What application do Gandhi’s teachings have in psychiatry?
PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS
“You must be the change you want to be in the world”
Today, October 2, Gandhi Jayant, is a national holiday in India celebrating the birthday anniversary of Gandhi. He is often called “Mahatma,” meaning great soul. He was born in India in 1869 and died by assassination in 1948. In 2007, the UN General Assembly also declared that it will be celebrated as the International Day of Non-Violence.
Over the past year, I have been working as the lead editor of a book on the Eastern Religions, Spirituality, and Psychiatry for Springer, which includes a focus on Hinduism and India. I was still not familiar with this holiday, yet many years ago I felt awe about Gandhi, for his leadership, abstinence, and ongoing resolution to make things better in India. When we visited India over a dozen years ago, I went to as many monuments devoted to him and learned as much as I could. After all, he had led India to its independence from Britain and strongly emphasized social justice through nonviolence, all of which had some resonance for me. History shows that he did have many enemies, as is not unusual when you try to tell the truth (Satyagraha). A Hindu nationalist killed him in 1948, believing that Gandhi favored Muslims in the partitioning of India. No wonder that we are covering the relationships between Muslims and Hindus in different ways in the book.
By now, his status in India and my own awe has been changing. Now, the debate about him also focuses on modern ideas about race, feminism, and nationalism.1 Fundamentalists in India can both make use of his renown, while not agreeing with his vision on religious pluralism. Nonviolence can seem not macho enough and some wonder that if there was a violent revolution, independence from the British would have come quicker. Gandhi also seemed to have had some racist beliefs, especially early on toward South Africans, and sexism is still strong in India.
For me, finding out more about his passivity and reassurance about Hitler tarnished the awe I held. Of course, he was not along among leaders with that viewpoint. On the positive side, I did learn more about his ideas regarding environmental sustainability, which are so important now.
Internationally, there is also more ambivalence about him. Statues have been vandalized in Davis, California and Ghana in recent decades.
Gandhi’s relevance to psychiatry seems to be most clear in the first part of our quote that began this column: “You must be the change . . .” Interventions for psychiatric disorders and distress require the difficult task of personal change. Adding on the second clause of the desired world change is an ongoing challenge for psychiatry. Gandhi did so by modeling anger management, developing more resilience after trauma, simplicity of living, and conflict resolution, among other things.2 That may be his most important psychiatric and mental health legacy; change yourself for the better and you can lead to the world changing for the better. Will we use our own changes, skills, and expertise to also try to change the world for the better and reduce social psychopathologies?
Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry, and is now in retirement and refirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.
1. Guha R. Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948. Knopf; 2018.
2. Tandon A, Singh VK. Impact of Mahatma Gandhi’s concepts on mental health: reflections. Indian J Psychiatry. 2013;55(Suppl 2):S231-S234.