“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.