Mahatma Gandhi: Life, Beliefs, and Death of a Famous Spiritual and Political Leader

Mahatma Gandhi, also known as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was a prominent figure in India’s struggle for independence from British rule. His approach to non-violent protest and civil disobedience became a beacon for peaceful movements worldwide.

Gandhi’s beliefs in simplicity, non-violence, and truth had a profound impact on the world, influencing other leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

Early Life and Education

Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, a coastal town in western India. He was the youngest child of Karamchand Gandhi, the dewan (chief minister) of Porbandar, and his fourth wife, Putlibai. Coming from a Hindu family, young Gandhi was deeply influenced by the stories of the Hindu god Vishnu and the values of truthfulness, non-violence, and self-discipline. His mother, a devout Hindu, played a crucial role in shaping his character, instilling in him the principles of fasting, vegetarianism, and mutual tolerance among people of different religions.

READ MORE: The 10 Most Important Hindu Gods and Goddesses

Gandhi’s early education took place locally, where he showed an average academic performance. At the age of 13, Gandhi entered into an arranged marriage with Kasturba Makhanji in accordance with the custom of the region. In 1888, Gandhi traveled to London to study law at the Inner Temple, one of the Inns of Court in London. This journey was not just an educational pursuit but also a transformative experience that exposed him to Western ideas of democracy and individual freedom.

Despite facing challenges, such as adjusting to a new culture and overcoming financial difficulties, Gandhi managed to pass his examinations. His time in London was significant, as he joined the London Vegetarian Society and began to form the ethical underpinnings of his later political campaigns.

This period marked the beginning of Gandhi’s lifelong commitment to social justice and non-violent protest, laying the foundation for his future role in India’s independence movement and beyond.

Gandhi’s Religion and Beliefs

Mahatma Gandhi was deeply rooted in Hinduism, drawing inspiration from the Hindu god Vishnu and other religious texts like the Bhagavad Gita. However, his approach to religion was broad and inclusive, embracing ideas and values from various faiths, including Christianity and Islam, emphasizing the universal search for truth.

This eclectic approach allowed him to develop a personal philosophy that stressed the importance of truth, non-violence (ahimsa), and self-discipline. Gandhi believed in living a simple life, minimizing possessions, and being self-sufficient.

He also advocated for the equality of all human beings, irrespective of caste or religion, and placed great emphasis on the power of civil disobedience as a way to achieve social and political goals. His beliefs were not just theoretical; they were practical principles that guided his actions and campaigns against British rule in India.

Gandhi’s philosophy extended beyond mere religious practice to encompass his views on how life should be lived and how societies should function. He envisioned a world where people lived harmoniously, respected each other’s differences, and adopted non-violent means to resolve conflicts. His commitment to non-violence and truth was also not just a personal choice but a political strategy that proved effective against British rule.

Mahatma Gandhi’s Achievements

Gandhi is best known for his role in India’s struggle for independence from British rule. His unique approach to civil disobedience and non-violent protest influenced not only the course of Indian history but also civil rights movements around the world. Among his notable achievements was the successful challenge against British salt taxes through the Salt March of 1930, which galvanized the Indian population against the British government. Gandhi was instrumental in the discussions that led to Indian independence in 1947, although he was deeply pained by the partition that followed.

Beyond leading India to freedom, Gandhi’s achievements include the promotion of religious and ethnic harmony, advocating for the rights of the Indian community in South Africa, and the establishment of ashrams that practiced self-sufficiency, truth, and non-violence. His methods of peaceful resistance have inspired countless individuals and movements, including Martin Luther King Jr. in the American civil rights movement and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

Gandhi in South Africa

Mahatma Gandhi’s journey in South Africa began in 1893 when he was 24. He went there to work as a legal representative for an Indian firm. Initially, Gandhi planned to stay in South Africa for a year, but the discrimination and injustice he witnessed against the Indian community there changed his path entirely. He faced racism firsthand when he was thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg station for refusing to move from a first-class carriage, which was reserved for white passengers.

This incident was crucial, marking the beginning of his fight against racial segregation and discrimination. Gandhi decided to stay in South Africa to fight for the rights of the Indian community, organizing the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 to combat the unjust laws against Indians. His work in South Africa lasted for about 21 years, during which he developed and refined his principles of non-violent protest and civil disobedience.

During his time in South Africa, Gandhi led several campaigns and protests against the British government’s discriminatory laws. One significant campaign was against the Transvaal government’s 1906 law requiring the registration of all Indians. In response, Gandhi organized a mass protest meeting and declared that Indians would defy the law and suffer the consequences rather than submit to it.

This was the beginning of the Satyagraha movement in South Africa, which aimed at asserting the truth through non-violent resistance. Gandhi’s strategies included strikes, non-cooperation, and peaceful protests, which often led to his arrest.

Nonviolent Civil Disobedience

Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience was revolutionary, marking a departure from traditional forms of protest. This philosophy was deeply influenced by his religious beliefs and his experiences in South Africa. He believed that the moral high ground could compel oppressors to change their ways without resorting to violence.

Gandhi argued that through peaceful non-compliance and willingness to accept the consequences of defiance, one could achieve justice. This form of protest was not just about resisting unjust laws but doing so in a way that adhered to a strict code of non-violence and truth, or Satyagraha.

The genesis of Gandhi’s approach can be traced back to his early experiences in South Africa, where he witnessed the impact of peaceful protest against oppressive laws. His readings of various religious texts and the works of thinkers like Henry David Thoreau also contributed to his philosophy. Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience, advocating for the refusal to obey unjust laws, resonated with Gandhi and influenced his actions.

Satyagraha

Satyagraha, a term coined by Gandhi, combines the Sanskrit words for truth (satya) and holding firmly to (agraha). For Gandhi, it was more than a political strategy; it was a principle that guided one’s life towards truth and righteousness.

Satyagraha called for non-violent resistance to injustice, where the satyagrahi (practitioner of Satyagraha) would peacefully defy unjust laws and accept the consequences of such defiance. This approach was revolutionary because it shifted the focus from anger and revenge to love and self-suffering. Gandhi believed that this form of protest could appeal to the conscience of the oppressor, leading to change without the need for violence.

In implementing Satyagraha, Gandhi ensured that it was accessible and applicable to the Indian people. He simplified complex political concepts into actions that could be undertaken by anyone, regardless of their social or economic status. Satyagraha was demonstrated through the boycotting of British goods, non-payment of taxes, and peaceful protests. One of the key aspects of Satyagraha was the willingness to endure suffering without retaliation. Gandhi emphasized that the power of Satyagraha came from the moral purity and courage of its practitioners, not from the desire to inflict harm on the opponent.

The effectiveness of Satyagraha was evident in various campaigns led by Gandhi, both in South Africa and later in India. In India, the Satyagraha movement gained momentum with significant events such as the Champaran agitation against the indigo planters, the Kheda peasant struggle, and the nationwide protests against the British salt taxes through the Salt March.

These movements not only mobilized the Indian people against British rule but also demonstrated the strength and resilience of non-violent resistance. Gandhi’s leadership in these campaigns was instrumental in making Satyagraha a cornerstone of the Indian independence movement.

Through Satyagraha, Gandhi sought to bring about a moral awakening both within India and among the British authorities. He believed that true victory was not the defeat of the opponent but the achievement of justice and harmony.

Return to India

After spending over two decades in South Africa, fighting for the rights of the Indian community there, Mahatma Gandhi decided it was time to return to India. His decision was influenced by his desire to take part in the struggle for Indian independence from British rule.

In 1915, Gandhi arrived back in India, greeted by a nation on the cusp of change. Upon his return, he chose not to plunge directly into the political turmoil but instead spent time traveling across the country to understand the complex fabric of Indian society. This journey was crucial for Gandhi as it allowed him to connect with the people, understand their struggles, and gauge the extent of British exploitation.

Gandhi’s initial focus was not on immediate political agitation but on social issues, such as the plight of Indian women, the oppression of the lower castes, and the economic struggles of the rural population. He established an ashram in Ahmedabad, which became a base for his activities and a sanctuary for those who wanted to join his cause.

This period was a time of reflection and preparation for Gandhi, who was formulating the strategies that would later define India’s non-violent resistance against British rule. His efforts during these early years back in India laid the groundwork for the massive civil disobedience campaigns that would follow.

Opposition to British Rule in India

Mahatma Gandhi’s opposition to British rule in India took a definitive shape when the Rowlatt Act was introduced in 1919. This act allowed the British authorities to imprison anyone suspected of sedition without trial, sparking widespread outrage across India. Gandhi called for a nationwide Satyagraha against the act, advocating for peaceful protest and civil disobedience.

The movement gained significant momentum but also led to the tragic Jallianwala Bagh massacre, where British troops fired on a peaceful gathering, resulting in hundreds of deaths. This event was a turning point for Gandhi and the Indian independence movement, leading to an even stronger resolve to resist British rule non-violently.

In the years that followed, Gandhi became increasingly involved with the Indian National Congress, shaping its strategy against the British government. He advocated for non-cooperation with the British authorities, urging Indians to withdraw from British institutions, return honors conferred by the British empire, and boycott British-made goods.

The non-cooperation movement of the early 1920s demonstrated Gandhi’s ability to mobilize the Indian masses and posed a significant challenge to British rule. Although the movement was eventually called off following the Chauri Chaura incident in 1922, where a violent clash between protesters and police led to the deaths of several policemen, Gandhi’s commitment to non-violence became even more resolute.

Gandhi’s strategies evolved with the political landscape, leading to the Salt March in 1930, which directly challenged the British salt taxes. However, focusing on his broader opposition to British rule, it’s important to note how Gandhi managed to galvanize support from diverse sections of Indian society. His ability to communicate his vision of civil disobedience and Satyagraha resonated with many who were disillusioned by the British government’s oppressive policies. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, Gandhi had become the face of India’s struggle for independence, symbolizing hope and the possibility of achieving freedom through peaceful means.

Gandhi and the Salt March

In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi launched one of his most significant campaigns against British rule in India—the Salt March. This nonviolent protest was against the British government’s monopoly on salt production and the heavy taxation on it, which affected the poorest Indians.

On March 12, 1930, Gandhi began a 240-mile march from his ashram in Sabarmati to the coastal village of Dandi on the Arabian Sea. His aim was to produce salt from the sea, which was a direct violation of British laws. Over the course of the 24-day march, thousands of Indians joined him, drawing international attention to the Indian independence movement and the injustices of British rule.

The march culminated on April 6, when Gandhi and his followers reached Dandi, and he ceremoniously violated the salt laws by evaporating sea water to make salt. This act was a symbolic defiance against the British Empire and sparked similar acts of civil disobedience across India.

The Salt March marked a significant escalation in the struggle for Indian independence, showcasing the power of peaceful protest and civil disobedience. In response, the British authorities arrested Gandhi and thousands of others, further galvanizing the movement and drawing widespread sympathy and support for the cause.

The impact of the Salt March was profound and far-reaching. It succeeded in undermining the moral authority of British rule in India and demonstrated the effectiveness of non-violent resistance. The march not only mobilized a wide cross-section of Indian society against the British government but also caught the attention of the international community, highlighting the British Empire’s exploitation of India.

Despite Gandhi’s arrest, the movement continued to grow in strength, eventually leading to the negotiation of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact in 1931, which, though it did not meet all of Gandhi’s demands, marked a significant shift in the British stance towards Indian demands for self-rule.

Protesting “Untouchables” Segregation

Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign against the segregation of the “Untouchables” was another cornerstone of his fight against injustice. This campaign was deeply rooted in Gandhi’s philosophy that all human beings are equal and deserve to live with dignity, irrespective of their caste. Gandhi vehemently opposed the age-old practice of untouchability in Hindu society, considering it a moral and social evil that needed to be eradicated.

His commitment to this cause was so strong that he adopted the term “Harijan,” meaning children of God, to refer to the Untouchables, advocating for their rights and integration into society.

Gandhi’s protest against untouchability was both a humanistic endeavor and a strategic political move. He believed that for India to truly gain independence from British rule, it had to first cleanse itself of internal social evils like untouchability. This stance sometimes put him at odds with traditionalists within the Hindu community, but Gandhi remained unwavering in his belief that social reform was integral to the national movement.

By elevating the issue of untouchability, Gandhi sought to unify the Indian people under the banner of social justice, making the independence movement a struggle for both political freedom and social equality.

Gandhi’s efforts included organizing fasts, protests, and campaigns to allow the “Untouchables” access to temples, water sources, and educational institutions. He argued that the segregation and mistreatment of any group of people were against the fundamental principles of justice and non-violence that he stood for.

Gandhi also worked within the Indian National Congress to ensure that the rights of the “Untouchables” were part of the national agenda, advocating for their representation in political processes and the removal of barriers that kept them marginalized.

Through his actions, Gandhi not only highlighted the plight of the “Untouchables” but also set a precedent for future generations in India to continue the fight against caste discrimination. His insistence on treating the “Untouchables” as equals was a radical stance that contributed significantly to the gradual transformation of Indian society.

While the complete eradication of caste-based discrimination is still an ongoing struggle, Gandhi’s campaign against untouchability was a crucial step towards creating a more inclusive and equitable India.

India’s Independence from Great Britain

Negotiations between the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League, and the British authorities paved the way for India’s independence. The talks were often contentious, with significant disagreements, particularly regarding the partition of India to create Pakistan, a separate state for Muslims. Gandhi was deeply involved in these discussions, advocating for a united India while striving to alleviate communal tensions.

Despite his efforts, the partition became inevitable due to rising communal violence and political pressures. On August 15, 1947, India finally gained its independence from British rule, marking the end of nearly two centuries of colonial dominance.

The announcement of independence was met with jubilant celebrations across the country as millions of Indians, who had longed for this moment, rejoiced in their newfound freedom. Gandhi, though revered for his leadership and moral authority, was personally disheartened by the partition and worked tirelessly to ease the communal strife that followed.

His commitment to peace and unity remained steadfast, even as India and the newly formed Pakistan navigated the challenges of independence.

The geography of the Indian subcontinent was dramatically altered by the partition, with the creation of Pakistan separating the predominantly Muslim regions in the west and east from the rest of India.

This division led to one of the largest mass migrations in human history, as millions of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs crossed borders in both directions, seeking safety amidst communal violence. Gandhi spent these crucial moments advocating for peace and communal harmony, trying to heal the wounds of a divided nation.

Gandhi’s vision for India went beyond mere political independence; he aspired for a country where social justice, equality, and non-violence formed the cornerstone of governance and daily life.

Gandhi’s Wife and Kids

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi married Kasturba Makhanji Kapadia, often referred to as Kasturba Gandhi or Ba, in an arranged marriage in 1883, when he was just 13 years old. Kasturba, who was of the same age as Gandhi, became his partner in life and in the struggle for Indian independence. Despite the initial challenges of an arranged marriage, Kasturba and Gandhi grew to share a deep bond of love and mutual respect.

Together, they had four sons: Harilal, born in 1888; Manilal, born in 1892; Ramdas, born in 1897; and Devdas, born in 1900. Each of their births marked different phases of Gandhi’s life, from his early days in India and his studies in London to his activism in South Africa.

Kasturba was an integral part of Gandhi’s life and movements, often participating in civil disobedience and various campaigns despite her initial hesitation about Gandhi’s unconventional methods. The children were raised in a household that was deeply influenced by Gandhi’s principles of simplicity, non-violence, and truth.

This upbringing, while instilling in them the values of their father, also led to a complex relationship, particularly with their eldest son, Harilal, who struggled with the legacy and expectations associated with being Gandhi’s son. The Gandhi family’s personal life was deeply intertwined with the national movement, with Kasturba and their children actively supporting Gandhi’s efforts, albeit facing the personal costs of such a public and demanding life.

Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated because some extremists saw him as too accommodating to Muslims during the partition of India. He was 78 years old when he died. The assassination occurred on January 30, 1948, when Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, shot Gandhi at point-blank range in the garden of the Birla House in New Delhi.

Gandhi’s death sent shockwaves throughout India and the world.

It highlighted the deep religious and cultural divisions within India that Gandhi had spent his life trying to heal. His assassination was mourned globally, with millions of people, including leaders across different nations, paying tribute to his legacy of non-violence and peace.

Legacy

Known as the “Father of the Nation” in India, Gandhi’s teachings of non-violence, peace, and civil disobedience have become foundational pillars for countless struggles for justice and freedom. Gandhi’s emphasis on living a life of simplicity and truth has not only been a personal inspiration but also a guide for political action.

His methods of Satyagraha—holding onto truth through non-violent resistance—transformed the approach to political and social campaigns, influencing leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Today, Gandhi’s philosophies are celebrated every year on his birthday, October 2nd, which is recognized internationally as the International Day of Non-Violence, underscoring his global impact.

Gandhi’s legacy is honored in various ways, both in India and around the world. Monuments and statues have been erected in his honor, and his teachings are included in educational curriculums to instill values of peace and non-violence in future generations. Museums and ashrams that were once his home and the epicenters of his political activities now serve as places of pilgrimage for those seeking to understand his life and teachings.

Films, books, and plays exploring his life and ideology continue to be produced. The Gandhi Peace Prize, awarded by the Indian government for contributions toward social, economic, and political transformation through non-violence and other Gandhian methods, further immortalizes his contributions to humanity.

References

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Gandhi’s Life and Works: http://www.mkgandhi.org/students/gandhi_f.htm

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Salla, Michael Emin. “SATYAGRAHA IN MAHATMA GANDHI’S POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.” Peace Research, vol. 25, no. 1, 1993, pp. 39–62. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23607222. Accessed 21 Mar. 2024.

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