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The Teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and How We Can Learn From Them Today
Mahatma Gandhi is best-known for his leadership in the Indian civil rights movement, where he led thousands in a non-violent protest against the British rule of India. His guidance is well-respected for its success in the past. In fact, Gandhi’s books, excerpts, and speeches helped guide his life and created a moral compass for others. Even today, many of his teachings apply to our daily lives. Mahatma Gandhi is not just a man of the past with dated principles, but is instead an inspirational thinker whose work can influence Americans today.
The backbone of Gandhi’s revolutionary work was his ideology. From the plethora of books he penned to the countless speeches he gave, Gandhi’s teachings are numerous and undeniably important. In a recently published work entitled Gandhi: Selected Writings, the Mahatma emphasizes the significance of living by the Bhagavadgita, a great poem of the Hindus.
"Murder, lying, dissoluteness and the like must be regarded as sinful and therefore taboo. Man’s life then becomes simple, and from that simpleness springs peace…in trying to enforce in one’s life the central teaching of the Gita, one is bound to follow truth and ahimsa (nonviolence). When there is no desire for fruit, there is no temptation for untruth or himsa. Take any instance of untruth or violence, and it will be found that at its back was the desire to attain its cherished end." (39)
Here, Gandhi explains the importance of remaining pure by refraining from earthly wrongdoings. When one no longer desires to take part in such sins of the flesh, they will not be tempted against truth and nonviolence, which Gandhi considers the “greatest force at the disposal of mankind.” Simpleness springs from pacifism. When nonviolence becomes one of the leading factors in an individual’s life, they will experience such simplicity. As for truth itself, Gandhi’s message remains clear. “We must speak the truth,” he says in Gandhi: Selected Writings. “There should be Truth in thought, Truth in speech, and Truth in action…there can be no inward peace without true knowledge.” (46) In Gandhi’s world and even today, peace is a wondrous possession, and one that is not so difficult to attain. According to Gandhi, humility is of utmost importance to accomplish ineffable peace (50). His emphasis on routine humility stems from the importance of nonviolence in his teachings. “Non-violence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment…A definite forgiveness would, therefore, mean a definite recognition of our strength.” (53) Gandhi’s prominent role in the Indian nonviolence movement is well known and respected. But his teachings extend even further than that. “My religion is based on truth and nonviolence,” Gandhi states in one of his numerous speeches. “Truth is my God. Non-violence is the means of realizing Him.” Truth, humility, and peace are undoubtedly important to Gandhi’s idealistic mindset. His speeches and novels can be used as a framework to produce inspirational thinkers today. To fully understand Gandhi’s work, one must analyze his virtuous ideals first.
When Gandhi was not writing his principles on paper, he was living them out in his daily life. Unhypocritical and introspective as he was, Gandhi frequently demonstrated the importance of living according to his teachings. “For me nonviolence is not a mere philosophical principle,” he says in Gandhi: Selected Writings. “It is the rule and the breath of my life.” (63) Indeed, Gandhi’s life was centered around his work, and he abided by these moral standards accordingly. Following the South African Boer War, Gandhi led a mass of Indians in a nonviolent protest against the South African government. For seven years, Gandhi and his people struggled for national independence. But he persisted. After a long bout of arbitrary imprisonment, ruthless floggings, and even death, the South African government abandoned their aggressive tendencies and accepted a compromise from Gandhi, who had stuck to his ideals all along. (Nanda) Gandhi’s leadership and strong will led the Indians in South Africa to victory. He set an honest example of what nonviolence and peace should look like. However, Gandhi was earnestly accountable for his own transgressions.
I know I fail often, sometimes consciously, more often unconsciously. It is a matter not of the intellect but of the heart. True guidance comes by constantly waiting upon God, by utmost humility, self-abnegation, by being ever-ready to sacrifice one’s self. Its practice requires fearlessness and courage of the highest order. I am painfully aware of my failings. (63)
Gandhi was a man of high importance and even higher standards. Not only did he hold his supporters to these standards, he abided by them himself. In his day-to-day life, Gandhi lived up to his word, and when he failed, he admitted to his mistakes. His transparency and truthfulness was important to his civil rights movement, as it inspired others to follow his lead. Gandhi reshaped the mindset of many people by transforming himself first and displaying his own character as an example.
After understanding Gandhi’s principles and learning to respect his exemplary life, it is important for one to analyze their own actions and properly adjust them. As Robert Duncan explains in his introduction to Gandhi: Selected Writings, Americans are often so consumed with worldly issues that they completely decline the importance of their innermost spirit. Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas can significantly influence the western world, especially in today’s society (28, 30). Our culture is defined by its narcissistic and contemptuous people. Unsurprisingly, Gandhi strongly opposes such behavior.
"Humility must not be here confounded with mere manners or etiquette. One man will sometimes prostrate himself before another, although his heart is full of bitterness against the latter…Inborn humility can never remain hidden, and yet the possessor is unaware of its existence…Directly one imagines oneself to be something, there is egotism…A life a service must be one of humility. One, who would sacrifice his life for others, has hardly time to reserve for himself a place in the sun." (Gandhi 51-52)
Americans are known in the world for being too consumed with themselves to consider the needs of others. However, it is of innate importance that they improve their ability to socially interact. Even American respect for other nations is lacking. Concerning the subject of American interference in other countries, Gandhi stresses the importance of amicable disconnection between nations. However, America has never become quite detached from other countries. “Self-restraint of America would mean a complete change of outlook,” says Gandhi. (62) 21st century Americans are often guilty of identifying the best in themselves and the worst in their opponents. As political division takes hold of America, it is difficult for some Americans to see the strengths in the opposing political party. However, Gandhi strongly objects to the divisive nature of humanity. As he explains in his book Indian Home Rule,
"It is bad habit to say that another man's thoughts are bad and ours only are good and that those holding different views from ours are the enemies of the country…The same fact is differently interpreted by different newspapers, according to the party in whose interests they are edited. One newspaper would consider a great Englishman to be a paragon of honesty, another would consider him dishonest. What is the condition of the people whose newspapers are of this type?...The condition is due to modern civilization." (21, 31)
Without respect for our opponents, all is lost. America has become a nation of division and disrespect. The ailment has taken hold of our people, our interactions, and our policies. “This civilization is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed,” Gandhi explains in Indian Home Rule. (34) To regain our civility and embody the strength of our nation again, we must adopt a stance of humility and respect for one another, which can be achieved by adopting Gandhi’s principles.
Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings provide us with much to learn from. His emphasis on nonviolent protests and a strong internal character is influential to our modern day society. Gandhi himself abided by the rule that he put forth in his many novels and speeches, providing us with an exemplary life to strive for. In today’s America, Gandhi’s teachings especially apply. His work is timeless, and we can benefit from it even today. To mend the division between our people, we must learn to respect one another and adopt Gandhi’s important teachings. Only then can we truly regain our stability and leadership in the world.
Gandhi, Mahatma. Gandhi: Selected Writings. Dover Publications, 2005.
Gandhi, Mahatma. Indian Home Rule. Navajivan Publishing, 1909.
Nanda, B.R. Mahatma Gandhi. Britannica, 26 Jan. 2022,
britannica.com/biography/Mahatma-Gandhi. Accessed 18 Feb. 2022.