Gandhi was born in India on October 2, 1869, and educated in law at University College, London. In 1891, after having been admitted to the British bar, Gandhi returned to India and attempted to establish a law practice in Bombay, with little success. Two years later an Indian firm with interests in South Africa retained him as legal adviser in its office in Durban.
Arriving in Durban, Gandhi found himself treated as a member of an inferior race. He was appalled at the widespread denial of civil liberties and political rights to Indian immigrants to South Africa who had been brought in to help build railroads. He threw himself into the struggle for elementary rights for Indians. Gandhi remained in South Africa for 20 years, suffering imprisonment many times.
In 1896, after being attacked and beaten by white South Africans, Gandhi began to teach a policy of nonviolent resistance to, and non-cooperation with, the South African authorities. Part of the inspiration for this policy came from the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, whose influence on Gandhi was profound. Gandhi also acknowledged his debt to the teachings of Jesus and to the 19th-century American writer Henry David Thoreau, especially to Thoreau’s famous essay “Civil Disobedience.” Gandhi considered the terms passive resistance and civil disobedience inadequate for his purposes, however, and coined another term, Satyagraha (Sanskrit for “truth and firmness”).
In 1910, Gandhi founded Tolstoy Farm, near Johannesburg, a cooperative colony for Indians. In 1914 the government of the Union of South Africa made important concessions to Gandhi’s demands, including recognition of Indian marriages and abolition of the poll tax for them.
Gandhi’s work in South Africa complete, he returned to India. Gandhi became a leader in a complex struggle, the Indian campaign for home rule. Gandhi, again advocating Satyagraha, launched his movement of nonviolent resistance to Britain. In the end, India achieved independence from Great Britain after a 30-year campaign of nonviolent resistance to British authority.
When, in 1919, Parliament passed the Rowlatt Acts, giving the Indian colonial authorities emergency powers to deal with so-called revolutionary activities, Satyagraha spread through India, gaining millions of followers. A demonstration against the Rowlatt Acts resulted in a massacre of Indians at Amritsar by British soldiers. In 1920, when the British government failed to make amends, Gandhi proclaimed an organized campaign of non-cooperation. Indians in public office resigned, government agencies such as courts of law were boycotted, and Indian children were withdrawn from government schools.
Economic independence for India, involving the complete boycott of British goods, was made a corollary of Gandhi’s swaraj (Sanskrit for “self-ruling”) movement. The economic aspects of the movement were significant, for the exploitation of Indian villagers by British industrialists had resulted in extreme poverty in the country and the virtual destruction of Indian home industries. As a remedy for such poverty, Gandhi advocated revival of cottage industries; he began to use a spinning wheel as a token of the return to the simple village life he preached, and of the renewal of native Indian industries.
In 1930 the Mahatma proclaimed a new campaign of civil disobedience, calling upon the Indian population to refuse to pay taxes, particularly the tax on salt. The campaign was a march to the sea, in which thousands of Indians followed Gandhi to the Arabian Sea, where they made salt by evaporating seawater. Once more the Indian leader was arrested, but he was released in 1931, halting the campaign after the British made concessions to his demands. In the same year Gandhi represented the Indian National Congress at a conference in London.
Gandhi became the international symbol of a free India. He lived a spiritual and ascetic life of prayer, fasting, and meditation. Refusing earthly possessions, he wore the loincloth and shawl of the lowliest Indian and subsisted on vegetables, fruit juices, and goat’s milk. Indians revered him as a saint and began to call him Mahatma (Sanskrit for “great soul”), a title reserved for the greatest sages. Gandhi’s advocacy of nonviolence, known as ahimsa (Sanskrit for “non-injury”), was the expression of a way of life implicit in the Hindu religion. By the Indian practice of nonviolence, Gandhi held, Britain too would eventually consider violence useless and would leave India.
By 1944 the Indian struggle for independence was in its final stages, the British government having agreed to independence on condition that the two contending nationalist groups, the Muslim League and the (Hindu) Congress Party, should resolve their differences. Gandhi stood steadfastly against the partition of India but ultimately had to agree, in the hope that internal peace would be achieved after the Muslim demand for separation had been satisfied. India and Pakistan became separate states when the British granted India its independence in 1947. During the riots that followed the partition of India, Gandhi pleaded with Hindus and Muslims to live together peacefully. Riots engulfed Calcutta, one of the largest cities in India, and the Mahatma fasted until disturbances ceased. On January 13, 1948, he undertook another successful fast in New Delhi to bring about peace. But on January 30, 12 days after the termination of that fast, as he was on his way to his evening prayer meeting, he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu fanatic.
Gandhi’s death was regarded as an international catastrophe. His place in humanity was measured not in terms of the 20th century but in terms of history. A period of mourning was set aside in the United Nations General Assembly, and all countries expressed condolences to India. Religious violence soon waned in India and Pakistan, and the teachings of Gandhi came to inspire nonviolent movements elsewhere, notably in the U.S. under the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
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- Amazon’s Mohandas K. Gandhi page