Reading as a Sadhana: Gandhi’s Experiments With Books

Constant reading, reflecting and writing, as well as political activism, helped Gandhi pose new questions to himself.

Gandhi with Kasturba Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gandhi with Kasturba Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What made Gandhi the man that he was? While a lot has been said and written about Gandhi being a product of his time, the impact that his reading had on shaping his mind has largely gone unnoticed. In fact, not many even know that Gandhi was an avid reader, with a personal library comprising thousands of books. Once the Sabarmati Ashram was established in 1917, he relinquished his rights over his vast library, which became the ashram’s property.

In 1933, after the British confiscated the properties of the satyagrahis who had participated in the salt satyagraha under the leadership of Gandhi, he, in sympathy with the satyagrahis, disbanded the Sabarmati Ashram and donated his collection of books to the municipal library of Ahmedabad – in an interview given on July 27, 1933, Gandhi mentions a collection of nearly 11,000 books. The Bibliography of Books Read by Mahatma Gandhi compiled by Kiriti Bhavsar, Mark Lindly and Purnima Upadhyay lists only 4,500 books, but it still gives us an insight into the mind of the intellectual who once collected, and for all practical purposes owned, this magnificent collection.

Gandhi’s book collection was eclectic. Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man and British physicist and mathematician James Jeans’s Mysterious Universe rubbed shoulders with Assyrian satirist Lucian of Samosata who had a great influence on two other authors Gandhi read – William Shakespeare and Jonathan Swift. Gandhi read Lucian’s 2nd century CE text, Trips to the Moon, which is considered the earliest science fiction in any language. In Young India on September 4, 1924, Gandhi wrote “Trips to the Moon (Lucian)… a fine and instructive satire.”

Also read: ‘The Light Has Gone Out of Our Lives’: Nehru’s Words on Gandhi’s Assassination

Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Tolstoy’s non-fiction writings and a few rare works of fiction (perhaps influenced by Tolstoy’s rejection of fiction, including his own, as morally worthless in his book What is Art) mapped a landscape of their own. Gandhi’s library also contained a large number of books on poetry in Hindi, Gujarati and English (including translations). Among them was Goethe’s Faust and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam translated by Edward Fitzgerald.

Gandhi’s interest in history, philosophy and religion is known. Here, too, the works listed show a wide-ranging engagement, from Edward Gibbons and Thomas Carlyle to Patanjali and Bhartrihari; from the Suttanipāta (a collection of discourses ascribed to the Buddha) to Plato to Bertrand Russell. The Bibliography lists multiple translations of the Bible, Quran, Mahabharata and Ramayana as well.

I have described Gandhi, the one-time de facto owner of this large library, as an intellectual. In 20th-century India, primarily because of our once-colonised status and the resultant Eurocentrism, the title ‘intellectual’ was reserved for those who carried the ideology of modernity on their sleeves. Dipesh Chakrabarty in his Provincializing Europe describes India’s political right, the descendants of those who assassinated Gandhi, to be equally Eurocentric, although lacking intellectual sophistication. Much like the colonial ethnocentric Europeans who claimed that everything that was significant originated in Europe, these right-wing sympathisers borrowed from Eurocentric ideas to claim that everything of significance originated not in Europe but in the land of yoga and ‘Vande Mataram’.

Even though Vinayak Sarvakar, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, B.R. Ambedkar and others could be effortlessly classified as “modern”, Gandhi by his appearance, vocabulary and behaviour defied that classification. The term atopos (unclassifiable), often used to describe Socrates, is equally applicable to Gandhi.

Gandhi writing. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gandhi writing. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gandhi started his professional life as a full-fledged Eurocentric Hindu male. The single fatal moral failing of Gandhi occurred in South Africa during this phase. For a purely opportunistic reason, that is to get political favours for the British Indians living in South Africa, Gandhi formed an ambulance corps comprising British Indians and joined the British army in its war against the Zulus. The Zulus had risen in revolt against their alien white oppressors who had imposed a tax on them for living in their own ancestral land. Apart from this one unsavoury incident, it is difficult to find an unambiguously selfish act in Gandhi’s post-South African life.

Critics of the South African Gandhi, who suffer from an inability to distinguish political justice from social justice, fail to appreciate that in South Africa, Gandhi was fighting only for political justice for the British Indians who faced a real threat of losing that status if they were identified with the native Africans. Gandhi fought for the cause of the British Indians and achieved a great degree of success and legitimate fame before he returned to India.

I have mentioned Gandhi’s Eurocentrism and his actions vis-à-vis the Zulu tribe of South Africa to highlight the dramatic perceptive shift he underwent after his successful South African experiments with truth. This, I maintain, was due to his reflective use of the enormous number of books he read. Gandhi’s example shows that eclectic reading, which often prompts one to examine one’s life, can also help to release one from the grip of ethically debilitating self-centredness and lead to the development of a being with a highly desirable concern for the well-being of all, or sarvodaya.

His autobiography My Experiments with Truth itself bears testimony to this fact. Here Gandhi the voracious reader is constantly evolving as he incessantly questions himself until he invents a redemptive path for himself, however temporary it might be. Reading for Gandhi was a sadhana. He shunned both reading for pleasure and for mere information. His experiments with truth were experiments to get rid of selfishness completely, in the way, he thought, the Buddha and Socrates had once managed to achieve. He named this most coveted achievement as moksha. Nevertheless, till he met his assassin, this incredibly honest man mourned his failure to achieve moksha.

Constant reading, reflecting and writing, as well as political activism, helped Gandhi pose new questions to himself – engaging in self-transforming questioning was his idea of philosophy. This process, in turn, aided him in his unfinished journey from selfishness to moksha.


While reading Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History in 1909, Gandhi came to the conclusion that “white nations” were not appropriate role models for countries like India. Interestingly, around that time, Gandhi also read Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and his comments on the book are instructive: “Gulliver’s Travels contains so effective a condemnation, in an ironic vein, of modern civilisation that the book deserves to be read again and again.” In 1909, Gandhi himself, though in a less ironic vein, had already penned his own attack on modern civilisation (in Hind Swaraj).

A little earlier – in 1907 – Gandhi had translated and published William Salter’s pamphlet Ethical Religion in his Indian Opinion. It was no minor event considering that Gandhi’s lifelong attempt to transform Hinduism into an “ethical religion”. His unabated attempts to transform Hinduism through an internal critique, à la the Buddha, attracted the ire of Hindutva organisations and, as Nathuram Godse claimed, was one of the reasons for his assassination.

While Gandhi declared himself to be a sanatani Hindu, his writings show him to be far removed from religiosity of an everyday nature. He did not believe in idol worship or rituals of any kind (even Vedic rites). Although he believed in “all that goes by the name of Hindu scriptures” he qualified his view by stating that he saw the texts of other religions as well in a similar light. Be it the Bible, Quran, Mahabharata or Ramayana, Gandhi’s reflections on them are significant: “What was the meaning [to me] of saying that the Vedas were the inspired Word of God? If they were inspired, why not also the Bible and the [Quran]?” Gandhi wrote this before 1901. Note the undertone of skepticism in the phrase “If they were inspired”. He maintained his skepticism about the claim of god-inspired texts throughout his life.

Also read: The Day Gandhi Began His Last Fast

Also, like the Buddha, he said he was not bound to believe anything in these texts that went against reason and morality as he saw them. He was talking about the ethics of satya and ahimsa. Truth was god for him. What’s more, in his conceptualisation of swaraj through the constructive programme, religion and caste had no place.

Gandhi read a large number of Indian and British writers on Indian religion, philosophy, history and economics, as is clear from his meticulous notes and observations. “Read Bhartrihari’s Vairagya Shataka and reflect over it,” Gandhi wrote in 1921 to Mahadev Desai.

As someone who has always noticed a close relation between the Buddha’s discourses with the Brahmins and Gandhi’s ‘religious’ discourses and writings, I was happy to find that Gandhi had read the Sutta-Nipata or some collections of the Nikaya discourses. Before I came across this Bibliography, I was under the impression that Gandhi had read only a few secondary works like Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia and Rhys Davids’s Essays on Buddhism.

Now it looks more likely that Gandhi’s attempts at metaphorising and redefining the Hindu vocabulary and the Vaishnava tradition’s idiom – transforming it from an unethical state of asatya and himsa to an ethical state of satya and ahimsa – was inspired by the Buddha’s similar attempts to redefine the vocabulary of the Brahmins (the target group) of his time with a view to making Brahmanism ethically better. Perhaps Gandhi learned the initial lessons of his internal critique of “Hinduism” (critiquing from within the vocabulary of the target domain) from these dialogues of the Buddha. Just as the Buddha said that actions, not birth, determined whether one was a Brahmin or outcaste, similarly Gandhi said “We are all Shudras…”

Gandhi’s command over classical Indian texts, too, was impressive. He translated the Bhagavad Gita and wrote one of the great introductions to it called Anasaktiyoga, which appeared in Young India in 1931. Gandhi is usually perceived as someone “very religious” as is normally understood, but his interpretation of the text is radical. The way he sees it, anasakti (literally, without desire) lies at the core of the text – and ahimsa is the way to anasakti. In fact, he questions the imagery of war created by the author. In his introduction, he describes the Gita as an allegorical text and its characters as imaginary, not historical, beings – even Krishna. He urges his readers to view an avatar as someone whose contributions to the community are unparalleled, for selfishness lies at the root of evil. His entire emphasis was to introduce the idea of ethical practice in Hinduism.

Gandhi’s engagement with the texts in his collection never stopped. Credit: Naveed Dadan/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Gandhi’s engagement with the texts in his collection never stopped. Credit: Naveed Dadan/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I consider the Anasaktiyoga as great an ethical text as Plato’s The Apology. Both these texts are equal, in their profundity, to some of the dialogues of the Buddha and of Jesus’s the Sermon on the Mount. Apart from Gandhi and the Buddha, no other South Asian intellectual has ever done so much to enrich the ethical practices of mankind.

Gandhi has mentioned reading The Collected Works of Plato. Since the editor’s name is missing, we cannot vouch for the number of volumes contained in the above-mentioned work (one is not even certain whether Gandhi was referring to the two volume set of Jowett or some other edition). But the fact remains that Gandhi had read enough of Plato to be deeply influenced by him. The noteworthy similarities in the philosophical orientation of Gandhi and Plato that are not attributable to the sub-continental traditions testify to such influence.

Not only that, Gandhi translated The Apology of Plato into Gujarati. It is worth noting here that there is a similarity between Gandhi’s defence at the trial of 1922 and Socrates’s defence in the Athenian assembly.

Gandhi’s engagement with the texts in his collection never stopped. Having studied Patanjali’s Yogasutras in 1903, on January 16, 1947 Gandhi replied to a foreign correspondent thus: “Distance lends enchantment to the scene. Let India remain the enchanted island of your imagination. I do not think that you need to come to India in order to learn yoga in practice. My own ashram is no exception to the general statement I have made. India has its full share of bad men if she has also her share of good men. Yoga in India of which you read in books is not much in evidence today. What it was like in her palmy days, I do not know. Therefore, I cannot encourage you to come to India”.

I have mentioned only those books in his collection that have touched me. I have skipped other well-known books in the list like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Ninety-Three and also books which are not in the Bibliography but were read by Gandhi, such as Marx’s Das Capital. But the following name I cannot help but mention – it was astonishing to know that Gandhi had read Bertrand Russell (he finds mention in Gandhi’s letters but not in the Bibliography). The latter himself would have been greatly surprised to know that the person he once described as a Jesus-like figure had not only read some of his books but also used them in his self-defence! When strong objections were raised to Gandhi’s experiments on self-control from conservative quarters impervious to any reasoning, he ultimately found refuge in Russell’s arguments.


As mentioned earlier, the process of reading, reflecting and writing, and political activism is what helped Gandhi in his multi-faceted lifelong journey. He was a thinker and an intellectual whose firmament of ideas stretched from environmental ethics and the politics of peace to unique nuances in the trade union movement in India. Most importantly, he made it possible to think that violence need not be the only sign of heroism/courage.

Gandhi also conceived the idea of a stateless socialist non-hierarchical society, based on the ethical foundation of sarvodaya (concern for the well-being of all) instead of a socialism established on a purely economic base, as conceived by Marx and Mao. For Gandhi, it was ethics which distinguished humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. Marx, on the other hand, identified productive capabilities as the distinguishing feature of human life.

Also read: Gandhi’s Last Message: ‘Raze the Sacred Sites of Others and You Too Will Be Obliterated’

Much before Amartya Sen, Gandhi through his idea of the constructive programme made many of us aware of the fact that ‘development’ really meant the creation of multiple freedoms, both positive and negative, for the people to enjoy. Independently of it, economic development would lead to oppression and the ethical degeneration of humanity.

Above all, Gandhi belonged to a select group of philosophers from the subcontinent, like the Buddha and Vardhamana Mahavira, who opened up new ways of life that were substantially different, in theory and practice, from all other ways of life of their time, and which have managed to survive till now.

The schools of Nyaya, Vaisesika, Mimamsa Vedanta, Samkhya and Yoga do not really represent distinct ways of life. While they differ in their metaphysics and epistemology, they are all variations of the Vedic/Brahamanic way of life (except for the Samkhya, the other schools still exist. So in a way I am also talking about the present). The Caravakas perhaps once coalesced into a distinct way of life but at present we do not have any concrete evidence to credit them with one.

Among the galaxy of 20th-century greats like Tagore, Narayana Guru, Aurobindo Ghosh and Ramana Maharishi, none of them developed anything like a Gandhian way of life, with a distinct theory and practice, so as to be considered as philosophers of the Buddha-Vardhamana-Socratesian style. But is this a loss to a world dominated by the political right and its version of modernity?

In such times, the Bibliography of Books Read by Mahatma Gandhi is an urgent pointer for us to discover, or rediscover, Gandhi’s seamless engagement with reading, reflecting and posing self-transforming questions as the most humane way of politics – one that is rooted in ethics.

Dr K.P. Shankaran is a retired associate professor of philosophy, St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.

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