Spcl 091 018: Probing the Man behind the Mahatma: An Analysis of the Life and Works of Mohandas Gandhi

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SPCL 091 018: Probing the Man behind the Mahatma: An Analysis of the Life and Works of Mohandas Gandhi

Course Syllabus

Course schedule: Wednesdays, 6-7:50 pm

Room: Graham Memorial 035

Assignments: Daily readings, journals and final assignment

Attendance: Since this is a weekly class, I will expect regular attendance on the part of students

Instructor: Mumukshu Patel (email: mumukshu@email.unc.edu)

Course Description

This course focuses on the study of Mahatma Gandhi’s life and philosophy.  The class will try to explore the man behind the legend, as well as explore his philosophy of ahimsa – non-violence.  We shall determine if his philosophy is relevant to our world and times, by analyzing his influence on movements like: the Civil Rights movement, the anti-apartheid struggle, the anti-nuclear weapons movement, the environmental movement, and past as well as current anti-war movements.  The goal is to develop a sophisticated understanding of the life and works of Mahatma Gandhi and try and utilize this insight gained, toward practical ends.

The course follows a discussion format.  We have plenty of materials to discuss.  Traditional course materials like readings will be supplemented by movies, songs, cartoons, websites and several other unconventional course materials.   Unconventional aspects include: debates, skits, cotton weaving sessions, workshops on how to organize for civil disobedience interspersed throughout the semester; these are listed under the “activity” headings below.

All resources are available online, so no purchases are necessary. The final assignment for the course involves writing a play, poem or essay on how you have been influenced by his ideas or how you might think Gandhi might react to any current event/events. 


Though this is a pass/fail class, C-START committee regulations require that I list out how the class grade will be calculated. The calculation of the final grade will be done as follows:

10 percent of the final grade will depend on the Journal assignment. You will not be required to submit all Journal entries or a final compilation. I will ask for Journal entries from any student on any given class day to see whether the assignment has been completed or not. A penalty of one percent of the final grade will be imposed for every incomplete Journal assignment.

40 percent of the final grade will depend on your final assignment submissions. Please submit these on time and put some effort into producing decent final products for this assignment. Every day of late submission will reduce your grade for this assignment by a letter grade.

50 percent of the final grade will depend on your class participation and attendance. I will devote 25 percent of the final grade solely to class attendance; every non-approved absence will result in the final grade being reduced by 2.5 percent. Attendance and participation are important to our class, because we are gathered in a discussion seminar not a drab lecture class.

Readings and other material

Most of the class material is available online at the following two websites:

The Official Mahatma Gandhi eCollection: www.mahatma.org.in


The Electronic texts section at the University of Virginia: etext.lib.virginia.edu

These sites are easy to navigate. I will explain how to use them on the first day, and for safe measure show how to access the materials needed for each subsequent class at the end of class every week.

Part I. Introduction to the man and the Mahatma

1. Introduction to Gandhi (Timeline), name, key terms etc.

Read Part I of Romain Rolland’s biography – Mahatma Gandhi – of Mohandas Gandhi.

Why did you decide to take this course? What are your perceptions about Gandhi?
2. Gandhi’s myth: Richard Attenborough’s film, Gandhi.

Read “Part II: Non-cooperation movement and influence on the South Asian freedom movement” (p 50 – 105) of Romain Rolland’s biography, Mahatma Gandhi

How does Attenborough’s description of Gandhi compare to Rolland’s? Are they both similar in highlighting the public aspects of Gandhi's life, or are there subtle differences? Explain.
[Gandhi UL Call number: 65 V379 {VHS}; 65 DVD 1519 {DVD}.]
(I would prefer that class participants pair up to view the movie; I will also hand out personal copies of the film to make it easier for all participants to have a chance to view the movie.)
Gandhi on Satyagraha, audioclip.
3. Gandhi as a political figure in South Africa: Shyam Benegal’s film, The Making of the Mahatma.

Read “Part III: Continuation of the freedom movement” (p 106-141) of Romain Rolland’s biography, Mahatma Gandhi

What do you think of Benegal’s description of Gandhi’s life in South Africa? Do you find his stress on the private life of Gandhi combined with his public life in South Africa better than Attenborough's stress on Gandhi's public life? Why/why not?
[Making of the Mahatma 3 video copies provided in class.]
4. Comparison of various interpretations of Gandhi.

Final day for comprehensive discussion on Romain Rolland’s biography of Gandhi.

Read Orwell's essay on Gandhi, 5 pages (Essay: Reflections on Gandhi)
How have your perceptions of Gandhi changed after your readings and film viewings?
Activity: Debate.

Resolved: While proclaimed a saint in public life, Gandhi’s private life can best be described as a disaster.

Part II. Gandhi’s philosophy, its evolution

5. Gandhi’s philosophy

Hind Swaraj: IV – What is Swaraj? p 26-29

(selections) V – The condition of England p 30-33

VI – Civilization p 34-45

X – The condition of India (cont.): The Hindus and the Mahomedans p 51-57

XIII- What is true civilization? p 66-71

XVII-Passive Resistance p 88-99

Is Gandhi a radical anarchist? What are the long-term implications of Gandhian thought as expressed in your readings (according to you) for today?
Activity: Cotton weaving session. We will try to weave khadi and try to see how Gandhi tried to involve India's women and villagers in the freedom struggle via this seemingly benign undertaking.

6. An Autobiography-I: X – Glimpses of religion p 27-30

I:XV- Playing the English gentleman p 41-43 (compare with the “condition of England in HS)

II:IV – The First Shock p 81-83 (South Africa; compare with Benegal’s film)

III: XVII – A month with Gokhale p193-195

How does the autobiography compare with Hind Swaraj? Which do you find more appealing, the banal Autobiography or the radical Hind Swaraj?
Activity: Analyze some cartoons depicting Gandhi in Western (primarily British) and Indian newspapers. Two students will be asked to explain three cartoons – their significance and how they can be interpreted – to the entire class. Cartoons available at:


7. Brief selections from: Bible (“Sermon on the Mount,” Matthew Chapters 6 and 7), Gita (verses from Chapter 3, “Karma Yoga”), Qur’an (“Sura of Mary,” Sura 19).
Texts of the Qur’an and Bible are available at: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/relig.browse.html
For selections from the Gita (reference source: S. Radhakrishnan, The Bhagwad Gita) and the see class handout
Also, Gandhi on spirituality (Radio interview with BBC on 17th Oct, 1931)
What, according to you is the proper relation between religion and politics? Would Gandhi be against the secular nation-state?
Activity: Listen to Gita shlokas and Qur'an surahs. Two students will be asked to explain their own reactions to the shlokas and surahs respectively. We will also listen to Gandhi's daily ashram prayers. I will bring the Ashramanjali – ashram prayers – audio CD to class. Some music also available online.

8. Gandhi’s philosophy: influence of other thinkers –
Leo Tolstoy’s letter to Gandhi – Letter to a Hindoo
John Ruskin – Unto the Last (Essay I: “Roots of Honour” 20 p.)
Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience (p 1-19)
How would you describe the complex interplay and interconnections in philosophical thoughts/writings influencing Gandhi? Do you discern an intellectual/philosophical continuity among the works of Tolstoy, Ruskin, Thoreau and Gandhi?

9. Partition, Assassination, Vision
Gandhi, The pyramid vs. the oceanic circle
Jawaharlal Nehru, “The light has gone out of our lives…”
Lord Louis Mountbatten and Albert Einstein quotes.
Brief selection from “I, Nathuram Godse speak

Do you judge Gandhi’s life to be a success or failure, given the partition of India? How would you evaluate an argument that Gandhi unleashed religion into South Asian public life, which eventually led to the creation of religion fundamentalists, like his assassins?

Activity: Enact skit "I, Nathuram Godse speak"
03/10/2004 Spring break
(Start work on your final assignment if you have not done so already)

Part III. The legacy of Gandhi: his myth, influence on various movements and relevance today

10. Gandhi and the world at large during his time.
Gandhi, Letter to Hitler
Gandhi, Response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki (refer p 97-101, in The Words of Gandhi)
Discuss the movements in Denmark and Le Chambon during Nazi genocide.

Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies; browse links on the “Rescue of Jews in Denmark” and “Rescue of Jews in Le Chambon, France

(More information on these movements is available in Dennis Dalton's book, Mahatma Gandhi: nonviolent power in action)
Would Gandhian methods succeed in a totalitarian state?
Activity: Try to organize a satyagraha on campus on an issue that the whole class thinks needs to be addressed.

11. Gandhi and the world at large: in the sixties and the Civil Rights Movement, and today’s antiwar and green movements
Dr. Martin Luther King, “Sermon on Gandhi” (class handout)

Chinese / Iranian students movement

Chavez and his environmental/labor movement

Anti-war protests (also see University of Cincinnati history of war protests page)

Are Gandhian tactics still valid/efficacious today?1

12. Today’s Gandhis/Gandhian movements?

Dalai Lama

The Burmese freedom movement

Serbian freedom struggle (Otpor)
Think of a movement/event about which you have read in the past four weeks (in newspapers, books etc) where you think Gandhi has had a direct/indirect influence.
Try to discern the influence of the figure of Gandhi, or Gandhian thought on this movement/event. Is there any such influence? (general question: How influential is the figure of Gandhi, or Gandhian thought on current events?)
Activity: Execute the satyagraha organized and planned during the past two weeks and try to gauge its effectiveness in the liberal environs of our academia.

Part IV. Conclusion: Your analysis, interpretation

13. Differing interpretations of Gandhi – liberal, conservative, anarchist, fundamentalist.

Nelson Mandela’s article on Gandhi, “The Sacred Warrior

Also, Time: “Person of the Century Report” on Gandhi
What do you think of contemporary portrayals of Gandhi? Are they accurate, according to what you have read and discussed about Gandhi thus far?
14. Your analysis: What do you think about Gandhi now – after almost having completed this course? How have your perceptions about Gandhi and his philosophy changed (or remained constant) now?
15. Your analysis continued.


Submission of final assignment and course evaluations

Activity assignment description
Various "activity" sessions are interspersed throughout the course. These sessions are organized to make the course more interactive and encourage greater student participation.
The activity listed will be scheduled for the last half hour of class. The class will be divided into two large groups. During each activity session, both groups, or representatives from both groups (as needed, for example in debate sessions each group will choose one person as their representative) will participate in the activity listed for that day.
I will explain what is expected out of each activity a week prior to every class when we have an activity session.

Journal assignment description
Keep a regular journal that has entries for each class period. These entries must be atleast 250 words in length and must reflect on the readings/videos/audios of that class period; you can also relate any experience you have had in the past week or in the past that might be relevant to the readings etc. This journal is to help you forge some sort of continuity through the semester with the course; it will also aid you in your final assignment.

Final Assignment

Write a play on Gandhi. It can take any form – a dialogue between you and Gandhi or an interaction of historical/contemporary figures (famous and infamous) with Gandhi. You may structure the substantive content in any fashion; the main issue of discussion could be your grappling with Gandhi’s philosophy, or your trying to assess how others might react to his doctrines when applied to current issues etc. Let your creativity take over. Integrate the knowledge (/ignorance!) gained throughout the semester with your imagination. The only requirement is that the play be typed and be at least 1000 words in length (there is no maximum limit).


Write a poem (it could be blank verse) / essay on how Gandhi might react to any current event. It could be the war in Iraq, events of September 11, any personal event that has significantly changed you. The minimum length requirement is again at least a 1000 words and I would appreciate if you would be able to demonstrate that you have gained something from the course in your final submission.

1 Would Malcolm X have secured a better future for African Americans? Is it possible to appeal to public opinion / morality issues against a totalitarian regime effectively (Communists in China, compare with Nazi regime and discussion on WWII movements to save Jews; also see next class discussion of Otpor)

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