The Philosophy, Politics and Truth Behind Gandhian Fasts

Was Gandhi a great spiritual leader or a cunning and manipulative strategist? Perhaps, this question has contradictory answers in different narratives. On one hand, there is the universally revered figure of ‘Mahatma Gandhiji’ who believed in the concept of self-immolation if it would lead to peace and equality of human beings. The other side of the coin presents an utterly different picture which labels Gandhi as a tactician who knew how to play the sympathies of people for his own gains. Gandhi’s policy of hunger strikes brought him a lot of recognition and equally, praise and critique too. Gandhi’s underlying philosophy for undertaking fasts was that they purified one’s inner self, lead to one’s penance for the ‘sins’ they committed in the political sphere and acted as non-violent means of political protests. However, then the question arises that did Gandhi openly preach the idea of suicide which was illegal under common law and later on, Indian Penal Code too. His critics also allege that Gandhi indirectly coerced his opponents through the hidden threat of mass violence in case of his death by fasting. On the other hand, British media ridiculed Gandhi’s campaigns and made a mockery out of the concept of fasting until death.

In the earlier stages of his life, Gandhi was not a religious zealot who considered fasting to be the answer to his many problems. But as a young adult and a student in London, the reality of life dawned upon him as he saw destitute Indian students struggling to meet the both ends meet while continuing their studies too. “The example of poor Indian students in London and the guilty sense of being prodigal with his brother’s money impelled Gandhi to economize still further…He discontinued his luxury…He begins to eat, and enjoy, boiled spinach with no condiments. Many such experiences, he remarked, taught me that the real seat of taste was not the tongue but the mind…[1]

Mohandas K. Gandhi, a young Indian lawyer working in South Africa.   Bowie News Online

Gandhi was of the view that fasting purged one’s mind and soul. “In his world view, a person fasts to purify one’s own self of those shortcomings, which stand in the way of achieving truth and convincing the opponent of the truth.”[2] Gandhi had a firm belief that an empty stomach would lessen the distance between him and God. He hoped that eventually, fasting would help him reunite with God. “Gandhi believed that as humans, we should eat only as much as we need and no more…This train of thought taken to the extreme leads us to a condition where even the body becomes an obstacle separating man from the infinite…The chosen emptiness of the stomach, the emptying and abnegation of the ego, the nakedness and reduction of the flesh were deliberate acts of renunciation that created space within which Gandhi could reject the seductions of the world to commune with another. If I succeed in emptying myself utterly, Gandhi wrote, God will possess me.”[3] Gandhi started fasting in order to purify his inner self but after a while, he came to the realization that fasting could be used to purify and restrict others too. He started thinking that he could curb the violent tendencies of his followers through this moral act. “Gandhi used the fast not only for ridding the body of its impurities but in the fashion of the Indian ascetics, for purifying the mind and spirit. As a result of his experiments with fasting, he discovered the enormous potentialities of fasting in entirely new directions. He learned to use the fast only for self-purification but also for the purification of others…It dawned on me, he says in his autobiography, that fasting is made as powerful a weapon of indulgence as of restraint.”[4]

Gandhi believed that the political field influenced men in a negative and immoral way and made them commit sins. His idea of paying penalty for the evils committed in the political and social circles was through fasting. He thought that the abstinence from food paved the way for his followers to ultimately abstain from all the wrong-doings. “The principle of fasting…It was deployed by Gandhi himself most often to discipline his own followers, most famously in the aftermath of Chauri-Chaura.”[5] “At first it used to atone for the moral lapse of members of his immediate community; later on the fast was employed in a wider arena as a powerful weapon to draw people to the path of virtue and justice.”[6] Fasting was employed as a means to learn patience and perseverance; two qualities that were most significant for satyagraha.

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Gandhi often undertook fasts as a ‘non-violent’ political maneuver in order to protest against certain issues. He drew inspiration for it from the traditions of Brahmans. “Self-suffering was a traditional weapon of the Brahman, whose protest against oppressive rule was often fasting, self-injury, or even suicide, drawing upon the oppressor the supernatural sanctions of having caused the death of a Brahman. The technique was and is used in Indian homes, not merely in Gandhi’s. Members of the family express protest by abstaining from meals.”[7] Satyagraha played a huge role in sub-continental politics during Gandhi’s time and fasting was a tool used by him quite regularly and to some extent, effectively too. The theory of satyagraha preached the notion of truth and non-violence. “Gandhi drew on the rich traditions of religious (Hindu in his case) fasting to     hone this political innovation and it soon became a central feature of the Gandhian Satyagraha.”[8] Gandhi’s beliefs consisted of the view that if someone harmed him in any tangible or non-tangible manner, he, himself was to blame too for he could have prevented it from occurring. He thus wanted to compensate for the aforementioned happening by means of fasting. “Consider a typical situation of this kind.

Gandhi is wronged, and he knows this. The wrongdoer has to be corrected. But if (as Gandhi believes) both in essence one, he too is accountable for the evil, and so must share the punishment. Therefore, as penance, he begins a fast. It is no mere abstention, but a crucifixion of the flesh. The senses are here subdued to in spirit prayer and surrender to God.”[9] Gandhi had developed certain conditions which should be fulfilled before one undertakes a fast to protest an issue in the political arena because he did not want the policy of hunger strikes to become an arbitrary concept. “First of all, one had to take into account the state of the public opinion in regard to the effectiveness of the fast. Secondly, the issue on which a fast is contemplated must be just. Thirdly, the motive which prompts fasting must be the vindication of truth and justice as the one who fasts see them, and not embarrassment or blackmail of the adversary. Fourthly, one must be sure, at least subjectively, of a divine inspiration to undertake the fast.”[10]

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Whenever Gandhi went on a hunger strike, the general implication was that it was a ‘fast unto death’ unless his opponents gave into his demands. This notion basically signifies the way M.K. Gandhi was using the ‘threat’ of ‘indirect’ suicide to his advantage. One could argue that Gandhi was not directly doing anything to end his life but in accordance with the Common Law, his actions would still be considered suicide. “It would not make much sense to say that one may not kill oneself by walking into the sea, but may sit on the beach until submerged by the incoming tide…Even as a legislative matter, in other words, the intelligent line does not fall between action and inaction, but between those forms of inaction that consist of abstaining from ordinary care and those that consist of abstaining from excessive or heroic measures…Starving oneself to death is no different from putting a gun to one’s temple as far as the common law definition of suicide is concerned… At common law in England, a suicide — defined as one who deliberately puts an end to his own existence, or commits any unlawful malicious act, the consequence of which is his own death, was criminally liable.”[11]

Suicide was, later on, also made illegal under Indian Penal Code which was enacted in 1862. These facts indicate that historically, suicide-direct or indirect-was never considered acceptable. But Gandhi incorporated this idea in the center of his political philosophy through the concept of fasting. Gandhi’s supporters are of the viewpoint that the politician always preached the idea of his fasts being non-compelling. He wanted people to adapt to his ideology without facing any duress. He wanted them to perform the aforementioned task on their own terms. According to Pyarelal Nayyar (who was Gandhi’s personal secretary towards the end of his life), “Gandhi frequently cautioned that “there should be no coercion. We must, by patient toil and self-suffering, convert the ignorant and superstitious but never seek to compel them by force.”[12]


But by employing historical facts, his critics argue that Gandhi actually forced his opponents to surrender in front of him because otherwise, they would end up being held responsible for his death. The British government and his adversaries in India knew that in case of Gandhi’s death, there would be a mass violent public upheaval which would cost them physically and financially. Gandhi used this warning of disorder and bloodshed against his political opponents. “Here the threat is directly coercive: it threatens to give the opponent negative payoffs if he does not do as one says. Instead of stealing the first move for himself, Gandhi in effect eliminates one of the other’s moves. This may only be effective if there is veiled violence waiting – if Gandhi died, the results would not just be massive mourning but some form of retaliation against the state by his grief-stricken followers. The mechanism of this…sort of threat is not that Gandhi was fasting for a principle or that he was reducing his own payoffs, but that the opponent’s payoffs were directly altered: once Gandhi could connect his expiration with the opponent’s action (or lack of action), he had a coercive tool of great power.”[13] One may find it hard to believe that Gandhi was willing to risk his own life for his beliefs and ideals but the precedent set by him made it clear that he was fully determined to see his mission through.

Do it or my death will be on your hands. To the opponent, this action appears irrational, for Gandhi is risking the large negative payoff of death, but Gandhi’s character and previous actions made even this commitment credible…Often this was the very mechanism by which satyagraha succeeded. Many times his fasts did result in what one British Viceroy called political blackmail…”[14] Gandhi knew about the full extent of the power he held over his opponents and perhaps, he was also fully aware that the outcome of the facts would never be his death. “After he became a popular symbol throughout India and the world, he often went on fasts which compelled his opponents to act quickly and as he pleased, or else have his death on their hands…(The) the choice was not just one of issues and their payoffs, but one of life or death for a great man.”[15] Even in the critically acclaimed movie of 1982 (titled ‘Gandhi’), it was mentioned through a dialogue between Gandhi and Patel that if Gandhi fasted, people would go to all sorts of trouble to keep him alive, however, if Patel fasted, he would simply die.[16]


Gandhi’s fast against the ‘Communal Award of Separate Electorates’ (which granted reserved seats for the Untouchables) proved to be quite controversial. Gandhi’s stance was that the reserved seats for the Dalits (Untouchables) would further isolate them from the general Hindu community. Dr. Ambedkar who was fighting against the discrimination Dalits had to face on an everyday basis strongly opposed Gandhi’s actions. He claimed that the lack of reserved seats would culminate in Dalits being continuously oppressed by the elite Hindu classes. Gandhi came under critique for undertaking a fast against the reserved seats for the untouchables and he way he compelled Ambedkar to give in through the strategic maneuver of fasting till death was also condemned by some circles because Ambedkar had no choice but to agree with Gandhi since he did not want to be held responsible for his death either.

“This fast unto death, it should be remembered, was not against the British, the enemy, but against a component of the national struggle, the fledgling Dalit movement led by Ambedkar. Under this pressure, Ambedkar succumbed. Perhaps it was the effect, not so much of the moral pressure as much as of the real threat that was Gandhi to die for the cause of Hindu unity, Dalits would be attacked by upper caste Hindus in innumerable places…A fast unto death; a weapon he (Gandhi) was willing to wield against Ambedkar and the demand for separate electorates for the untouchables, but not against the upper castes to demand an end to untouchability. No wonder Ambedkar was compelled to ask, why did he not undertake a fast unto death against untouchability?”[17]


As fasting is usually considered a religious duty or task, Gandhi was also criticized for bringing politics and faith together. In the modern era, the general practice is to create a distinction between state and religion. “Politics and Religion belong to two different regions of mind even if it is held that these two regions are inter-related…by the unity, integrity or indivisibility of the human kind or human personality. For the special study, working and development of each region, we get them more conveniently separated.”[18] Thus, Gandhi’s approach was troublesome for some politicians of that time and later on, some historians too who disagreed with Gandhi bringing the element of religiousness in the field of politics. It was a step back for some people who recently had been ‘enlightened’ by modernity and had discarded ‘superstitious’ beliefs. “Romain Rolland has suggested that Gandhi’s mission was messianic. Gandhi was ‘bent upon founding a new humanity’. By his own admission, he wanted to ‘spiritualize‘ politics and refused to believe that ‘religion has nothing to do with politics‘. As far as he was concerned ‘the latter divorced from religion is like a corpse only fit to be buried’. It was this idealism which completely befogged Gandhi’s approach to the Indian nationalist struggle. ‘It was never easy’, says Sinha ‘to anticipate the workings of his mind. He seemed always to rely more on inspiration than on close reasoning for his political action or more precisely lack of action at a particular time.”[19]

The effects of an orientalist approach can be seen in this scenario too. The British media derided Gandhi’s fasts and labeled them as acts of attempted suicide. “The majority of the press ridiculed Gandhi, depicting his fast as willful suicide, the act of a fanatic…in a desperate attempt to deflect criticism of his own political failings onto the government of India.”[20] They used certain headlines which portrayed a preposterous image of Gandhi and his principles. Gandhi’s image was further worsened in the eyes of the British public through another tactic used by their print media.

Gandhi confers with Lord Louis Mountbatten in the days before Indian independence.     Warrior Publications

They refrained from publishing Gandhi’s pictures in the newspapers. Perhaps, actually seeing Gandhi’s decrepit and feeble body would have changed their perception of him. “News of the Worlds…headlines left little doubt as to its interpretation of Gandhi’s Threat to ‘Fast unto Death’: The Death Sentence: Gandhi Pronounces His Own Doom and A Political Stunt. Perhaps equally damaging for the epic representation of Gandhi’s fasts was the almost complete absence of photographic representations of his emaciated body from the British press. Somehow the trend toward the use of photographs to accompany and illustrate news items in Britain did not extend to coverage of Gandhi’s fasts in 1932 and 1943. By largely denying British audiences the sight of Gandhi’s frail, traditionally clad body opposed to the power of the colonial state, the government and the press denuded the facts of some of their visceral potency.”[21]

The signs of modernity became pretty evident in the way British people tried to explain Gandhi’s hunger strikes through scientific facts. They tried to oust any enigma that people had come to associate with Gandhi’s figure. “In her letter to the News Chronicle, (Margaret) Brady was…determined to dispel any mystique surrounding Gandhi’s fast, arguing that complete abstinence from all food for longer periods than 3 weeks, living just on water and fruit juices, is a normal part of some curative treatments . . . after the first day or two no great effort of self-denial or exercise of will-power is needed to continue fasting, for one has little desire for food.…Indeed, the coup de grace for the skeptical organs of the British press came with the revelation that Gandhi had imbibed lime juice sweetened with sugar on at least one occasion during the course of the fast. This was, they declared, proof positive of Gandhi’s fraudulent, carefully calculated posturing…His success in surviving fasts before 1943 may well have bred a degree of popular cynicism even without the encouragement of the press in pieces like the Daily Mail’s Nine Fasts article, with its implicit evocation of a cat’s nine lives.”[22]

Ghandi ill due to fasting.      Economic Times

Gandhi believed that he could purify his conscience and thought through fasting. He also believed in applying the same principle to his followers so they could learn patience and self-restraint. He thought that he could reimburse for his ‘wrongdoings’ through the same mechanism. However, Gandhi’s critics censured and disapproved his practices by labelling his acts as intentional suicide which was illegal in accordance with law. He was also criticized for ‘forcing’ his adversaries to succumb to his demands through the implied impendence of his death and the mass uprising that would inevitably follow it. Orientalist paradigms led to the creation of a ludicrous image of Gandhi in England as the press characterized him as a fraud and a scheming politician.


[1] Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (Toronto: Collier-Macmillan Canada Ltd., 1973), 33.

[2] “A Century of Political Fasting,” Economic and Political Weekly 44, no. 52 (2009-10): 7, accessed, April 26, 2017

[3] Carol Becker, “Gandhi’s Body and Further Representation of War and Peace,” Art Journal 65, no. 4 (2006): 86, accessed April 26, 2017

[4]  Koilpillai J. Charles, “Gandhi’s Views on Health,” Journal of Religion and Health 18, no. 1 (1979): 63; 65, accessed April 26, 2017

[5] “A Century of Political Fasting, 7”

[6] Koilpillai J. Charles, “Gandhi’s Views on Health, 63”

[7] Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, “The New Courage: An Essay on Gandhi’s Psychology,” World Politics 16, no. 1 (1963): 114, accessed April 28, 2017

[8] “A Century of Political Fasting, 7”

[9] S. K. Saxena, “The Fabric of Self-Suffering: A Study in Gandhi,” Religious Studies 12, no. 2 (1976): 240, accessed             Aril 26, 2017.

[10] Anthony Parel, “Symbolism in Gandhian Politics,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 2, no. 4 (1969): 521, accessed April 26, 2017.

[11] Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health, 497 U.S. 261 (1990).

[12] “Gandhi, Ambedkar and Separate Electorates Issue,” Economic and Political Weekly 26, no. 21 (1991): 1329, accessed April 28, 2017.

[13] Robert E. Klitgaard, “Gandhi’s Non-Violence as a Tactic,” Journal of Peace Research 8, no. 2 (1971): 147, accessed April 26, 2017.

[14] “Ibid., 146”

[15] Robert E. Klitgaard, “Gandhi’s Non-Violence as a Tactic,” 146.

[16] Richard Attenborough, Gandhi, DVD, Columbia Pictures, 1982.

[17] “Gandhi, Ambedkar and Separate Electorates Issue,” 1328; 1329.

[18] “The Objectives Resolution,” Islamic Studies 48 (2009): 13.

[19] Robert Addo-Fening, “Gandhi and Nkrumah: A Study of Non-Violence and Non-Cooperation Campaigns in India and Ghana as an Anti-Colonial Strategy,” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana 13, no. 1 (1972): 76, accessed April 28, 2017.

[20] Tim Pratt and James Vernon, ““Appeal from this fiery bed …”: The Colonial Politics of Gandhi’s Fasts and Their Metropolitan Reception,” Journal of British Studies 44, no.1 (2005): 100-101, accessed April 26, 2017

[21] Ibid., 103-104.

[22] Tim Pratt and James Vernon, ““Appeal from this fiery bed …”: The Colonial Politics of Gandhi’s Fasts and Their Metropolitan Reception,” 108; 112.


“A Century of Political Fasting,” Economic and Political Weekly 44, no. 52 (2009-10): 7. Accessed April 24, 2017.

“Gandhi, Ambedkar and Separate Electorates Issue,” Economic and Political Weekly 26 (1991): 1328-30. Accessed April 28, 2017.

“The Objectives Resolution,” Islamic Studies 48 (2009): 13.

Addo-Fening, Robert. “Gandhi and Nkrumah: A Study of Non-Violence and Non-Cooperation Campaigns in India and Ghana as an Anti-Colonial Strategy.” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana 13, no. 1 (1972): 65-85. Accessed April 28, 2017.

Becker, Carol. “Gandhi’s Body and Further Representation of War and Peace.” Art Journal 65, no. 4 (2006): 78-95. Accessed April 26, 2017.

Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health, 497 U.S. 261 (1990).

Fischer, Louis. The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. Toronto: Collier-Macmillan Canada Ltd., 1973.

  1. Charles, Koilpillai. “Gandhi’s Views on Health.” Journal of Religion and Health 18, no. 1 (1979): 60-73. Accessed April 26, 2017.

Klitgaard, Robert E. “Gandhi’s Non-Violence as a Tactic.” Journal of Peace Research 8, no. 2 (1971): 143-53. Accessed April 26, 2017.

Parel, Anthony. “Symbolism in Gandhian Politics.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 2, no. 4 (1969): 513-527. Accessed April 26, 2017.

Pratt, Jim, and Vernon, James. ““Appeal from this fiery bed …”: The Colonial Politics of Gandhi’s Fasts and Their Metropolitan Reception.” Journal of British Studies 44, no. 1 (2005): 92-114. Accessed April 26, 2017.

Richard Attenborough, Gandhi, DVD, Columbia Pictures, 1982.

Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber, “The New Courage: An Essay on Gandhi’s Psychology.” World Politics 16, no. 1 (1963): 98-117. Accessed April 28, 2017.

Saxena, S. K. “The Fabric of Self-Suffering: A Study in Gandhi.” Religious Studies 12, no. 2 (1976): 239-247. Accessed April 26, 2017.

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