Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was one of the great revolutionary leaders of the 20th century. What set him apart from other freedom fighters is that he didn't fight but rather used nonviolent methods to achieve astonishing results. Gandhi was called Mahatma (Great Soul), a name that was given to him after being released from jail in 1922, and Bapu (Little Father). He himself preferred, "Gandhiji" (an honorific term for Gandhi).
That India opted for an entirely original path to solving its problems and obtaining swaraj (independence) was due largely to Gandhi. A native of Gujarat who had been educated in Britain, he was an obscure and unsuccessful provincial lawyer. Gandhi had accepted an invitation in 1893 to represent indentured Indian laborers in South Africa, where he stayed on for more than twenty years, emerging ultimately as the voice and conscience of thousands who had been subjected to blatant racial discrimination. He returned to India in 1915, virtually a stranger to public life but "fired with a religious vision of a new India, whose swaraj . . . would [be] a moral reformation of a whole people which would either convert the British also or render their Raj impossible by Indian withdrawal of support for it and its modern values," according to historian Judith M. Brown. [Source: Library of Congress]
Based on the number of books written about him (1,583 in 1999 in the Library of Congress collection), Gandhi was the world's 23rd most famous person. He ranks behind Jesus and Wagner but ahead of Dickens and Beethoven. According to Time magazine: “A believer in ‘passive resistance’ who had a steely will, a monklike acetic who was a London-trained lawyer and a sophisticated politician, Gandhi gave Indians a proud identity and a sense of nationhood. Many venerated him as mahatma (great soul). His protest in 1930 presaged the moment in 1947 when Britain would grant Indian independence and Gandhi would achieve worldwide status as a moral icon. His example lives on in nonviolent activists of our day such as Lech Walesa and Nelson Mandela.”
On Gandhi, Albert Einstein once said, "generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth." Steven Jobs of Apple thought he should be named Person of the 20th Century. He wrote in Time: “He showed us a way out of the destructive side of our human nature. He demonstrated that we can force change and justice through moral acts of aggression rather than physical acts of aggression.”
Film: Gandhi (1981) won many Academy Awards in 1982, including best film, best actor for Ben Kingsley and best director for Richard Attenborough. Books: Gandhi: A Life by Yogesh Chadha (Wiley, 1998); Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope by Judith M. Brown (1989). Louis Fischer wrote an authoritative biography about Gandhi.
Gandhi's Early Life and Family
Gandhi was born in Porbandar, a coastal town near Bombay, on October 2, 1869. "Gandhi" means "Grocer." When translated literally Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi means "Action-Slave Fascination-Moon Grocer."
Gandhi came from a family that belonged to the Vaisya cast of farmers and tradesmen. His father, Kaba Gandhi, served as a dewan (chief minister) under a ruler in Porbander for 28 years and was 47 and on his fifth marriage when Mohandas, his third son and forth child, was born. En route to Mohandas Gandi's wedding, Kaba's carriage overturned and he spent the last three years of his life in bed.
Gandhi's mother Putlibai was a frail, illiterate and deeply religious woman. She prayed and fasted dutifully and once commented on life that "it was a pity one could not dispense with it altogether" for "it entered the mouth fresh and fragrant, and left the body as waste."
Gandhi went to England to discover the "cradle of civilization" and was instead awakened to his Indian roots. Gandhi was trained as a lawyer in England. He became quite Westernized and sophisticated. When he returned to India he worked for a while as an obscure and unsuccessful provincial lawyer.
Gandhi in South Africa
Gandhi went to South Africa in 1893 and remained there for 20 years. He first made a name for himself as a nonviolent political activist lawyer in 1910 in South Africa, where he led strikes and civil rights demonstrations to bring about better treatment people for people classified as Asians in that country. He spent 249 days in South African prisons.
The motivation for Gandhi’s activism was an incident on a South African train. Gandhi was told to move to the third class section of train even though he had a first class ticket. He refused and was thrown off at the next station onto the platform, where he unceremoniously spent the night.
Gandhi's ascetic lifestyle seems to have been at least partly influenced by a trip to a Trappist monastery, with 160 monks and 60 nuns, near Durban. Gandhi biographer Yogesh Chadha wrote, "They rose at two o'clock in the morning, devoting four hours to prayer and contemplation. They breakfasted at six on bread and coffee, and the midday meal consisted of soup, bread and fruits. Supper was at six in the evening, and eight o'clock they were in bed...None of the brothers ate fish, fowl, or meat, nor did they partake in eggs...No one drank alcohol, no one kept money for private use, no one left the confines of the community except on approved business, and there were no newspapers available. And yet everyone appeared happy, and visitors were received with humble bows." Gandhi wrote in Vegetarian, a British magazine, "You see religion everywhere. I know from personal experience that a visit to the [Trappist] farm is worth a voyage from London."
Gandhi's Character and Appearance
A World War I-era police profile of Gandhi concluded that he was "not a Bolshevik" but rather "some sort of psychological case." Gandhi was afraid of the dark. He always slept with a candle or light by his bedside. As an adult Gandhi wrote 500 words a day. One scholar described Gandhi's writing as "labored and correct" like "a country schoolmaster. Gandhi always insisted on traveling in third class to show that empathized with the hard life of the poor. Gandhi's favorite hymn was Abide With Me.
Gandhi could be witty. When asked what he thought of Western civilization he replied famously, "I think it would be a great idea." He also dispensed his share or aphorisms, such as "an eye for an eye will make the world go blind" and "there is a limit to the development of the intellect but none to that of the heart."
Some people have said that Gandhi is one of the most visually recognizable figures of the 20th century along the Charlie Chaplin and Adolph Hitler. Winston Churchill once sneeringly called Gandhi a "half-naked fakir". Another Englishman said he was a "half-nude gent." Gandhi went to Buckingham Palace in his barelegged dohti, traditional loose-fitting, loincloth-like Indian shorts. When visiting Orissa, Gandhi was supposedly so moved by the poverty he saw here he shortened his dohti.
In the famous black-and-white photographs of Gandhi— many of which first appeared in Life magazine in the 1940s and were shot by Margaret Bourke-White, who was played by Candice Bergen in the films Gandhi —we see Gandhi as a frail dark-skinning old man with large ears, bald head and toothless smile, going shirtless and wearing cheap spectacles and a dhoti.
Gandhi as a Husband and Father
Gandhi was engaged when he was eleven and married when he was thirteen to Kasturbai Makanji (1869-1944), a former playmate. The marriage was arranged by Gandhi's father. He had several children with her while still a teenager. Gandhi was not so nice to his wife. He refused to let her wear a necklace she received as a gift. When she became seriously ill during one of his civil disobedience campaigns he refused to visit her because he was said he was too busy. He later expressed deep remorse for what he did. Gandhi fought with his brother over money.
Gandhi was a harsh disciplinarian with his four sons. Some said he looked upon his sons as evidence of his sexual "curse." He temporarily disowned one son because he wanted to get married at 18. According to one account all of the sons "tried to live up to their father’s expectations of them, but each in their own way, failed, and in Gandhi's attitude toward their failure there was, by his own testimony, an element of guilt for sexual excesses in his childhood marriage."
Gandhi's wife once said, "You want my sons to be holy men before they are men." He brought then up as disciples and denied the formal education that Gandhi himself received. Manilal Gandhi (1892-1956) became a Muslim convert and alcoholic. He was charged with embezzlement and public drunkenness and died in a tuberculosis sanitarium. Ramdas Gandhi (1898-1969) joined his father in civil disobedience and ended up in jail several times. His youngest son Devadas Gandhi (1900-1957) stayed close to his father and sometimes acted as his secretary. Harilal died five months after Gandhi's assassination of tuberculosis and probably syphilis.
Gandhi, Sex, Fasting and Food
Gandhi believed that a sublimated sex drive controlling his "vital fluids" was an avenue to spiritual perfection. He took a vow of celibacy in 1937 and refused to have sex with his wife for the rest of her life. Gandhi reportedly was troubled by the fact that at the age of 16 he was making love to his wife at the moment his father died, "a blot which I have never been able to efface," he said. In 1946, Gandhi often took naked young girls with him to bed and slept next to them all night to test his vow of celibacy. He called the practice his "brahmacharya experiments."
Gandhi wrote at length about his theories of vegetarianism, bowel movements and the good points of human feces. He conducted an experiment of eating meat but had nightmares of goats bleeding in his stomach. He became a member of the Vegetarian Society and ate dates, nuts, fruits and whole meal bread, but never more than five items in one meal. He said that "one should not to please the palate but just to keep the body going." He never ate eggs and refused cow's milk because “it stirred the passions." Once when he suffered an attack of dysentery and was advised to drink milk, he refused because of his "Vow against it." Convinced by his wife to drink goat's milk—instead of cow’s milk—he later regretted doing so because: "The idea of truth requires that vows taken should be fulfilled in the letter as well as in the spirit. I have killed the soul of my vow by adhering to its outer form only, and that is what galls me."
Gandhi fasted a total of 17 times for political reason and set the precedent for today’s hunger strikes. Most were only a few days long. The longest (in 1924 and 1943) lasted about three weeks each. When fasting, Gandhi occasionally took small amounts of fruit juices. It was said that entire cities left their lamps unlit when Gandhi was fasting. Gandhi first fasted in 1918 to show support for mill workers in Ahamadabad. He fasted to show that he was suffering with the workers and close to them. The result was a settlement that increased the wages of the workers. Gandhi also went on hunger strikes to protest unfair legislation, sectarian violence and the excessive violence of his supporters. He also once went on a hunger strike to urge employees of a rich patron to stopp a strike again harsh working conditions.
Fasts in Calcutta is September 1947 and January 1948. see Gandhi in Calcutta.
Gandhi's on Religion and Nonviolence
Gandhi was a man of religion and a devout Hindu who followed the religion's tenants on vegetarianism and cow worship. In 1921 he said that "Hindus will be judges...by their ability to protect the cow." In spite of Hindu beliefs, Gandhi did not condone the caste system. In 1931 he said, "I would far rather that Hinduism died than that untouchability lived." Gandhi's vision was primarily a religious one in which an Indian identity would be forged by a common truth gained from ancient legends.
Gandhi encouraged simplicity in life, abhorred violence and had enough charisma to inspire the masses. Drawn from Thoreau, Ruskin and Tolstoy, but mostly from Vishnu sects and Jainism, Gandhi’s philosophy revolved around Bhagavad Gita ideas about religious purposefulness and helping the poor and victims of the caste system such as untouchables. As a balance he promoted cow protection but rejected Hindi being used as the national language. He envisioned India as a federation of villages living in peace spinning their own cotton and rejecting western technology. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]
Gandhi didn't like the word nonviolence because it only described what it wasn't. He didn't like the expression "passive resistance" either because it suggests that pacificism was somehow equated with passivity." He described his methods of bringing about change as Satyagraha (meaning "holding firmly onto the deepest truth, love and soul-force" or a "nonviolent resistance to achieve a high moral truth") and ahimsa (a Jain concept of living harmlessly or love that remains when all thoughts of violence are dispelled). Gandhi wrote that satyagraha has "to be a creed." It "has to be all pervasive. I cannot be nonviolent about one activity of mine and violent about others. That would be a policy, not a life force."
Gandhi pioneered tactics like the hunger strike and general strikes and employed fasts, protest marches and mass civil disobedience. He stood up to authorities intentionally to get arrested so that the principals he was fighting would gain some publicity. Gandhi said, "Nonviolence is the great force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by ingenuity of man." Gandhi once argued that his passive resistance tactics could used in any situation, even against the Nazis. After World War II he revised his opinion, saying that his methods were effective against the British but might not work so well against crueler oppressors.
Gandhi's ideas and strategies of nonviolent civil disobedience, first applied during his South Africa days, initially appeared impractical to many educated Indians. In Gandhi's own words, "Civil disobedience is civil breach of unmoral statutory enactments," but as he viewed it, it had to be carried out nonviolently by withdrawing cooperation with the corrupt state. [Source: Library of Congress]
Gandhi, Lower Castes and Dowries
Gandhi campaigned for rights for untouchables and lower castes and, to a lesser degree, for women. He opposed the caste system, child marriages and dowry payments. Gandhi was loved by peasant farmers, untouchables and the urban poor. He worked as hard to reform India's class system and caste system and unify Muslims and Hindus as he did to overcome British rule, however he did not advocate abolition of the caste system. In his land reform program he urged landlords to donate ones sixth of their land to the poor.
Gandhi sympathized with he "untouchables," calling them haijana (people of God). He campaigned to get "untouchables" admitted to the lower classes. Early in his career as an activist he shocked fellow Hindus by allowing Untouchables into his ashram. His family adopted an Untouchable girl. He rejected the notion that some people were more impure than others and had everyone in his ashram participate in cleaning chores. In his Harijan tour in 1933 he traveled across India, encouraging temples to let untouchables in and tried to persuade Hindus to generally be more tolerant of untouchables. His effort attracted some attention to the issue but yielded few concrete results. Some have claimed Gandhi didn’t go far enough. He never formally renounced the caste system.
Dowry payments are officially prohibited by the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961. Gandhi had hoped to include a prohibition of dowries in the 1947 constitution. "A strong public should be created in condemnation of the degrading practice of dowries, and young men who soil their fingers with such ill-gotten gold should be excommunicated from society," Gandhi wrote. "The system has to go. Marriage must cease to be a matter of arrangement made by parents for money."
Gandhi and Self-Reliance, Economics and Technology
Nehru's second cousin B.K Nehru wrote in Time: "Gandhi wanted a self-supporting rural society. As long as a person got enough to eat and some clothes to wear, that was enough. He didn't see any worth in material development beyond that point—a very, very low point." Gandhi believed that India's poverty was the result of the British depletion of India's resources for British profit. He urged Indians to return to their roots through small-scale farming, producing cotton with a hand spinning wheel, sitting cross legged on the floor, dressing in loincloths and practicing vegetarianism, reverence of life and strict non-violence. The poet Sarojini Naidu once joked that it cost India a fortune to keep Gandhi living in poverty. To achieve his goals he was dependent on people like the billionaire industrialist Ghanshyam Das Birla for support.
Gandhi was a members of the Servants of India, an organization in Bombay that encouraged simplicity. He encouraged Indians to buy only swadeshi, or locally made products and was no great fan of technology. He preferred a pencil to a typewriter, a village to a city and plowed field to a factory. He probably would not have used a computer were it around. His friend Ghanshyam Das Birla said. "He was much more modern than I. But he made a conscious decision to go to the Middle Ages."
Gandhi opposed Western materialism and modern industrialization. He once said, "Industrialism is going to be a curse for mankind. The world we must strive to be based on the concept of genuine social equality—in it, the prince an d the peasant, the wealthy and less well off, the employers and the employee, are on the same level. Economic progress cannot mean that few people charge ahead and more people are left behind."
Gandhi and Cotton Spinning
Gandhi encouraged Indians to spin cotton as a cottage industry so that India could break away from its dependance on British cloth that was made with India cotton. When he urged Indians to burn their foreign-made clothes, thousands of bonfires were set and Indians threw their Manchester-made, Indian cloth clothes into them. Gandhi believed that if Indians could spin and wear their own cloth they wouldn't need the British and textiles imported from British mills.
Spinning cotton also symbolized self-reliance and self-discipline. Gandhi spun clothe all of his life and Nehru used to spin cloth even when he was prime minister. Young girls still weave khadi, the course fabric woven by Gandhi, at Gujarat Vidyapith, a coeducational school founded by Gandhi in 1920, and politicians still wear white homespun clothing as a tribute to Gandhi.
Describing Gandhi campaign to produce khadi (homespun clothe), Arthur Koestler wrote in the New York Times, "Like all his crusades, it was intended to serve both practical and symbolic purposes, its practical aspect was to boycott foreign goods, primarily English textiles, combined with the fantastic hope of solving India's economic problems by bringing back the hand loom and the spinning wheel."
"Gandhi designed the national flag with a spinning wheel in the center," Koestler wrote. "He persuaded the Congress party to resolve that all its members take up spinning and their membership dues in self-spun yarn; officeholders had to deliver 2000 yards per month. When Congress met, its seasoned politicians would listen to the debates while operating their portable spinning wheels— tricoteus of the nonviolent revolution."
Five months after independence, on January 30, 1948, Gandhi was assassinated as he walked along a sandstone path at Birla House in Delhi to a vine-covered pergola, where conducted his daily dusk prayer meeting. The 78-year-old Mahatma a was weak from a long fast and was supported by his grandnieces Ava and Manuafter he was shot. He died almost immediately.
Just after Gandhi climbed some brick steps leading to a garden where a crowed waited, a stocky man in a green pullover and khaki jacket rushed up to Gandhi, bowed, told him he was late, and shot him three times—once in the chest and twice in the abdomen—at point blank range. Gandhi’s last words were, " He Ram—O God." The assassin was beaten and dragged away.
The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a 37-year-old editor of an ultra- nationalist newspaper. A Hindu Brahmin from western India, he an activist in the ultranationalist National Volunteer Corps (RSS) and an active member in the Hindu Mahasabha, a fiercely anti-Muslin movement that despised Gandhi for his toleration of Muslims and allowing the partition of India and Pakistan. Godse opposed Gandhi's secularist belief that people of all faiths shoul be treated equally. After shooting Gandhi he made no attempt to escape and in fact shouted for police.
Godse and seven accomplices, including his brother Gopal and a man who had seen his father and aunt murdered by a Muslim mob, tried to kill Gandhi ten days earlier. During this attempt the assassins realized their guns didn't work and the explosive they set off at a wall to cause a diversion didn't make much noise and hardly anyone noticed it. They were also worried that the grenades they planned to use to kill Gandhi might kill innocent bystanders and called the whole thing off. Vinayak Savakar, one of Gandhi's main political opponents, was believed to have been in on the assassination attempt. His involvement however was never proved and he was never tried or sent to prison.
Punishment of Gandhi's Assassins
Nathuram Godse was hanged on November 15, 1949. He went willing to the gallows, singing praises to the “living Motherland, the land of the Hindus. Another man, Marayan Apte, thought to have been the mastermind of assassination, was hanged beside him. Gopal Godse and three others were sentenced to life in prison for their involvement in the assassination. Gopal Godse was released on parole after 18 years in 1967. He told the New York Times in 1998 he had no regrets about what happened. "You know," he said, "I had mixed feelings. I knew I was going to lose my brother, and I had no doubt I was going to arrested and share his fate. On the other hand, our target had been fulfilled. We had done away with somebody who was not only satisfied with the creation of Pakistan, he wanted Pakistan to progress. He was in fact the father of Pakistan."
"So if you ask me, did I feel a repentance, my reply is no, not in the least. He said. “We had taken the decision from knowing what we were doing. I know if we allowed this person to live any longer, he would do more and more harm to Hindus, and that we could not allow....If we had gone to New Delhi to steal Gandhi's watch. That would have been a sinful, dirty thing. But that was not the case. We killed with a motive, to serve the highest interests of our people."
Gandhi Funeral and Legacy
During his funeral, Gandhi's body was carried through the streets of Delhi in a weapons carrier pulled by men with ropes to honor Gandhi's opposition to machines. Military airplanes flew overhead and dropped rose petals on his cremation bier. In 1995, some of Mohandas Gandhi's ashes were discovered in a bank vault. In 1997, they were deposited in the Ganges. The French socialist León Blum once said, "I never saw Gandhi. I do not know his language. I never set foot in his country, and yet I feel the same sorrow as if I lost someone near and dear." Years later, Lord Louis Mountbatten could still be moved to tears over the recollection of Gandhi's death. As of the 1990s, there were 47 direct descendants of Gandhi in five nations. They worked in a number of different fields. Gandhi's great-grandson Tushar Gandhi ran for office as a member of a lower caste party.
In India, Gandhi is regarded as the father of the nation. His statue can be found in many twons and even villages, his philosophy of non-violence is taught in every school and almost every town has a street named after him. Even so, his philosophy of simplicity and self-reliance is largely regarded as unrealistic and unworkable, and his pleas for religious tolerance have been ignored ever since India and Pakistan became independent nations.
Gandhi non-violent tactics influenced the Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King in the United States, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Gandhi pioneered tactics like the hunger strike and general strikes. Gandhi never won the Nobel peace prize even though career-soldier Theodore Roosevelt, Vietnam-War-strategist Henry Kissinger and apartheid-leader P.W. Botha did. But Gandhi was featured in a series of Apple computer advertisements with Picasso, Alfred Hitchcock, Amemlia Erhart, John and Yoko Lennon, Dalai Lama and Muhammed Ali.
Some feel that Gandhi's philosophy is too otherworldly and too rigid to be practical in the modern world. On the other hand the "Great Soul" had provided a moral counterpoint to the "opportunism, materialism and corruption that characterizes much of modern Indian life.” Many claim that Gandhi has become increasingly irrelevant in modern India. A former Gandhi ally C. Rajagopalachari told Time, "The glamour of modern technology, money and power is so seductive that no one—I mean no one—can resist it. The handful of Gandhians who still believe in his philosophy of a simple life in a simple society are mostly cranks." The government tries to keep him alive.
If Gandhi returned to India today he would no doubt be disgusted by the lack of spiritualism and religious harmony, and emphasis on machines and making a quick rupee he would see. His message of simplicity and austerity has little to do with mdoern Indian life. In 1997, Gandhi's great-grandson Tushar Gandhi said, "What would the Mahatma have disapproved of in today's India? What would he not have disapproved of? The casteism, the religious divide, the materialism, the aping of the West—all this he would have found reprehensible."
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015