Born into a merchant family in 1869, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was
under the influence of powerful people. Members of his family had served as
prime ministers of an Indian state for several generations. His parents
were strong in their religion, being devout and earnest Hindus. They were a
part of a Hindu sect that worshipped Vishnu and promoted non-violence.
Apparently, he was most influenced by his mother, a gentle and
intelligent person. According to Hindu custom, he married at an early age
and grew to love his wife greatly. Together, they had four children and
adopted a fourth.
Later, in 1888, he travelled to England to become a barrister-at-law.
There were several important influences that he encountered here: the
Western material style of life, which he decided not to follow, and in the
simple Russian way of living he found: the New Testament, and the
Bhagavadgita, the bible of the Hare Krishna movement. It was here that he
developed a sense of the presence of God in his life and the lives of men.
Gandhi then returned to India and studied law in Bombay, but he
quickly denounced it, feeling that it was immoral and could not satisfy
one’s conscience. Despite this, he used his schooling to help plead for
Indian settlers in South Africa that were being oppressed by the white
population. His personal experiences, including being ejected from a train
in Maritzburg, of not being allowed the same rights as others lead him to
begin a movement to help his people.
While in South Africa, Gandhi made himself poor so that he could
identify with his the peasants. He then proceeded to start a colony that
consisted of abused labourers. The colony became very large and many cities
were crippled by the lack of labourers. The government reacted to this by
jailing Gandhi several times along with many other of his followers. The
war he fought was one without weapons, already Gandhi was on his way to
starting his career of non-violent campaigns.
The main idea behind Gandhi’s teachings was non-violence. The words of
the Sanskrit language: ahinsa and sayagraha clearly express Gandhi’s
beliefs. The former means non-killing, non-destructive and the latter means
the force of universal truth. He believed that the killing of man or beast
is an unforgivable sin. Many who promoted these teachings of Gandhi simply
believed that it was their only option for resisting imperialism rather
than having a moral conviction towards his teachings. He taught that the
weapon that could be used was the conscience of the aggressor. This ahimsa
is, to some degree, in the tradition of Hinduism.
Hinduism teaches to stay away from temptation through various
exercises that test one’s ability to perform a difficult task, this
devitalizes a person and causes him to act on a non-violent level.
In addition, he taught that one should act rather be held under
subservience. Gandhi himself once stated, “Mere knowledge of right and
wrong will not make one fit for salvation…the Gita says: ‘No one has
attained his goal without action…’ From this quotation, we learn that his
teachings are influenced by the Bhagavadgita and that he believes that one
must act to reach a goal. But, he believed that one should denounce the
rewards and simply devote one’s life to acting on the behalf of others and
that life should be lived near the soil, away from the influence of
Also, Gandhi strongly believed in upholding the caste system,
believing that a person of one caste should stay a part of that caste. He
also upheld the old Hindu tradition of segregation of castes, indicating
that, “Interdining and intermarraige have never been a bar to disunion,
quarrels or worse.” According to Hinduism, the caste system lies in respect
for one another’s individuality.
Gandhi is well known for his efforts in fighting imperliasm in India
and South Africa. His methods were, unique in that they did not involve the
use of weapons.
During the South African War of 1899-1902 and during the Zulu
rebellion in 1906, Gandhi organised an ambulance corps consisting of
Indians to help the British fight. He believed that duty dictated that the
Indian population had a responsibity to help the British when they were in
a time of need. Perhaps he was trying to show them that the Indians put an
effort into helping the British forces just like everyone else and deserved
the same rights as everyone else.
It is interesting to note that Gandhi did not promote fighting, but he
helped those who were in need of assistance.
After the law was passed that all Indians were required to carry an
identity card with them at all times, Gandhi organised a group that
resisted the government. In 1914, Gandhi and his followers recieved their
first victory, the South African Government took away many of the laws that
had no real purpose except to humiliate the Indian people.
When Gandhi returned to India in 1914, the Indian population had heard
of his accomplishments and he was given the name Mahatma, which means ‘a
man of great soul’. For the next little while, he examined the situation
here and, while doing so, attained a few victories in his fight against
oppression. Several times in 1917, he unhardened the spirits of peasants
and motivated them to rebel without the use of violence.
In 1919, Gandhi called upon all Indians to engage in non-violent
disobedience against the British Government by withdrawing from Government
jobs and from schools and colleges. The magnitude of this act showed when
many cities were held at a standstill as the governmental system was unable
to act. Such was the power of non-violent protest.
When, in 1920, Gandhi became the leader of the Congress, more Indians
gave up their governmental jobs to join the movement. After many of his
follower’s were put into prison and cruelly dealt with, some people engaged
in violence. Gandhi’s distaste for this reaction showed, yet he blamed
himself calling it a ‘Himalayan miscalculation’ to have failed to teach the
people how to react non-violently before asking them to protest. As a
result of his ‘mistake’, he called off the entire movement, thinking it had
been a failure. On the contrary, the movement had been a great success, no
longer did the Indians fear the British jails or the British guns. It was
evident now, that the British Government in India was inevitably going to
After many failures to reach an agreement with the British Government
and after a short ‘Individual Civil Disobedience’ movement where many were
imprisoned, the British finally gave the power to the Indians in 1946. But,
the question remained as to whether or not the area should be separated
into two on a communal basis. As a result, many riots broke out between the
different interests of the people.
Gandhi himself was opposed to separation and to the violence that had
broken out. He went from village to village trying to get the people to
understand the benefits of unity, but it wasn’t working. He was forced to
agree with his comrades in the Congress who promoted partition into two
areas: India and Pakistan, which came about in 1947.
In 1948, Gandhi was fatally shot by a Hindu fanatic. All over the
globe, there was a certain sadness as many realized that the man whom they
had looked up to and followed was now dead. As Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the
Prime Minister of India, put it, “The light has gone out of our lives and
there is darkness everywhere and I do not quite know what to tell you and
how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu, as we call him the father of our
nation, is no more.
Gandhi’s influence certainly spreads the globe. He has been the role
model for many famous, influential people. One of these persons is Martin
Luther King, Jr (1929-1968) who was famous for leading a non-violent
movement for racial equality in the U.S.A.. Another person is Joan Baez
(1941- ) who became famous as a folk-singer, a composer, and a guitarist.
She lead many antiwar and civil rights movements in the U.S.. A third
person could be Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister of India. He was
deeply saddened by Gandhi’s death and could not have become Prime Minister
without Gandhi’s efforts.
Indeed, Gandhi was a influential man who helped father the nation of
India as we know it today. Without him, the Indians might still be held
under British rule. Without him, many might not have been inspired to fight
racism or imperialism non-violently.