Back to Home Page
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (October
2, 1869 – January 30, 1948) was a national icon who led the struggle for India's
independence from British colonial rule, empowered by tens of millions of common
Indians. Throughout his life he opposed any form of terrorism or violence,
instead using only the highest moral standards. His philosophy of nonviolence,
for which he coined the term satyagraha, has influenced national and
international nonviolent resistance movements to this day, including the
American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968) led by Martin Luther King.
From the time he took charge of the freedom struggle and the Indian National Congress in 1918, he was lovingly reverred as "Mahatma", or "Great Soul" by millions of Indians. Although he was much averse to honorary addresses, Gandhi is still today commonly referred to as Mahatma Gandhi, and not Mohandas Gandhi, all over the world. Apart from being considered one of the greatest Hindu and Indian leaders of all time, he is revered by many in India as the "Father of the Nation" or Bapu (Hindi for Father).
By means of nonviolent civil disobedience, Gandhi helped bring about India's independence from British rule, inspiring other colonial peoples to work for their own independence and ultimately dismantling the British Empire. Gandhi's principle of satyagraha (from Sanskrit; satya for truth and agraha for endeavor), often translated as "way of truth" or "pursuit of truth", has inspired other freedom activists such as the Dalai Lama, Lech Walesa, Steve Biko, Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. However not all these leaders kept to Gandhi's strict principle of nonviolence and nonresistance.
Gandhi often stated that his principles were simple; drawn from traditional Hindu beliefs: truth (satya) and nonviolence (ahimsa). As Gandhi said: "I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills."
Early life (1869 - 1893)
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born into a Hindu family in Porbandar, Gujarat, India in 1869. He was the son of Karamchand Gandhi, the dewan (Chief Minister) of Porbandar, and Putlibai, Karamchand's fourth wife, a Hindu of the vaishnava sect. Growing up with a devout Vaishnava mother and surrounded by the Jain influences of Gujarat, Gandhi learned from an early age the tenets of non-injury to living beings, vegetarianism, fasting for self-purification, and mutual tolerance between members of various creeds and sects. He was born into the vaishya, or business, caste. In May 1882, at the age of 13, Gandhi was married through arrangement to Kasturba Makharji, who was the same age as he. They had four sons: Harilal Gandhi, born in 1888; Manilal Gandhi, born in 1892; Ramdas Gandhi, born in 1897; and Devdas Gandhi, born in 1900.
Gandhi was a mediocre student in his youth at Porbandar and later Rajkot, barely passing the matriculation exam for the University of Bombay in 1887, and joining Samaldas College, Bhavnagar. He did not stay there long, however, as his family felt he must become a barrister if he were to continue the family tradition of holding high office in Gujarat. Unhappy at Samaldas College, he leapt at the opportunity to study in England, which he viewed as "a land of philosophers and poets, the very centre of civilization."
At the age of 19, Gandhi went to University College London to train as a barrister. His time in London, the Imperial capital, was influenced by a vow he had made to his mother upon leaving India to observe the Hindu precepts of abstinence from meat and alcohol. Although Gandhi experimented with becoming "English", taking dancing lessons for example, he could not stomach his landlady's mutton and cabbage. She pointed him towards one of London's few vegetarian restaurants. Rather than simply go along with his mother's wishes, he read about, and intellectually converted to vegetarianism. He joined the Vegetarian Society, was elected to its Executive Committee, and founded a local chapter. He later credited this with giving him valuable experience in organising and running institutions. Some of the vegetarians he met were members of the Theosophical Society, which had been founded in 1875 by H.P. Blavatsky to further universal brotherhood. The Theosophists were devoted to the study of Buddhist and Hindu Brahmanistic literature. They encouraged Gandhi to read the Bhagavad Gita. Although he had not shown a particular interest in religion before, he began to read works of and about Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and other religions.
He returned to India after being admitted to the British bar. Trying to establish a law practice in Bombay, he had limited success. By this time, the legal profession was overcrowded in India, and Gandhi was not a dynamic figure in a courtroom. He applied for a part-time job as a teacher at a Bombay high school but was turned down. He ended up returning to Rajkot to make a modest living drafting petitions for litigants but was forced to close down that business as well when he ran afoul of a British officer. In his autobiography, he describes this incident as a kind of unsuccessful lobbying attempt on behalf of his older brother. It was in this climate that (in 1893) he accepted a year-long contract from an Indian firm to a post in Natal, South Africa.
Political activism in South Africa (1893 - 1914)
At this point in his life, Gandhi was a mild-mannered, diffident, politically indifferent individual. He had read his first newspaper at age 18 and was prone to horrible stage fright when speaking in court. South Africa changed him dramatically as he faced the humiliation and oppression that was commonly directed at Indians in that country. One day in court in the city of Durban, the magistrate asked him to remove his turban, which he refused to do, and Gandhi stormed out of the courtroom. A turning point in his life, often acknowledged in biographies, that would serve as the catalyst for his activism occurred several days later when he began a journey to Pretoria. He was literally thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg after refusing to move from first class to a third class compartment, normally used by coloured peoples, while travelling on a valid first class ticket. Later, travelling further on by stagecoach, he was beaten by a driver for refusing to travel on the footboard to make room for a European passenger. He suffered other hardships on the journey as well, including being barred from many hotels on account of his race. This experience led him to more closely examine the hardships his people suffered in South Africa during his time in Pretoria.
It was in South Africa through witnessing racism, prejudice and injustice first-hand that he started to question his countrymens status and his own place in society. In fact Gandhi has been accused of prejudice himself through some of his remarks made in his early life against the native Africans. Addressing a public meeting in Bombay on September 26, 1896 (Collected Works Volume II, page 74), Gandhi said:
"Ours is one continued struggle against degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the European, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw kaffir, whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness."
When Gandhi's contract was up, he prepared to return to India. However, at a farewell party in his honor in Durban, he happened to glance at a newspaper and learned that a bill was being considered by the Natal Legislative Assembly to deny the vote to Indians. When he brought this up with his hosts, they lamented that they did not have the expertise necessary to oppose the bill and implored Gandhi to stay and help them. He circulated several petitions to both the Natal Legislature and the British government in opposition to the bill. Though unable to halt the bill's passage, his campaign was successful in drawing attention to the grievances of Indians in South Africa. Supporters convinced him to remain in Durban to continue fighting against the injustices levied against Indians in South Africa. He founded the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 with himself as secretary. Through this organization, he formed the Indian community of South Africa into a heterogeneous political force, inundating government and press alike with statements of Indian grievances and evidence of British discrimination in South Africa. Gandhi returned briefly to India in 1896 to bring his wife and children to live with him in South Africa. When he returned in January 1897, a white mob attacked and tried to lynch him. In an early indication of the personal values that would shape his later campaigns, he refused to press charges on any member of the mob, stating it was one of his principles not to seek redress for a personal wrong in a court of law.
At the onset of the South African War, Gandhi argued that Indians must support the war effort in order to legitimize their claims to full citizenship, organising a volunteer ambulance corps of 300 free Indians and 800 indentured laborers. At the conclusion of the war, however, the situation for the Indians did not improve, but continued to deteriorate. In 1906, the Transvaal government promulgated a new act compelling registration of the colony's Indian population. At a mass protest meeting held in Johannesburg that September, Gandhi adopted his platform of satyagraha (devotion to the truth), or non-violent protest, for the first time, calling on his fellow Indians to defy the new law and suffer the punishments for doing so rather than resist through violent means. This plan was adopted, leading to a seven-year struggle in which thousands of Indians were jailed (including Gandhi himself on many occasions), flogged, or even shot, for striking, refusing to register, or engaging in other forms of non-violent resistance. While the government was successful in repressing the Indian protesters, the public outcry stemming from the harsh methods employed by the South African government in the face of peaceful Indian protesters finally forced South African General Jan Christian Smuts to negotiate a compromise with Gandhi.
During his years in South Africa, Gandhi drew inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita and the writings of Leo Tolstoy (especially The Kingdom of God is Within You ), who in the 1880s had undergone a profound conversion to a personal form of Christian anarchism. Gandhi translated Tolstoy's A Letter to a Hindu (available at wikisource), written in 1908 in response to aggressive Indian nationalists. The two corresponded until Tolstoy's death in 1910. The letter by Tolstoy applies Hindu philosophy from the Vedas and the sayings of Krishna to the growing Indian nationalism. Gandhi was also inspired by the American writer Henry David Thoreau's famous essay Civil Disobedience. Gandhi's years in South Africa as a socio-political activist were when the concepts and techniques of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance were developed. Upon the outbreak of World War I, Gandhi decided to return to India, bringing all that he had learned from his experiences in South Africa with him.
Movement for Indian Independence (1914 - 1947)
As he had done in the South African War, Gandhi urged support of the British War effort and was active in encouraging Indians to join the army. His rationale, opposed by many others, was that if he desired the full citizenship, freedoms and rights in the Empire, it would be wrong not to help in its defense. He spoke at the conventions of the Indian National Congress, but was primarily introduced to Indian issues, politics and the Indian people by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, at the time the most respected leader of the Congress Party.
Gandhi's first major achievements came in 1918 with the Champaran agitation and Kheda Satyagraha, although in the latter he was involved at par with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who acted as his right-hand and leader of the rebels. In Champaran, a district in the state of Bihar, he organized civil resistance on the part of tens of thousands of landless farmers and serfs, and poor farmers with small lands, who were forced to grow indigo and other cash crops instead of the food crops necessary for their survival. Suppressed by the ruthless militias of the landlords (mostly British), they were given measly compensation, leaving them mired in extreme poverty. The villages were kept extremely dirty and unhygienic, and alcoholism, untouchability and purdah were rampant. Now in the throes of a devastating famine, the British levied an oppressive tax which they insisted on increasing in rate. The situation was desperate. In Kheda in Gujarat, the problem was the same.
Gandhi established an ashram there, organizing scores of his veteran supporters and fresh volunteers from the region. He organized a detailed study and survey of the villages, accounting the atrocities and terrible episodes of suffering, including the general state of degenerate living. Building on the confidence of villagers, he began leading the clean-up of villages, building of schools and hospitals and encouraging the village leadership to undo purdah, untouchability and the suppression of women.
But his main assault came as he was arrested by police on the charge of creating unrest and was ordered to leave the province. Hundreds of thousands of people protested and rallied outside the jail, police stations and courts demanding his release, which the court unwillingly did. Gandhi led organized protests and strike against the landlords, who with the guidance of the British government, signed an agreement granting more compensation and control over farming for the poor farmers of the region, and cancellation of revenue hikes and collection until the famine ended. It was during this agitation, that Gandhi was addressed by the people as Bapu (Father) and Mahatma (Great Soul). In Kheda, Patel represented the farmers in negotiations with the British, who suspended revenue collection and granted relief. All prisoners were released. Gandhi's resulting fame spread like fire all over the nation. He had become a defining influence on Indian Nationalism.
The Rowlatt Act of 1919, which empowered the government to imprison those accused of sedition without trial, was passed. Gandhi and the Congress Party organized major protests and strikes, all of a non-violent character around the nation. All major Indian cities and towns shut down, and the government machinery had to be taken over by the Army. Thousands of people were arrested, and martial law was imposed in many parts of the country. In Punjab, the Amritsar Massacre of 379 civilians by British and Indian troops caused deep trauma to the nation, and increased public anger and acts of violence.
Gandhi criticized both the actions of the British, and the retaliatory violence of Indians. He famously authored the resolution offering condolences to British civilian victims and condemning the riots, which after initial opposition in the party, was accepted after Gandhi made an emotional speech pushing forth his principle that all violence was evil and could not be justified. Indians should not become guilty of the racial hate carried by the British, and should not punish innocent British civilians.
But it was after the massacre and violence, that Gandhi realized that not only Indians were unprepared for mass scale resistance, but also that the British rule in India was evil and inherently oppressive. Gandhi's mind focused upon obtaining complete self-government and control of all Indian government institutions, maturing soon into Swaraj or complete individual, spiritual, political independence.
Gandhi in India
In April 1920, Gandhi was elected president of the All-India Home Rule League. He was invested with executive authority on behalf of the Indian National Congress in December 1921. Under Gandhi's leadership, the Congress was reorganized and given a new constitution, with the goal of swaraj (independence). Membership in the party was opened to anyone prepared to pay a token fee. A hierarchy of committees was set up to improve discipline and control over a hitherto amorphous and diffuse movement, transforming the party from an elite organization to one of mass national appeal. Gandhi expanded his non-violence platform to include the swadeshi policy – the boycott of foreign-made goods, especially British goods. Linked to this was his advocacy that khadi (homespun cloth) be worn by all Indians instead of British-made textiles. Gandhi exhorted Indian men and women, rich or poor, to spend time each day spinning khadi in support of the independence movement. This was a strategy to inculcate discipline and dedication to weed out the unwilling and ambitious, and include women in the movement at a time when many thought that such activities were not 'respectable' for women. In addition to boycotting British products, Gandhi urged the people to boycott British educational institutions and law courts, to resign from government employment, to refuse to pay taxes, and to forsake British titles and honours. This new program enjoyed wide-spread appeal and success, empowering the Indian people as never before, yet just as the movement reached its apex, it ended abruptly as a result of a violent clash in the town of Chauri Chaura, Uttar Pradesh, in February 1922. Fearing that the movement was about to take a turn towards violence, and convinced that this would be the undoing of all his work, Gandhi called off the campaign of mass civil disobedience. Now vulnerable, Gandhi was arrested on March 10, 1922, tried for sedition, and sentenced to six years. This was not the first time he had been jailed, but it was to be his longest term of imprisonment. Beginning on March 18, 1922, he only served about two years of the sentence, being released in February 1924 after an operation for appendicitis.
Without Gandhi's forceful personality to keep his colleagues in check, the Indian National Congress began to splinter during his years in prison, splitting into two factions, one led by Chitta Ranjan Das and Motilal Nehru favoring party participation in the legislatures, and the other led by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, opposing this move. Furthermore, cooperation among Hindus and Muslims, which had been strong at the height of the nonviolence campaign, was breaking down. Gandhi attempted to bridge these differences through many means, including a three-week fast in the autumn of 1924, but with limited success.
Gandhi during the Salt March (1930)
Gandhi stayed out of the limelight for most of the 1920s, preferring to resolve the wedge between the Swaraj Party and the Indian National Congress, and expanding initiatives against untouchability, alcoholism, ignorance and poverty. He returned to the fore in 1928. The year before, the British government appointed a new constitutional reform commission under Sir John Simon numbering not a single Indian in its ranks. The result was a boycott of the commission by Indian political parties. Gandhi pushed through a resolution at the Calcutta Congress in December 1928 calling on the British government to grant India dominion status within a year or face a new campaign of non-violence with complete independence for the country as its goal.
January 26, 1930 was celebrated by the Indian National Congress, meeting in Lahore as India's Independence Day. This day was commemorated by almost every other Indian political organization which strived for the country's independence or the socio-political empowerment of different peoples.
Making good on his word in March 1930, he launched a new satyagraha against the tax on salt, highlighted by the famous Salt March to Dandi from March 21 to April 6, 1930, marching 400 kilometres from Ahmedabad to Dandi to make his own salt. Thousands of Indians joined him on this march to the sea. This campaign was one of his most successful, resulting in the imprisonment of over 60,000 people. The government, represented by Lord Irwin, decided to negotiate with Gandhi.
The Gandhi-Irwin pact was signed in March 1931. In it, the British Government agreed to set all political prisoners free in return for the suspension of the civil disobedience movement. Furthermore, Gandhi was invited to attend the Round Table Conference in London as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress. The conference was a disappointment to Gandhi and the nationalists as it focused on the Indian princes and Indian minorities rather than the transfer of power. Furthermore, Lord Irwin's successor, Lord Willingdon, embarked on a new campaign of repression against the nationalists.
Gandhi was again arrested, and the government attempted to destroy his influence by completely isolating him from his followers. This tactic was not successful. In 1932, through the campaigning of the Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar, the government granted untouchables separate electorates under the new constitution. In protest, Gandhi embarked on a six-day fast in September 1932, successfully forcing the government to adopt a more equitable arrangement via negotiations mediated by the Dalit cricketer turned political leader Palwankar Baloo. This began a new campaign by Gandhi to improve the lives of the untouchables, whom he named Harijans, the children of God. On May 8, 1933 Gandhi began a 21-day fast to protest British oppression in India. In the summer of 1934, three unsuccessful attempts were made on his life.
When the Congress Party chose to contest elections and accept power under the Federation scheme, Gandhi decided to resign from party membership. He did not at all disagree with the party's move, but felt that if he resigned, his iconic status to common Indians would cease to stifle the party's membership, that actually varied from communists, socialists, trade unionists, students, religious conservatives, pro-business and property rights. Gandhi also did not want to prove a target for Raj propaganda by leading a party that had temporarily accepted political accommodation with the Raj.
Gandhi returned to the head in 1936, with the Nehru presidency and the Lucknow session of the Congress. Although Gandhi desired a total focus on the task of winning independence and not speculation about India's future government, Gandhi did not restrain the Congress from adopting socialism as its goal.
Gandhi also criticized Subhas Chandra Bose and his rise to the presidency in 1938. While some historians suggest this was a power struggle between two iconic leaders, Gandhi basically objected to Bose's lack of commitment to non-violence and democracy, which Gandhi felt were fundamental to the struggle. Bose's desire to launch a widespread revolt against the British did not include the provision that all rebels use non-violent means, and Bose focused his first year of presidency on bringing in close supporters into leadership.
Bose won his second term despite Gandhi's criticism, but left the Congress when the All-India leaders resigned en masse in protest of his abandonment of principles introduced by Gandhi in the early 1920s. In 1938-1939, all elected Congressmen resigned their offices as the Congress protested the unilateral inclusion of India into World War II without consultation of elected representatives.
He continued his fight against untouchability, promoted handspinning and other cottage industries, and attempted to create a new system of education suited to the rural areas. He lived a simple life during these years at a village in central India called Sevagram. He underwent another fast at the end of the decade in Bombay on March 3, 1939.
Do or Die: World War II and Quit India
World War II broke out in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Gandhi was fully sympathetic with the victims of fascist aggression. After lengthy deliberations with colleagues in the Congress, he declared that India could not be party to a war ostensibly being fought for democratic freedom while that freedom was denied in India herself. He said he would support the British if they could show him how the war's aims would be implemented in India after the war. The British government's response was entirely negative. They began fomenting tension between Hindus and Muslims. As the war progressed, Gandhi increased his demands for independence, drafting a resolution calling for the British to Quit India.
This was Gandhi's and the Congress Party's most definitive, all-out revolt aimed at securing the British exit from Indian shores. Gandhi was criticized by some Congressmen and other Indian political groups, pro-British and anti-British. Some felt that opposing Britain in its life-death struggle was immoral, and others were angered that Gandhi wasn't doing enough. Many political parties actually opposed Gandhi's call. Thus apart from his age and health, it was probably likely to be his final initiative.
This sparked the largest movement for Indian independence to date, with mass arrests and violence on an unprecedented scale. Thousands of resisters were killed or injured in police fire, and hundreds of thousands of freedom-fighters were arrested. Gandhi and his supporters made it clear they would not support the war effort unless India were granted immediate independence. He even clarified that this time the movement would not be stopped if individual acts of violence were committed, saying that the "ordered anarchy" around him was "worse than real anarchy." He called on all Congressmen and Indians to maintain peaceful discipline, and do or die in the cause of ultimate freedom.
Gandhi and the entire Congress Working Committee was arrested in Mumbai by British forces on August 9, 1942. Gandhi was held for two years the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. It was here that Gandhi suffered to the worst blows of his life: his wife Kasturba passed on, just a few months after Mahadev Desai, his 42-year old, son-like secretary died of a heart attack. He was released before the end of the war only because of his failing health and necessary surgery; the Raj did not want him to die in prison and enrage the entire nation beyond control.
Although the ruthless suppression of the movement by British forces brought relative order to India by end 1943, Quit India succeeded in its objective. At the end of the war, the British gave clear indications that power would be transferred to Indian hands, and Gandhi called off the struggle, and the Congress leadership and around 100,000 political prisoners were released. After 90 years of trying, freedom was just around the corner for India.
Freedom, partition of India and Assassination (1945 - 1948)
Gandhi advised the Congress to reject the proposals of the British Cabinet Mission Plan offered in 1946, as he was deeply suspicious of power-sharing with the Muslim League and the divisions and minimization of central power involved. Gandhi warned against the grouping proposed for Muslim-majority states. However, this became one of the few times the Congress broke from Gandhi's advice (not his leadership though), as not only did Congress leaders want to create a government which would take over from the British as quickly as possible, but the aim was to prevent Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the League from obtaining political parity to the more national, secular Congress Party.
Jinnah and the League however, would create an impossible situation by fostering disorder around the country and wrecking the government as coalition partners. Between 1946 and 1947, over 5,000 people were killed in violence. The League enjoyed popularity in the Muslim majority Punjab, Bengal, Sindh, NWFP and Baluchistan. The partition plan was approved by the Congress leadership as the only way to prevent a wide-scale Hindu-Muslim civil war and to get Jinnah to act responsibly and create a working government for the country.
Senior Congress leaders knew that although Gandhi would viscerally oppose partition, it was doubly impossible for the Congress to go ahead without his agreement, for Gandhi's support in the party and throughout India was wide and deep. Gandhi's closest colleagues had accepted partition as the best way out, and Sardar Patel endeavored to convince Gandhi that it was the only way to avoid civil war. Gandhi gave his assent and endorsed the move.
Gandhi had great influence among the Hindu and Muslim communities of India. It is said that he ended riots through his mere presence. He was vehemently opposed to any plan that partitioned India into two separate countries. The Muslim League argued that the Muslim minority would be systematically oppressed by the Hindu majority in a united India, and that a separate Muslims homeland was the only just solution. However, many Muslims in the Indian heartland lived side by side with Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, Christians, and Jews, and were in favor with a united India. But Jinnah commanded widespread support in Western Punjab, Sindh, NWFP and Eastern Bengal, all that form today's Pakistan and Bangladesh. This new Muslim homeland was created from areas on the east and west of India. It was originally called West and East Pakistan, which now correspond to Pakistan and Bangladesh, respectively. On the day of the transfer of power, Gandhi did not celebrate independence with the rest of India, but was alone in Kolkata, mourning the partition and working to end the violence.
He was assassinated in Birla House, New Delhi, on January 30, 1948 when he was on his way to a prayer meeting by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu radical with alleged links to right-wing Hindu organisations, like the Hindu Mahasabha, who held him responsible for weakening the new government by insisting upon a payment to Pakistan. Godse was later tried, convicted, and executed. A prominent revolutionary and Hindu extremist, the president of the Mahasabha, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was accused of being the architect of the plot, but was acquitted due to lack of evidence.
It is indicative of Gandhi's long struggle and search for God that his dying words were said to have been an homage to God, Rama: "He Ram!" (Oh God!). This is seen as an inspiring signal of his spirituality as well as his idealism regarding the possibility of a unifying peace. The words are inscribed upon his memorial in New Delhi. While some are sceptical of this, evidence from a number of witnesses supports the claim that he made this utterance (see External links). Some sources state that Gandhi's last words were "He Ram, He Ram" or "Rama, Rama". It has also been claimed that when Gandhi fell to the ground dying, he clasped his hands together in the form of the namaste.
Vision for India
What Gandhi had really wanted was a united India, absolutely free in every possible sense of the word. He wanted Muslims and Hindus to live in absolute freedom with respect and friendship. He wanted each to be free to express themselves, worship and enjoy their heritage and culture, especially with each other.
Gandhi wanted women to be equal to men, live with dignity, security and enjoy opportunities of personal progress. Gandhi wanted untouchability, casteism in Hindu society to be absolutely eliminated, and all Hindus to be equal and united, proud of their faith and heritage.
Gandhi wanted the people to help themselves: for the rich to help the poor, respect each other as brother and sister. He did not want big Government, but a government limited to protecting people, giving justice and spreading opportunities.
Gandhi had fought and led millions of Indians with a vision of individual freedom, and genuine cultural and religious respect and harmony, not merely "tolerance." He wanted the people to develop the spirit of love and brotherhood, and not just create a legal system imposing these virtues to an unresponsive population.
In these years of the division process (1946-1947), Gandhi was a desperate man. Already above 75 years in age, thin, frail and with delicate health, exhausted after 30 years of struggles, all of Gandhi's soul, intelligence and health were expended in his desperation to avoid the partition of India. Gandhi consented to partition only when his closest associates had pointed out the brutal truth, the consequences of not doing so: outright Hindu-Muslim civil war. He regarded the partition as his personal failure.
Gandhi's principles and his ideas of satya and ahimsa were influenced by the Bhagavad Gita, Hinduism, Jainism and Christian anarchism.
The concept of nonviolence (ahimsa) and nonresistance has a long history in Indian religious thought and has had many revivals in Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Christian contexts. Gandhi explains his philosophy and way of life in his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth. He was quoted with saying:
"What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?"
"An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind".
"There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for".
In applying these principles, Gandhi did not balk from taking them to their most logical extremes. In 1940, when invasion of the British Isles by the armed forces of Nazi Germany looked imminent, Gandhi offered the following advice to the British people:
"I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions.... If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourselves, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them". (Non-Violence in Peace and War)
The embracing of nonviolence was part of Gandhi's wider mission to seek truth (The Story of My Experiments with Truth). He tried to achieve this by learning from his own mistakes and conducting experiments on himself.
He found that uncovering the truth was not always popular as many people were resistant to change, preferring instead to maintain the existing status quo because of either inertia, self-interest or misguided beliefs. However he also discovered that once the truth was on the march nothing could stop it. All it took was time to achieve traction and gain momentum. As Gandhi said:
"The Truth is far more powerful than any weapon of mass destruction".
He said that the most important battle to fight was in overcoming his own demons, fears and insecurities. He thought it was all too easy to blame people, governing powers or enemies for his personal actions and wellbeing. He noted the solution to problems could normally be found just by looking in the mirror.
One of the greatest contributions of Mahatma Gandhi was in the realm of ontology and its association with truth. For Gandhi, "to be" did not mean to exist within the realm of time, as it has in the past with the Greek philosophers. But rather, "to exist" meant to exist within the realm of truth, or to use the term Gandhi did, satya. Gandhi summarized his beliefs first when he said "God is Truth," but as typical of Gandhi, he evolved, later to correct himself and state that "Truth is God." The first statement seemed insufficient to Gandhi, as the mistake could be made that Gandhi was using Truth as a description of God, as opposed to God as an aspect of satya. Satya (Truth) in Gandhi's philosophy IS God. It shares all the characteristics of the Hindu concept of God, or Brahman. It lives within us, that little voice that tells us what to do, but also guides the universe.
Although he experimented with eating meat in India when he was very young, he later became a strict vegetarian. He wrote books on the subject while in London, having met vegetarian campaigner Henry Salt at gatherings of the Vegetarian Society. The idea of vegetarianism is deeply ingrained in Hindu and Jain traditions in India, and, in his native land of Gujarat, most Hindus were vegetarian. He experimented with various diets and concluded that a vegetarian diet should be enough to satisfy the minimum requirements of the body. However he was flexible for his time and had little reservations on eating table eggs as seen in his 1948 article Key to Health. He abstained from eating for long periods, using fasting as a political weapon. He refused to eat until his death or his demands were met.
Gandhi gave up sexual intercourse at the age of 36, becoming totally celibate while still married. This decision was deeply influenced by the Hindu idea of brahmacharya—spiritual and practical purity—largely associated with celibacy. Gandhi did not however believe that this was something that everyone should take up. In his autobiography he tells of his battle against lustful urges and fits of jealousy with his childhood bride, Kasturba. He felt it his personal obligation to remain celibate so that he could learn to love, rather than lust.
Gandhi spent one day of each week in silence. He believed that abstaining from speaking brought him inner peace. This influence was drawn from the Hindu principles of mouna (silence) and shanti (peace). On such days he communicated with others by writing on paper. For three and a half years, from the age of 37, Gandhi refused to read newspapers, claiming that the tumultuous state of world affairs caused him more confusion than his own inner unrest.
Returning to India from South Africa, where he had enjoyed a successful legal practice, he gave up wearing Western-style clothing, which he associated with wealth and success. He dressed to be accepted by the poorest person in India. He advocated the use of homespun cloth (khadi). Gandhi and his followers adopted the practice of weaving their own clothes from thread they themselves spun, and encouraged others to do so. While Indian workers were often idle due to unemployment, they had often bought their clothing from industrial manufacturers owned by British interests. It was Gandhi's view that if Indians made their own clothes, it would deal an economic blow to the British establishment in India. Consequently, the spinning wheel was later incorporated into the flag of the Indian National Congress.
Gandhi questioned religious practices and doctrines regardless of traditions or beliefs. On the subject of Christianity he noted that:
"The only people on earth who do not see Christ and His teachings as nonviolent are Christians".
Although Gandhi was born a Hindu he was critical of most religions, including Hinduism. He wrote in his autobiography:
"Thus if I could not accept Christianity either as a perfect, or the greatest religion, neither was I then convinced of Hinduism being such. Hindu defects were pressingly visible to me. If untouchability could be a part of Hinduism, it could but be a rotten part or an excrescence. I could not understand the raison d'etre of a multitude of sects and castes. What was the meaning of saying that the Vedas were the inspired Word of God? If they were inspired, why not also the Bible and the Koran? As Christian friends were endeavouring to convert me, so were Muslim friends. Abdullah Sheth had kept on inducing me to study Islam, and of course he had always something to say regarding its beauty".
He then went on to say:
"As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his side".
Gandhi was critical of the hypocrisy in organised religion, rather than the principles on which they were based. He also said the following about Hinduism:
"Hinduism as I know it entirely satisfies my soul, fills my whole being ... When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita, and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of tragedies and if they have not left any visible and indelible effect on me, I owe it to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita".
The concept of Islamic jihad can also be taken to mean a nonviolent struggle or satyagraha, in the way Gandhi practiced it. On Islam he said:
"The sayings of Muhammad are a treasure of wisdom, not only for Muslims but for all of mankind".
Later in his life when he was asked whether he was a Hindu, he replied:
"Yes I am. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew".
Gandhi believed that at the core of every religion was Truth (satya), Love/Nonviolence (ahimsa) and the Golden Rule. He was deeply influenced by the Christian teaching of nonresistance and "turning the other cheek", once stating that if Christianity practised the Sermon on the Mount, he would indeed be a Christian. Gandhi felt that one should be aware of worshiping the symbols and idols of the religion and not its teachings, such as worshipping the crucifix whilst ignoring its significance as a symbol for self-sacrifice, for example.
In spite of their deep reverence to each other, Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore got involved in protracted debates more than once. These debates exemplify the philosophical differences between the two most famous Indians at the time. On January 15, 1934, an earthquake hit Bihar and caused extensive damage and loss of life. Gandhi maintained this was because of the sin committed by upper caste Hindus by not letting untouchables in their temples (Gandhi was committed to the cause of improving the fate of untouchables, referring to them as Harijans, people of Krishna). Tagore vehemently opposed Gandhi's stance, maintaining that an earthquake can only be caused by natural forces, not moral reasons, however repugnant the practice of untouchability may be.
Vision for Hindu Society
Mahatma Gandhi was perhaps the greatest modern leader of Hinduism and Hindu society, along the path marked by great saints like Kabir, Ramakrishna and Sai Baba but with a considerably wider impact.
Gandhi was the member of the third caste, but reverred by thousands of Brahmin priests as an expert on Hindu religion and a leader of Hindus. His ascetic lifestyle, stringent adherence to moral values despite any cost (He stopped a national civil disobedience campaign over the murder of a few policemen by a rowdy mob of agitators in 1922). His Ashram inspired the equality of all mankind and service to humanity, and he was always approachable. These qualities gave him the means to touch Hindu society in a way comparable only to the Avatara of the Supreme Lord Vishnu.
Gandhi struck out firmly against untouchability and caste discrimination. He brought uniformity, a sense of common identity and unity to millions of Congressmen and hundreds of millions of people who were divided by caste, religion, language and ethnicity. Gandhi was a champion of women's freedoms and rights (especially dowry, child marriage, the "purdah" or veil, and widow-burning, or Sati), and helped Hindus develop a cleaner, healthier social relationship with Muslims and Christians. Gandhi succeeded in defending common Hindu traditions, customs and values against the attacks of Christian missionaries and the Westernized elite of England-educated Indians and Britishers in India, without being xenophobic or racist. Gandhi pressed for education as a mass weapon for salvation, freedom and success in life. Gandhi also struck out against Brahmin corruption and oppression of common people by corrupt priests and for villages and towns to work together to clean their neighborhoods, and ending the undignified isolation and discrimination of low caste and untouchable Hindus.
Gandhi knew that as long as Hindu society retained this system of oppression within itself, the nation could never truly be free in spirit and character, which was more important than merely controlling the government. Gandhi also wanted Hindu women to receive equal treatment in the eyes of the law, and a position of respect and honour in mainstream society. He worked strongly against the practice of Sati, child marrriage, the social castigation of widows and alcoholism, which had ruined the lives of countless women by claiming their husbands.
Adopting the call of the freedom struggle, tens of millions of orthodox Hindus invited untouchables to eat with them, and the Congress and social groups opened schools and hospitals by the dozen in different parts of the country. Thousands of prominent Hindus worked to destroy the evil practices within Hindu society, and Gandhi even inspired Hindu nationalist and reformist public organizations like the Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh. Gandhi though never allowed the British government and other political groups to divide Hindu society along caste lines by granting them special political status. The fact that Gandhi's fast at Yeravda Jail forced B.R. Ambedkar, political leader of the untouchables to agree to rejecting separate electorates shows the formidable respect he commanded in the eyes of tens of millions of harijans in India.
Gandhi studied the Bhagavad Gita closely, as well as the epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Deeply inspired in life and work by the Gita's teachings, Gandhi's teachings and employ of truth, non-violence and devotion to win freedom and reform society made Hinduism a positive source of inspiration for modern Indians and millions of Westerners. Gandhi's efforts exposed the rich heritage, philosophy and deep mystery of Hinduism, over its more visible social traditions. It helped destroy the image of Hinduism as a backward, oppressive and pagan faith system, and liberate the consciousness of Hinduism as a system of religion, philosophy and knowledge more diverse and rich than possibly any other system in the world. With his study of the Bible and the Quran, Gandhi imbibed reforms that Islam and Christianity could bring to Hinduism, but also noted that neither faith had anything that Hinduism did not already inspire, and that Hinduism's boundaries extended far beyond any modern religion.
Much of the vast momentum in society to break with 1,000-year old "traditions" of discrimination, violence and ignorance were fueled by Gandhi's leadership and the freedom movement he cultivated and strengthened. Untouchability, suttee, dowry, child marriage, the purdah were outlawed in independent India and casteism was denied official recognition or use. Although a controversial figure due to the tragedy of partition for some fundamentalist Hindus, Gandhi did more for Hindu society than anyone in the last 500 years. Although discrimination still exists in many parts of the society, having the vast majority of society, clergy and government united behind the forces of freedom, education and justice is an advantage created simply by the inspiration of Gandhi.
Mentors and proteges
Gandhi inspired spiritually and emotionally many men and women like Kala Kalelkar, Vinoba Bhave, Mirabehn, Mahadev Desai, Narhari Parikh and Badshah Khan. Mirabehn was a young Englishwoman Madeleine Slade who had left England inspired by Gandhi's teaching and had come to live by his side, utterly devoted to her guru and his teachings. Mahadev Desai was a young lawyer who had abandoned his ambitions to become his most loyal secretary. Narhari Parikh was the architect of many inspired revolts and battles in Gujarat against the British, and a close associate of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel himself. Badshah Khan was a Pathan leader, who in stark contrast to the common perceptions of his people, built an organization firmly committed to non-violent resistance.
Kalelkar and Bhave built ashrams in Maharashtra, and worked hard against economic injustice, social reform, against discrimination, untouchability, the opression of women and human freedom. Both are widely regarded as having carried the flame of Gandhi's non-political work and legacy, as Nehru is seen to have carried on Gandhi's political mission.
Gandhi's optimistic, sweet nature won him the undying loyalty and reverence of thousands of co-workers, and led them to openly confide with him and ask his guidance upon the most personal issues of the lives of each person.
Gandhi's open and humble nature also
won him the admiration and support of distinguished men who clashed with him
ideologically on several issues at different times. Rabindranath Tagore, Bal
Gangadhar Tilak, Annie Besant, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Motilal Nehru were all
senior leaders of the Indian cultural conscience and the freedom movement before
Gandhi came along. Besant and Tilak opposed the satyagraha of the early 1920s,
and Tagore clashed with Gandhi from time to time. But he only fascinated them,
despite the reality that he was disloding a departing generation and ushering in
a new era, far more different than their own.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem for Gandhi, which famously and beautifully asked him to press forward, do the right thing and walk forth, even if it meant walking alone. Luckily, the hundred million followers of Gandhi made sure this encouragement was not necessary.
India's independence was not won by Gandhi alone, but by the work and sacrifice of millions of Indians over three to four generations. Gandhi himself stated that "truth and non-violence are as old as the hills" and that he had taught nothing new to the world. Mahatma Gandhi's biggest contributions to India and the world were:
The universal weapon
Gandhi was a simple, frail and timid-looking man. He had not been a distinguished student or great professional. Yet he led a rebellion of 300 million people from the front and tore down the British Empire. Gandhi gave the universal weapon of Satyagraha to ordinary human beings to fight injustice, tyranny and oppression. It did not require men becoming armed militants and leading the lives of the hunted. It instead gave voice and strength to the poorest farmers, the most downtrodden of a huge society, the youngest of men and women and the most timid housewife. Gandhi helped a silent nation that had suffered through 1,000 years of tyranny, oppression and invasion, to stand up for themselves, their beliefs and way of life, and tear down a world-wide empire.
The making of a nation
It was Gandhi who created the first-ever nationwide organization truly representative of the common Indians. It contained men and women of all religions, 18 different language groups and from the poorest villages of the farthest corners of the Indian subcontinent. And all these Indians, numbering in the tens of millions, were united in a nationwide struggle for something called freedom and democracy.
In his famous attire of loincloth and shawl, Gandhi instantly struck a chord with the hundreds of millions of people who thought he was one of them. He talked in the native language, inspiring the common man to feel he belonged to something called a nation.
Gandhi made this Indian National Congress fight for the causes of common man: he led the fights against poverty, alcoholism, illiteracy, disease while simultaneously fighting the British. He knew there could be no freedom when a system of slavery remained a part of Hindu society, called untouchability. He gave voice to Muslim and Hindu women, and brought Muslims and Hindus together for the first time in history in a peaceful and righteous common cause. And above all, he made them work together for something common, and develop a common sense of identity and brotherhood.
Gandhi's all-cultures, egalitarian, democratic organization laid the foundation for a nation that would genuinely be free, and where all religions, ethnic and linguistic groups would have genuine respect, love and brotherhood for one another.
Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize, though he was nominated for it five times between 1937 and 1948. Decades later however, the Nobel Committee publicly declared its regret for the omission, and admitted to deeply divided nationalistic opinion denying the award to Gandhi. When the Dalai Lama was awarded the Peace Prize in 1989, the chairman of the committee said that this was "in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi".
The word "Mahatma," while often mistaken for Gandhi's given name, is taken from the Sanskrit term of reverence "mahatman," meaning “Great Soul.” The title "Mahatma" was accorded Gandhi in 1915 by his admirer Rabindranath Tagore (the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature). It was given in response to Gandhi conferring the title of "Gurudev" (Great Teacher; Guru: Teacher Dev: God/Holy) upon Tagore. As stated in his autobiography, Gandhi never accepted the title because he found himself unworthy of it.
The wide acceptance of this title outside India may in part reflect the complexities of the relationship between India and Britain during Gandhi's lifetime. Such acceptance is consistent with the widespread perception of his deeply held religious beliefs and commitment to non-violence.
The best-known artistic depiction of his life is the film Gandhi (1982), directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Ben Kingsley (himself half-Gujarati) in the title role. However, the film has since been criticised by post-colonial scholars who argue that it depicts Gandhi as single-handedly bringing India to independence, and ignores other prominent figures (both elite and subaltern) in the anti-colonial struggle. "The Making of the Mahatma", directed by Shyam Benegal and starring Rajat Kapur, is a film about Gandhi's 21 years of life in South Africa.
An Autobiography: The Story of My
Experiments With Truth (1929) ISBN 0807059099
The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas by Louis Fischer ISBN 1400030501
Gandhi: A Life by Yogesh Chadha ISBN 0471350621
Gandhi (1982), film by Richard Attenborough
Gandhi and India: A Century in Focus by Sofri, Gianni (1995) ISBN 1900624125
An Autobiography, or the Story of My Experiments with Truth M.K. Gandhi (1929)
Patel: A Life by Rajmohan Gandhi
A Higher Standard of Leadership: Lessons from the Life of Gandhi by Keshavan Nair; Berrett-Koehler Publishers (November, 1996);ISBN: 1576750116