Gandhi, Mahatma M. K.

views updated


GANDHI, MAHATMA M. K. (1869–1948), political and spiritual leader, father of nonviolent resistance in India to British rule Mahatma (Great Soul) Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was India's greatest political leader and social reformer. His global legacy has touched the hearts of more people than any Indian since the Buddha. Born in what is now India's Gujarat State on 2 October 1869, Mohandas was the youngest child of Karamchand and Putlibai Gandhi. His father, Karamchand, chief minister of the princely state of Porbandar, was wealthy and influential. Gandhi's devout mother was a Vaishnava Hindu and also a devotee of Jainism and fasting, the practice of which her brilliant son was to convert into a political weapon. Young Mohan's marriage was arranged by his parents when he was only eleven or twelve to his Hindu Modh Vania child bride, Kasturba ("Ba") Makanji, who remained his wife for life, mothering their four sons, Harilal (b. 1888), Manilal (b. 1892), Ramdas (b. 1896), and Devdas (b. 1900).

Early Years in London

Mohan was restless and eager to travel beyond the provincial borders of his father's state, which he did soon after his father died. Nursing and Ayurvedic medicine fascinated Gandhi all his life. He nursed and massaged his dying father during his last illness, delivered his son Devdas, and prescribed remedies for all his followers and disciples, ministering warm enemas and hot bath holistic cures for everything from head to stomach- and backaches. The remedy he trusted most of all was prayer, daily calling out Rāma's name, which was the last word he uttered at the moment of his assassination. The Sanskrit inscription of Mahatma Gandhi's dying cry, "He Ram!" is carved on the onyx stone memorializing the "Step of Peace"—Shanti Ghat—at which his remains were cremated on the bank of the River Yamuna in Delhi.

Despite the strict Hindu prohibition of Gandhi's caste ( jati) elders against his venturing out upon the ocean's "dark waters," and his devout mother's pleas, eighteen-year-old Mohan steamed from Bombay to Southampton in the fall of 1888, eager to "see and know" London, the world's greatest city, teeming capital of Empress Victoria's Crown Raj. He ventured there to study law, however, not medicine, for his elder brother, who supported him, felt certain that as a British barrister, Mohan would much better serve the Gandhi family's needs and ambitions.

Soon after landing in London, Gandhi's mind focused more on questions of religious philosophy than either law or politics. His mother had exacted three vows from her beloved son. He solemnly promised her to abstain from meat, wine, and women while abroad. Much of Gandhi's first cold and lonely month in London, therefore, was spent in long walks, searching for a vegetarian restaurant. After finding one, he befriended British Quakers and some English clergy there, who, much the same as Hindus and Jains, believed it sinful to eat any part of soul-endowed animals. He soon joined London's Vegetarian Society, and there he met members of London's Theosophical Society, two of whom invited him to join them in studying the Bhagavad Gītā, one of Hinduism's most important ancient works of religious philosophy. Gandhi later reinterpreted the fierce battle that followed the Gītā as an allegory of humankind's struggle on the field of "soul" (atman), rather than as the Epic Mahābhārata's blood-drenched Aryan conflict for control of India on the "field of Kuru" (Kuru-kshetra), north of Delhi.

Gandhi met Theosophy's Russian founder, Madame Blavatsky, in London, as well as her charismatic disciple, Annie Besant, who later moved to Madras (Chennai) as president of the Theosophical Society there, becoming the only English woman ever elected to preside over the Indian National Congress. Besant tried very hard to convert Gandhi to Theosophy, but he remained as impervious to her pleas as he would to those of many Christian ministers. Throughout his life, Gandhi remained true to the Hindu faith of his birth, though he studied every religion and read aloud from many scriptures other than the Gītā at his evening prayer meetings. All "true" religions, Gandhi insisted, adhered to the same universal moral principles, "truth" (sat or satya) and "nonviolence" (ahimsa). He equated those two ancient Hindu ideals to "God."

For his first years in London, Gandhi was too busy mastering culinary "Experiments with Truth" (as he would title his autobiography) and English common law to focus his Yogic meditation on transforming those twin moral aspects of God into a force powerful enough to shake the world's mightiest empire. Inner Temple barrister Gandhi left London and sailed home to Bombay (Mumbai) on 12 June 1891. His mother died while he was abroad, but he had remained faithful to her vows. His elder brother now expected his barrister sibling to be of great value in all his business dealings with British officials and in British courts of law. Scrupulously sensitive and truthful, Gandhi could neither plead falsely in any court nor speak less than the truth to anyone. He could find no acceptable work in India, so he took on a case in South Africa, though it paid little and obliged him to leave his young family again, sailing from Bombay this time for what he believed would be just one year.

The Impact of South Africa

Gandhi's two decades in South Africa transformed him from an ineffectual British barrister into a uniquely brilliant and powerful Mahatma. He went to South Africa to represent a wealthy Gujarati Muslim merchant in a family dispute, but experienced such humiliating racial prejudice there as to make him resolve to lead a mass struggle against it for almost twenty years. In South Africa, Gandhi endured harsh months behind bars, emerging as the Indian community's foremost defender of human rights in Natal and the Transvaal as well as in the Union of South Africa. Gandhi's expulsion from a first-class railway coach, despite his elegant barrister's dress and the expensive ticket he purchased, and his exclusion from many clean hotel rooms—merely because of the shade of his skin and Indian birth—made him resolve soon after his first year in South Africa to abandon his barrister's top hat and tails in favor of the peasant garb worn by indentured Tamil laborers.

In South Africa, Gandhi found his political voice. As spokesman for the Indian community against Britain's Colonial Office autocrats and Boer bullies, Gandhi fought to remove the invidious poll tax charged to every Indian. On the eve of his final departure from South Africa in 1914, Gandhi reached what he had believed to be a firm agreement with General Jan Smuts to remove that tax, but soon after he left it was reintroduced. Political activism, however, was only one of many changes South Africa wrought in Gandhi's life. He established a highly successful legal practice in Johannesburg, keeping no fewer than four Indian clerks busy from dawn to dusk, attracting brilliant full-time British idealists to his side, including several talented young women as well as men. Gandhi's fearless honesty and passionate criticism of every injustice and all human prejudice proved so charismatic that wherever he went to speak or lingered to live, men and women of every faith, color, and class rallied to his side and supported his principled causes.

Gandhian Socialism

Young Gandhi experimented in communal as well as familial and personal reforms. He established his first ashram (rural community) in Durban, inspired by John Ruskin's and Robert Owen's handicrafts and Utopian ideals. Gandhi was also influenced by his careful reading of the Bible at this time, as of the Gītā, and of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is within You. His ashram was named Tolstoy Farm.

"The Uplift of All"—Sarvodaya—was the ultimate goal of Gandhi's rural community movement, which brought together individuals from many lands, all devoted to rural communal living, sharing in every fruit of the soil they tilled as well as in every hardship they jointly endured. Gandhian "socialism" resembled that of early Christian orders and later Utopian socialist communities. He insisted that every member of his ashram take solemn vows of truth and nonviolence and abstain entirely from sex as well as from alcohol, meat eating, and luxuries of any kind. He taught each of his disciples the divinity of truth and nonviolence, which he also called "love," and the virtues of daily prayer, hand labor, and rural self-sufficiency.

In 1906 Gandhi launched his first nonviolent noncooperation movement in Johannesburg, against the British colonial government's Asiatic Ordinance Bill, which would have required every Indian to register and to be fingerprinted. He called that "Black Act" criminal, and vowed "cheerfully" to welcome imprisonment rather than comply. Gandhi's passionate yogic embrace of suffering had now begun, vowing from this time to abstain from sexual relations with his wife, eliminating "passion-inducing" foods from his diet, cutting back on sleep as well as curtailing his daily nourishment before sunset to goat's curd, fruits, and nuts. He hardened himself, toughening his body to prepare for police brutality or isolation in prison cells. He named his new method of revolutionary noncooperation satyagraha—a Sanskrit compound meaning "hold fast to the truth." Mahatma Gandhi spoke now of an "inner voice" directing him, which he called the voice of "God that was Truth." He warned his followers of dark dangers confronting them, flogging, long prison terms, even death. He urged them to pray and be fearless. India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, later defined Gandhi's greatest message to his nation as "Forget fear!"

Gandhi's Nonviolence

Nonviolence (ahimsa), one of India's most ancient religious beliefs, emerged long before the dawn of the Christian era, an ethical ideal of early Buddhism and Jainism. Gandhi insisted that ahimsa was Hinduism's "highest religious law" (paramo Dharma). He equated it to "God" and "truth," also redefining it in positive terms as "love." The powers of truth and love were so great, Gandhi argued, that united they could "move the world." Such was the force he focused against British imperialism in its final four decades of the first half of the twentieth century. Gandhi purified himself by praying to Rāma, and he armed himself with India's most ancient yogic weapons: suffering (tapas), fasting, and breath (atman) control before launching any revolutionary movement. He never defended himself with physical weapons of any kind, nor did he hate his opponents, teaching his followers to love those who sought to harm or arrest them.

Home to India

Soon after the start of World War I, Gandhi returned to India, joining Gopal Krishna Gokhale at his Servants of India Society in Pune. Moderate Anglophile Gokhale had presided over India's National Congress in 1905, inspiring Gandhi to join the Congress. He was hailed by Gandhi as "my political guru" (divine teacher). Gandhi also admired Pune's revolutionary Hindu nationalist leader, Lokamanya (Beloved of the People) Bal Gangadhar Tilak, launching his first nationwide satyagraha the day Tilak died, 1 August 1920. By then, Gandhi had established his first Indian ashram at Sabarmati, on the outskirts of Gujarat's capital, Ahmedabad. Gandhi was most ably assisted in several provincial satyagraha movements by a fellow Gujarati, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who remained his political lieutenant. Patel appealed to Gandhi to join his struggle on behalf of Gujarat's famine-wracked peasants in the spring of 1918, after which the Sardar became a devout disciple of the Mahatma. The failure of India's annual monsoon rains conspired with British wartime shipping of India's meager grain reserves to troops on the Western Front to bring famine to Gujarat's Kheda district.

At the start of his Kheda satyagraha, Gandhi inspired thousands of his peasant followers with his stories of the noble virtues of ancient India's great civilization, contrasting it to the "Satanic civilization" of the West, whose worst recent crime was World War I. Still he felt ambivalent about war, attempting to help the British Raj recruit Gujarati peasants for its army a month after his Kheda satyagraha ended in only partial victory. Peasants were shocked that he, "a votary of ahimsa," would urge them to join the British army! His failure as a "recruiting sergeant" led to Gandhji's worst breakdown, which "nearly ruined my constitution," as he confessed on the eve of the Allied victory that relieved him, "at death's door." The aftermath of armistice proved even more disillusioning to India and to Gandhi than had the long years of war.

Post–World War I Politics

British fears of "sedition" and "terrorist" violence brought the immediate extension of harsh martial defense of India "Black Acts" in the wake of the War. "I can no longer render peaceful obedience to ..such devilish legislation," Gandhi responded. Like most Indian nationalists, Gandhi had expected freedom (swaraj) as India's reward for its loyal wartime support of the Raj, providing almost a million troops to the West and millions more in sterling, as well as countless tons of wheat, steel, and shipping. The Punjab had recruited most of India's valiant troops, Sikhs and Muslims, who fought bravely in France and Mesopotamia, only to return home to brutal British repression and racial discrimination rather than the freedom they had anticipated. On 30 March 1919, police opened fire on a crowd in Delhi, killing several protesters, which led Gandhi to proclaim 6 April 1919 a day of protest and national prayer.

Massacre in Jallianwala Bagh

One week later, on 13 April 1919, in Punjab's Amritsar, whose Golden Temple is the most sacred center of the Sikh faith, British Gurkha and Baluchi troops were ordered by the British brigadier to open fire, without warning, at point-blank range on thousands of unarmed peasants gathered inside an almost totally enclosed nearby garden, Jallianwala Bagh. Four hundred innocents were shot dead, another 1,200 left wounded inside that garden, now India's premier shrine to the nationalist struggle's martyrs to freedom. Mahatma Gandhi was arrested and sent back to Bombay when he tried to enter Punjab, that entire province being locked under the most brutal martial repression. Crawling orders were posted over several of Amritsar's narrow lanes for all Indians residing there, whippings lashed onto the naked backs of those daring to disobey.

Jallianwala Bagh alienated millions of previously loyal supporters and admirers of the British Raj. Wealthy Anglophile lawyers like Motilal Nehru, father of India's first prime minister, became converts to Mahatma Gandhi's revolutionary leadership and methods. Gandhi called upon all Indians to boycott British titles and law courts, as well as imported British manufactured cloth, consigning the latter to "freedom pyres." He urged Indians to spin their own cotton and weave their own cloth, assuring his followers that the "music" of millions of spinning wheels would be the anthem of India's freedom, destined to liberate Mother India's children from thralldom to imperial oppressors. He made a monthly minimal amount of hand-spun cotton (khadi) the dues of membership in India's National Congress. "There is no deliverance without sacrifice and self-control," Mahatma Gandhi instructed his followers. "Is the country ready?" he asked. Were the Hindu majority in Congress ready to embrace their Muslim neighbors as "brothers"?

"Hindu-Muslim Unity," Gandhi taught, was a primary pillar of Indian independence. Without unity, multicultural India would fall apart. His vision and warnings proved prophetic. His appeal reached the Muslim masses, whose hatred of British rule was intensified by Britain's postwar annexation of the Turkish caliph's (khilafat's) North African domain, after having so often denied any territorial ambitions during the war. The Khilafat Movement, led by Shaukat and Mohammed Ali, was hailed by Gandhi as his own "cause," embracing the Ali brothers as his "brothers," leading many Hindus to question the wisdom of their Mahatma's political strategy in embracing that pan-Islamic movement. Tens of thousands of Indian Muslims abandoned homes in India to march north to Afghanistan in support of a caliph ("deputy" of God), whose soldiers erected barbed wire at his borders to stop them. Moderate Muslim leaders of India's National Congress, like Barrister Mohammad Ali Jinnah, also disapproved of Gandhi's revolutionary appeals to India's Muslim masses, as well as to illiterate Hindu peasants to "boycott" all British goods and institutions, fearing he would only provoke violence. Mahatma Gandhi listened to his "inner voice," however, as he launched nationwide satyagraha.

Leader and Guru of the Indian National Congress

From 1920 until 1945, whether in prison or on silent retreat in his last Central Indian ashram, Seva-Gram (village of service), or on one of his many "walking pilgrimages" (pada yatras), "Great Soul" Gandhi was hailed by his Congress Working Committee followers as virtually divine, even after he resigned from the Congress, whose Constitution he had rewritten and democratized. For Mahatma Gandhi was never primarily a political leader, sickened by the corruption, falsehood, and jealous in-fighting of politics, turning away from it to his cotton spinning, rural uplift work, and the struggle against "untouchability," which he viewed as the darkest sin of Hinduism, and to his holistic health cures, including Brahmacharya.

After the Nagpur Congress in December 1920, when Gandhi won the clear support of an overwhelming majority of new delegates to launch his multiple-boycott noncooperation movement nationwide, he lost the backing of many influential moderate leaders, most important of whom was Jinnah, who later led his Muslim League in demanding a separate Muslim nation-state of Pakistan.

Chauri Chaura Tragedy

When Gandhi launched nationwide satyagraha, he optimistically promised his Congress followers freedom (swaraj) from the British Raj in one year. Long before that, however, he learned of the murders by immolation of twenty-one Indian police, forced to burn inside their wooden station house by a mob of satyagrahis in Chauri Chaura. "I have committed a Himalayan blunder!" Mahatma Gandhi cried, calling a halt to satyagraha. For the first requirement and virtue of any satyagrahi was ahimsa. The remorseful Mahatma abandoned all political action and retired to the peaceful calm of his rural ashram, spinning cotton on his hand loom, weaving it into cloth "of our own country" (sva-deshi), remaining silent one day every week, periodically fasting. "All of us should be in mourning" for Chauri Chaura, Gandhi said. Jawaharlal Nehru, when he learned in his prison cell of Gandhi's decision to call off India's revolution, wrote "We were angry." Just when national resistance had started to build and to gain momentum, Nehru felt that, thanks to Gandhi's scruples, it "wilted away." But Gandhi believed that means and ends were inextricably related, and that only nonviolent means could result in good ends. Soon after the British realized how unpopular Gandhi had become, they arrested him. When he almost died of appendicitis in 1924, however, he was released for surgery, after which he returned to rural and religious reform work

Struggles against Untouchability

"Untouchability is a blot upon humanity and therefore upon Hinduism," Gandhi argued, leading several important struggles against that Hindu "caste" crime, which treated some 10 percent of India's Hindu population as "polluted outcastes," denying them admission to temples or the use of village wells, treating them as creatures lower than animals. Gandhi risked his own life fighting this "age-long prejudice," arousing the ire of many orthodox Brahmans, who viewed him as a "traitor" to his faith. In 1932, when British prime minister J. Ramsay MacDonald classified "untouchables" as "separate" from "upper caste Hindus," awarding them a separate bloc of electoral seats on enlarged councils, as the British had earlier done with India's Muslims, Gandhi launched a fast-unto-death, determined to sacrifice his life rather than allow "perfidious Albion" further to divide and thus longer to rule over India's "enslaved" population. He thus brilliantly united his religious and political powers, magnifying the force of each, forcing the Raj withdraw its "Communal Award," rather than to risk allowing a Mahatma to die protesting it. Untouchable leaders, like Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, however, who had lobbied at London's Round Table Conferences for those separate electorate seats, angrily resented Gandhi's intervention, considering him no better than the most reactionary of Brahmans. But Gandhi continued his long struggle to abolish untouchability, renaming Hindu "outcastes" Harijans (children of God), insisting that at least one of them should always live in his ashram, treating them as his own "children."

Breaking the Salt Tax Monopoly

Gandhi's most famous satyagraha began on 12 March 1930, when he led a band of faithful disciples on his 240-mile antisalt tax march south from Sabarmati ashram to Dandi beach. The British Raj long enforced its monopoly on the sale of salt throughout India, annual tax revenue from which was second only to that collected from land. "Next to air and water," Gandhi told his long-suffering nation, salt was the "greatest necessity of life . . . the only condiment of the poor . . . by taxing which the State can reach even the starving millions." That invidious salt tax was 2,400 percent of its sale price, yet salt could be picked up free on every beach along India's some 2,000-mile (3,400 km) littoral. That was exactly what Gandhi did on 6 April, when he reached Dandi beach, cheered by Sarojini Naidu as India's "Deliverer!" Millions of Indians rushed down to the sea to break the British monopoly, "stealing" lumps of sea salt and using them instead of buying tax-stamped inflated packages. Before year's end, every jail cell in India was filled with more than 60,000 salt satyagrahis. Gandhi never contested any jail sentence, welcoming each return to his prison "temple" (mandir) cell. During most of his years behind bars, he prayed while spinning cotton.

Quit India Movement

Gandhi never lost faith in ahimsa, rejecting every British demand that he should support Britain and its Allies in World War II. In the final decades of his life, he rejected the concept of "just war," insisting that all mass violence was evil. Some of his closest British Christian friends abandoned him when, shortly after the beginning of World War II, Gandhi launched his individual satyagraha, sending his most devout disciple, Vinoba Bhave, out publicly to break British martial law. The British Raj waited, however, before arresting Gandhi himself, reluctant to rouse mass Indian opposition while Japan was fast approaching India's eastern border. Early in August 1942, the Congress Working Committee appealed to Gandhi to come to Bombay to lead them again in one final mass satyagraha to end the Raj. Gandhi agreed, resolved to demand that every British soldier and civilian immediately "Quit India." "Do or die!" was the mantra he coined for this satyagraha, but the night before he was ready to launch it, he was driven away in the dark, incarcerated behind British bars until the war's end.

Last Years and Assassination

Mahatma Gandhi was deeply depressed by postwar conflicts in India, primarily between Hindus and Muslims, who fought over the imminent division of British India's loaves and fishes, as the few remaining days of the Raj dwindled. Britain's newly elected Labour Government, led by Prime Minister Clement Attlee, found its Indian "jewel" more a liability than an asset. Of all the leaders of India's National Congress and the Muslim League, Gandhi alone refused to accept young Viceroy Lord Mountbatten's hasty plan to partition South Asia into a "moth-eaten" Pakistan and a much diminished India. Partition would be the "vivisection of Mother India," Gandhi cried. But when Mountbatten announced his partition plan early in June 1947, he set the date for all British troops to be withdrawn from South Asia at the midnight birth of independent India on 15 August 1947. That was also when multicultural Bengal and the Punjab were slashed in half—the latter "Land of Five Rivers" through its Sikh population's heart—triggering the most tragic flight of over 10 million terrified Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs who awoke to find themselves on the wrong side of unguarded, ineptly drawn borders, leaving a million innocents to die in the following months.

At his evening prayer meetings in New Delhi, Mahatma Gandhi cried out against the tragic plight of old Delhi's Muslims, violently driven from their ancestral homes, robbed, beaten, or murdered by Sikh and Hindu mobs maddened by reports of Muslim rapes and murders of Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan's Punjab and North-West Frontier province. "What brutalities are going on!" Gandhi cried. "People are trying to see that there is no Hindu left in Pakistan and no Muslim in Hindustan."

He decried as well the Indo-Pak War in Kashmir, which started in October 1947 and was destined to continue, with interludes of seeming calm, for more than half a century. "Today my wings are clipped," Gandhi groaned as he watched fighting escalate in Kashmir's Vale. "If I could grow my wings again, I would fly to Pakistan." When asked by his disciples why he did not urge his political heirs (Nehru and Patel) to Congress power in New Delhi to end the war, Gandhi replied. "No one listens to me . . . if I could have my way of nonviolence . . . we would not send our army." But "I have no say with my people today." A month before his assassination, Gandhi offered himself as "arbitrator" of the conflict that still plagues India's relations with Pakistan and has cost over 50,000 lives, as well as billions of dollars. "I shall advise Pakistan and India to sit together and decide the matter," the wise Mahatma suggested, but he was never called upon by Nehru to assist India in resolving the conflict over Jammu and Kashmir state. "Today mine is a cry in the wilderness," Gandhi said.

On Friday, 30 January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead by a hate-crazed Hindu Brahman, Naturam Godse, who called India's saintly father a "traitor," and a "lackey" of Pakistan. "The light has gone out of our lives," Nehru mourned after Gandhi died. "Conflicts must be ended in the face of this great disaster." Neither the conflict between India and Pakistan over the State of Jammu and Kashmir, nor lesser conflicts among Hindus and Muslims, whether in Gujarat or Ayodhya, have been resolved as yet. "In our age of moral decay," Albert Einstein wrote, memorializing Mahatma Gandhi, "he was the only statesman who represented that higher conception of human relations in the political sphere to which we must aspire with all our power."

Stanley Wolpert

See alsoGokhale, Gopal Krishna ; Nehru, Jawaharlal ; Pakistan and India ; Patel, Sardar Vallabhbhai ; Satyagraha ; Tilak, Bal Gangadhar


Ashe, Geoffrey. Gandhi. New York: Stein & Day, 1968.

Brown, Judith M. Prisoner of Hope. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Erikson, Erik H. Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence. New York: Norton, 1969.

Gandhi, M. K. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, translated by Mahadev Desai. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.

Gandhi, Rajmohan, The Good Boatman: A Portrait of Gandhi. New Delhi: Viking, 1995.

Payne, Robert. The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Dutton, 1969.

Tendulkar, D. G. Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. 8 vols. Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India, 1954.

Wolpert, Stanley. Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.