Gandhism may be defined as the ideology of Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948). “Mahatma,” or “Great Soul,” was an honorific title bestowed on him by Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941). It is significant that Tagore, a renowned Nobel Prize–winning poet of India, could hold Gandhi in such high esteem while also serving as Gandhi’s most eloquent critic. Their extensive dialogue, public and private, signifies a stellar ability for expressing profound differences with utmost civility.
The voluminous writings by leading advocates of Indian independence reveal this civility. It consistently marked the divergent ideologies of the nationalist movement from 1885, when the Indian National Congress was founded, until liberation from British imperial rule came in 1947. An initial feature of Gandhism that deserves emphasis is how its spirit of tolerance nurtured such civility in the midst of vigorous debate about fundamental moral and political issues. This flowed steadily from 1919, when Gandhi assumed leadership of the Indian Congress, until January 30, 1948, when he was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic, Nathuram Godse, who contended that Gandhi had betrayed Hinduism through his tolerance of Muslims and Islam.
Tenets of Gandhism: Truth and Nonviolence
The attitude of tolerance in Gandhism was consistent with Gandhi’s idea of truth (satya in both classical Sanskr it and modern Hindi). This concept featured so prominently in his ideology that he titled his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Consistently repudiating the connotations of “Mahatma,” he characterized himself as “a humble but very earnest seeker after truth,” as one who “often erred in my estimates and judgments” without “infallible guidance or inspiration.” Indeed, he insisted that any “claim to infallibility would always be a most dangerous one to make.”
However, Gandhi did claim to have found the way to truth. This path was the way of nonviolence (ahimsa). The concepts of satya and ahimsa are so entwined in his ideology that he asserted his (fallible) belief that, as stated in his autobiography, “There is only one fundamental truth which is Truth itself, otherwise known as Nonviolence. Finite human beings shall never know in its fullness Truth and Love which is in itself infinite. But we do know enough for our guidance.” Mistakes will inevitably occur as we pursue truth. This is the connection to tolerance, because any leadership, movement, or government must respect the dignity of the individual, which “necessarily includes the power as much to commit errors as to set them right as often as they are made.”
The most dire and dangerous error is the commission of violence. Gandhi called his theory and practice of nonviolence satyagraha, translated as the “force” of truth applied in a spirit of love. His pacifism is sometimes interpreted as qualified, because he sanctioned violence in exceptional cases of self-defense. The overwhelming spirit of his ideology, however, is expressed in clear pacifist statements like this one from his autobiography, made in direct refutation of Bolshevism and terrorism: “I do not believe in short-violent-cuts to success. I am an uncompromising opponent of violent methods even to serve the noblest of causes. There is, therefore, really no meeting ground between the school of violence and myself.”
His reference here to “the school of violence” is particularly noteworthy, because it serves as a reminder that in the history of terrorist movements, India ranked high throughout the twentieth century. Gandhi frequently referred to being surrounded by two forces of violence: the oppression of the Raj or British government on the one hand, and, on the other, a well-organized group of Indian terrorists who possessed charismatic leadership and a sophisticated nationalist ideology.
Success and Failure in Gandhi’s Lifetime
In March 1930 Gandhi announced a plan of action that would become India’s and the world’s most famous mass civil disobedience campaign: a dramatic resistance to the salt tax by marching to the western seacoast and collecting natural salt in a symbolic protest against the government’s monopoly on its manufacture. He informed the British viceroy ten days before he started his march that his sole purpose was to set in motion the force of pure nonviolence. The so-called salt satyagraha did demonstrate the power of nonviolence by mobilizing millions of Indians against unjust laws and thus giving collective expression to the idea of a “duty to disobey” that Gandhi had derived in large part from the thought of American essayist and practical philosopher Henry David Thoreau. By the end of the year, hundreds of thousands of resisters had been arrested, following Gandhi through the prison gates in the cause of swaraj (national liberation).
Gandhi’s movement to independence, however, eventually crashed in civil war and the partition of the subcontinent into two nations, India and Pakistan. Neither Gandhi’s long tenure of charismatic leadership nor the ideology that he conceived and applied could prevent the horrendous civilian violence that engulfed northern India from 1946 to 1948, during which hundreds of thousands of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were massacred. It was this terrible slaughter, unleashed even after Gandhi’s scrupulous schooling of his country in the requirements of satyagraha, that led him to proclaim on August 15, 1947, as India celebrated its independence, that both he and his methods had failed. He was assassinated four and one-half months later.
Gandhi and his legacy have gathered admirers worldwide. Writing on Gandhi’s philosophy, American psychologist Howard Gardner commends his creativity among geniuses of the twentieth century, calling Gandhi a thinker of the highest order. Soon after Gandhi’s death, American physicist Albert Einstein urged international emulation of his thought and practice. Pacifists like American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama of Tibet, and Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi expressed similar thoughts as they strove to pursue his model.
Gandhi’s life and ideas resound in many arenas and in varied formats, from opera to environmentalism. When American composer Philip Glass discussed the thought behind his unique opera, Satyagraha, he commended Gandhi’s relevance to the cause of saving the earth’s resources. In a 2008 interview with the New York Times, Glass asserted that the environment and nonviolence made a perfect match, stating that if humans followed Gandhi’s principles, the earth would not be plagued with so many problems.
- Bondurant, Joan. Conquest of Violence. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
- Brown, Judith. Gandhi: A Prisoner of Hope. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
- Dalton, Dennis. Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
- Erikson, Erik. Gandhi’s Truth. New York: Norton, 1969.
- Iyer, Raghavan. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
- Rudolph, Susanne, and Lloyd Rudolph. Gandhi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.