A Nutshell Biography of Mahatma Gandhi
Early Years of Mahatma Gandhi Mohandas K. Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, into an average family, in an obscure town near Bombay, India. He was the sixth and youngest child of the family. When he was born, his father was 48 years old and his mother was in her early twenties. His father had about Grade 3 education and served as a Diwan, or an adviser to one of the small states in Gujarat province. His mother was illiterate.
In his childhood Gandhi was very shy and timid. At the age of thirteen he was married to Kasturba, of the same age. The marriage affected his schooling a little but soon he was able to catch up. His father died when Gandhi was still in Grade 10. Though a below-average student, Gandhi became the first person in his family to complete a high school education. Then he joined a college, but faired very poorly and dropped out after just three months. A family adviser suggested that obtaining a Barrister’s title from England was easier, as well as more lucrative, compared to the rigors of earning a B.A. degree in India. After a great deal of discussion it was agreed that Gandhi would go to England for 3 years to earn the Barrister’s title. After taking vows that he would not touch meat, women and wine, he obtained his mother’s consent to go abroad. To raise the necessary funds, his brother sold some of the family land and his wife sold most of her jewelry. When he was about to depart, the community decreed that anyone who crossed the seas, or anyone who assisted someone in the crossing of the seas, would be outcast. Gandhi tried his best to plead with them, but to no avail. Finally, with the help of a third party and with the risk of being outcast, Gandhi succeeded in getting the funds released and buying the ticket. Thus he left India in September 1888, at the age of 18.
Mahatma Gandhi, the Young Barrister In London Gandhi had to deal not only with his limited diet and shyness, but also with tremendous cultural shock. But because of his sincerity and persistence he was able to complete not only his law course but also the London Matriculation examination. In 1891 Gandhi returned to India with the Barrister’s title and tried to build a law practice. Despite his best efforts he could hardly earn enough to support his own room and board in Bombay. In 1893 Gandhi received an offer to assist a senior lawyer in South Africa for one year. The remuneration covered all expenses plus a nominal fee of 105 pounds. He accepted the offer mainly for the the experience. And so, in May 1893, at the age of 23 he left India for South Africa.
Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa Within days of reaching South Africa, and while traveling from Durban to Johannesburg, a journey of 24 hours by train and horse buggies, Gandhi had his first experience of racial discrimination. Just three hours into his journey, the conductor came to examine the tickets. Although Gandhi had a First Class ticket, he was asked by the conductor to move to the coach, because the South African Railway did not allow colored people to travel First Class. Gandhi refused to move and was eventually thrown out of the train at night, on a small station up in the mountains, during the peak of winter!
Gandhi spent that whole night on the dark platform, alone, and shivering in the cold. The next morning he filed a protest but was ignored. He took the next available train and somehow managed to reach his destination. That incident greatly awakened him. Until that time he had been deeply engrossed in his personal matters – his own career, his own finances, his own family, etc. But that incident compelled him to think of the plight of others, especially of those who had lesser means than he had. During that long, dark and cold night, Gandhi resolved to do his best to eliminate discrimination.
Soon after reaching his destination, Gandhi called a meeting of the local East Indians. He began studying their situation and representing their rights for fair treatment in the courts. Throughout that year Gandhi worked equally hard on two fronts: fighting the authorities on legal grounds for the elimination of discrimination, and educating the Indians to become better citizens. In the meantime he also devoted a good deal of his time working on the case, for which he had been engaged, and succeeded in negotiating a mediated settlement.
At the end of the year Gandhi was about to return to India, but a sudden discovery of a Bill aimed at barring the Indians from voting rights, caused him to stay longer and to fight. He wrote petitions, letters to the editors, letters to the legislators and collected thousands of signatures. The passage of that Bill was delayed but passed within a month. Gandhi then decided to stay there as long as it took to keep fighting. He organized a political party and educated the Indians to be law abiding citizens who also insisted on fair and just treatments.
Gandhi fought numerous cases on legal grounds and although he won many, the net change in the status of the conditions of the Indians was minimal, because the government kept on introducing and passing new bills which effectively annulled every victory. Gandhi then decided to fight his cases on moral grounds.
In 1903, after having lived and worked in South Africa for 10 years, Gandhi started a weekly newspaper, The Indian Opinion, in which he published accurate information about the living conditions of the Indians, for the purpose of educating the general public. He also used his paper as a regular and effective tool for disseminating information and educating his readers. Although his words started reaching more ears, the pace of change was still quite slow.
The weekly writing for his papers was also exerted a profound influence on him. It became a training ground for him in self-restraint and a means for the study of human nature in all its casts and shades. Though there was no particular pressure from the outside, Gandhi used the greatest restraint in the choice of the content of his paper. He exercised care to avoid all exaggeration or sensational matter. He weighed all adjectives and adverbs before using them. And he was always ready to acknowledge his errors and to amend them.
Journalism taught Gandhi the discipline of being fair and remaining cool even when he was attacked below the belt. It helped him clarify his own ideas and visions, to stay on track, to be consistent, to assume full accountability for his actions and words, to think globally and to walk his talk. He learned the importance of deadlines. The publication dates forced him to develop a routine and to follow the routine even under severe conditions. Journalism taught him time management, resource management and the art of effective delegation. It also compelled him to develop the skills of building a trustworthy team. The newspapers brought Gandhi in close communication with many deep thinkers and spiritual leaders. It kept broadening his horizon everyday. Gandhi pursued journalism not for its sake but also as an aid to what he had conceived to be his mission in life: to teach by example and precept.
At the same time Gandhi was undergoing some personal changes in his life. After reading a book entitled, ‘Unto This Last’ he resolved to simplify his life. He gave up all luxuries and moved to a farm where he tried to grow his own food and live by the land. He tried to replace all machine-power with manual-power. He cut down the quantity and content of his meals. He experimented with fasting. Around the same time he also took a vow of celibacy.
Mahatma Gandhi Conceives a New Weapon: ‘Satyagraha’ By 1906, at the age of 36, Gandhi realized that fighting on legal grounds could not bring him any meaningful victory. He then decided to fight on moral grounds. He conceived a new weapon that he called Satyagraha. Literally this means ‘insistence on truth using non-violent non-cooperation’. He used his weekly newspapers to educate his people on the use of the new weapon as well as to gain public support.
It was in South Africa that Gandhi became known for his exceptional high moral character. Even his opponents had started treating him with some degree of reverence. Rev. Joseph Doke, a pastor in South Africa, was so inspired by Gandhi’s ‘Passive Resistance Movement’ that he wrote Gandhi’s first biography in 1909, when Gandhi was only 39 years old!
Between 1906 and 1914 Gandhi refined his technique of Satyagraha, trained his followers in its use, cultivated an exceptionally high level of his own moral character and influenced all his followers to strengthen theirs at the same time. It was purely on the strength of their moral character that Gandhi succeeded in achieving a significant reduction in the racial discrimination in South Africa.
Mahatma Gandhi in India The leaders in India were paying attention to Gandhi’s work in South Africa and had been asking him to return to India to work with them. Finally, in 1915, at the age of 45 Gandhi returned to India, and on the advice of a senior leader, traveled all over India for one year without making any public comment, so that he developed a sound understanding of the situation in India. Then he started employing Satyagraha to win some cases to help some poor farmers and factory workers in India.
Mahatma Gandhi Becomes the Crusader of Independence Gandhi sincerely believed that the British Empire was good for the welfare of the people of India. Therefore he supported the government with all the powers within his means. He even campaigned to recruit soldiers to join the British Army during World War I. But in 1919 the British ordered a massacre in Punjab in which 319 innocent men and women were killed and more than 1200 others were seriously injured. This shattered Gandhi’s belief in the British Empire. For the first time in his life he realized that the British Empire was ruling India not to serve the people but to serve its own interest, namely using India as an enormous market for British goods. Gandhi decided to sever his allegiance to the British Empire immediately and also resolved to fight for the independence of India. Unlike other leaders, Gandhi did not believe in raising an Army to kick out the rulers. He realized that the British were able to rule India mainly because the Indians needed them. He claimed that if the Indians could manage all their affairs without any help from the foreigners then the latter would find themselves unnecessary and would want to leave voluntarily!
Mahatma Gandhi, the Educator and Reformer Using two weekly newspapers that he started in 1919, Gandhi undertook the huge task of educating the 300 million Indians to grow their own food, to weave their own clothes, to run their own schools, colleges, hospitals, courts, railways, police system etc. etc. He also taught them the need of unity among the different religions, languages and classes of society. Of course, he also used his newspapers to express his opinions on political matters. He encouraged his people to wean themselves off foreign materials and foreign help but without using violence of any kind. Though he had many successes, their were also occasional failures in the form of violence and loss of life and property. Gandhi used several fasts in order to purify himself and to clam the hearts of the people. Gandhi’s most significant success came in 1930 when he challenged the British government that he would personally defy the Salt Tax if it was not rescinded within the following ten days. The government ignored his threat but Gandhi carried the defiance by marching 241 miles on foot in 24 days and breaking the law publicly. That event drew worldwide attention and it also ignited the imagination of the general public. For the first time in their life they saw that anyone, whether male or female, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, Hindu or Muslim, young or old, weak or strong, possessed the capability to walk 10 miles in a day and break an unjust law. Since about half the population of India lived within 240 miles of the coast, people all over India starting breaking all kinds of unjust laws and the government conceded that they could not govern India any longer against the will of the people. For the first time the British Empire consented to talk with the people of India about the possibility of granting them independence. Gandhi was seen as the uncontested, sole representative of the people.
Gandhi was invited first to have a series of talks with the Viceroy in India, and then to attend a Round Table Conference in London. For the next 16 years the British government used many techniques to stall the issue and, at times, sent thousands of people to jails. Slowly they were losing their grip on India, and Gandhi was the one-man force that they could not shake. Gandhi himself was jailed many times, adding up to a total of 7 years during his lifetime, but he did not mind it. He used that period for rest and reflection. He kept writing for his papers. Several times his newspapers were banned, the machines burned and everything destroyed. But as soon as the ban was lifted he resumed the publication. Sometimes he was prevented from writing for his papers, but the government discovered that this created tremendous agitation in the public. The government found Gandhi to be a greater threat while he was imprisoned.
Finally, on August 15, 1947, 31 years after Gandhi joined the struggle, India was granted their independence.
Mahatma Gandhi Assassinated Towards the end of his life he considered himself a failure, because he was unable to keep the Hindus and the Muslims united. The country was divided into India and Pakistan. The uncontrolled crossings at the borders caused the death of several hundred thousand people. To bring sanity to his people he undertook another fast. He achieved his goal. All the killings stopped throughout the land. But some Hindus felt that Gandhi had become too powerful and was giving away everything to Pakistan. On January 30, 1948, just 10 days after his last fast, Gandhi was assassinated, by a Hindu who believed that Gandhi had been supporting the Muslims too much and at the cost of the Hindus.
It is estimated that during his lifetime Gandhi wrote approximately 10 million words. That translates into approximately 500 words every day for 50 years. More than half of that writing went into the editorials of his newspapers. As well, he made a weekly effort to add to the value of his newspaper as an instrument of moral education. This proved to be a tremendous education for himself. Anyone who writes 250 words every day for 50 years, on moral, constructive and personal development matters is bound to develop an extraordinary character.
Mahatma Gandhi was a ceaseless crusader of women’s equality. He brought the women out of their homes and made them equal participants in all walks of life – social as well as political. His entourage always consisted of several women and many of his closest associates were women. Under his leadership thousands of women took leading roles in several movements. Gandhi never considered women to be unfit for any position or task. Because of Gandhi’s support, women’s groups were formed all over India and there was hardly a week when Gandhi did not address a women’s group. It was mainly because of Gandhi that the first Cabinet of Independent India consisted of two women ministers. Many world leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of the United States and Nelson Mandela of South Africa have successfully employed Gandhi’s technique of non-violence to achieve extraordinary success in their own political struggles.
Shall Gandhi Sinha as Mahatma Gandhi Is it possible to have a Keynote by Mahatma Gandhi?
Although Gandhi was assassinated half a century ago, it is possible to bring his spirit back.
Shall Gandhi Sinha is a leading expert on the Life and Works of Mahatma Gandhi, and he also does an Extraordinary Impersonation of Gandhi. He appears dressed exactly like Mahatma Gandhi – with bald-head, steel-frame glasses, home-spun loin clothes, tire-slippers and a bamboo walking stick. Throughout the presentation he stays in Gandhi’s character and describes events specifically relevant to the audience and the occasion. He draws all his supporting materials from Gandhi’s actual life and leaves his audience inspired – feeling good about themselves and their work and also with a zest for new challenges.