Mahatma Gandhi and the Harmony of Music

- By Teresa Joseph* & A.M. Thomas#


Mahatma Gandhi had actively engaged with music in various ways throughout his life. He had a rather nuanced approach to music, art and aesthetics which can be seen as part of his larger philosophy of life. Drawing from his speeches, writings and interviews, this article discusses Gandhi's engagement with music. It unveils Gandhi's perspectives on art and music as well as music and religion, and his notion of the power of music to transcend sectarian boundaries. It also analyses Gandhi's social practice of music including his interventions in the conflicts relating to music and religion, and the question of democratising music as against its then existing exclusionary nature. The paper provides yet another pathway to understand Gandhi's life and thought, particularly with regard to universal fraternity and religious pluralism.


Mahatma Gandhi can be viewed and understood from diverse perspectives and vantage points and through different lenses. Gandhi's engagement with music is one such lens through which one can attempt to understand Gandhi the man and his message. However, such a perspective has rarely come to the fore in the large repertoire of documentation on Gandhi. A general notion is that Gandhi was antithetical to music. In fact, in 1924, when an interviewer commented that he was under the impression that Gandhi was against all art including music, Gandhi exclaimed “It Against music!”1 He is also reported to have stated that “if there was no music and no laughter in me, I would have died of this crushing burden of work.”2

Music was an intrinsic part of Gandhi's life, beginning with his childhood days when his mother used to sing bhajans (devotional songs) and is also reported to have made young Gandhi do so. During his student days in London, Gandhi bought a violin and took violin lessons for a while, in his initial attempts to emulate the characteristics of an English gentleman. In South Africa, his close association with the Christian community introduced him to several Christian hymns. In Phoenix Settlement and Tolstoy Farm in South Africa, and later in all his ashrams in India, Gandhi's favourite hymns were sung during the evening prayers. Gandhi's secretary Mahadev Desai in his chronicle of the days spent with Gandhi, recounts having heard Gandhi sing alone on rare occasions.3

Lakshmi Subramanian points out that when Gandhi appeared on the political scene in India, “the social context of Indian music had been greatly communalized”4 Historically, musical expression in India had a strong religious basis as it was largely drawn from devotional poetry and musical practices in temples and courts. By the late 19th and early 20th century, music had become important in defining a public sphere in India. There was an increasing public use of music and songs as religious practice in the form of processions and public rituals. The introduction of gramophone recording, public broadcasts and films were also important developments of the time and contributed to this process. During the 1905 Swadeshi movement, religious and patriotic songs articulated identities — sometimes transcending them, sometimes dividing them. One of the early advocates of music for social mobilization was Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, a leading exponent of Hindustani classical music, who was closely associated with Gandhi. According to Subramanian, he was instrumental in using religious songs/bhajans to redefine the role and social function of music.

Art, Music and the ‘Public Weal'

Anthony Parel, the well-known Gandhi scholar and one of the few to write on Gandhi and art has pointed out that in order to fully understand Gandhi we need to understand his interest in the arts.5 Gandhi had a very nuanced approach to art, as is evident from his numerous discussions, writings and interviews on the issue - particularly his interactions with Romain Rolland, Rabindranath Tagore, G.Ramachandran (an art student from Shanthinikethan) and Dilip Kumar Roy (an exponent of Indian music and inmate of the Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry). The importance he gave to notions of art and aesthetics were also evident in the fact that he included Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art?, The Kingdom of God is Within You, and John Ruskin’s ‘A Joy Forever’; And its Place in the Market in the suggested readings for further study in the appendix of his book Hind Swaraj, which was written in 1909. What is Art? had such a deep impact on Gandhi that he got it translated into Gujarati. Tolstoy argued that anything that communicates emotion was art. Art should be comprehensible to all and the function of art was to improve humanity. Similarly, Ruskin argued in Unto This Last that art should not be acquired by individuals for personal gain. It was a precious thing to be used for public good. Besides Ruskin and Tolstoy, Anand K. Coomaraswamy’s Essays on National Idealism, which was published one month after Hind Swaraj also had its influence on Gandhi's views on art, and he recommended the book to his acquaintances. Coomaraswamy argued that national regeneration of the people of India could not take place without the support of music and the arts. In his speech at the Second Gujarat Educational Conference in 1917, Gandhi specifically refers to Coomaraswamy when he says that “music must get a place in our efforts at popular awakening.”6

Gandhi revealed that while he was “a lover of music as well as the other arts,” his values may be different from the accepted ones.7 He did not adhere to the concept of ‘art for art’s sake’. In a letter to K.M. Munshi in 1945, Gandhi argued that it had always seemed to him “a terrible thought that the end of art is for it to be made interesting. Leaving aside debauchery, even hypocrisy, violence and untruth can easily be made interesting. Would such writing be called art?”8 He felt that “Art is a means of bringing out the inner as well as the outer beauty of a thing.”9 In an interview with Dilip Kumar Roy, Gandhi revealed that for him “An art is to be valued only when it ennobles life.”10 He further elaborated that “my aim is ever and always that of public weal. Art is acceptable to me only to the extent that it tends to the welfare of the people at large.”11

This position was also reflected in his conversation with the French philosopher and Nobel laureate - Romain Rolland in 1931, where he clearly explained why he could not accept the dictum ‘art for art’s sake’. He did not see art as something distinct from truth. Created beauty had its source from uncreated beauty. Art had to be understood not only on its own terms but also in terms of other aspects of life.12 He also felt that “art has a place in life, only when artists make their art helpful to human welfare and enjoyable even by the common man. I think the greatness and glory of art diminishes when it ceases to be a public place of recreation for all and becomes the palace garden of a few.”13 “The most sublime art is not one that only individuals with special talents can enjoy, but one which is capable of enjoyment by all.”14

Gandhi argued that art including music could never be an end in itself.15 At various points of time, Gandhi elaborated that he perceived music to be an instrument of communication, a means to reach out to the people, a medium of spiritual development16 and a constructive activity17 that was “meant for service.”18 He argued that real music is that “which uplifts the soul.”19 According to him “music does not proceed from the throat alone. There is music of the mind, of the senses and of the heart.”20 To him music was not the

Thus, when democratic space is conceived merely as debating space, it leads to unending conflicts needing new structures to resolve them, which unfortunately fail to yield expected result in absence of a conducive environment. Any democratic structure may flourish only in a dialogical space. In last few decades, with the increasing incidences of intra and inter-state conflicts and their damaging effect on human capital, the significance of democratic dialogue is recognized worldwide. Many initiatives have been taken so that conflicting situation can be resolved through democratic dialogue. One of such initiatives was publication of Democratic Dialogue - A Handbook for Practitioners in 2007 with the joint efforts of United Nation Development Programme (UNDP), the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States (OAS), the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). It provided a methodological tool to facilitate the work of institutions and practitioners in designing, facilitating and evaluating dialogue process in diverse contexts. It aimed at extending help to different stakeholders in society to understand the process of democratic dialogue. While defining democratic dialogue, it prescribed following conditions as essential for democratic dialogue:

mere singing or playing on an instrument... I would say that one understands music only if one’s whole life becomes full of music. Therefore, a student of music ought to know how to make himself comfortable, how to communicate with others, etc., whether alone or in society. There should be sweetness in (whatever he does), in his movements, in his eating, drinking. A person who is full of music will be courteous and thoughtful in all his acts.21

In a speech at the annual function of the National Music Association in Ahmedabad in 1926, Gandhi pointed out that to know music was to bring it to life. He further differentiated between the ordinary or narrow, and deeper or broad interpretations of music. While in the narrow sense it meant “the ability to sing and play an instrument well while carrying a tune and marking the correct beats of time,” in a wider sense it meant “union, concord, mutual help” which cannot be dispensed with in any aspect of life. He further elaborated that “true music is created only when life is attuned to a single tune and a single time-beat. Music is born only where the strings of the heart are not out of tune.”22 He expressed the view that the deeper meaning of music was that “our whole life should be sweet and musical like a song.... life cannot be made like that without the practice of virtues such as truth, honesty, etc.23

Gandhi's focus on art and music as the means to an end, and as reflecting union, concord, mutual help, is also evident from the kind of music that he enjoyed. It was not music for the sake of music. More than the tune, it was the lyrics that were of importance.

Music and Universal Harmony

Religious music appealed the most to Gandhi, as he felt that it had the power to create harmony in life and unite people, transcending sectarian barriers.24 Bhajans had a special place in his heart. He was very much attached to it in his personal life and in his autobiography, he refers to the soothing effect of the name of Lord Rama to ward off ghosts. But he also enjoyed music of the vedas, the Bible and the Koran - all of which were sung in his ashrams. These were not only from different religions, but also from different countries and languages, throwing light on his religious persona. This was reflected clearly in his speech in 1926 where he pointed out that

The hymns of Samaveda are a mine of music, and no ayat of the Koran can be recited unmusically. David’s Psalms transport you to raptures and remind you of the hymns from Samaveda. Let us revive this art and patronize the school of music.

We see Hindu and Mussalman musicians sitting cheek by jowl and partaking in musical concerts. When shall we see the same fraternal union in other affairs of our life? We shall then have the name of Rama and Rahman simultaneously on our lips.25

In 1922 Narayan Maheshwar Khare - the resident musician in Sabarmathi Ashram, who was a disciple of Paluskar, together with Gandhi compiled about 250 devotional songs in different languages into the Ashram Bhajanvali which formed part of the morning and evening prayers at his ashrams. He translated these into English during his imprisonment in Yervada jail in 1930, and an adaptation of this work by John S. Hoyland was published in 1934 as Songs from Prison by George Allen and Unwin.26 The Bhajanvali was predominantly Hindu oriented. But at the same time, it was open to suggestions and went through changes. For instance, on the suggestion of the Sikh community, Shahbads from the Guru Granth were included. It also had songs from Christianity, Islam, and by Guru Nanak and Kabir.

Some of his favourite songs and poems included that of Kabir, Tulsidas, Surdas, Tagore, passages from the Gita, Upanishad and others. Gandhi revealed that nothing elated him so much as “the music of the Gita or the Ramayana by Tulsidas.”27 His specific favourites were of course Narsinh Mehta’s ‘Vaishnava Janato Tene Kahiye Je’ and Tulsidas’ ‘Raghupati Raghav Rajaram’, both of which were sung during Gandhi's daily prayer meetings.

‘Vaishnava Janato’ was written in the fifteenth century by Narsinh Mehta, an exponent of the Bhakti movement who Gandhi admired for disregarding the then prevailing common prejudices against ‘untouchables’. In the 5 December 1920 issue of Navajivan, Gandhi quotes the bhajan and also provides a translation which reads: “A true Vaishnava is he / who is moved by others’ sufferings; / who helps people in distress, / and feels no pride for having done so...”28 Gandhi further lists out twenty qualities of a Vaishnava as described by Narasinh Mehta. These include him being respectful to all, speaking ill of no-one, being self-controlled in speech, action and thought, holding everyone in equal regard, being ever truthful and so on. The historian, Vinay Lal points out that Gandhi’s unbound affection for this bhajan or devotional song is a reflection of his religious sensibility.”29 The song was so significant for Gandhi that it was sung by Khare at the commencement of the Dandi March in 1930.

With regard to the bhajan ‘Raghupati Raghav Rajaram’, Lal points out that villagers in the North Indian part of the subcontinent had for centuries greeted each other and strangers with the words ‘Ram Ram’ and Jai Siya Ram’. Popularly referred to as Ramdhun, Raghupati Raghav Raj Ram was originally composed by the poet Tulsidas. It affirms the presence of Sita and Ram and showers praises on them. While the precise origins of the Ramdhun are not entirely clear, Lal writes that it was reportedly Paluskar who “composed the Ramdhun for Gandhi with the hope that he would take it to the masses.”30 Gandhi had approached Paluskar to compose songs for his ashrams. The latter proceeded to set the tune for Ramdhun where Lord Ram’s name is repeated. Gandhi found this very appealing. Later the words “Ishwar Allah Tere Naam.” were included. That is, “God and Allah are your names / May God bestow wisdom on all.” i.e. that the Ishwar of the Hindus and the Allah of the Muslims were one and the same. Thus, praising the oneness of the Supreme being and Hindu-Muslim unity. Most people believe that it was Gandhi himself who added these words. Rajmohan Gandhi"31 argues that Gandhi did not actually create the words himself. In 1947, while in Noakhali, Gandhi's grand-niece Manu sang the words “Ishwar Allah Tero Naam” at a prayer meeting. Gandhi asked Manu to sing it every day henceforth. Today the words have become integral to the song, echoing Gandhi’s message of unity of religions. Gandhi began most of his public meetings with this song. According to Lakshmi Subramanian, Gandhi also used it as a means to calm crowds and orient them to his discourse.32

Both Vaishnavo Janato and Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram also reflected the spirit of protest, being very much a part of the freedom struggle. Satyagrahis sang them during the Dandi yatra or salt march against the imposition of salt tax by the British.

Several Christian hymns also formed a part of Gandhi’s favourite songs. These included ‘Abide with me’ by Henry Lyte, ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ by Isaac Watts, ‘He who would true valour see’ by John Bunyan, and so on. Emilsen writes that Gandhi revealed a continuous interest in Christian hymns. When he was a prisoner in the Aga Khan’s Palace in Pune in 1943, he asked for a Christian hymn book. He later wrote to a Quaker friend, that he was in “the midst of a raging fire” and often hummed to himself the hymn ‘Rock of Ages’.33 In a letter to Narashinhrao, a Gujarati poet and Professor of Gujarati, Gandhi wrote that “the tunes and the verses of many English hymns are like amrit to me.’34 Gandhi clearly stated:

Though I am a devout Hindu, or even because | am a devout Hindu, I have no difficulty in appreciating the devotional hymns of other religions, and having had intimate contact with many Christians I came to appreciate some of the Hymns even as a youngster.35

He further elaborated that among these songs ‘Lead Kindly Light’ was his favourite. ‘Lead Kindly Light’ was written by Cardinal John Henry Newman in 1833. The first stanza of the hymn which appealed most to Gandhi read: “Lead, kindly Light /amidst the encircling gloom / Lead Thou me on /The night is dark and I am far from home / Lead Thou me on / Keep Thou my feet, I do not ask to see / The distant scene, one step enough for me.” Gandhi regarded the words “one step enough for me” as “the quintessence of all philosophy.”36 One step at a time was enough, the rest was left to God. Many letters, articles and speeches of his also close with the hymn’s words: “one step enough for me.”37

As Emilsen points out Gandhi used the hymn to break fasts, to chastise the press and also in difficult conversations with the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, during the Civil Disobedience Movement. From 1916 until a month before Gandhi's death on 30 January 1948 ‘Lead, kindly Light’ was regularly referred to in his writings. The hymn is explicitly mentioned more than seventy times in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. He meditated daily on the words of the hymn and he encouraged his supporters to do the same. Early in 1982 ‘Lead, kindly Light’ assumed a special place in the Ashram’s prayers, with Hindu, Muslim and Christian supporters of Indian independence, singing the hymn either in English or the Gujarati version ‘Premal Jyoti’ (Light of Love) every Friday evening, “the day of Jesus’s crucifixion,” as explained by Gandhi.38 Less than a year before his death, Gandhi wrote to his closest associate, Vinoba Bhave, “In my daily prayers I earnestly pray to God to lead me from untruth to truth. Isn’t the same idea conveyed in ‘Lead kindly Light’?” In essence, as Emilsen argues, Newman’s hymn, “played an important role in bolstering the philosophical underpinnings of Gandhi’s satyagraha movement. The hymn also played a part in Gandhi’s developing commitment to religious pluralism.”39

Gandhi's interest in music was not restricted to the religious or Indian. In a letter to Rathinthranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore’s son in 1945, Gandhi suggested that although music in Shantiniketan was charming, it should not be focused only on Bengali music, Hindustani music — i.e. music before and after the Muslim period should also have its due place. He also added that western music should also blend with the Indian, pointing out that Visva Bharati University was conceived as a world university.”40

When he was in London to attend the Second Round Table Conference as a representative of the Indian National Congress, he stayed at the Kingsley Hall Community Centre and spent time listening to music and is even reported to have danced to the tune of the Scottish song Auld Lang Syne. Although the Congress representatives had reservations about this, Gandhi responded that what is needed is to connect to the people. Music was a means of communication for Gandhi.

It was soon after this that Gandhi visited Romain Rolland in Switzerland. He had discussions on art with the latter and also asked him to play a piece by Beethoven. Much later, in his reply to Mirabehn’s letter which quoted Beethoven’s motto — “through suffering, joy,” Gandhi responded that such quotes from Beethoven were “good spiritual food.”41 Incidentally, Mirabehn (originally Madeleine Slade) had been introduced to Gandhi by Romain Rolland, and shared Rolland’s interest and love for Beethoven. Interestingly in a letter written in 17 June 1932, Gandhi reveals that “in the past, I used to get bored when listening to European music. It is only now that I can understand and enjoy it a little.”42 In 1947, in a letter to a person who was hearing impaired, Gandhi, in an attempt to motivate him, wrote: “Do you know that Beethoven, the great musician was deaf?”43

Music and Communal Conflict

In his perception of music as a means to an end, Gandhi firmly asserted that true music uplifts people and there was “no place in it for communal differences and hostility.”44 However, several controversies relating to music erupted during the 1920s and 30s. Gandhi’s response to them reveal his perspectives on music and religion.

‘One controversy was related to Hindu processions playing religious music outside mosques when prayers were going on inside. This became an explosive political issue, sharpening the Hindu-Muslim divide and further alienating the Muslims during the 1920s. Between 1923 and 1928 there occurred 112 riots, of which more than 31 involved music outside mosques. While Hindus claimed music as an essential part of their religious observances and that they had the right to play music at all times and places, Muslims stated that music disturbed their prayers and that they had the right to ask for silence outside mosques.45 Gandhi spoke and wrote extensively on the issue. He was vociferous in his disapproval of music dividing people.

In a public speech in 1921, Gandhi stated: “Hindus may take it from me that it is no part, no essential part, of Hinduism that we should play music at any time. It is much less an essential part of my religion that I should play music, instrumental or vocal, passing by a mosque.”46 He further elaborated in an article in Navajivan in 1924 “To my knowledge, there is no religious injunction that requires the continuous play of music in a procession. I also think that it is the duty of Hindus to cease playing at certain times in order to avoid hurting Muslims. But I am equally convinced that to stop playing music out of fear of Muslim swords is wrong.”47 Gandhi questioned the importance given to music in this context and stressed the need for voluntary accommodation to resolve the issue. Writing in Young India of January 1928, Gandhi further reiterated: “If we are to reach unity of hearts, we must each be prepared to perform an adequate measure of sacrifice.”48

Another controversy was related to the song ‘Vande Mataram’ which was written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and included in his Bengali novel Anandamath. It was first sung by Rabindranath Tagore at the 1896 session of the Indian National Congress. It became part of the mobilization strategies of the freedom movement and was sung at conferences and Congress sessions. Gandhi initially did not equate it with religion, but viewed it as a hymn to the glory of the motherland and concluded much of his correspondence with the words - Vande Mataram. However, with increasing communal problems, the Muslim community made it clear that it was not comfortable with the song and felt a sense of alienation as they perceived it to have a Hindu cultural context and a religious connotation of the nation. Its religious connotation drew opposition, particularly in the context of the communal conflicts of the 1920s. Gandhi initially did not view the song in a religious context, but by the late 1930s he expressed his reservations for singing the song.”49 He wrote in Harijan of 1 July 1939:

No matter what its source was and how and when it was composed, it has become a most powerful battle-cry among Hindus and Mussalmans of Bengal during the partition days. It was an anti-imperialist cry.... It had never occurred to me that it was a Hindu song or meant only for Hindus. Unfortunately, now we have fallen on evil days... | would not risk a single quarrel over singing Vandemataram at a mixed gathering.”50

Three weeks later, he further clarified in the pages of Harijan that “if at any mixed gathering any person objected to the singing of Vandemataram even with the Congress expurgations, the singing should be dropped.”51

During the 1940s Gandhi faced criticism from different quarters for the kind of songs that he selected, and the inclusion of readings from the Koran and the invocation of Ram as well as Rahim. His prayer meetings began to be boycotted by both communities. Some members of the Muslim community expressed their discomfort at the singing of the Ramdhun at prayer meetings.

But Gandhi refused to give up this practice. His justification was that the name Ram referred to the all-pervasive God known to millions and to evoke deepest feelings. He clarified in his writings that Ramanama was one of the many voices of God and so should not offend the Muslim community. He also elaborated that he read the Koran every night together with the Bhagvad Gita. He was ready to leave out anything that offended Muslims, but not Ramdhun - he considered it to be his lifeline, that gave him mental peace. Ata prayer meeting in April 1946, Gandhi stated:

Is there one God for the Mussalmans and another for the Hindus, Parsis or Christians? No, there is only one omnipotent omnipresent God. He is named variously, and we remember Him by the name that is most familiar to us. My Rama, the Rama of our prayers, is not the historical Rama, the son of Dasaratha, the king of Ayodhya. He is the eternal, the unborn, the one without a second. Him alone, I worship, His aid alone I seek. He belongs equally to all. I therefore, see no reason why a Mussalman or anybody should object to taking His name. But he is in no way bound to recognize God as Ramanama. He may utter to himself Allah or Khuda so as not to mar the harmony of sound.”52

He used the name Rama as a metaphor for an all-pervasive divine being. Even when he was fighting communal violence in Noakhali in 1947, Gandhi did not abandon Ramdhun or the Koran.

Music of Tranquillity, Harmony and Swaraj

While Gandhi certainly considered music to be a means to an end, on certain occasions he revealed an interest and appreciation for the melody and rhythm of the song. In his autobiography, Gandhi recounts being invited to a celebration of the Brahmo Samaj while he was staying with Gopal Krishna Gokhale in Calcutta. He recalls listening to Bengali music and writes that since then he had been “a lover of Bengali music.”53

Gandhi also writes of having had the privilege “of enjoying the music of Bhai Ajmerji. His melodious voice and his knowledge of Hindi and Sanskrit gave me immense joy.”54 Speaking of the impact of hymns when sung melodiously, he recalls occasions when hymns “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.”55 According to him “music has its own distinct effect apart from words.”56 He revealed that “music has given me peace... it has tranquilised my mind when I was greatly agitated over something. It has helped me to overcome anger.”57 He felt that “when a song was sung in a manner I found sweet, I fully enjoyed it and also understood its meaning. Sometimes I myself have been able to hum the tune of a song, and then I have both fully enjoyed the music and understood the meaning.”58 It is in this context that he sought the services of trained musicians to teach music in the ashram. Gandhi also asked people like M. Subhalakshmi to sing his favourite bhajans. Subhalakshmi popularized Gandhi’s favourite devotional songs and Gandhi admired her musical genius. He asked her to sing Hari Tum Haro and All India Radio relayed this rendition after announcing Gandhi’s death a few months later.

Gandhi also appreciated instrumental music. While announcing several new features of the forthcoming meeting of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi stated that there would be a musical concert in which musicians from all over India would take part. He pointed out: “We little know the wonderful results that the simple musical instruments of India yield.... There will be in connection with the concert an exhibition of Indian musical instruments.”59 Speaking to villagers in Pudupalayam in 1925, Gandhi expressed his preference for stringed instruments as they “produce a deeper melody and so far as I am concerned they have a far more soothing effect on me than a harmonium.”50 Similarly, writing about an exhibition that was to be organized in relation with the Congress session of 1946, he specifically stated that “village music, musical instruments and village dramas” were to be included.61 A few months later he further specified folk music.

Gandhi often discussed music in the context of noise and how this needs to be regulated and people disciplined. As early as 1920, Gandhi wrote in Young India of the need to evolve order out of the chaos of the mob-law that existed in India. He felt that “one great stumbling block is that we have neglected music. Music means rhythm, order. Its effect is electrical. It immediately soothes.”62 In 1928, when asked why he gave so much importance to music, Gandhi responded:

Music brings sweetness to the individual and to the social life of the people. Even as pranayama is necessary for the regulation of breath, so is music for disciplining the voice. Dissemination of the knowledge of music among the people will greatly help in controlling and stopping the noise which is a usual feature of public meetings in this country. Music pacifies anger and its judicious use is highly helpful in leading a man to the vision of God.63

He clearly felt that “harmonious music has the power to soothe the anguish of the soul.” He argued that restlessness in large gatherings could be “arrested and calmed if a national song is sung by all... We have an example of the power of music in the fact that boatmen and other labourers raise, in unison, the cry of Harahar and Allabeli and this helps them in their work.”64 He felt that there can be no swaraj where there is no harmony or music.

Where there is discord and everyone striking his own tune, there is bad government or anarchy. Work for swaraj fails to appeal to us because we have no music in us. When we have millions of people singing together in harmony or taking God’s name in unison, making one music, we shall have taken the first step to swaraj.... The experiment with music will be regarded as a successful one when the crores of people in the entire country will start speaking with the same voice.65

It is in this context that from the 1920s Gandhi began to emphasise the notion of the ‘music of the spinning wheel’. Gandhi considered the spinning wheel to be an ideal solution for social inequality. The spinning wheel was a means of upliftment of the poor and a symbol of the freedom movement. There was rhythm, order and melody in the spinning wheel. Writings on spinning compared it to playing music ~in the sense that for both it was necessary to strike the right note.

In his speech during a prayer meeting Gandhi stated that: “The music of the charkha murmurs sweetly that we are all one, born to be equal sharers to the goods of the earth with no one higher or wealthier than the other.”66 Gandhi pointed out that the music of the spinning wheel would be like balm to one’s soul. It is interesting to note Rabindranath Tagore’s statement about Gandhi in this context, that there was an aesthetic element in Gandhi's seeming ascetism. He later added: “I have learnt to understand him as I would understand an artist.67

In fact, during the final years of his life, Tagore’s ‘Ekla Chalo Re’ had become another favourite song of his. It was a constant refrain in Noakhali, at a time when Gandhi was also being side-lined from the leadership of the national movement. The song was written in 1905 and calls upon the listener to continue with his/her good work notwithstanding any lack of support from anyone else. The song as translated by Tagore himself reads:

If they answer not to thy call walk alone / If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall / O thou unlucky one / open thy mind and speak out alone. / If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness, / O thou unlucky one, / trample the thorns under thy tread, / and along the blood-lined track travel alone / If they do not hold up the light when the night is troubled with storm, / O thou unlucky one, / with the thunder flame of pain ignite thy own heart / and let it burn alone.68

Gandhi stressed the essence of the song that one “should have the strength to walk alone in the face of difficulties however great. If he realized that God was ever with him, he would not feel lonely.”69 The song is reported to have motivated Gandhi himself during the last tumultuous days of his life.

Another song that reflected this spirit of protest, resistance and mobilisation and which Gandhi appreciated, but is not so well known - was the Urdu song ‘Uth Jaag Musafir’ by Kabirdas. In 1932, while in Yervada Jail, Gandhi decided to start a fast unto death against separate electorates. Before doing so, he is reported to have sung this song and his secretary Mahadev Desai joined him, followed by Sardar Patel. Subsequently almost all the inmates of the jail joined them in the singing. Roughly translated, the refrain was: “Oh traveller get up, it is dawn, it is not right that you continue sleeping.”

Democratising Music

During this period of history, music had become restricted to the elite sections of society, particularly upper-class religious devotees. Gandhi was aggrieved at this exclusionary nature of the music of the time. He wanted to democratise music and make it something of the masses. In his address to the Gujarat Literature Society in 1936, Gandhi spoke of the need for art and literature that could speak to the millions, He made it clear that since Sanskrit chants and verses were not easily understandable, he favoured the simple bhajan. Given the historical context of the time, his preference for bhajans rather than the exclusionary Sanskrit chants was a reflection of this desire to democratise music.

Gandhi felt that the study of music had been neglected in the country and highlighted the necessity of spreading music among the masses. He stated that if he had any influence with voluntary organizations, he would have made singing a compulsory activity.

He would also have invited great musicians to attend every Congress or Conference and teach music to the masses.”70 He considered the entire educational system to be incomplete without music.71 Speaking at the second Gujarat Educational Conference in 1917, Gandhi mourned the fact that in the existing system of education, “nowhere do I find a place given to music. It exercises a powerful influence over us. We do not realize this vividly enough, otherwise we would have done everything possible to teach music to our boys and girls... Music must get a place in our efforts at popular awakening.”72

After the establishment of Sabarmati Ashram in 1915, one of the first things that Gandhi did was to appoint a music teacher - the well-known musician, Pandit Narayan Moreshwar Khare who was a pupil of Paluskar. Training in music was part of the regular ashram life. The ashram also played an important role in providing training in music to the entire region in Gujarat. Gandhi, together with Khare and Paluskar were responsible for organizing the All- India Music Conference held in Ahmedabad in 1921 as part of the Indian National Congress. Gandhi also played an active role in establishing music schools and enlisting support for them from luminaries like S. Radhakrishnan and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya.73 For instance, in a 1928 issue of Navajivan, Gandhi expresses his opinion that compared to several other states Gujarat lagged far behind in respect of music and that there was a need to propagate music. He goes on to talk about the National Music Association that had been functioning in Ahmedabad for the last few years led by Pandit N.M. Khare and elaborates on the need for financial assistance for the Association. He even reproduced promotional matter about their new scheme.”74 Later in 1937, Gandhi reaffirms that music “should form part of the syllabus of primary education” pointing out that “modulation of the voice is as necessary as the training of the hand.”75

Not only in his speeches and publications, but also at the personal level, Gandhi emphasized the importance of music lessons. he often asked parents to send their children to study music. Letters that refer to sending Manilal, Ramdas and Devdas for music lessons and asking them not to neglect music can be found in the Collected Works. There are also numerous references of having recommended students to Khare to teach them music as they evinced an interest in it, as well as letters to acquaintances encouraging them to send their children for music lessons, enquiring about the progress being made, and showing his appreciation.

At the same time, notwithstanding all the above, in May 1947, Gandhi stated that if he was made Prime Minister of the country, he would “prohibit music and dancing which tend to pervert the minds of young men and women. I would stop the sale of gramophone records. That is, I would suggest to the Government that it should impose heavy taxes on all such life-killing activities.”76


Mahatma Gandhi’s engagement with music needs to be seen in the larger context of his philosophy and views on art and aesthetics. For Gandhi art could never be an end in itself. It was based on truth - uncreated beauty, that contributes to human welfare and was enjoyable by all. It is in this context that one needs to understand Gandhi’s approach to music. His views on art and music clearly throw light on his philosophy, particularly with regard to the question of religion and ethical principles. His understanding of art as a means to an end rather than ‘art for art’s sake’, as well as his emphasis on music in the broad sense as meaning ‘union, concord, mutual help’ is a reflection of this. It is in this context of his perception of music as a means to an end that one needs to understand his special affinity for spiritual music. Yet, rather than reciting Sanskrit chants at a time when music was exclusionary, he chose the bhajan as his preferred mode as he wanted music to be accessible to the masses. He considered music to have the power to transcend sectarian differences. It was a means of communication to be enjoyed by everyone without any exclusions. He was drawn to music that was uplifting, that brought unity and that helps in one’s daily labour. Although he was faced with various criticisms with regard to his selection of songs, his intentions were faultless. He emphasized the need to transcend the music of one’s own culture and be open to the music of other cultures. His response to controversies over music and religion, and the songs that he sought to propagate reflected his commitment to religious pluralism and notions of universal fraternity, peace, harmony and non-violent resistance. Gandhi’s notion of music as well as his social practice of music provides lessons for todays polarized and antagonistic world where sectarian differences are becoming even more entrenched. Gandhi saw music as a powerful and uplifting influence, a means to an end — to bring about peace, unity and harmony in society.

Notes and References:

  1. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (hereinafter referred to as CWMG), vol. 23 (New Delhi: Publications Division, Government of India), p. 193.
  2. V.R. Devika, “The Mahatma and Music”, The Hindu, 4 October 2018.
  3. Mahadev Desai, Day to Day with Gandhi, vol. 3 (Varanasi: Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan, 1968), pp. 307, 318.
  4. Lakshmi Subramanian, Singing Gandhi's India: Music and Sonic Nationalism (New Delhi: Roli Books, 2020), p. 48.
  5. Anthony J. Parel, Gandhi’s Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 166-7. For a detailed discussion, also see Anthony J. Parel, Pax Gandhiana: The Political Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 156-79.
  6. CWMG, vol. 14. p. 30.
  7. CWMG, vol. 23, p. 193.
  8. CWMG, vol. 82, p. 9.
  9. CWMG, vol. 66, p. 359.
  10. CWMG, vol. 23, p. 194.
  11. Mahadev Desai, 1968, op.cit., vol. 4, p. 287.
  12. For details see Romain Rolland, Romain Rolland and Gandhi Correspondence (New Delhi: Publications Division, Government of India, 1976), pp. 208-212.
  13. Mahadev Desai, 1968, op.cit. vol. 4, p. 287.
  14. Ibid, vol. 8. p. 97.
  15. CWMG, vol. 29, p. 397.
  16. CWMG, vol. 25, p. 223.
  17. CWMG, vol. 79, p. 345.
  18. CWMG, vol. 95, p. 225.
  19. CWMG, vol. 79, p. 345.
  20. CWMG, vol. 83, p. 410.
  21. Ibid, p. 159.
  22. CWMG, vol. 30, pp. 159-60.
  23. CWMG, vol. 37, pp. 2-3.
  24. Sudheendra Kulkarni, Music of the Spinning Wheel (New Delhi: Amaryllis, 2012), p. 170.
  25. CWMG, vol. 30, op.cit, p. 160.
  26. CWMG, vol. 44, p. 386.
  27. CWMG, vol. 21, p. 249.
  28. CWMG, vol. 19, pp. 72-3.
  29. Vinay Lal, “Vaishnava Janato: Its Place in Gandhi’s Life: A Short Note”, /gandhi/vaishnava-janato/ accessed on 25 June 2021.
  30. Vinay Lal, “Raghupati Raghav Rajaram”, accessed on 26 June 2021.
  31. Rajmohan Gandhi, Why Gandhi Still Matters: An Appraisal of the Mahatma’s Legacy (New Delhi: Aleph, 2017), p. 28.
  32. Lakshmi Subramanian, op.cit, p. 149.
  33. William Emilsen, “Gandhi and ‘Lead, Kindly Light”, Pacifica: Australasian Theological Studies, 10, 1 (1997), doi:10.1177/1030570X9701000109, p. 229.
  34. CWMG, vol. 19, p. 178.
  35. CWMG, vol. 53, p. 255.
  36. CWMG, vol. 29, p. 340.
  37. see for instance CWMG, vol. 37, p. 350.
  38. William Emilsen, op.cit., pp. 230-7.
  39. Ibid, pp. 235-6.
  40. CWMG, vol. 82, p. 251.
  41. CWMG, vol. 33, p. 230.
  42. CWMG, vol. 50, p. 54.
  43. CWMG, vol. 87, p. 178.
  44. CWMG, vol. 79, p. 356.
  45. Lakshmi Subramanian, 2020, op.cit., pp. 35, 113-4.
  46. CWMG, vol. 19, p. 539, also see the article titled “Hindu-Muslim Unity” written by Gandhi in Young India, 11 May 1921, CWMG, vol. 20, p. 89.
  47. CWMG, vol. 23, pp. 528-9.
  48. CWMG, vol. 35, p. 437.
  49. Lakshmi Subramanian, 2020, op.cit., pp. 31-6, 108-11.
  50. CWMG, vol. 69, p. 381.
  51. Ibid, p. 434.
  52. CWMG, vol. 83, p. 364.
  53. Mahatma Gandhi, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth (New Delhi: Navajivan Trust, 1927), p. 219.
  54. CWMG, vol. 41, p. 437.
  55. CWMG, vol. 38, p. 90.
  56. CWMG, vol. 49, p. 42.
  57. CWMG, vol. 38, p. 90.
  58. CWMG, vol. 80, p. 186.
  59. CWMG, vol. 21, p. 445.
  60. CWMG, vol. 26, p. 347.
  61. CWMG, vol. 83, p. 4.
  62. CWMG, vol. 18, p. 241.
  63. CWMG, vol. 37, pp. 2-3.
  64. CWMG, vol. 14, p. 30.
  65. CWMG, vol. 30, p. 159.
  66. CWMG, vol. 85, p. 362.
  67. Anthony J. Parel, 2006, op.cit., p. 173.
  68. /favourite-hymns/gandhi-walking-alone.php accessed on 28 June 2021.
  69. CWMG, vol. 86, p. 41.
  70. CWMG, vol. 18, pp. 241-2.
  71. CWMG, vol. 37, pp. 23.
  72. CWMG, vol. 14, p. 30.
  73. Anthony J. Parel, 2006, op.cit., pp. 166-7.
  74. see CWMG, vol. 37, p. 318.
  75. CWMG, vol. 66, p. 121.
  76. CWMG, vol. 88, p. 17.

Gandhi Marg, Volume 43, Number 3, October-December 2021.

* Teresa Joseph, is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director, Centre for Gandhian Studies, Alphonsa College, Pala, Kerala. Email:

# A.M. Thomas, is former Professor and Director, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala. Email: