Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand

views updated May 23 2018

Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand 1869–1948











Born on October 2, 1869, in the coastal town of Porbandar in the Gujarati-speaking Kathiawar region of western India, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi died in 1948, five and a half months after achieving his goal of India’s freedom from British rule. Though less successful in attaining two other aims of his, Hindu-Muslim amity and justice for India’s “untouchables,” Gandhi (a Hindu, like a majority of his compatriots) saw to it that independent India assured equal rights to its Muslim and other religious minorities, and to “untouchables.” He claimed that his efforts in India were relevant for “an aching, storm-tossed and hungry world” (Collected Works, vol. 98, pp. 218–220), and the participation of thousands of men and women in the nonviolent campaigns he led, first in South Africa and then in India, inspired nonviolent struggles on different continents.

In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. would acknowledge the debt he and the American civil rights movement owed to Gandhi, and there have been similar expressions from Cesar Chavez (1927–1993), the North American farmworkers’ leader; from Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890–1988), who in the 1930s raised a nonviolent army of Pashtuns not far from the Afghan–Pakistan border; from Benigno Aquino (1932–1983), the chief opponent of Marcos’s military regime in the Philippines; from His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet (1935–); and from Aung San Suu Kyi (1945–), the leading fighter for democratic rights in her country of Burma (Myanmar); and others.

Though the Gandhis belonged to the “bania,” or trader, caste (third in the hierarchy of Hindu castes, but a “high” caste still), Mohandas’s father, Karamchand, was not a trader or businessman. He was a public official, the “first minister” to the ruler of Porbandar state, which included the town of Porbandar. The British governed much of India directly and the rest indirectly, through chieftains or princes. Porbandar was one of over 500 princely states in India. Karamchand’s father, Ota Gandhi, had also been Porbandar’s “first minister,” as were Ota’s father and grandfather.

When Mohandas was seven, Karamchand moved to Rajkot, another princely state in Kathiawar, serving there also as first minister. He and his wife, Putlibai, were liberal by the standards of their time, but their children were enjoined not to touch “untouchables” or Muslims or to eat meat. At thirteen Mohandas was married to Kasturbai Kapadia, who was a few months older and from the same bania caste—virtually all marriages occurred within a caste and when the bride and groom were thirteen or younger.

The boy Mohandas had a rebellious side (he secretly ate meat) and also a prickly conscience (he confessed petty thefts in a note he handed to his ailing father). After Karamchand’s death, Mohandas persuaded his mother and other relatives to send him to London to study law, but he was required before departure to promise that he would avoid liquor, meat, and women in England.


Leaving behind his wife and a newborn son, Mohandas arrived in England in the summer of 1888, enrolled at the Inner Temple (one of London’s Inns of Court, a law school), and sought to fashion himself as an “English gentleman,” wearing “proper” clothes and learning ballroom dancing, elocution, and the violin. But his bid to find a British identity lasted only a few months. Engaged in London with political and religious questions, and evidently keeping to his three pledges, Gandhi learned public campaigning from England’s vegetarian movement, of which he became an active member. In 1891 he returned to India as a barrister who sought Indians’ equality with whites but not secession from the British Empire, and he believed that all souls had equal worth, irrespective of skin color or religious views.

In Bombay, western India’s biggest city, Gandhi formed a friendship with Rajchandra, a jeweler who was also a scholar of the Hindu, Jaina, and Buddhist religions. Success in the law seemed to elude him, however, and in early 1893 he collided in Rajkot against colonial arrogance. Charles Ollivant, the British officer supervising all princely states in Kathiawar and someone Gandhi had met in England, was examining a charge of impropriety against Gandhi’s brother Laxmidas, who pressed his younger brother to intercede. Against his better judgment Gandhi called on his acquaintance, who ordered a servant to remove the young barrister from his office. When the ejected Gandhi threatened a lawsuit, Ollivant dared him to do his worst. Told by India’s leading lawyer of the day, Pherozeshah Mehta, that he would invite ruin by suing Ollivant, Gandhi pocketed the affront. But the descendant of “first ministers” fumed and looked for a life outside Kathiawar.


Gandhi did not have to wait for long: A South Africa–based firm with origins in Porbandar asked him if he would assist for a year with a legal case in Pretoria, and Gandhi grabbed the opening. He was twenty-three when, in May 1893, he landed in Port Durban. The three weeks that followed saw more incidents of ejection or attempts at ejection: from a courtroom in Durban, from a train at Pietermaritzburg station, from a stagecoach in Pardekoph in the Transvaal, and from a hotel in Johannesburg. During the Pardekoph incident he was soundly thrashed as well. By the time he reached Pretoria in the first week of June, he was a different man: resolute, realistic, and ready to fight for South Africa’s persecuted Indian minority, which had come from all parts of India. He had found a purpose, and now realized how India’s “untouchables” felt.

In Pretoria he read Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You and six volumes on an 1857 revolt in

India crushed by the British. He conversed with Christians keen to convert him and exchanged letters with Rajchandra. Christianity was not embraced but thoughts of hate and violence were yielded, as well as “pride of birth and education” (Doke 1909, p. 45). The following year (1894), Gandhi founded a political party, the Natal Indian Congress, and in 1906 he felt he had found a special way to fight. Coining a phrase, he called it satyagraha, which combined two Indian words, satya (truth) and agraha (firmness). Gandhi translated the phrase variously as “truth-force,” “soul-force,” or “love-force,” and he insisted on nonviolent fighting. When people opposing an unjust law refuse to kill but are ready to be killed, their satyagraha could win, claimed Gandhi.

One year in South Africa turned out to be a period of twenty years, during which Gandhi made money as a lawyer, gave large sums to South Africa’s Indian community, simplified his life and the lives of his wife and four sons, took vows of celibacy and poverty for the rest of his life, launched a journal, Indian Opinion, and started two centers for community living and training in satyagraha, one in Phoenix near Durban in Natal and the other in Lawley near Johannesburg in the Transvaal.

Several whites backed Gandhi in South Africa and worked at his side, including Christians and Jews, clergymen, journalists, secretaries, and housewives. Henry Polak (a Jewish journalist born in Britain), Hermann Kallenbach (a German Jew trained in architecture), and Joseph Doke (a Baptist minister) were among them. While Polak edited Indian Opinion for several years, Kallenbach placed at Gandhi’s disposal the 1,000 acres that housed the Lawley center, which was named Tolstoy Farm in honor of the Russian novelist and thinker whose views had influenced Gandhi, and who, shortly before dying, expressed great satisfaction at Gandhi’s battles in South Africa. In 1909 Joseph Doke published (in England) the first Gandhi biography. Scores of others would follow.


Gandhi’s interaction with Africans was more limited. His aim of Indian equality with whites in South Africa was different from a fight for African rights. Moreover, for some time Gandhi seemed to share a general Indian sense of superiority vis-à-vis Africans. In 1908, however, he envisioned a day when “all the different races [of South Africa] commingle and produce a civilization that perhaps the world has not yet seen” (Collected Works, vol. 8, p. 323). That year Jan Smuts, a future prime minister of South Africa, warned that the Indian defiance initiated by Gandhi could lead one day to African defiance (Nayar 1989, vol. 4, p. 168), a possibility Gandhi recognized and welcomed.

Later, after returning to India, Gandhi would speak in his weekly, Young India, of political conversations with Africans in South Africa (March 28, 1929), but the discussions are not recorded. John Dube, a founder of the African National Congress, was one of the leaders Gandhi had met; Dube’s Ohlange center in Phoenix predated Gandhi’s center in the same place. In 1914 Dube spoke of the impact made on him by the bravery of nonviolent Indians whom Gandhi had inspired but added that he could not see Africans fighting that way; they were likely, Dube thought, to invite a massacre by hitting back at whites (Patel 1990, pp. 216–217). While not joining the Indian defiance, Africans silently applauded and blessed it.

Led by Gandhi, hundreds of Indians of different religions and castes, mostly from the Transvaal, peacefully broke discriminatory laws from 1908 to 1910 and incurred imprisonment; and in 1913 thousands of Indians working in Natal’s coal mines, sugar plantations, the railways, hotels, and restaurants disobeyed laws and marched for rights. Many women joined the disobedience. Repression from the South African government was brutal, and over two dozen Indians were killed, but strong reactions in India, Britain, and South Africa forced the government to modify its laws. Claiming victory, a forty-five-year-old Gandhi returned in January 1915 to India, where people called him “Mahatma” (great soul).


British control over India seemed permanent in 1915. Peasants, the bulk of the population, appeared grateful for stability; the British policy of divide and rule had separated Hindus from Muslims; leaders of the “untouchables” preferred alien rule to an independence dominated by “high” castes; and India’s princes relied on British officials to prevent uprisings by subjects. These facts shaped Gandhi’s strategy: He would aim to enlist the peasants, unite Hindus and Muslims, convince caste Hindus of the folly of untouchability, and ask the princes to find safety in their subjects’ goodwill. And he would present the weapon of satyagraha to his people.

His years in South Africa had familiarized Gandhi with Indians of all kinds and from all regions. Although establishing a base in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarati-speaking India, he traveled to almost every part of the land, sharing his vision, challenging and encouraging his audiences, recruiting allies, and probing issues where satyagraha could be employed. In 1917 satyagraha was successfully used in defense of indigo-raising peasants in Bihar in eastern India; in 1918 it was conducted on behalf of peasants in rural Gujarat and textile workers in Ahmedabad; and April 1919 saw the first all-India demonstration in the country’s entire history, when place after place responded to Gandhi’s call for a nonviolent protest against new curbs on free speech.

A massacre occurred on April 13, 1919, in Amritsar, the Sikhs’ holy city: At least 389 Indians—Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs—were gunned down in less than ten minutes by troops commanded by a British general, Reginald Dyer. The following year Gandhi launched a joint Hindu-Muslim struggle for Indian independence and in support of Muslim control over Islam’s holy places in the Middle East.

In this program of “nonviolent noncooperation,” tens of thousands were arrested, including some women; lawyers quit British-run courtrooms, students left British-run colleges, and a host of distinguished Indians returned British honors and titles. Muslims were invited to Hindu homes, and vice versa; and the removal of untouchability was made a central plank of the Indian National Congress (INC), the country’s principal political organization (founded in 1885), which accepted Gandhi as its guide. India was experiencing both a new spirit and a new unity.

Fearing uncontrollable unrest, and also acknowledging his commitment to nonviolence, the British refrained from arresting Gandhi. In February 1922, however, after a demonstrating mob killed twenty-two policemen in Chauri Chaura in northern India, Gandhi called off the movement, saying he did not want a foundation of murder for a free India. The suspension demoralized the public, and the British felt they could safely arrest Gandhi. He was taken prisoner in March 1922, the first of his six incarcerations in India. In South Africa he had been jailed three times; altogether he spent ten years in prison.


Hindu-Muslim recrimination followed the 1922 suspension. Released after two years, Gandhi gradually rebuilt his nonviolent forces, but it was not until 1930 that he launched another all-India struggle. The issue he chose this time was the British monopoly of the salt trade and the tax on salt. Collecting the salt left by the sea was illegal, as was selling or buying untaxed salt. Gandhi asked Indians on the coast to scoop up their own salt, and Indians elsewhere to buy or sell contraband salt. Since the salt tax hurt every Indian, and the poorest the most, a satyagraha against it was an issue on which all united: Hindus and Muslims, caste Hindus, and “untouchables.”

Spectacular salt marches made news worldwide, American reporters sent home accounts of police brutalities on violators of salt laws who remained nonviolent, and tens of thousands filled India’s jails. A year later, the British viceroy, Lord Irwin, admitted that underestimating a national movement’s power was a profound mistake and released Gandhi and his political colleagues of the Indian National Congress. A Gandhi-Irwin accord that followed made coastal salt collection legal, and Gandhi agreed to attend a political conference in London in the fall of 1931, though he did not expect much from it.

Also invited to the London conference, Gandhi’s political opponents in India claimed that he did not speak for India’s princes, Muslims, or “untouchables.” Saying that Indians had to agree among themselves before demanding self-government, British leaders announced the conference’s failure, but outside the conference Gandhi made friends with the British people. Based in London’s downscale East End, he traveled widely, including to Manchester, where he met textile workers hurt by boycotts in India. The suffering of India’s poor was even worse than theirs, Gandhi told them. He was given a warm, understanding response. At England’s elite school, Eton, Gandhi told its students: “It can be no pride to you that your nation is ruling over ours. No one chained a slave without chaining himself” (Collected Works, vol. 54, p. 82).


Two years earlier, invited by W. E. B. Du Bois to send a message for African Americans through Du Bois’s journal,

The Crisis, Gandhi had expressed a similar thought: “Let not the twelve million Negroes be ashamed of the fact that they are the grandchildren of slaves. There is no dishonor in being slaves. There is dishonor in being slave-owners.” In a note printed next to Gandhi’s message, the journal called him “the greatest colored man in the world, and perhaps the greatest man in the world” (The Crisis, July 1929).

In 1936, two African American couples visiting India, Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman and Edward and Phenola Carroll, asked Gandhi why he did not speak of “love” instead of “nonviolence.” Admitting his attraction to “love in the Pauline sense,” Gandhi added that “love” did not always connote struggle, whereas “nonviolence” did. Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s secretary from 1917, told the Thurmans and the Carrolls that the warmth in Gandhi’s welcome to them was unprecedented (Kapur 1992, p. 88). It derived from Gandhi’s view that untouchability and slavery were similar evils and that India’s fight against imperialism paralleled black America’s struggle against racism.

Gandhi asked his visitors “persistent, pragmatic questions about American Negroes, about the course of slavery, and how we had survived it” (Kapur 1992, p. 88). Was color prejudice growing or dying? Did American law recognize marriages between blacks and whites? And so forth. It was during this 1936 conversation (in Bardoli, Gujarat) that Gandhi made the prophetic remark: “Well, if it comes true it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world” (Collected Works, vol. 68, pp. 237–238).

South Africa remained on Gandhi’s mind. In 1926 he said in Young India (July 22) that he could not imagine “justice being rendered to [South Africa’s] Indians, if none is rendered to the natives of the soil.” Two years later he reiterated the necessity of African-Indian cooperation: “[Indians] cannot exist in South Africa for any length of time without the active sympathy and friendship of the Africans” (Young India, April 5, 1928).

India’s natives gained a slice of power in 1937. While the center remained firmly under British control, elected legislatures could form governments in provinces. Following Gandhi’s advice, the INC contested elections and formed ministries in a majority of the provinces. But in 1939, when World War II started, the British clipped provincial powers, citing the war’s requirements. When London refused to assure Indian independence at the end of the war, the INC broke with the British, its sympathy for the Allied cause notwithstanding, and its ministries resigned.


With popular opinion turning increasingly anti-British, the British encouraging anti-INC elements, especially the Muslim League (ML), which in 1940 demanded secession from India of Muslim-majority areas, and other separatist movements gaining strength, Gandhi asked the INC, in August 1942, to issue a call to the British to quit India. There was a nationwide eruption, which in some places took a violent form. It was the greatest defiance the British had faced in India. It was eventually suppressed, and Gandhi and all INC leaders and tens of thousands of others were quickly put behind bars, yet two outcomes now became certain: India would be free after the war, and the INC would inherit the power left by the departing British.

The INC’s leaders—Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), who would be India’s prime minister from 1947 to 1964, Vallabhbhai Patel (1875–1950), Abul Kalam Azad (1890– 1958), Chakravarti Rajagopalachari (1878–1972), and Rajendra Prasad (1883–1962), among others—were more than political colleagues to Gandhi, and he more than a mentor to them. They had struggled and suffered together.

Released in the summer of 1944, and striving again for a Hindu-Muslim alliance through an agreement between the INC and the ML, Gandhi held fourteen talks in September 1944 with the ML’s president, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. But the talks failed. In the summer of 1945 the INC leaders were released. The two years that followed saw intense negotiations involving the British, the INC, and the Muslim League; they also saw the INC leaders separating from Gandhi.


These leaders felt that agreeing to the division demanded by the ML and Jinnah would put an end to Hindu-Muslim violence. Gandhi thought it would increase the violence. They envisioned India as a militarized, industrial power; Gandhi saw India as a land of peace and he championed rural India. An increasingly isolated Gandhi spent much of 1946 and 1947 in areas that had seen Hindu-Muslim violence, restoring peace and instilling courage in victims.

A London announcement in February 1947 that within months the British would definitely leave India, transferring power to one or more governments, produced a scramble for leverage that heightened the Hindu-Muslim tension, especially in northern India’s large Punjab province, which contained areas passionately claimed by both Muslims and non-Muslims (Hindus and Sikhs). As a possible solution, Gandhi asked the INC leaders and Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, to invite Jinnah to head a new government, but the viceroy as well as the INC leaders rejected the proposal.

Gandhi was excluded from the negotiations of April, May, and June 1947 that led to an agreement on independence and India’s division into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. On August 14 Pakistan came into being. The next day independent India emerged. But violence exploded. About half a million were killed, mostly in the Punjab, in August and September 1947. Almost twelve million moved. Half of them, Muslims, trudged westward to Pakistan, and the other half, Hindus and Sikhs, in the opposite direction. On the other hand, Gandhi’s 1946–1947 interventions in eastern India probably saved many lives.


Close to the day of Indian independence, Gandhi answered, in the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata), a question on coping with doubts:

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? … Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away. (Tendulkar 1951–1958, vol. 8, facsimile facing p. 89)

Though INC leaders turned down several of Gandhi’s proposals, he supported India’s new government led by Nehru and Patel (who became deputy prime minister). Gandhi’s view that an “untouchable” should become India’s first head of state, occupying the mansion where the British Empire’s viceroys had lived, was not endorsed, but, following Gandhi’s advice, Nehru and Patel embraced Bhimraro Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956), the brilliant leader of the “untouchables” who for years had criticized Gandhi and the INC as not being radical enough over caste. Chairing the committee that drafted the Indian constitution, Ambedkar played a crucial role in independent India’s evolution.

On January 30, 1948, while walking to a prayer meeting in New Delhi, Gandhi was killed by Nathuram Godse, who planted himself about four feet in front of Gandhi and fired three bullets into his chest and stomach. Godse was part of a group of high-caste Hindus who alleged that Gandhi had emasculated India’s Hindus with his nonviolence and friendship with Muslims. Gandhi’s wife, Kasturbai, had died four years earlier while the two were prisoners of the British. The Gandhis had four sons, Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas, and Devadas, and fifteen grandchildren.

Gandhi wrote two books (both in the mid-1920s), an autobiography entitled The Story of My Experiments with Truth, and A History of Satyagraha in South Africa; a tract called Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule), published in 1910; a translation (in the 1920s) of the Hindu religious text, the Bhagavad Gita; and innumerable articles in his journals, Indian Opinion, Young India, and Harijan. The 100 volumes of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi contain almost all that he wrote, including letters, and most of his speeches.

SEE ALSO Anti-Apartheid Movement; Muslims.



Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand. 1927–1929. The Story of My Experiments with Truth. 2 vols. Translated by Mahadev Desai. Ahmedabad, India: Navajivan.

_____. 1951–2000. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. 100 vols. New Delhi, India: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.


Ambedkar, B. R. 1945. What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables. Bombay, India: Thacker.

Ashe, Geoffrey. 1968. Gandhi: A Study in Revolution. Bombay, India: Asia Publishing House.

Brown, Judith. 1990. Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope. New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press.

Doke, Joseph J. 1909. An Indian Patriot in South Africa. London: Indian Chronicle Press. 1967 edition, New Delhi, India: Publications Division.

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

Fischer, Louis. 1950. The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Harper.

Gandhi, Rajmohan. 2007. Mohandas: A True Story of the Man, His People, and an Empire. New Delhi, India: Viking.

Kapur, Sudarshan. 1992. Raising Up a Prophet: The African-American Encounter with Gandhi. Boston: Beacon Press.

Nanda, B. R. 1997. Mahatma Gandhi. New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press.

Nayar, Sushila. 1989, 1994. Mahatma Gandhi: India Awakened, vols. 4 and 5. Ahmedabad, India: Navajivan.

Patel, Ravjibhai. 1990. The Making of the Mahatma. Ahmedabad, India: Navajivan.

Pyarelal. 1956–1986. Mahatma Gandhi. 5 vols. Ahmedabad, India: Navajivan.

Tendulkar, D. G. 1951–1954. Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. 8 vols. Bombay, India: Times of India Press.

Rajmohan Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

views updated May 23 2018

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). □

Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand

views updated May 23 2018


The greatest and most widely admired of 20th-century Indian leaders; b. Porbandar, Kathiawad, Oct. 2, 1869; assassinated, New Delhi, Jan. 30, 1948. Gandhi came from a well-to-do Hindu family and studied in India and England. He was admitted to the bar (1891) and practiced as a lawyer in South Africa (1893), where he became involved in the struggle of the South African Indians against the white rulers. He divided his time between India and South Africa (18961902), established Indian Opinion and Phoenix Farm (1904), contested through satyāgraha (civil disobedience) the policies of the South African government, and was jailed more than once between 1907 and 1913. On his return to India, Gandhi established the Sabarmati Ashram (1915) and was gradually drawn into the vortex of Indian politicsfor example, he organized an all-India hartal (work stoppage) on April 6, 1919. He also edited the periodicals Young India, in English, and Navajivan, in Gujarati.

On gaining control of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi launched the noncooperation movement and inaugurated mass civil disobedience (December 1921). He suspended it (February 1922), but launched another satyāgraha, this time against the government salt monopoly, by marching to Dandi (1930). He signed a pact with the viceroy (1931) and attended the Round Table Conference at London. In 1933 he began Harijan, a weekly paper, and worked for civic integration of the untouchables. He launched limited individual satyāgraha (1940), gave the call for the "Quit India" movement (August 1942), and was imprisoned.

Gandhi's talks with Jinnah, the Muslim leader, ended in failure (1944), and he was deeply distressed by the Hindu-Muslim riots in 194647. While opposing the partition of India, he repeatedly fasted and prayed to avert communal frenzy. He was acclaimed "Father of the Nation" by free India, and acted as adviser to J. Nehru's government on crucial matters. He was assassinated while on his way to prayer. The title Mahatma (greatsouled) was popularly accorded to him.

Gandhi wrote in Gujarati, his mother tongue, and in English. While his succinct Hind Swaraj (1909) became the locus classicus of the Gandhian philosophy of life and action, his Autobiography (1927) revealed to millions with complete fidelity the contours of his mind and the impulses of his heart. He was deeply influenced not only by the Hindu scriptures, but by the New Testament and the writings of thoreau, ruskin, and tolstoi. His philosophy of action comprised sarvōdaya (happiness for all) to be achieved through satyāgraha (action based on fearlessness, truth, and the abjurement of violence). He pleaded for inner purification through celibacy or chastity,

dietetic regulation, fasting, silence and prayer, the adoption of a simple life, the ready acceptance of manual labor, and the voluntary rejection of material possessions. His asceticism and strength were reflected in his speech and writing; in Gandhi, the style was truly the man.

Bibliography: Collected Works (New Delhi 195894); An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, tr. m. desai (2d ed. Washington 1948); comp. and tr., Songs from Prison (New York 1934); A Gandhi Reader: A Source Book of His Life and Writings, ed. h. a. jack (New York 1956). v. sheean, Lead, Kindly Light (London 1950), biog.

[k. r. srinivasa iyengar]

Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand

views updated May 11 2018


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).

Gāndhī, Mohandās Karamchand

views updated May 21 2018

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.

Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand

views updated May 23 2018

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