ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

Gandhi’s Power of Symbolism

Mahatma Gandhi in his communication with the masses made effective use of both symbols and symbolic language. He used symbols in order to mobilise the masses against both colonial and local configurations of power. In the colonial configuration, he used symbols such as salt, charkha, and khadi in order to mobilise the masses against the British imperialists. He picked up a fistful of salt only to drive home the point that the British were working against the interests of the people of India. In the local configuration of power, he used powerful symbols like the sun and symbolic language such as “Harijan”  to morally reason with the high-caste Hindus who were practising untouchability. He argued that the sun carries within it the absolute egalitarian value—it rises for everyone and gives light to everyone. He argued that if the sun gives light to everyone without discrimination and if the touchable Hindus and the untouchables are equal beneficiaries of sunlight, how can the touchables discriminate against the untouchables as far as entry into temples was concerned? His use of the sun as a symbol suggested equality as part of the natural social order. Similarly, he used the symbol of the charkha in order to emphasise the need for a moral economy based on the idea of self-reliance. The charkha underlined the need for cottage industries and indigenous technology and addressed the concerns of cotton growers. However, Gandhi’s symbolic acts acquired significance primarily in the colonial configuration of power and not so much in the local configuration. Charkha and salt, for instance, had an enormous impact on the nationalist mobilisation of the masses. His symbolic use of the term Harijan was malapportioned only to the untouchables, thus leaving a vast body of Hindus outside its impact. 

Gandhi used the clothing of the peasantry as another powerful symbolic act to identify with the poor peasants in India. For Gandhi, there was a moral scale in dressing down from the three-piece suit, which he wore during his practice as a barrister. His radical symbolism of attire involved the moral process of becoming a bare body clad with minimum clothing just like the peasant. 

The bare body does not create the desire for imitation. If that were the case, every Gandhian or Congress activist of the era would have been half-clad. The idea of imitation did not fit into the moral economy of the dress code adopted by Gandhi. The attire of the peasantry was the result of the working conditions and the state of the peasants’ dwindling economy. Gandhi’s clothing did not transgress the cultural code as regulated by the laws of Manu. In fact, Gandhi’s attire was culturally less problematic as it exists across several social castes and groups and secondly, it does not seek to transgress a cultural code. Put differently, it did not seek to annoy the touchable Hindu who could thrash or can fatally attack the untouchable for such transgression. Gandhi’s symbolism did not generate negative consciousness among the masses. There was no resistance as it was not associated with the dominant, but with the poor and the ordinary other.

It is here that one is tempted to draw a contrast between Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar. Ambedkar followed the exact opposite process. He transformed his body, hitherto covered by the extra-large clothes of his brother, to don a three-piece suit. It was the exact reversal of Gandhi. Secondly, the dress code of the untouchable, including that of Ambedkar’s, was prescribed by Manu and was regulated by the followers of Manu. Ambedkar himself had experienced such regulation when his aunt purchased a sari, and the shopkeeper soiled it in mud before selling it to her. By adopting the three-piece suit, he sought to defy Manu’s cultural code.

In his frame of moral economy, Gandhi ontologically links himself with the cultural and material world of the peasantry. Gandhi’s symbolism thus becomes radical, not against Manu, but against the market that induces in a person a ceaseless desire for material goods.


The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect the collective view from the journal.

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