Mahatma Gandhi

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2170

Article abstract: Gandhi, as one of the main figures of the Indian independence movement, pioneered the use of nonviolent protest; the strategies and tactics he employed have been adapted by many groups struggling to achieve justice, including the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Gandhi also worked to reform traditional Indian society, speaking out for women’s rights and for the group known as the untouchables.

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Early Life

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was the fourth child of the prime minister of the tiny city-state of Porbandar, about halfway between the major cities of Bombay and Karachi. Gandhi received the normal education for a boy of his family’s position. His family married him at age thirteen to a girl from another locally important family; Kasturba would remain his wife until her death in 1944. After the death of Gandhi’s father in 1885, the extended family decided that Mohandas should go to Great Britain and study law, with the hope that he might enter the civil service of local Indian princes.

Gandhi finally left for Great Britain in 1888. He did not study very hard and apparently spent much of his time trying to maintain a strict vegetarian diet (the start of a lifetime interest in diet) and studying comparative religion, including his first serious research into his own Hindu culture.

Gandhi returned to India in 1891 to open a legal practice. For a variety of reasons, especially Gandhi’s own shyness and diffidence, the practice was a failure, first in his native region and then in Bombay. In 1893, a case required him to go to South Africa. He ended up staying, with only a few short trips back to India and Great Britain, until 1914.

On the train from the port to Pretoria that first evening, Gandhi was literally kicked off for trying to sit in the first-class compartment when a white passenger objected to his presence. This event catalyzed Gandhi’s energies. A week later, overcoming his shyness, he began speaking at meetings, and then started organizing his own. At first, his goal was to protect Indian workers and traders in South Africa and then to expand their rights. Because there were Indians from all over the Indian Empire working together in South Africa, news of Gandhi’s work was sent back throughout the subcontinent. When he left in 1914, Gandhi was already one of the best-known Indians alive.

Life’s Work

When Gandhi returned to India to stay, he found himself already being proclaimed a mahatma, a term in the Hindu religion meaning “great soul”; some went even further, believing him to be a reincarnation of Vishnu. More practically, Gandhi became one of the leaders of the Indian independence movement. From the 1920’s through the early 1930’s, he was the movement’s leading planner, and throughout the interwar period he served as a bridge between rival religious factions, the various Hindu castes, the growing Westernized upper-middle class, and the masses working in the fields.

While in South Africa, Gandhi had developed his philosophy of nonviolent protest, which he called satyagraha (soul force). In India, he brought that vision to fruition. At times he might organize a section of the country to hold a general work stoppage or bring the entire Indian Empire to a halt as he fasted for an end to the terrible conditions of the so-called untouchables, rioting, or other problems besetting the country as a whole. In short, Gandhi evolved from an important political and cultural leader to the conscience of the Indian Empire and all of its people.

It was Gandhi’s belief that satyagraha was the only way to win independence from Britain honorably, for if a free India was born in violence, it might never recover. Therefore, Gandhi had to spend almost as much time establishing, and then maintaining, as strict a control over his own people as was possible as he did in winning independence from the British. The first was harder than the second, since the British could use the internal quarrels of the various Indian groups as an excuse to keep ultimate power in their own hands, no matter what reforms they might offer. Therefore, as the 1930’s ended, the independence movement had not really come much closer to its goal after two decades of struggle. Gandhi had staged impressive demonstrations such as the march to protest the Salt Tax in March and April of 1930, started numerous publications, written scores of articles, unified the various factions, and won concessions from the British after some bloody riots and reprisals, but India was not independent.

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Gandhi also had trouble keeping control of day-to-day events, in part because of the sheer scope of the unrest affecting the huge subcontinent, but also because of the amount of time he spent in prison. Between 1922 and 1944, Gandhi spent nearly six years (2,089 days) in jail, mostly during the 1930’s and in the latter part of World War II.

World War II would prove decisive for the fate of India. While Gandhi and his followers preferred the British and the Americans to the Nazis and Japanese, for the most part they refused to cooperate with the Allies unless India was given its independence. Gandhi and many of his closest followers spent most of the war in custody. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Moslem League and a former follower of Gandhi, used the war to make the Moslem League independent of Gandhi and the Indian National Congress (the umbrella organization for most of the pro-independence organizations). By backing the Allies when most Indian groups refused, Jinnah was setting the stage to proclaim a separate Moslem state whenever India was granted independence.

When World War II was over, the Labour Party under Clement Attlee came to power in Great Britain. One of their goals was to establish the Indian Empire as an independent dominion within the British Commonwealth. The divisions that Gandhi had managed to unite within the Indian independence movement now came forward as the probability of independence came closer. Gandhi was committed to a united India, but the Moslems, the rulers of most of Northern India before the British came but an overall minority, were inspired by Jinnah to seek a separate country for those areas with a Moslem majority. Although the British offered a plan for a confederated India that might have satisfied Moslem demands while maintaining a united Indian government, few of the Indian leaders of either side, including Gandhi, were willing to trust the British plan in 1946. The result was an India divided on religious lines, India and Pakistan becoming independent dominions in 1947.

When a divided India became inevitable, Gandhi basically kept silent on the plan, devoting the rest of his life to quelling the religious unrest which welled up in 1947 and 1948, as Moslems and non-Moslems (many of them unwillingly) left their homes and made their way to areas where they would be in the majority. Hundreds of thousands of people died from violence, disease, and malnutrition during the riots and forced marches and in the relocation camps. Gandhi made his way to some of the worst scenes of conflict, pleading, arguing, and fasting to bring the violence to an end. Although he nearly died from the fasting and was often threatened by mobs, he was finally able to bring the worst of the violence to an end by the beginning of 1948. Religious and ethnic tensions remained, but there was, in general, peace between Hindus, Sikhs, Moslems, and the other groups.

On January 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse, a thirty-five-year-old high-caste Hindu newspaper editor and a refugee from Moslem violence, bowed in respect before Gandhi, who was on his way to a prayer meeting, and shot him three times, killing him almost instantly. This was the only way Godse and his fellow conspirators could deal with Gandhi’s message of peace for all Indians.


Mahatma Gandhi was not fully successful in his work in South Africa. When he left, Indians were treated as second-class citizens, looked down on by the whites who controlled the country. They were, however, treated as citizens with some rights, a vast improvement over the system that had been slowly taking hold since the late 1880’s, which was tantamount to slavery. More important, Gandhi had found his life’s work and had won respect for himself and his ideals of nonviolence.

Gandhi also failed in much of what he tried to accomplish for India. While he was able to modify the caste system and many of the social taboos which went with it, they were still in effect in much of the country as the twentieth century drew to a close. While he succeeded in freeing India from British rule, the Indian Empire was split between India and Pakistan (as Pakistan itself was later split between Pakistan and Bangladesh), and religious and class strife is still rampant throughout the former Indian Empire. The small, self-sufficient, self-governing villages that Gandhi hoped would be the center of Indian cultural and political life remain largely a dream in an India troubled by chronic poverty and political unrest. Gandhi nevertheless succeeded in giving the people of the subcontinent an example of the best their culture had to offer, in promoting an ideal that they—and people throughout the world—could strive to achieve.


Datta, Dhirendra Mohan. The Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1953. Datta traces Gandhi’s basic philosophical ideals to their Indian and European roots in traditional philosophy and religion. He accomplishes this concisely and in easily understood terms. Datta was one of the many students who followed Gandhi’s call to go and teach in the villages during the early 1920’s before returning to higher academics and so was able to study the practical results of Gandhi’s message as well as the abstract principles.

Fischer, Louis. Gandhi: His Life and Message for the World. New York: New American Library, 1954. A concise, readily available biography, written by a foreign correspondent who interviewed Gandhi twice in the 1940’s. Fischer presents not only a full view of Gandhi’s life, but the early myths and criticisms as well.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. All Men Are Brothers: Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as Told in His Own Words. Paris: UNESCO, 1958. This selection of Gandhi’s writings and speeches covers topics in politics, economics, education, and religion.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. An Autobiography. Translated by Mahadev Desai. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957. Written by Gandhi during the late 1920’s in his native language, Gujarati, this autobiography was quickly translated into English to reach a wider audience in India as well as the British Empire. Much of the work concerns Gandhi’s years in South Africa, although earlier recollections and the first years after his return to India are covered as well.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. Gandhi’s Letters to a Disciple. London: Victor Gollancz, 1950. Madeleine Slade, known as Mira, the daughter of a British admiral, became one of Gandhi’s most famous disciples in the early 1920’s. In effect, Mira became a spiritual daughter of Gandhi, whom she called Bapu (father), like most of the common people in India. When she and Gandhi were separated, usually when Gandhi was traveling or in prison, they would exchange letters. The letters rarely touch on the major political and social battles of the times; instead, they focus on everyday events in the lives of the people surrounding Gandhi.

Huttenback, Robert A. Gandhi in South Africa. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971. This is a detailed monograph on Gandhi’s years in South Africa. Huttenback traces the origins of the problems Gandhi faced and details the solutions, and attempted solutions, for which Gandhi worked.

Iyer, Raghavan. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. In this highly detailed work, Raghavan explores the conceptual foundations of Gandhi’s religious, moral, and political ideologies and their interconnections. He is also interested in showing how much deeper Gandhi’s philosophy was than the applications of most of his followers (especially his political followers) might suggest.

Nehru, Jawaharlal. Nehru on Gandhi. New York: John Day, 1948. Nehru became Gandhi’s political heir in the late 1930’s, even though the two men often differed on means to achieve Indian independence. Nehru became the first leader of independent India, and, with his daughter and grandson, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, established a politically powerful dynasty over the next generations. This work, which contains Nehru’s opinions and writings on his mentor, drawn from a wide range of sources, helps to show the connections between two of the most powerful voices of twentieth century India.

Prasad, Bimal. Gandhi, Nehru, and J. P.: Studies in Leadership. Delhi: Chanakya, 1985. Prasad’s work studies political and social leaders in three successive generations, starting with Gandhi and ending with Jayaprakash Narayan (popularly known as J. P., 1902-1979). The author traces Gandhi’s influences on the other two and the ways in which they interpreted, changed, and added to Gandhi’s message over time. This study provides a valuable perspective on Gandhi’s legacy.

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