Mohandas Gandhi (1869 - 1848)

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Mohandas Gandhi"He is the man," Romain Rolland said of Gandhi in 1924, "who has stirred three hundred million people to revolt, who has shaken the foundation of the British Empire, and who has introduced into human politics the strongest religious impulse of the last two hundred years."

But the most unusual tribute to Gandhi is undoubtedly George Orwell's, given shortly before his death in 1950.  Suspicious of pacifists and vegetarians, Orwell had to overcome most of his instincts to find anything good in a person venerated by so many: "Saints," his "Reflections on Gandhi" begins, "should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases."

After putting Gandhi to the test, Orwell comes down clearly on the side of the Mahatma ("great soul"), with a comment on his ability to "disinfect" the political air, as India and Great Britain settled down to decent friendly relations after independence.  "One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi," Orwell continued, and regard his basic aims "as anti-human and reactionary; but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with other leading figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!"

This rather minimalist endorsement of one of the great teachers of nonviolence is instructive, since it dramatizes the conflicting attitudes aroused by the most consistent pacifist.  It suggests as well how little is understood about nonviolent approaches to social change, even among sophisticated observers.

In a relatively brief history, nonviolence made a great leap forward, during and through Gandhi's experiments with truth.  His collected writings of 90 volumes, as well as the scholarship about him, provide the most extensive record available of its history.  That record has been greatly enhanced since 1973, through the research and writings of Gene Sharp.  Similarly, Richard Attenborough's award-winning and popular film Gandhi (1982), as well as Erik Erikson's psychoanalytic study, Gandhi's Truth, have helped bring Gandhi to the attention of a large audience.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, India, on the Kathiawar peninsula, where his father was prime minister of the region.  Married, according to Hindu custom at thirteen, Gandhi attended Samaldas College after completing the local high school.  In 1888, he left his wife and child and sailed for England, where he was admitted to the Inner Temple to learn the law.  Completing his studies and called to the bar in 1891, he returned to India, still rather infatuated with English tradition and finery.

Rather ill-at-ease and unsuccessful in his practice at home, Gandhi sailed for South Africa as an adviser to a Muslim businessman in 1893.  The following year, he read Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You, which exerted considerable influence upon him over a period of time.  Eventually, he became active as an organizer in various associations, and served in the ambulance corps during the Boer War.  In 1903, following two years in India and the birth of his fourth son, he returned with his family to South Africa.  Taking a vow of chastity, he became deeply involved, through his law practice in Johannesburg, in seeking a redress of grievances for Asians in South Africa.  By this time, he knew the essays of John Ruskin and "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau, and read daily from the Bhagavad Gita.  He also translated Tolstoy's "Letter to a Hindu" and established Tolstoy Farm, for Indian resisters.  Imprisoned on several occasions, Gandhi was nonetheless successful in campaigns against discrimination, and by the time he returned to India in 1914, he was well­-known in his home country.

A year later, he founded Satyagraha Ashram, a retreat for communal living, near Ahmedabad, and began a campaign on behalf of millworkers.  In initiating a massive campaign of civil disobedience against unfair laws, his goal became, by 1920, that of Indian independence from Great Britain, as well as peaceful co-existence between Hindus and Muslims.

In the early 1930s, following the proclamation of the Indian Declaration of Independence, Gandhi was imprisoned several times.  In 1932, he announced a fast unto death in protest against the treatment of untouchables.  His efforts for independence, which included a trip to England where he was warmly welcomed by workers and others familiar with his campaign, continued through the early years of the Second World War.  The struggle led to his and his wife's imprisonment, where they remained until her death in February 1944 and his release the following May.  In 1947, after independence from England had been accomplished, Gandhi initiated a fast to bring an end to religious strife prompted by the division of the sub-continent into Pakistan and India.  A year later, on January 30, 1948, he was assassinated by a radical Hindu as he moved through a crowd in the garden at Birla House, in New Delhi.

Gandhi and his Spinning Wheel in 1946 - Poona, India  (Photo: Margaret Bourke-White)Today, shrines and statues of him exist throughout India.  Gandhi Houses on many university campuses, and numerous memorials suggest his immense contribution to the intellectual, cultural, and political life of India.  For this reason, among others, it is obviously impossible to convey a sense of his remarkable achievement in a brief biography, which is documented in thousands of books, articles, and artifacts in every language and country of the world.

"We must widen the prison gates, and we must enter them as a bridegroom enters the bride's chamber.  Freedom is to be wooed only inside prison walls and sometimes on gallows, never in council chambers, courts, or in the schoolroom," Gandhi wrote.  The extent of his influence is suggested by the frequency with which such statements serve as a source of inspiration and guidance for war resisters and justice-seekers around the globe.  The quotation just mentioned, for example, provided the title for Philip Berrigan's fourth book, Widen the Prison Gates, written during his own imprisonment for resisting the war in Vietnam between 1970 and 1972. For almost every recent war resister, Gandhi, that "seditious Middle Temple lawyer and half-naked fakir," as Winston Churchill called him, has been a presence, a person to be contended with, either challenged or imitated.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in a famous photograph from the Civil Rights movement, is seated beneath a picture of Gandhi, and Daniel Berrigan, S.J., during his time in Danbury Federal Prison, reflected on Gandhi's influence in Lights on in the House of the Dead.  Numerous Americans, including King, have gone to India to learn how to appropriate Gandhi's theories and strategies to later struggles for justice.  The Reverend Carl Kline, who helped initiate the peace witness program for U.S. citizens on the borders of Nicaragua and Honduras during the civil wars there, participated in such a pilgrimage as an apostle of satyagraha.

In this violent era, amid nonviolent movements against injustice and violence around the world, Gandhi's influence still manages, as Orwell said, to "disinfect" the political air.  Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi's principal American disciple, regarded his approach to social change as the only practical one for a nuclear age.  "The choice," King said, "is clearly between nonviolence and nonexistence."

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from Justice-Seekers, Peacemakers: 32 Portraits in Courage, Mystic, CT: XXIII Publications, 1985.

Selected material by Mohandas Gandhi
  • An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiment with Truth.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1962.
  • The Gandhi Reader: A Source Book of His Life and Writings, rev. ed.  Homer A. Jack. NY: Grove Press, 1994.
  • The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. 90 vols.  New Delhi: Government of India, Publication Division, 1958-84.
Selected material about Mohandas Gandhi
  • Erik H. Eikson. Gandhi's Truth: on the Origins of Militant Nonviolence.  NY: W. W. Norton, 1969.
  • Louis Fischer, Gandhi: His Life and Message for the World.  NY: New American Library, 1954.
  • Gene Sharp, Gandhi as a Political Strategist.  Boston: Porter Sargent, 1969.

Related Resources


Selected quotes by Mohandas Gandhi

  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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