Gandhi Society of Calgary

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The Life, Works, and Philosphy of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948)

The Life

Mahatma Gandhi is one of the great figures of the twentieth century. In a century marked by the excesses of Nazism and Communism, the struggles against Colonialism, and two World Wars, his theory and practice of nonviolence shined like a beacon of hope.

He tried to create a religiously tolerant and inclusive civic nation in his own country, divided as it was along religious, linguistic and ethnic lines. How to live in peace, justice and prosperity in today’s pluralistic societies is a lesson that he never tired of teaching, and from which people everywhere can learn.
His approach to the physical environment—how to live within the limits that nature imposes on us, not by trying to conquer her, but by carefully nursing her with the aid of appropriate technology and by setting reasonable limits to our consumption habits—leaves a valuable legacy. Last but not least, he set an example of how to maintain a balance between the pursuit of spiritual goals and secular goals.

Early Life: 1868-1893 

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
, son of Karamchand and Putilibai Gandhi, was born on 2 October 1869, in Porbandar, a coastal town on the Arabian Sea, in what is today the State of Gujarat, India. His father was a Diwan or chief minister to the local Rajah.

He was brought up in the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism, noted for its tolerant attitude towards the other religions practiced in the region. In May 1883 he married Kasturbai Makanji. Their first son, Harilal, was born in 1888.

After graduating from Samaldas College, Bhavanagar, in 1887, he traveled to England the next year for the purpose of studying law, and enrolled in the Inner Temple, London. In 1891 he was called to the Bar. The study of Western jurisprudence had a transformative impact on him. Values associated with the rule of law, fundamental human rights, and the impartial administration of the law became integral art of his moral and political life. The three-year stay in London also opened his eyes to the ethos of Victorian culture and the realities of the imperial system.

In 1891 he returned to India in the hope of embarking on a legal career in Bombay. In 1892, Manilal, his second son, was born. The first two years of his legal practice, however, proved to be not very successful. At this critical juncture, in 1893, he accepted a one-year contract to go to Natal, South Africa, to work as a legal counsel for an Indian- Muslim trading company.

South Africa: 1893-1914 

On completion of his one-year contract, Gandhi decided to stay on in South Africa to further consolidate his legal career and also to engage in civil rights activities on behalf of the Indian indentured laborers and the recent Indian settlers in the country.

 In 1896 he made a short visit back to India and brought his family with him—Kasturba, Harilal and Manilal; and again in 1901.

Ramdas, his third son, was born in 1897, and Devdas, the fourth son, in 1900.

The racial discriminations that he suffered in South Africa--notably the train incident at Pietersmaritsburg when he was ejected from a train on racial grounds-- awakened in him a strong desire to stand up and fight against such abuses. To this end, in 1894, he, along with some of his Muslim colleagues, founded the Natal Indian Congress, with him serving as its Secretary. In the same year h
e enrolled himself as a Barrister in the High Courts of Natal and Transvaal. In 1899 he organized an Indian Ambulance Corps to serve in the Boer War. By 1903 he had a flourishing legal practice in Johannesburg ; the same year saw the launching of a weekly newspaper, Indian Opinion.

In 1904, inspired by the ideas found in John Ruskin’s Unto This Last he establishes the Phoenix Settlement, near Durban—a small commune of like-minded persons that included Indians from various religious and caste backgrounds, and a few British expatriates.

In 1906 he organized another Ambulance Corps, this time to assist in the Zulus War. In the same year, on 11 September, a decision to form an organization to resist the anti-Indian laws was taken at a mass meeting of Indians held at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg. This event is now recognized as marking the beginning of the civil-disobedience movement, which later came to be known as the Satyagraha movement.

In the same year, he was part of a two-man delegation that went to London to lobby on behalf of South African Indians. 1906 is also a very important year in Gandhi’s personal life, for in that year he took the vow of permanent chastity (brahmacharya), a spiritual discipline which he believed was indispensable for his spiritual life and also for success in his work as a civil rights leader.

As the Satyagraha movement gathered momentum, he came into frequent conflict the South African authorities, and was imprisoned four times--twice in 1908, again in 1909 and 1913. Once again, in 1909, he went on a two-man deputation to London, this time to represent the interests of Indian Settlers in South Africa in the deliberations taking place in the imperial capital on the formation of the Union of South Africa.

The deputation was unsuccessful, and Gandhi returned empty handed. But on his return voyage from England to South Africa he wrote, on board the ship, within the space of ten days, a 278-page manuscript (on the ship’s stationary). He entitled it Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule.

This work is universally regarded as the key document to understand his philosophy. It becomes clear from this book, that although he was working in South Africa, his mind was really in India. The book, immediately banned from India, advocates that India must cease to be a colony and become instead an independent country; but it must do so, not by using violent methods of any kind, but only with the aid of the newly discovered nonviolent methods of Satyagraha.

By now his writings and activities in South Africa had made him a transnational celebrity. His first biography, M. K. Gandhi: An Indian Patriot in South Africa, by Joseph J. Doke, a Baptist missionary-friend, was published in 1909, with an Introduction by Lord Ampthill, a former Governor of Madras and Acting Viceroy. This biography is still regarded as a classic of its kind.

In 1910, with the financial assistance of a close friend and disciple, Herman Kallenbach, a German-Jewish architect who had immigrated to South Africa, he established The Tolstoy Farm, a commune just outside Johannesburg-- similar to the Phoenix Settlement outside Durban, inspired by John Ruskin.

By now Gandhi had become a great admirer of the Russian writer-sage. He sent him a copy of Hind Swaraj and Tolstoy wrote back to express his appreciation and strong approval of its ideas.

So great was his admiration for Tolstoy, that he recommends six of his writings for special study in the Appendix I of Hind Swaraj. Of all the civil-disobedience activities that Gandhi had organized in South Africa, the most famous was “the great march” to protest against the disabilities suffered by Indian miners in the country. In 1913, a band of Indian workers and their sympathizers—2037 men, 127 women, and 57 children—started their protest march from Newcastle to Charlestown, a distance of 36 miles.

Gandhi at Tolstoy Farm, Dinodia pictures

Not only did the march dispose the government to relent, and Gandhi to reach an honorable settlement with Jan Smuts, the South African leader, it also increased the reputation of Gandhi on three continents as a transnational leader of substance and importance. Following the agreement with Smuts, in July 1914, Gandhi set sail for London en route to India.

The South African interlude played a crucial role in the shaping of many of Ga
ndhi’s ideas, among them:

  • Satyagraha as a method of settling political and social conflicts;
  • the need for a common secular, civic space, if religiously and ethnically divided India is to have internal peace and cohesion;
  • the need to have an economic philosophy that gives due importance to work ethic, a simpler life style, individual initiative and concern for the common good, and concern for the worst off of society;
  • the importance of the arts to lighten the burden of daily chores and enhance the joys of collective living.
In this regard his strong recommendation of Tolstoy’s What is Art? and Ruskin’s The Political Economy of Art for deeper study is of lasting significance.

India: 1915-1948 

On his return to India in 1915, Gandhi worked on several fronts, In 1915, he established an Ashram in Kochrab, Ahmedabad, and in 1917 moved it to the banks of the river Sabarmati.

Like the Phoenix Settlement and Tolstoy Farm in South Africa, the Sabarmati Ashram, as it came to be known, was also a meeting place and a training ground for like-minded volunteers.

Its object was secular, not religious, “to learn how to serve the motherland one’s whole life and to serve it.”

 It was therefore not an Ashram in the traditional mould, for membership was open to men and women without regard to religion or caste: even outcastes were admitted to full membership. The members took voluntary vows to practice such virtues as truth, nonviolence, celibacy, control of the palate, non-stealing, non-possession, fearlessness, manual work, and freedom from caste and religious prejudices.

The idea underlying the Ashram was that work in the secular fields of politics, economics and social and political reform, required training in the practice of the virtues mentioned above. Members spent short periods of time in the Ashram to acquire the requisite training, and then went out to work in the wider fields of social and political action.

As pressure from the colonial Government mounted, Sabarmati Ashram was closed down in 1933. Another Ashram, called Sevagram (“village of service”) was established in 1936 in a poor village near Wardha, in what is today Maharashtra State. .

Sabarmati Ashram Today

Almost immediately after his return from South Africa, Gandhi immersed himself in the civil rights activities regarding the plight of various disadvantaged groups—the Indigo workers in Champaran District of Bihar (1917), the textile workers of Ahmedabad (1918), the over-taxed farmers of Kheda, in Gujarat (1918), and the Untouchables of Vaikom (1924), Kerala.

In I919 he assumed the editorship of two weeklies, Young India, (English) and Navajivan, (Gujarati). These remain indispensable sources of information on his life and thought during the 1920s and 1930s. In the same year he lent his support to the Khilafat movement, an Islamic movement clamoring for the preservation of the office of the caliphate in Turkey. Gandhi did so more to show his goodwill towards Indian Muslims than to advance any particular theological viewpoint. In the end his support did not mean much, since in 1924 the Attaturk, the new ruler of Turkey, abolished the office of the caliphate altogether.

was also very significant year for nationalist politics, for in that year he emerged as the foremost leader of the All-India movement protesting against the repressive laws of the colonial Government and against the massacre of innocent civilians in the Punjab, known as the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre.

In 1919, Brig General Reginald Dyer opened fire on an unarmed gathering of villagers who arrived in Amritsar for the Indian festival of Baisakhi . 1,650 rounds were fired into the complex, with the narrow only exit blocked by the troops. Close to 2000 people died either directly hit by bullets or by jumping into the well to escape from the bullets.

In 1920 Gandhi was instrumental in revising the constitution of the Indian National Congress. The new constitution opened up membership of the Congress to the masses, reorganized its territorial structure along linguistic lines, and introduced safeguards protecting the legitimate interests of religious groups. In the same year he succeeded in persuading the Congress to adopt the famous non-cooperation resolution. This resolution urged Indians to boycott British goods, and not to co-operate with the institutions of the colonial Government, such as law courts, schools and colleges.

This was the beginning of the Gandhian era of satyagraha or nonviolent politics in India. However, he soon realized that the masses were not ready for nonviolent protests. In 1922, he called off the non-cooperation movement following a violent mob attack on a police station in Cahuri Chaura a, village in what is today Uttar Pradesh, in which 22 policemen perished. Soon after Gandhi was arrested and sentenced to a two-year jail term (1922-24), his first imprisonment in India, and the fifth of his career. In December 1924 he was elected President of the Indian National Congress for a one year term.

In 1927, the first volume of his Autobiography appeared, and the second volume in 1929. In 1928 his first historical work, History of Satyagraha in South Africa also appeared. Meanwhile, he encouraged several local satyagraha movements-- in Bardoli, Gujarat, in support of the local peasants, and in Vaikom, in support of the Untouchables in Kerala. In 1930, took place the most famous of all the satyagraha events, the celebrated Salt March (known also as the Dandi March).

Starting from Ahmedabad on March 12, he led a band of 78 disciples, well trained in the practice of nonviolence, in a protest march against the salt laws prevailing in colonial India, reaching Dandi, a coastal village on the Ariabian sea, 24 days later, covering a distance of 200 miles. More than any other event, the Salt March made Gandhi a world figure and satyagraha a serious form of civil disobedience.

Between May 1930 and January 1931, he suffered his sixth imprisonment.
However, 1931 saw him visit London as the sole representative of the Congress Party to participate in the Second Round Table (Constitutional) Conference, the only such constitutional conference that he ever attended. On his return from this Conference he went straight to jail, this time for the seventh time (January-September 1931).

Gandhi had a long record of supporting the cause of the Untouchables. But in th
e late 1920s early 1930s, he came into conflict with the different elite groups of the Untouchables, especially Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, their foremost leader, who had his own ideas of how to get rid of Untouchability. The key issue on which they differed was whether the Untouchables should be regarded as an integral part of Hindu society or as a separate community by themselves.

Gandhi believed that they were part of Hindu society and therefore should be given perfect equality with the rest of Hindus. To make his point he undertook an indefinite fast in 1932, which he ended on reaching an accord with Ambedkar-- the so-called Poona Accord. The Accord did not definitely settle the issue of whether Untouchables were part of Hindus Society or not, but it did reach a temporary settlement on who to share power in electoral politics. Following the Poona Accord, Gandhi embarked on a multi-pronged program of social reform and rural reconstruction. In 1933 he invented a new name for the Untouchable—“Harijans”, children of God. This was followed by establishing a new a nation-wide welfare organization called Harijan Sevak Sangh. The new English weekly, started in 1934, in place of the now-defunct Young India, was named Harijan. In 1934 Gandhi formally retired from the Indian National Congress, in order to devote more time and effort to various social reform causes.

1934 also saw Gandhi focusing his attention on rural economic reconstruction. In the same year, the Village Industries Association also was established.

This event capped the rural development program that he had started a decade earlier. The idea was in a country like India where the vast majority lived in villages, the development process had to start from the bottom up.

The most famous symbol of this approach was the spinning wheel (the charkha), and the most famous product of rural development, the khadi or home-spun cloth.

Not that he was opposed to industrialization but that he wanted the right sort of industrialization, meaning small scale industries that benefited the rural population first and the rest of the country second.

Three issues dominated the last decade of his life (1938-1948):
  • the rising tempo of Indian nationalism,
  • the deterioration of Hindu-Muslim relations,
  • and World War II.

India was taken into World War II by the colonial Government without previous consultation or actual consent. This exacerbated the national sentiments. Gandhi’s position was that India should support the Allied cause but it should do so freely, and as an independent nation. The colonial Government was not prepared to meet this condition, which led to the “Quit India” movement of 1942.

Gandhi with Nehru Gandhi wanted the colonial
power to quit India forthwith. He wanted the movement to be nonviolent. But it soon went out of hand and became violent in several parts of India. Gandhi along with Kasturba, his wife, and Mahadev Desai, his secretary, were kept in detention from 9 August to 6 May 1944. His secretary died while in detention in 1942 as did his wife, in 1944.

Meanwhile Hindu-Muslim relations progressively deteriorated. In 1940, M. A. Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, demanded a separate state for Muslims.


His basic argument was that Hinduism and
Islam were not so much religions in the strict sense of the term, but two distinct “social orders”. To put two such social orders under the same state would only result in their slow destruction. India therefore had to be divided along religious lines. Based on this logic, the door to the partition of India was opened. This logic was contrary to all that Gandhi had stood for. He wanted India to be a multi-religious nation where the state would be neutral towards all religions and respectful all the legitimate requirements of religion. This did not satisfy Jinnah and Gandhi’s negotiations with in 1944 completely broke down.

Meanwhile religious riots broke out in many parts of India, notably in Calcutta. From November 1946 to January 1947, in a last ditch effort to reconcile Hindus and Muslims, Gandhi, now aged 77, undertook another “long march,”(the third of his career), this time in the worst affected areas of Bengal, visiting 47 villages, walking barefoot, covering a total distance of 116 miles. All this came to nothing as, on August 15, 1947, India was divided along religious lines into what is now the secular Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Several millions of people were affected—many losing their lives while others their homes and property in the mass-migration of peoples that followed.

Even the partition of India did not solve the Hindu-Muslim problem. Radical Pathan tribes invaded Kashmir, forcing India to take military steps to prevent loss. Radical Hindus, on the other hand, found Gandhi as being too accommodating to the Muslims. One of their members, Nathuram Godse, assassinated the Mahatma on January 30, 1948, in New Delhi. He had barely reached podium to conduct his usual evening prayer meeting, when the tragedy occurred.

It is tempting to compare the life and works of Gandhi, and the manner of his death, with those of his contemporaries such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Hitler. The point of the comparison is to raise the question of whether nonviolence, the spiritual life, the spirit of toleration of one’s opponents, and faith in the efficacy of peaceful way of settling disputes have a place in the modern world, or whether we should rely on unmitigated political violence to bring about change in society and in the hearts and minds of people.

There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything.
I feel it though I do not see it.
It is this unseen power which makes itself felt and yet defies all proof,
because it is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses.
It transcends the senses.

 – Mahatma Gandhi