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Encyclopedia > Mohandas K. Gandhi
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi
"Father of the nation" —Mahatma Gandhi
Born October 2, 1869
Porbandar, Gujarat, India
Died January 30, 1948
New Delhi, India

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (October 2, 1869January 30, 1948) (Devanagari: मोहनदास करमचन्द गांधी), called Mahatma Gandhi, was the charismatic leader who brought the cause of India's independence from British colonial rule to world attention. His philosophy of non-violence, for which he coined the term satyagraha has influenced both nationalist and international movements for peaceful change.

By means of non-violent civil disobedience, Gandhi helped bring about India's independence from British rule. This inspired other colonial peoples to work for their own independence, ultimately dismantling the British Empire and replacing it with the Commonwealth of Nations. Gandhi's principle of satyagraha ("truth force"), often translated as "way of truth" or "pursuit of truth", has inspired other democratic activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. He often said that his values were simple; drawn from traditional Hindu beliefs: truth (satya), and non-violence (ahimsa).


Early life

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born into a Hindu family in Porbandar, Gujarat, India. He was the son of Karamchand Gandhi, the dewan (Chief Minister) of Porbander, and Putlibai, Karamchand's fourth wife. They were descendants of traders (the word "Gandhi" means grocer). At the age of 13 Gandhi married Kasturba Makharji, who was the same age as he. They had four sons: Harilal Gandhi, born in 1888; Manilal Gandhi, born in 1892; Ramdas Gandhi, born in 1897; and Devdas Gandhi, born in 1900.

At the age of 19, Gandhi went to University College, of the University of London, to train as a barrister. His time in London, the Imperial capital, was influenced by a vow he had made to his mother on leaving India to observe the Hindu precepts of abstinence from meat and alcohol. Although Gandhi experimented with becoming "English", taking dancing lessons for example, he couldn't stomach his landlady's mutton and cabbage. She pointed him towards one of London's vegetarian restaurants. Rather than simply going along with his mother's wishes, he read about, and became intellectually converted to, vegetarianism. He joined the Vegetarian Society, was elected to its Executive Committee, and founded a local chapter. He later credited this with giving him valuable experience in organising and running institutions. Some of the vegetarians he met were members of the Theosophical Society, which had been founded in 1875 by H.P. Blavatsky to further universal brotherhood. The Theosophists were devoted to the study of Buddhist and Hindu Brahmanistic literature. They encouraged Gandhi to read the Bhagavad Gita. Although he hadn't shown a particular interest in religion before then, he began to read works of, and about, Hinduism, Christianity, and other religions.

He returned to India after being admitted to the British bar. He tried to establish a law practice in Bombay/Mumbai, but had limited success.

Civil rights movement in South Africa

In April 1893, an Indian firm sent Gandhi to South Africa. Gandhi was dismayed to see the prevalent denial of civil liberties and political rights to Indian immigrants, mainly indentured labourers and self-employed traders. He began protesting and lobbying against legal and racial discrimination towards Indians in South Africa. He has been criticised for not extending his activism to the African population.

One of the most cited incidents of his initial days in South Africa was his physical removal from a train in Pietermaritzburg. He had refused to move to the third class coach while travelling on a first class ticket. In June 1907, Gandhi organised a campaign against 'The Black Act', which made registration of all Asians in South Africa compulsory. In September 1913, he joined the campaign against nullification of marriages not consecrated according to Christian rites.

Gandhi was arrested on November 6, 1913 while leading a march of Indian miners in South Africa. In 1914, the government promised to alieviate anti-Indian discrimination in South Africa.

During his years in South Africa, Gandhi drew inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita and the writings of Leo Tolstoy, who in the 1880s had undergone a profound conversion to a personal form of Christian anarchism. Gandhi translated Tolstoy's "Letter to a Hindu," [1] (http://sources.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letter_to_a_Hindu_-_Leo_Tolstoy) written in 1908 in response to aggressive Indian nationalists. The two corresponded until Tolstoy's death in 1910. The letter by Tolstoy applies Hindu philosophy from the Vedas and the sayings of Krishna to the growing Indian nationalism. Gandhi was also inspired by the American writer Henry David Thoreau's famous essay on “Civil Disobedience." Gandhi's years in South Africa were his formative years as a socio-political activist, when the concepts and techniques of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance were developed.

During World War I Gandhi returned to India, where he pressed Indians to join the British Indian Army. He believed that this display of loyalty to the British Empire would motivate the British make India a self-governing dominion within the Empire. However, this did not happen.

Movement for Indian independence

After the war, he became involved with the Indian National Congress and the movement for independence. He gained worldwide publicity through his policies of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and the use of fasting as a form of protest. The British authorities repeatedly imprisoned him. His longest term of imprisonment began on March 18, 1922 when he was sentenced to six years for civil disobedience – although he served only 2 years of that sentence. Gandhi spent a total of 2,338 days in prison during his lifetime.

Gandhi's other successful strategies for the independence movement included swadeshi policy – the boycott of foreign-made goods, especially British goods. Linked to this was his advocacy that khadi (homespun cloth) be worn by all Indians instead of British-made textiles. Gandhi exhorted Indian women, rich or poor, to spend time each day spinning khadi in support of the independence movement. This was a strategy to include women in the movement at a time when many thought that such activities were not 'respectable' for women.

His pro-independence stance hardened after the Amritsar Massacre in 1919, when British and Gurkha soldiers opened fire on a peaceful political gathering, killing hundreds of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. In addition to boycotting British products, Gandhi urged the people to boycott British educational institutions and law courts, to resign from government employment, to refuse to pay taxes, and to forsake British titles and honours.

In April 1920, Gandhi was elected president of the All-India Home Rule League. He was invested with executive authority on behalf of the Indian National Congress in December 1921. Under Gandhi's leadership, the Congress was reorganized and given a new constitution, with the goal of swaraj (independence). Membership in the party was opened to anyone prepared to pay a token fee. A hierarchy of committees was set up to improve discipline and control over the hitherto amorphous and diffuse movement. These measures transformed the party from an elite organization to one of mass national appeal.

In 1922, Gandhi called off his civil disobedience movement after violence erupted at Chauri Chaura, Uttar Pradesh. He turned to social activism, establishing the Sabarmati Ashram at Ahmedabad, and began the newspaper Young India. He worked for equal rights for the historically downtrodden castes in Hindu society, particularly the untouchables, whom he named Harijan (children of God).

Gandhi re-entered the independence movement in 1930 when the Congress called upon him to lead another mass civil disobedience movement. He carried out his most famous campaign from March 21 to April 6 1930, marching 400 kilometres from Ahmedabad to Dandi. Thousands walked with him to the sea in what came to be known as the Dandi March. The object was for the people to collect their own salt rather than pay a salt tax to the government .

The Gandhi-Irwin pact was signed in March 1931. According to its terms the British Goverment agreed to set all political prisoners free in return for the suspension of the civil disobedience movement. In August 1931, Gandhi made a visit to England, including a trip to Birmingham, to attend the second Round Table Conference with the British government. The talks ended in failure. Gandhi returned to India and resumed civil disobedience.

On May 8, 1933 Gandhi began a 21-day fast to protest British oppression in India. In the summer of 1934, three unsuccessful attempts were made on his life. At Bombay, on March 3, 1939, Gandhi again fasted to protest the autocratic rule of India.

Gandhi's chosen successor in Congress was Jawaharlal Nehru, who was to become Prime Minister. They disagreed openly over the path to an independent India. However, Gandhi trusted Nehru over his authoritarian rival Sardar Patel to build the institutions that would guarantee the liberty of India's citizens.

World War II

World War II broke out in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Gandhi was fully sympathetic with the victims of fascist aggression. After lengthy deliberations with colleagues in the Congress, he declared that India could not be party to a war ostensibly being fought for democratic freedom while that freedom was denied her. He said he would support the British if they could show him how the war aims would be implemented in India after the war. The British government's response was entirely negative. They began fomenting tension between Hindus and Muslims. As the war progressed Gandhi increased his demands for independence, drafting a resolution calling for the British to Quit India. This sparked the largest movement for Indian independence to date, with mass arrests and violence on an unprecedented scale. Gandhi and his supporters made it clear that they would not support the war effort unless India was granted immediate independence. He even hinted at an end for his otherwise unwavering support for non-violence, saying that the "ordered anarchy" around him was "worse than real anarchy". Following this, he was arrested in Bombay by British forces on August 9, 1942 and held for two years.

Partition of India and assassination

Gandhi had great influence among the Hindu and Muslim communities of India. It is said that he ended riots through his mere presence. He was vehemently opposed to any plan that partitioned India into two separate countries. Nevertheless, partition was eventually adopted, creating, in 1947, a secular but Hindu-majority India and an Islamic Pakistan. On the day of the power transfer, Gandhi did not celebrate independence with the rest of India, but was alone in Calcutta mourning partition.

He was assassinated in Birla house, New Delhi on January 30, 1948 by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu radical who held him responsible for weakening the new government by insisting on a payment to Pakistan. Before shooting Gandhi, Godse bowed before him three times. Godse was later tried, convicted, and executed.

It is indicative of Gandhi's long struggle and search for God that his dying words were said to have been an homage to the Hindu conception of God, Rama: "He Ram!" (Oh God!). It is seen as an inspiring signal of his spirituality as well as his idealism regarding the possibility of unificatory peace. While there are some who are sceptical of this, evidence (from a number of witnesses), and popular opinion, support this utterance as having occurred (‘’see’’ External links).


Gandhi's philosophies and his ideas of satya and ahimsa had been influenced by the Bhagavad Gita and Hindu beliefs as well as practiced Jain religion. The concept of 'non-violence' (ahimsa) was a long-standing one in Indian religious thought and saw many revivals with Hindu, Buddhist and Jain contexts. Gandhi explains his philosophy and way of life in his autobiography The Story of my Experiments with Truth.

Although he experimented with eating meat when he first left India, he subsequently became a strict vegetarian and wrote books on the subject while studying law in London (where he met vegetarian campaigner Henry Salt at meetings of the Vegetarian Society). It might be added that the idea of vegetarianism was a deeply ingrained one in Hindu and Jain society in India, and that in his native land of Gujarat most Hindus were vegetarian. He experimented with different diets and believed that a vegetarian diet should be enough to satisfy the minimum requirements of the body. He also abstained from eating for substantial periods of time, and he used this practice of fasting also as a political weapon.

Gandhi gave up sexual intercourse at the age of 36 and became totally celibate while still married, a course deeply influenced by the Hindu idea of brahmacharya, or spiritual and practical purity, largely associated with celibacy. This was announced to his wife, not discussed with her.

Gandhi spent a day of the week in silence. He would abstain from speaking and he believed it brought him inner peace. These were drawn from such Hindu understandings of the power of mouna (silence) and shanti (peace). On such days he communicated with others by writing on paper. For three and a half years, from the age of 37, Gandhi refused to read any newspapers, claiming that the tumultuous state of world affairs caused him more confusion than his own inner unrest.

After returning to India from a successful legal career in South Africa, he gave up his Western-style clothing that represented wealth and success. His idea was to dress to be accepted by the poorest person in India. He advocated use of home-spun cloth (khadi). Gandhi and his followers followed the practice of weaving their own cloth using a spinning-wheel and wearing a dress made of that. He also advocated others use spinning wheels to spin clothes. This was a threat to the British establishment – while Indian workers were often idle due to unemployment, they bought their clothing from foreign English industrial manufacturers – if Indians spun their own clothes, this would leave British industry idle. The spinning wheel was later incorporated into the flag of the Indian National Congress.

The honorific title Mahatma

The word "Mahatma," while widely mistaken for Gandhi's given name, is taken from the Sanskrit term of reverence "mahatman," meaning “great souled.” The title "Mahatma" was accorded Gandhi in 1915 by his admirer Rabindranath Tagore (the first Indian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature). It was given in response to Gandhi having conferred the title "Gurudev" (great teacher) upon Tagore.

The wide acceptance of its use outside India may in part reflect the complexities, during his life, of the relationship between India and Britain. In any case, that acceptance is fairly consistent with widespread perception of Gandhi as having been deeply committed to non-violence and his religious beliefs.

Artistic depictions

The most famous artistic depiction of his life is the film Gandhi, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Ben Kingsley (interestingly, himself half-Gujarati) in the title role. Another film that deals with Gandhi's 21 years of life in South Africa is The Making of the Mahatma directed by Shyam Benegal and starring Rajat Kapur.

In the United Kingdom, there are several prominent statues of Gandhi, most notably in Tavistock Gardens, London, near University College London where he studied law.

In the United States, there are statues of Gandhi outside the Ferry Building in San Francisco, in Herman Park, Houston Garden Center in Houston, in Union Square Park in New York City, at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, and near the Indian Embassy in the Dupont Circle neighbourhood of Washington, DC.

There are statues in honour of Gandhi in other cities such as Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Lisbon. The government of India donated a statue to the City of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to signify their support for what will eventual be home to The Canadian Museum for Human Rights. [2] (http://www.mbchamber.mb.ca/news/News%2004/mccattendsunveilingofgandhistatue.htm)


Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize, though he was nominated five times for it between 1937 and 1948. Decades later however, the omission was publicly regretted by the Nobel Committee. When the Dalai Lama was awarded the Peace Prize in 1989, the chairman of the committee said that this was "in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi".

The official Nobel e-museum has an article discussing the issue. [3] (http://www.nobel.se/peace/articles/gandhi/index.html)

Throughout his lifetime, Gandhi's activities attracted a wide range of comment and opinion. For example, as a subject of the British Empire, Winston Churchill once stated "It is...nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well-known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal Palace." Conversely, Albert Einstein said of Gandhi: "Generations to come, it may be, will scarcely believe that such a one, as this, ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth."

Mahatma Gandhi's work is not forgotten by his future generations. His grandsons, Arun Gandhi and Rajmohan Gandhi and even his great grandson, Tushar Gandhi, are also socio-political activists, involved with the promotion of non-violence around the world.

Mahatma Gandhi is not related to the Gandhi political family who adopted the Gandhi surname when Indira Gandhi married Feroze Gandhi.

See also


  • An Autobiography:The Story of My Experiments With Truth, by Mohandas Gandhi. ISBN 0807059099
  • The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas, by Mohandas Gandhi, Louis Fischer. ISBN 1400030501
  • Gandhi: A Life, by Yogesh Chadha. ISBN 0471350621
  • Gandhi, Peter Rhe, 2002. ISBN 0714892793
  • Sofri, Gianni. 1995. Gandhi and India: A Century in Focus. English edition translated from the Italian by Janet Sethre Paxia. The Windrush Press, Gloucestershire. 1999. ISBN 1-900624-12-5

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:

  Results from FactBites:
Mahatma Gandhi (807 words)
Mohandas Karamchand "Mahatma" (Sanskrit: "great soul") Gandhi (October 2, 1869 - January 30, 1948) was one of the founding fathers of the modern Indian state and an influential advocate of pacifism as a means of revolution.
Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Gujarat, India.
Gandhi translated Tolstoy's "Letter to a Hindu" which was written in 1908 in response to aggressive Indian nationalists, and the two corresponded until Tolstoy's death in 1910.
Gandhi - MSN Encarta (1227 words)
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, also known as Mahatma Gandhi, was born in Porbandar in the present state of Gujarāt on October 2, 1869, and educated in law at University College, London.
Gandhi also acknowledged his debt to the teachings of Christ and to the 19th-century American writer Henry David Thoreau, especially to Thoreau's famous essay “Civil Disobedience.” Gandhi considered the terms passive resistance and civil disobedience inadequate for his purposes, however, and coined another term, satyagraha (Sanskrit for “truth and firmness”).
Gandhi traveled through India, teaching ahimsa and demanding eradication of “untouchability.” The esteem in which he was held was the measure of his political power.
  More results at FactBites »



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