Why Was Mohandas Gandhi Called "Mahatma"?

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Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) was called Mahatma (meaning "great-souled") by the common people who viewed him as India's national and spiritual leader. He is considered the father of his country. Born in India on October 2, 1869, Gandhi studied law in Britain as a young man. After practicing briefly in India, he traveled to British-controlled South Africa on business. When he observed oppressive treatment of Indian immigrants (people who move from one country and settle in another) there, he held his first campaign of passive resistance (protest through peaceful noncooperation). Gandhi would later become very well known for this method of protest, called satyagraha (meaning "firmness in truth").

Returning to India in 1915, Gandhi organized a movement against the British government. Britain had taken control of India during the 1700s and had remained in power. After World War I (1914–18), Indian nationalists (those who are committed to their nation) fought a long and sometimes bitter struggle for political independence. While Gandhi's protests took the form of nonviolent campaigns of civil disobedience, such as boycotts and fasts (hunger strikes), he was arrested several times for causing disorder. Although he did not encourage such behavior, his actions had inspired some of his followers to protest with rioting.

As a member and, later, the president of the Indian National Congress, India's chief political party, Gandhi led a fight to rid the country of its rigid caste system, which organizes Indian society into distinct classes and groups. In Gandhi's time, not only were there four varna, or social classes, but there was a fifth group, the "untouchables," who ranked below the lowest class of peasants and laborers. Improving conditions for the untouchables was of extreme importance to Gandhi, who by this time had abandoned Western ways in favor of a life of simplicity. Beginning in 1937, Gandhi became less active in government, but he was still considered a leader of the independence movement. During World War II (1939–45) he was arrested for demanding British withdrawal from the conflict. Released from prison in 1944, Gandhi was central to the postwar negotiations that in 1947 resulted in an independent India. In 1948 he was on a prayer vigil in New Delhi when he was fatally shot by a Hindu fanatic during a clash between Hindus (members of an Indian religious faith) and Muslims (followers of the Islamic religion).

Further Information: Chadha, Yogesh. Gandhi: A Life. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999; Mahatma Gandhi. [Online] Available http://www.mkgandhi-sarvodaya.org/, October 26, 2000; Mitchell Pratima. Gandhi: The Father of Modern India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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