Few can legitimately be called bapu (Gujarati for “father”) of their country; even fewer attained that moniker without shedding a lot of blood. But Mohandas Gandhi, better known around the world as Mahatma (Sanskrit for “venerable”) Gandhi, can. He pioneered the approach of satyagraha (a term he coined, literally “truth force”), or resistance to tyranny through mass civil disobedience, a tactic he urged to be used to bring independence to his homeland.
Gandhi was born into the Hindi merchant caste in an India still under British rule. The son of the fourth wife of the diwan of the small state of Porbandar, in his youth Gandhi displayed none of the self-effacing benevolence that would mark him as an adult. In fact, his sister once noted that one of his favorite pastimes as a child was “twisting the dogs’ ears.” As a boy, he was also described as “restless as mercury... either playing or roaming about.”
Gandhi entered into an arranged marriage at the age of 13 to a 14-year-old girl, the usual custom of the period and place. Apparently he did not enjoy the experience, later calling the practice “the cruel custom of child marriage.” But he seems to have taken advantage of it, since in 1885 AD when he was fifteen, his wife bore him a short-lived child. They would have four more children, all sons, so the “cruel custom” didn’t seem to impede his husbandly duties.
His marriage led him to take a year off from his secondary education. But Mohandas was a mediocre scholar, as well as being painfully shy, not a good combination when he was in school in Rajkot. One of his terminal evaluations upon matriculation read, in part, “good at English, fair in Arithmetic and weak in Geography; conduct very good, bad handwriting.” With such skills, what other career than that of a lawyer? In 1888 he departed India to London to study to be a barrister.
His father having just died, Gandhi’s mother did not want him to go, giving him her blessings only after he had promised to abstain from wine, women, and meat. His caste looked upon traveling over the ocean as unclean; when he persisted they declared him an “outcast.” In June 1891 Gandhi passed the bar and set sail for India. He attempted to set up practice in Bombay, but failed miserably – reportedly because he was reluctant to harshly cross-examine witnesses, understandably earning him few clients. Therefore, at the age of 24, Mohandas accepted a year-long contract from the Indian firm Dada Abdulla & Company to represent their interests in Natal, South Africa, another corner of the sprawling British Empire.
Gandhi enjoyed somewhat more professional success in South Africa, but he was troubled by the racial bigotry and intolerance he found there. He spent the next twenty years of his life in South Africa fighting for the rights of ethnic minorities, although recently-discovered writings reveal that he was less than sympathetic to the status of Africans. It was here that Gandhi began to refine and teach his philosophy of “passive” resistance. He was jailed several times for opposition to the aptly-named “Black Acts,” by which all non-whites were required to submit their fingerprints to the government. When the government ruled that only Christian marriages were legal in South Africa, Gandhi organized and led a massive non-violent protest. All this ire stemmed at least in part from some of his early experiences in South Africa, such as being ejected from a first-class railway carriage or beaten by a stagecoach driver for failing to give up his inside seat to a white.
Despite his seemingly unending protests, Gandhi proved himself something of an imperial patriot in times of war. During the Boer War, he raised a cadre of 1100 Indian volunteers to serve as corpsmen and stretcher-bearers on the front lines; Gandhi and 37 others would eventually receive the War Medal for their service and sacrifice. In 1906 the British were at it again, this time against the Zulu. And Gandhi again raised a volunteer corps for stretcher service (the survivors to be “allowed” to petition for South African citizenship). His close-up and personal observations of the war convinced him that only non-violent methods could hope to prevail against the mighty Royal Army... and maybe not even those.
In 1915, Gandhi returned to India. Almost immediately he irritated most everyone that mattered there: the British administrators when he expressed his humiliation that he had to speak English in his native land, and the Indian nobility when he chided them for their ostentatiousness, telling them that they should hold their jewels and wealth in trust for their poorer countrymen. Thus Gandhi began his long campaign to free his country from English rule. The Mahatma followed two paths – he tried to shame the oppressors and he demanded sacrifices from the oppressed in opposition. For the next thirty years Gandhi tirelessly exhorted Indians to passive resistance, leading strike after strike, march after march, fasting himself to the point of incapacity, enduring innumerable beatings, and years in prison.
Despite serious setbacks and years of frustration, Gandhi persisted in annoying the powers-that-be. In 1946, with an exhausted military and virtually bankrupt, Great Britain agreed to vacate India, but in doing so decided to divide the colony between Hindu and Muslims, which Gandhi had vehemently argued against. As some 15 million people scrambled to get on the “right” side of the partition line, their movement sparked an outbreak of religious violence, in which Muslims were massacred wholesale in India, with the same fate awaiting Hindus in Pakistan.
The new countries were in chaos. In response, Gandhi went on a fast, refusing to eat again until the violence ceased. Astonishingly, his fast worked; representatives from both nations and religions promised to stop the killings and begged him to end the fast. He did so, to the relief of millions. Ironically, twelve days later, Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated by the militant Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse in the garden of the Birla House.