Numerous religious teachings influenced the life and work of Mohandas Gandhi, including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and most notably Hinduism. Although he was raised Hindu, Gandhi did not begin to read the Bhagavad Gita until he was a young adult studying in London. Thereafter, he resided in South Africa for several years where he devoted himself to the study of world religions and gained a profound appreciation and respect for religious texts and those who seek truth. Eventually, Gandhi returned to India where he led the country to independence from Britain through non-violent resistance.
Hindus believe that all life is sacred and therefore practice ahimsa, or non-violence in thought, word and deed. This, coupled with the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, compelled Gandhi to use passive resistance to protest the British occupation in India. Gandhi famously said, “Non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our being.” Ahimsa also guided his personal life, in which he refrained from eating animals.
To understand God, Hindus advocate an inward focus, self-inquiry, personal discipline, pilgrimage and purification. To that end, Gandhi frequently fasted, many times in protest to fighting but also to atone for the misdeeds of those living in his household. He also regularly banned certain foods, such as onions or milk, from his household table, believing they impeded the spiritual quest. Nevertheless, Gandhi recognized that fully knowing God and understanding truth, or satya, was an unending if not impossible quest. The title of his autobiography, “The Story of My Experiments with Truth,” reveals Gandhi’s belief that satya was not something to be grasped but rather explored.
Hindus do not believe one religion can be more true than another; all are considered genuine and true manifestations of God. As such, they deserve tolerance and understanding. Gandhi worked tirelessly to develop this atmosphere of tolerance among opposing religious groups, particularly between Hindus and Muslims living in India. Further demonstration of this quality was Gandhi’s own household. When he returned to India from South Africa, he created an ashram, a communal space for spiritual inquiry, where a diverse group of friends, relatives and associates lived with him.
Celibacy and a constant striving to know God, or brahmacharya, are fundamental elements of Hinduism and influenced Gandhi’s spirituality and personal life. The teaching on brahmacharya compelled him to remain celibate after he and his wife had finished having children. He also regularly prayed and studied spiritual texts.
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