The assignment to pick a well-deserved, outstanding individual of the century was more challenging than I expected. Someone that has influenced our society in a positive way and will be referred to in the future is my idea of an outstanding individual. One person that has always stuck out in my mind from the first day of this assignment is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. With the nickname, “Apostle of Peace,” he has taught all following generations what “peaceful fighting” can accomplish. Time and other cultures have produced great leaders that have continues Gandhi’s goals of peaceful resistance.
Gandhi, who was born to a Gujarati family on October 2, 1869, was the youngest of five children. Although a mischievous child, he was very shy and often too scared to even talk to other children. A victim of peer pressure, he tried such things as smoking tobacco, which he stole out of the butts of his uncle’s cigarettes, and eating meat, which was totally against his religion. The reasoning behind this was the misconception that the British are so powerful and able to control the Indians because they eat meat. To do this, Gandhi stole money from his family to buy it, and lied to them about why he couldn’t eat dinner at home. This was one of the turning points in his life, the point where he promised to himself to never indulge in such acts.
As was accustomed in his culture, Gandhi was married at the age of 13. His bride, the daughter of the Major of Porbandar, was Kastur. She also played a huge role in the molding of who Gandhi became. She was also 13 years old, and she taught Mohan his first lesson in non-violence. Mohan had no idea what the role of a husband should be, so he bought some pamphlets, which were written by male chauvinists and suggested that an Indian husband must lay down the rules for the wife to follow. With the ridiculous rules that he gave her, she did not argue. She broke them and calmly questioned his authority and reasoning. He understood not to do that anymore. “When we face such situations we retort and react angrily making the situation worse and sometimes leading to the breaking of the relationship. But calmly, with common sense, one can achieve the same results” (Gandhi)
Gandhi’s father was a very generous person, and his income was spent on helping the poor and the needy. The family lived reasonably well, but there were no savings. When his father died, the family found itself in financial difficulties. In India, a son usually took over when their father retired or died. But the British wanted people who were “qualified” for the job, so none of the sons could become Dewan of Porbandar after Gandhi’s father, Karamchand, died. None of Gandhi’s brothers had jobs, and there was no hope of any of them inheriting their father’s title. The older brothers learned to write legal briefs and earned a little to help out the family. None of them were educated beyond elementary school, so the spotlight was on Gandhi to earn for the family.With the British entrenched in India, they were going to demand academic qualifications for all jobs. This led him to travel abroad and study law in London.
He not only studied law but came in close touch with many eminent philosophers and thinkers and spent many hours a day in discussions. He was ashamed that he had never read the scripture himself and did not know Sanskrit to be able to read the original. Instead, he read with them Edwin Arnold’s English translation of the Gita-The Song Celestial-which revealed to him the richness of Hindu scriptures. Gandhi’s motto in life, “A friendly study of all scriptures is the sacred duty of every individual.” emerged in England during this educational tour. He studied all the religions of the world and found there was a great deal in each one of them for all of us to absorb in our own lives. His respect for different religions and willingness to study them with an open mind is what broadened his perspective and enriched his mind.
He returned from England in 1891 and tried to introduce his western habits in his traditional home in Porbandar and, indeed, spent so much time and energy in this pursuit that he forgot that he had to set up a legal practice and start earning to support the family. Again it was Kastur who opened his eyes to his responsibilities. For someone as shy and timid as Gandhi, setting up a legal practice was not easy. He was not successful in Porbandar, so he went to Bombay and had no success there either. He tried to get a job as a schoolteacher to teach English but did not have the qualifications to teach English, only to practice law in English. After struggling for several months, he decided to go back to Porbandar and do what his brothers were doing; write legal briefs. His family was sad because they had spent so much money on his tuition and traveling. They ended up being in debt.
Dada Abdullah who had a legal case with another Muslim trader which had been going on for a long time without resolution, heard about Gandhi through his brother and invited him to come to South Africa on a one-year contract to work as an interpreter for him. He once again left India in 1893 to go to South Africa. Consequently, a week after his arrival, when it was time to go to Pretoria to attend the case in the Supreme Court, so he decided that he must travel by first class and he ordered his ticket by mail.
There were many things that happened in Gandhi’s life that influenced his drastic transformation, his trip to London, his exposure to the intellectuals there, his law studies, his failure in India and school teaching, and his acceptance to go to South Africa. In South Africa the Indians were not welcome by the white settlers. There he encountered a white co-passenger who boarded the train in Pietermaritzburg, who seeing a “black” Gandhi sitting in a first class compartment, reacted with a total lack of dignity. He was picked up and thrown off the train for refusing to vacate the first class compartment. This embarrassment initially cause him to get angry, and his next thought was to leave South Africa and go back to India where he felt he could live in greater dignity and honor but rejected that also because he felt that it was not appropriate to run away from a problem. His final idea was to seek justice through non-violent action. This is the point at which “satyagraha” was born. It was then that decided never to be pushed down again and to fight for the rights of minorities. He started to lead the Indian workers in South Africa and fought for their rights. He made a very important rule for himself which he used his whole life; never to use violence in his fights, even if others would use violence against him.
He started a project (ashram) where people from different religions lived together in peace and freedom. He never made no secrets of anything and was a nice and friendly person throughout his whole life. When he came back to India crowds were already waiting and cheering for him at the harbor and people celebrated his arrival. But that did not make him happy. He wanted to live like most of the people in India: out in the countryside and poor. He wanted to be one of them, one from the country he was born in but was away from for so long. So he started traveling through the country by train in the third class wagons. There he saw a lot of India and a lot of the ways how people lived and worked there. He became the leader of the Indian Campaign for Home-Rule. The Indians loved him because he was so close to them.
He had the opinion that a lot of poverty in India was the result of all the clothes that were produced in and imported from Great Britain to India. Since spinning used to be a common job for people in the Indian villages, Gandhi believed that these imported goods destroyed great parts of India’s economy and thus many people lost their work. Gandhi encouraged the people to start spinning again if they do not have anything better to do because so they could make some money and would produce something. One day – as a symbolic event – he asked his followers on a big meeting to throw all their British clothes on a big fire. He encouraged them not to buy any more British clothes but to produce and buy their own Indian clothes. After that many people started to boycott British goods. People in the British factories got unemployed but more people in India had something to do. That was only one step to India’s independence from the British.
On the 15-day voyage from London to Cape Town, Gandhi wrote his first book titled “Hind Swaraj.” This was focused on making India an independent nation. “The book was completed before he reached Cape Town and became distinguished for its anti-western civilization message. He asked India to reject western civilization completely because it had nothing worthwhile to offer. He entered a period of exclusivism.”
Gandhi knew that he wouldn’t gain anything for Indians outside of India. He knew that they must be liberated first for Indians to gain any respect or equality anywhere. He decided to move to India and find ways in which he could participate in the freedom struggle to liberate his people. Gandhi and Kasturba arrived in India and were given a welcome they had not anticipated. Gandhi was not aware that his reputation had preceded him. He became a national leader on arrival. Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Gandhi’s political mentor in India, advised Gandhi to spend a year traveling around India learning about the problems and making contact with the people. This made him even more popular among the average day peasants, and because he came from a higher cast family, he was popular among the wealth.
Another major step towards the Independence of the Indians, was when the whole nation to strike for one day. There was virtually no traffic, mail was not delivered, factories were not working and – for the British a very important thing – the telegraph lines did not work and the British in India were cut off their mother country. It was then that they first realized Gandhi’s power in India.
Most of Gandhi’s actions were a great success. The reason was that the British did not know how to act against an enemy who does not use violence. But it was very important as well that the media all over the world talked about Gandhi and his actions because otherwise there would not have been enough public pressure upon the British officials. More and more people everywhere in the world agreed with Gandhi when they saw the British violence against the non-violent people. And they loved him because he was so close to the people in his country. To work together with the press and to have no secrets was one of the important things of his work. Gandhi went to jail very often in his life. He was arrested several times in South Africa as well as in India. He used the time in jail to think and plan other actions. He also used the time to think about how he could help the Untouchables. These were the lowest class of Indians that most wealthy and middle class wouldn’t even acknowledge.He was a religious man and believed in casts but he did not think that God wanted Untouchables to have no rights. He went for long walks through India to collect money for the Untouchables and he fought for their rights his whole life. He also fought for the peaceful understanding of different religions. When fights broke out between Hindus and Moslems he tried to talk to them and when that did not help he started to fast which he did a lot of times in his life. Once he nearly fasted to death when Hindus and Moslems fought against each other. Then the fights stopped and the two religions started to live together in peace again. He also fasted when he heard of violence against the British or against soldiers or policemen. Violence made him very sad and he had more than once the feeling that all he had done was useless when people fought each other again.
On April 13, 1919, more than ten thousand men, women and children assembled in the Jallianwala bagh in the heart of the city of Amritsar to non-violently protest against the martial law. General Dyer was unwilling to tolerate such an act of defiance. He brought in his troops, blocked off the only exit from the walled ground and ordered the troops to shoot into the crowd. Within an hour 386 men, women and children lay dead and 1605 were critically injured. These were the British figures of casualties while the India figures are very different. The Indians place the number of dead beyond 1,000.Britain followed these outbursts with laws like commanding all Indians to crawl on their bellies when passing the street where the English schoolteacher was assaulted. Anyone who refused would be flogged to death. He also ordered that the injured in the firing should not be attended to by anyone for the next 72 hours, even if they died. This is crazy because all it did was cause violence in return. Gandhi had to step in to calm the people. “He said we couldn’t be to the British as they have been to us. It will not make us any different from them. The civilized thing to do is not to ever stoop down to the level of the oppressor, but to try at all times to raise the oppressors to new heights of awareness. This is the point at which Gandhi reverted back to inclusively.” He urged Indians to remember that they must not only liberate themselves politically, but also liberate themselves spiritually. “Swaraj, he said, is not just external freedom; it is also internal freedom.”
There was another very important event on India’s way to independence. The British had control of the salt that was taken out of the sea. Indians had to pay taxes for the salt nobody could live without. Gandhi thought that the rule over the salt industry was one of the British basics to rule India. He started a march over 140 miles (about 200 kilometers) to the ocean. When he started, Gandhi had only a few hundred followers but when they reached the sea they were a group of many thousands of people. People from many villages, which they came by, decided to walk with them. When they arrived at the sea Gandhi took a handful of salt. That was a symbolic action and he asked everybody to do the same. After the police “cleaned” them all away from the beach they decided to walk into the salt factories and take salt from there. The British ordered soldiers to stand before the gate to the factories and not let anyone in. The protesters walked to them and tried to walk in, only five at a time. And the soldiers hit them all until they could not walk any further. Women picked them up and took them away. No one on the side of the protesters used violence.
“During the Second World War Britain did not have much power to keep India as a colony anymore and they started to talk about independence. After the war, in 1947 India got finally independent and the British left the country.” But Gandhi did not feel like celebrating because religious fights broke out again. But with his speeches to the people and finally with his fast he stopped the violence and people lived together again. Pakistan was the part where most people were Muslims and India was the part with mainly Hindus. Gandhi did not want to divide the country but he could not help it. Shortly after his last fast with which he stopped the religious violence a fanatic Hindu shot him at his daily prayer.
One of the major reasons I picked Gandhi, as the most influential person of the century is the overall everlasting affect it has had on every society. A few of the peaceful leaders that have emerged are spread across the world. In Tibet, the Dalai Lama was so impacted, that he said, “To me, he was … the consummate politician, a man who put his belief in altruism above ant personal considerat6ions. I was convinced too that devotion to the cause of nonviolence was the only way to conduct politics.” In Poland, the founder of the Solidarity labor union, Lech Walesa was quoted in saying “we shall not yield to violence!” There have even been some major players from the United States. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, and playwright Larry Kramer all displayed signs of the peaceful resistance started and introduces by Gandhi. Through organized pickets, boycotts, and hunger strikes, people have used these means to get an effective point across.
Fights for rights happened and still happen all over the world again and again because there are always people who push others down. I think Gandhi played a big part in the fight for humanity and the rights of minorities. I think Gandhi was and is still a very significant person. He changed people’s minds and opened lots of peoples’ minds. Still today when people see the movie that was made about his life and his fights they think about this person and how successful non-violence and rebellion can be. And that it is important to save the (human) life and not to destroy it.
Everything that can be summed up about Gandhi happened one day. His intelligent thought out response to certain questions is totally intriguing. He memorizes me with his life and all of his accomplishments. Everything that he has overcome to set a clear path and give up his life and become a martyr for his beliefs. I feel the most powerful quote that Gandhi ever said was when a man asked Gandhi if someone killed his son would he believe in death as a punishment. Gandhi simply replied, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
“Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)” www.geocities.com/theloepa/gand_eng.html
Lpa Berlin. Written November 1997.
Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi, The Last Phase, (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Press, 1965), vol. 1-2.
Tendulkar, D. G., Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, (Bombay: V. K. Jhaver and D. G. Tendulkar, 1951-54), vol. 1-8.