World Literature

Mohandas Gandhi


BORN: 1869, Probandar, Kathiawar, India

DIED: 1948, New Delhi, India


GENRE: Nonfiction


Hind Swaraj (1909)

India on Trial (1922)

Satyagraha in South Africa (1928)

Women and Social Injustice (1942)



Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi, Mohandas K., photograph. AP images.



The Indian independence leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, called the Mahatma (‘‘Great Soul’’) by many of his countrymen, changed the world far beyond his successful struggle to end British imperial rule in India. Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance to illegitimate authority and his mass civil disobedience campaigns introduced a new form of popular political struggle that has since been adopted around the globe, notably by the civil rights movement in the United States. Elaborated in his voluminous writings, the Indian leader’s religious and social convictions—centered on the ideals of tolerance, community, equality, simplicity, and self-sacrifice—are also prevalent in modern thought. Above all, Gandhi’s personal example of self-abnegation, his courage and perseverance, and his tolerance and humanity remain a source of inspiration to millions worldwide.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Racial Discrimination in South Africa. The son of a provincial official from the Vaisya Hindu caste, Gandhi studied law in England and struggled to overcome a painful shyness that threatened to end his career. His political initiation occurred in Natal, South Africa, where he went to work for an Indian company and found himself victimized by the country’s policies of racial discrimination. Gandhi refused to endure this treatment passively and formed the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 both to champion the Indian minority’s political and civil rights and to press reform on the British colonial government. Supported by a thriving legal practice in Johannesburg, Gandhi founded the journal Indian Opinion in 1904 to rouse support for Indian rights. At the same time, he began exploring spiritually based paths to social change.

Gandhi’s innovative melding of political, social, and religious thinking led him to the key concept of satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance to illegitimate authority. He launched a mass civil disobedience campaign in Johannesburg in 1906 to protest the Transvaal government’s plan to register and better police the Indian population, and he continued to promote satyagraha until he returned to India eight years later. While Gandhi’s efforts to improve the plight of South African Indians produced few concrete gains, they did help bolster Indian confidence and self-esteem. Gandhi’s endeavors also encouraged South Africa’s oppressed black majority in its struggle for political and civil rights. The Indian leader described his South African campaign in Satyagraha in South Africa, published in 1928.

Rise of Indian Nationalism. The economic and political upheavals of World War I released a wave of Indian nationalism. Following the 1918 armistice, the Rowlatt Acts of 1919 essentially continued the restrictions on civil liberties that had been imposed during wartime. In response, Gandhi launched the first nationwide civil disobedience campaign. Scattered violence, however, marred the strike and prompted a swift and brutal response from local British officials, culminating in the Amritsar massacre, which left four hundred Indians dead and twelve hundred wounded. Shocked and appalled by both sides, Gandhi called off the movement, but the massacre turned Gandhi, and millions of others, from ardent supporters of the empire into ‘‘pronounced opponents.’’ Nonetheless, he hesitated to fully exercise his influence lest violence break out again.

Sentenced to Prison. Gandhi’s fears were confirmed by the events of 1920-22. Both politicizing his movement after the Amritsar massacre and using his overwhelming support from the lower classes—Hindu and Muslim alike by this point—Gandhi assumed the leadership of the moderate middle class-based Congress Party. He drafted a ‘‘Congress Constitution’’ defining the party’s agenda as the attainment of self-rule ‘‘by all legitimate and peaceful means.’’ He also reorganized the Party to maintain broad-based national support, breaking all ties with the British. In 1920, Gandhi rallied the nation in another campaign of limited noncooperation, but the campaign only provoked mass arrests and unrest. Encouraged by other Congress leaders, Gandhi was prepared to call a total strike in one province to paralyze the government. Just days before it was to begin, however, chilling news spread across India that a mob had burned a police headquarters, killing twenty constables. The news convinced Gandhi that his people were not yet ready for peaceful passive resistance, and he turned from political demonstration to social welfare programs in the villages, hoping to teach the self-control he believed was necessary for his campaigns to be successful. Nevertheless, Gandhi was arrested by the British in mid-1922 for ‘‘promoting disaffection,’’ and served two years of a six-year sentence before being released due to appendicitis. Ill and disheartened, Gandhi continued to promote self-control and peaceful solutions. It was during this period that Gandhi wrote Story of My Experiments with Truth in support of the Indian nationalist movement and nonviolent noncooperation.

The British continued to exclude the Indians from the process of political reform and administration of India. Frustrated with the slow pace of reforms, Gandhi reentered the political arena in 1928, urging Congress to launch another nationwide strike unless India’s demands for constitutional independence were met within a year. The British did not meet these demands. In consequence, Gandhi organized a symbolic demonstration of the Indians’ refusal to recognize the British government’s authority. The ‘‘Salt March’’ of 1930 was designed to disobey the government’s heavily taxed monopoly on the manufacture of salt by marching to the coast and taking salt directly from the sea. Gandhi reached the sea in April, scooping up the first piece of natural salt himself, and calling on all Indians to emulate his actions in defiance of the government. Gandhi’s actions unleashed long pent- up emotions. Waves of protest and unrest swept across India and thousands were imprisoned. Gandhi himself was arrested again in May of 1930 and released again in 1931.

Seeking Indian Unity. Although Gandhi was able to bring attention to some of India’s lowest castes, religious and ideological divisions continued to weaken the Congress party’s attempt to unite against the British. This lack of unity only confirmed the British belief that India was not ready for self-government. On the eve of World War II, the Congress party itself was divided between moderates and extremists, and the rival Muslim League, revived under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, advocated a separate Islamic state of Pakistan. The Congress declared its intention to boycott the war effort until independence was granted—a political miscalculation that gave the Muslim League a stronger voice in the self-rule movement, as it supported the British position. Gandhi, however, supported the Congress and in October 1940 called for a renewed satyagraha campaign, recruiting individual followers to ‘‘proclaim his resolve to protest the war nonviolently.’’ The usual pattern of arrests and releases followed.

Popular with the mass of the Indian population, Gandhi remained the spiritual leader of the independence movement. Yet, his political influence waned as the Hindu-Muslim split widened. His dream of a united India was quickly becoming politically impractical, and, while he continued to be consulted on national issues, his advice went largely unheeded by both the Congress party and the Muslim League. In 1947, the British resolved to transfer power to Indian hands. Gandhi hailed this decision as ‘‘the noblest act of the British nation’’ but elsewhere it unleashed an orgy of violence and bloodshed. A wave of religious violence leaving some 1 million dead followed the announcement that the land of India would be divided into a Hindu India and an Islamic Pakistan. Gandhi’s last days were spent fasting as he tried to quell the growing communal strife. The revered Mahatma became a victim himself in January 1948 when he was shot by a Hindu extremist. Millions worldwide mourned the violent end of a man who had always attempted to find peaceful solutions.



Gandhi's famous contemporaries include:

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941): This English novelist is one of the first writers to experiment with ''free indirect discourse,'' in which authors attempt to accurately represent the course of a character's thoughts, through all its twists and turns.

Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919): A leading figure in the Mexican Revolution, Zapata lead the Liberation Army of the South in a quest for social reform.

Nayantara Sahgal (1927-): An Indian author who writes in English, Sahgal is known for fiction that deals with India's elite responding to the crises engendered by political change.

Virginia Foster Durr (1903-1999): Durr's letters provide a firsthand account of southern life in the chaotic period of the American civil rights movement.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): Some people have called Picasso's Guernica modern art's most powerful antiwar statement.



The maxim ''the pen is mightier than the sword'' emphasizes the power that writing has to bring about change. In much of Gandhi's writing, he attempted to achieve social change by describing his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. Gandhi's use of literature to galvanize a revolutionary movement is part of a long tradition in which authors have counted on their words to aid a revolutionary cause. Here are some important works from other independence movements:

Common Sense (1776), a pamphlet by Thomas Paine. In 1776, Paine anonymously published this pamphlet calling for the American colonies to overthrow British rule.

The Spirit of the Laws (1748), a nonfiction account by Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu. Although Montesquieu died before the French Revolution, this philosophical treatise outlined the separation of powers within government, ideas important for revolutionary thinkers.

Mein Kampf (1925), a nonfiction piece by Adolf Hitler. At once both autobiography and political ideology, this text outlines some fundamental beliefs of the dictator.


Works in Literary Context

Some facts should be remembered when considering the writings of Gandhi. The first is their abundance. The standard set is the hundred-volume Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi published by the Indian government, with a great deal of this collection being composed of Gandhi’s daily correspondence. According to Raghavan Iyer in his introduction to volume one of The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘‘Despite the vast amount of proliferating literature on Mahatma Gandhi, there has yet been no accessible and coherent record of his essential writings.... [Gandhi’s] actual books were few, short and somewhat inconclusive... . His unfinished autobiography and several popular biographies remain the chief—and rather misleading—sources of public knowledge about the personality and impact of Gandhi.’’

Gandhi’s Translations Used to Support His Own Causes. Gandhi concerned himself with making texts originally in English available to his countrymen. For example, he translated John Ruskin’s Unto This Last into Gujarati. In supporting equal opportunity, Ruskin offered an alternative to utilitarianism, which merely sought the good of the greatest number. Gandhi’s preface to his translation reflects his respect for Ruskin’s text and philosophy of adaptation: ‘‘since the object which the book works towards is the welfare of all—that is, the advancement of all and not merely of the greatest number—we have entitled these articles ‘Sarvodaya.’’’ Gandhi’s Gujarati adaptation was translated into English by Valji Govindji Desai and published posthumously as Unto This Last: A Paraphrase by M. K. Gandhi.

Gandhi attempted to create a society based on values unlimited by a religious past or a political present. This aim can be seen in his correspondence with Leo Tolstoy, which he translated into Gujarati. He reminded his readers of the values Tolstoy upheld, such as love, nonviolence, and independence of spirit. Gandhi hammered home the doctrine of passive resistance advocated by Tolstoy, who urged Indians to refuse to cooperate with the British government. It is hard to believe that the following words from the preface to Tolstoy’s ‘‘Letter to a Hindoo’’ are Gandhi’s selections from Tolstoy rather than Gandhi’s own voice: ‘‘Do not resist evil, but also yourselves participate not in evil.... A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising 200 millions.... Do not the figures make it clear that not the English but the Indians have enslaved themselves?’’

The Reluctant Autobiographer. Gandhi began writing his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, in Gujarati in 1925, the same year he completed Satyagraha in South Africa. The first volume was published in 1927, the second in 1929. A single-volume edition was published in 1940 as An Autobiography; or, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Gandhi had reservations about autobiography as a form because of its Western heritage and thought the sense of permanence in such a work obstructed the development of both the subject and his readers. He negotiated these difficulties by pointing out that while his public life was known throughout the world, he alone knew the spiritual life that complemented it. This spiritual life comprised a series of experiments. Although conducted in the public domain, they were continuing applications of a personal understanding of what constituted truth (svaraj). According to Gandhi, since the personal and the political are attempts to realize truth, they must be considered together as part of a single record.

Gandhi’s purpose for writing was to support efforts to liberate India from British rule and to promote his belief in nonviolent resistance. Gandhi’s body of work, both as a translator and as an author, was important while his career was active, but his impact on the American civil rights movement is virtually immeasurable. The literature of the 1950s and 1960s, combined with the practice of nonviolent protests—like sit-ins—were the hallmark of the civil rights movement, and all find their origins in Gandhi’s teachings.


Works in Critical Context

Uncommon Commonsense Gandhi suspended much of his activist work in the mid-1920s, although he remained very much in the public eye through his widely circulated writings. Two collections of articles on noncooperation and the nationalist movement that originally appeared in the journal Young India were published during this period, and his Story of My Experiments with Truth, written during his years in prison, appeared in 1927. This last work ‘‘is extraordinary for candor and quality of self-criticism,’’ remarked Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Malcolm Boyd. Writing in the Yale Review, Merle Curti commented, ‘‘The book is without literary distinction, but it is, nevertheless, great ... because of the supreme sincerity and humility with which Gandhi reveals his limitations and strength in his never-ending struggle to approach Absolute Truth or God.’’ All Men Are Brothers: Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi, as Told in His Own Words was published with the support of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). ‘‘To read this book is an education in itself,’’ Saturday Review critic Ranjee Shahani observed of the work. ‘‘Gandhi stands out in our murky era as a lighthouse of uncommon commonsense.’’


Responses to Literature

1. Both Emiliano Zapata and Gandhi were revolutionary figures, but each had a different view of how revolution was to be achieved. In fact, there have been a number of revolutions and attempted revolutions during the last three hundred years—the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Mexican Revolution, to name but a few. Research a leading figure in one of these other revolutions and compare his or her basic approach to revolution to that of Gandhi’s.

2. Look up the definition of the word ‘‘ironic.’’ Based on this definition, do you believe that it is ‘‘ironic’’ for a person dedicated to nonviolent opposition to be assassinated? Why or why not? In the style of a newspaper editorial, explain your thinking.




Chatterjee, Margaret. Gandhi’s Religious Thought. New York: Macmillan, 1983.

Emilsen, William W. Violence and Atonement: The Missionary Experiences ofMohandas Gandhi, Samuel Stokes, and Verrier Elwin in India before 1935. New York: Peter Lang, 1994.

Erikson, Erik H. Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence. New York: Norton, 1969.

Iyer, Raghavan, ed. The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. Fighting with Gandhi. New York: Harper, 1984.

Nair, Keshavan. A Higher Standard of Leadership: Lessons from the Life of Gandhi. San Francisco: Publishers Group West, 1994.

Nanda, B. R. Gandhi and His Critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Pandiri, Ananda M. A Comprehensive, Annotated Bibliography on Mahatma Gandhi. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

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

Prasad, K. M. Sarvodaya of Gandhi. New Delhi: Raj Hans Publications, 1984.

Shirer, William L. Gandhi: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.