Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (October 2, 1869 – January 30, 1948) was a major political and spiritual leader of India and the Indian independence movement. He was the pioneer of Satyagraha—the resistance of tyranny through mass civil disobedience, firmly founded upon ahimsa or total non-violence—which led India to independence and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. Gandhi is commonly known in India and across the world as Mahatma Gandhi (Sanskrit: mahatma – “Great Soul”) and as Bapu. In India, he is officially accorded the honour of Father of the Nation and October 2nd, his birthday, is commemorated each year as Gandhi Jayanti, a national holiday. On 15 June 2007, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution declaring October 2 to be the “International Day of Non-Violence.”
As a British-educated lawyer, Gandhi first employed his ideas of peaceful civil disobedience in the Indian community’s struggle for civil rights in South Africa. Upon his return to India, he organized poor farmers and labourers to protest against oppressive taxation and widespread discrimination. Assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for the alleviation of poverty, for the liberation of women, for brotherhood amongst differing religions and ethnicities, for an end to untouchability and caste discrimination, and for the economic self-sufficiency of the nation, but above all for Swaraj—the independence of India from foreign domination. Gandhi famously led Indians in the disobedience of the salt tax on the 400 kilometre (248 miles) Dandi Salt March in 1930, and in an open call for the British to Quit India in 1942. He was imprisoned for many years on numerous occasions in both South Africa and India.
Throughout his life, Gandhi remained committed to non-violence and truth even in the most extreme situations. A student of Hindu philosophy, he lived simply, organizing an ashram that was self-sufficient in its needs. Making his own clothes—the traditional Indian dhoti and shawl woven with a charkha—he lived on a simple vegetarian diet. He used rigorous fasts, for long periods, for both self-purification and protest.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born into the Hindu Modh family in Porbandar, in 1869. He was the son of Karamchand Gandhi, the diwan (Prime Minister) of Porbandar, and Putlibai, Karamchand’s fourth wife, a Hindu of the Pranami Vaishnava order. Karamchand’s first two wives, who each bore him a daughter, died from unknown reasons (rumored to be in childbirth). Living with a devout 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 1883, at the age of 13, Gandhi was married through his parents’ arrangements to Kasturba Makhanji (also spelled “Kasturbai” or known as “Ba”). 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. He barely passed the matriculation exam for Samaldas College at Bhavanagar, Gujarat. He was also unhappy at the college, because his family wanted him to become a barrister.
At the age of 18 on September 4, 1888, 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 in the presence of the Jain monk Becharji, upon leaving India, to observe the Hindu precepts of abstinence from meat, alcohol, and promiscuity. Although Gandhi experimented with adopting “English” customs—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 embraced 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 organizing institutions. Some of the vegetarians he met were members of the Theosophical Society, which had been founded in 1875 to further universal brotherhood, and which was devoted to the study of Buddhist and Hindu Brahmanistic literature. They encouraged Gandhi to read the Bhagavad Gita. Not having shown a particular interest in religion before, he read works of and about Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and other religions. He returned to India after being called to the bar of England and Wales by Inner Temple, but had limited success establishing a law practice in Bombay. Later, after applying and being turned down for a part-time job as a high school teacher, 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.
When back in London in 1895, he happened to meet Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, the Radical-turned-ultra-Tory, whose son Neville became Prime Minister in the 1930s and helped suppress Gandhi. Chamberlain Snr. agreed that the treatment of Indians was barbaric but appeared unwilling to push through any legislation about this however.
Civil Rights Movement in South Africa
South Africa changed Gandhi dramatically, as he faced the discrimination commonly directed at blacks and Indians. One day in court at Durban, the magistrate asked him to remove his turban. Gandhi refused and stormed out of the courtroom. He was thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg, after refusing to move from the first class to a third class coach while holding a valid first class ticket. Traveling further on by stagecoach, he was beaten by a driver for refusing to travel on the foot board to make room for a European passenger. He suffered other hardships on the journey as well, including being barred from many hotels. These incidents have been acknowledged by several biographers as a turning point in his life, explaining his later social activism. It was through witnessing firsthand the racism, prejudice and injustice against Indians in South Africa that Gandhi started to question his people’s status, and his own place in society.
Gandhi extended his original period of stay in South Africa to assist Indians in opposing a bill to deny them the right to vote. Though unable to halt the bill’s passage, his campaign was successful in drawing attention to the grievances of Indians in South Africa. He founded the Natal Indian Congress in 1894, and through this organization, he molded the Indian community of South Africa into a homogeneous political force. In January 1897, when Gandhi returned from a brief trip to India, 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 against 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, organizing a volunteer ambulance corps of 300 free Indians and 800 indentured labourers called the Indian Ambulance Corps, one of the few medical units to serve wounded black South Africans. 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 on September 11th that year, Gandhi adopted his still evolving methodology 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), flogged, or even shot, for striking, refusing to register, burning their registration cards, 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 Christiaan Smuts to negotiate a compromise with Gandhi. Gandhi’s ideas took shape and the concept of Satyagraha matured during this struggle.
Struggle for Indian Independence
Gandhi’s first major achievements came in 1918 with the Champaran agitation and Kheda Satyagraha, although in the latter it was indigo and other cash crops instead of the food crops necessary for their survival. Suppressed by the 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. 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 for 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 and condemn many social evils, as accounted above.
But his main impact came when 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 reluctantly granted. Gandhi led organized protests and strikes against the landlords, who with the guidance of the British government, signed an agreement granting the poor farmers of the region more compensation and control over farming, and cancellation of revenue hikes and its 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, Sardar Patel represented the farmers in negotiations with the British, who suspended revenue collection and released all the prisoners. As a result, Gandhi’s fame spread all over the nation.
Non-cooperation and peaceful resistance were Gandhi’s “weapons” in the fight against injustice. In Punjab, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of civilians by British troops caused deep trauma to the nation, leading to increased public anger and acts of violence. Gandhi criticized both the actions of the British Raj and the retaliatory violence of Indians. He authored the resolution offering condolences to British civilian victims and condemning the riots, which after initial opposition in the party, was accepted following Gandhi’s emotional speech advocating his principle that all violence was evil and could not be justified. But it was after the massacre and subsequent violence that 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.
In December 1921, Gandhi was invested with executive authority on behalf of the Indian National Congress. Under his leadership, the Congress was reorganized with a new constitution, with the goal of Swaraj. Membership in the party was opened to anyone prepared to pay a token fee. A hierarchy of committees was set up to improve discipline, 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 to include women in the movement at a time when many thought that such activities were not respectable activities 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, and to forsake British titles and honours.
“Non-cooperation” enjoyed wide-spread appeal and success, increasing excitement and participation from all strata of Indian society. 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. Gandhi was arrested on March 10, 1922, tried for sedition, and sentenced to six years 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 uniting personality, 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 favouring 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 non-violence 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.
Quit India Movement
World War II broke out in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Initially, Gandhi had favored offering “non-violent moral support” to the British effort, but other Congressional leaders were offended by the unilateral inclusion of India into the war, without consultation of the people’s representatives. All Congressmen elected to resign from office en masse. After lengthy deliberations, Gandhi declared that India could not be party to a war ostensibly being fought for democratic freedom, while that freedom was denied to India itself. As the war progressed, Gandhi intensified his demand for independence, drafting a resolution calling for the British to Quit India. This was Gandhi’s and the Congress Party’s most definitive revolt aimed at securing the British exit from Indian shores.
Gandhi was criticized by some Congress party members and other Indian political groups, both pro-British and anti-British. Some felt that opposing Britain in its life or death struggle was immoral, and others felt that Gandhi wasn’t doing enough. Quit India became the most forceful movement in the history of the struggle, with mass arrests and violence on an unprecedented scale. Thousands of freedom fighters were killed or injured by police gunfire, and hundreds of thousands 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 discipline via ahimsa, and Karo Ya Maro (“Do or Die”) in the cause of ultimate freedom.
Gandhi and the entire Congress Working Committee were arrested in Bombay by the British on August 9, 1942. Gandhi was held for two years in the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. It was here that Gandhi suffered two terrible blows in his personal life. His 42-year old secretary Mahadev Desai died of a heart attack 6 days later and his wife Kasturba died after 18 months imprisonment in February 1944; six weeks later Gandhi suffered a severe malaria attack. He was released before the end of the war on May 6, 1944 because of his failing health and necessary surgery; the Raj did not want him to die in prison and enrage the nation. Although the Quit India movement had moderate success in its objective, the ruthless suppression of the movement brought order to India by the end of 1943. At the end of the war, the British gave clear indications that power would be transferred to Indian hands. At this point Gandhi called off the struggle, and around 100,000 political prisoners were released, including the Congress’s leadership.
On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was shot and killed while having his nightly public walk on the grounds of the Birla Bhavan (Birla House) in New Delhi. The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a Hindu radical with links to the extremist Hindu Mahasabha, who held Gandhi responsible for weakening India by insisting upon a payment to Pakistan. Godse and his co-conspirator Narayan Apte were later tried and convicted; they were executed on 15 November 1949. Gandhi’s memorial (or Samadhi) at Raj Ghat, New Delhi, bears the epigraph “He Ram”, which may be translated as “Oh God”. These are widely believed to be Gandhi’s last words after he was shot, though the veracity of this statement has been disputed. Jawaharlal Nehru addressed the nation through radio:
“ Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere, and I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the father of the nation, is no more. Perhaps I am wrong to say that; nevertheless, we will not see him again, as we have seen him for these many years, we will not run to him for advice or seek solace from him, and that is a terrible blow, not only for me, but for millions and millions in this country.”
According to his wish, the majority of Gandhi’s ashes were immersed in some of the world’s major rivers, such as The Nile, Volga, Thames, etc. A small portion was sent to Paramahansa Yogananda from Dr. V.M. Nawle, (a publisher and journalist from Pune (formerly Poona), India) encased in a brass & silver coffer. The ashes were then enshrined at the Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial in the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine within a thousand-year-old stone sarcophagus from China.