Gandhi, Mahatma

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Mahatma Gandhi

BORN: October 2, 1869 • Porbandar, India

DIED: January 30, 1948 • New Delhi, India

Indian political leader, spiritual leader

Mahatma Gandhi was a major political and spiritual leader of India. In an age of empires and military dominance, Gandhi used nonviolent activism to free his people from colonial rule (one nation gaining political and economic control of another, usually lesser developed, country and its resources) in India and racial oppression in South Africa. His use of civil disobedience (to peacefully disobey laws in protest of government policy) to achieve change inspired similar movements for freedom and human rights around the world. Gandhi earned the title of Mahatma (Great Soul) for his efforts to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance for the poor. A student of Hindu philosophy, Gandhi lived simply and was recognized in India as the Father of the Nation.

"My mission is not simply the brotherhood of Indian humanity. My mission is not merely freedom for India. But through the freedom of India I hope to realize and carry on the mission of the Brotherhood of Man."

Gandhi named his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth because he had dedicated his life to the wider purpose of discovering truth, or Satya. Gandhi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times between 1937 and 1948, although he never received the award because of the deep divisions within India over independence from British rule and beginning of war between India and Pakistan in 1948. The government of India introduced a series of Mahatma Gandhi currency notes (paper money) in 1996 and annually awards the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Prize to distinguished social workers internationally. Statues dedicated in honor of Gandhi exist in many prominent cities throughout the world, and his life is memorialized in books and on film.


Hinduism is a very complex and diverse religion. The historical roots of Hinduism are found between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE. Hinduism is sometimes referred to as the Vedic religion because it is based on oral and written traditions known as the Vedas, the ancient Hindu scriptures. Other important Hindu scriptures include the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads.

Hindus believe in a variety of deities (gods). Each deity is an expression of the one true reality (or god), named Brahman. One of the most basic truths in Hinduism is that atman (the soul) is equivalent to Brahman. This truth can only be realized through proper spiritual enlightenment. Hinduism considers human desires as the source of all spiritual problems. If desires can be eliminated by pursuing dharma (the right path or religious duty) followers can ultimately escape the wheel of rebirth (reincarnation).

Mohandas from Porbandar

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in the little town of Porbandar in Gujarat, Western India, on the edge of the Arabian Sea. His family practiced Hinduism (see box) and were of the sect of the god Vishnu, called Vaishnava. Gandhi's mother, Putlibai, was a deeply religious woman who raised her five children as orthodox (strict interpretation of traditional religious guidance directing behavior and beliefs) Hindus. Mohandas means Slave of Mohan, the Hindu god (also called Krishna) who teaches nonviolence and sympathy for all beings in the holy Hindu book. His father, Karamchand Uttamchand, was Dewan—or prime minister—of the small state where Gandhi was born. Karamchand enjoyed religious discussions outside his own faith and frequently entertained guests and holy men such as Muslims and Jains. The Jain religion is a small sect with similarities to Buddhism which teaches that everything is constantly subject to change and suffering. The only way to escape suffering is to stop desiring material things of the world and live a virtuous life that includes doing no harm to living things, never stealing, lying, bragging, using drugs or alcohol, and remaining faithful in marriage. The Jains' chief doctrine of nonviolence to any living creature influenced the character of Hinduism, and of Mohandas in particular, in the state of Gujarat.

The name Gandhi means "grocer," and it indicated that the family ranking was Vaisyas in the Hindu caste system (a rigid series of social classes allowing little opportunity for people to improve their individual standing in society) (see box). Gandhi's father and grandfather had risen above their caste status as traders to become civil servants in British-ruled India, a rare accomplishment in Indian society. This meant that the family enjoyed relatively affluent circumstances in their home country. When Gandhi was seven, his father moved the family to Rajkot, a city in far western India, where he became a high-ranking official. Gandhi was a shy and sensitive boy who did not excel at school. He preferred long, solitary walks in the countryside to participating in games or sports. According to the custom of the day, Gandhi married Kasturbai, a Porbandar merchant's daughter, when she was twelve and he was thirteen years of age. They had four sons and their marriage lasted sixty-two years. However, as an adult Gandhi condemned childhood marriage as a part of Hindu society since it denied the freedom of people to select whom they wish to marry.

The Hindu Caste System

The Hindu caste system includes four principal social class distinctions. The Brahmins, the most senior caste, are religious teachers and scholars. Next in rank are the Kshatriyas. They are traditionally warriors who are eligible to become kings and princes. The third in rank are Vaisyas who are merchants, small landholders, and clerks. They do not have a distinguished ranking in the caste system even though they may own lands and property and be relatively wealthy. The lowest rank in the caste system is the Sudras. They are craftsmen and peasants who are assigned to provide services to others as laborers, such as in construction.

Completely outside the caste system are people designated as Untouchable. The Untouchables are outcasts who live in slums and are confined to the most demeaning work in Indian society. They are assigned such tasks as sweeping floors and streets, or removing human excrement, dead animals, and human corpses. Untouchables may not enter temples or use the same wells as other people. In the caste system, Hindus consider themselves polluted if even the shadow of an Untouchable falls across them. A person's position in life is determined at birth with prospects of improvement very limited due to the prejudice between groups. In modern India, the caste system and discrimination against Untouchables is considered illegal, although it persists in practice, particularly in some rural areas.

Gandhi graduated from Rajkot High School in 1887. He next spent nine months at the Samal Das College in nearby Bhavnagar. His father had died when Gandhi was just seventeen. After his death, a family friend and mentor to Gandhi suggested he study law in England. With Kasturbai expecting their first child, Gandhi took his friend's advice and journeyed to London in 1888. While there, Gandhi made a conscious effort to adopt the dress and manners of the English in order to fit into their society. He became a lawyer in 1891 and immediately made plans to return home. Upon arrival in Bombay, India, his elder brother met him to break the news that their beloved mother had died just weeks before. Gandhi was greatly saddened to not have had the opportunity to see her before her death.

Trouble in South Africa

Gandhi experienced little success as a trial lawyer in India but made a modest living writing petitions (formal written requests to government authorities) in Rajkot. In 1893, a Muslim (worshipper of the Islam religion) merchant from Porbandar offered him a one-year contract to represent his firm in Natal, South Africa. Like India, South Africa was also under British rule. Gandhi set sail for Africa. There he experienced firsthand the prejudice of whites against people of color. On a train ride to a court date, Gandhi was confronted by a European man who was offended that an Indian was sitting in the first-class carriage. Despite his possession of a valid ticket, an official was called and Gandhi was put off the train at the next station. Angered at the ill treatment he received, Gandhi determined at that moment to fight the intense racial prejudice (a prejudgment against people of a particular physical trait, such as skin color) that stripped humans of their dignity. On a later trip from Natal Province to Johannesburg, South Africa, Gandhi booked a coach seat, but the coachman refused him a seat and tried to make him sit on the floor. When he refused, he was beaten by the coachman. He was denied a room at a Johannesburg hotel because of his skin color. The following day, he continued his journey to Pretoria and was ushered to a third-class carriage despite his first-class ticket. Only the intervention of a white passenger allowed Gandhi to take his place in first class.

Indian workers had come to South Africa as traders, professionals, and indentured servants (people who work for others to pay off debts) to build the economy when the country was developing. As Indian communities grew in size and commercial importance, they came to be seen as a threat by white South Africans. As a result, laws were passed to restrict the rights of Indians. Proposed legislation in 1894 called for new laws aimed at Chinese immigrants that included physical segregation (to separate certain social groups, such as whites and people of color) and barred from voting.

As Gandhi became increasingly aware of the institutionalized (formally built into society) racial discrimination (treating differently or favoring one social group over another based on arbitrary standards or criteria) against Indians, he decided on a plan to combat it. He created a method of resistance he named Satyagraha, or Truth Weapon. Satya is a Sanskrit word meaning truth and agraha means force. His plan was based on passages he had studied in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita (holy book) and the Christian Bible. They called on the faithful to love their enemies and reject violence as a response to racial oppression. Nonviolent strikes (refusing to work until a demand is met), including hunger strikes, were among the major strategies of the satyagraha.

Civil disobedience

At the age of twenty-four, Gandhi promoted his plan for peaceful resistance to unjust laws. He called for Indians to unite. He urged them to forget personal and religious divisions among themselves in order to reach their common objectives. Gandhi helped establish the Natal Indian Congress to address the social and political concerns of the local Indians. In August 1894, he became its secretary.

Early in 1896, Gandhi returned to India to see his family as well as to enlist support for his campaign for Truth in South Africa. In November Gandhi, Kasturbai, and their two young sons set sail for South Africa. This time they, and other Indian passengers, received a hostile reception from those opposed to Indian immigrants (a person who leaves his country of origin to reside permanently in another). Upon his return in January 1897, Gandhi found his position had changed. He was now viewed as the chief political representative of Indians in South Africa. He gave up his law practice and his Western way of living in order to devote himself full time to improving the conditions of Indians living in the country. Civil resisters were subject to severe punishments such as whippings or being shot and Gandhi himself was briefly jailed on a number of occasions for not obeying certain laws discriminating against minorities, such as requirements to register with the government as a minority person.

In 1910, Gandhi set up a satyagraha camp known as the Tolstoy Farm located near Johannesburg. The camp was to shelter those in the Indian community affected by the protests and to teach the method of satyagraha. The struggle for civil rights that had begun in 1894 continued on until 1914, with a brief suspension during the Boer War (1899–1902). The Boer War was a conflict between British and Dutch colonists in parts of South Africa. During this time, the Indians supported the British government as a sign of loyalty. On June 30, 1914, the South African government gave in and moved to stop the oppression as public opinion grew in support of the peaceful protesters. The Indian Relief Bill was passed to stop anti-Indian discrimination in the country.

The Mahatma

Gandhi returned to India a nationally recognized celebrity in 1915. He began a series of satyagraha agitations in order to promote independence in his home country. He attracted large crowds at public meetings to promote Indian self-government (political independence from Britain) and explain his vision of the kind of programs that would best meet the nation's needs. He soon earned the title of Mahatma as he worked to advance the cause of India and ease the burden of poverty and ignorance for the poor.

People living simply was Gandhi's vision for India. He was most concerned with the rural peasants who formed the vast majority of the population in India yet whose issues were not represented in government. He opened schools in villages and promoted programs for the advancement of women and the Untouchables, India's lowest-ranking social group in its rigid caste system. Gandhi resisted the influences of Western industrialization and encouraged community farms and village industries. Industrialization is an economic change from an agricultural focus to one of producing large quantities of goods in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by wage-earning workers operating machines located in factories. As a role model, he established the Satyagraha Ashram (spiritual community or village) in Ahmedabad in 1915. Dedicated followers went out from there to teach others how to set up similar communities for shared communal living. With the outbreak of World War I (1914–18), Gandhi once again supported the British war efforts. He hoped the show of loyalty toward the government would win him and his followers the favor of the British and hasten India's freedom.

Changing his strategy for reform, Gandhi led a series of local agitations starting in 1917 that involved acts of civil disobedience in India. In 1919, he led the first nationwide agitation that united Indians against government proposals restricting their civil liberties (freedoms from government restrictions, such freedom of speech or right to a fair trial) and legal protections. The following year, Gandhi began a two-year Non-Cooperation Movement that demanded, among other things, Indian independence from Britain. Gandhi's technique involved arousing and uniting Indians to action using legitimate and peaceful means while preventing the heightened emotions from running over into violence. When confrontations resulted in violence, Gandhi would call off the activity until order was restored.

Gandhi's political activism in the independence movement resulted in his arrest on March 10, 1922. Charged with sedition (encouraging others to disobey the law) he was sentenced to six years in prison. Early in 1924, emergency surgery for appendicitis left him weakened and he was released from prison to recuperate at his ashram. Gandhi was elected president of the Indian National Congress that year. However, he mainly spent the remaining years of the 1920s writing from his ashram. Fondly referred to as Bapu (father), Gandhi was recognized as the Father of the Nation in India.

The Quit India movement

In December 1928, the English government in India received an ultimatum from the Indian National Congress. The demand was for dominion status (a self-governing nation that still acknowledges the British king or queen as chief of state) by December 1929, or a countrywide civil disobedience movement would be launched. Time passed without a favorable response from the British rulers. Gandhi came out of seclusion to lead the movement. He organized a series of individual and group satyagraha that soon grew into a mass movement of open defiance against the government in India. He was arrested in May 1930, but public protest only increased due to his arrest. Gandhi was set free the following January. He traveled to England in March 1931 to represent the Indian National Congress before the British government in London at a conference. Gandhi was unable to advance his political mission while in Britain. However, he did attract large crowds of curious and friendly citizens who listened to him speak of an independent India.

When political progress failed to materialize from his trip to Britain, the civil disobedience movement resumed in India in January 1932. Gandhi and other Congress leaders were arrested and jailed by the new British colonial governor, Lord Willingdon (1866–1941), who adopted a new get-tough policy against the Indian nationalists. He also declared the Congress as unlawful. Gandhi began a series of fasts (to not eat or only eat very little of certain things) to protest various causes while in prison. He was released again by the government in May 1933. Upon his release, Gandhi devoted himself to promoting the cause of the Untouchables, whom he renamed the Harijans (People of God). His efforts landed him back in prison by August, with a one year sentence. After a four-day fast, Gandhi was again removed to a hospital and quickly released. The government officials feared a national riot if he should die in prison.

Tension within India increased as World War II (1939–45) approached. Parties eager for Indian independence urged the Congress to take advantage of Britain's distraction with the international situation. Gandhi led a nationwide satyagraha campaign under the slogan "Do or Die." In addition, Congress passed the Quit India resolution on August 8, 1942. The resolution demanded immediate independence and the complete withdrawal of the British from India. Congress leaders, including Gandhi and his wife, Kasturbai, were imprisoned at once. Kasturbai died in prison on February 22, 1944. Gandhi was released on May 6 of that year after contracting malaria.

At the end of the war, negotiations for the future of India resumed. In August 1947, the British divided India into two self-governing dominions: India and Pakistan. Pakistan was created as a Muslim state within the subcontinent in order to accommodate the millions of followers of Islam in India. Gandhi wanted a unified India and did not agree to the division. He called for peace and brotherhood during the riots that accompanied the much-disputed partition of the country. On January 30, 1948, a young Hindu assassinated Gandhi during his usual evening prayer meeting in New Delhi.

For More Information


Moon, Penderel. Gandhi and Modern India. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1969.

Owen, Hugh. Gandhi. Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1984.

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

Rawding, F.W. Gandhi and the Struggle for India's Independence. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Company, 1982.

Renou, Louis, ed. Hinduism. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1961.


"Indian National Congress." (accessed on December 11, 2006).

"Time 100: Person of the Century Runner Up: Mohandas Gandhi." Time Inc. (accessed on December 11, 2006).