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 Table of Contents    
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 63  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 88-90
Gandhian thought and mental health – A critique

1 Department of Psychiatry, Government Medical College and Hospital, Chandigarh, India
2 Department of Philosophy, Mehr Chand Mahajan DAV College for Women, Chandigarh, India

Click here for correspondence address and email

Date of Submission07-Jan-2020
Date of Decision07-Feb-2020
Date of Acceptance27-Apr-2020
Date of Web Publication15-Feb-2021


The entire gamut of psychiatric literature heavily references notions derived from western impressions. For many concepts, however, one need not go that far. The roots for various concepts, when examined closely, can be found in Gandhian thought and philosophy. Apart from his precious kernels in the fields of diet, sanitation and exercise; there are concepts in psychology, mental well-being and psychotherapy which seem like allusions to Gandhian principles. Nevertheless, to state that all his ideas hold true would be overzealous. His concepts of sexuality would not find favour with the modern mental health professional. The trick probably would be to see Gandhi in a more human light rather than the superhuman divinity that has been associated with him. This would allow us to better incorporate his principles in everyday life of regular individuals.

Keywords: Gandhi, Gandhian philosophy, mental health

How to cite this article:
Mahajan S, Mahajan S. Gandhian thought and mental health – A critique. Indian J Psychiatry 2021;63:88-90

How to cite this URL:
Mahajan S, Mahajan S. Gandhian thought and mental health – A critique. Indian J Psychiatry [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 Nov 29];63:88-90. Available from:

   Introduction Top

Few personalities have attained international recognition as the Mahatma managed to; having captured the imagination of millions of people worldwide. He embodies the story of an ordinary man who went on to do extraordinary things, which underlines his connect with the masses. He has transcended boundaries of country, race, religion, gender, caste, and creed and has carved his niche in the collective conscience of people.

The Gandhian principles of ahimsa and satyagraha enjoy worldwide renown as forming the basis of the Indian freedom struggle, making him one of the best known, idolized, and revered figures in modern history. The man was not merely a lawyer, activist, and leader. One would not think twice before calling him a philosopher, who deliberated in depth about morality, ethics, society, science, religion, god, and life itself: Precisely a description of a philosopher's contemplations.

   Gandhi and Health Top

Gandhi worked extensively in the field of health and well-being. It is, however, oddly unsettling that we seem to have forgotten its applications in the contemporary society. India currently sits astride a strange dilemma when it comes to the health of our nation. Communicable disease still remains a massive issue, and parallel to this, noncommunicable disease is on the rise, owing to sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diet, and constitutes a major public health concern. These two together form the double-edged sword that hangs over the metaphorical neck of our nation's health situation. Despite significant effort, the honest truth remains that bringing health to all is a Herculean task for India.

Gandhi talked about sanitation, balanced diet and nutrition, physical exercise, healthy lifestyle, and disease prevention,[1],[2] all of which form the foundation of preventive medicine and represent the Hippocratic quote “The greatest medicine of all is to teach people how not to need it.” It is imperative to note that these principles put forward by Gandhi in the 20th century were indeed incorruptible and eternal, and it would be a service to oneself and to one's nation to implement these in earnest.

   Mental Health Through a Gandhian Perspective Top

”A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.”

The relevance of these words by Gandhi in the context of one's mental well-being cannot be stressed enough. With nearly 14% of Indians suffering from a mental illness,[3] the burden of behavioral and mental disorders in the country is unprecedented. The fact that provisions of mental healthcare and treatment are grossly inadequate and that a huge treatment gap still remains just adds insult to injury. Medical management has the ability to rid patients of most of their symptoms, but it does not make them entirely functional. It is in this rehabilitation process that Gandhian principles seem very relevant.[4] Advocacy in the community, mobilization of support and resources, and engagement in local income-generating activities are all strategies to rehabilitate a person with mental illness. At the core of these strategies are the principles of indigenous livelihood generation as promulgated by Gandhi. Allowing these persons the opportunity to occupy themselves in vocational activities gives them a sense of respect and financial independence.

However, it is not enough to talk just about diagnosable mental illnesses. Mental health encompasses various domains of our personal, social, professional, and emotional lives. The situation of our young generation is particularly worrying, with our most productive workers fighting skewed work–life balance and family structure breakdown. In the pursuit of beating mediocrity, we have managed to fracture our mental peace, which is a clear antithesis to the “simple living and high thinking” maxim Gandhi had propagated.

The older generation is no better, with migration leaving so many families bereft of their younger ones to take the reins when the parents are old and require support. Gandhi was a champion of supportive family bonds, which he actually believed to extend beyond ties of blood and ancestry. If there was ever a time to look out for our fellow beings and extend assistance, it is now, in times where self-serving is glorified. In addition, the science of psychiatry is now increasingly looking toward spirituality as a resource, which has long been considered by Gandhi as a potential healing tool.

Gandhi did not simply put forward concepts because he felt they were correct. He followed quite a scientific method, so to speak, to establish the rationale behind them, and test their relevance and effectiveness in everyday life. One might not always choose to agree with the outcomes of his experiments, but one cannot dispute that his method is a practical way of critically assessing our own thoughts. This concept is also seen at the heart of the widely used and scientifically validated cognitive behavior therapy, which teaches us to take cognizance of our dysfunctional thoughts and make efforts to mend them.[5]

Despite the relevance of these Gandhian concepts in mental health, it would be pertinent to recognize the current trends in psychiatric practice which might not be in complete concordance with his ideas of “nature cure”. Gandhi mentioned in his writings numerous times his skepticism about medical treatments instituted by doctors and placed his faith in nature-derived treatments for various maladies. He believed that a good family life, sound values, and internal harmony constitute the substrate for good health and a healthy balance between physical and mental well-being. Although he never outrightly shunned modern medicine, his constant accentuation of natural cures being superior to medical management for all illnesses underscores his lack of belief in allopathic practice. The scrutiny of various aspects of this debate is crucial in a world where there is an ongoing struggle between these two factions. In the discipline of psychiatry, the biological model often clashes with the psycho-socio-spiritual model. People tend to attribute numerous illnesses to “stress,” “conflicts,” and “poor lifestyle” and attempt to look for treatments in this regard. On the other hand, mental health professionals often ignore the contribution of psycho-socio-spiritual angles in the causation and maintenance of mental illness and also discount their potential contribution in their management.

An issue which has plagued our society for years together and continues to do so is drug use, which costs our country dearly in terms of economic losses and health-care burden. The crux of the problem remains the same, just the visage keeps changing-alcohol, tobacco, opium, heroin, cocaine, and other designer drugs. This has initiated an onslaught of related problems such as infectious diseases, mental illnesses, and crime. What has led to this, one asks while reminiscing Gandhi's preachings of self-restraint and maintaining complete abstinence from substances with abuse and dependence potential.[6] His teachings of abstinence ranged from substances to even behaviors. In this context, it is worrying that mental health professionals are increasingly seeing cases of behavioral addictions as well, such as gambling, internet use, and online gaming. Containment of the situation is of utmost importance, and it is now thought that attempts of complete abstinence might not be the most practical thing, least of all when it comes to commonly used substances such as alcohol and tobacco. Drug use lies on a spectrum, and attempts have to be made to bring down the person from the extreme end of the spectrum toward the other end. This principle of harm minimization may be more feasible to implement than that aiming at abstinence. In addition, the proclivity of Gandhian thought to use parlance such as “evil” to describe substance use tends to gravitate toward a condemnation and stigmatization of individuals with drug use problems, which also goes against the disease model of addiction.

It is widely noticed that a sexual revolution is coming to India, and it is time to detach sexuality from morality and bring it the freedom it should have. This does not mean that one should lose their decency; it simply means that one's sexuality is a personal matter, and at the same time, a very natural and human instinct to have and should not be treated as an unscrupulous act.

The concept of brahmacharya preached by Gandhi was not exclusively about sexuality, but talked about control over all senses. Its sections which talk about marriage and physical intimacy will not entirely find favor with the modern Indian or the modern mental health professional. His views on the upliftment and equality of women are definitely appreciated, but in this day and age when feminism is taking its long-deserved place on the forefront, his puritanical ideas on chastity, celibacy, and birth control are implausible. Furthermore, his experiments in celibacy with young girls, labeled by him as tests of his brahmacharya, seem beyond objectionable and have in fact been described as misogynistic.[7]

Gandhi has described brahmacharya also as a way of attaining physical health and ensuring longevity by the preservation of the body's “vital fluid,” the loss of which results in fatigue because of the body being sapped of its energy. It was also this reason that he was highly concerned with nocturnal emissions, actually known to be a normal physical phenomenon. One cannot help but draw parallels with commonly abound sexual misconceptions, as well as Dhat Syndrome, a culture-bound psychiatric illness. The Gandhian concept of Sarvodaya, meaning “universal upliftment,” is a wide concept rooted in political philosophy and aimed to promote equality and liberty. However, the foundation of this concept can be found in Gandhi's altruism-to be selfless and work tirelessly for the upliftment of others. It is disconcerting, hence, that Gandhi's persistent repudiation of women's sexual health and censorious denial of life's pleasures should in essence be a prohibition of another person's free will. This stiff self-righteousness seems to border on pathological altruism, and one is in fact tempted to term it essentially quixotic.

   Conclusion Top

There is no denying the relevance of Gandhian principles in contemporary society, and it would serve us well to direct our efforts toward bringing back some of his practices in our lives. Having said that, it is of essence to scrutinize his beliefs and test their relevance, Gandhi has himself furnished us with material that this suggestion comes out of. One is aware that criticizing his beliefs may seem iconoclastic to an extent, but it is perhaps time, especially for Indians, to look at the Mahatma through a more humanizing eye rather than a paradigm of sanctitude.

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   References Top

Gandhi M. Diet and Diet Reform. Edited by Bharatan Kumarappa. 1st ed. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House; 1949.  Back to cited text no. 1
Gandhi M. Key to Health. Translated by Sushila Nayyar. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House; 1948.  Back to cited text no. 2
Gururaj G, Varghese M, Benegal V, Rao GN, Pathak K, Singh LK, et al. NMHS Collaborators Group. National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16: Summary. Bengaluru: National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, NIMHANS Publication No. 128; 2016.  Back to cited text no. 3
Gregg RB. Gandhiji as a social scientist and social inventor. In: Radhakrishnan S, editor. Mahatma Gandhi Essays and Reflections. Mumbai: Jaico Publishers; 2012. p. 60-5.  Back to cited text no. 4
Beck JS. Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond. 2nd ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press; 2011. p. 19-20.  Back to cited text no. 5
Gandhi M. Drinks, Drugs and Gambling. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House; 1952.  Back to cited text no. 6
Connellan M. Women Suffer from Gandhi's Legacy. London: The Guardian; 2010.  Back to cited text no. 7

Correspondence Address:
Smriti Mahajan
Department of Psychiatry, Government Medical College and Hospital, Chandigarh
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_23_20

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