The best books on Mahatma Gandhi and his life

Who am I?

I have for over fifty years studied and written about the Indian nationalist movement, examining it from many different angles. I lived and worked for many years in India. I have throughout had an appreciative but often troubled relationship with Gandhi – admiring him for much of what he stood for, while finding it hard to accept many of his beliefs and actions. This will be apparent to anyone reading the books that I have written. Despite this, I have a deep respect for a man who was undoubtedly a towering figure in twentieth-century history.   


I wrote...

Gandhi in His Time and Ours: The Global Legacy of His Ideas

By David Hardiman,

Book cover of Gandhi in His Time and Ours: The Global Legacy of His Ideas

What is my book about?

The book examines how M.K. Gandhi created a radical style of politics based on truth and nonviolence. It shows how he sought constantly to find new ways to heal political and social divisions and forge societies that were based on mutual respect, lack of exploitation, and valuing the environment. It examines the many tensions – and failures – that Gandhi encountered in pursuing this agenda and his courage in standing firm to his principles. It also explores his global legacy, showing how his methods were adopted by activists all over the world after his assassination in 1948. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth

David Hardiman Why did I love this book?

Gandhi wrote this book, his autobiography, between 1925 and 1929, when he was in his late fifties. It focuses on his formative years, showing how he forged his distinctive style of activism in South Africa and India. It is remarkable for its honesty, even when Gandhi had shameful memories to relate, as when he struck his wife, Kasturba, in anger.  His aim is to show how he changed himself in ways that would make such violent behavior on his part impossible. His ‘truth’ is that of nonviolence and he describes the experiments that he undertook in establishing his nonviolence at both a personal and political level. It is a compelling read that brings out brilliantly Gandhi’s style of thinking and his personality. It is in my opinion a classic of twentieth-century literature. 

By Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Autobiography as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Who was Gandhi? In the midst of resurging interest in the man who freed India, inspired the American Civil Rights Movement, and is revered, respected, and misunderstood all over the world, the time is proper to listen to Gandhi himself — in his own words, his own "confessions," his Autobiography.
  
Gandhi made scrupulous truth-telling a religion, and his Autobiography inevitably reminds one of other saints who have suffered and burned for their lapses. He gives a simply narrated account of his boyhood in Gujarat, marriage at age 13, legal studies in England, and a growing desire for purity and reform.…


Book cover of The Un-Gandhian Gandhi: The Life and Afterlife of the Mahatma

David Hardiman Why did I love this book?

Markowitz starts with the iconic images of Gandhi – Father of the Indian Nation, the modern saint, the apostle of nonviolence, and so on – and unpicks them to show how selective they are. He examines with great insight the way that Gandhi’s image was created in the West from the 1920s onwards, with him often being compared to Christ. Attenborough’s influential film on Gandhi is reviewed in revealing ways. He also examines the many biographies of Gandhi, showing how they have tended to focus on aspects of his message and fail to bring out the huge complexities of the man. 

He shows how Gandhi’s reputation as a serious political and economic thinker was shaped in the West first by pacifists and alternative thinkers, and much later by academic social scientists. He also provides some excellent analysis of Gandhi’s career in South Africa and India. The book is full of superb insights. Although a critical appraisal, Markovitz always shows respect for Gandhi.  

By Claude Markovits,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Un-Gandhian Gandhi as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This major study reconsiders the creation of the Gandhian legend through the myriad texts and images that helped spread it through both India and the Western world.


Book cover of Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History and Society, Vol. 3

David Hardiman Why did I love this book?

Although I contributed to this volume, I am recommending it not because of that but because it has a couple of excellent chapters on Gandhi. Best known is Shahid Amin’s, "Gandhi as Mahatma: Gorakhpur District, Eastern UP, 1921-2". In this, he examines Gandhi’s fleeting visit in February 1921 to Gorakhpur District, a largely rural area close to the border with Nepal – showing how this visit was understood by the local peasantry. Many tales circulated, many of which involved the idea that Gandhi had the power of rewarding those who accepted his message and punishing those who did not in supernatural ways. The chapter provides a superb analysis of the ways in which his message was filtered and changed in ways that Gandhi himself not only had no part in, but which he – when brought to his notice – repudiated. The chapter by Partha Chatterjee, "Gandhi and the Critique of Civil Society" examines Gandhian political ideas in insightful ways.

By Ranajit Guha,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Subaltern Studies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This third volume in the "Subaltern Studies" series contains essays and discussion pieces designed to promote a systematic and detailed discussion of subaltern themes in the field of South East Asian studies and research.


Book cover of Gandhi: A Political and Spiritual Life

David Hardiman Why did I love this book?

Tidrick explores with much insight the influences on Gandhi that shaped his spiritual and political life, ranging from the vegetarian movement, theosophy, esoteric Christianity, nineteenth-century authors and thinkers such as Ruskin, Thoreau, and Tolstoy, along with his sometimes-eccentric understanding of Hinduism. She shows how he saw his mission as divinely-inspired, and his belief that – so long as he upheld his ‘truth’ with rigour – he would have the power to change the world. Gandhi had at times his doubts as to his purity and thus his abilities in this respect, leading him into some ‘experiments’ that could disturb his close followers, as when he sought to test his chastity. In this book, Tidrick reveals Gandhi’s idiosyncrasies in illuminating ways.   

By Kathryn Tidrick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gandhi as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Throughout his long and turbulent career as an Indian leader, first in South Africa and then in India, Gandhi sought to fulfill his religious aspirations through politics, and to reconcile politics with his private religious discipline. The Gandhi revealed here is not the secular saint of popular renown, but a difficult and self-obsessed man driven by a sense of unique personal destiny. Penetrating and provocative, Tidrick draws on material previously ignored by Gandhi's biographers and explores the paradoxes within his life and beliefs. Did the nationalist leader truly believe that he was not just fighting for Indian independence but also…


Book cover of Gandhi Before India

David Hardiman Why did I love this book?

Gandhi arrived in South Africa in 1893 as an obscure lawyer and left for India in 1914 as a renowned fighter for the rights of Indians under a racist regime. It was here that he forged his method of agitation, which he called ‘satyagraha’, as well as his views on building alternative societies with higher moral values than those of the western imperialists who ruled them. His career in South Africa provided him with the vital political and ideological stepping-stones to become by 1920 the foremost leader of the Indian nationalist movement. In this detailed and lucidly written volume, Ramachandra Guha reveals how all this came about.   

By Ramachandra Guha,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Gandhi Before India as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Notable Book and a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year

A revelatory work of biography, Gandhi Before India is an illuminating portrait of the life, the work, and the historical context of one of the most abidingly influential—and controversial—men in modern history. From Gandhi’s birth in 1869, through his upbringing in Gujarat and his years as a student in London, to his two decades as a lawyer and community organizer in South Africa, acclaimed author Ramachandra Guha brings the past to light with extraordinary grace and clarity. Drawing on a wealth of newly uncovered…


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The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


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