Mahatma Gandhi on education

Gandhi - picture believed to be in the public domainMahatma Gandhi on education. His critique of western, particularly English, education was part of his critique of Western ‘civilization’ as a whole. Barry Burke explores his vision.

contents: early life · swaraj and swadishi · on education · references · links · how to reference this piece

The real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the student to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated. The girls, we say, do not have to earn; so why should they be educated? As long as such ideas persist there is no hope of our ever knowing the true value of education. (M. K. Gandhi True Education on the NCTE site)

In a piece published some years ago, Krishna Kumar, Professor of Education at Delhi University, wrote that ‘no one rejected colonial education as sharply and as completely as Gandhi did, nor did anyone else put forward an alternative as radical as the one he proposed’. Gandhi’s critique of Western, particularly English, education was part of his critique of Western civilization as a whole. There is a story that, on arriving in Britain after he had become famous, someone asked him the question: ‘Mr Gandhi, what do you think of civilization in England?’ to which he replied ‘I think that it would be something worth trying!’

Early life

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in 1869 in Porbander on the West coast of India. He had a reasonably conventional middle class Indian upbringing. His father (Karamchand) was the senior official (dewan or prime minister) of a small Indian state (Porbandar) before moving on to be the chief karbhari (adviser) in the principality of Rajkot. He looked to his son to follow in his footsteps. Gandhi went to school, did not particularly excel at anything but learned the things that were expected of him. He married in 1882, aged 13. His wife, Kasturbai Makanji who was also 13, was the daughter of a local merchant and was chosen for him. (Gandhi was later to speak strongly of the ‘cruel custom of child marriage’). At the end of his formal schooling he decided that he wanted to be a lawyer. To do this he had to come to England to enroll at the Inner Temple. He was called to the Bar in the summer of 1891. On his return to India, he found that he could not make a successful career as a lawyer so he moved to South Africa in 1893.

His experiences in South Africa changed his life. While he was there, he came face to face with blatant racism and discrimination of a kind that he had never witnessed in India. The humiliation he felt at the hands of officials turned him from a meek and unassertive individual into a determined political activist. He had originally gone to South Africa on a one year contract to work for an Indian law firm in Natal Province. There he took up various grievances on behalf of the Indian community and gradually found himself first as their advocate on civil rights issues and finally as their leader in a political movement against racial discrimination and for South African Indian rights. His methods were unusual. He launched a struggle against the authorities which in keeping with his strict Hindu beliefs was based on a strict adherence to non-violence. This meant that it consisted of passive resistance – the peaceful violation of certain laws, the courting of collective arrests (he urged his followers to fill the jails), non-co­operation with the authorities, boycotts and spectacular marches. These methods were later to be perfected back in India in the fight for independence from the British Empire.

Gandhi’s ideas were gradually perfected as a result of his South African experiences. Throughout his life, the ideas he formed in these first few years in South Africa were to be developed to fit various changed circumstances in the fight for Indian independence. They were, however, set within a global context of a total rejection of modern civilization. His rejection of ‘modern’ or Western civilization was all encompassing. He described it as the ‘Kingdom of Satan’ polluting everyone it touched. Modernization in the form of industrialization, machinery, parliamentary government, the growth of the British Empire and all the things that most people regarded as progress, Gandhi rejected. In opposition to modern civilization he counter posed ancient Indian civilization with its perceived emphasis on village communities that were self-sufficient and self-governing. He was concerned with the stranglehold that Western civilization had over India. The materialistic values that the British Raj imposed on India had to be countered by the spirituality of Ancient India. Time and time again throughout his life he would return to this theme of the need to revert to what he called their ‘own glorious civilization’ which was far superior to anything modern society could offer.

Swaraj and Swadeshi

What Gandhi was looking for was what he called swaraj and swadeshi. These two terms taken together represent the type of society that Gandhi was looking for. Swaraj, very badly translates as independence/autonomy/home rule/self rule. Swadeshi can be translated as self-sufficiency or self-reliance.

Swaraj for Gandhi was not simply a question of ousting the British from India and declaring independence. What it implied was a wholly different type of society. He did not want the British to be replaced by Indians doing exactly the same. If that was all they achieved, they would not have achieved true freedom but merely the same type of government run by a different set of men. He wanted the value system and life style of the British Raj to be done away with and totally replaced by a simpler, more spiritual, communal life. This new type of society, reflecting the old values of pre-colonial days, was to be based on the village. He stated that:

[I]ndependence must begin at the bottom. Thus every village will be a republic … having full powers. It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs. Thus, ultimately, it is the individual who is the unit. This does not exclude dependence on and willing help from neighbours or from the world… In this structure composed of innumerable villages, there will be ever-widening, never-ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom.

Gandhi’s vision for a new India entailed that ‘every religion has its full and equal place’. (He was totally opposed to the partition of India). Equally, ‘there would be no room for machines that would displace human labour and that would concentrate power in a few hands’.

In his Collected Works there is a passage, written in 1942, that amplifies his ideas on the role of the village. He states that ‘my idea of village swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is a necessity’. He continues:

Thus every villages first concern will be to grow its own food crops and cotton for its cloth. It should have a reserve for its cattle, recreation and playground for adults and children. Then, if there is more land available, it will grow useful money crops, thus excluding ganja, tobacco, opium and the like. The village will maintain a village theatre, school and public hail. It will have its own waterworks, ensuring clean water supply. This can be done through controlled wells or tanks. Education will be compulsory up to the final basic course. As far as possible every activity will be conducted on the co-operative basis. There will be no castes such as we have today with their graded untouchability. Non-violence with its technique of… non-cooperation will be the sanction of the village community. There will be a compulsory service of village guards who will be selected by rotation from the register maintained by the village. The government of the village will be conducted by a [council] of five persons annually elected by the adult villagers, male and female, possessing minimum prescribed qualifications. These will have all the authority and jurisdiction required. Since there will be no system of punishments in the accepted sense, this [council] will be the legislature, judiciary and executive combined to operate for its year of office.

Gandhi was quite certain that any village could become such a republic straight away without much interference even from the colonial government because he beleived that their sole effective connection with the villages was the collection of village taxes. All that was needed was the will to do it. He referred to his ideal state as one of ‘enlightened anarchy in which each person will become his own ruler’. It is interesting to see that throughout his writings on the autonomous self-sufficient village communities we see echoes of the anarchist lifestyles proposed by such writers as Tolstoy or Thoreau in the nineteenth century.

On education

Given Gandhi’s values and his vision of what constituted a truly civilized and free India, it was not surprising that he developed firm views on education. Education not only moulds the new generation, but reflects a society’s fundamental assumptions about itself and the individuals which compose it. His experience in South Africa not only changed his outlook on politics but also helped him to see the role education played in that struggle. He was aware that he had been a beneficiary of Western education and for a number of years while he was in South Africa he still tried to persuade Indians to take advantage of it. However, it was not until the early years of this century, when he was in his middle thirties, that he became so opposed to English education that he could write about ‘the rottenness of this education’ and that ‘to give millions a knowledge of English is to enslave them … that, by receiving English education, we have enslaved the nation’. He was enraged that he had to speak of Home Rule or Independence in what was clearly a foreign tongue, that he could not practice in court in his mother tongue, that all official documents were in English as were all the best newspapers and that education was carried out in English for the chosen few. He did not blame the colonial powers for this. He saw that it was quite logical that they would want an elite of native Indians to become like their rulers in both manners and values. In this way, the Empire could be consolidated. Gandhi blamed his fellow Indians for accepting the situation. Later in his life he was to declare that ‘real freedom will come only when we free ourselves of the domination of Western education, Western culture and Western way of living which have been ingrained in us .. . Emancipation from this culture would mean real freedom for us’.

As we have seen, Gandhi had not only rejected colonial education but also put forward a radical alternative. So what was this alternative? What was so radical about it?

First of all, I need to say a word about Gandhi’s attitude to industrialization. He was, in fact, absolutely opposed to modern machinery. In his collected works, he refers to machinery as having impoverished India, that it was difficult to measure the harm that Manchester had done to them by producing machine-made cloth which, in turn, ruined the internal market for locally produced handwoven goods. Typically of Gandhi, however, he does not blame Manchester or the mill owners. ‘How can Manchester be blamed?’ he writes. ‘We wore Manchester cloth and this is why Manchester wove it’. However, he notes that where cloth mills were not introduced in India, in places such as Bengal, the original hand-weaving occupation was thriving. Where they did have mills e.g. in Bombay, he felt that the workers there had become slaves. He was shocked by the conditions of the women working in the mills of Bombay and made the point that before they were introduced these women were not starving. He maintained that ‘if the machinery craze grows in our country, it will become an unhappy land’. What he wanted was for Indians to boycott all machine-made goods not just cloth. He was quite clear when he asked the question ‘What did India do before these articles were introduced?’ and then answered his own question by stating ‘Precisely the same should be done today. As long as we cannot make pins without machinery, so long will we do without them. The tinsel splendour of glassware we will have nothing to do with, and we will make wicks, as of old, with home-grown cotton and use hand­made earthen saucers or lamps. So doing, we shall save our eyes and money and support swadeshi and so shall we attain Home Rule’.

Within this context of the need for a machine-less society, Gandhi developed his ideas on education. The core of his proposal was the introduction of productive handicrafts in the school curriculum. The idea was not simply to introduce handicrafts as a compulsory school subject, but to make the learning of a craft the centrepiece of the entire teaching programme. It implied a radical restructuring of the sociology of school knowledge in India, where productive handicrafts had been associated with the lowest groups in the hierarchy of the caste system. Knowledge of the production processes involved in crafts, such as spinning, weaving, leather-work, pottery, metal-work, basket-making and bookbinding, had been the monopoly of specific caste groups in the lowest stratum of the traditional social hierarchy. Many of them belonged to the category of ‘untouchables’. India’s own tradition of education as well as the colonial education system had emphasized skills such as literacy and acquisition of knowledge of which the upper castes had a monopoly.

Gandhi’s proposal intended to stand the education system on its head. The social philosophy and the curriculum of what he called ‘basic education’ thus favoured the child belonging to the lowest stratum of society. in such a way it implied a programme of social transformation. It sought to alter the symbolic meaning of ‘education’ and to change the established structure of opportunities for education.

Why Gandhi proposed the introduction of productive handicrafts into the school system was not really as outrageous as may appear. What he really wanted was for the schools to be self-supporting, as far as possible. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, a poor society such as India simply could not afford to provide education for all children unless the schools could generate resources from within. Secondly, the more financially independent the schools were, the more politically independent they could be. What Gandhi wanted to avoid was dependence on the state which he felt would mean interference from the centre. Above all else, Gandhi valued self-sufficiency and autonomy. These were vital for his vision of an independent India made up of autonomous village communities to survive. It was the combination of swaraj and swadeshi related to the education system. A state system of education within an independent India would have been a complete contradiction as far as Gandhi was concerned.

He was also of the opinion that manual work should not be seen as something inferior to mental work. He felt that the work of the craftsman or labourer should be the ideal model for the ‘good life’. Schools which were based around productive work where that work was for the benefit of all were, therefore, carrying out education of the whole person – mind, body and spirit.

The right to autonomy that Gandhi’s educational plan assigns to the teacher in the context of the school’s daily curriculum is consistent with the libertarian principles that he shared with Tolstoy. Gandhi wanted to free the Indian teacher from interference from outside, particularly government or state bureaucracy. Under colonial rule, the teacher had a prescribed job to do that was based on what the authorities wanted the children to learn. Textbooks were mandatory so that Gandhi found that ‘the living word of the teacher has very little value. A teacher who teaches from textbooks does not impart originality to his pupils’. Gandhi’s plan, on the other hand, implied the end of the teacher’s subservience to the prescribed textbook and the curriculum. It presented a concept of learning that simply could not be fully implemented with the help of textbooks. Of equal, if not more importance, was the freedom it gave the teacher in matters of curriculum. It denied the state the power to decide what teachers taught and what they did in the classroom. It gave autonomy to the teacher but it was, above all, a libertarian approach to schooling that transferred power from the state to the village.

Gandhi’s basic education was, therefore, an embodiment of his perception of an ideal society consisting of small, self-reliant communities with his ideal citizen being an industrious, self-respecting and generous individual living in a small co­operative community.

For informal educators, we can draw out a number of useful pointers. First, Gandhi’s insistence on autonomy and self-regulation is reflected in the ethos of informal education. Gandhi’s conception of basic education was concerned with learning that was generated within everyday life which is the basis on which informal educators work. It was also an education focused on the individual but reliant on co-operation between individuals. There is also a familar picture of the relationships between educators and students/learners:

A teacher who establishes rapport with the taught, becomes one with them, learns more from them than he teaches them. He who learns nothing from his disciples is, in my opinion, worthless. Whenever I talk with someone I learn from him. I take from him more than I give him. In this way, a true teacher regards himself as a student of his students. If you will teach your pupils with this attitude, you will benefit much from them. (Talk to Khadi Vidyalaya Students, Sevagram, Sevak, 15 February 1942 CW 75, p. 269)

Lastly, it was an education that aimed at educating the whole person, rather than concentrating on one aspect. It was a highly moral activity.


Chadha, Y. (1997) Rediscovering Gandhi, London: Century.

Gandhi, M. K. (1977) The Collected Works, Ahmedabad: Navajivan.

Gandhi, M. K. (1997) Hind Swaraj and other writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kumar, K. (1994) ‘Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’ in Z. Morsy (ed.) Thinkers on Education Volume 2, Paris: UNESCO.


Gandhi On Education: excellent collection of quotes from the National Council for Teacher Education

Mahatma Gandhi: The Complete Information – provides information on his philosophies, struggles, biography etc. Also has the beginnings of an net edition of his collected works.

How to reference this piece: Burke, B. (2000). ‘Mahatma Gandhi on education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: enter date].

© Barry Burke 2000.