It is significant that Gandhi’s thoughts on gender politics was opposite to that of reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who sought to empower women by bringing them closer in capacities and opportunities to men. Gandhi sought to render men closer to women by exhorting them to adopt feminine characteristics like empathy and non-violence. It served to present the masculinities of British imperialist rule as crude, rapaciously materialist, violent, hypocritical, and profoundly lacking in self-control and discipline, in contrast to the spiritually stronger, scrupulously nonviolent, disciplined Indian resistance that Gandhi sought to forge.
Gandhi knew that he faced a struggle to pass off the idea of nonviolence as the central core of Hinduism. After all, he himself said that he had borrowed his idea of nonviolence from the Sermon on the Mount. Before Gandhi, nobody had tried to give centrality to non-violence as a major Hindu or Indian virtue. Swami Vivekananda had sarcastically said that the British had, following the 'real' injunctions of the classical Indian texts, excelled in their this-worldly, hedonic, manly pursuits, while the Indians, foolishly following the 'true' injunctions of Christianity, had become their passive, life-denying, feminine subjects. Vivekananda had once said that the salvation of the Hindus lay in three Bs: beef, biceps and Bhagvadgita. Ashis Nandy writes in The Intimate Enemy:
The current belief is that the Hindus are a peace-loving and nonviolent people, and this belief has been fortified by Gandhism. In reality few communities have been more warlike and fond of bloodshed. . . . About twenty-five words in an inscription of Asoka have succeeded in almost wholly suppressing the thousands in the rest of the epigraphy and the whole of Sanskrit literature which bear testimony to the incorrigible militarism of the Hindus.
Their political history is made up of bloodstained pages. . . . Between this unnecessary proclamation of non-violence in the third century B.C. and its reassertion, largely futile, in the twentieth century by Mahatma Gandhi, there is not one word of non-violence in the theory and practice of statecraft by the Hindus.
Gandhi’s own active feminization of himself is epitomized in the image of him at the spinning wheel, where both posture and activity are distinctly feminine. He also actively courted an image of motherliness through his intense, even obsessive involvement in nursing. On several occasions, he observed and then maintained that women were moral beings of a higher order than men and were exceptionally well-suited to such labor-intensive, painstaking, and sacrificial tasks. In Bapu – My Mother, Manubehn Gandhi (who was a grandniece who he had brought up) says that he had constituted himself her 'Mother' and took interest in the minutest details of her life, even whether she thoroughly washed her hair every week.
Responding to colonial criticisms, Gandhi reworked Hindu ascetic practices. He argued that the practice of world renunciation in classical sannyasa is an escape into self-centeredness; renunciation is futile unless it manifests itself in selfless service and social reform: "In this age, only political sannyasis can fulfil and adorn the ideal of sannyasa, others will more than likely disgrace the sannyasi's saffron garb ... one who aspires to a truly religious life cannot fail to undertake public service as his mission, and we are today so much caught up in the political machine that service of the people is impossible without taking part in politics".
When young, Gandhi had accepted dominant colonial attribution of Hindu cowardice to a vegetarian diet. So he began to eat meat, which he understands as a nationalist "duty." But the experiment did not last long. He came across Henry Salt's Plea for Vegetarianism and this changes his understanding of vegetarianism. He now came to consider vegetarianism as a moral virtue and became a vegetarian by choice. He also changed his earlier belief that meat-eating increased masculine strength: eating a sparse meal devoid of meat was a requirement, if one wanted to reside in his ashrams as a disciple.
The nonviolent refusal to cooperate with injustice required that "feeble physiques" reflecting modern forms of indulgence to be replaced with bodies "as strong as steel" . He conceived his ashrams as centers to produce disciplined minds and bodies that can endure the hardships of satyagraha. Gandhi argued that aggression was the path to mastery of those without self-control, nonviolent resistance the path of those with self-control. (He became puritanical in his restrictions but it must be remembered that it was in the context of resisting the dominant narrative of the superiority of masculinity.)
Gandhi's model of masculinity found expression in his economic thought also. He said: "I must confess that I do not draw a sharp distinction between economics and ethics. Economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation are immoral, and therefore sinful. Thus the economics that permit one country to prey upon another are immoral. . . .” The Western world had been proud of science and technology and the industrial revolution. They used to criticize the Eastern world for its backwardness in this field. But Gandhi criticized the overdependence of men on machinery in the West.
He believed that the people of the West had become slaves of machines and neglected use of their bodily strength. In Gandhi's model of masculinity, importance was given to manual labour and minimum use of machinery. He believed that it was manly to be self-reliant and independent. He thought that the modern methods of production and distribution had made people indulgent and deteriorated the moral qualities of the people.
Gandhi, through his actions, suggested that resistance could be other than in the mode of masculinity and violence. His encouragement of women's participation in the political realm and attempts to feminize the anti-colonial struggle offered a resounding challenge to British colonial ideologies and institutional practices. He offered nonviolent resistance or satyagraha and reworked "feminine" practices, such as spinning, weaving, suffering hunger, and enduring assaults on the body, as the primary mode of political resistance.
Gandhi wished to develop an Indian kind of nationalism which would be far more accommodative and more rooted in Indian traditions and cultures rather than being influenced by the West. He hoped that by inculcating feminine virtues in his followers he would develop a nationalism that would avoid the dangers of an aggressive tilt in nationalism which removed from it of all its humanity and tolerant character, thereby generating jingoism. More than any other nationalist movement, the one Gandhi forged was largely devoid of hatred.
What particularly incensed the Hindu right about Gandhi’s politics was what they perceived as his emasculation and even explicit feminization of “the Hindu community,” in relation to “the Muslim community,” which they saw as a betrayal of Hindus in general. They saw (and continue to see) politics like the colonial rulers did – as a rational, zero-sum game in which the losses on the opponent must be continually maximized. Nathuram Godse wanted Hinduism to attain the masculinity that the colonial rule represented. Gandhi wanted the opposite.