Back | Next

THE SELECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI > Vol. V - THE VOICE OF TRUTH > Part II- Section VI : Art, Literature and Science > On Art


32. On Art

There are two aspects of things, the outward and the inward. It is purely a matter of emphasis with me. The outward has no meaning except in so far as it helps the inward. All true Art is thus the expression of the soul. The outward forms have value only in so far as they are the expression of the inner spirit of man.

I know that many call themselves as artists, and are recognized as such, and yet in their works there is absolutely no trace of the soul’s upward urge and unrest….

Take Oscar Wilde. I can speak of him, as I was in England at the time that he was being much discussed and talked about…. Wilde saw the highest Art simply in outward forms and, therefore, succeeded in beautifying immorality. All true Art must help the soul to realize its inner self. In my own case, I find that I can do entirely without external forms in my soul’s realization. I can claim, therefore, that there is truly sufficient Art in my life, though you might not see what you call works of Art about me. My room may have blank walls; and I may even dispense with the roof, so that I may gaze out upon the starry heavens overhead that stretch in an unending expanse of beauty. What conscious Art of man can give me the panoramic scenes that open out before me, when I look up to the sky above with all its shining stars? This, however, does not mean that I refuse to accept the value of productions of Art, generally accepted as such, but only that I personally feel how inadequate these are compared with the eternal symbols of beauty in Nature. These productions of man’s Art have their value only so far as they help the soul onward towards self-realization.

I see and find beauty in Truth or through Truth. All truths, not merely true ideas, but truthful faces, truthful pictures, or songs, are highly beautiful. People generally fail to see Beauty in Truth, the ordinary man runs away from it and becomes blind to the Beauty in it. Whenever men begin to see Beauty in Truth, then true Art will arise.

Mere outward form may not make a thing beautiful. To a true artist only that face is beautiful which, quite apart from its exterior, shines with the Truth within soul. There is then, as I have said, no beauty apart from Truth. On the other hand, Truth may manifest itself in forms which may not be outwardly beautiful at all. Socrates, we are told, was the most truthful man of his time and yet his features are said to have been the ugliest in Greece. To my mind, he was beautiful because all his life was a striving after Truth, and you may remember that his outward form did not prevent Phidias from appreciating the beauty of Truth in him, though as an artist he was accustomed to see Beauty in outward forms also!

Truth and untruth often co-exist; good and evil are often found together. In an artist also, not seldom the right perception of things and the wrong co-exist. Truly beautiful creations come when right perception is at work. If these moments are rare in life, they are also rare in Art.

Young India, 13-11-24, p. 377


Truth is the first thing to be sought for, and Beauty and Goodness will then be added unto you. Jesus was, to my mind, a supreme artist, because he saw and expressed Truth; and so was Mohammed, the Quran being the most perfect composition in all Arabic literature, at any rate, that is what scholars say. It is because both of them strove first for Truth, that the grace of expression naturally came in; and yet neither Jesus nor Mohammed wrote on Art. That is the Truth and beauty I crave for, live for, and would die for.

“May not after all some artists be able to see Truth in and through Beauty?”

Some may, but here too, just as elsewhere, I must think in terms of the millions. And to the millions we cannot give that training to acquire a perception of Beauty in such a way as to see Truth in it. Show them Truth first, and they will see beauty afterwards…. Whatever can be useful to those starving millions is beautiful to my mind. Let us give today the vital things of life, and all the graces and ornaments of life will follow.

Young India, 20-11-24, p. 386


Man’s beauty is in his character, that of a beast in its bodily form. In the case of cow, for instance, we may say how good it is because of its skin, or hair, or feet, or horns; in the case of man, on the other hand, we do not say that he is good, because he is five feet and a half, and bad because he is four feet and a half, and better if he is an inch more than five and a half feet. The basis of goodness or badness in the case of man lies in his heart, not in the body, or even in accumulated wealth.

Bapu’s Letters to Ashram Sisters, (1952), p. 102


True beauty, after all, consists in purity of heart.

Young India, 20-10-27, p. 350


Why should I need an artist to explain a work of art to me? Why should it not speak out to me itself? I tell you what I mean. I saw in the Vatican art collection a statue of Christ on the Cross which simply captured me and kept me spell-bound. I saw it five years ago but it is still before me. There was no one there to explain its charm to me. In Belur in Mysore, I saw in the ancient temple a bracket in stone made of a little statuette, which spoke out to me without anyone to help me to understand it. It was just a woman, half-naked, struggling with the folds of her clothes to extricate herself from the shafts of cupid, who is after all lying defeated at her feet in the shape of a scorpion. I could see the agony on the form-the agony of the stings of the scorpion. That, at any rate, was my interpretation of it….

I want art and literature that can speak to the millions.

Harijan, 14-11-36, p. 315


People who claim to pursue “art for art’s sake” are unable to make good their claim. There is a place for art in life, apart from the question-what is art? But art can only be a means to the end which we must all of us achieve. If however, it becomes an end in itself, it enslaves and degrades humanity.

The Diary of Mahadev Desai I, (1953), p. 160


Few people, who have devoted themselves to art, are known to have achieved a unique blending of devotion to art and pure and blameless life. We have somehow accustomed ourselves to the belief that art is independent of the purity of private life. I can say with all the experience at my command that nothing could be more untrue. As I am nearing the end of my earthly life, I can say that purity of life is the highest and truest art. The art of producing good music from a cultivated voice can be achieved by many, but art of producing that music from the harmony of a pure life is achieved very rarely.

Harijan, 19-2-38, p. 10


True art takes note not merely of form, but also of what lies behind. There is an art that kills and an art that gives life…. True art must be evidence of happiness, contentment and purity of its authors.

Young India, 11-8-21, p. 253


“Won’t you ask people to grow flowers on a small piece of land? Colour and beauty is as necessary to the soul, as food is to the body.”

No, I won’t. Why can’t you see the beauty of colour in vegetables? And then, there is beauty in the speckles sky. But no, you want the colours of the rainbow which is a mere optical illusion. We have been taught to believe that what is beautiful need not be useful and what is useful cannot be beautiful. I want to show that what is useful can also be beautiful.

Harijan, 7-4-46, 67


Beauty divorced from utility is inconceivable, utility here being taken in the widest sense of the word. Cloth woven from 400s may or may not be good for wearing, but the laborious effort which one has to put forth in spinning such superfine yarn, the mysteries of the art of spinning which are unfolded to him and the solutions of problems which suggest themselves to him in the process are all beneficial for Daridranarana (God as the poor)……

What do the pictures and sculptures which held me spell-bound at the Vatican show? There are not many who have the capacity of appreciating their beauty. But the painters and the sculptors in question certainly worked with a view to serve humanity. If a picture inspires evil thoughts in the minds of the spectator, it does not deserve to be called artistic. For, art is that which leads a man one step forward on the path of morality and gives him elevated views. If it degrades him ethically, it is not art, but only obscenity.

The Diary of Mahadev Desai- I, (1953), pp. 224-25


Who can deny that much that passes for science and art today destroys the soul instead of uplifting it, and instead of evoking the best in us panders to our basest passions?

Young India, 11-8-27, p. 255


There is a famous classical saying which has now become a proverb that he man ‘that hath no music in himself’ is either an ascetic or a beast. We are far from being ascetics, and to the extent that we are devoid of music we are near allied to beasts. To know music is to transfer it to life. The prevalent discord of today is an indication of our sad plight….

Where there is discord and every one striking his own tune, there is bad government or anarchy….Where there is filth and squalor and misery, there can be no music. It implies an atmosphere quite the contrary. If we put a broad interpretation on music, i.e., if we mean by it union, concord, mutual help, it may be said that in no department of life can we dispense with it.

Music today has been regarded to mean the vocal effort of a singing girl. We fight shy of sending our sisters and daughters to music schools. There seems to be superstition that their voice is best when it is devoid of sweetness.

Music, truly speaking, is an ancient and sacred art. The hymns of Sama Veda1 are mine of music, and no ayat2 of Quran can be recited unmusically. David’s psalms transport you to raptures and remind you of hymns from Sama Veda. Let us revive that art….

But to go a step further. If we would see music in millions of our poor homes, we should all wear Khadi and spin. The music of the spinning-wheel can be a free gift to all and is, therefore, sweeter. It is the hope and solace and mainstay of the millions and for me, therefore, the truly good music.

Young India, 15-4-26, p. 140


Music has given me peace. I can remember occasions when music instantly tranquilized occasions my mind when I was greatly agitated over something. Music has helped me to overcome anger. I can recall occasions when a hymn sank deep into me, though the same thing expressed in prose had failed to touch me. I also found that the meaning of hymns discordantly sung has failed to come home to me and that it burns itself on my mind when they have been properly sung. When I hear Gita verses melodiously recited, I never grow weary of hearing; and the more I hear, the deeper sinks the meaning into my heart. Melodious recitations of the Ramayana, which I heard in my childhood, left on me an impression which years have not obliterated or weakened. I distinctly remember how when once the hymn.

“The path of the Lord is meant for the brave, not the coward” was sung to me in an extraordinary sweet tune, it moved me as it had never before. In 1907, while in the Transvaal I was almost fatally assaulted, the pain of the wounds was relieved when, at my instance, Oliver Doke gently sang to me’ Lead Kindly Light’.

Let no one infer from this that I know music. On the contrary, it would be more correct to say that my knowledge of music is very elementary. I cannot critically judge music. All I can claim is that I have a natural ear for good homely music.

I do not mean to suggest either that because the influence of music has been uniformly good on me, it must act similarly on others. On the contrary, I know that many people employ music to feed their carnal passions. To sum up, therefore, we may say that the influence of music will differ according to temperaments. As Tulsidas has sung:

“The Lord of Creation created everything in this world as an admixture of good and evil.

“But a good man selects the good and rejects the evil, even as the fabled swan is said to help himself to cream, leaving the water in the milk.”

Young India, 10-1-29, p. 15


Music exercises great influence on us. We have not given sufficient consideration to this important fact or else we should have provided for the teaching of music to our boys and girls. The Vedic hymns are found to have been composed on the basis of music.

Harmonious music has the power to soothe the anguish of the soul. At times, we find that there is too much restlessness prevailing in large gatherings. This can be arrested and calmed if a national song is sung by all. When a larger number of people sing in harmony it is very inspiring and uplifting. Hundreds of boys singing a poem full of the spirit of adventure and bravery will be an impressive spectacle. While carrying on their work it is quite common to the boatmen and other labourers raise the cry of Harihar3 and Alla-beli4. This is to enable them to do their work more easily. It is an example of the power of music. I have seen my English friends trying to ignore the cold weather by singing. Our boys easily pick up songs from popular plays and learn to play upon such a crude musical instrument as the harmonium. This prevents cultivation a taste for a good music. Instead, if they were trained in classical music, their time which is now wasted in singing popular and often silly songs, would be put to good use. Just as a trained singer does not sing out of tune or out to time, even so a learner of the right kind of music would not sing dirty songs. Music must be given a place in our scheme of education, and its value in the cultural awakening of the people accepted.

True Education, (1962), p. 30


“Do you really care for music?”

What a question! I have loved music-particularly devotional songs-since my childhood days. Of course I cannot claim, I warn you, and expert or analytical knowledge of its technique, but I cannot say I regret that very much, seeing that good music always moves me-genuinely. After all that is the essential thing, isn’t it?

“Don’t you think such knowledge generally deepens our appreciation for music as an art?”

Maybe. But as I told you just now I have never pined for expertism. To me music is something to receive joy and inspiration from, and I am quite content so long as I get that.

How well I remember, the joy and peace and comfort that music used to give me when I was ailing in a South African hospital. I was then recovering from some hurts I had received at the hands of some roughs who had been engaged to cripple me-thanks to the growing success of my Passive Resistance Campaign. At my request the daughter of a friend of mine used, very often, to sing to me the famous hymn, ‘Lead Kindly Light’. And how it acted like a healing balm-invariably! I still remember this song with the gratitude. So there-are you persuaded that I really care for music-or shall I have to adduce more convincing proofs?

Mira’s songs are always beautiful. Well-I know a good many of them. I like the members of my Ashram to sing to me her lovely songs-so touching in their sincerity and poetic appeal!...

They are so moving, because they are so genuine. Mira sang because she could not help singing. Her songs well forth straight from the heart-like a spray. They were not composed for the lure of fame or popular applause as are some others’ songs….

It would be tragedy indeed if our beautiful music were to die from sheer popular neglect and indifference. I have always said so….

“To be frank, I was under the impression that art had no place in the gospel of your austere life. In fact I had often pictured you as a dread saint who was positively against music.”

Against music I !....

“May not your asceticism be somewhat responsible for such popular misconceptions? For surely you wouldn’t blame the people too much if they found it rather difficult to reconcile asceticism with art?”

But I do maintain that asceticism is the greatest of all arts. For what is art but beauty in simplicity and what is asceticism but the loftiest manifestation of simple beauty in daily life shorn of artificialities and make –believes? That is why I always say that a true ascetic not only practices art but lives it…..I cannot even conceive of the evolution of India’s religious life without her music!

“Why then do people suppose that you are unkind to art?”

Well-well-there are some plausible reasons, I imagine. One is that I fail to see anything in much that passes for art in these days. In other words, my values are different. For instance, I don’t call that a great art which demands an intimate knowledge of technique for its appreciation. To me art, in order to be truly great, must, like the beauty of Nature, be universal in its appeal. I cannot, for the life of me, call the power of making hair-splitting distinctions the test of artistic appreciation. True art and its appreciation can have nothing to do with sophisticated pretentiousness. It must be simple in its presentation and direct in its expression like the language of Nature.

“But I am told you are averse to pictures on the walls of your rooms.”

But why must my walls be overlaid with pictures if I thought that walls were meant only for sheltering us? Why may I not use of them for other purposes?

“But if other people should want to have pictures.”

 That is their affair, not mine. If it pleases them, let them adorn their walls with as many pictures as they like. Only I do not need them for my inspiration that is all. Nature suffices for me and that’s all, there is to it.

Have I not gazed and gazed at the marvelous mystery of the starry vault, hardly ever tiring of that great panorama? Have I not the forests and the seas, the rivers and the mountains, the fields and the valleys with which to slake my thirst for beauty? Could one conceive of any painting comparable in inspiration to that of the star-studded sky, the majestic sea, the noble mountains? Is there a painter’s colour comparable to the vermillion of an emergent dawn or the gold of a parting a day? No, my friend, I need no inspiration other than Nature’s. She has never failed me yet: she mystifies me, bewilders me, sends me into ecstasies. What need have I for the childish colour-schemes of humans? Beside God’s handiwork does not man’s fade into insignificance? And-to be more concrete-tell me how can art be so thrilling, after all, when Nature, the mightiest artist, is there to cater for us!

Life must immensely exceed all the arts put together. For what is this hot-house art-plant of yours without life-soul and background of a steady worthy life? It may be all very edifying to flaunt it, but what, after all, does this fussing with art amount to if it all the time stultifies life instead of elevating it? Is not grotesque to claim-as so many artists do-that art is the crown of creation, the last meaning of existence?

Art greater than life indeed! As if you could ever truly live under the aegis of a slogan! As if the soul could be spoon-fed with just one principle of enjoyment! It is exactly when such high pretensions are loud in the land in the name of art that I have to cry halt. For to me the greatest artist is surely he who lives the finest life. It is therefore not art I repudiate, but the lofty airs it gives itself. In other words, my values are different, that’s all….

To me life is far too great a mystery, far too sacred a gift of the Gods to be appraised adequately from one particular angle. And that is why, I said so categorically just now that the greatest artist is he who lives the finest life.

Among the Great, (1950), pp. 61-67


I did not want to suggest arts were to be roundly condemned by all. Don’t I know that people have different temperaments? I merely meant that so far as I was concerned I had no need of arts like painting for my own inspiration. For I myself find enough satisfaction in the view of the starry vault. Perhaps Europe needs paintings to satisfy her. She hasn’t our sky.

Her love for painting may, indeed, be due to other sources. I only wanted to impress on you the fact that I personally, find paintings rather superfluous….

I must repeat I am not keen about painting….

I have told you that so far as I am concerned Nature suffices for me. But for others, if they are sincerely convinced that arts such as painting do any real good to humanity, so far so good. Only, let the artist guard against self-deception and self-love. Let him be always alive to his duty towards the masses. To the extent that his art benefits the masses, it is to be approved of. To the extent that it doesn’t, it is to be discouraged.

I cannot quite see eye to eye with those who swear by specialization. A real work of art should appeal to all.

“Why are you so much against specialization?”

I would put to you a counter-question: Why are you so much against the universalization of art, against helping it to derive its real inspiration from the virgin soil of popular response-in short, against vitalizing art by the life-blood of humanity? Why don’t you look the plain fact in the face that Nature, which must be the last inspiration of all real arts, never stints? She never specializes in a way so that only the cultured few may enjoy her bounties leaving the vast majority out in the cold. Why then do you want to make art the handmaid of a privileged few? Surely, it can be no part of true art’s mission to confine its appeal to a select coterie, a handful of connoisseurs. Why must art lose touch with the life of the soil? I fail to see how you are going to reclaim art unless it were progressively stimulated by some widespread demand of the people. How would you save art if you didn’t tend its roots by the sap of the soil which is the fount of life? Why make art into a sort of plaything for a small Upper House?...

I maintain that the profoundest utterances of man in every great philosophy or religion as in every great art must appeal equally to all. I cannot for the life of me see much in any specialization which can mean nothing to the vast multitude. Its only tangible effect seems to be that it gives a swelled head to a few and breeds in them contempt for the majority where there should be sympathy and understanding for all. Can there be anything commendable in such a perverted tendency? Or do you suppose that an activity which makes only for division instead of unity could ever rebound to the glory of our Creator? Rather than serve such a fine mission would it not be a thousand times better to do our best to alleviate the widespread misery of mankind, to come forward with the balm of sympathy and light of knowledge, to wipe the tears with which the earth is soaked from crust to center?

Among The Great, (1950), p. 78-82


1. One of the four Vedas –the ancient lyrical and highly profound works of the Aryans.

2. A verse from the Quran

3. Hindu name of God

4. Muslim name of God