Why Gandhi?

Students are attracted to Gandhi because of his commitment to peace. But Gandhi’s Autobiography makes it clear that Gandhi was equally committed to justice. And Gandhi’s experiment with justice lead him into situations where peace was not the obvious outcome.

Students can also be challenged by Gandhi’s relation to Christianity. In Chapter 11 of his Autobiography, Gandhi records his encounter with a member of the Plymouth Brethren. This Christian tries to persuade Gandhi that, since “sin we must,” God in his infinite mercy has “atoned for  all the sins of mankind” through the suffering of Jesus. Gandhi’s reply is most striking.

Why Gandhi?  All of the questions Gandhi raises challenge students to deepen their own understanding. There is one question that, surprisingly, Gandhi himself does not seem to raise, at least not in so many words. How does Gandhi know good and evil? What is the basis of his judgments? This seems to be a question that Tolstoy despairs of answering. It is a question Socrates never ceased to ask.

Principles of Gandhi

Gandhi held two principles, ahimsa and satyagraha. Himsa is the violence that, according to Gandhi, is all around us. Ahimsa is the rejection of violence, and satyagraha is the self-control that allows us to practice nonviolent resistance to evil.

For Gandhi, ahimsa is a comprehensive principle because himsa is all-encompassing. It is worth listening to what Gandhi has to say on this subject.

We are helpless mortals caught in the conflagration of himsa. The saying that life lives on life has a deep meaning in it. Man cannot for a moment live without consciously or unconsciously commiting outward himsa. The very fact of his living—eating, drinking, and moving about—necessarily involves some himsa, destruction of life, be it ever so minute. A votary of ahimsa therefore remains true to his faith if the spring of all his actions is compassion, if he shuns to the best of his ability the destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it, and thus incessantly strives to be free from the deadly coil of himsa. We will be constantly growing in self-restraint and compassion, but can never become entirely free from outward himsa.

This paragraph from Chapter 39 of his Autobiography gives students plenty to think about in life. For anyone who becomes the leader of a mass movement, the problem of avoiding outward himsa becomes formidable. Gandhi records one incident in which, because his followers were not properly trained, their nonviolent protest turned violent. Under these circumstances, Gandhi called off the protest. He seems to have taken the Socratic view [create link] that it is better to suffer injustice than to do injustice.

Gandhi and Christianity

Plymouth Brethren tries to persuade Gandhi that, since “sin we must,” God in his infinite mercy has “atoned for all the sins of mankind” through the suffering of Jesus. Gandhi’s reply is most striking.

If this be the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians, I cannot accept it. I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless.

There is some ambiguity in this response, but in the context Gandhi seems to be saying that he seeks not redemption but sinlessness or, as he calls it elsewhere in the chapter, self-purification. This encounter raises all kinds of question worthwhile for students to think about. Gandhi seems to think that the view according to which we must sin but be forgiven is a rather unusual view of Christianity, which raises many interesting questions. What really is Christianity? What is central to it? What is Gandhi’s view? Does he seek perfection? Is that possible? Does it matter to Gandhi whether it is possible or not?


Gandhi was very much influenced by Leo Tolstoy, especially by a book called The Kingdom of God Is Within You. As far as one can tell form Tolstoy’s book, however, Tolstoy preached a doctrine of non-resistance to evil. According to Tolstoy, “it is impossible to find a perfect and unfailing distinction by which one could positively know the wicked from the good.”

Tolstoy’s nonviolence seems to be based on a kind of relativism that is foreign to Gandhi. Gandhi seems to have a pretty clear view of right and wrong, for instance that the untouchable category of the Hindu caste system is wrong. While Tolstoy seems to justify nonresistance to evil, Gandhi develops satyagraha or nonviolent resistance to evil. Whether Gandhi and Tolstoy really disagree is, of course, something that students can investigate on their own, since they are reading Gandhi and Tolstoy for themselves.