Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma

Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma

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His image is one of the most recognizable in history: the thin, bald, frail-looking man wearing round glasses and a simple white wrap.

This is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, also known as the Mahatma ("Great Soul").

His inspirational message of non-violent protest helped to lead India to independence from the British Raj. Gandhi lived a life of simplicity and moral clarity, and his example has inspired protestors and campaigners for human rights and democracy the world over.

Gandhi's Early Life

Gandhi's parents were Karmachand Gandhi, the dewan (governor) of the western Indian region of Porbandar, and his fourth wife Putlibai. Mohandas was born in 1869, the youngest of Putlibai's children.

Gandhi's father was a competent administrator, adept at mediating between British officials and local subjects. His mother was an extremely devout adherent of Vaishnavism, the worship of Vishnu, and devoted herself to fasting and prayer. She taught Mohandas values such as tolerance and ahimsa, or noninjury to living beings.

Mohandas was an indifferent student, and even smoked and ate meat during his rebellious adolescence.

Marriage and University

In 1883, the Gandhis arranged a marriage between 13-year-old Mohandas and a 14-year-old girl named Kasturba Makhanji. The young couple's first child died in 1885, but they had four surviving sons by 1900.

Mohandas finished middle and high school after the wedding. He wanted to be a doctor, but his parents pushed him into the law. They wanted him to follow in his father's footsteps. Also, their religion forbade vivisection, which is part of medical training.

Young Gandhi barely passed the entrance exam for the University of Bombay and enrolled at Samaldas College in Gujarat, but he was not happy there.

Studies in London

In September of 1888, Gandhi moved to England and began to train as a barrister at University College London. For the first time in his life, the young man applied himself to his studies, working hard on his English and Latin language skills. He also developed a new interest in religion, reading widely on different world faiths.

Gandhi joined the London Vegetarian Society, where he found a like-minded peer group of idealists and humanitarians. These contacts helped to shape Gandhi's views on life and politics.

He returned to India in 1891 after earning his degree, but could not make a living there as a barrister.

Gandhi Goes to South Africa

Disappointed by the lack of opportunity in India, Gandhi accepted an offer for a year-long contract with an Indian law firm in Natal, South Africa in 1893.

There, the 24-year-old lawyer experienced first-hand terrible racial discrimination. He was kicked off a train for trying to ride in the first-class carriage (for which he had a ticket), was beaten up for refusing to give his seat on a stagecoach to a European, and had to go to court where he was ordered to remove his turban. Gandhi refused, and thus began a lifetime of resistance work and protest.

After his one-year contract ended, he planned to return to India.

Gandhi the Organizer

Just as Gandhi was about to leave South Africa, a bill came up in the Natal Legislature to deny Indians the right to vote. He decided to stay and fight against the legislation; despite his petitions, however, it passed.

Nonetheless, Gandhi's opposition campaign drew public attention to the Indians' plight in British South Africa. He founded the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 and served as Secretary. Gandhi's organization and petitions to the South African government attracted attention in London and India.

When he returned to South Africa from a trip to India in 1897, a white lynch mob attacked him. He later refused to press charges.

Boer War and the Registration Act:

Gandhi urged Indians to support the British government at the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 and organized an ambulance corps of 1,100 Indian volunteers. He hoped that this proof of loyalty would result in better treatment of Indian South Africans.

Although the British won the war and established peace among white South Africans, treatment of Indians worsened. Gandhi and his followers were beaten and jailed for opposing the 1906 Registration Act, under which Indian citizens had to register and carry ID cards at all times.

In 1914, 21 years after he arrived on a one-year contract, Gandhi left South Africa.

Return to India

Gandhi returned to India battle-hardened and vividly aware of British injustices. For the first three years, though, he stayed outside of the political center in India. He even recruited Indian soldiers for the British Army once more, this time to fight in World War I.

In 1919, however, he announced a non-violent opposition protest (satyagraha) against the British Raj's anti-sedition Rowlatt Act. Under Rowlatt, the colonial Indian government could arrest suspects without a warrant and jail them without a trial. The Act also curtailed press freedom.

Strikes and protests spread across India, growing throughout the spring. Gandhi allied with a younger, politically savvy pro-independence advocate named Jawaharlal Nehru, who went on to become India's first Prime Minister. The leader of the Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, opposed their tactics and sought a negotiated independence instead.

The Amritsar Massacre and Salt March

On April 13, 1919, British troops under Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer opened fire on an unarmed crowd in the courtyard of Jallianwala Bagh. Between 379 (the British count) and 1,499 (the Indian count) of the 5,000 men, women and children present died in the melee.

The Jallianwala Bagh or Amritsar Massacre turned the Indian independence movement into a national cause and brought Gandhi to national attention. His independence work culminated in the 1930 Salt March when he led his followers to the sea to illegally make salt, a protest against British salt taxes.

Some independence protesters also turned to violence.

World War II and the "Quit India" Movement

When World War II broke out in 1939, Britain turned to its colonies, including India, for soldiers. Gandhi was conflicted; he felt very concerned about the rise of fascism around the world, but he also had become a committed pacifist. No doubt, he remembered the lessons of the Boer War and World War I - loyalty to the colonial government during war did not result in better treatment afterward.

In March of 1942, British cabinet minister Sir Stafford Cripps offered the Indians a form of autonomy within the British Empire in exchange for military support. The Cripps offer included a plan to separate the Hindu and Muslim sections of India, which Gandhi found unacceptable. The Indian National Congress party rejected the plan.

That summer, Gandhi issued a call for Britain to "Quit India" immediately. The colonial government reacted by arresting all of the Congress leadership, including Gandhi and his wife Kasturba. As anti-colonial protests grew, the Raj government arrested and jailed hundreds of thousands of Indians.

Tragically, Kasturba died in February 1944 after 18 months in prison. Gandhi became gravely ill with malaria, so the British released him from prison. The political repercussions would have been explosive if he had also died while imprisoned.

Indian Independence and Partition

In 1944, Britain pledged to grant independence to India once the war was over. Gandhi called for the Congress to reject the proposal once more since it set forth a division of India since it set forth a division of India among Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh states. The Hindu states would become one nation, while the Muslim and Sikh states would be another.

When sectarian violence rocked India's cities in 1946, leaving more than 5,000 dead, Congress party members convinced Gandhi that the only options were partition or civil war. He reluctantly agreed, and then went on a hunger strike that single-handedly stopped the violence in Delhi and Calcutta.

On August 14, 1947, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was founded. The Republic of India declared its independence the following day.

Gandhi's Assassination

On January 30, 1948, Mohandas Gandhi was shot dead by a young Hindu radical named Nathuram Godse. The assassin blamed Gandhi for weakening India by insisting on paying reparations to Pakistan. Despite Gandhi's rejection of violence and revenge during his lifetime, Godse and an accomplice were both executed in 1949 for the murder.

For more information, please see "Quotes from the Mahatma Gandhi." A longer biography is available on's 20th Century History site, at "Biography of Mahatma Gandhi." In addition, the Guide to Hinduism has a list of "Top 10 Quotations on God & Religion" by Gandhi.

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