October 2, 1869 - January 30, 1948
Also known as: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Mahatma ("Great Soul"), Father of the Nation, Bapu ("Father"), Gandhiji
Today I feature a wise man considered to be the father of the Indian Independence Movement - Mahatma Gandhi. Who was he and what did he do?
Gandhi spent twenty years in South Africa working to fight discrimination. It was there that he created his concept of satyagraha, a non-violent way of protesting against injustices. While in India, Gandhi's obvious virtue, simplistic lifestyle, and minimal dress endeared him to the people. He spent his remaining years working diligently to both remove British rule from India as well as to better the lives of India's poorest classes. Many civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., used Gandhi's concept of non-violent protest as a model for their own struggles.
Mohandas Gandhi was the last child of his father (Karamchand Gandhi) and his father's fourth wife (Putlibai). During his youth, Mohandas Gandhi was shy, soft-spoken, and only a mediocre student at school. Although generally an obedient child, at one point Gandhi experimented with eating meat, smoking, and a small amount of stealing -- all of which he later regretted. At age 13, Gandhi married Kasturba (also spelled Kasturbai) in an arranged marriage. Kasturba bore Gandhi four sons and supported Gandhi's endeavors until her death in 1944.
In September 1888, at age 18, Gandhi left India, without his wife and newborn son, in order to study to become a barrister (lawyer) in London. Attempting to fit into English society, Gandhi spent his first three months in London attempting to make himself into an English gentleman by buying new suits, fine-tuning his English accent, learning French, and taking violin and dance lessons. After three months of these expensive endeavors, Gandhi decided they were a waste of time and money. He then cancelled all of these classes and spent the remainder of his three-year stay in London being a serious student and living a very simple lifestyle.
In addition to learning to live a very simple and frugal lifestyle, Gandhi discovered his life-long passion for vegetarianism while in England. Although most of the other Indian students ate meat while they were in England, Gandhi was determined not to do so, in part because he had vowed to his mother that he would stay a vegetarian. In his search for vegetarian restaurants, Gandhi found and joined the London Vegetarian Society. The Society consisted of an intellectual crowd who introduced Gandhi to different authors, such as Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy. It was also through members of the Society that Gandhi began to really read the Bhagavad Gita, an epic poem which is considered a sacred text to Hindus. The new ideas and concepts that he learned from these books set the foundation for his later beliefs.
Gandhi successfully passed the bar on June 10, 1891 and sailed back to India two days later. For the next two years, Gandhi attempted to practice law in India. Unfortunately, Gandhi found that he lacked both knowledge of Indian law and self-confidence at trial. When he was offered a year-long position to take a case in South Africa, he was thankful for the opportunity.
Arriving in South Africa
At age 23, Gandhi once again left his family behind and set off for South Africa, arriving in British-governed Natal in May 1893. Although Gandhi was hoping to earn a little bit of money and to learn more about law, it was in South Africa that Gandhi transformed from a very quiet and shy man to a resilient and potent leader against discrimination. The beginning of this transformation occurred during a business trip taken shortly after his arrival in South Africa.
Gandhi had only been in South Africa for about a week when he was asked to take the long trip from Natal to the capital of the Dutch-governed Transvaal province of South Africa for his case. It was to be a several day trip, including transportation by train and by stagecoach. When Gandhi boarded the first train of his journey at the Pietermartizburg station, railroad officials told Gandhi that he needed to transfer to the third-class passenger car. When Gandhi, who was holding first-class passenger tickets, refused to move, a policeman came and threw him off the train.
That was not the last of the injustices Gandhi suffered on this trip. As Gandhi talked to other Indians in South Africa (derogatorily called "coolies"), he found that his experiences were most definitely not isolated incidents but rather, these types of situations were common. During that first night of his trip, sitting in the cold of the railroad station after being thrown off the train, Gandhi contemplated whether he should go back home to India or to fight the discrimination. After much thought, Gandhi decided that he could not let these injustices continue and that he was going to fight to change these discriminatory practices.
Gandhi spent the next twenty years working to better Indians' rights in South Africa. During the first three years, Gandhi learned more about Indian grievances, studied the law, wrote letters to officials, and organized petitions. On May 22, 1894, Gandhi established the Natal Indian Congress (NIC). Although the NIC began as an organization for wealthy Indians, Gandhi worked diligently to expand its membership to all classes and castes. Gandhi became well-known for his activism and his acts were even covered by newspapers in England and India. In a few short years, Gandhi had become a leader of the Indian community in South Africa.
In 1896, after living three years in South Africa, Gandhi sailed to India with the intention of bringing his wife and two sons back with him. While in India, there was a bubonic plague outbreak. Since it was then believed that poor sanitation was the cause of the spread of the plague, Gandhi offered to help inspect latrines and offer suggestions for better sanitation. Although others were willing to inspect the latrines of the wealthy, Gandhi personally inspected the latrines of the untouchables as well as the rich. He found that it was the wealthy that had the worst sanitation problems.
Back to India
Having spent twenty years in South Africa helping fight discrimination, Gandhi decided it was time to head back to India in July 1914. On his way home, Gandhi was scheduled to make a short stop in England. However, when World War I broke out during his journey, Gandhi decided to stay in England and form another ambulance corps of Indians to help the British. When the British air caused Gandhi to take ill, he sailed to India in January 1915.
Gandhi's struggles and triumphs in South Africa had been reported in the worldwide press, so by the time he reached home he was a national hero. Although he was eager to begin reforms in India, a friend advised him to wait a year and spend the time traveling around India to acquaint himself with the people and their tribulations.
It was during his first year back in India that Gandhi was given the honorary title of Mahatma ("Great Soul"). Many credit Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature, for both awarding Gandhi of this name and of publicizing it. The title represented the feelings of the millions of Indian peasants who viewed Gandhi as a holy man. However, Gandhi never liked the title because it seemed to mean he was special while he viewed himself as ordinary.
After Gandhi's year of travel and observance was over, he was still stifled in his actions because of the World War. As part of satyagraha, Gandhi had vowed to never take advantage of an opponent's troubles. With the British fighting a huge war, Gandhi could not fight for Indian freedom from British rule. This did not mean that Gandhi sat idle.
Instead of fighting the British, Gandhi used his influence and satyagraha to change inequities between Indians. For example, Gandhi persuaded landlords to stop forcing their tenant farmers to pay increased rent and mill owners to peacefully settle a strike. Gandhi used his fame and determination to appeal to the landlords' morals and used fasting as a means to convince the mill owners to settle. Gandhi's reputation and prestige had reached such a high level that people did not want to be responsible for his death (fasting made Gandhi physically weak and in ill-health, with the potential for death).
On January 30, 1948, the 78-year-old Gandhi spent his last day as he had many others. The majority of the day was spent discussing issues with various groups and individuals. At a few minutes past 5 p.m., when it was time for the prayer meeting, Gandhi began the walk to Birla House. A crowd had surrounded him as he walked, being supported by two of his grandnieces. In front of him, a young Hindu named Nathuram Godse stopped before him and bowed. Gandhi bowed back. Then Godse rushed forward and shot Gandhi three times with a black, semi-automatic pistol. Although Gandhi had survived five other assassination attempts, this time, Gandhi fell to the ground, dead.
Clancy's comment: An interesting and passionate man. And, I'm convinced after many decades of involvement in human rights, that those involved in the rights of others, are people born with an empathetic and passionate gene to make change. It's a noble affliction, but one that can cause the greatest frustration.
Loved ya work, Mr. Gandhi! Pax vobiscum.