Life Lessons From Mahatma Gandhiji’s Teachings -Part 01

Mahatma Gandhiji needs no introduction. Recently, I started reading his biography and came across some valuable lessons. I thought it could be useful for many other people. Therefore, I decided to share my notes on Gandhiji here. As I continue reading the book, I’ll add more lessons to this article.

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Finding an Interest -Interests are not discovered through introspection. Instead, interests are triggered by interactions with the outside world -Angela Duckworth.

As a child, M K Gandhiji went to watch a stage play called Harischandra. The show was about a King who faces several hardships for being truthful in his life. The king would lose the kingdom, livelihood, family, and becomes a slave. Yet, he remained truthful. Gandhiji was moved deeply by the tale.

Developing the Interest -What follows the initial discovery of interest is a much lengthier and increasingly proactive period of interest development. Crucially, the initial triggering of a new interest must be followed by subsequent encounters that retrigger your attention -again and again, and again -Angela Duckworth.

Gandhiji watched the play many times. The story got deeply ingrained in his emotional brain. When he was alone at home, he kept acting out Harischandra’s story several times. He wondered -Why should not all be truthful like Harischandra? -He kept asking himself day and night.

The Practice -The more time you spend on a new interest, the more you explore the various facets, the more passionate you become about the activity.

To follow the truth and go through all the ordeals Harischandra went through -It inspired M K Gandhiji. He saw meaning in the struggles. From that moment, Gandhiji decided to follow the path of truth at any cost. He felt -If Harischandra can do it, I can also do it. He believed that the story was real.

Gandhiji practiced the life of truth and preached it actively. He never compromised it. Truthfulness became his strength.

Be truthful in your personal as well as in professional life.

Note: As times change, being truthful is termed these days as Being Transparent.

In his childhood, Gandhiji hated reading books. Somehow, he managed to read school textbooks as his teacher would scold him. However, one day, he accidentally came across a book titled Shravana Pitribhakti Nataka & he began to read. It was a story about a teenager by name Shravana and his devotion to his old, blind parents -In the tale, Shravana would carry his blind parents to a pilgrimage, using slings fitted on his shoulders. Unfortunately, on the way, Shravan would be killed. His parents would be devastated on hearing the son’s death.

The story left an indelible mark in Gandhiji’s emotional mind. He sensed a deep pain in his heart, seeing the blind parent’s agony. He was in their shoes. He became empathetic.

Gandhiji’s journey of compassion began from here. It enabled him to inspire many people.

Atticus Finch says in the movie ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ -You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

The Benefits -Empathy for his people helped Gandhiji to understand them deeply. It helped him to work for their interests rather than on his affairs. Empathy made him humble and modest. It also helped him in abandoning prejudices or preconceived notions about his people.

Leader as one of the Followers -Compassion through empathy prompted Gandhiji to live like his followers. He lived among them. Eventually, he began to appear like one of his followers -like an ordinary person similar to them but capable of producing extraordinary results. And, that inspired people to try following his ideas/suggestions.

People willingly follow a leader if they see him/her as one of them. Gandhiji appeared like one of them due to his compassion. It built trust between him and followers that resulted in strong, long-lasting relationships. Relationships help in convincing followers to execute a leader’s ideas/suggestions.

To inspire people, practice empathy.

During MK Gandhiji’s first year at the high school, an educational inspector visited the institution. He gave five English words to write as a spelling exercise to the students. Unfortunately, Gandhiji could not spell one of the words. At the same time, away from the eyes of the inspector, Gandhiji’s teacher was hideously helping students to write all the words correctly.

Gandhiji felt a nudge on his feet. He saw his teacher standing there and signaling him to copy the spelling from the nearby student. The act shocked him. He thought that a teacher should discourage copying and set an example of discipline. Gandhiji ignored the signals.

The result -All the students, except Gandhiji, have spelled all the words correctly. The teacher called him a fool for not obeying his order.

Gandhiji writes that yet that incident did not diminish his respect for his teacher. From his childhood, he learned to separate the person from the behavior.

In later years, when several people avoided persons with bad habits, Gandhiji spent time with them. He could do that because he never labeled them based on their behavior. Separation of action from people gave him a growth mindset that people would change if rightly guided. It presented him with opportunities to motivate them to change.

This trait assisted Gandhiji to help people in changing their bad behavior.

In 1896, Gandhiji was returning to Durban, South Africa, from India. By that time, he had already become a well-known politician in South Africa, fighting for the rights of fellow Indians.

Gandhiji was unaware that a group of people was waiting in the Durban port to attack him. As soon he reached, the assembled crowd began to beat him up. By the time police reached the place to save him, Gandhiji had severe bruises and torn clothes.

Hearing the news, Joseph Chamberlain, the British Secretary of States for the Colonies, ordered police to punish all those who were responsible for the lynching. But Gandhiji intervened and said that the white men who tried to lynch him were misguided through a false news report. The reporters failed to spend time to authenticate the news. Gandhiji also added that he was sure that when the white men came to know the truth, they would be sorry for what they had done. He refused to identify his assailants.

Gandhiji was successful in separating the deed from the person. It brought him more friends and supporters, helping him in the pursuit of his goals.

Unfortunately, most of us hate some people because we dislike their specific behaviors. It blinds our judgment and personal growth.

Note: Several factors play a pivotal role in human behavior -The prenatal environment, their childhood environment, traumas, their genetics, their gene promoters, hormones, neural wiring, and the experiences they had in their life. In short, past and present environments play a critical role in the way a human behaves. So, we need to learn to separate the behavior from the person.

When Gandhiji was fifteen years old, he stole a bit of gold from his brother’s armlet to pay his brother’s debt. After he cleared the debt, Gandhiji began to feel bad about the theft. It pained him. He promised himself not to steal again. However, the guilt haunted him. A small trigger can set an explosion. Similarly, a small immoral act, if unchecked, could turn into a bad habit. Breaking bad habits is not easier.

The guilt experienced by a person could help in snapping a possible bad habit at its infancy.

The problem with the guilt is that it would fade very soon. Better not to postpone things.

There’s another problem with the guilt -When we repeat the evil act second time, we would feel less guilty. So, the best chance to stop establishing a bad habit is at the beginning. Leverage your feeling of guiltiness.

As the guilt was unmanageable, Gandhiji felt like confessing the theft to his father. But he was also afraid of opening up to his father -The fear was not because of the punishment he would receive but the pain his father would feel. While admitting one’s mistakes, most of us think only about how others would perceive us or how we manage the punishment! It is self-centered thinking. However, Gandhiji thought only about his father’s pain.

Finally, Gandhiji felt that as a follower of truth, he had to reveal his theft, irrespective of the pain it would cause. He wrote a letter to his father, confessing his sin, and asking his forgiveness. He handed the slip to his father, who was bedridden at that time. Gandhiji sat across him on a wooden plank. In the letter, he asked for a suitable punishment and promised him never to steal again in the future.

Gandhiji’s father read the letter and began to cry. The tears made the paper wet. He tore up the note and began to lie down. Gandhiji cried silently since his father neither uttered a single word nor looked at him. He could feel the pain of his father.

Gandhiji would have felt better if his father had gotten angry and beaten him. However, his silence prolonged his pain. It was unbearable. He felt the power of forgiveness. He realized that it would force people to change for the good.

Gandhiji sensed that the love between him and his father for each other grew further.

Guilt is a powerful emotion & that if used rightly, it can help in building a healthy relationship.

At the office or in life, instead of ruminating over the guilt, it would be better to accept the fact that it happened, reveal and apologize to the person, and figure out a way not to repeat the same act. Harness the energy of guilt.

Gandhiji writes, “A clean confession, combined with a promise never to commit the sin again, when offered before one who has the right to receive it, is the purest type of repentance.”

When Gandhiji was in high school, the headmaster made gymnastics and cricket compulsory after school hours. Gandhiji hated those physical activities as he thought that it would not add any value to learning or personal development. However, in his later years, he changed this view and supported physical training along with education.

Gandhiji began to skip gymnastics classes in the evenings as he had to take care of his bedridden father. Unfortunately, his teacher didn’t want to hear reasons and was forcing him to attend all the classes without fail.

On one Saturday, Gandhiji attended the morning school session and came back home to take care of his father. He had a gymnastics class on that day at 4 pm. Gandhiji wanted to attend that class, fearing his teacher.

At that time, watches or clocks were rare & most people were dependent on clouds to estimate the time. Gandhiji lost himself in serving his father. He also didn’t pay proper attention to the clouds. So, by the time he reached the school, the gymnastics class was over. Gandhiji was worried.

The next day, Gandhiji told the real reason for not attending class. Unfortunately, the teacher didn’t believe him and scolded him. He also asked Gandhiji to pay a fine.

Gandhiji felt deep pain. The pain was not because of the punishment but was being convicted for lying.

Gandhiji realized that carelessness was the reason why he was in that situation. He felt that a man of truth must also be a man of care. From that moment, he vowed not to be careless.

Carlessness is detrimental to one’s personal growth. If unchecked, it would slowly extend to other domains of daily life. Soon, without our knowledge, it would become a habit. Sloppiness, laziness, negligence, poor self-control, procrastination, low sense of urgency, and disregard of small errors would become a natural trait. It is critical to address the carelessness whenever we encounter it. If you want to become a leader, it is far more essential to nip it in the bud.

One of the reasons why Gandhiji was careless -It was his lack of interest in gymnastics. He was disengaged from that activity as he didn’t enjoy it. So, the lesson -We are all a part of society. No man is an island. So, sometimes we have to do activities that we don’t love. The way to avoid carelessness is to find a way to enjoy those activities. Break down the action into components, explore them, tweak them, and develop interest. Once you began to enjoy them, you would say goodbye to that carelessness.

Gandhiji’s parents got him married when he was about to enter the third standard in the school. It forced him to skip a year of education. When he came back, he was supposed to join the third standard. However, one of his teachers met the school headmaster and recommended him for the fourth standard. The teacher, having taught Gandhiji, believed in him and felt that he’s capable enough to manage fourth standard subjects.

Gandhiji happily rejoined the school. Unfortunately, after some time, he began to find the subjects challenging to understand. He felt that he was losing interest.

Gandhiji was worried that he might discontinue his education like some of his friends. He sensed that going back to the third standard would be a possible solution to continue learning.

However, he suddenly remembered the teacher who recommended his promotion. Gandhiji felt that he was thinking only about himself until that time. He was upset about being self-centered.

Gandhiji realized that if he discontinued, it would shatter the teacher’s confidence. It would show the teacher’s judgment in poor light. The teacher would become hesitant to recommend anyone. Moreover, the management might not value the teacher’s opinions in the future.

Gandhiji realized that it was vital to repay the teacher’s faith in him. He had to make the teacher proud of his judgment.

Gandhiji decided to continue his fourth standard. To his surprise, slowly, he began to understand the subjects. He could overcome the obstacles. Finally, he passed the class with good marks.

Reframe -Gandhiji found the way to overcome the obstacles when he reframed his motivational reason -Instead of working to achieve his goals, for his benefits, he had reframed it to achieve his goals for the benefit of others. He worked hard not for himself but his teacher. It’s not about us but for others.

Imagine that you find somebody struggling to achieve their goal -You feel that he/she is stuck deep in a rut and not knowing how to move forward(similar to Gandhiji’s situation here) -You see that he/she is taking things personally and being tough on himself/herself and yet, the results are not there.

How to motivate him/her? -We can encourage him/her by saying that he/she can do it -we can point out a skill that could help him/her achieve the dream -We can ask them to envision the future when they reach their goals. For many people, these pieces of advice may not work. It would force a person to subconsciously focus on himself/herself and his/her abilities.

For achieving success, the mind needs to focus on the work at hand rather than on himself/herself. Everyone has got a limited working memory. If thinking about self occupies a part of that working memory, then we would be left with only a small space to focus on the activity itself. We would struggle for attention to detail. Our cognitive ability would suffer. It’s no wonder why we fail to achieve our goals. On the other hand, when we desire to do an action for the sake of others, we would forget everything and utilize our working memory to the fullest to think solely about the activities.

We can also draw more energy from our mind and body to accomplish the tasks. Ah! The persistence!

We would ignore our limitations and focus only on the activities. That’s an excellent sign!.

So, the solution is to change the mind’s motivational reason, like how Gandhiji did.

In the ‘Million Dollar Arm’ movie, the two young Indian youngsters, Dinesh and Rinku, were given another try-out opportunity to demonstrate their baseball pitching skills. The pair grew up in rural India and lived a life of poverty. Ten months back, the sports agent JB Bernstein brought them to America, wishing to train them as baseball players. After the training, Dinesh and Rinku participated in the first try-out for players selection but failed miserably. Fortunately, now they’ve got another opportunity. It would be their last chance to enter an American baseball team. Both of them were under tension and finding it difficult to focus.

Observing Dinesh and Rinku’s restlessness, JB Bernstein would ask his assistant Amit(An Indian) to go and motivate the boys. Amit would be surprised to be given such a huge responsibility. He would hesitate for a moment. While walking towards the boys, Amit would think about the content.

After some deliberation, Amit talks to Dinesh and Rinku, “Guys, All my life, I wanted to be a baseball player. But I didn’t get an opportunity like you. It’s a great sport. You, Rinku… You, Dinesh… You are baseball players now. Real baseball players. Both of you were from poor families, that too from rural India, and came this far. Now small boys in India can dream to become like you. So, Let’s Go. Let’s make JB Bernstein, Brenda, Ray, coach, and our families proud. The whole of India is on you. Make them proud.”

Amit didn’t talk about Dinesh or Rinku’s abilities. He didn’t ask them to envision the rewards they would receive. He asked them to succeed in the try-out for the sake of others -Indians, boys from the rural village, their parents, JB Bernstein and his fiancee, and for his coach.

Even in Invictus movie, the struggling South African rugby team goes on to win the world cup. Before the competition, the country’s president Nelson Mandela would meet the team’s captain and motivate him to win the cup for the people of the country.

You would function fully to your ability if you are doing the work for the sake of others rather than for yourself. And, the chances of success are high.

Moreover, the research shows that people are happier when they accomplished something for the sake of others rather than for themselves. It’s the opposite of being selfish —It’s a semi-altruistic behavior.

My Personal Experience -When I was in high school, there was a big wooden board where 10th and 12th school topper’s names were written by the authorities every year. For years, my second standard teacher used to tell everyone that one day, my name would appear on that board. Being from a family of poverty, I also wanted to succeed and see my name on that board. It could help me to grow in my career.

I reached the tenth standard. Unfortunately, in the final public examination, I was not the topper. I was not even on the list of top 30.

I was upset. I cried for being a failure.

I felt the pain.

Suddenly, the thought of my second class teacher began to haunt my mind. How would she feel? The teacher had publicly advertised my name everywhere.

I couldn’t imagine the situation when the teacher couldn’t find my name on the board. It was unbearable.

Soon, I had another opportunity. I continued my education at the same school. If I become a school topper in the 12th standard examinations, my name would be on the board.

I began to prepare. This time, I worked hard not for myself but to show that the teacher was right in her belief and judgment.

Somehow, I could figure out the mistakes in my reading ability. I rectified them. I tweaked the way I studied the subjects.

Finally, the exams arrived. The results came. I became the school topper. After getting my mark sheet, the first thing that came to mind was -a feeling of relaxation. My teacher was vindicated. Whenever she visits the school, she won’t be upset. That feeling gave me more happiness than my marks.

One of the best motivational tools to achieve success -You want to do it for others rather than for yourself.

Other Lessons -To be continued…

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at or

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