Mahatma Gandhi and His Myths: Civil Disobedience, Nonviolence, and Satyagraha in the Real World

This is the text of the 1990 Annual Gandhi Lecture for the International Association of Gandhian Studies, delivered at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville on October 2.

Book cover: Mahatma Gandhi and His Myths

There are many myths about Gandhi. I’d like to point out a few of them and hopefully get rid of them for you.

First, a quick one: Gandhi was not a scrawny little man. Yes, his legs were scrawny—and bowed—but he had a barrel chest, and a deep, booming voice to match it. In pictures, you just don’t notice his chest, because he usually had a cloth draped around it.

That was an easy one. Let’s try another.

One of the most common and most dangerous myths about Gandhi is that he was a saint. The name—or rather, the title—Mahatma itself means “Great Soul.” That’s somewhere between a saint and a Messiah. Gandhi tried to avoid the title, but the people of India ignored his protests. Now I see that even the Library of Congress has begun to classify him under “Gandhi, Mahatma,” so I guess he’s lost that battle.

I’ve heard it argued that Gandhi indeed was a saint, since he was a master of meditation. Well, I must tell you that in all my readings of and about Gandhi, I’ve never come across anything to say that Gandhi was a master of meditation, or that he meditated at all—aside from observing a minute of silence at the beginning of his prayer meetings, a practice he said he borrowed from the Quakers.

Gandhi objected when people called him “a saint trying to be a politician.” He said he was instead “a politician trying to be a saint.” Personally, I go along with Gandhi’s judgment on this.

Not that Gandhi’s spiritual efforts and achievements shouldn’t be honored. They’ve certainly inspired me. But if we label Gandhi a perfected being, we lose our chance to view his life and career critically and to learn from his mistakes.

Besides, if people see Gandhi as a saint, they’ll think he’s “too good for the world,” and they won’t take his example seriously as a model for concrete social change. I’m constantly annoyed at finding books on Gandhi in bookstore sections marked “Religious,” or even “Occult.” If his books are stashed away like that, how will the hard-boiled political scientists ever run across him?

Mahatma Gandhi and His Myths
Civil Disobedience, Nonviolence, and Satyagraha in the Real World

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