Mahatma Gandhi Biography

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(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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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.

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...

(The entire section is 2,170 words.)