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Mahatma Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
"Father of the nation"Subash Chandra Bose
Born October 2, 1869
Porbandar, Gujarat, India
Died January 30, 1948
New Delhi, India

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (October 2, 1869January 30, 1948), मोहनदास करमचन्द गांधी in Devanagari, or Mahatma Gandhi (as he is called popularly, and by those seeking to show reverence) was the theorist and charismatic mass-movement leader who brought the cause of independence for British colonial India to world attention. His ideas, especially the satyagraha model of non-violent protest, have influenced both nationalist and internal movements throughout the world.

By means of a hunger strike, Gandhi helped bring about India's independence from British rule, inspiring other colonial peoples to work for their own independence and ultimately dismantle the British Empire and replace it with the Commonwealth. Gandhi's principle of satyagraha ('"truth force"), often roughly translated as "way of truth" or "pursuit of truth," has inspired generations of democratic and anti-racist activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. He often stated his values were simple, drawn from traditional Hindu beliefs: truth (satya), and non-violence (ahimsa).


Early life

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born into a Hindu family on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, Gujarat, India. He was the son of Karamchand Gandhi, the dewan (Chief Minister) of Porbander, and Putlibai, Karamchand's fourth wife. They were descendants of traders (The word "Gandhi" means grocer). At the age of 13 Gandhi married Kasturbai, who was of his same age. They had four children, all sons: Harilal Gandhi, born in 1888; Manilal Gandhi, born in 1892; Ramdas Gandhi, born in 1897; and Devdas Gandhi, born in 1900.

At the age of 19, Gandhi went to University College, in the University of London to train as a barrister. He returned to India after being admitted to the British bar. In India he tried very hard to establish a law practice in Mumbai, though he had diminutive success. Two years later an Indian firm sent Gandhi to South Africa. Gandhi was dismayed to see the prevalent denial of civil liberties and political rights to Indian immigrants and began protesting and lobbying against legal and racial discrimination against Indians in South Africa. One of the most cited incidents of his initial days in South Africa was the one in which he was physically thrown off a train in Pietermaritzburg, after refusing to move to the third class coach, while travelling on a first class ticket. Gandhi was arrested on November 6, 1913 while leading a march of Indian miners in South Africa.

Gandhi drew inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita and the writings of Leo Tolstoy, who in the 1880s had undergone a profound conversion to a personal form of Christian anarchism. Gandhi translated Tolstoy's "Letter to a Hindu" [1] which was written in 1908 in response to aggressive Indian nationalists, and the two corresponded until Tolstoy's death in 1910. The letter by Tolstoy uses Hindu philosophy taken from the Vedas and sayings of the Hindu God Krishna to present his view of that state of growing Indian nationalism. Additionally, Gandhi was inspired by the American writer Henry David Thoreau's famous essay on “Civil Disobedience."

During World War I, Gandhi returned to India, where he campaigned for Indians to join the British Indian Army.

Movement for Indian independence

After the war, he became involved with the Indian National Congress and the movement for independence. He gained worldwide publicity through his policy of non-cooperation and the use of fasting as a form of protest, and was repeatedly imprisoned by the British authorities (for example on March 18, 1922 he was sentenced to six years in prison for civil disobedience but served only 2 years).

Gandhi's other successful strategies for the independence movement included swadeshi policy – the boycott of foreign-made goods, especially British goods. Linked to this was his advocacy that all Indians should wear khadi – homespun cloth, instead of relying on British-made textiles. Gandhi advocated that Indian women, rich or poor, should spend time each day spinning khadi in support of the independence movement. This was a strategy to include women in the independence movement at a time when many thought that such activities were not 'respectable' for women to engage in.

His pro-independence stance hardened after the Amritsar Massacre in 1919.

One of his most striking actions was the salt march known as the Dandi March, that started on March 12, 1930 and ended on April 5, when he led thousands of people to the sea to collect their own salt rather than pay the salt tax.

In 1931, he made a visit to England, including a trip to Birmingham.

On May 8, 1933 Gandhi began a fast that would last 21 days to protest British oppression in India. In Bombay, on March 3, 1939 Gandhi fasted again in protest of the autocratic rule in India.

Mohandas Gandhi helped Jawaharlal Nehru to become Prime Minister over the overwhelming support Sardar Patel commanded for the post. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel won nine of the fifteen provincial councils who voted for Sardar Patel to become the first Prime Minister of India. However, on Gandhi's request, Sardar Patel relinquished the post to placate Nehru's aspirations.

World War II

World War II broke out in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Though Gandhi was fully sympathetic with the victims of fascist aggression, he after great deliberations with the colleagues in the Congress, declared that India could not be party to a war which was ostensibly being fought for democratic freedom while that freedom was being denied to India itself. He proclaimed to be with the British if they could show him how the war aims would be implemented in India after the end of the war. The British government's response was entirely negative and they even tried to create a rift between Hindus and Muslims in the country. Gandhi became even more vocal in his demand for independence during World War II, drafting a resolution calling for the British to Quit India, which soon sparked the largest movement for Indian independence ever, with mass arrests and violence on an unprecedented scale. Gandhi and his supporters made clear that they would not support the war effort unless India was granted immediate independence. During this time, he even hinted an end for his otherwise unwavering support of non-violence, saying that the 'ordered anarchy' around him was 'worse than real anarchy'. He was then arrested in Bombay by British forces on August 9, 1942 and was held for two years.

Partition of India and assassination

Gandhi had great influence among the Hindu and Muslim communities of India. It is said that he ended communal riots through his mere presence. Gandhi was vehemently opposed to any plan which partitioned India into two separate countries. Nevertheless, the plan was eventually adopted, creating a secular but Hindu-majority India and an Islamic Pakistan. On the day of the power transfer, Gandhi did not celebrate independence with the rest of India, but mourned partition alone in Calcutta instead.

He was assassinated in Birla house , New Delhi on January 30, 1948 by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu radical who held him responsible for weakening the new government by insisting on a payment to Pakistan. Before shooting Gandhi, Godse bowed before him three times. Godse was later tried, convicted, and executed.

It is indicative of Gandhi's long struggle and search for God that his dying words were a popular two-word mantra to the Hindu conception of God as Rama: "Hai Ram!" It is seen as an inspiring signal of his spirituality as well as his idealism regarding the possibility of unificatory peace. While there are some who are sceptical about this, the vast majority of evidence and witnesses, as well as popular opinion, support this utterance as truly having occurred. (External links)


Gandhi's philosophies and his ideas of satya and ahimsa had been influenced by the Bhagavad Gita and Hindu beliefs as well as practiced Jain religion. The concept of 'non-violence' (ahimsa) was a long-standing one in Indian religious thought and saw many revivals with Hindu, Buddhist and Jain contexts. Gandhi explains his philosophy and way of life in his autobiography The Story of my Experiments with Truth.

He was a strict vegetarian and had written books on the subject while studying law in London (where he met vegetarian campaigner Henry Salt at meetings of the Vegetarian Society). It might be added that the idea of vegetarianism was a deeply ingrained one in Hindu and Jain society in India, and that in his native land of Gujarat most Hindus were vegetarian. He experimented with different diets and believed that a diet should be enough to satisfy the minimum requirements of the body. He also abstained from taking food for periods of time, and he used this practice of fasting also as a political weapon.

Gandhi gave up sexual intercourse at the age of 36 and became totally celibate while still married, a course deeply influenced by the Hindu idea of brahmacharya, or spiritual and practical purity, largely associated with celibacy.

Gandhi spent a day of the week in silence. He would abstain from speaking and he believed it brought him inner peace. These were drawn from such Hindu understandings of the power of 'mouna ' and 'shanti '. On such days he communicated with others by writing on paper. For three and a half years, from the age of 37, Gandhi refused to read any newpapers, claiming that the tumultous state of world affairs caused him more confusion than his own inner unrest.

After returning to India from a successful lawyer career in South Africa, he gave up his clothing that represented wealth and success. His idea was to adopt a kind of clothing whereby he can be accepted by even the poorest person in India. He advocated use of home-spun cloth (khadi). Gandhi and his followers followed the practice of weaving their own cloth using a spinning-wheel and wearing a dress made of that. He also advocated others use spinning wheels to spin clothes. This was a threat to the British establishment – while Indian workers were often idle due to unemployment, they bought their clothing from foreign English industrial manufacturers – if Indians spun their own clothes, this would leave British industry idle. The spinning wheel was later incorporated into the flag of the Indian National Congress.

Gandhi was against conventional education as taught in schools and believed that children learn best from parents and from the society. While in South Africa, Gandhi along with other elders formed a group of teachers and directly imparted education to the children.

The honorific title Mahatma

The word "mahatma", while widely mistaken for Gandhi's given name, is a Sanskrit term of reverence that literally means "great soul".

The wide acceptance of its use, outside India, may in part reflect complexities, during his life, of the relationship between India and Britain. In any case, that acceptance is fairly consistent with widespread perception of Gandhi as having been deeply committed to non-violence and his religious beliefs.

Artistic depictions

The most famous artistic depiction of his life is the film Gandhi, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Ben Kingsley (interestingly, himself half-Gujarati) in the title role. Another film that deals with Gandhi's 21 years of life in South Africa is The Making of the Mahatma directed by Shyam Benegal and starring Rajat Kapur .

In the United Kingdom, there are several prominent statues of Gandhi, most notably in Tavistock Gardens , London, near to UCL where he studied law.

In the United States, there are statues of Gandhi outside the Ferry Building in San Francisco, in Union Square Park in New York City, and near the Indian Embassy in the Dupont Circle neighbourhood of Washington, DC.

There are statues in honour of Gandhi in other cities such as Paris, Amsterdam and Lisbon.

Nobel Peace Prize nominations

Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize, though he was nominated five times for the same between 1937 and 1948. Decades later however, the omission was publicly regretted by the Nobel Committee. When the Dalai Lama was awarded the Peace Prize in 1989, the chairman of the committee said that this was "in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi".

The official Nobel e-museum has an article discussing the issue. [2]

Throughout his lifetime, Gandhi's activities attracted a wide range of comment and opinion. For example, as a subject of the British Empire, Winston Churchill once referred to Gandhi as "nauseating" and as a "half-naked fakir". Conversely, Albert Einstein said of Gandhi: "Generations to come, it may be, will scarcely believe that such a one, as this, ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth."


Mahatma's Gandhi's work is not forgotten by his future generations. His grandsons, Arun Gandhi and Rajmohan Gandhi and even his great grandson, Tushar Gandhi , are also socio-political activists, who are continuously promoting non-violence to the world.



  • "An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind."
  • "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."
  • "Why change the world when we can change ourselves?"
  • "If love or non-violence be not the law of our being, the whole of my argument falls to pieces." - [GONV, p. 25. (I-121.)]
  • "It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become non-violent. There is no such hope for the impotent." - [GONV, p. 37. (I-240.)]
  • On being asked what he thought about Western Civilization: " I think it would be a good idea."
  • "Hinduism as I know it entirely satisfies my soul, fills my whole being … When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita, and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of tragedies and if they have not left any visible and indelible effect on me, I owe it to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita."

[Sources: GONV means Gandhi on Non-Violence: A Selection from the Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, edited by Thomas Merton, (NY: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1965].

See also

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about Mahatma Gandhi
  • The GandhiServe Foundation – Mahatma Gandhi Research and Media Service
  • Top 100 photographs of Mahatma Gandhi
  • The Official Mahatma Gandhi eArchive & Reference Library
  • Mahatma Gandhi and the Corea Family of Chilaw Mahatma Gandhi's visit to Ceylon in 1927
  • Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya Gandhi Museum & Library Mani Bhavan is the place where Gandhi stayed whenever he was in Mumbai between 1917 and 1934. It was from here that Gandhi initiated his Civil Disobedience, Swadeshi, Khadi and Khilafat movements.
  • The Gandhi Nobody Knows Critical Review of the movie 'Gandhi', which eventually became a biography of the Indian leader.
  • Hey Ram: The Politics of Gandhi's Last Words : Critical review of Hey Ram – whether Gandhi really said those words or not.
  • The Gandhi Foundation
  • Myths and Legends - Gandhi
  • Gandhi - 'Mahatma' or Flawed Genius? National Leader or Manipulative Politician?

Last updated: 02-07-2005 13:09:25
Last updated: 02-19-2005 10:56:32