by Stan Griffin
"Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth."
"If civilization is to survive, men cannot fail eventually to adopt his beliefs."
Albert Einstein and General Douglas MacArthur were speaking of the same man: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. (moh-huhn-DAHS kur-uhm-CHUND GAHN-dee or GAN-dee)
An unlikely revolutionary, he was quiet, unassuming, frail and slight of build; a devout, almost mystical man considered by some a saint; gentle, warm, and at times even comic. But he had an "iron core of determination" that drove him to reach his goals. His religious beliefs helped sustain him in times of distress and frustration. He was a master politician, beloved by millions.
Gandhi was the leader of an Indian nationalist movement. Without promoting violence, he was able to achieve an end to British rule of his country. "His revolution was different from others in history ..." He did not preach terrorism nor urge his followers to commit outrageous acts. " ... He devoted his life to peace and brotherhood in order to achieve social and political progress."
Mohandas K. Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869 in Porbandar, India. (near Bombay) His country had been part of the British Empire since the 18th century. India's civilization was one of the world's oldest, but they were under British control and would remain so for most of Ghandi's lifetime.
Living conditions in India could be described as appalling. There was terrible poverty and dreadful overcrowding. Disease and starvation resulted in over half of the people dying before the age of 35.
Gandhi was the youngest of six children. His family were devout Hindus, like 3/4s of the Indian population. The name "Gandhi" meant "grocer" in the local Gujarati language; but his father was a minor diplomat employed by the maharaja of Porbandar. A maharaja was like a mayor, in charge of a city's day to day operations with British approval, of course.
Gandhi's marriage was arranged, like many Hindus. He was only eight when his "bride" was chosen. Five years later he married Kasturbai Makanji, daughter of a merchant. He became a father at the age of 16.
At 19 Gandhi left his wife and child to study law at University College in London (Great Britain). He was a voracious reader. After hours spent on his law studies, he still found time to pore over books on other subjects. He was highly interested in religions of the world, so he read much of the Christian Bible as well as texts of Buddhism and Islam.
Gandhi was impressed by the works of two authors in particular: (1) Henry David Thoreau (an American) who wrote "Civil Disobedience," setting forth the principle of nonviolence in politics; and (2) John Ruskin (an Englishman) who urged his readers to "give up industrialism for farm life and traditional handicrafts ..." During his lifetime, Gandhi would call on many ideas of those two men.
In the spring of 1891 Gandhi passed an examination and so became an official member of the British bar. Two days later he was on a ship back to India.
Gandhi practiced law for a short time in Bombay but was not very successful. In 1893 he was offered a year's work in South Africa, helping in a major lawsuit the parties needed an English trained lawyer. He quickly accepted; and, leaving his family, he traveled to Durban, South Africa. Instead of only one year, however, he remained there for 21 years. His wife and children were with him for a majority of that time.
Like India, South Africa was part of the British Empire and had been since the beginning of the 19th century when control passed to them from Holland. British settlers began immigrating about 1820, joining some Dutch farmers who continued to live there. (Those farmers were called "Boers"). A social system with a network of rules based on race became firmly entrenched. Europeans (whites) were on one level. A lower tier included all who were non whites (called "colored"). This included native people (blacks) and immigrants from Gandhi's homeland in Asia (called "coolies" by the whites).
Indians began arriving in South Africa around 1860 as cheap labor for sugar plantations. They were indentured, signing five year contracts with room and board in addition to a $5 per month salary. When their term expired, they could return to India with passage paid; or they could remain as freelance workers. Most chose the second option. They became truck farmers or shopkeepers first, later expanding into business occupations and even the professions (law, medicine, etc.) By the time Gandhi arrived in Natal province (his first African home), a census showed 43,000 Indians, 40,000 whites, and 400,000 native Zulus.
An incident that occurred in his first year was often mentioned by Gandhi as the "most crucial of his formative years." He was traveling by train to from Durban to Pretoria, sitting in a first class compartment for which he had a proper ticket. The conductor asked him to move to the baggage compartment where all "colored" persons were supposed to ride. Gandhi claimed his rights as an English subject and refused to change his seat. He was bodily removed (being beaten in the process) and thrown off the train. He took the railroad to court and "won a grudging victory."
Gandhi built up a large law practice and became the first "colored" lawyer admitted to the South African Supreme Court. A lot of his time was spent as a spokesman for "non whites" in the country.
Gandhi worked tirelessly to fight discrimination against Indians. He used nonviolence (what he called "satyagraha" "SAHT-yah-grah-hah" "truth and love with firmness") as a strategy, encouraging his followers to peacefully disobey the anti-Asian laws. He told South African officials that he would go to jail or die before recognizing those laws. He also organized strikes, demonstrations, and protest marches containing thousands of supporters. Gandhi was arrested and put in jail several times, as were many of his followers.
He adopted the simple garments of Hindu culture: plain, loose-fitting, and wrap-around robes. This showed defiance of the British government while it created an image to bring him closer to the people.
During his time in South Africa, Gandhi achieved some success in the area of rights for Indians. A few laws were changed, and there was some improvement in their treatment. In particular, the Indian Relief Act of 1914 was a concession to pressure from Gandhi and his followers.
There were times, however, when Gandhi supported the South African government. In 1899 the Dutch farmers revolted, and the "Boer War" took place. Gandhi organized and supervised an ambulance corps. He received a medal for his efforts. In 1906 he again helped the government when the "Zulu Rebellion" occurred.
By 1914 Gandhi felt there was "nothing left to do" in South Africa, and he wanted to "let wounds heal." During his years there, he had decided that he should return to India and work for home rule ("swaraj")."swah-RAH"
Gandhi left as a changed man. When he had arrived, he was timid and spoke with great effort. It is said that "he found his voice there."
Returning to his "swadeshi" (one's own country), Gandhi became the guiding force behind a strong nationalist movement that encouraged independence from Great Britain. His writings and his simple lifestyle soon gained him a " ... mass of followers ..."
Gandhi became convinced that if India helped Great Britain in her struggle against Germany in World War I (1914-1918), India's freedom would be their reward. Over one-half million Indians fought on the British side. Unfortunately, Indian self-government was not forthcoming.
While in South Africa, Gandhi had come to believe that the simple life " ... was the only life worth living ..." and that " ... a change in society and politics begins with a change in the individual."
Gandhi worked to reconcile differences between classes and religious sects. In India a strict "caste system" was in effect. At the very bottom of the social scale were people known as "untouchables." Gandhi was able to improve their way of life as he worked toward political changes. He also tried to bring together the Hindus and the Moslems of the nation.
In 1918 Gandhi first used the "fast" to make a point about nonviolence, attempting to put an end to conflict and mistreatment of Indians. He used fasts a number of times during his campaigns. Gandhi would simply stop eating until the opposition gave in on the point at issue. Sips of water were allowed during his fasts. As days passed, he would become weaker and weaker. His deteriorating physical condition would encourage his followers to exert more pressure. The British knew that his death would make him a "martyr" (one who dies rather than give up a principle), and he would have perhaps an even greater influence.
Gandhi became the leader of the "Indian National Congress" (I.N.C.), a political party working toward self rule for India. One of his techniques was a "non cooperation" campaign which included "boycotts" (refusal to use or accept something or somebody). Some of the boycott targets were British: government officials, courts, councils, taxes (meaning not to pay them), and cloth. He also fought British laws of censorship and periodically called national strikes.
Around 1920 Gandhi introduced a program of hand spinning and weaving into the villages of India. For a time, he himself was a weaver dressed in a loincloth, shawl, and sandals. This plan was intended to: achieve self sufficiency ("sevagram ashram"); emphasize the dignity of labor; and prepare for future self government. People would spin their own cotton and weave their own fabric so that British made cloth would not be needed.
During the early 1920s, Gandhi acquired the title of "mahatma" (mah-HOT-mah), which translates to "great soul." At times he seemed embarrassed by all the attention he was getting. He became the symbol of nonviolent defiance of British authority and was well known around the world. Newspaper stories described him in various ways. A few of these descriptions follow: " ... a small, wizened man, rather emaciated ..."; " ... (you can) feel the force of character behind the sharp little eyes ..."; and " ... a little brown man in a loincloth ..."
In 1930--at age 60--Gandhi led a protest against the "Salt Acts," a British law that made it a crime to manufacture salt instead of buying it from the mother country. Followed by hundreds of supporters, he walked 200 miles to the sea to transform sea water into salt. (the "Salt March"). For this he was imprisoned.
During the 30+ years of Gandhi's activities, he spent a total of seven years in British prisons for various "crimes against the Crown." In one year (1931) there were over 30,000 of his followers imprisoned for political crimes.
Gandhi believed that it was honorable to go to jail for a good cause.
The remainder of the 1930s saw continued operations by the I.N.C. with Gandhi in a prominent position as he worked for an end to strife, abuse, and British control of India.
When World War II (1940-1945) broke out, Gandhi again asked Britain to trade independence for India's assistance against their enemies. They refused. In 1942 (at age 72) Gandhi was jailed, this time for two years--his final prison sentence. His wife also spent some time in jail during this time. Shortly after they were released (1944), Kasturbai died.
Later that year Gandhi fasted for a period of 21 days, demanding independence for India and generosity toward minorities. The British finally agreed to a serious discussion of a free India.
While negotiations were in progress, the Moslem delegation put forth a plan for their own separate country. Followers of Islam constituted about 1/4 of the Indian population, and they feared that a self-governing nation controlled by the Hindus would threaten them. At first Ghandi opposed this idea, but he later supported it.
The British prime minister announced that in 1947 control of India would be turned over to local authorities. The subcontinent would be partitioned (split into parts): (1) India would exist in the areas where most of the people were Hindus; (2) Pakistan (East and West) would enclose those regions where Moslems were in the majority.
Even before "Independence Day," (August 15, 1947) riots broke out all over India with Hindus battling Moslems. Gandhi urged them to "live in peace." At the age of 78 he began his last fast, saying he would not eat until both sides agreed to " ... forgive and forget ..." Six days later, when leaders of the two sides pledged peace, he broke his fast. But he had come very close to death.
On January 30 Gandhi was in Delhi. As he was on his way to lead prayers in the garden of Birla House, he was approached by a man named Nathuram Godse. He was a Hindu extremist who opposed tolerance for all creeds and thought Gandhi had weakened the country by extending too much assistance to the Moslems. Godse fired three shots pointblank at Gandhi. Falling, the Mahatma called out: "Hai-Rama." (Rama is the Hindu name for God.)
"He died as he had wished, in the service of brotherhood and unity for India with the name of God on his lips." People all over the world mourned his passing. His funeral was " ... an elaborate event witnessed by millions ..." A truck carrying the coffin was followed by a line of mourners stretching for miles.
Gandhi's body was "cremated" (burned), following Hindu tradition. The fire burned for 14 hours, and some people stayed there all night, praying. Thirteen days later, his ashes were " ... carried ... to be scattered in the sacred rivers of India and into the sea off the coast of Bombay ..."
Author Victoria Sherrow wrote this in 1994: "His fellow Indians had been oppressed and submissive, but Gandhi had given them hope by standing before powerful authorities with intelligence and courage. He had stood for reason, love, tolerance, and peace during a time in world history when hatred and violence consumed millions of people."
Ghandi's ideas were an inspiration to such men as Martin Luther King who was a leader in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and Nelson Mandela who continued the fight for equality in South Africa that eventually resulted in his becoming president there.
In 1982 an "epic motion picture" based on Ghandi's life won eight Academy Awards. One of those honored "Ghandi" as the "Best Picture of the Year."
This quote from Ghandi is worth remembering: "It is nonviolence only
when we love those that hate us. I know how difficult it is to follow this grand
law of love. But are not all great and good things difficult to do? Love of the
hater is the most difficult of all. But by the grace of God even this most
difficult thing becomes easy to accomplish if we want to do it."
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