Gandhi Gandhi Gandhi, lived from 1869-1948 and was also known as Mahatma Gandhi, was born in Porbandar, in the modern state of Gujarat, on October 2, 1869, into a Hindu family, Both his father and grandfather having been prime ministers of two adjacent and tiny states. After a modest career at school, he went to London in 1888 to train as a lawyer, leaving behind his young wife, whom he had married when she was in her teens. In London, Gandhi encountered theosophists, vegetarians, and others who were disenchanted not only with industrialism, but with the legacy of Enlightenment thought. They themselves represented the fringe elements of English society. Gandhi was powerfully attracted to them, as he was to the texts of the major religious traditions; and ironically it is in London that he was introduced to the Bhagavad Gita.

Here, too, Gandhi showed determination and single-minded pursuit of his purpose, and accomplished his objective of finishing his degree from the Inner Temple. He was called to the bar in 1891, and even enrolled in the High Court of London, but later that year he left for India. After one year of a none too successful law practice, Gandhi decided to accept an offer from an Indian businessman in South Africa, Dada Abdulla, to join him as a legal adviser. Unbeknown to him, this was to become an exceedingly lengthy stay, and altogether Gandhi was to stay in South Africa for over twenty years. The Indians who had been living in South Africa were without political rights, and were generally known by the derogatory name of ‘coolies’. Gandhi himself came to an awareness of the frightening force and fury of European racism, and how far Indians were from being considered full human beings, when he when thrown out of a first-class railway compartment car, though he held a first-class ticket, at Pietermaritzburg.

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From this political awakening Gandhi was to emerge as the leader of the Indian community, and it is in South Africa that he first coined the term satyagraha to signify his theory and practice of non-violent resistance. Gandhi was to describe himself preeminently as a votary or seeker of satya (truth), which could not be attained other than through ahimsa (non-violence, love) and brahmacharya (celibacy, striving towards God). Gandhi conceived of his own life as a series of experiments to forge the use of satyagraha in such a manner as to make the oppressor and the oppressed alike recognize their common bonding and humanity: as he recognized, freedom is only freedom when it is indivisible. In his book, Satyagraha in South Africa he was to detail the struggles of the Indians to claim their rights, and their resistance to oppressive legislation and executive measures, such as the imposition of a poll tax on them, or the declaration by the government that all non-Christian marriages were to be construed as invalid. In 1909, on a trip back to India, Gandhi authored a short treatise entitled Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, where he all but initiated the critique, not only of industrial civilization, but of modernity in all its aspects. Early Career After an undistinguished performance in a legal practice in India, Gandhi left for South Africa in 1893 to serve as legal adviser to an Indian firm.

The 21 years that he spent there marked a turning point in his life. The racial indignities to which he and his countrymen were subjected to turned the previously shy and diffident lawyer into a brave political activist. Realising that violence was evil and rational persuasion often worthless, he developed a new method of non-violent resistance, which he called satyagraha and which he used with some success to secure racial justice for his people. Gandhi also reflected deeply on his Hindu religion, interacted with Jewish and Christian friends, and evolved a distinct view of life based on what he found valuable in his own and other religions. He commanded a Red Cross unit in the Boer War, and organised a commune near Durban based on the ideas of Leo Tolstoy. Gandhi finally returned to India in 1915, after the government of the Union of South Africa had made important concessions to his demands, including recognition of Indian marriages and abolition of the poll tax for them. After travelling all over India to familiarise himself with the country of which he had only a limited understanding, he moved into politics, and soon became the unquestioned leader of the Indian nationalist movement.

Almost single-handedly he transformed the middle- and upper-class Indian National Congress into a powerful national organisation, bringing in large sections of such previously excluded groups (untouchables) as women, traders, merchants, the upper and middle peasantry, and youth, and giving it a truly national basis. Following the Amritsar Massacre in 1919, Gandhi led a nation-wide campaign of passive non-cooperation with the government of British India, including the boycott of British goods. He was never to leave the country again except for a short trip that took him to Europe in 1931. Though he was not completely unknown in India, Gandhi followed the advice of his political mentor, Gokhale, and took it upon himself to acquire a familiarity with Indian conditions. He traveled widely for one year.

Over the next few years, he was to become involved in numerous local struggles, such as at Champaran in Bihar, where workers on indigo plantations complained of oppressive working conditions, and at Ahmedabad, where a dispute had broken out between management and workers at textile mills. His interventions earned Gandhi a considerable reputation, and his rapid ascendancy to the helm of nationalist politics is signified by his leadership of the opposition to repressive legislation (known as the Rowlatt Acts) in 1919. His saintliness was not uncommon, except in someone like him who immersed himself in politics, and by this time he had earned from no less a person than Rabindranath Tagore, India’s most well-known writer, the title of Mahatma, or ‘Great Soul’. When ‘disturbances’ broke out in the Punjab, leading to the massacre of a large crowd of unarmed Indians at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar and other atrocities, Gandhi wrote the report of the Punjab Congress Inquiry Committee. Over the next two years, Gandhi initiated the non-cooperation movement, which called upon Indians to withdraw from British institutions, to return honors conferred by the British, and to learn the art of self-reliance; though the British administration was at places paralyzed, the movement was suspended in February 1922 when a score of Indian policemen were brutally killed by a large crowd at Chauri Chaura, a small market town in the United Provinces. Gandhi himself was arrested shortly thereafter, tried on charges of sedition, and sentenced to imprisonment for six years. At The Great Trial, as his biographers know it, Gandhi delivered a masterful indictment of British rule.

Development of Gandhi’s Thought and Practice Convinced that independence had no meaning without a moral and social transformation, Gandhi launched a comprehensive programme of national regeneration. This involved fighting prejudices against manual labour, overcoming the urban-rural divide, developing a love of languages, and eradicating the discriminatory practice of Untouchability. Gandhi also fostered among his countrymen national self-respect and confidence in their ability to overthrow British rule. He gave Hinduism an activist and social orientation, generously borrowed from other religious and cultural traditions, and became an inspiring example of a genuine inter-faith and community dialogue. He perfected the method of satyagraha that he had discovered in South Africa, added new forms of action to its repertoire, and developed what he called the new science of non-violence involving moral conversion of the opponent by a delicate surgery of the soul.

His actions inspired the great poet Rabindranath Tagore to call him Mahatma (Sanskrit, great soul). While fighting simultaneously on the social, economic, religious, and political fronts, Gandhi carried on an even fiercer battle at the personal level. Determined to become as perfect as any human being could be, he set about mastering all his senses and desires. From 1901 onward he embarked on daring experiments in sexual self-control. Rejecting the cowardly celibacy of traditional religions, he lived among and later slept naked with some of his women associates, both to probe the outermost limits of sexuality and to show that it was possible to attain absolute and child-like innocence. His moral courage, candour, and experimental vitality have few if any parallels in history.

Gandhi’s moral and political thought was based on a relatively simple principle. For him the universe was regulated by a Supreme Intelligence or Principle, which he called satya (Truth) and, as a concession to convention, God. It was embodied in all living things, above all in human beings, in the form of self-conscious soul or spirit. Since all human beings were part of the divine essence, they were ultimately one. They were not merely equal but identical.

As such, love was the only proper form of relation between them; it was the law of our being, of our species. Positively, love implied care and concern for others and total dedication to the cause of wiping away every tear from every eye. Negatively, it implied ahimsa, or non-violence. Gandhi’s entire social and political thought, including his theory of satyagraha, was an attempt to work out the implications of the pr …


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