How Gandhi brought changes in himself and his followers

I have always been fascinated by people who bring about changes in themselves. Most people walk the path that is set for themselves by society. Here’s a common pattern: get good grades in school, go to college, get a job, get married, have children and so on! This pattern is common even for people who are heading really big corporations. For example, most traditional CEOs will go to a good MBA school and rise up the hierarchy in the corporate office to eventually head the entire company. Even most of the tech startup founders have some precedent.

And then, there are people who set an ideological goal for themselves, a goal without any precedent, a goal for which you will not find any historical examples. These folks have to devise their own unique path along the way. I consider Gandhi to be a prime example for this.

I read Gandhi’s autobiography in the original Gujarati text (સયના પ્રયોગો — Experiments with Truth) when I was 13 years old. For 14 years after that, I didn’t realize how much impact this book had left on me. When I visited the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad in March 2017, I immediately realized the latent effects this book had on my behavior and my beliefs. It was the “introspection and self-improvement” quest of Gandhi that I could identify the most with. It was the self-change that he brought about in himself and his followers.

Shocking Rules

The main thesis of this post is to argue that Gandhi was able to bring the changes by creating “shocking rules”. Shocking rules enable a person to question the existing beliefs and traditions. Such rule make people question the status quo. And they are essential when it comes to changing the habits.

In “The Power of Habit” book, Charles Duhigg states an example of Lisa Allen — who is able to break her smoking, drinking and other habits by forcing herself to go through really big changes. Shocking rules help create such big changes in life, which go on to drive other (hopefully desired) changes.

Gandhi wrote down 12 rules for his “Satyagrahis” — people who get to stay at his Ashram in Ahmedabad. Among these rules, the contentious was “the abolition of untouchability” (For the uninitiated — here’s wikipedia link on untouchability). This rule might seem so obvious right now, but it created the most controversy at that time. So much so that even his wife and other relatives refused to follow this rule outright. In fact, Gandhi had to throw out his nephew from the Ashram when his nephew refused to have dinner if the utensils are not kept separate for Harijans. (Gandhi used to call untouchables as Harijans — meaning “children of God” in the hope that their status might get restored in the society.)

2 of these 12 rules, I felt, were quite shocking even in today’s society.

  1. Chastity (Brahmacharya) — Gandhi wrote — “Observance of the foregoing principles is impossible without the observance of celibacy.” In his autobiography, Gandhi reiterates multiple occasions where he finds himself out of control w.r.t. his sexual desires and notes the ways in which this desire has distracted him from staying focused on his goals. In one specific example, Gandhi finds himself full of sexual thoughts even when his father is lying gravely sick — he expresses an immense regret of ignoring his duties as a son by not staying close to his father’s bed in those critical moments. Maybe it was this distraction that enabled him to make this a rule for folks staying in his Ashram.
  2. Control of the Palate — “The observance of Brahmacharya has been found from the experience to be extremely difficult so long as one has not acquired mastery over taste.”

These shocking rules gave “Satyagrahis” a path to equip themselves with the ideals and habits to effectively spread Gandhi’s words and actions across the nation. These Gandhi followers went on to successfully launch multiple non-violent movements against the British. They were extremely effective at rallying the public behind this movement.

Let’s take a hypothetical example of an ordinary person trying to join the Ashram because (s)he wants to make a difference. Gandhi would see this person as someone with enough motivation, but lacking the tools and the thought process to contribute effectively. It is at this point that the harsh rules of the Ashram would make this person go through a huge life-transformation, and in the process equip him/her with the tools required to carry out the mission.

In addition to the above photograph, the following 3 photos list out the first 5 rules Gandhi listed out for his followers staying in his Ashram. (If you’re a Gujarati and can’t read the hand-written text, don’t worry — Gandhi’s handwriting was horrible!)

PS: Please note that there are multiple aspects to what Gandhi did and how he achieved his goals. Most things in the world remain complicated enough — they simply cannot be summarized in a single post. This post simply highlights a factor that might have helped him a bit in his quest.

PPS: Ben Horowitz mentions “Shocking Rules” as one of the ingredients for Culture change in his talk here —