Mahatma Gandhi was born into a Hindu family in 1869, and he remained a devout Hindu throughout his life. However, he was strongly influenced by ideas from several other religions and eventually developed many of his own unique ideas about religion, philosophy and the right way to live.
Gandhi was raised in a Hindu family, but he lived in a multicultural community. He had Christian and Muslim friends as a child, and may have been especially influenced by the Jain religion, with its principle of total ahimsa, or nonviolence. When he traveled to England to study law, he met theosophists who encouraged him to learn more about his native Hindu texts like the Bhagavad Gita, as well as those of other religions. One of his other favorite texts was the Christian Sermon on the Mount.
After finishing his studies, Gandhi spent 20 years in South Africa working for Indian civil rights. He also devoted himself to reading a variety of religious literature. During his first year alone, he read over 80 books on spiritual subjects. When he returned to India, he established an ashram, or religious community, for his family and followers. This community did not follow any particular orthodoxy, but instead was based on mutual aid and the principle of nonviolence.
Gandhi's later work rested largely on a spiritual principle of satyagraha that he developed while working in South Africa. Satyagraha has often been translated as nonviolence, but its meaning is actually closer to truth-force. It referred to the political and spiritual power that people possess when they take action with nonviolence, for example, by engaging in civil disobedience, or refusal to participate in oppressive systems. Gandhi believed that setting a righteous example of resistance would eventually cause oppressors to change their ways.
While Gandhi remained a Hindu throughout his life, his spiritual priority was to focus on the principle of satyagraha. When he returned to India in 1914, the country was experiencing increasing conflict and violence between Hindus, Muslims and the British ruling class, and Gandhi had friends on all sides of the conflict. His powerful belief and example went quite a ways toward reconciling this civil conflict, or at least keeping it somewhat contained until his death in 1948.
While Gandhi spent many years reflecting on religious topics, his focus was always on practical action. When a reporter asked Gandhi what his message was, he famously replied, "My life is my message." The same could probably be said of his religious beliefs – that they were most fully expressed in his peaceful and just actions.
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