Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand

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Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand

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).

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