Mahatma Gandhi was a prominent Indian political leader who was a leading figure in the campaign for Indian independence. He employed non-violent principles and peaceful disobedience as a means to achieve his goal. He was assassinated in 1948, shortly after achieving his life goal of Indian independence. In India, he is known as ‘Father of the Nation’.
“When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it–always.”
Mohandas K. Gandhi was born in 1869, in Porbandar, India. Mohandas was from the social cast of tradesmen. His mother was illiterate, but her common sense and religious devotion had a lasting impact on Gandhi’s character. As a youngster, Mohandas was a good student, but the shy young boy displayed no signs of leadership. On the death of his father, Mohandas travelled to England to gain a degree in law. He became involved with the Vegetarian Society and was once asked to translate the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. This classic of Hindu literature awakened in Gandhi a sense of pride in the Indian scriptures, of which the Gita was the pearl.
Around this time, he also studied the Bible and was struck by the teachings of Jesus Christ – especially the emphasis on humility and forgiveness. He remained committed to the Bible and Bhagavad Gita throughout his life, though he was critical of aspects of both religions.
Gandhi in South Africa
On completing his degree in Law, Gandhi returned to India, where he was soon sent to South Africa to practise law. In South Africa, Gandhi was struck by the level of racial discrimination and injustice often experienced by Indians. In 1893, he was thrown off a train at the railway station in Pietermaritzburg after a white man complained about Gandhi travelling in first class. This experience was a pivotal moment for Gandhi and he began to represent other Indias who experienced discrimination. As a lawyer he was in high demand and soon he became the unofficial leader for Indians in South Africa. It was in South Africa that Gandhi first experimented with campaigns of civil disobedience and protest; he called his non-violent protests satyagraha. Despite being imprisoned for short periods of time, he also supported the British under certain conditions. During the Boer war, he served as a medic and stretcher-bearer. He felt that by doing his patriotic duty it would make the government more amenable to demands for fair treatment. Gandhi was at the Battle of Spion serving as a medic. An interesting historical anecdote, is that at this battle was also Winston Churchill and Louis Botha (future head of South Africa) He was decorated by the British for his efforts during the Boer War and Zulu rebellion.
Gandhi and Indian Independence
After 21 years in South Africa, Gandhi returned to India in 1915. He became the leader of the Indian nationalist movement campaigning for home rule or Swaraj.
Gandhi successfully instigated a series of non-violent protest. This included national strikes for one or two days. The British sought to ban opposition, but the nature of non-violent protest and strikes made it difficult to counter.
Gandhi also encouraged his followers to practise inner discipline to get ready for independence. Gandhi said the Indians had to prove they were deserving of independence. This is in contrast to independence leaders such as Aurobindo Ghose, who argued that Indian independence was not about whether India would offer better or worse government, but that it was the right for India to have self-government.
Gandhi also clashed with others in the Indian independence movement such as Subhas Chandra Bose who advocated direct action to overthrow the British.
Gandhi frequently called off strikes and non-violent protest if he heard people were rioting or violence was involved.
In 1930, Gandhi led a famous march to the sea in protest at the new Salt Acts. In the sea, they made their own salt, in violation of British regulations. Many hundreds were arrested and Indian jails were full of Indian independence followers.
“With this I’m shaking the foundations of the British Empire.”
– Gandhi – after holding up a cup of salt at the end of the salt march.
However, whilst the campaign was at its peak some Indian protesters killed some British civilians, and as a result, Gandhi called off the independence movement saying that India was not ready. This broke the heart of many Indians committed to independence. It led to radicals like Bhagat Singh carrying on the campaign for independence, which was particularly strong in Bengal.
In 1931, Gandhi was invited to London to begin talks with the British government on greater self-government for India, but remaining a British colony. During his three month stay, he declined the government’s offer of a free hotel room, preferring to stay with the poor in the East End of London. During the talks, Gandhi opposed the British suggestions of dividing India along communal lines as he felt this would divide a nation which was ethnically mixed. However, at the summit, the British also invited other leaders of India, such as BR Ambedkar and representatives of the Sikhs and Muslims. Although the dominant personality of Indian independence, he could not always speak for the entire nation.
During this trip, he visited King George in Buckingham Palace, one apocryphal story which illustrates Gandhi’s wit was the question by the king – what do you think of Western civilisation? To which Gandhi replied
“It would be a good idea.”
Gandhi wore a traditional Indian dress, even whilst visiting the king. It led Winston Churchill to make the disparaging remark about the half naked fakir. When Gandhi was asked if was sufficiently dressed to meet the king, Gandhi replied
“The king was wearing clothes enough for both of us.”
Gandhi once said he if did not have a sense of humour he would have committed suicide along time ago.
Gandhi and the Partition of India
After the war, Britain indicated that they would give India independence. However, with the support of the Muslims led by Jinnah, the British planned to partition India into two: India and Pakistan. Ideologically Gandhi was opposed to partition. He worked vigorously to show that Muslims and Hindus could live together peacefully. At his prayer meetings, Muslim prayers were read out alongside Hindu and Christian prayers. However, Gandhi agreed to the partition and spent the day of Independence in prayer mourning the partition. Even Gandhi’s fasts and appeals were insufficient to prevent the wave of sectarian violence and killing that followed the partition.
Away from the politics of Indian independence, Gandhi was harshly critical of the Hindu Caste system. In particular, he inveighed against the ‘untouchable’ caste, who were treated abysmally by society. He launched many campaigns to change the status of untouchables. Although his campaigns were met with much resistance, they did go a long way to changing century-old prejudices.
At the age of 78, Gandhi undertook another fast to try and prevent the sectarian killing. After 5 days, the leaders agreed to stop killing. But ten days later Gandhi was shot dead by a Hindu Brahmin opposed to Gandhi’s support for Muslims and the untouchables.
Gandhi and Religion
Gandhi was a seeker of the truth.
“In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth.”
Gandhi said his great aim in life was to have a vision of God. He sought to worship God and promote religious understanding. He sought inspiration from many different religions: Jainism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and incorporated them into his own philosophy.
On several occasions, he used religious practices and fasting as part of his political approach. Gandhi felt that personal example could influence public opinion.
“When every hope is gone, ‘when helpers fail and comforts flee,’ I find that help arrives somehow, from I know not where. Supplication, worship, prayer are no superstition; they are acts more real than the acts of eating, drinking, sitting or walking. It is no exaggeration to say that they alone are real, all else is unreal.”
– Gandhi Autobiography – The Story of My Experiments with Truth
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Mahatma Gandhi”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net 12th Jan 2011. Last updated 1 Feb 2020.
The Essential Gandhi
The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas at Amazon
Gandhi: An Autobiography – The Story of My Experiments With Truth at Amazon
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