Gandhi: Depression’s Spiritual Transformation

Gandhi: Depression’s Spiritual Transformation

Mohandas Gandhi was one of the principle leaders of India’s movement for independence from the British Empire. Independence was achieved in 1947. He is also recognized as the world’s foremost proponent of non-violent civil disobedience as a force for change, which greatly influenced the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.

Gandhi was born in 1869. During his life, he lived through episodes of depression, including a suicide attempt as a teenager. He was also said to be shy and sensitive.

Following India’s independence, he endured his most severe episode of depression.  India faced many tragic problems, including poverty and hunger. These issues weighed heavily on him as the “father of his country.”

Gandhi also felt a sense of personal failure. Independence was achieved at the cost of India being divided along religious lines into two separation nations: India, where the population was predominantly Hindu, and Pakistan, where the population was Muslim. The partition led to bloody riots in many cities between Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi saw it as a rejection of his philosophy of non-violence and collapse of his life’s work.

Gandhi spoke of his depression openly, confounded and frustrated because he lacked patience and “technique” to overcome it.

He once believed he could live to be 125, but told a reporter, “I have lost the hope because of the terrible happenings in the world. I don’t want to live in darkness.” The tone of his speeches, his “voice,” grew less optimistic.

Gandhi’s sense of failure and depression led to deeper reflection over his philosophy of non-violence and his life’s work. In a sense, he revisited choices he had made over the years, struggling with self-doubt. The result was reaffirmation, and to some degree, transformation.

Reflection often is part of cycles of growth in all people, especially those confronted by loss. This includes individuals living with mental illness as part of a process of recovery.

As a lawyer in South Africa, early in his career, Gandhi led opposition to legal discrimination against the Indian minority. It was the period when he first developed his philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience. When he returned to India in 1915, because of his work in South Africa, he became known as “Mahatma,” meaning “Great Soul.”

It was a title Gandhi did not like, until the last year of his life, as part of his transformation. He told a granddaughter: “I am a true Mahatma.”

His outlook included a sense of fatalism. Because of his teachings and work, he always believed he would die at the hands of an assassin, a death he said, he would gladly accept. In 1948, a Hindu extremist shot Gandhi to death, as part of a conspiracy whose members believed he favored Muslims in trying to end India’s violence.

Much of this article, including quotations, is based on the essay “From Mohandas to Mahatma:  The Spiritual Metamorphosis of Gandhi” by Karen E. James in Essays in History, Vol. 28, pp. 5-20  Corcoran Department of History  of the University of Virginia (1984), at


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