Skip to content

Embodying social change: Mahatma Gandhi and decolonization of the body

By Teresa Joseph

Mahatma Gandhi had a wide range of methods to communicate his message. While he devoted considerable attention to writing and speaking on different aspects of the body, he also made use of it as a mode of communication and resistance. This article discusses Gandhi’s thoughts on the body which provide yet another entry point to understanding him, as well as his engagement with the body to communicate his message to the Empire as well as to the people of the subcontinent.

Gandhi’s Thoughts on the Body

Western thinkers generally conceptualised human beings as being made up of the body and the mind, and to some the soul also. But Gandhi perceived mankind to be four dimensional in nature. The body was the source of the notion that each human being was self-contained, and only externally and contingently related to others. It was also the seat of the senses and its associated desires, which had no restraint. The mind (manas) was closely linked to the body, although distinct from it. It was primarily an instrument of knowledge and action. The body and the soul represented two extreme points of orientation, but the mind was drawn to both. Whether the mind was more inclined to the body or the soul, depended on the personality (swabhava) of the individual (Parekh: 1997).

Gandhi felt that the body belonged to God and that one should not think of the body as one’s own. Human beings were only trustees of the body rather than its owners. While an owner may abuse or misuse his property, a trustee has to make the best use of the property left to his care. His advice was that it was one’s duty to take such care of the body as to enable it to serve society to the best of its ability.

However, he felt that modern Western civilisation prioritised material possessions and consumption. As he elaborates in Hind Swaraj, no importance was given to self-discipline or moral regulation of desires.

Health and Hygiene

Gandhi’s views on health need to be seen in the larger context of his worldview, his notions of swaraj, swadeshi and sarvodaya. Hind Swaraj also included a strident critique of modern medicine and doctors. Gandhi argued that doctors among others, were responsible for impoverishing the people. Doctors only treat the disease, without paying attention to their prevention, while hospitals only made men take less care of their bodies (Gandhi 1939: 51). To Gandhi, the human body was a perfect machine which could set itself right without medicine, as long as it was given the chance to adjust itself. All that was required was to live according to the laws of nature. The cure of ailments must therefore largely be through self-discipline.

Gandhi advocated a preventive health care system in which the needs of the poor came first. He called upon all those who were in the medical profession to think in terms of the thousands of villages of India. He was vociferous that the true function of the medical profession was “not to prescribe cures… but to prevent illness by teaching the people to observe the rules of health” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi – hereinafter referred to as CW, Vol. 88: 24).

Gandhi wrote extensively on health, diet and hygiene in all the journals that he was associated with, as well as in his autobiography and his book, Key to Health. He wrote a series of 34 articles in Indian Opinion in 1913, titled “General Knowledge About Health”. He also spoke extensively on related issues in the belief that generating awareness on health was the key to preventing ailments. At the same time, he acknowledged that his love of nature cure and of indigenous systems did not blind him to the advances that Western medicine had made or to the fact that nature cure cannot cure all diseases.

Gandhi also broke all existing social norms when he personally took care of leprosy patients and those afflicted by plague. Nursing the ill was a passion for him, particularly when it came to patients ostracised by society due to the stigma of ailments.

Colonial notions of hygiene and its emphasis on the unhygienic conditions of living of the colonized were again matters of concern for Gandhi. He made extensive efforts to generate awareness on hygienic practices. Through the Indian Opinion, he drew the attention of the Indian community in South Africa to the fact that their struggle against racial discrimination could be successful only if they overcame their own weaknesses, which included their lack of hygiene. At the same time, he also sought to dispel the colonial notions of ‘uncivilized’, ‘unhygienic’, and ‘barbarians’ as the inferior ‘other’.

Self-restraint and Sexuality

Gandhi (1955: 5) revealed that he had “learnt in the school of experience that brahmacharya was a sine qua non for a life devoted to service.” Erik Erikson (1970) relates Gandhi’s views on sexuality and sexual relations to his feelings of guilt about fulfilling his sexual needs at the time of the demise of his father. It led to the belief that he would not be able to serve humanity if he were engaged in the pleasures of family life. He further argued that sexual restraint was necessary even among married couples, except if it was for purposes of procreation. Although he opposed any artificial methods of birth control, he later acceded to sexual relations during safe periods, as it had some element of self-control.

However, he did not see brahmacharya as mere abstention from sexual intercourse, but as complete mastery or restraint of all the senses. He felt that it played an essential part in the project of swaraj, as it would leave the mind and body free for the service of the nation. One needs to keep in mind that swaraj for Gandhi meant not merely political independence, but also individual self-control, the latter being a necessity for the former.

Gandhi lived his private life in public view, without any hesitation in writing about his bodily experiments. Kishwar (1985: 1755) points out that Gandhi literally tried to “transcend his sexuality and to make it contribute to forging the powerful, modern political weapon of satyagraha.” The experiments with his body in the later years of his life, when he sought to cleanse himself of all sensual desires, continue to be highly controversial.

Of Gendered Bodies

Gandhi fought strongly to end various forms of violence against women such as female infanticide, sati, dowry system, child marriage, purdah system and so on. He also advocated women’s rights to equality of education, property, franchise, widow remarriage, etc. He was also instrumental in bringing women into the public sphere and the freedom movement. Yet, even while encouraging women to participate in the struggle for swaraj, Gandhi interlinked it with his notions of purity and sexuality, constructing images of the ideal woman or satyagrahi. In his speeches to women’s organisations and gatherings he called upon women to imitate Sita’s virtues – particularly that of purity of the mind and body. He argued that if a woman was self-controlled and pure in mind, the violation of her virtue would be impossible. He believed that if women had the courage, they would be ready to die to save their honour. In fact, he advised women to defend themselves even by committing suicide if they could. He also expressed his displeasure at sex workers or “fallen sisters” joining the Congress, while living a “life of shame.”

It is interesting that as Hyslop (2011) points out, unlike other anti-colonial leaders, who attempted to portray themselves as masculine, modern, and often militaristic, Gandhi presented the image of his body that played on the British stereotype of the weak and feminised Hindu. Through his physicality and teaching, he challenged the coloniser’s notion of gendered identity, and affirmed complex indigenous forms of masculinity/feminity and ambiguity, and a new form of strength, that of the satyagrahi. Gandhi cultivated a feminine image of himself. This was evident in the images of him at the spinning wheel, his body postures and actions often being identified as feminine. He in fact expressed the desire to become a “complete woman.” He wrote that he had “mentally become a woman in order to steal into her heart.” His passion for nursing and depicting an image of motherliness also reflected this desire. His insistence on all Congressmen spinning every day was a radical step towards breaking existing gender stereotypes, as until then spinning was generally considered to be a woman’s occupation.

Social Change Through Body Practices

Western societies at that point of time viewed the naked body or the lack of clothing to be a reflection of the uncivilised. This was particularly true of the British Empire with its prevailing Victorian notions of culture. Scalmer (2011) elaborates that the colonisers looked at the body and its clothing as a means of distinguishing difference and superiority. By the 19th century, many of the colonial leaders had adopted the Western mode of clothing, or the general sartorial sense that it reflected.

In his early years, particularly while studying in London and the initial years of his stay in South Africa, Gandhi also shared a similar perspective of the body and clothing. He describes in his autobiography, his attempts to become an English gentleman, as was evident from his clothing among other things. Furthermore, during his first few years in South Africa, he not only referred to the Black South Africans as Kaffirs, a derogatory usage, but also to their state of undress. Discussing the grievances of the Indians in South Africa, he pointed out that the Europeans desired “to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir” who passes “his life in indolence and nakedness….” (italics added; CW 2: 53). This perspective however witnessed a visible change over the years.

Gandhi’s reading of John Ruskin’s Unto This Last in 1904 had a major impact on his life and thought. He identified with Ruskin on the need to mould one’s social behaviour (among other things) in empathy with the most disadvantaged of society. He gave up his formal Western clothing and adopted a more casual style of dressing. As Hyslop (2011) points out, this was a statement of egalitarianism but not indigenity. He first appeared in the traditional Indian dress during the satyagraha campaign of 1913, projecting his bodily appearance into the public arena as a political statement. The change in his views on the body was clearly evident by this time.  He felt that that it was “wrong to think that the nude body is ugly. The finest pictures we see are of the naked body.” He was also critical of the notion that “it is best for us to put on European dress, that it is more impressive and wins us greater respect from people” (CW12: 38-9). While he urged all Indians to dress only in khadi, on understanding the reality that a majority of them were not able to afford it, he reduced his clothing to the dhoti (or loin cloth) alone, in solidarity with them.

In 1931, Gandhi made his fifth visit to England, but this was his first visit in a dhoti, despite the cold English weather. The Empire’s response to Gandhi’s clothing or rather the lack of it, is most aptly reflected in the oft quoted statement by Winston Churchill that it was “alarming” and “nauseating” to see Gandhi “a seditious” lawyer, “now posing as a fakir,” “striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace… to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.” It was not merely Gandhi’s body, but its display that disturbed the eyes of the Empire. Through the colonial lens, Gandhi was an ‘Oriental’. But through his mode of dress/undress and denunciation of the cultural values of the Empire, Gandhi challenged the Western notion of its civilising mission.

He explained to a journalist: “They call me half-naked. I do it deliberately in order to identify myself with the poorest of the poor in India” (CW 48: 26). He referred to the loin cloth as the dress of his principles and a symbol of his mission. His bare body and the loin cloth reflected his philosophy of minimalism, the excesses of modern civilisation, together with his notions of swadeshi, swaraj and sarvodaya. His new clothing system also signified the freedom from colonial sartorial values with its inherent sense of superiority.

Fasting, silence and walking were other facets of Gandhi’s bodily modes of communication. He felt that human actions were based on “both the head and the heart” and therefore in order to shake people out of their complacency on vital issues, speeches and writings alone were insufficient. One had to touch the hearts and conscience of the people (Parekh 2005). He saw his fasts as forms of self-sacrifice – a method of satyagraha to bring about social change, rather than as means of coercion, or forms of moral or emotional blackmail. Gandhi also felt that silence was part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth and observed silence every Monday for introspection. On several occasions he went on silence for longer periods. He made walking also a symbolic practice. His padayatras or walking pilgrimages were a nonviolent way of demonstrating and mobilising support against injustice. The longest, most symbolic and intensely impactful of such padayatras that he undertook was the Dandi march to pick salt from the seashore in 1930 in violation of the orders of the Empire. The entire exercise played a major role in shaping international public opinion on the struggle for freedom in India.


The evolution of Gandhi’s life reflects a transformation in his thoughts and practices, which is also evident in his engagement with the body. Gandhi’s engagement with the body and body practices came to be an integral part of his project of swaraj, swadeshi and sarvodaya. Notwithstanding the criticisms and reservations to his perspectives on these issues, his challenge to the existing colonial hegemonic notions of masculinity, clothing, health, hygiene and sexuality were without doubt reflected in his own body practices and writings. He decolonised his body and introduced it into the body politic, as an integral part of his larger philosophy and world view.


Erikson, Erik H. Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence. London: Faber and Faber, 1970.

Gandhi, M. K. An Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1927.

——— Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1939.

——— Key to Health. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1948.

———Ashram Observances in Action. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1955.

______ The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CW) Vol.1-98, (1969-94). New Delhi: Publications Division, Government of India.

Gonsalves, Peter. Clothing for Liberation: A Communication Analysis of Gandhi’s Swadeshi Revolution. New Delhi: Sage, 2010.

Hyslop, Jonathan. “Gandhi 1869-1915: The Transnational Emergence of a Public Figure” in Judith M. Brown and Anthony Parel (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Gandhi. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. 30-50.

Parekh, Bikhu. Gandhi: A Very Short Introduction. New Delhi: Oxford, 1997.

Scalmer, Sean. Gandhi in the West: The Mahatma and the Rise of Radical Protest. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Dr. Teresa Joseph is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Alphonsa College, Pala, Kerala. She is the author of Mahatma Gandhi and Mass Media: Mediating Conflict and Social Change (2021), published by Routledge.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: