Remembering Gandhi: Symbols he conceived and used were transformative

Be it charkha or khadi, the symbols Gandhi espoused have remained so strong that even now when we talk of a "Atma Nirbhar Bharat", (a self-reliant India), they ignite our minds with a sense of mission and pride.

Ram Krishna Sinha Jan 30, 2024
Gandhi and His Spinning Wheel

Symbols assume the form of words, visual images, or gestures, and are used to convey ideas, beliefs or broader goals. The unique nature of a symbol is that it gives access to deeper layers of reality that are otherwise inaccessible or invisible. At a level, as conveyors of feelings and meaning, symbols can act as powerful motivators for action.

Gandhi - whose 76th death anniversary is being observed January 30 - not only understood the vital significance and power of symbols but also leveraged them to the hilt, as a means, to put across his radical and transformative ideas. Relevant, regenerative, and visionary, the symbols he conceived, served as focal and rallying points for his social and political goals.

Take the charkha for example. He strategically adopted the spinning wheel as a device to fulfill three objectives - to dismiss British textiles in favor of locally spun khadi; to ensure the economic emancipation of every citizen; and to conceive, through it, a method of non-violent protest. Indeed, it emerged as a powerful symbol of the Swadeshi movement.

Message of self-reliance

Related to this was his use of khadi cloth as a key part of this movement. Khadi symbolized the countrymen’s resolve to boycott the use of imported goods. Doing this, Gandhi was clear, would help lift India out of poverty by creating industry and jobs locally. Khadi became the heart of this strategy when he asked everyone, whether rich or poor, to spend time each day spinning khadi cloth. The countrywide initiative helped foster unity through shared labor. Be it charkha or khadi, the symbols Gandhi espoused have remained so strong that even now when we talk of a "Atma Nirbhar Bharat", (a self-reliant India), they ignite our minds with a sense of mission and pride.

A watch, for Gandhi, was an instrument that regulated his life. The little piece of nickel hanging by his waist helped him to utilize every minute of his time purposefully. 

Cleaning public toilets

Again, cleaning public toilets was a gesture that conveyed to the nation not only his penchant for hygiene, sanitation and cleanliness but also his resolve to abolish the vice of untouchability in Indian society. In recent times, Gandhi’s work and message inspired the entire nation into action when the Swachh Bharat mission was launched.

The revolutionary decision of Gandhi to embrace the everyday attire of dhoti (loincloth) and shawl helped remind the nation of the common man’s poverty and plight. His efforts to identify with a poor image were genuine, honest, and credible. In this context, it was quite natural for him to give the sage advice - a talisman - to the policymakers that, whenever in doubt, they must recall the face of the poorest and the weakest, and ask if the step they contemplate is going to be of any use to the poorest.

The enormous impact and success of the symbols, adopted by the Mahatma, were not fortuitous. The underlying substance of each symbol in terms of the worthiness of cause, purity of purpose, courage of conviction, and actionable insight, was so palpable and valuable that they not only stirred a peoples’ imagination but also met their expectations and aspirations beyond measure.

(The writer is a former bank executive and author who writes on contemporary issues. Views are personal. He can be contacted at

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