Minimalists in History: Mahatma Gandhi


“Gandhi believed so fervently in the life of the spirit that he had only a handful of material possessions when he died – a watch, sandals, spectacles, and a few similar items.”

– Arvind Sharma in Gandhi: A Spiritual Autobiography

Most people know Mahatma Gandhi successfully led the nonviolent Indian nationalist movement against British rule. You might not, however, realize Gandhi was a minimalist.

Though his family was wealthy and he became a lawyer, he chose to give up his material possessions to live for the spirit. He also wanted to live in community with the poor of India. He believed we should “live simply that others may simply live.”

“If each retained possession of only what he needed, no one would be in want, and all would live in contentment. As it is, the rich are discontented no less than the poor.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

Of course, Gandhi didn’t expect perfection from us, just that we do our best.

Perfect fulfillment of the ideal of non-possession requires that man should, like the birds, have no roof over his head, no clothing and no stock of food for the morrow. He will indeed need his daily bread, but it will be God’s business, and not his, to provide it. Only the fewest possible, if any at all, can reach this ideal.

We ordinary seekers may not be repelled by the seeming impossibility. But we must keep the ideal constantly in view, and in the light thereof, critically examine our possessions and try to reduce them.

Civilization, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants. This alone promotes real happiness and contentment, and increases the capacity for service.

Gandhi also said, “If instead of supposing that we must become hermits and dwellers in caves in order to practice simplicity, we set about simplifying our affairs, each according to his own convictions and opportunity, much good will result and the simple life will at once be established.”

“I do feel that spiritual progress does demand, at some stage, that we should cease to kill our fellow creatures for the satisfaction of our bodily wants.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi ate a simple vegetarian diet. He also ate sparingly and regularly fasted (aside from his long political fasts).

He believed vegetarianism is ethically required for the sake of the animals, saying, “To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being.”

But this was not his only reason for being a vegetarian. He also chose not to eat meat because so many cannot afford it. “If we are to be nonviolent,” he said, “we must then not wish for anything on this earth which even the meanest or the lowest of human beings cannot have.”

Further, for Gandhi, a proper diet was an important part of self-restraint, a first step in curbing our animal passions. He believed we should eat as means of survival instead of for pleasure.

“The wearing of khadi [hand-spun, hand-woven cloth] replaces the conventional idea of wearing clothes for ornament by that of wearing them for use.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

Winston Churchill famously said about Gandhi that it was “alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace. . . .”

Although when younger, Gandhi wore upper-class Indian clothing and European clothing, he eventually chose to wear only the traditional Indian dhoti and shawl.

Gandhi explained, “In India several millions wear only a loin cloth. That is why I wear a loin cloth myself. They call me half-naked. I do it deliberately to identify myself with the poorest poor in India.”

Even when traveling to the much cooler England, Gandhi wore his dhoti and shawl. There’s an anecdote about Gandhi meeting the King in London dressed this way. It’s claimed that when a journalist asked Gandhi if he felt under-dressed when he met the King,” Gandhi replied, “The King was wearing enough clothes for both of us!”

Living like Mahatma Gandhi

If you want to try living like Gandhi, you may want to visit this new tourist attraction in Ahmedabad, India. For $16 a night, you can stay at the first ashram he established, wear hand-woven cloth and adhere to Gandhi’s 11 vows.

I can’t imagine that Gandhi, who said, “Everybody is eager to garland my photos and statues, but nobody wants to follow my advice,” would approve of people doing this instead of trying to make a difference in the world.

However, we can hope that some of the tourists may, by their experience, be inspired to live more simply and to help others.

16 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: Mahatma Gandhi

  1. Christy, I love reading your minimalists in History series, and this one is fantastic. Gandhi was such an inspiring person. To make a choice to give up wealth and live as those less fortunate is a hard thing to ask of most and he did it willingly. As I read this I was looking around at my tiny apartment and thinking how I have so much, little compared to most but I could still get rid of more and not find myself without the basic needs. Yet am judged crazy by many for choosing to live as I do and I didn’t make as huge a change as Gandhi did.

    • Thanks, Lois. I think about this quite a bit, too. It seems that, today, not acquiring as much as possible does tend to be seen as crazy. It’s a sad when valuing family and friends more than “stuff” is seen as nuts.

      • Isn’t it? I lost a few friends when I moved to my studio apartment. They felt threatened, I guess is the best word, by my rejection of the way they live. Thing is while I would love to see more people having to work less and having more free time by simplifying their lives to just what they need, not everyone is ready to do that and I was not making judgements when I moved. This was just a natural progression of who I already was. I never did live in a large home or enjoy shopping so their reactions took me by complete surprise.

        • Sorry – for some reason your comment got caught in the spam filter and I just saw it. Anyway, you’re probably right that they feel threatened. They may feel judged or they may even realize somewhere deep down that all their stuff isn’t making them happy either.

          • I came to a similar conclusion, I believe seeing me happy with little had them questioning their own happiness.

            Don’t worry about it, I have to check my spam folder often as some comments end up there as well.

        • Wow, Lois. I was going to say I couldn’t believe that you lost friends over living the life you wanted, but I believe it. As we simplify, we are finding some resistance and little comments. Oh well, we only get one life (that I know of!), and I’m afraid we’re just going to have to keep on living it!

          • Tammy, please don’t let me scare you off from continuing. The number of friends I lost was minimal to the number of new people I have met and the friendships I have formed with them. Looking back I always felt a bit out of things. When my friends talked about their spending I would smile and show an appreciation for the things they bought, sometimes it was faked. I didn’t shop, I didn’t live an extravagant lifestyle and as a result when I heard my friends complain about the hours they needed to work to pay the bills in my head I would be thinking about the hundreds they just spend on this week’s trip to the mall. I kept those opinions to myself as I knew they would be offensive to my friends, and in every other way such as feelings about family or love of nature we were similar.

            Instead, now my friends have those same things in common plus a dislike of consumerism. We have more in common and it’s nice to be able to just be myself, even open my mouth without worrying about offending anyone with my opinions.

            I guess what I am saying is that while you may lose some friends or the relationships may change, by following what feels right to you, you will find the life and friends that fulfill you.

          • I really appreciate your thoughtful comment, Lois. What I am amazed by is how far we’ve come over the 16 years we’ve been married. One of the comments I frequently utter some version of is, “What were we thinking?” I think that the learning process has been rewarding, trying, and fulfilling. I’m not sure where we could be if we’d started this process all those years ago, but I really am glad we are doing it now.

            Thank you so much.

  2. Hi Christy, Wonderful article. I love Ghandi’s ““live simply that others may simply live.” There are various reasons that people choose simple living, but I thinks that Ghandi’s reason is the most important one. Cheers!

    • I agree. Related to the quote by Gandhi you mention is the Advent Conspiracy, which I think is a wonderful whether or not you’re Christian or even religious. I heard of it only recently, but the gist is to avoid getting sucked into Christmas consumerism and give some of the money you save to help others who really need it (like people who don’t have clean drinking water).

    • Thanks. I only knew the basics until recently when I decided to learn more. Watched the movie and read a couple of books. Not much of it on point for this post, but fascinating.

  3. Christy, I really appreciate your depth in this article. I learned many things I did not know. While I do not think I will be visiting this ashram, I do aspire to live very simply. I hope you’re enjoying your week.

    • Thanks, Tammy, I’ve had a wonderful week with Thanksgiving and my husband’s birthday – and beautiful weather. Hope you’re well too.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.