved in the Gita. The Gita teaches of there being more than one path to reaching the Absolute, the God-head, to attaining moksa (Sivaraman 188). Krsna teaches Arjuna of three paths to liberation: Jnana Yoga, the path of trancedental knowledge, Bhakti Yoga, the path of loving devotion, and Karma Yoga, the path of action. These paths may be undertaken by a person at any stage in life; therefore the Gita teaches of cultivating a renouncer attitude, without being a renouncer. Transforming the notions of karma and yoga, the Bhagavad Gita presents the notion of niskama karma, acting without interest or desire in the results of one’s actions, and applies it to yoga as a path of spiritual development, preparing an individual for pursuing moksa (Rao 48). The teachings of Karma Yoga are inspirational to ways of life. One exemplifier of such inspiration is Mahatma Gandhi, a political activist responsible for transforming both Indian and African societies (see Rodrigues 252-253). Karma Yoga is more than a path preparing one for moksa, it is a way of life both for individuals, as well as society.

Karma, in its original sense, is the “law” of cause and effect (Sivaraman 181). It is the notion that every action that one takes in the world, both of physical (act) or mental (thoughts, feelings) nature, leaves an impression on both the cosmic and human realms of the world and thus bears a consequence or result (Sivaraman 181). Karmic consequences, good or bad, are attached to the individual, and therefore determine their current, and future conditions (Sivaraman 181). Therefore, karma refers to the performance of deeds, which include specific caste duties, sacrifices and rituals that maintain the order of the world. The Hindu concept of spiritual re-birth lies within karma, as those who possess good karma may be subjected to a better rebirth, which includes being re-born into a higher caste (Sivaraman 181). Therefore, the original concept of karma suggests that human beings are attached to life in the world, and so, should act in a manner reflective of their desire to live a content life, and improve their place of re-birth (Sivaraman 181).

The notion of karma was reformed through the Bhagavad Gita. Karma refers to the performance of actions as a result of a motive, which is either egoistic or nonegoistic. Such actions do not bear consequences on the individual, as the result of any action is determined, and produced by god, and thus should be attributed to god (Singr 56). According to the Gita, it matters not what results come of any action, what matters is the motive behind each action (Sighr 71). Niskama karma, acting in the world disinterested in the results of such actions, and without desire for certain outcomes, is the reformed karma of the Bhagavad Gita (Rao 48). Embracing niskama karma in life while examining the motives behind each action one takes constitutes Karma Yoga (Singr 71).

Hindu philosohpy, specifically Sankhya philosphy, speaks of the dualistic nature of reality. Reality is composed of two entities: Purusa (the self) and Prakrti (the non-self) (see Rodrigues). Purusa is the soul within beings, and represents truth. Prakrti, on the other hand, is a force, it is our nature. Prakrti manifests as the buddhi (intellect), ahankara (ego) and manas (inner feelings of the heart and mind) of a being. According to the Gita, Prakrti is responsible for all action, while Purusa is unaffected by all that takes place (Singr 46). Ignorance is said to be the cause of all sorrow, and its force is bestowed upon a being when they identify themselves as the doer of action. Attaching actions, and results to the self feeds the ego self, motivating future actions and causes suffering when results of an action are un-agreeable (Edgerton 165). Ignorance binds the soul to the physical being, and blinds a person from seeing truth, from discriminating between Prakrti and Purusa. Moksa is thus, unattainable while in a state of ignorance (Singr 118). Karma Yoga allows a person to overcome ignorance through the purification of the mind (Rao 46).

Karma Yoga is the “discipline of detached activity” (Singr 71). Action is seen as inescapable, it is in the nature (prakrti) of beings to act helplessly, but it is in their power to control such actions (Deutsch 39). Prakrti is composed of three gunas (elements): rajas (passion), sattva (illuminous) and tammas (obstruction). The gunas are the controlling force over all action. Rajas, as the Gita teaches, is the “enemy”, as passion is thought to masque knowledge. Manas and buddhi, the mind and the understanding of a being, are impacted by rajas, as passion becomes internalized and seen as stemming from the self (Deutsch 39). In the epic, Mahabharata, Krsna teaches Arjuna that the mind is greater than the senses, reason is greater than the mind, and it is the being himself who is greater than reason (Deutsch 39). Through the practice of Karma Yoga, a person becomes able to examine and conceptualize the nature of action, non-action and wrong action, beginning to work at understanding the “way of action” (Deutsch 39). A being is seen as detached when they are able to truly discriminate the soul from the gunas of prakrti, understanding its separation from action (Singr 66).

The path of Karma Yoga is followed physically through detached action within the world, and mentally through the conditioning of the mind, appreciating the nature of action and the power within oneself to control the forces of prakrti. Yajna (sacrifice), is the technique used within Karma Yoga to lead one towards self-realization (Deutsch 163). The followers of Karma Yoga give up their lower self, their ego self containing desires and attachments, in light of their higher, spiritual self, their soul (Deutsch 164). The being is sacrificed for the soul. When a person chooses to follow the path of action they must concentrate their attention on the divine, their actions are expressions of the divine power that lies within their being. The actions a person takes should be selfless, having no underlying desire, not even the desire to achieve moska (Singr 103). Yajna is performed by taking selfless actions within the world, sacrificing the ego-self, as a being redirects involvement in its actions away from the results and toward their spirit (Singr 103).

The path of Karma Yoga leads a being through four stages of karma. Initially, karma influences the actions one takes for selfish reasons, such as desires and attachments. The actions begin to be motivated from the being’s enlightened desire to know their true self. Next, as one discovers the power of their own being, actions are determined by their personal dharmic law. Finally, actions are taken for the goodness of the action, they are disinterested and are the essence of a being’s true self (Singr 74). The stages of karma are steps in cultivating the essence of Karma Yoga. Through Karma Yoga, a being purifies their mind, and prepares itself to enter the path of knowledge (Rao 50).

Acting for the social good is an essential characteristic of Karma Yoga. The emergence of the path of action has led to the development of many social programs such as Rama krishna mission hospitals, as well revolutions within society (see Rodrigues 251-252). Mahatma Gandhi was a political activist who encompassed the essence of Karma Yoga. Gandhi’s life was characterized by detached action, for the benefit of others and for society. As the reality of social injustice came to his awareness, Gandhi set out on a journey to evoke change. Basing his life on the notion of niskama karma, and karma yoga, Gandhi created the concept of satyagraha (holding fast to the truth), and applied this to political activism (Cherian 86). Mahatma Gandhi reformed societies of South Africa and India through the concept of Karma Yoga, taking action for just causes without being concerned of the consequences such action might relay on an individual. It is through Gandhi’s active, non-violent resistance to social injustice that such societies began to change (Cherian 86).

The path of action purifies the mind of a being, and in so prepares it for attaining the transcendental knowledge characteristic of moksa (Rao 50). Karma Yoga can be adopted at any stage in life, and with so, can be viewed as a lifelong journey toward spiritual development, and ultimately the journey toward moksa. To embrace the path of Karma Yoga, one must take actions in the world, despite their results, and examine these actions with respect to their underlying motive and their nature, attributing the results of such actions as determined by god (Singr 63). To practice this path of action, one must sacrifice their ego-self, and focus their involvement in action on their true-self (Singr 73). Complete detachment from the results of action is the goal of Karma Yoga (Rao 49).

References and Further Recommended Readings

______ (1944) The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. Franklin Edgerton. Ed. Walter E. Clark. New York: Harvard UP.

______ (1968) The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. Elliot Deutsch. Canada: Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada Limited.

_______ (2003) Hindu Spirituality: Volume Two. Ed. K.R. Sundararajan and Brithika Mukerji. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd.

Cherian, Kenneth M (1984) The Life of Mahatma Gandhi: Book Review. Journal of Religious Thought 40.2: 86-90.

Rao, P (1992) The place of Morality in Karma Yoga. Darshana International 32.4: 45-50.

Rodriques, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The e-Book. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd.

Singh, Balbir (1981) Karma-Yoga. New Jersey: Humanities Press Inc.

Sivaraman, Krishna (1989) Hindu Spirituality. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Related Research Topics



Bhakti Yoga

Jnana Yoga

Mahatma Gandhi

Dharma, Dharmic Duties

The Bhagavad Gita

The Mahabharata

Yajna Rituals

Sankya Philosophy

The Stages and Goals of Life in Hinduism



Websites Related to Topic

Article written by Patricia Eyolfson (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Related Readings (On Mahatma Gandhi)

Chatterjee, M. (1983) Gandhi’s Religious Thought. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press.

Desai, Mahadev (1946) The Gita According to Gandhi. Amhedabad: Navajivan.

Erikson, E. H. (1970) Gandhi’s Truth. New York: W. W. Norton.

Fischer, L. (1959) The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. Reprint Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Gandhi, M. K. (1982) An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Harmondworth: Penguin.

Tendulkar, D. G. (1952-58) Mahatma: Life and Work of M. K. Gandhi, 8 vols. Bombay: V. K. Jhaveri.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar India. Gandhi was the youngest child of his father’s fourth wife, and it was his mother who taught him about the inner strength and sacrifice he would become known for (Watson 7). Belonging to the working class, the Vaisyas, Gandhi grew up in a well to do family as his father Karamchand was a successful businessman (Fischer 1950:12). While his father owned homes in Porbandar, Rajkot, and Kutiana (Fisher 9), Gandhi lived an ordinary childhood. In school he was a mediocre student, sometimes having learning troubles. As Gandhi himself once remembered “My intellect must have been sluggish, and my memory raw” (Fisher 1954:9). At the age of 13 Gandhi was married in an arranged marriage to another 13 year old named Kasturbai; a match made by their parents. Gandhi was not aware of the arrangement until all the plans were complete and later said his marriage was as if “two innocent children all unwittingly hurled themselves on the ocean of life, with only their experiences in a former incarnation to guide them” (Fischer 1954:10). Later on in life, Gandhi became a bitter enemy to child marriage because sex had obsessed him greatly in his child years (Parekh 1). After he finished school, Gandhi was faced with the decision of what career he would pursue. He thought of medicine but his father objected to the dissection of dead bodies; subsequently, he turned his attention to law. Gandhi learned about an English law course and degree that he could obtain and quickly jumped at the opportunity (Fischer 1954:12). However, elders in his caste rejected, in vain, the idea of him leaving for England because they believed the English had different morals. However, in order to gain acceptance and go, Gandhi made an oath that he would not touch meat, alcohol, or women. In September 1888, he set sail from Bombay for England (Watson 9).

In order to fit into English culture Gandhi found himself wearing a top hat, morning coat, striped trousers and spats, as well as participating in dancing and elocution lessons (Watson 9). However, it was a Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, which Gandhi read while in England that shaped his inspiration in life (Fischer 1954:15). The Bhagavad-Gita, an exquisite poem about the science and practice of yoga, inspired Gandhi. He felt that it was a metaphor in which the battlefield was the soul and Arjuna, the protagonist, was man’s higher impulses struggling against evil (Fischer 1954:16). Mahatma Gandhi could be regarded as a karma yogi; one who used the Gita to define the perfect karma yogi.

“He is a devotee who is jealous of none, who is a fount of mercy, who is without egotism, who is selfless, who treats alike cold and heat, happiness and misery, who is ever forgiving, who is always contented, whose resolution are firm, who is dedicated mind and soul to god, who causes no dread, who is not afraid of others, who is free of exultation, sorrow and fear, who is pure, who is versed in action yet remains unaffected by it, who renounces all fruit, good or bad, who treats friend and foe alike, who is untouched by respect or disrespect, who is not puffed up by praise, who does not go under when people speak ill of him, who loves silence and solitude, who has a disciplined reason. Such devotion is inconsistent with the existence at the same time of strong attachments” (Fischer 1954:18).

This is how Gandhi lived and he used this ideal of desirelessness to teach others of ahimsa (non violence). Gandhi said that “one person, who can express ahimsa in life, exercises a force superior to all the forces of brutality” and even though it seems that passive resistance seems very ineffective, it is really intensely active and more effective in ultimate result (Misra & Gangal 52-53). In addition to nonviolence, Gandhi also taught satyagraha (adherence to truth) (Pant 5). Satyagraha is a combination of two words, satya (truth) and agraha (taking seizing, holding) and that one seizes hold of the truth (Hardiman 51). Gandhi knew that reason itself could not win an argument so to aid in his quest for truth he would often go through self inflicted suffering such as fasting (Hardiman 52). Gandhi believed greatly in adherence of non violence. As he once said, “truth is God and there is no way to find truth except the way of non violence” (Woodcock 7).

Before the great strides Gandhi made in his later years, his early career in London was not a success because he was too shy to voice his opinion in court. Therefore, in 1893, when he was sought after by a Muslim firm in South Africa, he was thrilled with the new job prospect and accepted the offer, sailing off to South Africa that same year (Parekh 2-3). While in South Africa he went through several experiences and challenges that would change the way he thought. Gandhi quickly learned of the racial prejudice that existed in South Africa because of the British and Dutch colonial activity. The first day of traveling to work on a railway carriage, Gandhi was beaten because he refused to give up his stage coach seat (Watson 9). In another situation where all Indians had to register and be fingerprinted, Gandhi used his method of satyagraha. Included among his non violent resistant acts were picketing in front of registration centers, burning cards, courting arrest and gracefully accepting punishment and suffering from police officers (Parekh 3). Gandhi realized that his methods of ahimsa and satyagraha worked because it reversed the “eye for an eye” mentality which, in his opinion, just makes the whole world blind (Fischer 35).

While still married, Gandhi gave up sexual intercourse at the age of 36 from 1906 until his death (Fischer 1950:72). This practice, known as brahmacharya, gave him a spiritual and practical purity that would purge him from weakness. Gandhi saw brahmacharya as a means of making himself equal to his tasks instead of being engaged in the pleasures of daily life and the propagation and rearing children (Watson 13). It signifed control of all the senses at all times and at all places in thought, word, and deed (Fischer 1950:72).

After twenty one years in South Africa Gandhi returned to his homeland in India. After his arrival, he traveled around India with “his ears open and mouth shut” to see what the social situation of India was like at the time (Parekh 6). After four years of being back in India he became an influential national leader because of his morals, visions, manners, self confidence and courage to stand up against established leadership (Parekh 11). After several years of using his approaches of ahimsa and satyagraha Gandhi was able to teach the meaning of swaraj or “self governance” to the Indian people by showing them what they could do (Pant 5). He believed that India needed general principles on how to govern the society, and then allow India to comprehend them in their own way (Parekh 75). Gandhi, like every Indian, wanted to be free of British domination, but also wanted more for his country. Gandhi said “I am not interested in freeing India merely from the English yoke. The movements, political freedom and social and economic freedom must go together” (Pant 16). Finally, on August 15th 1947 India gained independence from England because of the tireless work of Gandhi (Watson 57). He was a crusader for equal rights, respect for women and had removed the untouchability and thus he was given the title “Father of the Nation” (Pant 16).

The name Mahatma Gandhi is often thought to be Gandhi’s real name, however the name Mahatma is taken from Sanskrit meaning Great Soul. It is used to honor the man who gave Indians and the world self-respect and hope through his beliefs and actions. Interestingly Gandhi never personally thought that he deserved the honor of the title (Woodcock 2).

On the evening of January 30, 1948 during a prayer meeting Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead by a young Hindu by the name of Nathuram Godse who belonged to an extremist party (Watson 61). As Gandhi fell to the ground his last words were “He Ram, He Ram” (Oh God, Oh God) (Fischer 1950:505). His life journey was now over; Gandhi had left his mark on the world. He had left home as a young, timid man and through non-violence, adherence to the truth and belief in his people, he ended it as a Mahatma.


Fischer, Louis (1950) The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Harper and Row.

Fischer, Louis (1954) Gandhi; His life and message for the world. New York: Mentor Press.

Hardiman, David (2003) Gandhi in his time and ours. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mirsra, K. and Gangal, S. (1981) Gandhi and the Contemporary World. Delhi: Chanakya


Pant, Jitendra (2002) Gandhi; Messiah of Peace. Toronto: Lustre Press.

Parekh, Bhikhu (1997) Gandhi. New York: Oxford University Press.

Watson, Francis (1967) Gandhi. London: Oxford University Press.

Woodcock, George (1971) Mohandas Gandhi. New York: The Viking Press

Related Topics for Further Investigation





India Independence




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Article written by Travis Petrisor (April 2006), who is solely responsible for the content .