Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
Indian political and spiritual leader, called Mahatma (“Great Soul”). Gandhi helped India’s struggle for independence from Britain through a campaign based on nonviolence and civil disobedience. His doctrine of nonviolent action had a profound influence on Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the civil rights movement in the U.S, and Nelson Mandela, the most prominent figure of the black opposition to apartheid in South Africa. However, Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Nonviolence and truth (Satya) are inseparable and presupposes one another. There is no god higher than truth.” (from True Patriotism: Some Sayings of Mahatma Gandhi, 1939, ed. by S. Hobhouse)
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in Poorbandar, Kathiawar, on the western coast of India. For several generations, the Gadhi’s had been Prime Ministers in several Kathiawald States. Karamchand Gandhi, his father was the chief minister of Porbandar and a member of the Rajasthanik Court. He married four times. Putlibai, his last wife and Gandhi’s mother, was a deeply religious Hindu. When Gandhi was sixteen, his father died – four years later he lost his mother. “The outstanding impression my mother has left on my memory is that of saintliness,” Gandhi later wrote in his book of memoir, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth (1927-29).
Gandhi was married at the age of 13, as was not unusual by the custom. His bride, Kasturba, also was 13. She was the only daughter of rich merchants. Kastur Kapadian and Gandhi had four sons; their first child was born in 1885, but died after a few days. Kasturbai could not read or write and Gandhi’s attempts to teach her were fruitless. Although she often had to submit to her husband’s decisions, she also had a will of her own. The marriage endured until her death in 1944.
In 1888 Gandhi went to London to study law, leaving his wife for three years. In the new surrounding he began experiments with diet that continued throughout his lifetime. After he was called to the bar at Inner Temple, he returned home to practice as a barrister in Bombay. Unable to find a suitable post, Gandhi moved to South Africa in 1893. During his journey to Pretoria he had a firsthand experience with racist degradation, a most crucial experience in his formative years. Gandhi worked for Dada Abdullah & Co and the Indian community. Kasturba had again waited with the children in India, but in 1897 she joined her husband in Durban. Gandhi gained fame as a tenacious political campaigner, who courageously opposed the Transvaal government’s discriminatory legislation against Indian settlers. His ideological basis was much derived from the liberal-humanist values he had absorbed in England, exemplified in the works of Ruskin, Thoreau, and Emerson.
Gandhi remained in South Africa for 20 years and developed a system of non-violent defiance. For his services during the Boer War (1899-1902) Gandhi was awarded the War Medal. After the birth of their fourth son, Gandhi suggested to his wife that they sleep in separate beds. Gandhi’s one-sided decision and sexual abstinence caused Kasturba for a long time much stress. In search for spiritual development Gandhi studied the Bible, the Koran, and memorized the Bhagavad Gita. Also Leo Tolstoy influenced him deeply. Gandhi saw that his methods were in harmony with Hindu doctrines of ahimsa and that “the strongest physical force bends before moral force when it is used in the defense of truth.” In his middle thirties, Gandhi took the vow of bramahcharya, which means not only complete chastity but the elimination of sexual desire. To test his self-control Gandhi slept naked with young women.
In 1914 Gandhi returned permanently to India. His most prominent adversary, Gen. Jan Smuts, wrote to a friend reliefed: “The saint has left our shores, I hope, forever.” Gandhi became a highly influential figure in the National Congress, transforming it into an instrument of change. Following the massacre at Amritsar in 1919, in which British soldiers killed hundreds of Indians, Gandhi launched a policy of non-violent non-co-operation to secure swaraj (independence) from Britain. This process made Gandhi a gurulike figure. Resistance methods included strikes, refusal to pay taxes, abandonment of western for Indian dress, and refusal to respect colonial law. “One step enough for me,” Gandhi often said without planning his actions far ahead.
Gandhi himself adopted a simple, ascetic way of life, dressing only in a loincloth of handwoven cloth and sandals. He was jailed several times and went on hunger strikes to focus attention on his cause. When communal riots started on India’s northwest frontier in 1924, Gandhi undertook a 21-day purificatory fast. After he had walked some 200 miles on foot to the sea to collect salt illegally, the Viceroy started to relieve the punitive salt taxes and the government monopoly.
Gandhi also strove to raise the”Even Gandhi, with all his charisma, did not melt the hearts of his oppressors, as he had hoped. After softening, hearts harden again. Asoka too was wrong to think that he was changing the course of history, and that his righteousness woul last ‘as long as the sun and the moon’.” ( Theodore Zeldin in An Intimate History of Humanity, 1994)
Gandhi has been criticized for his nostalgia for ancient rural bliss and delaying the modernization and industrialization of his country. On the other hand, he has been regarded as the “true soul” of India. With other Hindu sages Gandhi shared a mistrust of worshipping followers, and he tried to avoid the title mahatma. In spite of this, his disciplines regarded him as a saint. Gandhi’s denial of the pleasures of food, sex, family, and friendship, has made his way of life extremely demanding for ordinary people, who otherwise have found inspiration from his courage and teachings. This question troubled George Orwell in his essay ‘Reflections on Gandhi’ (1949). While admitting that Gandhi never made claims of sainthood, he did not hesitate to reject sainthood as an ideal : “The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.”
“Become the change you want to see in the world.”