Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Friday, 2 March 2012

The Circle Game Continues: More Research on Gandhi and His Spinning

Gandhi at his spinning wheel in 1929.  Public domain image.

I'm gathering information for the major research paper which is a requirement in my Yoga Studies class.  While Gandhi's reasons for choosing spinning in his political goals are reasonably well known, it's less clear why he thought cotton spinning was an excellent tool for his spiritual practice, although he states its importance often in his writing.  Since hand spinning is no longer a common activity, let alone combined with meditation and spirituality, finding written material on the subject is an adventure.

Here are a few things I've discovered about Mohandas and his spinning:
  • Early in his career, Gandhi made the common mistake of confusing "spinning" with "weaving."  ("Tantra" means "loom" in Sanskrit; "sutra" means "thread," but is also used to denote instructive ideas, as in the Yoga Sutra. Perhaps some of the confusion stemmed from this?)
  • Gandhi learned to spin later in life, sometime after 1917, when he was approaching his fifties.  By that time, spinning was little known in India and the process of finding a spinning wheel was difficult.  Gandhi was assisted in his endeavours by a widow named Gangabehn Majmundar, who after long searching, found him a wheel in Vijapur.  It was Gangabehn who helped people in the Baroda State dust off their unused wheels and begin spinning again, when one of Gandhi's followers, Umar Sobani, found a steady supply of cotton slivers to feed the wheels.
  • Gandhi promoted the use of takhlis, the small metal spindle used for fine cotton spinning, as well as the charkha. 
  • Gandhi was attracted to the spinning wheel both as spiritual symbol and as a mechanical device. "Charkha/cakra" means "wheel;" its imagery is connected to the Sun, a powerful object and symbol of worship in Hindu tradition.  As known to every spinner who has moved beyond the basics of spinning, the spinning wheel produces a rhythm and sound conducive to calming meditative states; Gandhi felt the lure of the wheel, too.
  • Gandhi is credited with modernizing the Indian charkha, but it is difficult to say how the modern book charkha came into existence.  Gandhi promoted several design contests for wheel modifications.  He made it clear that a modern wheel should be light, portable, easily made from inexpensive materials affordable to the poorest Indian, but exactly who designed the book charkha and when it came into use is unclear.  There are photographs of both Mohandas and his wife spinning; in most cases, the pictures I have seen show them spinning at a traditional wheel, although they certainly used the book charkha.
  • In the famous 1946 photograph by Margaret Bourke-White of Gandhi at his wheel, Gandhi is not, as is often thought, actually spinning.  Rather, he is reading, with the traditional charkha in front of him. Among other things, the photograph symbolizes Gandhi' s commitment to education and work.
Almost finished: my shawl spun from organic and naturally coloured cotton.

    Brass takhli spindles, a spindle bowl, my woven cotton fabric (commercial cotton warp), skeins of cotton singles and unginned cotton (my favourite cotton spinning preparation)



    1. I learned something new today. I didn't know Gandhi was a spinner.

      1. Spinning was one of the central "limbs" of Gandhi's Satyagraha (peaceful protest) movement. He used spinning as a means of protesting British colonialism, to provide the poor with an income and as a meditation/yoga tool. An image of the spinning wheel was on the flag of the newly formed independant India.

    2. I also didn't know that Gandhi was a spinner, that is very interesting to know. Your latest project is looking amazing by the way!

      1. Gandhi encouraged his followers to spin an hour per day, as he attempted to do. He spun and wove the red-bordered sari in which his wife, Kasturba, was cremated.

        Thank you. I love spinning cotton. It's very alive and elastic, especially when compared to commercially spun cotton yarns.