Lessons in Leadership from Gandhi’s Life: Choosing a Role Model

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Gandhi Encounters Raychandbhai During an Emotionally Fraught Period

The contemporary obsession with self-improvement traces back to ancient antecedents, as far back for instance, as an Egyptian genre called the ‘Sebayt’ or ‘teaching’ published around 2800 B.C. Correlating current trends with historic parallels, like in the character formation of Mohandas Gandhi drawn from the historian Ramachandra Guha’s illuminating volumes on the leader’s life, we might be both comforted and surprised that Gandhi himself, especially in the early years, relied on the mentoring and advice of “role models.” One of the formative figures in his life, Raychandbhai, was a strikingly unpretentious man. Moreover, it’s intriguing that someone who was, in a social sense, undistinguished, should create such a deep impression on the future world leader.

The Mahatma’s first encounter with Raychand occurred at an emotionally searing moment in his life. A few years earlier, when Gandhi had decided to embark on a voyage to London, he needed, at first, to assuage the anxieties of Putlibai, his mother, about the seductive corruptions of a foreign land. He promised that he would desist from meat, alcohol and sex. During his stint, Gandhi held steadfast to his vow, and eagerly returned to Bombay by ship, impatient to meet Putlibai and assure her of his abstinence from “sin”. At Bombay, he was greeted by his older brother Laxmidas, and was escorted to his college friend, Pranjivan Mehta’s house. During their ride inside the city, Laxmidas imparted the news about Putlibai’s death, a few months ago. He added that the family had desisted from wiring Mohandas as they didn’t want to distract him from his studies.

When a somewhat numb and shocked Gandhi reached his friend’s home, he met, for the first time with Raychandbhai, Mehta’s relative. Though a jeweller by profession, Raychand was known in family circles, as a scholar of Jain scriptures, as a poet and a mystic. During Gandhi’s stay in Bombay, he was to spend time intensely conversing with Raychand, with the latter trying to shake him out of his bereavement.

Gandhi is Fascinated by Raychandbhai’s Personal Traits

Raychand possessed appealing contradictions in his own persona. While his profession entailed dealing with diamonds and gold and other glittery lures, he was remarkably detached from objects and worldly pleasures. He was also intimately acquainted with the texts of diverse religions – Hinduism and Jainism, Islam and Christianity. At a time, when the world wasn’t self-consciously cosmopolitan or multicultural, Raychand already subscribed to a universalist view that all religions led to a shared truth, and all were marked by certain imperfections.

Jains, as a community, were already renowned for showy and even dramatic acts of renunciation – for instance, of wealthy Jain businesspersons giving away all their possessions and familial attachments in the presence of a marveling crowd. Raychand himself was dismissive of such acts, perhaps for being needlessly theatrical and sanctimonious. Instead, he advocated “inner detachment,” while continuing to serve one’s family and playing other roles necessitated by one’s circumstances.

He was also capable of astonishing feats of memory. He was termed a “shatavadhani” – “one who could remember a hundred things.” In earlier times, he used to flaunt his intellectual dexterity to audiences, but when Gandhi met with him, he had already turned more quiescent, and less inclined to “show off” his powers. But just to distract the grieving Mohandas, he did exhibit his memory skills. He asked Gandhi to write down paragraphs of texts in different languages, and Raychand would just read those pieces once, and then repeat them verbatim, without altering a single word. One of the other lessons that Gandhi gleaned during that brief but intense encounter was that knowledge can be gained anywhere, and by any means.  

The learned Jain left such a strong imprint on Gandhi, that thirty years later, he would recall, in his own writings, Raychand’s precise facial features and his mild, soft-spoken but magnetic demeanor. In Gandhi’s words: “Inner joy was pictured on his face.”

Raychandbhai Continues to Advise Gandhi During His Mumbai Days

While trying to establish his own law practice in Bombay, Gandhi had rented out rooms in Girgaum, an area not too far from where Raychand lived.

Gandhi’s attempts to set up his law practice were resisted by members of his own caste, who still bore a grudge against him for having transgressed their puritan notions by crossing the seas or ‘kala pani.’ In those days, traveling across oceans to foreign lands was considered a breach of faith, and an abandonment of one’s religious, social and family ties. Impure travelers who had returned after mingling with foreigners or mlecchas were ostracized by their communities or made to undergo elaborate purification rituals to wash off the defilement. Finding a continued lack of support from his circles in Bombay, and despondent about his professional failure, Gandhi often sought consolation from Raychandbhai.

During those conversations, he was struck by other aspects of the jeweller. Raychand wore a simple kurta and dhoti every day, “more often than not unironed.” Gandhi could not help but compare his unassuming outfits with that of the lawyers and judges he met at court, folks who were extremely finicky about their clothes. Also, Raychand sat cross-legged inside the store, rather than opting for sofas and chairs that Gandhi had become accustomed to in London.

It is striking that Gandhi’s own defiant adoption of Indian clothes and other “Eastern” habits were already embodied by Raychandbhai, many years before the Indian leader was to even think of incorporating them into his own being.

Among other topics, the two men also dwelt on “compassion.” While Raychand remarked that one could not renounce leather entirely, one must use it sparingly. Gandhi could not help observing that Raychand’s own cap contained a small strip of leather. When he pointed this out, Raychand promptly removed the cap and stopped using it entirely. Gandhi was struck at once by his humility, and by his willingness to be corrected by his student. One can also perhaps relate this to the manner in which Gandhi welcomed dissenting opinions as a leader.

Raychand also told Gandhi that he must not restrict himself to the diktats of his own caste, and that he must try to imbibe the best qualities from other castes – diligence from the Sudras, “fearlessness from the Kshatriya, a love of learning from the Brahmin.”

Gandhi Corresponds with Raychand from South Africa

Later, when Gandhi moved to Durban in South Africa, he encountered the ideas of orthodox Christians and the works of other heterodox thinkers like Leo Tolstoy and Anna Kingsford. In the presence of notions that seemed to both resonate and collide with his own religious precepts, he felt confused about his beliefs. At this point, he penned down his doubts and dispatched his questions to Raychandbhai. As Guha puts it: “He posed more than two dozen questions, asking among other things, about the functions of the soul, the existence of God, the antiquity of the Vedas, the divinity of Christ and treatment of animals.”

Raychand again seems to have patiently responded to the young Mohandas, attempting to quell the ferment inspired by his personal and intellectual encounters.

One of the notable questions that Gandhi poses is perhaps prescient of the political activities he is to engage in later. He asked Raychand if it would ever be possible to foster a wholly equitable society. While Raychand seems to have declared that such an idealistic community was unlikely to be ever fully realized, he also insisted that it “was most desirable that we should try to adopt equity and give up immoral and unjust ways of life.”

Gandhi Pays Tributes to Raychandbhai After His Death

Raychandbhai died at the early age of 33, in 1901. Gandhi, who was in South Africa at that point, read about his death in a newspaper that was mailed to him. Even as he carried on with his work, he did mention the void in his life to a friend. He no longer had Raychand physically available, to respond to his questions on religious, spiritual and even political matters.

Much later, writing a preface to a Gujarati book on Raychand, he said he had observed the manner in which the jeweller always had religious books by his side and never hesitated to answer the spiritual and religious questions of seekers, while continuing to operate his jewellery business. Besides his detachment, Gandhi was also struck by his ability to multitask.

When Gandhi’s children were being educated at the Phoenix farm, he advised them to read Tolstoy’s Life and Confessions. He also suggested they read the works of Raychandbhai, whom he felt was more perceptible than Tolstoy on religious matters. “The more I consider his life and his writings, the more I consider him to be the best Indian of his times.”

Raychand was certainly instrumental in helping develop the Mahatma’s pluralist and highly tolerant approach to all religions. Moreover, the Jain jeweller-seer’s own simplicity and immense confidence in his culture helped steer Gandhi from being a Westernized modern man into a proudly “Indian” one, and to someone who prized the rural over the urban, the agrarian over the industrial, the modest over the ostentatious.

Some Takeaways from Gandhi’s Role Model

Role Models Need Not be “Successful” People

Raychand’s role in Gandhi’s life is all the more notable, for his distinct lack of socially-prized status markers. At an early age, Gandhi wisely picked someone with admirable traits, rather than someone who was revered for wielding wealth, power or high-status.

In an experiment cited in the New York Times, conducted by Crystal L. Hoyt, an Associate Professor at the University of Richmond, and a graduate student, Stefanie Simon, showed that when groups of women were shown pictures of other superstar women, or pictures of male and female superstars, they performed worse on a task that followed. On the other hand, when they were shown neutral flower pictures or pictures of only men, their performance improved. The study concluded that when you try to model yourself after someone who seems like an impossible target, you might hurt rather than help your own performance. The researchers called this a “self-deflating” effect.

Another study on optimal role models conducted by behavioural scientists Chengwei Liu and Jerker Denrell at the University of Warwick, concluded that the most successful in a domain need not be the most skilled, since success rests on a complex interplay of factors, of which skill only constitutes one dimension. Liu also warns that, “the more exceptional performers are, the less we may learn from them.” He says rather than picking role models who are at the “top” of their domains, we would do better if we pick the ones who are second-best or a just a few steps ahead of us. Besides the danger of “overreach”, the most successful performers may not possess desirable traits or may not have used the most ethical means to get to where they are.

Role Models Need Not Be Older Than You

Raychandbhai was only a year older than Gandhi, so he was more like a peer, rather than an older person with years of accumulated experience. Extending this further, sometimes role models can be younger people, folks who outshine you on some dimension or trait that you would like to imitate.

Observe the Non-verbal Behaviours and Attributes of Role Models

Gandhi observed many of the non-verbal behaviors of Raychandbhai: his style of dressing, the manner in which he sat, his persistence with his material profession while maintaining an inner detachment.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Wendy Murphy, an Associate Professor of Management at Babson College, suggests that we should become “organizational anthropologists,” closely observing the traits and behavior of people we wish to emulate.

None of us can (or even should) entirely become someone else. Hence, while mimicking leaders or other people you admire, you should be selective about which traits you mimic – because some traits, while being laudable, may not work for you. For instance, Professor Murphy also watched other Master Teachers at work. While she was impressed by the Socratic style adopted by one, she knew she couldn’t entirely incorporate such a style into her own teaching. However, she picked a few aspects that would work for her – for instance, the careful framing of questions, or walking around the classroom to keep the students more engaged.

She also warns that as you start adopting behavioral traits of others, at first, they might feel “awkward” or “not like yourself.” Such discomfort, Murphy says, is normal, till you continually use them, so they become an intrinsic part of your personality.

Role Models Need Not Operate in Your Domain

Gandhi’s model wasn’t a lawyer or a politician. Murphy also urges practitioners to pick role models from other walks of life – so a businessperson should look beyond corporate leaders, and perhaps explore other fields like Art or Medicine, in trying to change their habits and aspects of personality.

And like Gandhi, one has to remain a continuous learner, working on each aspect, one at a time. Because once you have conquered a specific aspect, you can move onto other changes. 


Guha, Ramachandra, Gandhi Before India, Penguin Random House India, Gurgaon, 2014

Guha, Ramachandra, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World (1914-1948), Allen Lane, Penguin Random House India, Gurgaon, 2018


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