Gandhi, lived from 1869-1948 and was also known as Mahatma Gandhi, was born in Porbandar, in the modern state of Gujarat, on October 2, 1869, into a Hindu family, Both his father and grandfather having been prime ministers of two adjacent and tiny states. After a modest career at school, he went to London in 1888 to train as a lawyer, leaving behind his young wife, whom he had married when she was in her teens.
In London, Gandhi encountered theosophists, vegetarians, and others who were disenchanted not only with industrialism, but with the legacy of Enlightenment thought. They themselves represented the fringe elements of English society. Gandhi was powerfully attracted to them, as he was to the texts of the major religious traditions; and ironically it is in London that he was introduced to the Bhagavad Gita. Here, too, Gandhi showed determination and single-minded pursuit of his purpose, and accomplished his objective of finishing his degree from the Inner Temple. He was called to the bar in 1891, and even enrolled in the High Court of London, but later that year he left for India.
After one year of a none too successful law practice, Gandhi decided to accept an offer from an Indian businessman in South Africa, Dada Abdulla, to join him as a legal adviser. Unbeknown to him, this was to become an exceedingly lengthy stay, and altogether Gandhi was to stay in South Africa for over twenty years. The Indians who had been living in South Africa were without political rights, and were generally known by the derogatory name of ‘coolies’. Gandhi himself came to an awareness of the frightening force and fury of European racism, and how far Indians were from being considered full human beings, when he when thrown out of a first-class railway compartment car, though he held a first-class ticket, at Pietermaritzburg. From this political awakening Gandhi was to emerge as the leader of the Indian community, and it is in South Africa that he first coined the term satyagraha to signify his theory and practice of non-violent resistance. Gandhi was to describe himself preeminently as a votary or seeker of satya (truth), which could not be attained other than through ahimsa (non-violence, love) and brahmacharya (celibacy, striving towards God). Gandhi conceived of his own life as a series of experiments to forge the use of satyagraha in such a manner as to make the oppressor and the oppressed alike recognize their common bonding and humanity: as he recognized, freedom is only freedom when it is indivisible. In his book, Satyagraha in South Africa he was to detail the struggles of the Indians to claim their rights, and their resistance to oppressive legislation and executive measures, such as the imposition of a poll tax on them, or the declaration by the government that all non-Christian marriages were to be construed as invalid. In 1909, on a trip back to India, Gandhi authored a short treatise entitled Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, where he all but initiated the critique, not only of industrial civilization, but of modernity in all its aspects.
After an undistinguished performance in a legal practice in India, Gandhi left for South Africa in 1893 to serve as legal adviser to an Indian firm. The 21 years that he spent there marked a turning point in his life. The racial indignities to which he and his countrymen were subjected to turned the previously shy and diffident lawyer into a brave political activist. Realising that violence was evil and rational persuasion often worthless, he developed a new method of non-violent resistance, which he called satyagraha and which he used with some success to secure racial justice for his people. Gandhi also reflected deeply on his Hindu religion, interacted with Jewish and Christian friends, and evolved a distinct view of life based on what he found valuable in his own and other religions. He commanded a Red Cross unit in the Boer War, and organised a commune near Durban based on the ideas of Leo Tolstoy.
Gandhi finally returned to India in 1915, after the government of the Union of South Africa had made important concessions to his demands, including recognition of Indian marriages and abolition of the poll tax for them. After travelling all over India to familiarise himself with the country of which he had only a limited understanding, he moved into politics, and soon became the unquestioned leader of the Indian nationalist movement. Almost single-handedly he transformed the middle- and upper-class Indian National Congress into a powerful national organisation, bringing in large sections of such previously excluded groups (untouchables) as women, traders, merchants, the upper and middle peasantry, and youth, and giving it a truly national basis. Following the Amritsar Massacre in 1919, Gandhi led a nation-wide campaign of passive non-cooperation with the government of British India, including the boycott of British goods. He was never to leave the country again except for a short trip that took him to Europe in 1931. Though he was not completely unknown in India, Gandhi followed the advice of his political mentor, Gokhale, and took it upon himself to acquire a familiarity with Indian conditions. He traveled widely for one year. Over the next few years, he was to become involved in numerous local struggles, such as at Champaran in Bihar, where workers on indigo plantations complained of oppressive working conditions, and at Ahmedabad, where a dispute had broken out between management and workers at textile mills. His interventions earned Gandhi a considerable reputation, and his rapid ascendancy to the helm of nationalist politics is signified by his leadership of the opposition to repressive legislation (known as the “Rowlatt Acts”) in 1919. His saintliness was not uncommon, except in someone like him who immersed himself in politics, and by this time he had earned from no less a person than Rabindranath Tagore, India’s most well-known writer, the title of Mahatma, or ‘Great Soul’. When ‘disturbances’ broke out in the Punjab, leading to the massacre of a large crowd of unarmed Indians at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar and other atrocities, Gandhi wrote the report of the Punjab Congress Inquiry Committee. Over the next two years, Gandhi initiated the non-cooperation movement, which called upon Indians to withdraw from British institutions, to return honors conferred by the British, and to learn the art of self-reliance; though the British administration was at places paralyzed, the movement was suspended in February 1922 when a score of Indian policemen were brutally killed by a large crowd at Chauri Chaura, a small market town in the United Provinces. Gandhi himself was arrested shortly thereafter, tried on charges of sedition, and sentenced to imprisonment for six years. At The Great Trial, as his biographers know it, Gandhi delivered a masterful indictment of British rule.
Development of Gandhi’s Thought and Practice
Convinced that independence had no meaning without a moral and social transformation, Gandhi launched a comprehensive programme of national regeneration. This involved fighting prejudices against manual labour, overcoming the urban-rural divide, developing a love of languages, and eradicating the discriminatory practice of Untouchability. Gandhi also fostered among his countrymen national self-respect and confidence in their ability to overthrow British rule. He gave Hinduism an activist and social orientation, generously borrowed from other religious and cultural traditions, and became an inspiring example of a genuine inter-faith and community dialogue. He perfected the method of satyagraha that he had discovered in South Africa, added new forms of action to its repertoire, and developed what he called the “new science of non-violence” involving moral conversion of the opponent by a delicate “surgery of the soul”. His actions inspired the great poet Rabindranath Tagore to call him Mahatma (Sanskrit, “great soul”).
While fighting simultaneously on the social, economic, religious, and political fronts, Gandhi carried on an even fiercer battle at the personal level. Determined to become as perfect as any human being could be, he set about mastering all his senses and desires. From 1901 onward he embarked on daring experiments in sexual self-control. Rejecting the “cowardly” celibacy of traditional religions, he lived among and later slept naked with some of his women associates, both to probe the outermost limits of sexuality and to show that it was possible to attain “absolute” and child-like innocence. His moral courage, candour, and experimental vitality have few if any parallels in history.
Gandhi’s moral and political thought was based on a relatively simple principle. For him the universe was regulated by a Supreme Intelligence or Principle, which he called satya (Truth) and, as a concession to convention, God. It was embodied in all living things, above all in human beings, in the form of self-conscious soul or spirit. Since all human beings were part of the divine essence, they were “ultimately one”. They were not merely equal but “identical”. As such, love was the only proper form of relation between them; it was “the law of our being”, of “our species”. Positively, love implied care and concern for others and total dedication to the cause of “wiping away every tear from every eye”. Negatively, it implied ahimsa, or “non-violence”. Gandhi’s entire social and political thought, including his theory of satyagraha, was an attempt to work out the implications of the principle of love in all areas of life.
For Gandhi, the state “represented” violence in a concentrated form. It spoke in the language of compulsion and uniformity, sapped its subjects’ spirit of initiative and self-help, and “unmanned” them. Since human beings were not fully developed and capable of acting in a socially responsible manner, the state was necessary. However, if it was not to hinder their growth, it had to be organised so that it used as little coercion as possible and left as large an area of human life as possible to voluntary efforts.
As Gandhi imagined it, a truly non-violent society was federally constituted and composed of small, self-governing, and relatively self-sufficient village communities relying largely on moral and social pressure. The police were basically social workers, enjoying the confidence and support of the local community and relying on moral persuasion and public opinion to enforce the law. Crime was treated as a disease, requiring not punishment but understanding and help. The standing army was not necessary either, for a determined people could be relied upon to mount non-violent resistance against an invader.
Since the majority rule violated the moral integrity of the minority and “savoured of violence”, and since unanimity was often impossible, all decisions in a non-violent society were based on consensus, arrived at by rational discussion in which each strove to look at the subject in question from the standpoint of others. For Gandhi, rational discussion was not just an exchange of arguments but a process of deepening and expanding the consciousness of the participants. When it was conducted in a proper spirit, those involved reconstituted each other’s being and were reborn as a result of the encounter. In extreme cases, when no consensus was possible, the majority decided the matter, not because it was more likely to be right but for administrative and pragmatic reasons. If a citizen felt morally troubled by a majority decision, that person was entitled to claim exemption from and even to disobey it. Civil disobedience was a “moral” right. To surrender it was to forfeit one’s “self-respect” and integrity.
A non-violent society was committed to sarvodaya, the growth or uplift of all its citizens. Private property denied the “identity” or “oneness” of all men, and was immoral. In Gandhi’s view it was a “sin against humanity” to possess superfluous wealth when others could not even meet their basic needs. Since the institution of private property already existed, and men were attached to it, he suggested that the rich should take only what they needed and hold the rest in trust for the community. Increasingly he came to appreciate that the idea of trusteeship was too important to be left to the precarious goodwill of the rich, and suggested that it could be enforced by organised social pressure and even by law. Gandhi advocated heavy taxes, limited rights of inheritance, state ownership of land and heavy industry, and nationalisation without compensation as a way of creating a just and equal society.
In 1930 he proclaimed a new campaign of civil disobedience, calling upon the Indian population to refuse to pay taxes, particularly the tax on salt. The campaign involved a march to the sea, in which thousands of Indians followed Gandhi from Ahmadabad to the Arabian Sea, where they made salt by evaporating sea water. This highly symbolic and defiant gesture proved very effective. Once more the Indian leader was arrested, but he was released in 1931, halting the campaign after the British made concessions to his demands. In the same year Gandhi represented the Indian National Congress at a conference in London.
In 1932, Gandhi began new civil disobedience campaigns against the British. Two years later he formally resigned from politics, being replaced as leader of the Congress Party by Jawaharlal Nehru, and travelled through India, teaching and promoting social reform.
A few years later, in 1939, Gandhi again returned to active political life, attacking colonial policy over the federation of Indian principalities with the rest of India. When World War II broke out, the Congress Party and Gandhi decided not to support Britain unless India was granted complete and immediate independence. Even when Japan entered the war, Gandhi refused to agree to Indian participation. He was interned in 1942, but was released two years later because of failing health.
By 1944 the British government had agreed to independence, on condition that the Congress Party and the Muslim League resolve their differences. Despite Gandhi’s resistance to the principle of partition, India and Pakistan became separate states when the British granted India its independence in 1947. Bloody sectarian violence ensued.
Though Gandhi was born a dedicated Hindu, there was a powerful and endearing streak of the gambler and the outlaw in him. When Hindus and Muslims were engaged in fierce intercommunal strife in 1946 and 1947, he moved among them alone and unprotected, dared them to do their worst, and by sheer force of personality consoled the inconsolable, dissolved hatred, and restored a climate of humanity. When a bomb was dropped at one of his prayer meetings a few weeks later, he chided his frightened audience for being scared of a “mere bomb”. Through fasts, he quelled violence in Calcutta and New Delhi. When the government of independent India decided, with popular support, to renege on its promise to transfer to Pakistan its share of assets, he took on the entire country, and successfully fasted to awaken its sense of honour and moral obligation. This deeply angered a section of Hindu nationalists, one of whom, after respectfully bowing to him, shot him dead at a prayer meeting on January 30,1948
The last few months of Gandhi’s life were to be spent mainly in the capital city of Delhi. There he divided his time between the ‘Bhangi colony’, where the sweepers and the lowest of the low stayed, and Birla House, the residence of one of the wealthiest men in India and one of the benefactors of Gandhi’s ashrams. Hindu and Sikh refugees had streamed into the capital from what had become Pakistan, and there was much resentment, which easily translated into violence, against Muslims. It was partly in an attempt to put an end to the killings in Delhi, and more generally to the bloodshed following the partition, which may have taken the lives of as many as 1 million people, besides causing the dislocation of no fewer than 11 million, that Gandhi was to commence the last fast unto death of his life. The fast was terminated when representatives of all the communities signed a statement that they were prepared to live in “perfect amity”, and that the lives, property, and faith of the Muslims would be safeguarded. A few days later, a bomb exploded in Birla House where Gandhi was holding his evening prayers, but it caused no injuries. However, his assassin, a Marathi Chitpavan Brahmin by the name of Nathuram Godse, was not so easily deterred. Gandhi, quite characteristically, refused additional security, and no one could defy his wish to be allowed to move around unhindered. In the early evening hours of 30 January 1948, Gandhi met with India’s Deputy Prime Minister and his close associate in the freedom struggle, Vallabhai Patel, and then proceeded to his prayers.
That evening, as Gandhi’s time-piece, which hung from one of the folds of his dhoti [loin-cloth], was to reveal to him, he was uncharacteristically late to his prayers, and he fretted about his inability to be punctual. At 10 minutes past 5 o’clock, with one hand each on the shoulders of Abha and Manu, who were known as his ‘walking sticks’, Gandhi commenced his walk towards the garden where the prayer meeting was held. As he was about to mount the steps of the podium, Gandhi folded his hands and greeted his audience with a namaskar; at that moment, a young man came up to him and roughly pushed aside Manu. Nathuram Godse bent down in the gesture of an obeisance, took a revolver out of his pocket, and shot Gandhi three times in his chest. Bloodstains appeared over Gandhi’s white woolen shawl; his hands still folded in a greeting, Gandhi blessed his assassin: He Ram! He Ram!
As Gandhi fell, his faithful timepiece struck the ground, and the hands of the watch came to a standstill. They showed, as they had done before, the precise time: 5:12 P.M.
Gandhi’s intellectual influence on his countrymen was considerable. Though only a few accepted all his ideas, none rejected them all either. Some were attracted by his emphasis on political and economic decentralisation; others by his insistence on individual freedom, moral integrity, the unity of means and ends, and social service; still others by his satyagraha and political activism. Not even such Marxists as Manabendra Nath Roy could resist the appeal of some of his ideas. For some students of India, Gandhi’s influence is responsible for its failure to throw up any genuinely radical political movement. For others it successfully inoculated India against the virus of Hindu communalism, cultivated a spirit of non-violence, encouraged the habits of collective self-help, and helped lay the foundations of a stable, morally committed, and democratic government. Gandhi’s ideas have also had a profound influence outside India, where they inspired non-violent activism and movements in favour of small-scale, self-sufficient communities living closer to nature and with greater sensitivity to their environment.