Study Guide

The Story of My Experiments with Truth Themes

By Mohandas K. Gandhi, aka Mahatma Gandhi

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Non-violence

    In a world where war is common, violence can start to seem kind of acceptable…as long as it's against the baddies. After all, many people would fight to defend themselves or get revenge—which they might consider to be justice.

    Gandhi fully rejects this approach in The Story of My Experiments with Truth. But his philosophy of non-violence, or ahimsa, means more than simply refraining from striking your opponents. It means seeking to do them good. Some seriously inspiring quotes are headed your way—after all, some of these gems inspired Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: Non-violence

    1. What does ahimsa mean? Go beyond its simple definition and ask yourself what Gandhi thinks non-violence implies about our attitudes toward other people, other forms of life, and ourselves.
    2. Why does Gandhi think movements should be non-violent? What arguments does he make in favor of this position, and what arguments might there be against it?
    3. Pick a story, such as Return of the Jedi, that involves the use of non-violence in an attempt to convert an opponent to good. How does the story show that non-violence is superior to violence? Is the story realistic? In other words, would a real-life confrontation have the same results?

    Chew on This

    Non-violence is the only acceptable approach for activists to take.

    Militancy on the part of activists is acceptable.

  • Truth

    What is truth? According to Gandhi in his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, it's God and the greatest good after which we should be seeking. While most of us associate the term "experiment" with controlled settings in laboratories (and maybe with Frankenstein), Gandhi applies it to his actions in the everyday world.

    He seeks to find truth by participating in politics, restraining his passions, and being honest in business and law. The foundation of his search for truth is ahimsa, or non-violence. Check out these quotations to better understand his view.

    Questions About Truth

    1. What does Gandhi mean by an "experiment with truth"? Consider examples in the text where he changes his mind or makes mistakes. How does his attitude differ from someone who might cling to any particular absolute ideology?
    2. What's the relationship between our passions and seeking truth, according to Gandhi? How might our emotions interfere with a clear-eyed perception of truth? Are there any arguments against this view, that emotions actually clarify our understanding of the world?
    3. Is truth possible in business? We know what Gandhi thinks. Invent a scenario where truth might be difficult to practice in a business setting. What might be the outcome of being truthful? Of being dishonest?
    4. Gandhi says the means to find truth is non-violence. But how might non-violence help you obtain truth? What can tolerance and peace achieve in disagreements that violence cannot?

    Chew on This

    Truth can only be obtained by rigorous application of the scientific method.

    There can be truth, even if imperfect, in everyday life, in matters ranging from business to diet.

  • Religion

    Inspired by his devout mother and the religious tolerance of his father, Gandhi sought to understand all the religions he came across…and he describes this process in The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

    His own view is that God is truth and that to realize yourself fully—which he sees as a religious quest—you must participate in all areas of life, including politics. Whereas many feel religion to be a private matter, something you shouldn't discuss with others, Gandhi, while tolerant, is forthright about his own beliefs.

    Questions About Religion

    1. How were Gandhi's religious beliefs influenced by his family? To what extent did he remain true to his parents' views, and to what extent did he break away from them and form views of his own? How does his spiritual journey compare with your own, if at all?
    2. Compare and contrast Gandhi's beliefs with those of Christianity. Where does he agree and where does he disagree?
    3. Research Gandhi's religion, Hinduism. How does his life reflect or not reflect Hindu beliefs? What does he dislike about Hinduism?

    Chew on This

    Religion is a matter for public discussion and debate, including in the field of politics.

    Religion is a private matter and doesn't have a place in politics.

  • Justice and Judgment

    Often we know the basics of history's social justice movements—what legislation was passed, the names of leaders—but less often do we see behind the scenes. In his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi shows us what made him able to lead India to independence.

    His spiritual training was the source of his power, and he also developed strong views on how public workers should handle money and conduct their lives. Take a look at these quotations to understand Gandhi's advice on making the world a better place.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. How should activists handle money, according to Gandhi? What advantages might his methods give? What disadvantages?
    2. What did Gandhi think about social movements and the use of violence? Does history bear him out? Or, might the actions of militants give more leverage to those who advocate non-violence?
    3. What did Gandhi give up in life in order to pursue public work? Are these good sacrifices to make? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Money tends to corrupt social movements, so activists shouldn't try to store it up.

    Those conducting public movements need to collect as much money as possible to succeed.

  • Duty

    Duty is, well, what you have to do. But what happens when your sense of duty conflicts with other ideals? In The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi explains why he participates in war on the side of the British Empire despite his commitment to non-violence.

    Since he demands rights from the empire, he feels he's obliged to defend it when called upon to do so, and he thinks this choice might develop in him the capacity to resist war. Besides the war shenanigans, Gandhi also tells us about his and the community's duty to fight for political rights.

    Questions About Duty

    1. Why does Gandhi participate in war? Explain his reasoning. Does it make sense to you? Why or why not?
    2. What does Gandhi say awakens the community to the duty to fight for political rights? How did he incite people to undertake change?
    3. How might participation in war develop in someone the ability to resist war? What happens when veterans oppose war—do their arguments have more weight than those of civilians, or can civilians resist war equally well?

    Chew on This

    An advocate of non-violence shouldn't participate in war at all.

    In some cases, an advocate of non-violence should participate in war.

  • Morality and Ethics

    In The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi displays an admirable dedication to morality and ethics—far more than most people can claim. But by no means is he perfect; he tells us how he learns from his own wrongdoing.

    But from honesty to vegetarianism, from keeping vows to self-denial, these quotations reveal the depth of Gandhi's commitment to doing what he believes is right. After all, he thinks that morality is the basis of all things, including the experiments by which he lives his life.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. What ethical mistakes does Gandhi admit to? How does he learn from those errors?
    2. What connections does Gandhi see between religion and morality and between morality and truth? Is one more important than the others? How do they relate to one another?
    3. What ethical principles of Gandhi's do you agree with? With which ones do you disagree? Why?

    Chew on This

    People should learn self-denial to be fully moral.

    It's not necessary to be ascetic to be a moral person.

  • Society and Class

    The caste system in India is a centuries-old system dividing up people by profession and birth, but it's changed in recent times, with discrimination based on caste becoming illegal. That's in part thanks to Gandhi, who tells us in his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth about prejudice against the untouchables, or members of a group considered below the four main castes.

    The caste system is part of his religion of Hinduism, but Gandhi thinks his faith must be changed to abolish untouchability. These quotations depict what untouchability was like in Gandhi's day.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. To what other minority groups does Gandhi compare the untouchables? What other comparisons can you make? What differences might there be between the plight of the untouchables and that of the groups to whom you compare them?
    2. What steps does Gandhi take toward ending untouchability? To what extent is he successful? What other steps might someone take today?

    Chew on This

    Untouchability is part of Hinduism and Indian traditions and should continue to exist at least in some form.

    Untouchability should be abolished.

  • Education

    In The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi tells us his own theories on education—learn multiple languages, strengthen your body, and mind your handwriting. He thinks children learn best from their parents and strives to teach his own kids—but says he neglects their literary training.

    He also believes teachers should practice what they preach—so his students took up spiritual studies and learned about liberty. What would it be like to have had Gandhi as your teacher? We're pretty sure it'd be a different experience.

    Questions About Education

    1. What languages does Gandhi think students should learn? What advantages are there to speaking multiple languages? Are there any reasons why someone shouldn't become multilingual?
    2. What does Gandhi think about the importance of good handwriting? Is his advice outdated in an age of tweets and text messages? Why or why not?
    3. Who should teach kids—parents or professional teachers? What advantages and disadvantages are there to parents being teachers? What about if the teachers are professionals?
    4. What does Gandhi think about the educational value of conversations versus textbooks? What reasons does he give for his position? What do you think, and why?

    Chew on This

    Education should include spiritual and political training.

    Education should stick to subjects that everyone can agree on.

  • Foreignness and "the Other"

    In The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi describes the relationship between the foreign British rulers and the subjugated Indian members of the empire's colony. The story starts with himself as he travels to England to study law. He temporarily adopts some British customs but sticks to his vows instead of taking up meat eating and liquor drinking.

    When he returns to India years later, he advocates for the speaking of the native languages over the rulers' English, demonstrating the importance of language in identity formation. These quotations show how the idea of foreignness played out in the life of the famous Indian leader.

    Questions About Foreignness and "the Other"

    1. Describe the impact on Gandhi of living in foreign England. How does he change in England? In what ways does he remain the same?
    2. How does language, according to Gandhi, affect national identity? How might the prevalence of a particular language relate to colonialism and who has power?
    3. Why does Gandhi's family fear for him to move to England? How does he reassure them? Are their fears justified? Do you think he was obliged to stick to his vows?

    Chew on This

    People should prioritize the language of their home country.

    If foreign languages offer more advantages, people should prioritize them.

  • Lust

    If there's one bit of Gandhi gossip you've heard, it's that the man gave up sex. In The Story of My Experiments with Truth, he fills us in on his practice of brahmacharya, which means conduct leading one to God…and abstaining from sexual behavior.

    Lust, he says, gets in the way of everything, including his relationship with his wife. To root it out, you have to not just abstain from sex but learn to control your other senses, too, reining them in instead of indulging them.

    Questions About Lust

    1. What does brahmacharya mean? What plays into it in addition to giving up sex?
    2. What seems to inspire Gandhi to give up sex? Tell the story of what happens when his father is dying.
    3. Contrast Gandhi's views on sex, the senses, and the passions with those of the Romantics. What advantages and disadvantages might each perspective offer?

    Chew on This

    People should give up sex to get closer to God.

    Giving up sex isn't necessary for living an idealistic life.