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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was an Indian revolutionary religious leader who used his religious power for political and social reform. Although he held no governmental office, he was the prime mover in the struggle for independence of the world's second-largest nation.

Mohandas Gandhi was born on Oct. 2, 1869, in Porbandar, a seacoast town in the Kathiawar Peninsula north of Bombay. His wealthy family was of a Modh Bania subcaste of the Vaisya, or merchant, caste. He was the fourth child of Karamchand Gandhi, prime minister to the raja of three small city-states. Gandhi described his mother as a deeply religious woman who attended temple service daily. Mohandas was a small, quiet boy who disliked sports and was only an average student. At the age of 13 he was married without foreknowledge of the event to a girl of his own age, Kasturbai. The childhood ambition of Mohandas was to study medicine, but as this was considered defiling to his caste, his father prevailed on him to study law instead.

Gandhi went to England to study in September 1888. Before leaving India, he promised his mother he would abstain from eating meat, and he became a more zealous vegetarian abroad than he had been at home. In England he studied law but never became completely adjusted to the English way of life. He was called to the bar on June 10, 1891, and sailed for Bombay. He attempted unsuccessfully to practice law in Rajkot and Bombay, then for a brief period served as lawyer for the prince of Porbandar.

South Africa: The Beginning

In 1893 Gandhi accepted an offer from a firm of Moslems to represent them legally in Pretoria, capital of Transvaal in the Union of South Africa. While traveling in a first-class train compartment in Natal, Gandhi was asked by a white man to leave. He got off the train and spent the night in a train station meditating. He decided then to work to eradicate race prejudice. This cause kept him in South Africa not a year as he had anticipated but until 1914. Shortly after the train incident he called his first meeting of Indians in Pretoria and attacked racial discrimination by whites. This launched his campaign for improved legal status for Indians in South Africa, who at that time suffered the same discrimination as blacks.

In 1896 Gandhi returned to India to take his wife and sons to Africa. While in India he informed his countrymen of the plight of Indians in Africa. News of his speeches filtered back to Africa, and when Gandhi reached South Africa, an angry mob stoned and attempted to lynch him.

Spiritual Development

Gandhi began to do menial chores for unpaid boarders of the exterior castes and to encourage his wife to do the same. He decided to buy a farm in Natal and return to a simpler way of life. He began to fast. In 1906 he became celibate after having fathered four sons, and he extolled Brahmacharya (vow of celibacy) as a means of birth control and spiritual purity. He also began to live a life of voluntary poverty.

During this period Gandhi developed the concept of Satyagraha, or soul force. Gandhi wrote: "Satyagraha is not predominantly civil disobedience, but a quiet and irresistible pursuit of truth." Truth was throughout his life Gandhi's chief concern, as reflected in the subtitle of his Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Truth for Gandhi was not an abstract absolute but a principle which had to be discovered experimentally in each situation. Gandhi also developed a basic concern for the means used to achieve a goal, for he felt the means necessarily shaped the ends.

In 1907 Gandhi urged all Indians in South Africa to defy a law requiring registration and fingerprinting of all Indians. For this activity Gandhi was imprisoned for 2 months but released when he agreed to voluntary registration. During Gandhi's second stay in jail he read Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience," which left a deep impression on him. He was influenced also by his correspondence with Leo Tolstoy in 1909-1910 and by John Ruskin's Unto This Last.

Gandhi decided to create a cooperative commonwealth for civil resisters. He called it the Tolstoy Farm. By this time Gandhi had abandoned Western dress for Indian garb. Two of his final legal achievements in Africa were a law declaring Indian marriages (rather than only Christian) valid, and abolition of a tax on former indentured Indian labor. Gandhi regarded his work in South Africa as completed.

By the time Gandhi returned to India, in January 1915, he had become known as "Mahatmaji," a title given him by the poet Rabindranath Tagore. Gandhi knew how to reach the masses and insisted on their resistance and spiritual regeneration. He spoke of a new, free Indian individual. He told Indians that India's shackles were self-made. In 1914 Gandhi raised an ambulance corps of Indian students to help the British army, as he had done during the Boer War.

Disobedience and Return to Old Values

The repressive Rowlatt Acts of 1919 caused Gandhi to call a general hartal, or strike, throughout the country, but he called it off when violence occurred against Englishmen. Following the Amritsar Massacre of some 400 Indians, Gandhi responded with noncooperation with British courts, stores, and schools. The government followed with the announcement of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms.

Another issue for Gandhi was man versus machine. This was the principle behind the Khadi movement, behind Gandhi's urging that Indians spin their own clothing rather than buy British goods. Spinning would create employment during the many annual idle months for millions of Indian peasants. He cherished the ideal of economic independence for the village. He identified industrialization with materialism and felt it was a dehumanizing menace to man's growth. The individual, not economic productivity, was the central concern. Gandhi never lost his faith in the inherent goodness of human nature.

In 1921 the Congress party, a coalition of various nationalist groups, again voted for a nonviolent disobedience campaign. Gandhi had come "reluctantly to the conclusion that the British connection had made India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically." But freedom for India was not simply a political matter, for "the instant India is purified India becomes free, and not a moment earlier." In 1922 Gandhi was tried and sentenced to 6 years in prison, but he was released 2 years later for an emergency appendectomy. This was the last time the British government tried Gandhi.

Fasting and the Protest March

Another technique Gandhi used increasingly was the fast. He firmly believed that Hindu-Moslem unity was natural and undertook a 21-day fast to bring the two communities together. He also fasted in a strike of mill workers in Ahmedabad.

Gandhi also developed the protest march. A British law taxed all salt used by Indians, a severe hardship on the peasant. In 1930 Gandhi began a famous 24-day "salt march" to the sea. Several thousand marchers walked 241 miles to the coast, where Gandhi picked up a handful of salt in defiance of the government. This signaled a nationwide movement in which peasants produced salt illegally and Congress volunteers sold contraband salt in the cities. Nationalists gained faith that they could shrug off foreign rule. The march also made the British more aware that they were subjugating India.

Gandhi was not opposed to compromise. In 1931 he negotiated with the viceroy, Lord Irwin, a pact whereby civil disobedience was to be canceled, prisoners released, salt manufacture permitted on the coast, and Congress would attend the Second Round Table Conference in London. Gandhi attended as the only Congress representative, but Churchill refused to see him, referring to Gandhi as a "half-naked fakir."

Another cause Gandhi espoused was improving the status of "untouchables," members of the exterior castes. Gandhi called them Harijans, or children of God. On Sept. 20, 1932, Gandhi began a fast to the death for the Harijans, opposing a British plan for a separate electorate for them. In this action Gandhi confronted Harijan leader Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, who favored separate electorates as a political guarantee of improved status. As a result of Gandhi's fast, some temples were opened to exterior castes for the first time in history. Following the marriage of one of Gandhi's sons to a woman of another caste, Gandhi came to approve only intercaste marriages.

Gandhi devoted the years 1934 through 1939 to promotion of spinning, basic education, and Hindi as the national language. During these years Gandhi worked closely with Jawaharlal Nehru in the Congress Working Committee, but there were also differences between the two. Nehru and others came to view the Mahatma's ideas on economics as anachronistic. Nevertheless, Gandhi designated Nehru his successor, saying, "I know this, that when I am gone he will speak my language."

England's entry into World War II brought India in without consultation. Because Britain had made no political concessions satisfactory to nationalist leaders, Gandhi in August 1942 proposed noncooperation, and Congress passed the "Quit India" resolution. Gandhi, Nehru, and other Congress leaders were imprisoned, touching off violence throughout India. When the British attempted to place the blame on Gandhi, he fasted 3 weeks in jail. He contracted malaria in prison and was released on May 6, 1944. He had spent a total of nearly 6 years in jail.

When Gandhi emerged from prison, he sought to avert creation of a separate Moslem state of Pakistan which Muhammad Ali Jinnah was demanding. A British Cabinet mission to India in March 1946 advised against partition and proposed instead a united India with a federal parliament. In August, Viceroy Wavell authorized Nehru to form a Cabinet. Gandhi suggested that Jinnah be offered the post of prime minister or defense minister. Jinnah refused and instead declared August 16 "Direct Action Day." On that day and several days following, communal killings left 5,000 dead and 15,000 wounded in Calcutta alone. Violence spread through the country.

Aggrieved, Gandhi went to Bengal, saying, "I am not going to leave Bengal until the last embers of trouble are stamped out," but while he was in Calcutta 4,500 more were killed in Bihar. Gandhi, now 77, warned that he would fast to death unless Biharis reformed. He went to Noakhali, a heavily Moslem city in Bengal, where he said "Do or die" would be put to the test. Either Hindus and Moslems would learn to live together or he would die in the attempt. The situation there calmed, but rioting continued elsewhere.

Drive for Independence

In March 1947 the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, arrived in India charged with taking Britain out of India by June 1948. The Congress party by this time had agreed to partition, since the only alternative appeared to be continuation of British rule.

Gandhi, despairing because his nation was not responding to his plea for peace and brotherhood, refused to participate in the independence celebrations on Aug. 15, 1947. On Sept. 1, 1947, after an angry Hindu mob broke into the home where he was staying in Calcutta, Gandhi began to fast, "to end only if and when sanity returns to Calcutta." Both Hindu and Moslem leaders promised that there would be no more killings, and Gandhi ended his fast.

On Jan. 13, 1948, Gandhi began his last fast in Delhi, praying for Indian unity. On January 30, as he was attending prayers, he was shot and killed by Nathuram Godse, a 35-year old editor of a Hindu Mahasabha extremist weekly in Poona.

Further Reading

Gandhi's Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (2 vols., 1927-1929) covers the period to 1921. Of the numerous biographies, D. G. Tendulkar, Mahatma (8 vols., 1951-1954; rev. ed. 1960-1963), is most voluminous and utilizes Gandhi's own writings. Other treatments include Romain Rolland, Mahatma Gandhi (trans. 1924); C. F. Andrews, ed., Mahatma Gandhi: His Own Story and Mahatma Gandhi at Work (both 1931); Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (1950) and Gandhi: His Life and Message for the World (1954); G. D. Birla, In the Shadow of the Mahatma: A Personal Memoir (1953); Rajendra Prasad, At the Feet of Mahatma Gandhi (1955); Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase (2 vols., 1956-1958); and Martin Lewis, ed., Gandhi: Maker of Modern India (1965). Among the more provocative recent studies are Joan V. Bondurant, Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict (1958; rev. ed. 1965); Indira Rothermund, The Philosophy of Restraint: Mahatma Gandhi's Strategy and Indian Politics (1963); Erik H. Erikson, Gandhi's Truth: On the Origin of Militant Nonviolence (1969); and Penderel Moon, Gandhi and Modern India (1969). □

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Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand


Widely known as Mahatma or "Great Soul," Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is considered one of history's great political pacifists. He is remembered nearly as much for his austere persona (frail, bespectacled, clad only in a draped loincloth) as his political achievements. Gandhi played a major role in leading India to independence from British rule, in 1947, following world war ii.

The quintessential nonviolent activist, Gandhi dedicated his life to political and social reform. His teachings and example were to later influence such leaders as martin luther king jr. and Nelson Mandela, who also utilized passive resistance and conversion rather than confrontation to bring about social change. Gandhi's signature marks were what he called Satyagraha (the force of truth and love) and the ancient Hindu ideal of Ahisma, or nonviolence toward all living things.

Gandhi was born in western India in 1869. Just 11 years earlier (in 1858), Britain had declared India a loyal colony. The young Gandhi completed a British-style high school education and was greatly impressed with British manners, genteel culture, and Christian beliefs. He aspired to become a barrister at law, but was prohibited from doing so by the local head of his Hindu caste in Bombay. His first act of public defiance was his decision to assume the role of an "out-caste" and leave for London to study law.

While studying in England, Gandhi first read (and was inspired by) the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu religious poem. The story of the Sermon on the Mount in the Christian New Testament stirred in him an interest in passive resistance, and he also became intrigued with the ethical basis of vegetarianism after befriending a few enthusiasts at a local restaurant. He would later use dietary fasting as a means to draw attention to social causes.

But it was an incident in 1893 that put into motion Gandhi's focused role in history. While on a legal assignment in South Africa, he was traveling on a train near Johannesburg when he was ordered to move from his first-class compartment to the "colored" car in the rear of the train. He refused. At the next station, he was thrown from the train and spent the night at the station. The experience triggered his lifelong dedication to civil rights and to the improvement of the lives of those with little political voice.

By 1906, he had taken on his first major political battle, confronting the South African government's move to fingerprint all Indians with publicized passive resistance. His efforts failed to provoke legal change, but he gained a wider following and influence.

Returning to India in 1915, Gandhi began a succession of political campaigns for independence in his homeland. He orchestrated widespread boycotts of British goods and services, and promoted peaceful noncooperation and nonviolent strikes. He is widely remembered for his 1930 defiance of the British law forbidding Indians to make their own salt. With 78 followers, he started on a march to the sea. Soon more than 60,000 supporters were arrested and jailed, but Britain was forced to negotiate with the gentle and powerful little man. Gandhi himself was arrested several times by the British, who considered him a troublemaker, and all total, spent about seven years of his life in jail.

Although his unrelenting efforts played a major role in India's independence in 1947, the victory was bittersweet for Gandhi. Britain announced not only the independence of India, but also the creation of the new Muslim state of Pakistan. With all his power and influence,

Gandhi could not undo the years of hatred between the Hindus and Muslims. On January 30, 1948, while arriving for evening prayers, he was gunned down by a Hindu fanatic who blamed the formation of Pakistan on Gandhi's tolerance for Muslims. Gandhi was 78 at his death.

"An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so."
—Mohandas Gandhi

The legacy of Ghandi, and his call for "conversion, not coercion," spread worldwide. Passive resistance, peace marches, sitdown strikes, and silent noncooperation became common means of nonviolent activism through much of the latter twentieth century, especially influencing demonstrators during the civil rights and vietnam war eras. Governmental entities accustomed to punishing violent protesters were forced to revamp their response to demonstrations in which the only violence was coming from police or guards. The U.S. Supreme Court was inundated with cases clarifying the limitations on first amendment rights of speech and association. To this day, passive resistance remains a principal form of protestation for those seeking attention for their cause(s).

further readings

Hay, Stephen. 1989."The Making of a Late-Victorian Hindu: M. K. Gandhi in London, 1888–1891." Victorian Studies (autumn).

McGeary, Johanna. 1999. "Mohandas Gandhi." Time (December 31).

Sudo, Phil. 1997. "The Legacy of Gandhi." Scholastic Update (April 11).

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Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (mōhän´dəs kŭ´rəmchŭnd´ gän´dē), 1869–1948, Indian political and spiritual leader, b. Porbandar.

In South Africa

Educated in India and in London, he was admitted to the English bar in 1889 and practiced law unsuccessfully in India for two years. In 1893 he went to South Africa, where he was later joined by his wife and children. There he became a successful lawyer and leader of the Indian community and involved himself in the fight to end discrimination against the country's Indian minority. In South Africa he read widely, drawing inspiration from such sources as the Bhagavad-Gita, John Ruskin, Leo Tolstoy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, and his personal philosophy underwent significant changes. His later political thought and his philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience was mainly shaped by his experiences in South Africa, the profound disappointment with the British legal system he experienced there, and his disenchantment with British social institutions he had once idolized. It was in Sout Africa that he developed the strategies he would later use in the struggle for the indpendence of India. He abandoned (c.1905) Western ways and thereafter lived abstemiously (including celibacy); this became symbolized in his eschewal of material possessions and his dress of loincloth and shawl. While in South Africa he organized (1907) his first satyagraha [holding to the truth], a campaign of civil disobedience expressed in nonviolent resistance to what he regarded as unjust laws. Although he served three prison sentences during his time in South Africa, his nonviolent protests and other activities were so successful that he secured (1914) an agreement from the South African government that promised the alleviation of anti-Indian discrimination.

Return to India

He returned (1915) to India with a stature equal to that of the nationalist leaders Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Gandhi actively supported the British in World War I in the hope of hastening India's freedom, but he also led agrarian and labor reform demonstrations that embarrassed the British. The Amritsar massacre of 1919 stirred Indian nationalist consciousness, and Gandhi organized several satyagraha campaigns. He discontinued them when, against his wishes, violent disorder ensued.

His program rested on four tenets: a free, united India with Hindus and Muslims allied; the acceptance of the doctrine of nonviolence; in India's villages, the revival of cottage industries, especially of spinning and the production of handwoven cloth (khaddar); and the abolition of untouchability (see caste). These ideas were widely and vigorously espoused, although they also met considerable opposition from some Indians. The title Mahatma [great soul] reflected personal prestige so high that he could unify the diverse elements of the organization of the nationalist movement, the Indian National Congress, which he dominated from the early 1920s.

In 1930, in protest against the government's salt tax, he led the famous 200-mi (320-km) march to extract salt from the sea. For this he was imprisoned but was released in 1931 to attend the London Round Table Conference on India as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress. When the Congress refused to embrace his program in its entirety, Gandhi withdrew (1934), but his influence was such that Jawaharlal Nehru, his protégé, was named leader of the organization.

Indian Independence

In 1942, after rejection of his offer to cooperate with Great Britain in World War II if the British would grant immediate independence to India, Gandhi called for satyagraha and launched the Quit India movement. He was then interned until 1944. Gandhi was a major figure in the postwar conferences with the viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, and Muslim League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah that led to India's independence and the carving out of a separate Muslim state (Pakistan), although Gandhi vigorously opposed the partition.

When violence broke out between Hindus and Muslims, Gandhi resorted to fasts and tours of disturbed areas to check it. On Jan. 30, 1948, while holding a prayer and pacification meeting at New Delhi, he was fatally shot by a Hindu fanatic who was angered by Gandhi's solicitude for the Muslims. After his death his methods of nonviolent civil disobedience were adopted by protagonists of civil rights in the United States and by many protest movements throughout the world.


See his autobiography (tr. 1927, repr. 1966); his collected works (50 vol., 1958–72); selected writings, ed. by R. Duncan (1972); R. N. Iyer, ed., The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi (3 vol., 1986–87) and The Essential Writings of Mahatma Gandhi (1991); biographies by D. G. Tendulkar (8 vol., 1951–54), B. R. Nanda (1958, repr. 1989), L. Fisher (1959), G. Ashe (1969), S. Wolpert (2001), J. Lelyveld (2011), and R. Guha (vol. 1, 2014); studies by J. V. Bondurant (rev. ed. 1965), E. Erikson (1969), J. M. Brown (1972), and A. von Tunzelmann (2007); J. Brown and A. Parel, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Gandhi (2011).

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Gāndhī, Mohandās Karamchand

Gāndhī, Mohandās Karamchand (1869–1948). Called Mahātmā, ‘great soul’, spiritual and practical leader of India (especially in pursuit of independence from British rule). When asked for his message to the world, he said, ‘My life is my message.’ Born into the Vaiśya caste, in a Vaiṣṇavite family, with Jain friends (both of which influenced his later attitudes), he left a wife and infant son in 1888 to study law in London. He returned in 1891 to India, carrying with him Christian influences, but when he failed to establish his legal career in India, he went to S. Africa in 1893 (to assist a Muslim in a court case), where his experience of, and resistance to, racial abuse and oppressive government began. He founded the Natal Indian Congress, and began to develop his way of non-resistance, based on ahiṃsā, satyāgraha (lit., ‘truth-insistence’, a term which he coined and defined as ‘soul-force’), tapasya, renunciation (cf. TAPAS), and swaraj, ‘self-rule’. He was much influenced by (within his general Hindu perspective) the Bhagavadgītā, and by such writings as the Sermon on the Mount, Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You, Ruskin's Unto this Last, Thoreau's Civil Disobedience.

But his inclusive style led to suspicion among orthodox Hindus, and he was shot on 30 Jan. 1948, uttering the name of Rāma as he died.

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Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand

Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand (1869–1948), the ‘Mahatma’ or Great Soul. Born in an Indian princely state, he read for the bar in London. In 1893 he took up practice in Natal but rapidly turned to politics. He unified opposition among the disparate Indian community to the passing of racially discriminatory laws and pioneered the techniques of satyagraha (non-violent resistance), which later were to make him famous. In 1915, he returned to India and, following the 1919 Amritsar massacre, organized protest on a national scale. In 1920, he won the Indian National Congress over to policies rejecting the Montagu-Chelmsford constitutional reforms and offering ‘non-cooperation’ to the British Raj. From the 1920s to early 1940s, he led a series of passive resistance campaigns in pursuit of Swaraj (self-rule), which redefined the character of Indian nationalism. As much a religious teacher and social reformer as a politician, he rejected western modernity and demanded a return to the simplicities of the self-sufficient village community. He sought tolerance between Hindus and Muslims and the eradication of caste untouchability. After his final release from gaol in 1944, he became disillusioned at the rise of Hindu–Muslim violence. He refused to celebrate independence in 1947 and rejected the Pakistan partition. In January 1948 he was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic for his pro-Muslim sympathies.

David Anthony Washbrook

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