Gandhi was born in an India when it was under the colonial rule of the British Empire; almost 80 years later, he died just months after India gained her independence from that Empire

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Gandhi was born in an India when it was under the colonial rule of the British Empire; almost 80 years later, he died just months after India gained her independence from that Empire. Beloved and respected by millions all over the world, this teacher and leader had many names in his life. Among his followers, he was known as Gandhi and Bapu (Daddy).

As youngest son of a Hindu family, Gandhi was married, in an arranged marriage typical of the times, to a local girl, , a relationship which lasted until her death at the age of 74. Even as a boy, Gandhi was interested in religion and tried hard to follow local religious customs of diet and behavior. Sent to London to study law in 1888, Gandhi developed a deep respect for the British legal system; he did not know that he would spend much of his life fighting against the rule of Great Britain. He returned to India in 1891, but could not easily find work.

In 1893, he was offered a chance to work as a lawyer for an Indian firm in South Africa. Early in his stay there, Gandhi personally experienced hateful racial discimination–he was thrown off a train and refused rooms at a hotel. These incidents opened his eyes to the reality of the South African system of racial seperation. In 1894, when the government threatened to take away all voting rights from Indian citizens, Gandhi formed the Natal National Congress, a political group that worked for Indian rights.

Even though he disagreed with many things that the colonial government did, Gandhi remained loyal to Great Britain, and he, along with many Indian residents of South Africa, supported the British Army in the Boer War of 1899-1902. The British won that war and took over the government of the newly formed Union of South Africa. There were still many laws that restricted the rights of Indian and other non-white citizens, however, and Gandhi and his family stayed in South Africa for more than a decade, seeking to improve human rights under the British administration.

Gandhi worked to help the Indian community in many ways: In 1903 he started an Indian newspaper, and organized a farm where the newspaper employees would not only print the paper, but also live, grow food and work to support each other. In 1906 the government tried to make Indian residents carry identification cards. Gandhi led thousands of Indians in a peaceful protest against this proposal. In this protest, and others that followed, Gandhi developed his ideas about nonviolent resistance to unfair laws and inspired many people to follow his example.

In 1914, Gandhi and his family moved back to India, where he continued working in two main areas: independence from Britain and human rights for all Indian citizens. He particularly tried to remove the worst injustices of the caste system, a traditional way of organizing society in which the lowest levels, the “Untouchables,” were denied basic economic and social freedoms. To train people in his nonviolent methods, Gandhi started an ashram, a kind of religious study center, where everybody, including Untouchables, could come to live and work together, and study the principles of non-violence. People came from all over the world to live at this ashram. By 1918, Gandhi was leading Indian peasants in nonviolent protests. By 1920 he was active in a political organization that wanted to liberate India from the British Empire.

For the next 28 years, Gandhi continued to lead protests against unfair economic and political restrictions, fight for national independence and teach his followers to use peaceful and nonviolent methods to change society. Sometimes Gandhi would  fast as a sign of protest; when he fasted, he would become very weak and sometimes come near to death. He was very beloved by the population of India; knowing that his death would cause great anger and violent riots among the people, the government often changed its policies or at least negotiated with Gandhi rather than let him die of hunger.

At other times Gandhi and his followers would make peaceful marches or simply refuse to cooperate with a law. Unfortunately, even these nonviolent methods often produced violence among the people he was trying to help, especially between Indian Hindus and Indian Muslims. Gandhi himself always tried to reach a peaceful conclusion, even if it meant compromising with his opponents, but some people hated the idea of compromise. Mahatma Gandhi lived to see Independence Day, when Britain finally left India on Aug 15, 1947. On January 30, 1948, he was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic, who was angry with him for negotiating with Muslims.

Early years

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, India, a seacoast town in the Kathiawar Peninsula north of Bombay, India. His wealthy family was from one of the higher castes (Indian social classes). He was the fourth child of Karamchand Gandhi, prime minister to the raja (ruler) of three small city-states, and Purtlibai, his fourth wife. Gandhi described his mother as a deeply religious woman who attended temple (a place for religious worship) service daily. Mohandas was a small, quiet boy who disliked sports and was only an average student. At the age of thirteen he did not even know in advance that he was to marry Kasturbai, a girl his own age. The childhood ambition of Mohandas was to study medicine, but as this was considered beneath his caste, his father persuaded him to study law instead. After his marriage Mohandas finished high school and tutored his wife.

In September 1888 Gandhi went to England to study. Before leaving India, he promised his mother he would try not to eat meat. He was an even stricter vegetarian while away than he had been at home. In England he studied law but never completely adjusted to the English way of life. He became a lawyer in 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 Muslims to represent them legally in Pretoria, the capital of Transvaal in the Union of South Africa. While traveling in a first-class train compartment in Natal, South Africa, a white man asked Gandhi to leave. He got off the train and spent the night in a train station meditating. He decided then to work to end racial prejudice. He had planned to stay in South Africa for only one year, but this new cause kept him in the country until 1914. Shortly after the train incident he called his first meeting of Indians in Pretoria and attacked racial discrimination (treating a certain group of people differently) by whites. This launched his campaign for improved legal status for Indians in South Africa, who at that time suffered the same discrimination as black people.

In 1896 Gandhi returned to India to take his wife and sons to Africa and to inform his countrymen of the poor treatment of Indians there. News of his speeches filtered back to Africa, and when Gandhi returned, an angry mob threw stones and attempted to lynch (to murder by mob action and without lawful trial) him.

Spiritual development

Gandhi began to do day-to-day chores for unpaid boarders of the lowest castes and encouraged 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 (not eat). In 1906 he became celibate (not engaging in sexual intercourse) after having fathered four sons, and he preached 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. He 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. Gandhi also developed a basic concern for the means used to achieve a goal.

In 1907 Gandhi urged all Indians in South Africa to defy a law requiring registration and fingerprinting of all Indians. For this activity he was imprisoned for two months but released when he agreed to voluntary registration. During Gandhi's second stay in jail he read the American essayist Henry David Thoreau's (1817–1862) essay "Civil Disobedience," which left a deep impression on him. He was also influenced by his correspondence with Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy

Mohandas Gandhi. 
Reproduced by permission of

AP/Wide World Photos


(1828–1910) in 1909–1910 and by John Ruskin's (1819–1900) Unto This Last.

Gandhi decided to create a place for civil resisters to live in a group environment. He called it the Tolstoy Farm. By this time he had abandoned Western dress for traditional Indian garb. Two of his final legal achievements in Africa were a law declaring Indian (rather than only Christian) marriages valid, and the end of a tax on former indentured (bound to work and unable to leave for a specific period of time) 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 (1861–1941). This title means "great soul." Gandhi knew how to reach the masses and insisted on their resistance and spiritual growth. He spoke of a new, free Indian individual, telling Indians that India's cages were self-made.

Disobedience and return to old values

The repressive Rowlatt Acts of 1919 (a set of laws that allowed the government to try people accused of political crimes without a jury) caused Gandhi to call a general hartal, or strike (when workers refuse to work in order to obtain rights from their employers), throughout the country. But he called it off when violence occurred against Englishmen. Following the Amritsar Massacre of some four hundred Indians, Gandhi responded by not cooperating with British courts, stores, and schools. The government agreed to make reforms.

Gandhi began urging Indians to make their own clothing rather than buy British goods. This would create employment for millions of Indian peasants during the many idle months of the year. He cherished the ideal of economic independence for each village. He identified industrialization (increased use of machines) with materialism (desire for wealth) and felt that it stunted man's growth. Gandhi believed that the individual should be placed ahead of economic productivity.

In 1921 the Congress Party, a group of various nationalist (love of one's own nation and cultural identity) groups, again voted for a nonviolent disobedience campaign. Gandhi had come to realize that India's reliance on Britain had made India more helpless than ever. In 1922 Gandhi was tried and sentenced to six years in prison, but he was released two years later for an emergency appendectomy (surgery to remove an inflamed appendix). This was the last time the British government tried Gandhi.

Fasting and the protest march

One technique Gandhi used frequently was the fast. He firmly believed that Hindu-Muslim unity was natural and he undertook a twenty-one-day fast to bring the two communities together. He also fasted during a strike of mill workers in Ahmedabad. Another technique he developed was the protest march. In response to a British tax on all salt used by Indians, a severe hardship on the peasants, Gandhi began his famous twenty-four-day "salt march" to the sea. Several thousand marchers walked 241 miles to the coast in protest of the unfair law.

Another cause Gandhi supported was improving the status of members of the lower castes, or Harijans. On September 20, 1932, Gandhi began a fast for the Harijans, opposing a British plan for a separate voting body for them. As a result of Gandhi's fast, some temples were opened to exterior castes for the first time in history.

Gandhi devoted the years 1934 through 1939 to the promotion of making fabric, basic education, and making Hindi the national language. During these years he worked closely with Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) in the Congress Working Committee. Despite differences of opinion, Gandhi designated Nehru his successor, saying, "I know this, that when I am gone he will speak my language."

World War II and beyond

England's entry into World War II (1939–45; when the United States, France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union fought against Germany, Italy, and Japan) brought India in without its consent. Because Britain had made no political compromises satisfactory to nationalist leaders, in August 1942 Gandhi proposed not to help in the war effort. Gandhi, Nehru, and other Congress Party leaders were imprisoned, touching off violence throughout India. When the British attempted to place the blame on Gandhi, he fasted for three weeks in jail. He contracted malaria (a potentially fatal disease spread by mosquitoes) in prison and was released on May 6, 1944.

When Gandhi emerged from prison, he sought to stop the creation of a separate Muslim state of Pakistan, which Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876–1948) was demanding. Jinnah declared August 16, 1946, a "Direct Action Day." On that day, and for several days following, communal killings left five thousand dead and fifteen thousand wounded in Calcutta alone. Violence spread through the country.

Extremely upset, 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 forty-five hundred more people were killed in Bihar. Gandhi, now seventy-seven, warned that he would fast to death unless Biharis reformed. Either Hindus and Muslims 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 (1900–1979), arrived in India with instructions to take Britain out of India by June 1948. The Congress Party by this time had agreed to separation, 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 August 15, 1947. On September 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 Muslim leaders promised that there would be no more killings, and Gandhi ended his fast.

On January 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 thirty-five-year-old editor of a Hindu Mahasabha extremist newspaper in Poona.

Indian political and spiritual leader, called Mahatma ("Great Soul"). Gandhi helped India's struggle for independence from Britain through a campaign based on nonviolence and civil disobedience. His doctrine of nonviolent action had a profound influence on Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the civil rights movement in the U.S, and Nelson Mandela, the most prominent figure of the black opposition to apartheid in South Africa. However, Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize.

"Nonviolence and truth (Satya) are inseparable and presupposes one another. There is no god higher than truth." (from True Patriotism: Some Sayings of Mahatma Gandhi, 1939, ed. by S. Hobhouse)

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in Poorbandar, Kathiawar, on the western coast of India. For several generations, the Gadhi's had been Prime Ministers in several Kathiawald States. Karamchand Gandhi, his father was the chief minister of Porbandar and a member of the Rajasthanik Court. He married four times. Putlibai, his last wife and Gandhi's mother, was a deeply religious Hindu. When Gandhi was sixteen, his father died  four years later he lost his mother. "The outstanding impression my mother has left on my memory is that of saintliness," Gandhi later wrote in his book of memoir, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth (1927-29).

Gandhi was married at the age of 13, as was not unusual by the custom. Officially he was betrothed three times, but his first two fiancees died. Gandhi's third bride, Kasturba Makanji, also 13, was the only daughter of rich merchants. Kasturba and Gandhi had four sons; their first child was born in 1885, but died after a few days. Kasturba could not read or write and Gandhi's attempts to teach her were fruitless. Although she often had to submit to her husband's decisions, she also had a will of her own. The marriage endured until her death in 1944.

In 1888 Gandhi went to London to study law, leaving his wife for three years. While learning the law, he set to the task of making himself an English gentleman. He was told it was necessary for him to take lessons in dancing, French and elocution. In the new surrounding Gandhi also began experiments with diet that continued throughout his lifetime. After he was called to the bar at Inner Temple, he returned home to practice as a barrister in Bombay. Unable to find a suitable post, Gandhi moved to South Africa in 1893. During his journey to Pretoria he had a firsthand experience with racist degradation, a most crucial experience in his formative years. Gandhi worked for Dada Abdullah & Co and the Indian community. Kasturba had again waited with the children in India, but in 1897 she joined her husband in Durban. Gandhi gained fame as a tenacious political campaigner, who courageously opposed the Transvaal government's discriminatory legislation against Indian settlers. His ideological basis was much derived from the liberal-humanist values he had absorbed in England, exemplified in the works of Ruskin, Thoreau, and Emerson.

Gandhi remained in South Africa for 20 years and developed a system of non-violent defiance. During the Boer War (1899-1902) he organized an Indian Ambulance Corps to assist the British, wrote freelance field reports, and also contributed to Dadabhai Naroroji's India. For his services he was awarded the War Medal. In the Transvaal, he established the Phoenix Farm settlement, an attempt at communal living along the lines of Leo Tolstoy's estate at Yasnaya Polyana. Indian Opinion, a weekly from Durban originally launched by two of Gandhi's friends in 1903, became a medium for his thoughts.

After the birth of their fourth son, Gandhi suggested to his wife that they sleep in separate beds. Gandhi's one-sided decision and sexual abstinence caused Kasturbai for a long time much stress. In search for spiritual development Gandhi studied the Bible, the Koran, and memorized the Bhagavad Gita. Also Leo Tolstoy influenced him deeply. Gandhi saw that his methods were in harmony with Hindu doctrines of ahimsa and that "the strongest physical force bends before moral force when it is used in the defense of truth." In his middle thirties, Gandhi took the vow of bramahcharya, which means not only complete chastity but the elimination of sexual desire. To test his self-control Gandhi slept naked with young women. On his return trip from England to South Africa, he composedHind swaraj, an updated glimpse of dharma, on the stationery of RMS Kildonian Castle. This product of feverish writing, which first appeared in two instalments in Indian Opinion, has remained a key to the understanding of Gandhi's political philosophy.

Written in a the form of a dialogue between an Editor and Reader, and addressing a mixed audience, Gandhi attempted to convince his readers, that to drive out the English from India by modern methods of violence was a suicidal policy and that "modern civilization" was a greater threat than colonialism. When the text was published in book form in 1910, under the title Indian Home Rule, by Gandhi's own International Printing Press in South Africa, it was banned for security reasons. The South African ban lasted almost thirty years. The first Indian edition was published by Ganesh and Co. in 1919, with a new foreword and a 'Note' by C. Rajagopalachari. An American edition came out under the title Sermon on the Sea in 1924.

Most of Gandhi's writing between Hind Swaraj and Satyagraha in South Africa (1924-25) took the form of journalism. In 1914 he returned permanently to India. His most prominent adversary, Gen. Jan Smuts, wrote to a friend reliefed: "The saint has left our shores, I hope, forever." Gandhi became a highly influential figure in the National Congress, transforming it into an instrument of change. Following the massacre at Amritsar in 1919, in which British soldiers killed hundreds of Indians, Gandhi launched a policy of non-violent non-co-operation to secure swaraj (independence) from Britain. This process made Gandhi a gurulike figure. Resistance methods included strikes, refusal to pay taxes, abandonment of western for Indian dress, and refusal to respect colonial law. "One step enough for me," Gandhi often said without planning his actions far ahead.

Gandhi himself adopted a simple, ascetic way of life, dressing only in a loincloth of handwoven cloth and sandals. He was jailed several times and went on hunger strikes to focus attention on his cause. The bulk of his autobiography, Satayana Prayogo Athava Atmakatha, he dictated in Gujarati while in Yeravada Jail in 1923-24. It was published serially in Navajivan and Young India and translated into English by Mahadev Desai, a lawyer and man of letters, who had joined Gandhi in 1917 and served as his secretary and diarist. Through the English translation, it has been the most widely read Gujarati book all over the world.

When communal riots started on India's northwest frontier in 1924, Gandhi undertook a 21-day purificatory fast. After he had walked some 200 miles on foot to the sea to collect salt illegally, he was arrested at Surat and charged for planning to seize the Government salt depots. As a result of the international attention to the case, the Viceroy began to relieve the punitive salt taxes and the government monopoly.

"We may read the Gita or the Ramayana or Hind Swaraj", Gandhi said. "But what we have to learn from them is desire for the welfare of others." Gandhi also strove to raise the status of untouchables, the caste whom everybody avoided. He gave them the name harijan, or "children of God", and founded the weekly paper Harijan, which was published in English and Hindi. In an attempt to persuade the orthodox Hindus to wipe out the "blight of untouchability", Gandhi undertook fast in the summer of 1933 for three weeks. In order to promote village self-sufficiency, Gandhi popularized handspinning and made know khadi, hand-spun cloth, the "livery of freedom." However, Gandhi's rejection of the Industrial Revolution wasn't supported by some his most close fiends, among them Jawaharlal Nehru.

"I am not built for academic writings. Action is my domain."

In 1936 Gandhi moved his headquarters from Sabarmati to Sevagram, a village near Wardha, which became a center to test his ideas. His eldest son Harilal turned into Islam in 1936 and changed his name to Abdullah Gandhi. During World War II Gandhi's struggle for India's independence and satyagraha (defence of and by truth) became a threat to the war effort of the Allies. Gandhi argued that India should remain passive and neutral in the world conflict. On May 10, 1942, Gandhi wrote in his newspaper: "The presence of the British in India is an invitation to Japan to invade India. Their withdrawal would remove the bait. Assume however that it does not, Free India would be better able to cope with invasion. Unadulterated non-co-operation would then have full sway." Gandhi was arrested with Nehru and other Congress leaders, and interned in Aga Khan’s Palace at Poona. At the age of 73, Gandhi began another fast. Winston Churchill, Britain's prime minister, who had earlier called Gandhi a "seditious fakir", suspected that Gandhi was fed glucose whenever he drank water: "... and this, as well as his intense vitality and lifelong austerity, enabled this frail being to maintain his prolonged abstention from any visible form of food. Nearly all the Indian members of the Viceroy's Executive Council demanded his release, and resigned in protest at our refusal. In the end, being quite convinced of our obduracy, he abandoned his fast and his health, though he was very weak, was not seriously affected." (from The Second World War, vol. 4., by Winston Churchill, 1951). Gandhi was released from custody unconditionally in the spring of 1944.

Kasturba died at the palace of Aga Khan in 1944. Before her death, Harilal, the eldest son, had appreared drunk in the palace, and was chased away. Gandhi saw India gain independence in 1947. However, he had to witness deploring the formation of two new nations  and savage fighting. His illusion that India would gain indepencence by nonviolent means was shattered. "Who listens to me today?" Gandhi said, and did not remain in New Delhi to celebrate India's freedom on the Fifteenth of August.

Gandhi's last months were shadowed by communal strife between Hindu and Muslim. When he walked barefoot through the scorched villages in East Bengal, locals strewed shattered glass on his path. Gandhi pleaded for amicable settlement between India and Pakistan, but on January 30, 1948, he was assassinated in Delhi on his way to an evening prayer. A young Hindu Brahmin, named Nathuram Godse, viewed Gandhi's acceptance of partition as a betrayal of the Hindu population, and fired three shots point-blank. Gandhi had not allowed police to search people near him. Godse believed that the prayer and the purity of the mind were signs of superstitions and without the "father of the nation" India would free to follow the course founded on reason.

"Even Gandhi, with all his charisma, did not melt the hearts of his oppressors, as he had hoped. After softening, hearts harden again. Asoka too was wrong to think that he was changing the course of history, and that his righteousness woul last 'as long as the sun and the moon'." ( Theodore Zeldin in An Intimate History of Humanity, 1994)

Gandhi has been criticized for his nostalgia for ancient rural bliss and delaying the modernization and industrialization of his country. On the other hand, he has been regarded as the "true soul" of India. With other Hindu sages Gandhi shared a mistrust of worshipping followers, and he tried to avoid the title mahatma. In spite of this, his disciplines regarded him as a saint. Gandhi's denial of the pleasures of food, sex, family, and friendship, has made his way of life extremely demanding for ordinary people, who otherwise have found inspiration from his courage and teachings. This question troubled George Orwell in his essay 'Reflections on Gandhi' (1949). While admitting that Gandhi never made claims of sainthood, he did not hesitate to reject sainthood as an ideal: "The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals." Joseph Lelyveld, a formed editor of the New York Times, tells in Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India (2011), that Gandi left his wife for a long time to be with a German-Jewish architecht and weightlifter named Hermann Kallenbach, and he had a racist attitude towards Africans. Lelyveld's book was banned in part of India.

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