Gandhi on Education for Truthful Living

by Devi Prasad

Schoolchildren dressing as Gandhi to commemorate his 146th birthday; courtesy

Editor’s Preface: This previously unpublished essay by Devi Prasad is another in our series from the IISG archive, Amsterdam. It is well to bear in mind that Prasad lived as a child at Tagore’s school, discussed in the article, and that he was later asked by Gandhi to teach in one of his ashrams. His knowledge of Gandhi’s education system, therefore, was uniquely first-hand. Please consult the notes at the end for archival reference, acknowledgments, and biographical information. JG

At the centre of Gandhi’s many concerns about social and political issues, there are two things that remained consistently predominant throughout his life. Firstly, a revolt against the education system that was given to, nay, imposed upon India by the colonial rule; and secondly, a powerful urge to find an appropriate approach and method of imparting education to all the children and adults of the country.

From his own experience Gandhi had learnt, fairly early on, that the colonial education system had no scruples about truthful living. It did not hesitate in teaching its pupils corruption and competition for the sake of performance and careerism. An experience described by Gandhi in his Autobiography should be enough to show how he must have come to dislike the system.

“There is an incident which occurred at the examination during my first year at the high school and which is worth recording. Mr. Giles, the Educational Inspector, had come on a visit of inspection. He had set us five words to write as a spelling exercise. One of the words was ‘kettle’. I had misspelled it. The teacher tried to prompt me with the point of his boot, I would not be prompted. It was beyond me to see that he wanted me to copy the spelling from my neighbour’s slate, for I had thought that the teacher was there to supervise us against copying. The result was that all the boys, except myself, were found to have spelt every word correctly. Only I had been stupid. The teacher tried later to bring this stupidity home to me, but without effect. I never could learn the art of copying.”

Moreover, that system of education had no connection with the life of the community — not even with the life of the child concerned, no less the important human values, which build the character of the individual. The contents of the history or geography, or for that matter any subject the school taught, were alien to the child’s world. Speaking about school books Gandhi once said:

“There seems to me to be no doubt that in the public schools the books used, especially for children, are for the most part useless when they are not harmful. That many of them are cleverly written cannot be denied. They might even be the best for the people and the environment for which they are written. But they are not written for Indian boys and girls, not for the Indian environment. When they are so written, they are generally undigested imitations hardly answering the wants of the scholars.”

The point that Gandhi makes is that real education should draw out the best from the child. It cannot be done “by packing ill-assorted and unwanted information into the heads of the pupils. It becomes a dead weight crushing all originality in them and turning them into mere automata.” And significantly, Gandhi states that if Indians had not been the victims of the British Indian education system, “we would long ago have realized the mischief wrought by the modern method of giving mass education, especially in the case like India’s.”

Furthermore, and most importantly, was the question of the medium of instruction, the teaching in and of the English language. The British surely had a purpose in building a new school system. Lord William Bentick, who was then Governor-General, decided in 1835 that, “The great object of the British Government ought to be the promotion of European literature and science among the Natives of India.” A committee was formed under the presidency of Lord Macaulay, who said:

“Our English schools are flourishing wonderfully. We find it difficult — indeed in some places impossible — to provide instruction for all who want it. At the town of Hoogly fourteen hundred boys are learning English. The effect of the education on the Hindoos is prodigious. No Hindoo who has received an English education ever remains sincerely attached to his religion. Some continue to profess it as a matter of policy; but many profess themselves pure deists, and some embrace Christianity. It is my firm belief, that if our plans of education are followed up, there will not be a single idolater among the respectable classes of Bengal thirty years hence. And this will be effected without any efforts to proselytize, without the smallest interference with religious liberty; merely by the natural operations of knowledge and reflection. I heartily rejoice in the prospect.”

Nearly a hundred years after the above statement was made, Gandhi’s comment on it was:

“I do not know whether Macaulay’s dream that English Educated India would abandon its religious belief has been realized. But we know too that he had another dream, namely to supply through English-educated India clerks and the like for the English rulers. That dream has certainly been realized beyond all expectation.”

Gandhi’s most outspoken and systematic critique of modern “civilization” was written by him in the form of questions and answers, under the title Hind Swaraj in 1908. On education he says:

“The ordinary meaning of education is a knowledge of letters. To teach boys reading, writing and arithmetic is called primary education. A peasant earns his bread honestly. He has ordinary knowledge of the world. He knows fairly well how he should behave towards his parents, his wife, his children and his fellow villagers. He understands and observes the rules of morality. But he cannot write his own name. What do you propose to do by giving him a knowledge of letters? Will you add an inch to his happiness? Do you wish to make him discontented with his cottage or his lot? And even if you want to do that, he will not need such an education. Carried away by the flood of Western thought we came to the conclusion, without weighing pros and cons, that we should give this kind of education to the people.”

To a question whether he considered English education necessary for obtaining Home Rule, the answer was:

“To give millions a knowledge of English is to enslave them. The foundation that Macaulay laid has enslaved us . . . It is worth noting that, by receiving English education, we have enslaved the nation. Hypocrisy, and tyranny have increased; English-knowing Indians have not hesitated to cheat and strike terror into the people.”

The urge to find a new approach and method of imparting the “right kind” of education, therefore, was another feature of Gandhi’s action oriented life, and remained a priority all his life. It was not a theoretical problem for him. Nor was education only a national cause. He was concerned about it as a parent too. When you have your own children and the children of your life-long colleagues and relatives in your care, all needing to be educated, what do you do if the school system available is not to your liking, especially if you consider the current (colonial) system to be mis-education? The only positive answer to this dilemma is that you start your own school! Gandhi’s situation was not unique in this matter. Many a social and educational reformer has had to face the same kind of situation. In India, almost within the same decade, Rabindranath Tagore founded his own school.

Tagore’s Santiniketan

Tagore hated school as a child. Describing his experience of the classroom he wrote:

“The rooms were cruelly dismal with their walls on guard like policemen. The house was more like a pigeonhole box than a human habitation. No decoration, no pictures, not a touch of colour, not an attempt to attract the boyish heart. The fact that likes and dislikes form a large part of the child’s mind was completely ignored. Naturally our whole being was depressed as we stepped through its doorway into the narrow quadrangle — and playing truant became chronic with us.”

Again about his boyhood days he wrote: “Some people get hammered into shape in the book-learning factories and these are considered in the market to be goods of a superior stamp.”

Although Tagore wrote this in the  early twentieth century it is ever applicable to educational systems. From the very beginning information is forced into the brains of children in such a way that they are totally alienated from the realities of life and from nature.

“We rob the child of his earth to teach him geography, of language to teach him grammar. His hunger is for epic, but he is supplied with chronicles of facts and ideas. He was born in the human world, but he is banished into the world of living gramophones, to expiate for the original sin of being born in ignorance. Child-nature protests against such calamity with all its power of suffering, subdued at last into silence by punishment.”

Pressured by the inner need to provide education to his own and some of his relativeschildren, and inspired by the Vedic tradition of forest schools, Tagore started a school in a remote lonely place near Bolpur in the Indian state of Bengal. He did not choose the place. His father had built it as an ashram, with a hall for worship. It was an ideal place for the school Tagore had in mind, and he called it Santiniketan, that is, abode of peace. It was an effort to find a living answer to the educational need of not only India but the whole world.  After all, the world was heading towards mutual hatred between nations, and between various racial groups. It was a world in which greed was creating exploitation rather than harmony.

In Santiniketan the major emphasis was on teaching the mother tongue as the medium of instruction, and on creative activities such as the arts and crafts, as a means to living in harmony with nature. Santiniketan became the forerunner of a new modern philosophy and methodology of education. It has been the inspiration for several educational experiments in many parts of the world. Tagore’s immediate need was the education of his own children, but the school grew into a community of children, young and old men and women receiving guidance from someone who “felt that living one’s own life in truth is living the life of all the world.”

Gandhi’s Education Experiments in South Africa

Almost at the same time in history, but five thousand or so miles away beyond the Indian Ocean, in South Africa, Gandhi was struggling in a somewhat similar manner. In his Autobiography he wrote:

“When I landed at Durban in January 1897, I had three children with me. My sister’s son aged 10, and my own sons aged 9 and 6. Where was I to educate them? . . . I could have sent them to the schools for European children, but only as a matter of favour and exception. For no other Indian children would be allowed. For these there were schools established by Christian missions, but I was not prepared to send my children there, as I did not like the education imparted in those schools. For one thing, the medium of instruction there would be only English, or perhaps incorrect Tamil or Hindi, which too could be arranged not without difficulty. I could not possibly put up with this and other disadvantages. I was making my own attempt to teach them but that was at best irregular and I could not get hold of a suitable Gujarati teacher . . . I was at my wit’s end. I advertised for an English teacher who would teach the children under my direction. Some regular instruction was to be given by this teacher and for the rest they should be satisfied with what little I could give them irregularly. So I engaged an English governess on £7 a month. This went on for some time but not to my satisfaction.”

The struggle continued, and it seems clear that despite his total rejection of the system he had not any clear idea as to what, and more importantly how to go about the task. However, he knew that there was a task to fulfil, and he was clear about the values he wanted to inculcate in his children. In the same chapter of the Autobiography he says:

“Had I been blind to a sense of self-respect, and allowed myself to be satisfied by having for my children the education that other children could not get, I should have deprived them of the object-lesson in liberty and self-respect that I gave them at the cost of the literary training. And where a choice has to be made between liberty and learning, who will not say that the former has to be preferred a thousand times to the latter?”

The need for providing education for boys and girls grew with the growth of Gandhi’s ashram, Tolstoy Farm. There were now Hindu, Muslim, Parsi and Christian boys and some Hindu girls. The farm community could not afford, or even think of paying high wages to qualified teachers, who anyway were scarce and would not be prepared to go to a place as far as 21 miles from Johannesburg. At the same time, Gandhi knew that the kind of education the so-called qualified teachers were capable of giving was not what he was looking for “I did not believe in the existing system of education, and I had a mind to find out by experience and experiment the true system.”

The passion with which he set to find out the true system by experience and experiment can be witnessed from the chapters in part four of his Autobiography, dealing with the education of the children at Tolstoy farm. The keynote behind his thoughts on education at that time was: “Our ancient school system is enough. Character building has the first place in it and that is primary education. A building erected on that foundation will last.” He was not yet near to the true system which could be offered for wider application. What he knew and was fully convinced about was that if education does not help in building a character based on moral values and certain individual qualities, it was bad education. Therefore in conducting the schooling of the children of the Tolstoy farm he put the greatest stress on “the culture of the heart or building of character.” He was confident that moral training could be given to all alike, no matter how different their ages and their upbringing. He decided to live amongst them all the twenty-four hours of the day as their father. He also believed that if the foundations of education were firmly laid on the ideals of character-building the children would learn all the other things themselves or with the assistance of friends.

Physical training was not underrated. This the children got in the course of their daily routine. There were no servants on the farm, so all the work, from cooking down to scavenging, was done by the members. There were some fruit trees, which were also looked after by the children under the guidance of those with experience. Similarly, vocational training also became an essential part of the educational programme. The intention was to teach youngsters some useful manual vocation. One of the colleagues of Gandhi went to a Trappist monastery and learnt shoemaking, another carpentry. And then taught classes in shoemaking and carpentry. Cooking, of course, every youngster learnt. An important feature of the teaching tradition was the rule that the youngsters should not be asked to do what the teachers did not do, and therefore, when they were asked to do any work, there was always a teacher cooperating and actually working with them.

But Gandhi, it seems, was ambivalent about, what he called, literary training.

“I had neither the resources nor the literary equipment necessary; and I had not the time I would have wished to devote to the subject. The physical work that I was doing used to leave me thoroughly exhausted at the end of the day, and I used to have the classes just when I was most in need of some rest. Instead, therefore, of my being fresh for the class, I could with the greatest difficulty keep myself awake. The morning had to be devoted to work on the farm and domestic duties, so the school hours had to be kept after the midday meal. There was no other time suitable for the school.”

Readers, please note that ‘work’ and ‘school’ were still two separate items in his educational scheme. We shall come back to this point later.

However, it should be noted that, as he did appreciate the necessity of a literary training, classes in the mother tongues of the children were conducted with whatever resources and skills available.

“These youngsters were for the most part unlettered and unschooled. But I found in the course of my work, that I had very little to teach them, beyond weaning them from their laziness, and supervising their studies. As I was content with this, I could put all the boys of different ages and learning different subjects in one and the same classroom.”

The question of spiritual training, Gandhi says was a much more difficult matter than physical and mental training. He did not rely on religious books. Nevertheless, he believed that every student should be acquainted with the elements of his own religion and have a general knowledge of his own scriptures. Again, he emphasized character building.

“To develop the spirit is to build character and to enable one to work towards a knowledge of God and self-realization . . . As I came into closer contact with them (children) I saw that it was not through books that one could impart training of the spirit. Just as physical training was to be imparted through physical exercise, and intellectual through intellectual exercise, even so the training of the spirit was possible only through the exercise of the spirit. And the exercise of the spirit entirely depended on the life and character of the teacher. The teacher had always to be mindful of his p’s and q’s, whether he was in the midst of his boys or not.”

On punishment Gandhi had a clear-cut opinion. “I have always been opposed to corporal punishment.” He remembered only one occasion at which he gave such punishment to one of his sons. He was never sure of the right or wrong of this act of his. Yet, he was more inclined to consider it to be a wrong thing to do. “Probably it was improper, for it was prompted by anger and a desire to punish. Had it been an expression only of my distress, I should have considered it justified. But the motive in this case was mixed.”

Gandhi’s Evolution as an Educator

One of the objectives of this paper is to show how gradually Gandhi’s growth as an educator took place and how individual events and experiences turned into experiments in the search for a “true system”. The incident mentioned above set him thinking about the question of punishment and how to correct a student’s mistakes. No doubt, where there are people living and learning together, particularly youngsters, there are bound to be cases of misconduct. His conclusion was that for the lapses on the part of the pupils, the teacher was responsible, at least to some extent. Therefore, in order to correct the pupils it was important that the teacher should shoulder the responsibility for any lapses and impose self-punishment rather than punish the pupil who is really a victim of circumstances. There were instances in which, to “punish” students Gandhi fasted for several days. Yet at the same time he warned teachers about being attracted by this technique.

“It is not my purpose to make out from these incidents that it is the duty of a teacher to resort to fasting whenever there is a delinquency on the part of his pupils. I hold, however, that some occasions do call for this drastic remedy. But it presupposes clearness of vision and spiritual fitness. Where there is no true love between the teacher and the pupils, where the pupil’s delinquency has not touched the very being of the teacher and where the pupil has no respect for the teacher, fasting is out of place and may even be harmful. Though there is thus room for doubting the propriety of fast in such cases, there is no question about the teacher’s responsibility for the errors of his pupils.”

Although this is not an occasion to go into the psychoanalytical explanation or critique of such a method of changing behaviour, i.e. by producing the element of guilt in the “culprit”, it will be appropriate to ask whether in a relationship of mutual trust an act of penance, such as mentioned above, by a teacher would necessarily create guilt, or would it set the pupil thinking about the intention of the teacher, and reflect on what had happened and what actually was involved in the issue?

The conclusion that can be drawn is that Gandhi’s educational experiments and experiences had not yet reached a stage that can be considered as a system as such. He dealt in a fragmented way with those aspects of an individual’s educational needs that he felt were of the highest priority. However, the emphasis he put on spiritual training and character building on the one hand and dignity of manual labour on the other, was the central feature of his system of weaving various values and skills into an integral process.

Gandhi’s Schools in India

Gandhi returned to India in 1914. He was no longer in the experimental situation of South Africa. India had been awakened and made conscious of its identity. Very soon he found himself totally involved with the social and political issues of the country. He was to become the innovator of a new approach and strategy for national liberation. The newness was that unlike all the other leaders of the anti-colonial struggle, he believed that real self-government did not mean government by a few representatives of the people sitting in the parliament and deciding the fate of the masses of people. He said in 1925:

“I hope to demonstrate that real swaraj [independence] will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when abused. In other words, swaraj is to be attained by educating the people to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.”

How can people reach a stage in which they will be in a position to plan and direct the course of their own lives? Not by enforcing plans and discipline from the top. For people to be responsible for their own lives, they must foster a conscience through education, not through books or lectures and preaching, but through living and learning to exercise rights and duties towards oneself and the community. One of the essentials for reaching such a goal, Gandhi knew, was to make the country conscious about the alien and therefore undesirable nature of the colonial system of education. In the context of India and its struggle for independence the search for a true system widened. The new dimension added was to relate the problem to national reconstruction. There was a need to invent a new system wherein people of all ages were more aware of their freedom and prepared to be the makers and citizens of a new India reconstructed upon its historical and cultural foundations.

A brief mention has been made of Rabindranath Tagore’s educational thoughts and experiments. It can be surmised that Gandhi was impressed and also influenced by the work at Santiniketan with which he had direct experience, however brief. When he was leaving South Africa, he wanted his Phoenix family to stay together and live the kind of life they had lived in South Africa. So at the suggestion of C. F. Andrews all the inmates of the Phoenix settlement went to Santiniketan. After a few days he himself joined them and quickly mixed with the teachers and students, and engaged them in a discussion on self-help. He wrote in his Autobiography:

“I put it to the teachers that , if they and the boys dispensed with the services of paid cooks and cooked their food themselves, it would enable the teachers to control the kitchen from the point of view of the boys’ physical and moral health, and it would afford to the students an object lesson in self-help . . . When I invited the Poet to express his opinion, he said that he did not mind it provided the teachers were favourable. To the boys he said, ‘The experiment contains the key to swaraj.’”

Despite Tagore’s enthusiasm, Gandhi’s stay at Santiniketan did not last long. He was needed elsewhere in connection with the rapidly growing activities of the freedom struggle. He might have also felt that he was not called by his inner voice to interfere in Tagore’s work, no matter how appreciated Gandhi was by Tagore. He was fully aware of the fact that the Santiniketan experiment had its own profoundly important place in the development of a ‘true’ educational system. Moreover, his need, particularly in regard to his political work, was to have his own ashram where he could operate freely and which would run completely under his guidance with the help of his lifelong companions. Furthermore, he wanted the community he would build to be a centre for the training of a cadre of workers who would include satyagrahis as well as those engaged in, what is known as the constructive programme. It is essential here to note that as far as the ideals of education are concerned Tagore and Gandhi were very close to each other, hence there was no question of any conflict between the two personalities or programmes.

Eventually Gandhi and his associates founded the Ahmedabad Satyagraha Ashram on 25th May, 1915. It was a community in which new people also joined, which necessitated the reiteration and elaboration of the principles that governed the life of the group living together. On 16th February, 1917 Gandhi gave a talk at the Y.M.C.A. in Madras, in which he said: “I shall venture this morning to place before you the rules that have been drawn up and that have to be observed by every one who seeks to be a member of that Ashram.” Then he elaborated five yamas, or tools for self-discipline: the vow of truth; the doctrine of ahimsa; the vow of celibacy; the vow of control of the palate; and the vow of non-stealing. To these he added the vows of fearlessness and another vow opposing untouchability. Education should be in the vernaculars and everyone should do manual work: “I think we have to realize the dignity of labour. If a barber or a shoemaker attends a college, he ought not to abandon the profession of barber or shoemaker. I consider that a barber’s profession is just as good as the profession of medicine.”

Politics were equally essential for the full growth of the individual.

“Politics are a part of our being; we ought to understand our national institutions, and we ought to understand our national growth and all those things we may do from our infancy. So in our ashram, every child is taught to understand the political institutions of our country, and to know how the country is vibrating with new emotions, with new aspirations, with a new life. But we want also the steady light, the infallible light, of religious faith, not a faith which appeals to the intelligence, but a faith which is indelibly inscribed on the heart. First, we want to realize that religious consciousness; and immediately we have done that, I think the whole department of life is open to us, and it should then be a sacred privilege of students and everybody to partake of that whole life, so that, when they grow to manhood and when they leave their colleges they may do so as men properly equipped to battle with life. Today what happens is this: much of the political life is confined to student life; immediately the students leave their colleges and cease to be students, they sink into oblivion, they seek miserable employments, carrying miserable emoluments, rising no higher in their aspirations, knowing nothing of God, knowing nothing of fresh air or bright light, and nothing of that real vigorous independence that comes out of obedience to these laws that I have ventured to place before you.”

But what actually happened in the way of finding a true education system? Every effort was made in the direction of the observance of the vows. The community had members from different religious and social groups, including harijans [untouchables]. All lived like a family with a common kitchen, and all did meaningful productive manual work. It was all in the right direction, yet, as Gandhi wrote, “It did not give satisfaction to anyone. It was found that though the teachers were good men individually they did not possess those qualifications which would make for the success of a true national school.” Gandhi ordered the school to be closed for an indefinite period, retained all the teachers who were prepared to stay, and asked them to train themselves in spinning, weaving, and agriculture. This drastic action on the part of Gandhi and his companions sowed the real seeds of the system that was to be born and called nai talim [new education] another fifteen or so years later.

Reference: IISG/Devi Prasad Archive, Box 56. We are grateful to IISG for their assistance and permission.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: There were endnote numbers in the text for all quotations, but after an extensive search of the archive boxes the page with the actual notes could not be found. We have also added our own section headings, in bold, to make the essay more readable.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Devi Prasad (1921-2011) was a studio potter, peace activist, artist, and in the 1960s and 70s acting director of War Resisters’ International (WRI). As a child he was educated at Rabindranath Tagore’s school, Shantiniketam, and in 1944 Gandhi invited him to his ashram at Sevagram to teach pottery. Besides spinning cotton and weaving cloth (khadi), the most famous of Gandhi’s methods of self-sufficiency, Gandhi also valued and encouraged all the crafts, and insisted they be included in the curriculum of his ashram schools.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi