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Mahatma Gandhi

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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (October 2, 1869January 30, 1948) (Devanagari: मोहनदास करमचन्द गांधी, Gujarati મોહનદાસ કરમચંદ ગાંધી), 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, inspiring other colonial peoples to work for their own independence, ultimately dismantling the British Empire to replace it with the Commonwealth of Nations. Gandhi's principle of satyagraha (from Sanskrit satya: truth, and graha: grasp/hold), often translated as "way of truth" or "pursuit of truth", has inspired other democratic activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lennon and the 14th Dalai Lama. He often said that his values were simple; drawn from traditional Hindu beliefs: truth (satya), and non-violence (ahimsa). His auto-biography, "The story of my experiments with truth" reveals his inner persona and reflections on his early life.

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Early life

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born into a Hindu family in Porbandar, Gujarat, India. They were descendants of traders (the word "Gandhi" means grocer). He was the son of Karamchand Gandhi, the dewan (Chief Minister) of Porbandar, and Putlibai, Karamchand's fourth wife, a Hindu of the Vaishnava sect. Growing up with a devout Vaishnava mother and surrounded by the Jain influences of Gujarat, Gandhi learned from an early age the tenets of non-injury to living beings, vegetarianism, fasting for self-purification, and mutual tolerance between members of various creeds and sects. He was born into the vaishya, or business, caste. 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.

Gandhi was a mediocre student in his youth at Porbandar and later Rajkot, barely passing the matriculation exam for the University of Bombay in 1887, and joining Samaldas College. He did not stay there long, however, as his family felt he must become a barrister if he were to continue the family tradition of holding high office in Gujarat. Unhappy at Samaldas College, he leapt at the opportunity to study in England, which he viewed as "a land of philosophers and poets, the very centre of civilization."

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 upon 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 could not stomach his landlady's mutton and cabbage. She pointed him towards one of London's vegetarian restaurants. Rather than simply go along with his mother's wishes, he read about, and 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 had not shown a particular interest in religion before, he began to read works of and about Hinduism, Christianity, and other religions.

He returned to India after being admitted to the British bar. Trying to establish a law practice in Bombay, he had limited success. By this time, the legal profession was overcrowded in India, and Gandhi was not a dynamic figure in a courtroom. He applied for a part-time job as a teacher at a Bombay high school but was turned down. He ended up returning to Rajkot to make a modest living drafting petitions for litigants but was forced to close down that business as well when he ran afoul of a British officer. In his autobiography, he describes this incident as a kind of unsuccessful lobbying attempt on behalf of his older brother. It was in this climate that he accepted a year-long contract from an Indian firm to a post in Natal, South Africa.

Civil rights movement in South Africa

At this point in his life, Gandhi was a mild-mannered, diffident, politically indifferent individual. He had read his first newspaper at age 18 and was prone to horrible stage fright when speaking in court. South Africa changed him dramatically as he faced the humiliation and oppression that was commonly directed at Indians in that country. One day in court in the city of Durban, the magistrate asked him to remove his turban, which he refused to do, and Gandhi stormed out of the courtroom. Several days later, he began a journey to Pretoria that would serve as the catalyst for his activism. First, he was literally thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg after refusing to move from first class to third class while travelling on a first class ticket. Later, travelling by stagecoach, he was beaten by a driver for refusing to travel on the footboard to make room for a European passenger. He suffered other hardships on the journey as well, including being barred from many hotels on account of his race. This experience led him to more closely examine the hardships his people suffered in South Africa during his time in Pretoria.

When Gandhi's contract was up, he prepared to return to India. However, at a farewell party in his honor in Durban, he happened to glance at a newspaper and learned that a bill was being considered by the Natal Legislative Assembly to deny the vote to Indians. When he brought this up with his hosts, they lamented that they did not have the expertise necessary to oppose the bill and implored Gandhi to stay and help them. He circulated several petitions to both the Natal Legislature and the British government in opposition to the bill. Though unable to halt the bill's passage, his campaign was successful in drawing attention to the grievances of Indians in South Africa. Supporters convinced him to remain in Durban to continue fighting against the injustices levied against Indians in South Africa. He founded the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 with himself as secretary. Through this organization, he formed the Indian community of South Africa into a heterogeneous political force, inundating government and press alike with statements of Indian grievances and evidence of British discrimination in South Africa. Gandhi returned briefly to India in 1896 to bring his wife and children to live with him in South Africa. When he returned in January 1897, a white mob attacked and tried to lynch him. In an early indication of the personal values that would shape his later campaigns, he refused to press charges on any member of the mob, stating it was one of his principles not to seek redress for a personal wrong in a court of law.

At the onset of the South African War, Gandhi argued that Indians must support the war effort in order to legitimize their claims to full citizenship, organising a volunteer ambulance corps of 300 free Indians and 800 indentured laborers. At the conclusion of the war, however, the situation for the Indians did not improve, but continued to deteriorate. In 1906, the Transvaal government promulgated a new act compelling registration of the colony's Indian population. At a mass protest meeting held in Johannesburg that September, Gandhi adopted his platform of satyagraha (devotion to the truth), or non-violent protest, for the first time, calling on his fellow Indians to defy the new law and suffer the punishments for doing so rather than resist through violent means. This plan was adopted, leading to a seven-year struggle in which thousands of Indians were jailed (including Gandhi himself on many occasions), flogged, or even shot, for striking, refusing to register, or engaging in other forms of non-violent resistance. While the government was successful in repressing the Indian protesters, the public outcry stemming from the harsh methods employed by the South African government in the face of peaceful Indian protesters finally forced South African General Jan Christian Smuts to negotiate a compromise with Gandhi.

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 (http://wikisource.org/wiki/A_Letter_to_a_Hindu|)," 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 as a socio-political activist were when the concepts and techniques of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance were developed. Upon the outbreak of World War I, Gandhi decided to return to India, bringing all that he had learned from his experiences in South Africa with him.

Movement for Indian independence

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Gandhi and Kasturba (1902)
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As he had done in the South African War, Gandhi urged support of the British War effort in World War I and was active in recruiting Indians to serve in the military. He did speak out against specific incidents of British oppression and supported the peasantry of Bihar and Gujarat, but he did not entirely break with the British, remaining on the periphery of the Indian nationalist movement. This changed in February 1919, when the Rowlatt Act, empowering the government to imprison those accused of sedition without trial, was passed. Gandhi called for a satyagraha that soon led to violent outbreaks across the country, most notably the Amritsar Massacre of 379 Indians by the British army, and martial law. The violence led Gandhi to end the struggle, but he had succeeded in placing himself at the center of the Indian national movement.

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 a hitherto amorphous and diffuse movement, transforming the party from an elite organization to one of mass national appeal. Gandhi expanded his non-violence platform to include the 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 men and 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. 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. This new program enjoyed wide-spread appeal and success, empowering the Indian people as never before, yet just as the movement reached its apex, it ended abruptly as a result of a violent clash in the town of Chauri Chaura, Uttar Pradesh, in February 1922. Fearing that the movement was about to take a turn towards violence, and convinced that this would be the undoing of all his work, Gandhi called off the campaign of mass civil disobedience. Now vulnerable, Gandhi was arrested on March 10, 1922, tried for sedition, and sentenced to six years. This was not the first time he had been jailed, but it was to be his longest term of imprisonment. Beginning on March 18, 1922, he only served about two years of the sentence, being released in February 1924 after an operation for appendicitis.

Without Gandhi's forceful personality to keep his colleagues in check, the Indian National Congress began to splinter during his years in prison, splitting into two factions, one led by Chitta Ranjan Das and Motilal Nehru favoring party participation in the legislatures, and the other led by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, opposing this move. Furthermore, cooperation among Hindus and Muslims, which had been strong at the height of the nonviolence campaign, was breaking down. Gandhi attempted to bridge these differences through many means, including a three-week fast in the autumn of 1924, but with limited success.

Gandhi stayed out of the limelight for most of the 1920s, taking little interest in politics, but returned to the fore in 1928. The year before, the British government appointed a new constitutional reform commission under Sir John Simon numbering not a single Indian in its ranks. The result was a boycott of the commission by Indian political parties. Gandhi pushed through a resolution at the Calcutta Congress in December 1928 calling on the British government to grant India dominion status within a year or face a new campaign of non-violence with complete independence for the country as its goal. Making good on his word in March 1930, he launched a new satyagraha against the tax on salt, highlighted by the famous Dandi March from March 21 to April 6, 1930, marching 400 kilometres (248 miles) from Ahmedabad to Dandi to make his own salt. Thousands of Indians joined him on this march to the sea. This campaign was one of his most successful, resulting in the imprisonment of over 60,000 people. The government, represented by Lord Irwin, decided to negotiate with Gandhi.

The Gandhi-Irwin pact was signed in March 1931. In it, the British Government agreed to set all political prisoners free in return for the suspension of the civil disobedience movement. Furthermore, Gandhi was invited to attend the Round Table Conference in London as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress. The conference was a disappointment to Gandhi and the nationalists as it focused on Indian minorities rather than the transfer of power. Furthermore, Lord Irwin's successor, Lord Willingdon, embarked on a new campaign of repression against the nationalists.

Gandhi was again arrested, and the government attempted to destroy his influence by completely isolating him from his followers. This tactic was not successful. In 1932, through the campaigning of the Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar, the government granted untouchables separate electorates under the new constitution. In protest, Gandhi embarked on a six-day fast in September 1932, successfully forcing the government to adopt a more equitable arrangement via negotiations mediated by the Dalit cricketer turned political leader Palwankar Baloo. This began a new campaign by Gandhi to improve the lives of the untouchables, whom he named Harijans, the children of God. 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.

By 1934, Gandhi had become discouraged with his collegues in the Indian National Congress, believing that they only saw non-violence as an expediency rather than a way of life. Therefore, he resigned as party leader and left the party entirely. His chosen successor in Congress was Jawaharlal Nehru, who was to become Prime Minister. They disagreed openly over the path to an independent India, yet Gandhi trusted Nehru over his authoritarian rival Sardar Patel to build the institutions to guarantee the liberty of India's citizens. Gandhi devoted his efforts in these years to a new program to educate rural India. He continued his fight against untouchability, promoted handspinning and other cottage industries, and attempted to create a new system of education suited to the rural areas. He lived a simple life during these years at a village in central India called Sevagram. He staged another fast at the end of the decade in Bombay on March 3, 1939.

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 in India herself. He said he would support the British if they could show him how the war's 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 they would not support the war effort unless India were 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 upon a payment to Pakistan. 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!). This is seen as an inspiring signal of his spirituality as well as his idealism regarding the possibility of a unifying peace. While some are sceptical of this, evidence from a number of witnesses supports the claim that he made this utterance (see External links). Some sources state that Gandhi's last words were "He Ram, He Ram" or "Rama, Rama". It has also been claimed that when Gandhi fell to the ground dying, he clasped his hands together in the form of the namaste.

Principles

Gandhi's philosophy and his ideas of satya and ahimsa were influenced by the Bhagavad Gita and Hindu beliefs, the Jain religion and the pacifist Christian teachings of Leo Tolstoy (The Kingdom of God is Within You). The concept of 'non-violence' (ahimsa) has a long history in Indian religious thought and has had many revivals in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain contexts. Gandhi explains his philosophy and way of life in his autobiography The Story of my Experiments with Truth. In applying these principles, Gandhi did not balk from taking them to their most logical extremes. In 1940, when invasion of the British Isles by the armed forces of Nazi Germany looked imminent, Gandhi offered the following advice to the British people:

I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions.... If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourselves, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them. (Non-Violence in Peace and War)

He also urged Jews and Czechs to commit a mass suicide as an act of non-violent resistance against Nazi occupation. In June 1946 he told to his biographer Louis Fischer:

Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher's knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs... that would have been heroism.

Although he experimented with eating meat upon first leaving India, he later became a strict vegetarian. He wrote books on the subject while in London, having met vegetarian campaigner Henry Salt at gatherings of the Vegetarian Society. The idea of vegetarianism is deeply ingrained in Hindu and Jain traditions in India, and, in his native land of Gujarat, most Hindus were vegetarian. He experimented with various diets and concluded that a vegetarian diet should be enough to satisfy the minimum requirements of the body. He abstained from eating for long periods, using fasting as a political weapon. He refused to eat until his death or his demands were met.

Gandhi gave up sexual intercourse at the age of 36, becoming totally celibate while still married. This decision was deeply influenced by the Hindu idea of brahmacharya—spiritual and practical purity—largely associated with celibacy. Gandhi spent one day of each week in silence. He believed that abstaining from speaking brought him inner peace. This influence was drawn from the Hindu principles 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 newspapers, claiming that the tumultuous state of world affairs caused him more confusion than his own inner unrest.

Returning to India from South Africa, where he had enjoyed a successful legal practice, he gave up wearing Western-style clothing, which he associated with wealth and success. He dressed to be accepted by the poorest person in India. He advocated the use of homespun cloth (khadi). Gandhi and his followers adopted the practice of weaving their own clothes from thread they themselves spun, and encouraged others to do so. While Indian workers were often idle due to unemployment, they had often bought their clothing from industrial manufacturers owned by British interests. It was Gandhi's view that if Indians made their own clothes, it would deal an economic blow to the British establishment in India. Consequently, the spinning wheel was later incorporated into the flag of the Indian National Congress.

The honorific title Mahatma

The word "Mahatma," while often 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 Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature). It was given in response to Gandhi conferring the title of "Gurudev" (great teacher) upon Tagore. As stated in his autobiography, Gandhi never accepted the title because he found himself unworthy of it.

The wide acceptance of this title outside India may in part reflect the complexities of the relationship between India and Britain during Gandhi's lifetime. Such acceptance is consistent with the widespread perception of his deeply held religious beliefs and commitment to non-violence.

Artistic depictions

The best-known artistic depiction of his life is the film Gandhi, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Ben Kingsley (himself half-Gujarati) in the title role. The Making of the Mahatma, directed by Shyam Benegal and starring Rajat Kapur, is a film about Gandhi's 21 years of life in South Africa. However, the film has since been criticised by post-colonial scholars who argue that it depicts Gandhi as single-handedly bringing India to Independence, and ignores other prominent figures (both elite and subaltern) in the anti-colonial struggle.

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, Lisbon, Canberra and San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago. The government of India donated a statue to the City of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to signify their support for the future Canadian Museum for Human Rights. [1] (http://www.mbchamber.mb.ca/news/News%2004/mccattendsunveilingofgandhistatue.htm)

There is also a large bust of Gandhi in front of the library at Laurentian University [2] (http://www.laurentian.ca) in Sudbury, Ontario.

Miscellaneous

Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize, though he was nominated for it five times between 1937 and 1948. Decades later however, the Nobel Committee publicly declared its regret for the omission. 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." Nobel Laureate and former Israel Premier Shimon Peres once commented that Mahatma Gandhi "belonged to the future not to the past."

Mahatma Gandhi's work is not forgotten by his descendants. His grandsons, Arun Gandhi and Rajmohan Gandhi, and his great grandson, Tushar Gandhi, are also socio-political activists, promoting non-violence around the world.

Mahatma Gandhi is not related to the Gandhi political family, who adopted the Gandhi surname when Jawaharlal Nehru's daughter Indira married Feroze Gandhi, a Parsi gentleman.

See also

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References

External links

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