Gandhi and the Gita: The Making of a Hero


An unwavering devotion to the Bhagavad Gita, and to the power of mantra, helped transform a shy, tongue-tied, inept barrister into one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known.

On August 16, 1908, more than 2,000 Indian nationals living in Transvaal, South Africa, joined at a local Hindu temple to burn their South African registration certificates. They were protesting recently enacted legislation—called the Black Act—that would dramatically limit their civil rights in South Africa. The thousands of Indian men and women who participated in this action were no doubt terrified—fearing the reprisals of the notoriously repressive South African government. They were also very likely astonished at their own actions that day—and at the fact that they had summoned the courage to take such a risky stand against tyranny.

Much of their courage issued from the trust they had in their leader and champion in this action. He was a powerful and compelling little Indian barrister whom they had come to love. He was Mohandas K. Gandhi—who would later come to be known as Mahatma Gandhi, or Great Soul, and who would eventually lead 400 million Indians out of bondage to the British Empire. The protest against the Black Act in South Africa was Gandhi’s first act of mass civil disobedience.

What began that day was his development of the art of satyagraha (literally, “clinging to truth”)

The act of civil disobedience carried out in Transvaal on that August day more than a century ago was more successful than any in the Indian community could have hoped. The international press covered the event widely and compared it to the Boston Tea Party. Gandhi and his fellows had deftly painted the government into a corner—all without violence of any kind. Even Gandhi himself was surprised at the power—he would later call it Soul Force—of this kind of action. What began that day was his development of the art of satyagraha (literally, “clinging to truth”)—that would, over the course of the next two decades, change the face of the world. “Thus came into being,” wrote Gandhi much later in his life, “the moral equivalent of war.”

Civil disobedience, based on the principles of satyagraha, would become a staple of Gandhi’s tool kit for the rest of his life—and would be the central pillar of his strategy to end British colonial rule in India. This satyagraha was an entirely new method of fighting injustice. Instead of fanning hatred with hatred, Gandhi insisted upon returning love for hatred and respect for contempt.

Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas K. Gandhi—two exemplars of Soul Force—lived a century apart, but with the perspective of time they increasingly appear as brothers. Thoreau’s life and writing—especially his essay “Civil Disobedience” and his masterpiece, Walden—profoundly influenced Gandhi. In many ways, Gandhi finished what Thoreau started. Satyagraha was the embodiment of the doctrine of “truth in action” about which Thoreau had written so passionately almost a century earlier.

Mastering Fear

Mohandas K. Gandhi began his adult life as a shy, tongue-tied Indian barrister who failed at most everything he tried. He was plagued by fears and doubts. He was socially inept. At the age of 23, he had left his native India for South Africa—a last attempt to salvage a foundering legal career. (He had become famous in the Indian legal world for once fleeing a courtroom in terror when he had been called upon to present a difficult argument. He later became known as “the briefless barrister” because after this embarrassment no one would give him a case.) Yet when he returned to India just 10 years later, he was hailed as “Mahatma” and quickly became the acknowledged leader of the hundreds of millions of Indian people hungry for self-respect, self-reliance, and independence from Great Britain.

How had this transformation happened? What precisely was Gandhi doing between his ignominious departure from India—tail between his legs—and his triumphant return? It’s a great story.

The transformation was largely the result of one thing: his discovery of, and devotion to, the principles of the Bhagavad Gita. Gandhi himself would later emphasize: it was not just that he knew the Gita, but that he actively put its precepts to work in his life. Gandhi studied the Gita constantly. He chanted it, he memorized it, and he practiced its instructions; he took a frayed copy with him everywhere. It became, as he later said, his “spiritual reference book.” Everyone who knew him saw this: his longtime secretary, Mahadev Desai, would say, “Every moment of Gandhi’s life is a conscious effort to live the message of the Gita.”

Mohandas Gandhi was a fear-obsessed little boy with big eyes and mammoth ears that stood out almost at right angles from his body. He was terrified of the dark, and, as he said, “haunted by the fear of thieves, ghosts, and serpents.” He could not bear to be in a room alone and could not sleep at night without a light on nearby. Gandhi himself, later in life, acknowledged that as a boy he had been, in his own words, a “coward.” All the other boys on the playground knew it: he was a pushover. One could steal this guy’s lunch money with impunity.

And yet, the later Gandhi was fearless. He was renowned, not only for his great moral courage, but for physical courage as well. A central pillar of his later teaching was that fearlessness is a prerequisite for non-violence. “Non-violence and cowardice go ill together,” he said. It is fascinating, then, to dig down into the story of Gandhi’s mastery of his fear. How did he accomplish it?

Gandhi himself often told the story. It turns out that as a boy he was under the care of an old family servant named Rambha. Rambha was touched—and somewhat irritated—by this scrawny kid who came running to her in tears every day after school—pummeled once again by the bullies. She was going to put an end to this.

“It’s perfectly all right to admit that you’re afraid,” she said. “There’s no shame in fear. But try this: whenever you’re threatened, instead of running away, stand firm, and repeat the mantra, Rama, Rama, Rama. This will turn your fear into courage.” Rama, of course, is one of the many names of God in the Hindu tradition—and so both the word itself, as well as the process of its repetition, had magic in it.

Gandhi-the-boy tried the technique halfheartedly. He found it useful. But he did not discover its true genius until a decade later when Gandhi-the-man was beginning his work with non-violent non-cooperation in South Africa.

The mantra eased his fear—calmed his mind and body.

In the stress of those years he remembered Rambha’s advice and put it to work in earnest. He began to practice the mantra, chanting Rama, Rama, Rama over and over again to himself—both aloud and silently. The mantra eased his fear—calmed his mind and body. He began to rely on it, and eventually began to systematically practice chanting mantra not just in extremis but as a part of his regular daily schedule.

For a period of time after this discovery, Gandhi walked many miles each day, repeating the mantra to himself until it began to coordinate itself with the movement of his body and breath. The practice not only calmed him but brought him into periods of bliss and rapture—and, as he said, “opened the doorway to God.” Rama, Rama, Rama. Eventually, the mantra developed a life of its own within him. The mantra began to chant itself, arising spontaneously whenever he needed it. “The mantra becomes one’s staff of life,” he wrote, “and carries one through every ordeal...Each repetition…has a new meaning, each repetition carries you nearer and nearer to God.”

The Power of Mantra

How important was mantra to Gandhi’s transformation? Extremely. When done systematically, mantra has a powerful effect on the brain. It gathers and focuses the energy of the mind. It teaches the mind to focus on one point—and it cultivates a steadiness, which over time becomes an unshakable evenness of temper. The cultivation of this quality of “evenness” is a central principle of the Bhagavad Gita. It is called samatva in Sanskrit, and it is a central pillar of Krishna’s practice. When the mind develops steadiness, teaches Krishna, it is not shaken by fear or greed.

So, in his early 20s, Gandhi had already begun to develop a still point at the center of his consciousness—a still point that could not be shaken. This little seed of inner stillness would grow into a mighty oak. Gandhi would become an immovable object.

Rambha gave Gandhi an enchanting image to describe the power of mantra. She compared the practice of mantra to the training of an elephant. “As the elephant walks through the market,” taught Rambha, “he swings his trunk from side to side and creates havoc with it wherever he goes—knocking over fruit stands and scattering vendors, snatching bananas and coconuts wherever possible. His trunk is naturally restless, hungry, scattered, undisciplined. This is just like the mind—constantly causing trouble.”

But the wise elephant trainer, said Rambha, will give the ele-phant a stick of bamboo to hold in his trunk. The elephant likes this. He holds it fast. And as soon as the elephant wraps his trunk around the bamboo, the trunk begins to settle. Now the elephant strides through the market like a prince: calm, collected, focused, serene. Bana-nas and coconuts no longer distract.

So too with the mind. As soon as the mind grabs hold of the mantra, it begins to settle. The mind holds the mantra gently—and it becomes focused, calm, centered. Gradually this mind becomes extremely concentrated. This is the beginning stage of meditation. All meditation traditions prescribe some beginning practice of gathering, focusing, and concentration—and in the yoga tradition this is most often achieved precisely through mantra.

The whole of chapter six in the Bhagavad Gita is devoted to Krishna’s teachings on this practice: “Whenever the mind wanders, restless and diffuse in its search for satisfaction without, lead it within; train it to rest in the Self,” instructs Krishna. “When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like the flame of a lamp in a windless place.”

In the midst of Krishna’s teaching on meditation, Arjuna whines: “This is too hard, Krishna!” he gripes. “The mind is restless, turbulent, powerful, violent; trying to control it is like trying to tame the wind.” Krishna takes a deep breath: “Just keep practicing,” he says, and he prescribes “regular practice and detachment.”

After Krishna has taught Arjuna the basics of meditation, he makes an important connection for him—a connection that Gandhi will later make as well. When the mind is still, says Krishna, the True Self begins to reveal its nature. In the depths of meditation, we begin to recognize again that we are One with Brahman—that we are that wave that is non-separate from the sea. Memory is restored.

In his early 20s, then, Gandhi had already appropriated the meditative tool that would serve him for the rest of his life. He was practicing the only meditation technique taught in the Bhagavad Gita and was building the foundation of his contemplative practice. In the midst of terrifying circumstances to come, Gandhi held on to the mantra like an elephant grasping bamboo. Friends who knew him well acknowledged that Gandhi repeated his mantra continually, night and day. The name of God invaded the deepest parts of his mind.

An Identity Crisis

Gandhi graduated from high school with an underwhelming record, and he went on to college, falteringly. There, too, he failed. After five months he gave up, dropped out, and came home. Gandhi’s family was worried: this boy was on the brink of becoming a serious loser—more of a ne’er-do-well than even Thoreau. (No credit to his family!) As a last resort, an uncle suggested that Gandhi go to London to study the law.

What could go wrong with this plan? Plenty. Gandhi fared no better in London. He felt out of place. His textbook English did not suffice. He was more socially inept than ever. For a while he tried to masquerade as an English gentleman. This ruse, however, was patently laughable. He looked ridiculous in his high-starched collars, with his enormous ears protruding just above.

“It went straight to my heart,” he wrote.

In London, Gandhi suffered a painful identity crisis. Who the heck was he? Who was he meant to be in this world? During this period, a desperate Gandhi launched himself into an intense investigation of world religions—searching for answers. He was acutely aware that his life had no unifying principle. Like Arjuna, he did not understand how to act. He read the Bible—but was bored with everything except the Sermon on the Mount (which, he said, overwhelmed him with its obvious truth). He looked into Theosophy. He read parts of the Koran. He attended various spiritual groups. But it was not until a young English friend introduced him to the Bhagavad Gita that he felt he had connected with something important. He would never forget his first reading of the Gita. “It went straight to my heart,” he wrote.

Why, he wondered, had he not read it before? To his shame, he later said, he had not read “Mother Gita” in India, but had to come to London to read it with English friends, in an English translation. “What effect this reading of the Gita had on my friends, only they can say,” he wrote, “but to me the Gita became an infallible guide of conduct. It became my dictionary of daily reference. Just as I turned to the English dictionary for the meanings of English words that I did not understand, I turned to this dictionary of conduct for a ready solution of all my troubles and trials.”

Gandhi, of course, identified with Arjuna. He was often overcome by doubt—and perpetually on the floor of his own chariot. But he found that reading Mother Gita took some of the rough edges off his self-division. It unified him. “When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow.”

Simplifying His Life

By his mid-20s, two of the pillars of Gandhi’s transformation were in place: his mantra and his spiritual reference book. With these two, Gandhi began to throw off what he later called the “sluggishness” and “drowsiness” of his mind and body. He would soon discover the third pillar of his transformation—the systematic cultivation of energy.

Gandhi, very much like Thoreau before him, began to create what he called “experiments in living.”

Gandhi, very much like Thoreau before him, began to create what he called “experiments in living.” His first series of experiments centered around diet. In London, he fell in with a group of vegetarians, and he became fascinated with the health-giving effects of “eating no living beings.” He tried every conceivable combination of fruits and vegetables, of beans and rice. What food would give him the most energy, the most stamina? He gave up eating as a recreation and took it up as a spiritual practice. No more living to eat. Now, it was eat to live.

In London, Gandhi began, too, an experiment in simplifying his life—another way of sustaining his energy. Gandhi had a vegetarian friend—a real minimalist—who lived in one room and cooked his own meals. This was a practice that was unheard of among the scholar class in England. But Gandhi was attracted to the simplicity of this approach. He decided to adopt it himself.

Gandhi rented a single room that was centrally located in London so that he could walk wherever he went. He began to develop the habit of vigorous walking which would last the rest of his life. (In this, too, he was like Thoreau—except that Thoreau, famously, “rambled.” Gandhi decidedly did not ramble. He practically flew. All of his walking companions commented on this. Gandhi was famous, later in life, for outwalking even his young companions. “His feet barely touched the ground,” they would complain.) One can only imagine the sight of this somewhat strange-looking little Indian man walking furiously around London, chanting his Sanskrit mantra all the while. Proper London must have been amused.

Finding His Dharma

Now comes what we might call the end of the beginning of Gandhi’s transformation: his 14 years in South Africa. It was in South Africa that he would discover the fourth leg of the four-legged dharma stool of his life: the ideal of selfless service.

After three years of legal studies in London, Gandhi passed the notoriously easy bar exams and enrolled in the High Court. He returned to India briefly—just long enough to embarrass himself and his family again. He soon took a legal post that had been arranged for him in South Africa by another generous uncle.

Early on in his tenure in South Africa, Gandhi stumbled his way into a particularly complex legal case. The case was almost certainly beyond his slim legal skills. However, knowing that if he failed here he might in fact never get another case in South Africa (and thus become a briefless barrister on two continents) he brought every bit of resolve he had to the task. He mastered the complex arguments involved. Some of his London discipline began to pay off.

For the very first time, in his conduct of this case, we see a spark of the later great man. Gandhi found himself defending a client whose argument was strong. But Gandhi knew enough about the law to know that, strong as it was, this complex case was likely to drag out for years in the courts—draining the clients while enriching the lawyers. Gandhi had an idea: he implored his client to submit the case to arbitration and to settle out of court (even though Gandhi himself had much to gain financially by continuing the court battle.) His client and the opposing client were related to one another, and Gandhi could see that with every month that passed, this divided family plunged deeper and deeper into suffering. This moved Gandhi’s heart—and his conscience. After much cajoling, Gandhi finally convinced both sides to enter into arbitration. The result was a peaceful ending to the family strife.

Gandhi was ecstatic. “I had learnt,” he said, “the true practice of law. I had learnt to find out the better side of human nature and to enter men’s hearts. I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder.”

Gandhi had had the first taste of his dharma. His calling would be to heal separation wherever he found it—separation between family members, between members of different races, between conflicting parties of all kinds. Once he got a taste of this dharma, he was on fire. This is what he could do with his life! For the first time he had a taste of real purpose.

Reducing to Zero

His first successful legal case helped him toward another insight. He saw that his energies and intelligence and training did not belong to him. They belonged to the world. He came to believe that a human being is really just a trustee of all that he has—that his gifts are entrusted to him for the good of the world. “My study of English law came to my help,” he said. “I understood the Gita teaching of non-possession to mean that those who desired salvation should act like the trustee who, though having control over great possessions, regards not an iota of them as his own.” He saw that true living was living for the sake of others. He was freed from the bondage of his awkward, inept, fearful self.

Gandhi grasped the paradox: the more he gave away, the more he had. “He who devotes himself to service with a clear conscience will day by day grasp the necessity for it in greater measure and will continually grow richer in faith....If we cultivate the habit of doing this service deliberately, our desire for service will steadily grow stronger and will make not only for our own happiness but that of the world at large.”

During this period, Gandhi says about the true satyagrahi: “He will take only what he strictly needs and leave the rest. One must not possess anything that one does not really need. It would be a breach of this principle to possess unnecessary foodstuffs, clothing, or furniture. For instance, one must not keep a chair if one can do without it. In observing this principle one is led to a progressive simplification of one’s own life.”

At first glance, this exaggerated simplification looks like some strange new form of Puritanism. But it wasn’t. Gandhi was not doing this as a “should.” For Gandhi, it was a direct road to freedom.

He came to call this “reducing yourself to zero.”

Gandhi came to believe that any power he might have to affect the world only emerged when he got himself out of the way and let God do the work. He came to call this “reducing yourself to zero.” “There comes a time,” he wrote in the peak of his maturity, “when an individual becomes irresistible and his action becomes all-pervasive in its effects. This comes when he reduces himself to zero.”

It’s a wonderful phrase. Gandhi’s meaning was simple: Only the human being who acts in a way that is empty of self can be the instrument of Soul Force. And it is only Soul Force that can establish a harmonious world. Human beings alone are helpless to resolve conflicts without it. With it, however, Gandhi came to believe that harmony is inevitable. Because harmony, Oneness with all beings, is our true nature.

Gandhi discovered to his delight that when his own self was not in the way—when he was not clinging to any fixed views about the outcome of his actions—he could be hugely creative. He was free to move on a dime. Gandhi began to listen carefully to his inner guidance and to trust this guidance. As a result, his actions were highly creative, and also wildly unpredictable. Gandhi himself often had no idea what creative solutions would emerge from his inner guidance—or when they would emerge. (In later years, when he was back in India leading the resistance to British domination, he would have all of India waiting with bated breath—sometimes for weeks or months—while he sat quietly in his ashram spinning cotton, praying, and waiting for guidance about the next action.)

An Exemplar of Courage

By the year 1921, Gandhi knew that his work in South Africa was complete. He felt called to return to India, where his people were suffering under the increasingly onerous burden of British rule. Gandhi returned to India a seasoned veteran of satyagraha, and he believed that the principles he had tried so successfully in South Africa could be put into action in India. He believed that they would inevitably result in the political freedom and self-determination of the Indian people. He knew that this could be done without war, without violence, and without contempt for the British. And he knew that it was his dharma to lead the way.

Gandhi had left India a fearful, befuddled young attorney. He returned a masterful satyagrahi. More than anything else, he had mastered his disabling fear. He had become an exemplar of courage. And he knew that this kind of courage would be required of the whole Indian people in order to throw off British rule. “Greater courage is required of the satyagrahi,” he often said, “than the run-of-the-mill soldier with a gun in his hand. Any coward can be brave when holding a rifle.”

Gandhi’s courage surprised no one more than himself. He sometimes wondered just how far his own courage would hold. He really did not know. He wrote: “Have I that non-violence of the brave in me? My death alone will show that. If someone killed me and I died with a prayer for the assassin on my lips, and God’s remembrance and consciousness of His living presence in the sanctuary of my heart, then alone would I be said to have had the non-violence of the brave.”

This is exactly how Gandhi did die, of course. Gandhi, then 78 years old, was in Delhi, working—as ever—for unity. He had had a particularly busy day and as he was hurrying to evening prayers, arm in arm with two young disciples, a young man approached him, offered him a gesture of respect, and then fired a gun point-blank into his heart.

As the Great Soul crumpled to the ground, his mantra emerged spontaneously from his lips: Rama, Rama, Rama.

“Select your purpose,” he challenged, “selfless, without any thought of personal pleasure or personal profit, and then use selfless means to attain your goal.

For Mahatma Gandhi, all of his courage, all of his trust in God, all of his capacity to love the world as himself issued from the pages of the Bhagavad Gita. No human being living in the 20th century has lived the precepts of this great text with more fidelity and passion than Gandhi. “Select your purpose,” he challenged, “selfless, without any thought of personal pleasure or personal profit, and then use selfless means to attain your goal.

“Do not resort to violence,” Gandhi wrote, “even if it seems at first to promise success; it can only contradict your purpose. Use the means of love and respect even if the result seems far off or uncertain. Then throw yourself heart and soul into the campaign, counting no price too high for working for the welfare of those around you; and every reverse, every defeat, will send you deeper into your own deepest resources. Violence can never bring an end to violence; all it can do is provoke more violence. But if we can adhere to complete non-violence in thought, word, and deed, India’s freedom is assured.”

Assured, indeed, it was, largely as a result of the faith and integrity of this one small man who took himself to zero—and who simply put into practice the words of his divine mentor, Krishna.

 Excerpted from The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope. Copyright ©2012 by Stephen Cope. (Bantam Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 2012). Reprinted with permission.

About the Teacher

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Stephen Cope
Stephen Cope is the director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living in Lenox, MA. He is the... Read more