Gandhi’s Experiments with Truth
by Frank Woolever

Editor’s Note: Mohandas Gandhi, recognized as Mahatma (Great Soul) by the people in India, has been acknowledged as an apostle of nonviolence by people of all cultures and creeds around the world. This article is the first of a two-part series that will share some of the reasons for his relevance among advocates of a peaceful world. We hope to continue this series featuring other activists or movements who inspire us in our work for peace and social justice. The PNL welcomes reader submissions of one page on this topic. Please contact Jessica for more information.
Frank speaking during an SPC rally against the war on Iraq at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church. Photo: Andy Mager

Last autumn, the United Nations General Assembly decided to observe the second day of October each year as the International Day of Non Violence. This was the birthday of Mohandas Gandhi, who is credited with leading India to independence, and with inspiring movements for civil rights and freedom throughout the world. Gandhi was given the honorary title, “Mahatma” (Great Soul) by the poet laureate of India, because of his work in South Africa. In both South Africa and India he organized resistance against British colonial rule, endured trials in his relationships within his own family, and exercised self discipline upon himself. Throughout his life, Gandhi’s experiments with truth came at a great personal price, including his eventual assassination in 1948.

For those of us who seek to be part of the peace movement today, it is instructive to examine dimensions of the life of this revered little man, whose watchwords were simplicity, frugality and self-reliance.

When India won its independence from Britain in 1947, Gandhi was deeply disappointed at the decision to split off the northern part of India into a separate country, Pakistan. The violence that immediately followed this abrupt transition justified his concern. As a Hindu, Gandhi had spent his entire adult life promoting harmony, understanding, and nonviolence between Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi gave us a model for the respect of all religious beliefs, the encouragement to study other religions and take from them core truths, without sacrificing one’s own religious roots. Is that not a lesson for ourselves today?

It was in South Africa that Gandhi’s experiment with truth led him to establish his first farm community. It was an impulsive action, coming almost immediately after reading the book, Unto This Last, on an overnight train. Written by John Ruskin, the book addressed the pervasive materialism and unwholesome competition in 19th century England. The author stressed the dignity of human labor, including the working with one’s hands. Gandhi took that very seriously! Up to that time, Gandhi’s successful legal practice had helped subsidize a printing press, which published his writings in the weekly Indian Opinion. With the move to Phoenix Farm, the printing press went along too. As much as possible, Gandhi participated in the daily work of farm life, although soon after its establishment, he began concentrating on civil rights issues. Gandhi perceived the implications of unjust restrictive legislation aimed mainly at the Indian population. He took up the cause of Indian farmers in the Transvaal province, and eventually handed over his legal practice to his colleagues.  The pressure on Indians within this British colony increased; another farm was organized by Gandhi nearer to Johannesburg on property lent by a Jewish supporter. It was named Tolstoy Farm, because of Gandhi’s admiration of Leo Tolstoy, with whom he corresponded for two years, prior to Tolstoy’s death.

This second farm became an ashram with early morning and evening communal prayers added to the daily work routine. Rules were very strict, including prohibitions on smoking, drinking, drugs, and sexual activity. Even so, the community continued to grow, with members from several religious backgrounds including Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. A school was established for the children in the community. Except for occasional meat served to Muslim members, the diet consisted of vegetarian dishes. The inspiration for some of the structure and communal rules came from Gandhi’s visit to a Trappist monastery in Natal, where he was impressed by the monks’ work, prayer and silence.

It was at Tolstoy Farm that the concept of Satyagraha (Truth Force) was conceived to give a positive name to the passive resistance that was emerging as a protest to the Indian Relief Bill. These “Black Laws”, as they were commonly called, required special Indian registration, imposed a three pound tax on even the poorest of Indians, restricted Indian movement between provinces, and initially nullified marriages that had not been performed in a Christian ceremony. The concept of civil disobedience became established, with Gandhi modeling his willingness to go to prison to overturn these draconian regulations. While the marriage restriction was quickly rescinded, the struggle over other dimensions of the odious legislation continued. Jails and prisons were filled beyond capacity with Indian prisoners. In one year alone, Gandhi or one of his sons were arrested eight times. As the issue extended over a five year period, members of Gandhi’s immediate family had served a total of 18 jail terms. While Gandhi’s experiments with truth were not always easy for his wife Kasturba, to accept, she came to appreciate and honor most of them. She served several jail terms for civil disobedience herself. In his lifetime Mahatma Gandhi admitted many mistakes. The concept of Satyagraha, truth or soul force, was not one of them!


Frank, a longtime advocate of nonviolence, spoke on Gandhi in the fall of 2007 as part of the University Neighbor Lecture Series.