Mohandas Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869 at Porbandar on the north-west coast of India. He was the third son and the last of four children of well-to-do Hindu parents. The Gandhis belonged to the Modh Bania subdivision of the Vaisya caste, representing the trader class in the traditional Hindu caste system and were originally grocers.
Gandhi’s grandfather, father and uncle were dewan, or prime minister, to ruler of Porbandar; and his father was later prime minister of two other similar tiny states. None of these states was subject to direct British rule, and consequently old Indian customs and traditions were much more in evidence there than in most parts of British India.
Gandhi grew up in a traditional Hindu family. He inherited his father’s stubbornness, incorruptibility and practical sense and his mother’s life of religion, devotion and abstinence. Growing up Gandhi often listened to the religious discussions of his father and his friends who practiced the Muslim and Parsi religions.
Young Gandhi’s exposure to these teachings does not mean that he had developed a deep faith in religion or in ahimsa (nonviolence) at an early age. Gandhi says, "But one thing took deep root in me- the conviction that morality is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality." He learned then the guiding principle: "Return good for evil." And he began to make everything he did an experiment with truth.
Gandhi started school in Porbandar, where he probably attended the local Dhoolishala, or Dust school, where the school teacher taught the children how to write letters of the Gujarati alphabet in the dust on the floor. He had no difficulty in composing, along with other children, Gujarati rhymed couplets ridiculing the lame teacher, but encountered some problem in mastering the multiplication table. "My intellect must have been sluggish, and my memory raw," says the adult Mohandas about his schooldays.
He was about five when his father was appointed dewan to the Rana of Rajkot, but the dewan’s family stayed behind in Pobandar for about two years before moving to Rajkot. In Rajkot Gandhi and his brothers attended first a local primary school and then Alfred High School. He was again a "mediocre student," but punctual and complained if breakfast was late "because it will prevent me from going on with my studies." He was shy, self-conscious about his frail constitution, and avoided all company. "My books and lessons were my sole companions." At the end of the school day he ran back home because he could not bear to talk to anybody. "I was even afraid lest anyone should poke fun at me." At school he was required to do gymnastics and play cricket, but he had no interest in either. He preferred long solitary walks or playing a simple Indian street game called gilli danda, which consists of striking a short, sharpened wooden peg with a stick.
Alfred High School, Rajkot, the secondary school in the area, prepared students for college. English was taught in the very first year at this school, and in the upper high school all subjects were taught in English. "The tyranny of English," as Gandhi puts it, was great and this difficulty was increased by reason of the fact that "the teacher’s own English was by no means without blemish."
Gandhi, still a schoolboy, is now at the stage where he has a distaste for reading beyond his schoolbooks. Doing the daily homework was an important part of his schedule, "because I disliked being taken to task by my teacher as much as I disliked deceiving him."
When Gandhi was thirteen, he married a girl who had been chosen for him. His bride, Kasturbai Makanji, was the daughter of Gokuldas Makanji, a merchant dealing in cloth, grain, and cotton. Kasturbai was illiterate but hardworking and levelheaded. They had four sons in twelve years. Later Gandhi took a vow of sexual abstinence. One reason was a quest for spiritual purity, another was that news of his father’s death arrived when he was in bed with his wife and he believed penance was needed.
Late in 1887, when Gandhi was eighteen, he went to Ahmedabad, the capital of the providence to sit for his matriculation at Bombay University. He barely succeeded in passing the examination. Gandhi managed to go to a small and inexpensive college called Samaldas College at Bhavnagar, in the princely state of Bhavnagar. For the first time he was living away from home without his wife. He did so badly in his studies, that after failing at every subject, he withdrew after only five months. An uncle persuaded him to go to England to study law, and after his family raised the money by selling many personal possessions, including Kasturbai’s jewelry; Gandhi left his wife and child to pursue his studies.
In London, Gandhi maintained the vows he had given his mother to abstain from meat, alcohol, and women; but while he found his law studies easy, he remained lonely and socially inept. After he returned to India, Gandhi proved totally inadequate as a lawyer. He was so self- conscious and awkward that no one would give him a case- the one time he did appear in court, he could not utter a single word. Feeling like a failure, Gandhi was offered a minor clerical position with a firm in South Africa and jumped at the chance. While there he decided to work on improving his demeanor, and approached the task with his customary dedication. He learned some self-confidence in helping to resolve an out of court settlement for a bitter legal dispute involving his firm. Commenting on the joy of that moment, Gandhi said: "I had learnt to find out the better side of human nature and to enter men’s hearts."
Gandhi began trying to approach all situations as a way of rendering service rather than gaining personal profit. Within a few years, he was a successful lawyer with a good income. He brought his wife and children to live with him, and urged them to adopt his newly acquired Western lifestyle. But at the same time that he was embracing these new values, Gandhi began to notice the suffering of the Indian community in South Africa, and he was moved to help them.
An incident occurred in Gandhi’s first year in South Africa from which his later methods of nonviolent resistance were born. While traveling in a first-class train compartment he was asked to go to the third class compartment; when he refused, he was forced to leave the train. During that long night in the cold train station, Gandhi resolved never to yield to force or use of force to win a cause. "I object to violence," Gandhi said, "because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent." He began applying his methods to protest South Africa’s new racial laws oppressing Indians. After twenty years in South Africa, Gandhi felt compelled to return to India and apply ahimsa to the struggle against British rule. "We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence," Gandhi said. "But I maintain that far more undreamt of the seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence." He traveled from the Himalayas to Ceylon with his message selflessness and love. One of the first to listen was Jawaharlal Nehru, who later became the prime minister of independent India; Nehru gave up all of his Western values and possessions to work for independence. Disturbed by the inequalites of India’s caste system, Gandhi also gave the lowest caste, "untouchables," a new name, Harijans- the children of God. He refused to enter temples that were closed to low caste Indians, saying, "There is no God here. If God were here, everyone would have access. He is in every one of us." Temple doors began to open to all. Gandhi was given the honorific title of Mahatma, meaning "Great Soul."
During World War I, Gandhi began urging Indians to participate in a program of civil disobedience against the British. These protests for independence continued for many years, thousands were arrested for noncooperation. Gandhi himself was tried for sedition, and he turned the trial into a condemnation of imperialism. Gandhi’s protest, spontaneous, unpredictable, and guided by intuition, confounded the British, as did the protestors’ courage in the face of superior arms. "A satyagrahi bids goodbye to fear. He is therefore never afraid of trusting the opponent," Gandhi stated. "... It is never the numbers that count; it is always the quality, more so when the forces of violence are uppermost."
A turning point in the independence struggle came in 1930, when Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha brought India’s situation to world attention. After ten years of limited compromise and continued repression by the British, Gandhi decided to lead a 24-day march to the sea to protest the British monopoly on salt. At dawn he picked up a pinch of salt from the sand, and millions around the country began to ignore the law banning homemade salt. Even though there were brutal beatings by the police, the country celebrated. Gandhi was soon arrested, as he would be many times over the next few years, and he approached prison with the same joy as he did everything else. Many British were surprised over the cause and joined him in the struggle. All people were the same to Gandhi. "I believe that if one man gains spiritually," Gandhi said, "the whole world gains with him and if one man falls, the whole world fall to that extent."
From prison Gandhi was invited to London for a conference to decide India’s fate. He had asked all Indians to wear homespun cloth-Khadi - and boycott all foreign cloth, to break the British monopoly on clothing production, and khadi became a symbol of independence, linking rich and poor Indians together. While in London Gandhi wore only khadi, even when visiting Buckingham Palace. He also spoke to British texture workers in Lancashire who were put out of work by the boycott, and won many of them over to the cause. Gandhi felt the love and truth he spoke touched people’s hearts: "Satyagraha is a force that works that is so direct or so swift in working."
By 1945, the British realized they could no longer hold India, and conceded independence to the country. In September 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru became prime minister. On the eve of independence, however, Muslims and Hindus began killing each other, they would seize power after the English left. Thousands died in Calcutta alone. Gandhi, dishearted at the killing, went with followers into the afflicted villages to live peacefully; they transformed the areas where they went. Eventually the country was split into India and Pakistan.
In the midst of this chaos, Gandhi was aware that his love and tolerance infuriated some people. He said: "If someone killed me and I died with a prayer for the assassin on my lips and God’s remembrance and consciousness of His living presence in the sanctuary in my heart, then alone would I be said to have had the non-violence of the brave." These words proved prophetic, for January 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse, a high caste Brahminand publisher of a weekly Hindu magazine shot Gandhi right as the Mahatma rose to address a at New Delhi prayer meeting. Gandhi died 25 minutes later.
Gandhi’s greatness and uniqueness lies in his role as an innovator in politics. He loved humanity with surpassing compassion and, to use his own phrase, "approached the poor with the mind of the poor." He endeavored to find a new human order. He was the first in human history to extend the principle of nonviolence from the individual to the social and the political plane.
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