- Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma)
- (1869–1948)leader of the Indian independence struggleMahatma Gandhi was the greatest political leader in 20th-century India. He led the Indian indepen-dence movement to success and fought for reli-gious and social reforms as well as restoration of preindustrial cultural traditions. His philosophy of nonviolent political action has been considered an inspiration for various opposition movements around the world.Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in the village of Porbandar in Gujarat, into a Hindu merchant family. As a young man of 13, he was married, as was the custom, to Kasturba Makharji, who was then 12 years of age. Their first son, however, was not born until 1888. He and Kasturba had three more sons.Gandhi was considered a somewhat medio-cre student; he barely won admission into the GUniversity of Bombay in 1887. Since his father had a high position in government, and wanted the same for his son, Mohandas was persuaded to study law in England.In 1889 at the age of 19 Mohandas entered University College at the University of London. Before he left he promised his mother to observe the strict precepts of his family’s VAISHNAVISM, which forbade consumption of meat and alcohol. Once in England he made a study of vegetarian-ism to justify his vow intellectually and joined the Vegetarian Society, where he met various Theosophists interested in Buddhist and Hindu scriptures. It was through them that he first read the BHAGAVAD GITA, which later became his moral guidebook. Ironically, his first study of it was in English translation. He also became inter-ested in other religions at this time, particularly Christianity.After admission to the British bar, Mohan-das returned to India to set up a law practice in Bombay (Mumbai). He was not able to establish a practice, and after brief stints in various jobs, he took a one-year contract to work for an Indian firm in South Africa. Until this point he was not apparently interested in politics, but the treatment Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi (1869–1948), leader in the Indian independence movement, is known for his nonviolent tactics and dedication to truth. (Snark/Art Resource, NY) he received from whites in South Africa, includ-ing several famous incidents, began to change his thinking.Gandhi was forced off a train to Pretoria after he refused to leave a first-class berth to accommo-date a white passenger. Another time he was forced to travel on the footboard of a stagecoach to accom-modate a white passenger. He decided to remain in South Africa, just at this time the Natal legislature was taking up a bill to deny the vote to Indians.Gandhi was asked by the Indian community to lead the opposition to this bill. He failed to stop the measure, but he did draw attention to the grievances of Indians in South Africa. In 1894 he formed the Natal Indian Congress to fight for the rights of Indians. This organization became a great force in South African politics. In 1896 Gan-dhi went back to India to take his wife and chil-dren to Africa with him. In 1897 in South Africa he was attacked and nearly lynched by a white mob, but by then he had abandoned his legalistic views in favor of a stricter ethical approach, and he refused to press charges against the men who attacked him.At the beginning of the South African War (the Boer War), Gandhi thought that Indians must support the war effort in order to legiti-mize their claims to full citizenship. He helped organize a volunteer ambulance corps of 300 free Indians and 800 indentured laborers. At the end of the war, however, conditions for Indians did not improve. In 1906 the Transvaal government passed a new act compelling the colony’s Indian population to register. In Johannesburg that year Gandhi held a mass protest. For the first time he articulated his philosophy of satyagraha or “Truth Force,” asking his fellow Indians to defy the new law nonviolently. In seven years of difficult strug-gle, Gandhi was imprisoned several times, and many other Indians were jailed, shot, or beaten for refusing to register. Finally, however, the gov-ernment was forced to negotiate a compromise with Gandhi because of the negative publicity the campaign had generated.During his years in South Africa, from 1893 until 1914, Gandhi continued to study the Bhaga-vad Gita. He was also influenced by Leo Tolstoy, who himself pursued an interest in Indian phi-losophy. Gandhi corresponded with Tolstoy for two years. Gandhi was also influenced greatly by Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedi-ence. In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Gandhi returned to India to begin a new phase in his life and imbue new vigor in the Indian inde-pendence struggle.Gandhi initially supported the British war effort in World War I and the recruitment of Indi-ans into the British army. However, when the Row-latt Act of 1919, which allowed the government to imprison Indians without trial was passed, Gan-dhi launched a new call for satyagraha, nonviolent disobedience, his first such effort on Indian soil. The government response to this disobedience was violent, resulting in the Amritsar Massacre of Indians by the British army. The deaths shocked Gandhi and forced him to halt the agitation, but he had succeeded in organizing Indians to stand up against the British rulers.In 1920, Gandhi was elected president of the All-India Home Rule League; the following year he became head of the Indian National Con-gress. Under his leadership congress became more militant, adopting the goal of self-rule in its new constitution. Gandhi helped transform congress from an elite organization to one with mass mem-bership and mass appeal. He began to develop a policy of boycotting all foreign-made goods, especially British goods, as a way both to pressure the government and to build Indian economic self-reliance.An enduring symbol of this policy was Gan-dhi’s promotion of home-spun cloth in place of foreign-made fabric. The spinning wheel, which Gandhi began to use to spin thread for cloth for all his own clothing, became the symbol of the Indian independence movement. The boycott that Gandhi had begun was expanded to British educational facilities, and even to a refusal to pay taxes. Once again the agitations in 1918 ended with violent reprisals by the British, and Gandhi called off the agitation before he was jailed by the British for six years for sedition. He served two years of this sentence and was released for health reasons in 1924.Gandhi did not play a central role in the inde-pendence movement in the early 1920s. However, he stepped forward again in 1928. The Brit-ish government had appointed a constitutional reform commission with not a single Indian on it. Gandhi presented a resolution at the Calcutta Congress in 1928 asking the British government for dominion status in one year. With no response by the British in the year 1929, Gandhi launched a new nonviolent resistance campaign, this time against the tax on salt.Gandhi’s famous campaign against the salt tax included his 250-mile Dandi March from Ahmed-abad to the seaside village of Dandi, where he sym-bolically made his own salt. This campaign gained huge attention and participation from the Indian populace; 60,000 people were imprisoned during the salt tax protest. The government in response signed the Gandhi-Irwin pact of 1931, agreeing to free all political prisoners in return for suspension of the agitation. Additionally, Gandhi was invited to the Round Table Conference in London, as the only representative of the Indian National Con-gress. The conference failed to yield gains for the movement; it was followed by further repression by the new head of government in India.In 1932 Gandhi began a campaign to improve the lot of India’s untouchables (now called Dalits; see UNTOUCHABILITY), whom he renamed harijans, “children of God.” In 1933 he fasted for 21 days to protest the Indian government’s treatment of Indians, the first in a series of important political fasts. In 1934 three attempts were made by the British on Gandhi’s life.In 1934 Gandhi, discouraged at the lack of commitment of those in the Indian National Congress to his program of nonviolence as a way of life for the new India, resigned as party leader and left the congress. Jawaharlal Nehru became the new leader. Gandhi disagreed with Nehru but at the same time saw him as preferable to other potential leaders of the movement. At this point Gandhi threw himself totally into efforts to edu-cate rural India, fight against untouchability, and promote the manufacture of homespun clothing and other village-level cottage industries. For five years he lived very humbly in Sevagram, a village in central India. Gandhi was jailed by the British from 1942 to 1944 for this agitation.Gandhi believed in cooperation between the Hindu and Muslim communities in India and maintained many friendships across religious lines. He was adamantly opposed to any parti-tion. Eventually, however, the Indian National Congress acceded to a partition agreement that in 1947 created two states out of British India: India and Pakistan.Gandhi personally was able to quell terrible riots between Muslims and Hindus on the eastern border between India and the new Pakistan, but when he returned to New Delhi to try to calm the communities there on January 30, 1948, he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu radical who opposed Gandhi’s embrace of Muslims. The long journey of the champion of nonviolence was ended with a gunshot. Gandhi’s last words were said to be a call to his chosen deity, “Ram.” In the process of partition, millions had to flee their homes, and perhaps a million or more people were slaughtered in communal riots.Gandhi, critical of all organized religion, also saw the value in every tradition. He once said that he was a Hindu, a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew. More than religious, though, Gandhi was deeply spiritual and saw the search for truth and nonvio-lence in every aspect of life as the secrets to God. Gandhi was given the name Mahatma, or, “great soul,” by India. He is considered the father of the modern Indian nation. More than that he was a giant on the world stage.India was one of the few countries freed from colonial domination that relied primarily on the path of nonviolence; this was due to the enor-mous power and prestige of the humble, home-spun cloth–clad Mahatma Gandhi. He inspired a generation of people to pursue political ends through nonviolence alone and had a tremendous impact on other great political leaders of the post-war world, notable among them Martin Luther King Jr. of the American civil rights movement.Further reading: K. S. Bharathi. The Social Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: Concept, 1991); Nimal Kumar Bose, Selections from Gandhi (Ahmedabad: Navji-van Publishing House, 1948); Peter H. Burgess, ed., The Sayings of Mahatma Gandhi (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1984); M. K. Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, 1927–29); Ved Mehta, Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles (New York: Penguin Books, 1977); B. R. Nanda, Mahatma Gandhi: A Biography, Complete and Unabridged (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.