Mahatma Gandhi had a law degree, but he soon realized he was too shy to practice law. How did such a man come to stand up against governments and change the world?
Mahatma Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, Kathiawar Agency, British India. His true name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. "Mahatma," an honorific he would earn in later years, translates as "the great-souled one."
Gandhi was raised in a merchant caste family. His father was the diwan, or chief minister, of Porbandar. Both of his parents were Hindu, and his mother was a devout worshipper of the Hindu god, Vishnu. Gandhi's mother raised him to shun violence, to tolerate the views of others, to have simple needs, and to be a vegetarian. He once observed, "It may be possible to gild pure gold, but who can make his mother more beautiful?"
As a young boy, Gandhi was an average student. He enjoyed reading Indian classics, including stories of Shravana and King Harischchandra; for fun he liked to twist dogs' ears.
In high school Gandhi studied English for the first time, along with the Gujarati language, history, arithmetic, and geography. His world view was expanded when he met students of other castes and faiths, including Parsis and Muslims. An older boy introduced him to the idea of eating meat and a number of other vices that went against his family traditions. Gandhi experimented, then felt some mental anguish.
In May of 1883, when Gandhi was thirteen, he married fourteen-year-old Kasturbai Makhanji Kapadia. It was an arranged marriage, per tradition - the couple had been engaged for six years. After the ceremony Gandhi's new wife, usually called Kasturba or Ba, lived mostly at her parents' house.
Gandhi was ashamed of his lustful feelings toward Kasturba, feelings that disturbed him even when he was at school. One night in 1885 Gandhi left his father's house to sleep with his young wife, and while he was gone his father died. Gandhi later said, "I felt deeply ashamed and miserable. I ran to my father's room. I saw that if animal passion had not blinded me, he would have died in my arms." In addition, Kasturba, who was pregnant at the time, gave birth soon after. Their child lived for only a few days.
The couple would have four more children during the course of their marriage. Gandhi took a vow of celibacy in 1906, for reasons of spirituality, self-discipline, and commitment to public service. He once said, "I will far rather see the race of man extinct than that we should become less than beasts by making the noblest of God's creation, woman, the object of our lust." The couple remained married until Kasturba died in 1944.
Gandhi's family saw him as the best candidate to succeed his father as diwan of Porbandar, and they were advised that Gandhi would have a better chance if he earned a law degree. His mother did not want to let him go away to study, but she relented after he took a vow of abstinence from many worldly pleasures. Community elders still objected, saying he would be declared an outcast if he left India.
Despite all objections, in 1888, at the age of nineteen, Gandhi left India to study law in London, at the Inner Temple. While in London he wore Western clothing, took dance lessons, and searched for good vegetarian restaurants. He joined the Theosophical Society, which gave him a deeper understanding of the traditional Hindu values he had learned from his mother. He began to realize that all religions have similar values at their very core. He said, "If a man reaches the heart of his own religion, he has reached the heart of the others too. There is only one God, and there are many paths to him."
Gandhi returned to India in 1891, after he passed the bar. Only then did he learn that his mother had died - his family had hidden her death from him. He opened a law office in Bombay, but Gandhi was too shy to cross-examine witnesses. His practice failed.
For a short time he made a modest living drafting petitions for litigants, until in 1893 he accepted a year-long post with an Indian law firm in Natal, South Africa, then a part of the British Empire. Gandhi's wife and children made the trip as well.
A Transformation in South Africa
Gandhi was a target of discrimination in South Africa - he was thrown off of a train for refusing to leave first class, he was barred from some hotels, and he was beaten by a stagecoach driver for refusing to move for a European passenger. A magistrate in court once ordered him to remove his turban, but he refused. Over time, these experiences caused Gandhi to question his country's relationship with the British Empire.
Nevertheless, he was not initially concerned about the oppression of blacks in South Africa - he simply wanted Indians to be treated the same as whites, not oppressed along with blacks.
In 1894 he founded the Natal Indian Congress, to organize Indians in South Africa into a political force.
In 1900, during the Boer War, he organized a group of Indian volunteers to drive ambulances. The men had to carry wounded soldiers for miles when the terrain was too rough for the ambulances, in high heat. Gandhi achieved his goal of proving to the British that Hindus could manage tasks involving danger and exertion.
Over time Gandhi formulated a concept he called "satyagraha," a devotion to the truth, involving non-violent protest. He started wearing a traditional white dhoti, a long loincloth. He was arrested several times during protests, including the time he urged Indians to defy South Africa's registration act.
Gandhi became known internationally in 1913, after he was arrested for leading working-class Indians on a march from Natal into the Transvaal, to protest a tax levied specifically against Indians.
When Gandhi and his family returned to their homeland in 1914, he saw Indians living in poverty. For Gandhi, "Poverty is the worst form of violence." He vowed to help Indians gain more rights by using passive resistance. Following a massacre in 1919, when Gurkha soldiers killed hundreds of Indian demonstrators, Gandhi started advocating for Indian independence from the British Empire.
He took leadership of the Indian National Congress and gradually escalated their demands. He encouraged Indians to use khaddar, or homespun cloth, and to shun textiles imported from Britain. He said, "I wear the national dress because it is the most natural and the most becoming for an Indian."
He modeled an ascetic lifestyle, including prayer, fasting, and meditation. He led campaigns to ease poverty, expand women's rights, and increase religious tolerance. His followers started to call him "Mahatma."
In 1922 Gandhi was arrested, tried, and convicted for sedition, then sentenced to six years in prison. After only two years, however, he developed appendicitis and was released.
Gandhi led a March to the Sea in 1930, to protest Salt Laws that required Indians to purchase expensive British salt rather than mine their own. Participants boiled salt water and extracted the illegal salt. Gandhi was arrested again, but he was soon released so he could participate in negotiations in London.
The Round Table Conference was not a success for Gandhi, but he did meet the King of England and he gained international exposure.
During World War II, Winston Churchill sought support from India in Britain's fight against the Nazis. Gandhi led "Quit India" protests against this idea, however, because the British Empire was still mistreating the Indians. The Muslim League, on the other hand, cooperated with Churchill and asked for a separate Muslim state.
Gandhi and his wife were arrested. She died in prison in 1944; he was released from prison in the same year.
Independence by Partition
In 1947 Britain granted India its independence, but not as a unified country. The policy of Partition created two states - India for the Hindus and Pakistan for the Muslims. Gandhi opposed Partition, for he believed that Hindus and Muslims could and should live together in harmony. He said, "Partition is bad. But whatever is past is past. We have only to look to the future."
Gandhi traveled to Calcutta during the mass migrations and violence that came with Partition. He fasted in an attempt to bring peace. Regarding this habit, he once said, "My religion teaches me that whenever there is distress which one cannot remove, one must fast and pray."
On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was assassinated while walking to a prayer meeting in New Delhi. The assassin, a Hindu nationalist named Nathuram Godse, was angry because Gandhi had been negotiating with Muslims.
Some Indians celebrated the death of Gandhi, but many more mourned. Over one million people followed the procession when Gandhi's body was carried through the streets, then cremated at the Jumna River.
In November of 1949, Godse and a co-conspirator were hanged. Others involved in the plot were sent to prison.
Although Gandhi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times during his lifetime, he never received the honor. He was nominated a fifth time in 1948, the year of his assassination, but the committee decided they did not want to give the award posthumously. No award was bestowed in 1948. In later years, the organization expressed regret that they had never honored Gandhi.
Gandhi invented a small, portable spinning wheel that could be folded into the size of a small typewriter.
Gandhi always remained Hindu, but he sometimes expressed regret about the hypocrisy of organized religions.
After blacks gained the right to vote in South Africa, Gandhi was proclaimed a national hero.
Mahatma Gandhi is known as the Father of India. His birth date is celebrated as a national holiday in India - Gandhi Jayanti. He devoted his life to the cause of Indian independence from the British Empire. He said, "Just as a man would not cherish living in a body other than his own, so do nations not like to live under other nations, however noble and great the latter may be."
Gandhi once said, "Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man." Throughout the world, the date of his birth is celebrated as the International Day of Nonviolence.