India // Gujarat //

Mahatma Gandhi – India’s great soul

Gujarat’s most famous son Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar. Although merchants by caste – Gandhi means grocer – both his grandfather and father rose to positions of political influence. Young Mohandas was shy and sickly, only an average scholar, but from early on questioned the codes of power around him and even flouted accepted Hindu practice: he once ate meat for a year believing it would give him the physical edge the British appeared to possess. As a teenager, he began to develop an interest in spirituality, particularly the Jain principle of ahimsa (nonviolence).

Gandhi moved to London to study law at 19, outwardly adopting the appearance and manners of an English gentleman, but also keeping to his mother’s wish that he resist meat, alcohol and women. Avidly reading the Bible alongside the Bhagavad Gita, he started to view different religions as a collective source of truth from which everyone could draw spiritual inheritance.

After a brief spell back in India, Gandhi left again to practise law in South Africa, where the plight of fellow Indians – coupled with his own indignation at being ejected from a first-class rail carriage – fuelled his campaigns for racial equality. His public profile grew and he gained crucial victories for minorities against the practices of indentured labour. During this time he also opted to transcend material possessions, dressing in the handspun dhoti and shawl of a peasant, and took a vow of celibacy. This turn to ascetic purity he characterized as satyagraha, which derived from Sanskrit ideas of “truth” and “firmness”, and would become the touchstone of passive resistance. Returning to India with his messianic reputation well established – the poet Tagore named him “Mahatma” (Great Soul) – Gandhi travelled the country campaigning for swaraj (home rule). He also worked tirelessly for the rights of women and untouchables, whom he called Harijans (children of God), and founded an ashram at Sabarmati outside Ahmedabad where these principles were upheld. Gandhi stepped up his activities in the wake of the brutal massacre of protesters at Amritsar, leading a series of self-sufficiency drives during the 1920s, which culminated in the great salt march from Ahmedabad to Dandi in 1930. This month-long 386-kilometre journey led a swelling band of followers to the coast, where salt was made in defiance of the British monopoly on production. It drew worldwide attention: although Gandhi was promptly imprisoned, British resolve was seen to have weakened and on release he was invited to a round-table meeting in London to discuss home rule. The struggle continued for several years and Gandhi served more time in jail – his wife Kasturba dying by his side in 1944.

As the nationalist movement gained strength, Gandhi grew more concerned about the state of Hindu–Muslim relations. He responded to outbreaks of communal violence by subjecting his own body to self-purification and suffering through fasting. When Britain finally guaranteed independence in 1947, it seemed Gandhi’s dream of a united and free India was possible after all. But Partition left him with a deep sense of failure. Once more he fasted in Calcutta in a bid to stem the violence as large numbers of Hindus and Muslims flowed between the new countries. Gandhi’s commitment to the fair treatment of Muslim Indians and his intention to visit and endorse Pakistan as a neighbour enraged many Hindu fundamentalists. He survived an attempt on his life on January 20, 1948, only to be shot dead from close range by a lone Hindu gunman in Delhi ten days later. Prime Minister Nehru announced the loss on national radio: “Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.”

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