Learning Business Insights from Mahatma Gandhi

by Anoop Bhatia on March 8, 2017

Mahatma Gandhi: Connecting Principles to Practice

Any particular data set can have a number of interpretations. More data, if read correctly, will update an older interpretation into a new one that fits the data better. This is why tracking trends is so important for business. Any interpretation of what is going on needs evidence to back it up. I want to share an unusual example from outside of business that can demonstrate this.

At the outset, I’m not a scholar on Mahatma Gandhi. The views that I present are my interpretations of the little that I know about the great man, who, in India is called the Father of the Nation.

Gandhi always looked for ways to connect his principles to his practice. Fasting became an important practice for resolving conflict without violence. Gandhi fathered the policy of passive political resistance against British rule in India and called it “Satyagraha”. It is a Sanskrit word formed of “satya” and “Agraha”, satya means truth and agraha means firmness. Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) denotes resolution or insistence symbolizing force to explain the concept of passive political resistance to masses. Fasting then was one of the weapons to be used to resolve conflict in the struggle to gain Independence from the British through passive political resistance.

Here is the issue that we’re exploring. Gandhi used fasting as a way of protest. Was it truly his willpower that enabled him to do long fasts, or did his earlier upbringing give him the training to handle long fasts without the need of willpower?

The training argument

We know that he usually ate a minimalist diet to sustain his body. It was largely vegetarian except for goat’s milk after a serious ailment. He only ate enough to sustain himself. This was not seen as deprivation to him but as a way to balance greed with need. While fasting, he only allowed himself small sips of water for hydration.

While discussing his early life influence, Gandhi says of his mother, who was deeply religious, “she would take the hardest vows and keep them without flinching”. She fasted regularly and could not even think of taking her meals without her daily prayers.

Gandhi also experimented with fasting prior to his public political career. As the one to practice Truth, he always looked for ways to connect his principles to his practice. He was not new to the practice of fasting when he adopted it in 1913 for the first time to atone for the sins of two people at his Phoenix farm in South Africa. He also used it to mourn for a striking laborer that was killed by the South African police.

The first publicized fast meant to cause social change was the one in March of 1918 at Ahmedabad in India. Gandhi stood in front of the striking textile workers and said, “Hereby, I renounce food till such time as you get a 35% raise”. Earlier, the owners had agreed to a 20% raise that had divided the workers.  Some wanted to return to work while some felt that they should continue striking till 35% was agreed. Gandhi’s fast bolstered the confidence of the workers and united them again. Four days later, Gandhi broke his fast when the workers received a 35% raise.

He went on to fast many more times to achieve his goals. But an individual must practice honing one’s skill whether it’s the use of weapon for a soldier or the use of the force of fasting for a “satyagrahi.”  So, did Gandhi’s sparse diet, the example of his mother, and his previous fasting experiences train him to be able to fast for exceptional periods?

What does the data show?

Now I bring my own interpretation to this story. I searched all records of his fasting in the public record. I found seventeen records. This was the trend I found:


The trend on fasting shows that while it may be true that persistent training enhances the skills, in the case of Mahatma Gandhi, his willpower to practice his own doctrines superseded the need for training. The protest fasts were often years apart and most lasted for a week. One lasted two, and three lasted three.

Eating sparse meals does train the stomach and brain to see emptiness as a normal condition. And seeing his mother take fasts gave him the knowledge on how to do it successfully without harm. This probably gave him the training necessary to handle the one-week fasts.

But to push beyond to double and triple that? I believe that takes more than just knowledge and training. That takes willpower. The human body cannot live for more than 40 days without food, and Gandhi, being so small and eating so little compared to most, wouldn’t seem to have the reserves to handle long fasts without experiencing severe hunger.

Additionally, if we look at his age when he did the fasts and the conditions they took place in, he wasn’t exactly in comfort. Many fasts took place in jail and his longest ones happened when he was in his 50s and 60s. The news media clung onto his every symptom as his body tried to shut down. He was forced to add salt or citrus juice to his drinks in order to survive the ordeals he put himself through.

It’s one thing to go on a water fast for a week as a young healthy person. But to be able to do it in middle/late age and to the point where doctors are reporting severe health symptoms, that takes willpower. It is my interpretation that his clinging to truth was the only way that he could push himself that far.

Why we need all the data

If we didn’t have the public records of his fasting and its results, the training hypothesis would still be a nagging question. It was Gandhi’s ability to push past the 1 week barrier significantly and get his trials documented that shows how much willpower played a factor.

Data has a way to tell its own story if we let it. If an alternative hypothesis comes around, it must be tested against the evidence. This is how science works. But we need the data to test.

Similarly, for a business to sustainable success in the face of global competition, shorter product life cycles, a faster pace of technology and changing customer demand, it is important to extract and compile its own database tracking major events occurring in its markets across the world.

In the last two decades, companies have spent billions of dollars with SAP, Oracle, Salesforce, and others to more effectively make sense of internal business data. But relevant market intelligence data exposed on the internet has no platform, its value is wasted as it lies fragmented, scattered and is not retrievable for analysis or trending at any time. At least, for now. That’s why we’re building Nowigence so we can collate this data for analysis.

Do you have a process to extract data and market insights from published news every day? Do you have a process to extract and store intelligence from emails from your commercial teams (sales, marketing, BD or procurement) when they have learned something new and worthy of sharing during their interactions with their peers in business?

If you don’t and think that this is of value to protect your stakeholder’s interest, make smarter decisions, reduce business risk, and unite as one team to pursue business goals then call us at Nowigence (www.nowigence.com) to schedule a demo.

Topics: Leadership, Market Insights