The best books on Mahatma Gandhi and his life

David Hardiman Author Of Gandhi in His Time and Ours: The Global Legacy of His Ideas
By David Hardiman

The Books I Picked & Why

Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth

By Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

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

Why 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. 

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

By Claude Markovits

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

Why 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.  

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

By Ranajit Guha

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

Why 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.

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Gandhi: A Political and Spiritual Life

By Kathryn Tidrick

Book cover of Gandhi: A Political and Spiritual Life

Why 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.   

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Gandhi Before India

By Ramachandra Guha

Book cover of Gandhi Before India

Why 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.   

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