Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was the most important Indian political and spiritual leader of the 20th century. Gandhi's influence was so great that his methods were later adopted by many political activists around the world, including American civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr.
Gandhi was born into a middle-class Hindu family, in the city of Porbander, a small town on the western coast of India. At the age of 13, Gandhi entered into an arranged marriage with a 10-year-old girl named Kasturba. (They were to remain married their entire lives.)
In 1888, at the age of 19, Gandhi traveled to England to study law. After three years, he became a lawyer and returned to India, and after a year of practicing law unsuccessfully, he was offered a job by an Indian businessman with interests in South Africa. In 1892, at the age of 23, Gandhi traveled to South Africa, where he was to remain for over 20 years. At the time, the Indians in South Africa, mostly Hindus, had no legal rights. The European colonialists did not consider Hindus to be full human beings and referred to them as "coolies". Gandhi became a leader of the Indian community and, over the years, developed a political movement based on the methods of non-violent civil disobedience, which he called "satyagraha".
Around 1905, Gandhi gave up Western ways and, for the rest of his life, followed the traditional Hindu precepts of austerity and self-denial. He dressed simply, in a loin cloth and shawl, and had no other material possessions.
In 1915, at the age of 46, Gandhi returned to India, where he spent a year traveling widely and then the next few years, helping to settle many local disputes. His success lead to him being admired throughout the country, so much so that India's most well-known writer, Rabindranath Tagore, gave Gandhi the title Mahatma ("Great Soul"). Gandhi himself, however, repudiated the honor, even though, within the Hindu culture, being called "Mahatma" is a symbol of enormous respect.
At the time Gandhi was born, India was a heterogeneous region, a British colony consisting of more than 500 different "native states", that is, kingdoms and principalities. (Gandhi himself was born in the state of Kathiawar.) The native states were allowed a certain degree of local autonomy, but the country as a whole was controlled by strict British authority. Soon after his return to India, Gandhi dedicated himself to the goal of Indian independence. From 1920-1922, he led a "non-cooperation movement", in which he called upon Indians to stop cooperating with the British, to become self-reliant, and to withdraw from British organizations.
In 1922, the British authorities imprisoned Gandhi on charges of sedition (that is, inciting rebellion). In 1925, Gandhi was released due to ill health but, over his lifetime, he was to be imprisoned many times. Gandhi became a social reformer, working tirelessly to enhance Hindu-Muslim relations, as he slowly led his country into independence. Over the years, he founded many newspapers, which he used to further his ideals. (A little known fact is that Gandhi is one of the principal figures in the history of Indian journalism.)
Gandhi developed satyagraha into a national movement, stressing passive resistance, nonviolent disobedience, boycotts and, on occasion, hunger strikes. He became so well-known and respected, that he gained influence with both the general public and the British rulers. For example, in 1939, by a combination of fasting and satyagraha, Gandhi was able to compel several states, that were ruled by princes, to grant democratic reforms. Not only could he unify the many diverse elements of the Indian National Congress, he was able to force political concessions from the British by threatening to fast until death.
After World War II, Gandhi was involved in the deliberations that led to India's independence. The same deliberations, however, also led to partition of India into two countries: modern-day India (primarily for Hindus) and Pakistan (for Muslims). Gandhi strongly opposed this partition, which ultimately resulted in the death of about 1 million people and the dislocation of over 11 million people.
Although Gandhi was a man of faith, he did not found a church, nor did he create any specific dogma for his followers.
On January 30, 1948, just after India attained its independence from Britain, Gandhi was assassinated at the age of 78. The killer was a Hindu fanatic working as part of a conspiracy that blamed Gandhi for the partition of the country.
Although Gandhi was a man of faith, he did not found a church, nor did he create any specific dogma for his followers. Gandhi believed in the unity of all mankind under one god, and preached Hindu, Muslim and Christian ethics. As a youth, he was neither a genius nor a child prodigy. Indeed, he suffered from extreme shyness. However, he approached life as a very long series of small steps towards his goals, which he pursued relentlessly. By the time he died, India had become an independent country, free of British rule, in fact, the largest democracy in the world, mostly Hindu with a sizable Muslim minority. Today, Gandhi is remembered not only as a political leader, but as a moralist who appealed to the universal conscience of mankind. As such, he changed the world.
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