Gandhi. Gandhi, guys.
This is the man who inspired Albert Einstein (yes, freakin' Einstein) to say: "Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood." (Dang.)
This is the man whose teachings on non-violence went on to inspire such leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama, and Nelson Mandela. (Dang.)
This is the dude that ended 100 years of British colonial rule in India (dang), while urging his followers to act peacefully (dang).
In short, you best read carefully. This guy has more to teach us than your average autobiographer—way more. And don't worry if you're not up on early 20th-century politics: this book is way more about Gandhi's day-to-day physical and philosophical existence and less about the intricacies of toppling the British Raj.
It's safe to say that Mohandas K. Gandhi, born October 2, 1869, and assassinated January 30, 1948, is one of the most idealistic people you'll ever read about. He's driven to make the world a better place—but why? Why doesn't he just stay home and watch Netflix in his spare time like everyone else?
Well, a) Netflix wasn't an option in his time, and b) he thinks he has better things to do, anyway. He sums up these better things to do by saying he's striving toward self-realization/truth/morality/God, all ideals that he ties together into one big package or concept (Introduction.3-4).
His religiously tolerant father and devout mother definitely inspire him, but he seems gripped by a deep need to improve himself independent of them or anyone else. According to Gandhi, self-improvement means improving the world, too:
And purification being highly infectious, purification of oneself necessarily leads to the purification of one's surroundings. (Farewell.6)
Let's look at one memorable incident early in his life where Mr. G. decides to aim his life toward serving the community. On the train to Pretoria to work on a legal case, he's told to change compartments—"colored" people aren't allowed to ride in first class.
The official tells him, "You must leave this compartment, or else I shall have to call a police constable to push you out," and Gandhi bravely replies, "Yes, you may. I refuse to get out voluntarily" (2.8.19-20).
He's promptly kicked off the train, and does he cry? No, he begins:
[…] to think of my duty. [...] It would be cowardice to run back to India [...] I should try, if possible, to root out the [colour prejudice] disease and suffer hardships in the process. (2.8.23)
He doesn't have to take much time to debate with himself about this; he doesn't have to plead with himself to fight for his rights. He perceives that it's the right thing to do, and so he just decides to do it, simple and straightforward. Gandhi seems to take it for granted that if the right thing is an option, you simply do it.
None of this is to say Gandhi is a perfect person. Indeed, he tells us about his faults, which displays honesty on his part.
In his youth, under the influence of a friend, he takes up eating meat against his parents' wishes (1.7.1) and smoking cigarettes bought with stolen money (1.8.2-3). The guilt he feels from these experiments leads him to pick honesty over deception (1.7.6) and to confess the theft of the cigarette money (1.8.11-16). This demonstrates just how much he values living truthfully—and, thankfully, saving his lungs from getting blackened.
He still makes mistakes as an adult, too. On the train again, he accepts an offer to allow his wife to use the second-class bathroom to which they're not entitled. "This, I know, does not become a votary of truth," he says (5.5.10).
It's clear he feels bad about any wrongdoing, and in fact, maybe his taking his every action so seriously is what gives him the strength to be such a force for good all the rest of the time.
One source of wisdom for Gandhi is (our favorite) literature. As a young man, he reads like a fiend because he's keen on discovering the truth about the world. He keeps up with reading as he ages, though public work takes away much of his time for it. (So many books, so little time—eh, Gandhi?)
Some of the books that have the biggest impact on him are Henry S. Salt's A Plea for Vegetarianism (1.14.8), Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is Within You (2.1.9), and John Ruskin's Unto This Last (2.1.9). The Salt book inspires him to take up vegetarianism on ethical grounds. The Tolstoy book is about non-violence. Gandhi likes Ruskin's book so much that he translates it into Gujarati to spread its message about living the simple life (4.18.10-13).
Notice these books are all about how to live your life idealistically—Gandhi wasn't just tearing through sci-fi epics and romance novels, not that those aren't awesome. These books definitely served as additional motivation for Gandhi. Who said literature couldn't change the world?
We know by now that Gandhi chooses, over and over, to do the right thing in life. But, how do these choices display themselves in his character? It all boils down to ahimsa, or non-violence. Indeed, he says, "The only means for the realization of Truth is Ahimsa" (Farewell.4)—and remember, his #1 goal is to get at truth.
You can read more about ahimsa in our "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section, but in terms of Gandhi's character, his commitment to non-violence means, among other things a) compassion toward his opponents and b) self-restraint.
Let's examine a typical incident where Gandhi shows compassion for his opponents. When he's beaten in Durban, he declines not to prosecute his assailants.
Now, most people would want their attackers to go to jail, right? But Gandhi ain't most people. He says:
[…] what is the use of getting them punished? Besides, I do not hold the assailants to blame. They were given to understand that I had made exaggerated statements [about them]. (3.3.13)
In other words, he's always extending an olive branch to his opponents and trying to understand their points of view. He wants them to feel "sorry for their conduct" (3.3.13) and see the light—he wants to convert his opponents to his side without hurting them. In fact, he's all about allowing himself to be the one hurt if necessary.
Another way ahimsa displays itself in Gandhi's character is in his amazing power of self-restraint. You can read more about this in the "Lust" theme, but Gandhi believes self-restraint—reining in the senses instead of indulging them—gives him "wonderful potency" (4.24.10) or power.
He draws strength from his mastery over himself—he gives up sex, and he keeps to a diet so strict that #cleaneating doesn't even begin to cover it. These choices keep his passions in check, and this allows him not to lose his temper when his opponents challenge him. He takes self-restraint so far that he even wants to have not a single "impure thought" (4.24.10).
All in all, what drives Gandhi is his quest for capital-T Truth…and that means non-violence. Plenty of things inspire him along the way—his parents, books, getting thrown off a train because people are racist dirtbags—but G-man has an incredible force of will that allows him to pick the bravest course of action time and again.
No one would say he's perfect (especially not Gandhi himself), but we think that Mr. G., like Mary Poppins, is "practically perfect in every way."