ahatma translates to “great soul”. Before India became the independent state we know today, there was a young man with a big heart who dedicated his life to the struggle for independence, for the political and civil rights of Indians, and for those from disadvantaged social classes — who accounted for a significant percentage of the population — to lead a better life. Mahatma Gandhi is considered the father of modern India. The doctrine of peaceful protest against injustice, the concept of satyagraha, is patented by the man who won the hearts of men by virtue, wisdom, and a simplistic lifestyle.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, Gujarat (western India). The last child of Karamchand Gandhi and his fourth wife, Putlibai, Mahatma stood out in childhood only through shyness and mediocre grades received at school. At the age of thirteen, Gandhi married Kasturba, following parental arrangements.
Life in England
After graduating, Mahatma left for London. In September 1888, at the age of eighteen, he left his wife in India with their newborn son and went to London to prepare to become a lawyer.
For the first three months in the Empire’s capital, he tried to adjust to British society, to become a dandy: he bought new costumes, trained his British accent, learned French, took dance and violin lessons. After three months of emptying his pockets of such frivolous activities, Gandhi made a decision. It was a waste of time and, no less, money. So he spent the next three years in London studying and leading a simplistic lifestyle.
He also became a vegetarian in London (before, as a child, he used to eat meat from time to time). Later, he stated that he regretted having ever eaten meat products. Although most of his Indian colleagues ate meat, Gandhi decided to stick to his mother’s promise to stay vegetarian overseas and abroad. In search of vegetarian restaurants, Gandhi discovered and joined the Vegetarian Society of London. It was an agglomeration of intellectuals who introduced Gandhi to various authors, such as Henry David Thoreau and Lev Tolstoy.
The same group inspired him to read the Bhagavad Gita, an epic poem that Hindus consider a sacred text. The new ideas and concepts he learned from the pages of these books laid the foundations of his later beliefs.
He passed the exam to be accepted into the bar with flying colors, on June 10, 1891. He returned to India in just two days. For the next two years, he tried to practice law in India but discovered quite early on that he did not have a thorough knowledge of Indian law or much self-confidence during the trials. In 1893 he received a job at an Indian firm in Durban, South Africa.
South Africa, an empire of discrimination
At the age of twenty-three, Gandhi left his family again and embarked on a journey for South Africa. In May 1893 he arrived in Natal, a city administered by Great Britain. He had left hoping to make money and learn a little more about the law. But what happened here exceeded any of his expectations. This was the starting point for his transformation from a quiet and shy individual into a strong and energetic leader in the fight against discrimination.
He had been in South Africa for almost a week when he was asked to make a long business trip from Natal to the Dutch-administered capital of the Transvaal province. He would travel both by train and by bus. When he boarded the first train of his journey from Pietermartizburg station, railway officials told Gandhi that he had to move to the third class, even though he had tickets for the first class. After he refused to move, a policeman appeared from nowhere and took him off the train.
However, this event would be only the first in a much longer series of injustices to which Gandhi would be subjected in his journey. Talking to a few other Indians in South Africa (pejoratively called “coolies”), he realized that his experience was far from isolated, but rather part of a situation. During the first night of the trip, waiting in the cold at the train station after being kicked out of the train, Gandhi oscillated between two options: returning to India or fighting discrimination. The decision was in favor of the second option, he could not allow such injustices to continue. He would fight to change the heinous practices of discrimination.
Gandhi, the great reformer
He spent the next twenty years trying to improve the lives of South African Indians, perfect the rights they enjoyed, and ensure that they were respected. On May 22, 1894, he founded the Natal Indian Congress (NIC). Although originally an organization of wealthy Indians, Gandhi worked tirelessly to expand the social quality of its members, trying to include all classes and castes. Gandhi became known for his work in the field of activism, his actions being reported in the press, both in England and in India. Within a few years, Gandhi had become a true leader of the South African Indian community.
In 1896, after three years in South Africa, Gandhi returned to India, intending to take his two sons and his wife back with him. But there was an epidemic of bubonic plague in India. At the time, poor sanitation was believed to be the cause of the spread of the epidemic, so Gandhi offered to help inspect the latrines — starting with the poorest to the richest. Ironically, but not unexpectedly, he learned that the rich were the ones who had the biggest problems with sanitation.
On November 30, 1896, Gandhi, along with his entire family, boarded for South Africa. He did not know that during his departure from South Africa, his pamphlet containing the Indian claims, known as the “Green Pamphlet,” had been distorted and exaggerated.
When Gandhi’s ship docked in the port of Durban, he was detained for twenty-four days in quarantine. The real reason for the delay was that there were a lot of angry whites leading the port, and they believed that Gandhi was returning with two ships full of Indian passengers to invade South Africa. When allowed to disembark, Gandhi managed to shelter his family, but he was attacked with bricks, rotten eggs, and even fists. Police arrived in time to rescue Gandhi from the hands of the angry whites and take him to safety. After refuting the charges against him and refusing to prosecute those who attacked him, the violence against him stopped. However, the whole incident only increased Mahatma Gandhi’s prestige in South Africa.
When the Boer War broke out in South Africa in 1899, Gandhi organized and administered the Indian Ambulance Corps through which 1,100 Indians heroically helped wounded British soldiers. The service was auspicious. Still, the goodwill induced by this support from the South African Indians to the British lasted long enough for Gandhi to return to India for a year in 1901.
Live together, A simple life
Inspired by the Gita, Gandhi wanted to purify his existence, following the concepts of aparigraha (lack of possessions) and samabhava (balance). Then, after a friend gave John Ruskin, Unto This Last, Gandhi embraced the ideals proposed by Ruskin. The book inspired him to form, in June 1904, on the outskirts of Durban, a society based on common living, called the Phoenix Settlement. The settlement was an experiment in living together, a way to eliminate the unnecessary need for possession and to live in a society that valued equality. Gandhi moved the headquarters of his newspaper, Indian Opinion, to the Settlement, and later moved his entire family here. Outside the media building, each member of the community had a hectare of land on which to build a home. Apart from agriculture, all members of the community were educated and were to help make the newspaper.
In 1906, believing that family life was taking his time and energy to exploit his full potential as a public lawyer, Gandhi took the oath of Brahmacharya (an oath of abstinence from sexual intercourse, even with his own wife). It was not an easy oath to keep, but Gandhi stoically tried to keep it for the rest of his life. Thinking that one passion feeds the others, Gandhi decided to limit his diet to remove any passion that might distract him. So he switched from vegetarianism to foods that were not spicy and usually uncooked, a diet rich in fruits and nuts. Fasting, he thought, would help him inhibit his bodily desires.
Gandhi believed that after taking the Brahmacharya oath, he could focus more on his work. Thus he developed the concept of satyagraha, at the end of 1906. Explained in a simple way, satyagraha is passive resistance. However, Gandhi believed that the English expression “passive resistance” did not express the true spirit of Indian resistance, since passive resistance was often confused with the weak and was a tactic that could possibly be carried out in anger.
He needed a new term. He chose “satyagraha” which means “the force of truth”. Gandhi believed that exploitation occurred when both the exploited and the exploiter accepted the situation, and if one could rise above the existing situation and see the universal truth, then he had the power to bring about change. (Here, the truth can be understood as “natural law,” offered by nature, by the universe, which must not be imposed by man.)
In practice, satyagraha expressed a concentrated and strong peaceful resistance directed against injustices. A satyagrahi, one who adhered to the concept of satyagraha, opposed injustice by refusing to follow an unjust law. Thus, he would not be angry, he would have accepted, voluntarily, to suffer physical attacks against him and his property would be confiscated, he would not have used licentious language to defame his opponent. A satyagrahanu practitioner would never take advantage of any kind of handicap of the opponent. The goal was not to be a winner and a loser in this battle, but rather to have everyone see, in the end, understand the “truth” and agree to repeal the unjust law.
Gandhi first used the term satyagraha in South Africa in early 1907, when he organized opposition to the Asian Registration Law. In March 1907, the law was enacted, and all Indians — young, old, men, and women — were to be imprinted and to bear on them, at all times, registration papers. In the spirit of satyagraha, the Indians refused to be imprinted and picketed the registration offices. Mass protests were organized, miners went on strike, many Indians illegally moved from Natal to the Transvaal. Many of the protesters were beaten and arrested, including Gandhi. This would be his first long-term prison sentence. After seven years of protest, in June 1914, the law was repealed. Gandhi had proved that peaceful protest could have resounding success.
After twenty years in South Africa
After twenty years in South Africa, holding the banner of the fight against discrimination, Gandhi decided it was time to return to India, in July 1914. On the way home, he set out to make a short stop in England. But the Great War broke out when he was on his way, so he decided to stay in England and organize a new ambulance corps to help the British. He returned to India in January 1915, falling ill with British air.
Gandhi’s struggle and victories in South Africa had spread through the press everywhere, so when he got home he was hailed as a national hero. Although he had enthusiastically come to India, he was advised by a friend to wait a year, to travel through India to get used to the people and their problems.
However, the celebrity did not help him see the conditions in which the poor lived to their true extent. On the contrary, trying to remain anonymous as much as possible, he began to wear dhoti (one-piece men’s clothing) and sandals — this was the usual costume for the vast majority of the population. It remained his clothing style until the end of his life.
In his year of observation travel, he founded another common settlement in Ahmadabad and named it Sabarmati Ashram. He lived here for the next sixteen years, along with his family and several other members of the Phoenix Settlement.
His name is Mahatma
Also during the first year back in India, Gandhi received the honorary title of Mahatma, “great soul”. It is said that the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, was the one who baptized Gandhi and popularized the name. The title represents the feelings of millions of Indian peasants who saw in Gandhi a man sent by divinity. However, Gandhi was not very enthusiastic about the honors. He never liked this title, because that meant he was special when he considered himself to be an ordinary man.