Mahatma Gandhi pushed the Brits out of India with some unorthodox methods that we often take for granted. There’s a lot we can learn from this stubborn and scrawny man among men who knew how to fight for his principles—on his own terms—and win!
Let’s begin with a (now famous) train journey that changed Gandhi’s life, and eventually the course of history. It was 1893, late at night in South Africa. A barrister named M. K. Gandhi was travelling first class when a white passenger entered the compartment, took one look at him, and summoned the conductor. The conductor insisted Gandhi to move to third class.
“But I have a first-class ticket,” Gandhi said.
“That doesn’t matter,” replied the conductor. “No coloureds!”
Gandhi refused to leave. A policeman had to remove him from the train.
It was a bitterly cold night. Gandhi shivered, and pondered. Should he retreat to India or remain in South Africa and fight injustices like the one he had just experienced?
By dawn, he had his answer: “It would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling my obligation. The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial—only a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process.” At that moment, he chose a path he remained on for the next 55 years.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was many things: barrister, vegetarian, sadhu, experimenter, writer, father of the nation, friend of all, enemy of none, manual labourer, meditator, teacher, student, walker, tailor. Most of all, he was a fighter.
Gandhi fought the British, and he fought bigotry—among foreigners and among his own people. He fought to be heard. His biggest fight, though, was the fight to change the way we fight.
Gandhi imagined a world without violence, but he was realistic enough to know that was unlikely to happen soon. Meanwhile, we must learn how to fight better.
Gandhi was obsessed with masculinity, albeit his definition was a bit different. Gandhi considered it “unmanly” to obey unjust laws. Those laws must be resisted and with great force, but nonviolent force. This demands genuine courage.
“What do you think? Wherein is courage required—in blowing others to pieces from behind a cannon, or with a smiling face to approach a cannon and be blown to pieces? Believe me, that a man devoid of courage and manhood can never be a passive resister.” Violence represents a failure of imagination, Gandhi thought. Nonviolence demands creativity. Gandhi was always searching for innovative ways to fight.
Gandhi believed the British had emasculated India. He was determined to remasculate the nation, though he had a different kind of masculinity in mind.
Gandhi abhorred violence, but there was something he hated even more: cowardice. Given a choice between the two, he preferred violence. “A coward is less than a man.” Gandhi’s true objective was not only reclaiming India’s lost virility, but on its own terms.
Gandhi studied many religions and religious texts to derive strength, but it was the Bhagavad Gita that was his inspiration, and his consolation. “When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita, and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow.”
For the uninitiated, in the storyline of the Bhagavad Gita, prince Arjuna, a great warrior, is getting ready for battle. But he has lost his nerve. He is having trouble facing the opposing army which includes soldiers from his own clan, his beloved friends, and revered teachers. How can he fight them?! Lord Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer and friend, counsels him. The story unfolds as a dialogue between them.
The conventional interpretation of the Gita is that it’s a lesson on doing one’s duty, even if violence is the way. Gandhi read it differently. “The Gita,” he said, “is an allegory, one that depicts what takes place in the heart of every human being.” The true battlefield lies within. Arjuna’s struggle is not with the enemy, but with himself. Does he succumb to his baser instincts or rise to a higher plane?
Another lesson from the Gita is nonattachment to results. As Lord Krishna tells Arjuna: “You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction.” Sever work from outcome, the Gita teaches. Invest 100 percent effort into every endeavour and precisely zero percent into the results.
Gandhi summed up this outlook in a single word: desirelessness. He was heavily inspired by Buddhism and Jainism. Contrary to what people think, desirelessness is not an invitation to avoidance of activity. One must be a person of action, but one mustn’t worry about results.
This is not the way the world runs, though. All of us are results-oriented. Investors, entrepreneurs, teachers, students, doctors, institutions, governments, leaders, followers—all of them promise results. We might question their ability to deliver, but rarely do we question the underlying assumption that being results-oriented is good.
Gandhi was not results-oriented. He was process-oriented. He aimed not for Indian independence, but for an India worthy of independence. Once this was achieved, freedom would arrive naturally, “like a ripe mango falling from a tree.”
Gandhi didn’t fight to win. He fought to fight the best fight he was capable of fighting. It’s counterintuitive, but a process-oriented fight produces better results than a results-oriented one.
At first, Gandhi called his process “passive resistance” but soon realised he needed a more appropriate name. There was nothing passive about it, or about him. Gandhi was always doing something: walking, praying, planning, holding meetings, answering correspondence, spinning khadi cloth.
Even Gandhi’s thinking had a kinetic quality, reflected in his alert eyes and expressive face—a “twinkling mirror,” said those who met him. When a journalist pressed Gandhi for a précis of his philosophy, he said: “I am not built for academic writings. Action is my domain.”
Nonviolence wasn’t new (it was a thousand-year-old concept), but Gandhi’s application of it was. What had been reduced to merely a dietary rule (vegetarianism) was forged into a sharp weapon to fight oppression.
Gandhi eventually settled on a new name for his new type of nonviolent resistance: Satyagraha, which loosely translated to “Truth Force”. Yes, this was what Gandhi had in mind. There was nothing passive or squishy about it. It was active.
Gandhi believed the satyagrahi (a nonviolent fighter) is more courageous than an armed soldier. It takes no great bravery (or intelligence) to pull a trigger. But only the truly courageous can suffer voluntarily to change a human heart. Gandhi’s soldiers, like soldiers everywhere, were willing to die for their cause. But unlike most soldiers, they were not willing to kill for it.
During the Russian Civil War (1917–1922), Lenin defended the mass executions he ordered by saying, “These things happen in a revolution.” Not Gandhi. He’d rather see India remain shackled to Britain than gain her independence through bloody means. “No man,” said Gandhi, “takes another down a pit without descending into it himself.” The Soviet Union is a good example.
When we brutalise others, we brutalise ourselves. This is why most revolutions fail in the end. They devour themselves by confusing means and ends. For Gandhi, the means can never justify the ends. The means are the ends. “Impure means result in impure ends. We reap exactly as we sow. Just as you can’t grow a rosebush on toxic soil, you can’t grow a peaceful nation on bloody ground.”
One morning in 1930, Gandhi and eighty of his followers set out from his ashram in Ahmedabad, heading south, toward the sea. They covered twenty kilometres a day, sometimes more. By the time they reached the coast, the eighty followers had grown to several thousand.
They watched as Gandhi bathed in the Arabian Sea, then scooped up a handful of salt from the natural deposits, in blatant violation of British law. This great Dandi March marked a turning point on the road to independence. It was a nonviolent act of civil disobedience in British India.
Even Gandhi’s raids were different. When Gandhi announced his intention to raid the Dharasana Salt Works, Webb Miller, a correspondent for United Press International, witnessed the confrontation firsthand. He watched as Gandhi’s followers approached the stockpile of salt in silence. The police were waiting for them.
The officers ordered them to retreat, but they continued to step forward. Suddenly, at a word of command, scores of native policemen rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads with their steel-shod lathis. Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten-pins. From where I stood, I heard the sickening whack of the clubs on unprotected skulls. Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing with fractured skulls or broken shoulders. The survivors, without breaking ranks, silently and doggedly marched on until struck down.
As he watched the horrific scene unfold, Miller wrestled with conflicting feelings. “The western mind finds it difficult to grasp the idea of nonresistance. I felt an indefinable sense of helpless rage and loathing, almost as much against the men who were submitting unresistingly to being beaten as against the police wielding the clubs.”
Like Miller, we might wonder: what was wrong with the Gandhians? Why didn’t they fight back? They did, Gandhi would reply, only nonviolently. They confronted the police with their presence and their peaceful intentions. Had they fought back physically, they would have provoked more anger from the police—anger, now justified.
Gandhi found such escalation silly. Any victory earned through violent means is illusory; it only postpones the arrival of the next bloody chapter. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
It takes time to soften hearts. Progress isn’t immediate. After the raid on the salt works, and the brutal response, nothing appeared to have changed. India was still a British colony. Yet something was different. Britain had lost the moral high ground as well as their appetite to bloody those who steadfastly refused to answer hate with hate.
When Indians celebrated independence at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, Gandhi spent the day fasting, and praying. Soon after, he traversed the young nation, trying to meet as many people as possible. Even after the end was achieved, he remained dedicated to the process. Mahatma Gandhi never stopped fighting.
I’m not a Gandhian by any means, and one can argue that there are obvious limits to his methods—but nobody can deny that his methods helped India win her independence. Agree or not, his ideas are creative, and that’s what he urges from us—to get creative in the face of adversity and not give in to our baser instincts (and the obvious means).
When the enemy has an advantage—when they are a huge empire and you are a divided nation—you have to get creative, there’s simply no other way. For example, as a tiny retail investor, we don’t have access to the vast team of analysts a hedge fund has. As a small startup, we neither have the money nor the resources to go toe to toe with an established company.
The obvious methods would fail, so we have to think harder. We have to focus on the process and not get paralysed by the pressure of the result. How do we do that? Well, there’s no specific formula. By definition, there cannot be one. But yes, there are methods, frameworks, directions—the ones I discuss every week—that can help us take a step in the right direction and help us fight like the Mahatma.