Before he entered into public service he took Gokhale's advice and travelled the length and breadth of India in order to deepen his experience of the complex Indian reality. He went a step further than the advice he received by choosing to travel third class, intending to expose himself to the terrible conditions of the poor and to view life from their perspective.45 He believed that "no reform is possible unless some of the educated and the rich voluntarily accept the status of the poor, travel third class, refuse to enjoy the hardships, discourtesies and injustice as a matter of course, fight for their removal."46
The experience profoundly disturbed him. He became aware that political enslavement from British rule was not the only evil to be eradicated. India needed to be set free from many more constraints such as untouchability, poverty, communalism, lack of sanitation, selfishness and even religious hypocrisy.47
In May 1915 he set up the Satyagraha Ashram on the outskirts of the city of Ahmedabad at a place called Kochrab.
An outbreak of plague at Kochrab that same year led him to relocate the Satyagraha Ashram to a solitary place on the banks of the Sabarmati river. It was near the Central Jail, a position Gandhi saw as an advantage since "jail-going was understood to be the normal lot of Satyagrahis. "48
Gandhi's legal expertise was solicited in the struggle of the Champaran peasants of Bihar.49 Here he wore khadi, as was his custom even at the Sabarmati Ashram. A certain journalist named Irwin, who was accustomed to seeing the Indian educated elite take pride in their superiority over the illiterate masses through a Western lifestyle, considered Gandhi's manner of dress a ploy to impress the exploited peasants of the indigo plantations.50 He wrote an article in The Pioneer accusing Gandhi of hypocrisy.
His letter to the same newspaper, dated 30 June 1917, effectively summarises the lessons he had learned on the significance of clothing.
Having taken to the occupation of weaving and agriculture and having taken the vow of swadeshi, my clothing is now entirely hand-woven and hand-sewn and made by me or my fellow-workers. Mr. Irwin's letter suggests that I appear before the ryots in a dress I have temporarily and specially adopted in Champaran to produce an effect. The fact is that I wear the national dress because it is the most natural and the most becoming for an Indian. I believe that our copying of the European dress is a sign of our degradation, humiliation and our weakness; and that we are committing a national sin in discarding a dress which is best suited to the Indian climate and which, for its simplicity, art and cheapness, is not to be beaten on the face of the earth and which answers hygienic requirements. Had it not been for a false pride and equally false notions of prestige, Englishmen here would long ago have adopted the Indian costume [...]. I may mention incidentally that I do not go about Champaran bare-headed. I do avoid shoes for sacred reasons, but I find too that it is more natural and healthier to avoid them whenever possible.
After Champaran, Gandhi was involved in the Ahmedabad Textile Mill-workers Strike on the banks of the Sabarmati.
A third agitation that Gandhi was drawn into was the Kheda Peasants' Struggle in March 1918. These campaigns helped him test the resilience of the satyagraha method which he had ingeniously created in South Africa. They steeled him for the greatest all-India satyagraha campaign that would soon follow...
On 31 August 1920, Gandhi took the khadi vow: "From today for life I declare that I shall purchase for my (wear) only khaddar cloth hand-made of hand-spun yarn, cap or head-dress and socks excepted."52 The following year he began the promotion of swadeshi and the boycott of British goods which sent ripples of energy across the subcontinent. He organized bonfires of foreign cloth as an act of self-purification for the sin of compliance to imperial rule: "The English have not taken India: we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength, but because we keep them."53
Gandhi's insistence on using khadi instead of foreign cloth began to take effect. It was for him "the symbol of unity of Indian humanity, of its economic freedom and equality."54 Public gatherings were impressively bathed in a sea of white khadi. The psychological effect this visual scenario had on the millions who participated was electrifying. Even Congress members who once preferred western garb were now proudly attired in khadi and the Gandhi topi)
There were the poor who could not participate in wearing khadi nor in burning foreign cloth simply because they could not afford either. The abject misery of this latter section of the population put Gandhi in a dilemma. On the one hand, he preached the importance of khadi for puma swaraj, which, by its very meaning, included the emancipation of the poor as well. On the other hand, the khadi revolution as the means to obtaining swaraj was too expensive to include the poverty stricken. Yet, Gandhi felt they could not be left out of the freedom struggle. They had to participate, even if they were reduced to wearing loincloths!55 He found it difficult to communicate these thoughts because he did not want to demand obedience to a precept that he himself had not practised.
A few days later he wrote an article entitled, "My Loin-cloth"56 He admitted that the change of dress was the result of 'deep deliberation' and the mark of a 'momentous occasion' in his life which 'he could not help doing'.57 He also confessed that he had restrained himself from taking the plunge on two previous occasions;58 that the choice filled him with a legitimate apprehension of how such a public act by the leader of the Indian national movement would be received and interpreted by his contemporaries.
As one reads through the text, one is able to glimpse the anguish of Gandhi's soul - a political leader at the head of a 300 million population yearning for maximum honesty to self and to the poorest of his people.
The masses in Madras watch me with bewilderment. But if India calls me a lunatic, what then? [...] Unless I went about with a loin-cloth, how might I advise others to do likewise? What should I do where millions have to go naked? [...] The dress of the millions of agriculturists in India is really only the loin-cloth, and nothing more. [...] I want the reader to measure from this the agony of my soul. I do not want either my co-workers or readers to adopt the loincloth. But I do wish that they should thoroughly realize the meaning of the boycott of foreign cloth and put forth their best effort to get it boycotted, and to get khadi manufactured. I do wish that they may understand that swadeshi means everything.59
The agony of his soul to 'reduce himself to zero'60, not just in words but in the physicality of his public presentation was excruciatingly painful. On being asked at a conference to share his views on this manifestation of voluntary poverty he replied: "To possess nothing is, at first, not like taking your clothes off your body but like taking your flesh off your bones."61
In September-December, 1931, Gandhi attended the Second Round Table Conference62 in London wearing open-strapped slippers notwithstanding the changes in the autumnal climate and the onset of winter.63 He insisted on wearing the loincloth because it was the 'symbol of his mission'.64 It was a symbol in two senses: to reveal his sincere solidarity with the poor of India whom he represented, and to show how imperialism had impoverished his country. "Millions of Indians own nothing in the world but that little strip of cloth which preserves them from disgrace. I am not leading a 'back to the loin cloth' movement. We have been in these straits ever since the British have ruled India."65
In his desire for sartorial consistency with his values he even refused to compromise his attire for King George V at Buckingham Palace: "In any other dress I should be most discourteous to him because I should be artificial."66