Demystifying Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Gandhiji or  Mahatma (“Great-Souled”), as he was popularly known, pioneered satyagraha. This is defined as resistance to tyranny through mass civil disobedience, a philosophy firmly founded upon ahimsa, or total non-violence. This concept helped India to gain independence, and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. In his autobiography, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote that “Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of non-violent social change”.

Such high level talk and India Government red tape has always mystified Gandhi. So on his 142nd Birth Anniversary thought I will do my bit to demystify this bespectacled old man. He was born in Porbandar, a coastal town of Gujarat in India on 2nd October, 1869. His father, Karamchand Gandhi, who belonged to the Hindu Modh community, was the ‘Diwan’ of Porbander state, in the Kathiawar peninsula of Western India. The Gandhi family as well-to-do by Indian standards and at one stage Karamchand Gandhi owned three houses.

Karamchand Gandhi and his fourth wife Putlibai (other three wives having died at child birth) had three sons and Mohandas was the youngest. His elder brother Laxmidas practiced law and became a government treasury official. His other brother, Karsandas, was a sub-inspector of police.

When he was very young Mohandas and a friend stole money from a servant to buy cigarettes. He felt so guilty about the incident that he admitted to his father and never smoked again. With his mother being very spiritual and with the Jain traditions being prevalent in his region, young Mohandas absorbed early influences that would play an important role in his adult life. These included the compassion to sentient beings, vegetarianism, fasting for self-purification, and mutual tolerance between individuals of different creeds.

As child, Mohandas was inspired by the story of ‘Harishchandra’. He in his autobiography admits that it left an indelible impression on his mind and wrote, “It haunted me and I must have acted Harishchandra to myself times without number”. Mohandas Gandhi’s early self -identification with truth and love as the supreme value is traced back to his identification with these epic characters.

In May 1883, Mohandas, who was 13-years old then, got married to Kasturba Makhanji, who was 14-years old. It was an arranged child marriage, as was the custom in that region during those days. 1885, when Gandhi was 15, the couple’s first child was born, but survived only a few days. The couple went on to be proud parents of four children: Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas and Devdas.

Mohandas Gandhi left for London on September 4, 1888, to study law at the University College, and also to get trained as a barrister at the Inner Temple in London. (The Inner Temple was considered by Indians the most aristocratic of the four Inns of Court in London.) He returned to India after completing Law on June 12, 1891. On his return, he was informed that his mother had passed away. Mohandas’s attempts to establish himself as a lawyer failed when he was practising law in Mumbai. After applying and being turned down for a part-time job as a high school teacher, he ended up returning to Rajkot to make a modest living by drafting petitions for litigants.

Mohandas Gandhi arrived in South Africa in 1893 to handle a legal case in Pretoria. During these 21 years he started of and got fully immersed in agitation on behalf of South African Indians. In 1894 he enrolled as Advocate of Supreme Court of Natal, being first Indian to be so enrolled. The same year he founded the Natal Indian Congress and got more committed to South African Indian cause. He stayed on in South Africa for 21 years before returning back to India. In South Africa, Mohandas faced many discrimination directed at Indians. He was thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg after refusing to move from the first class to a third class coach while holding a valid first class ticket. Traveling farther on by stagecoach he was beaten by a driver for refusing to travel on the foot board to make room for an European passenger. These events were a turning point in his life and insisted him to launch the ‘Civil Rights Movement’ in South Africa from 1893-1914.

In between in 1896 when he returned to India and continued his agitation on behalf of South African Indians. He toured Mumbai, Chennai, Poona and Kolkata educating Indians in regard to grievances of South African Indians. In 1900 he sends Dadabhai Naroroji draft resolution on South African Indian problem for Indian National Congress session. By 1901 he sails back to India and by 1902 he had almost set up his practice in Mumbai but was called to South Africa to champion Indians’ cause against anti-Asiatic legislation in Transvaal.

In 1906, after the British introduced a new poll-tax, Zulus in South Africa killed two British officers. In response, the British declared a war against the Zulus. He actively encouraged the British to recruit Indians. He argued that Indians should support the war efforts in order to legitimize their claims to full citizenship. The British, however, refused to commission Indians as army officers. Nonetheless, they accepted his offer to let a detachment of Indian volunteers as a stretcher bearer corps to treat wounded British soldiers.

In 1907 Mohandas Gandhi urged all Indians in South Africa to defy a law requiring registration and fingerprinting of all Indians. For this activity he was imprisoned for 2 months, in 1908 but released when he agreed to the ‘compromise’ – voluntary registration after meeting with General Smuts at Pretoria. He was nearly killed by Pathans who regard the compromise, under which Indians are expected to give their finger-prints voluntarily, as a betrayal of Indian interest.

Mohandas was jailed 5 times in South Africa between 1908 and 1914. During his second stay in jail he read Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” and John Ruskin’s Unto This Last, which left a deep impression on him. He was influenced also by his correspondence with Leo Tolstoy in 1909-1910.  He even sent Tolstoy a copy of Indian Home Rule seeking his comments. The years in South Africa was also momentous to Mohandas’s personal life. He declared disinterest in worldly possessions, takes vow of brahmacharya for life, launched a newspaper ‘Indian Opinion’ and gives up European dress and milk and restricted himself to diet of fresh and dried fruit.

In 1912 Gandhi invited Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a respected leader of the Indian National Congress Party during that time, to South Africa. Gokhale was impressed with the young barristers work and he introduced Gandhi to Indian issues, politics and the Indian people. He provided personal guidance and mentor-ship to Gandhi.  He advised Gandhi to travel across India in third class compartment to ‘feel India’.

By 1914 Gandhi felt his job in South Africa was complete, and he made plans to leave the country. He left his passive resistance philosophy in South Africa, which was adopted by the African National Congress, and remained their policy of protest up until the 1960s, when the ANC finally decided to resort to violent means of protest against apartheid.

Gandhi returned to India to further develop his ideology in early 1915. He would take up Gokhale’s advice and used trains to travel the length and breadth of India. Few Indians of his time, or indeed since, acquired the knowledge of India that Gandhi was to gain by his travels, and there can scarcely be any Indian who had criss-crossed the country by train as much as Gandhi had done. In 1915, Gandhiji, spoke at the conventions of the ‘Indian National Congress’, and by 1920 Gandhi emerged as the leader of the Indian Independence Movement.

Despite his deep respect for Gokhale, Gandhi would reject Gokhale’s faith in western institutions as a means of achieving political reform and ultimately chose not to become a member of Servants of India Society which Gokhale founded. During this time Gandhi was also influenced by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, another tall leader of the Indian National Congress Party and lifelong political opponent of Gokhale. Tilak’s Swaraj (self-rule) and Swadeshi (self-sufficiency) push influenced Gandhi.

The ‘Jallianwala Bagh’ massacre in Punjab, in 1919 when the British troops killed about 400 innocent unarmed Indians turned the tide. It caused deep trauma to the nation, leading to an increased public anger and acts of violence. Gandhi criticized both the actions of the British Raj and the retaliatory violence of Indians. The same year Gandhiji persuaded the Indian National Congress to launch a Non-Cooperation Movement (1919 – 22) that soon attracted the support of the Muslim community. This movement snowballed into a country-wide agitation which took a violent turn with the Chauri Chaura incident (1922). Following this incident he suspended the movement and was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. However he was released in February 1924 for an emergency appendectomy.

By 1920 Gandhi commanded influence hitherto unattained by any political leader in India. He refashioned the Indian National Congress into an effective political instrument of Indian nationalism and undertook major campaigns of nonviolent resistance. Gandhiji employed non-cooperation, non-violence and peaceful resistance as his weapons in the struggle against Britishers who occupied India for 200 years.

But historians say Gandhiji stayed out of active politics and remained so for most of 1920s, preferring to resolve the gap between the Swaraj Party and the Indian National Congress and expanding initiatives against the evil practices of society like, untouchability, alcoholism, ignorance and poverty.  He returned to the fore in 1928.

The ‘Salt Satyagraha’ campaign was a non-violent protest against the British salt tax in Colonial India which began with the Salt march on March 12, 1930. Gandhiji led the ‘Dandi’ march from his Sabarmati Ashram with growing numbers of Indians joining him along the way. Several thousand marchers walked 241 miles to the coast, where Gandhi picked up a handful of salt in defiance of the government. When Gandhi broke the salt laws at the conclusion of the march on April 6, 1930, it sparked large scale acts of civil disobedience against the British Raj salt laws by millions of Indians. This signaled a nationwide movement in which peasants produced salt illegally and Congress volunteers sold contraband salt in the cities. Nationalists gained faith that they could shrug off foreign rule. The march also made the British more aware that they were subjugating India.

Gandhi was not opposed to compromise. In 1931 he negotiated with the Viceroy Lord Irwin, a pact whereby civil disobedience was to be canceled, prisoners released, salt manufacture permitted on the coast, and Congress would attend the Second Round Table Conference in London. Gandhi attended as the only Congress representative, but Churchill refused to see him, referring to Gandhi as a “half-naked fakir.”

In 1932, Gandhi began a fast to the death for the Harijans, opposing a British plan for a separate electorate for them. In this action Gandhi confronted Harijan leader Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, who favored separate electorates as a political guarantee of improved status. As a result of Gandhi’s fast, some temples were opened to exterior castes for the first time in history. Following the marriage of one of Gandhi’s sons to a woman of another caste, Gandhi came to approve only intercaste marriages.

Gandhi devoted the years 1934 through 1939 to promotion of spinning, basic education, and Hindi as the national language. During these years Gandhi worked closely with Jawaharlal Nehru in the Congress Working Committee, but there were also differences between the two. Nehru and others came to view the Mahatma’s ideas on economics as anachronistic. Nevertheless, Gandhi designated Nehru his successor, saying, “I know this, that when I am gone he will speak my language.”

In 1939 the bickering and frosty relationship between, once follower, Subhash Candra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi reached a climax, when Bose, now slowly asserting his radical views, was elected Congress President for a second term defeating Gandhi-nominated candidate Pattabhi Sitaramayya. Unable to hide his displeasure, Mahatma commented “Subhash’ victory is my defeat.” But this unhealthy environment within the Congress Working Committee made Bose’s task all the more difficult and soon he resigned from his post. (But in spite of all the differences in ideologies, both these great men admired and respected each other. In 1942 Gandhi called Bose the “Prince among the Patriots” for his great love for the country. Bose too admired Gandhi and in a radio broadcast from Rangoon in 1944, he called Mahatma Gandhi “The Father of Our Nation.”)

The ‘Quit India Movement’ was a Civil Disobedience Movement launched in India on August 1942 in response to Gandhiji’s call for immediate independence. Gandhi hoped to bring the British government to the negotiating table. Gandhi, Nehru, and other Congress leaders were imprisoned, touching off violence throughout India. When the British attempted to place the blame on Gandhi, he fasted 3 weeks in jail. He contracted malaria in prison and was released on May 6, 1944. He had spent a total of nearly 6 years in jail.

When Gandhi emerged from prison, he sought to avert creation of a separate Muslim state of Pakistan which Muhammad Ali Jinnah was demanding. A British Cabinet mission to India in March 1946 advised against partition and proposed instead a united India with a federal parliament. In August, Viceroy Wavell authorized Nehru to form a Cabinet. Gandhi suggested that Jinnah be offered the post of prime minister or defense minister. Jinnah refused and instead declared August 16 “Direct Action Day.” On that day and several days following, communal killings left 5,000 dead and 15,000 wounded in Calcutta alone. Violence spread through the country.

Aggrieved, Gandhi went to Bengal, saying, “I am not going to leave Bengal until the last embers of trouble are stamped out,” but while he was in Calcutta 4,500 more were killed in Bihar. Gandhi, now 77, warned that he would fast to death unless Biharis reformed. He went to Noakhali, a heavily Muslim city in Bengal, where he said “Do or Die” would be put to the test. Either Hindus and Muslims would learn to live together or he would die in the attempt. The situation there calmed, but rioting continued elsewhere.

In March 1947 the last Viceroy Lord Mountbatten, arrived in India charged with taking Britain out of India by June 1948. The Indian National Congress under Nehru by this time had agreed to partition, since the only alternative appeared to be continuation of British rule.

Gandhi, despairing because his nation was not responding to his plea for peace and brotherhood, refused to participate in the independence celebrations on August 15, 1947. On September 1, 1947, after an angry Hindu mob broke into the home where he was staying in Calcutta, Gandhi began to fast, “to end only if and when sanity returns to Calcutta.” Both Hindu and Muslim leaders promised that there would be no more killings, and Gandhi ended his fast.

On Jan. 13, 1948, Gandhi began his last fast in Delhi, praying for Indian unity. On January 30, as he was attending prayers on the grounds of Birla Bhavan in New Delhi, he was shot and killed by Nathuram Godse, a 35-year old Hindu Nationalist and editor of a Hindu Mahasabha extremist weekly in Poona. He held that Gandhiji responsible for the weakening of India.

There are still political parties and people who are not willing to wholeheartedly embrace the Gandhian principles. The Government redtape has either mystified Gandhiji, downplaying the differences he had with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as well as Netaji Subhash Candra Bose, celebrating he being nicknamed as ‘Bapu’ and honouring him as India’s ‘Father of the Nation’. The Father who didn’t participate in the independence day celebration on August 15, 1947 and cheer the “when the whole world sleeps India awakens” speech.

You may hate him or revere him, despise him or adore him but the best comment on Gandhiji came from Albert Einstine “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth”. Truth for Gandhi was not an abstract absolute but a principle which had to be discovered experimentally in each situation.

  1. Nice facts about Bapu. This human race may not have passion to understand Gandhi. May evolution help us to to overcome inconspicuous about our father. Soon they will know how essential his principles are.

    • Ashwin
    • October 12th, 2010


    Read your article liked the way you think. I thought of writing about Gandhi.

    One of my co workers who happens to be the by product of the mall generation called this great soul Ba***** and that too on the day when not only Indians but many parts in the world were celebrating his birth. This was just the begining what surprised me was that many young guys who today enjoy the freedom that is given by him joined him in abusing this great soul.

    So I taken it as a personal vendetta against these youngsters and want to teach them that you cannot abuse a great soul like him.

    I regularly write these article and mail them.

    If you wana join me in doing so you are welcome.


  2. Enjoyed your review of Gandhiji’s life. I read his autobiography, “The story of my experiments with truth” and found it very honest and moving. Because of him, India is the only country I know of that has the history of achieving freedom through civil disobedience, through “non violence” and “satyagraha”. An amazing achievement that brings hope to all humanity. Gandhiji taught his followers who practiced “non violence” that it wasn’t merely the absense of violent retaliation against the British, but rather, it was the presence of retaliating with active love and forgiveness towards the British. That was true satyagraha, where there was no anger, but only love and forgiveness toward the wrong-doer. This resulted in the British sepoys throwing their lathis away as they could not hit the satyagrahis whose eyes retaliated with love and forgiveness. May we live our daily lives in such a manner as well. Please excuse my very long comment.

    • BeachBumOfBrazil
    • October 9th, 2012

    You seem to have spent a substantial amount of time researching this issue, thanks. A few more images would be nice, but besides that, it’s a great blog. An superb read. I will definitely be back. Ok, back to my vacation!

  3. Amazing blog mate

    • Dann Fonteno
    • October 17th, 2012

    Outstanding post, you have pointed out some good details , I likewise conceive this s a very wonderful website.

  4. Your mode of telling everything in this post is really nice, every one be able to simply understand it, Thanks a lot.

    • Dr. Smita Mishra
    • November 1st, 2012

    A leader who is called the Mahatma throughout the world must have had an aura of greatness attached to his towering personality. You have made that leader, the Mahatma, human. Plenty of useful info here and loved your naration. I am sending it to a few pals and additionally sharing in delicious.

    • Dr Subarna Shyamroy
    • November 2nd, 2012

    Many of us who argue about Gandhi, do not know him at all. We have not read about him further than half cooked and simplified biographies in school text books or small, out of context anecdotes from his life. You have made a nice chronology of events without Mystifying the Man. Thank you.

    • Vivek Agarwal
    • November 5th, 2012

    Can I simply say what a relief to seek out someone who actually knows what they are talking about on the internet. You positively know the best way to bring an issue to mild and make it important. More folks must learn this and perceive this facet of the story. I cant believe you are not more well-liked because you positively have the gift. very nice put up, i actually love this website, carry on it

  5. Some genuinely superb content on this site, regards for contribution.

  6. Justice done. Nice reading your article.

    Transformation of a human being to become a Mahatma is no small event. Preachers and philosophers are many but it is a real value practitioner of life who makes the lasting impact. Gandhi never wanted to impress anybody and never cared for recognition.

    Sad and shameful , we are a father abusing lot. Patriotism has given way to terrorism . Parliamentary debates have become …. ????

    Why punish them , they will learn truth. Gandhiji needs no defence … hail his steadfastness and human virtues.

    He was a practitioner first , then only preaching. Trying very hard to internalise it.

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