Mohandas Gandhi — also affectionately known as Mahatma Gandhi — led India’s independence movement in the 1930s and ’40s by speaking softly without carrying much of a big stick, facing down the British colonialists with stirring speeches and non-violent protest.
Mohandas Karamcham Gandhi
Founder of Non Violence Movement,
Father of Independent India
1869 – 1948
“When quite young, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi witnessed along with his mother a drama on “Sravana and his devotion to his parents” and he resolved that he must also become a Sravana. He witnessed a play on Harischandra and that drama impressed him so deeply that he resolved to become as heroically devoted to virtue as Harischandra himself. These transformed him so much that he became a Mahatma. Gandhi had a teacher when he was attending school who taught him wrong paths. But Gandhi did not adopt his advice. As a consequence, he was able to bring freedom (Swaraj) to the country” (Sathya Sai Baba, Vidya Vahini.)
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in the town of Porbander in the state of what is now Gujarat on 2 October 1869. He had his schooling in nearby Rajkot, where his father served as the adviser or prime minister to the local ruler. Though India was then under British rule, over 500 kingdoms, principalities, and states were allowed autonomy in domestic and internal affairs: these were the so-called ‘native states’. Rajkot was one such state.
On Repeating the Name of the Lord
Being born in the Vaisnava faith, I had often to go to the Haveli, But it never appealed to me. I did not like its glitter and pomp. Also I heard rumours of immorality practised there, and lost all interest in it. Hence, I could gain nothing from the Haveli. But what I failed to get there, I obtained from my nurse, an old servant of the family, whose affection for me I still recall. I have said before that there was a fear within me of spirits and ghosts. Rambha, for that was her name, suggested, as a remedy for this fear, the repetition of Rama-nama (the name of Rama). I had more faith in her than in her remedy, so at a tender age, I began repeating the Rama-nama to cure my fear of ghosts and spirits. This of course was short-lived, but the good seed sown in childhood was not sown in vain. I think that it is due the seed sown by that good woman Rambha that today, the name of Rama is an infallible remedy for me.
Gandhi’s Mother, Putlibai
You must have heard about Putlibai, the mother of Mahatma Gandhi, who spent her life in the contemplation of God. She used to observe a vow wherein she would not partake of food unless she would hear the singing of cuckoo. One day it so happened that the song of cuckoo was not heard. Seeing his mother sticking to her vow and not taking food, Gandhi who was a small boy then, went behind the house and mimicked the singing of cuckoo. He came inside and told his mother that she could have her food as she heard the song of cuckoo. Mother Putlibai felt very sad, as she knew that her son was uttering a lie. She cried, “O God! What sin have I committed to give birth to a son who speaks untruth?” Realising that he had caused immense grief to his mother by uttering a lie, Gandhi took a vow that he would never indulge in falsehood thenceforth. (Sathya Sai Baba, Ladies Day, 1997)
Student in London
In London, Gandhi encountered theosophists, vegetarians, and others who were disenchanted not only with industrialism, but with the legacy of Enlightenment thought. They themselves represented the fringe elements of English society. Gandhi was powerfully attracted to them, as he was to the texts of the major religious traditions; and ironically it is in London that he was introduced to the Bhagavad Gita. Here, too, Gandhi showed determination and single-minded pursuit of his purpose, and accomplished his objective of finishing his degree from the Inner Temple. He was called to the bar in 1891, and even enrolled in the High Court of London; but later that year he left for India.
This shyness I retained throughout my stay in England. Even when I paid a social call, the presence of half a dozen or more people would strike me dumb. I once went to Ventnor with Sgt. Mazmudar. We stayed there with a vegetarian family. Mr Howard, the author of ‘The Ethics of Diet’, was also staying at the same watering place. We met him, and he invited us to speak at a meeting for the promotion of vegetarianism. I has ascertained that it was not considered incorrect to read one’s speech. I knew that many did so to express themselves coherently and briefly. To speak extempore would have been out of the question for me. I had therefore written down my speech. I stood up to read it, but could not. My vision became blurred and I trembled, though the speech hardly covered a sheet of foolscap. Sgt. Mazmudar had to read it for me. His own speech was of course excellent and received with applause. I was ashamed at myself and sad at heart for my incapacity. (My Experiments With Truth)
The Bible and the Sermon on the Mount
About the same time, I met a good Christian from Manchester in a vegetarian boarding house. He talked to me about Christianity. I narrated to him my Rajkot recollections. He was pained to hear them. He said, ‘I am a vegetarian. I do not drink. Many Christians are meat eaters and drinking, no doubt; but neither meat-eating nor drinking is enjoined by scripture. Do please read the Bible.’ I accepted his advice and he got me a copy. I have a faint recollection that he himself used to sell copies of the Bible, and I purchased from him an edition containing maps, concordance, and other aids. I began reading it but I could not possibly read through the Old Testament. I read the book of Genesis, and the chapters that followed invariably sent me to sleep. But just for the sake of being able to say that I had read it, I plodded through the other books with much difficulty and without the least interest or understanding. I disliked reading the book of Numbers.
But the New Testament produced a different impression, especially the Sermon on the Mount which went straight to my heart. I compared it with the Gita. The verses, ‘But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil, but whosoever smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak too’ delighted me beyond measure and put me in mind of Shamal Bhatt’s ‘For a bowl of water, give a goodly meal’, etc. My young mind tried to unify the teaching of the Gita, the “Light of Asia” and the Sermon on the Mount. That renunciation was the greatest form of religion appealed to me greatly. (My Experiments with Truth)
South Africa and the seed of Sathyagraha
After one year of a none too successful law practice, Gandhi decided to accept an offer from an Indian businessman in South Africa, Dada Abdulla, to join him as a legal adviser. Unbeknown to him, this was to become an exceedingly lengthy stay, and altogether Gandhi was to stay in South Africa for over twenty years. The Indians who had been living in South Africa were without political rights, and were generally known by the derogatory name of ‘coolies’. Gandhi himself came to an awareness of the frightening force and fury of European racism, and how far Indians were from being considered full human beings, when he when thrown out of a first-class railway compartment car, though he held a first-class ticket, at Pietermaritzburg. From this political awakening Gandhi was to emerge as the leader of the Indian community, and it is in South Africa that he first coined the term sathyagraha to signify his theory and practice of non-violent resistance. Gandhi was to describe himself pre-eminently as a votary or seeker of sathya (truth), which could not be attained other than through ahimsa (non-violence, love) and brahmacharya (celibacy, striving towards God).
Gandhi conceived of his own life as a series of experiments to forge the use of sathyagraha in such a manner as to make the oppressor and the oppressed alike recognise their common bonding and humanity: as he recognised, freedom is only freedom when it is indivisible. In his book Sathyagraha in South Africa he was to detail the struggles of the Indians to claim their rights, and their resistance to oppressive legislation and executive measures, such as the imposition of a poll tax on them, or the declaration by the government that all non-Christian marriages were to be construed as invalid. In 1909, on a trip back to India, Gandhi authored a short treatise entitled Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule), where he all but initiated the critique, not only of industrial civilisation, but of modernity in all its aspects.
Return to India,
and the non co-operation movement
Gandhi returned to India in early 1915, and was never to leave the country again except for a short trip that took him to Europe in 1931. Though he was not completely unknown in India, Gandhi followed the advice of his political mentor, Gokhale, and took it upon himself to acquire a familiarity with Indian conditions. He traveled widely for one year. Over the next few years, he was to become involved in numerous local struggles, such as at Champaran in Bihar, where workers on indigo plantations complained of oppressive working conditions, and at Ahmedabad, where a dispute had broken out between management and workers at textile mills. His interventions earned Gandhi a considerable reputation, and his rapid ascendancy to the helm of nationalist politics is signified by his leadership of the opposition to repressive legislation (known as the “Rowlatt Acts”) in 1919.
His saintliness was not uncommon, except in someone like him who immersed himself in politics, and by this time he had earned from no less a person than Rabindranath Tagore, India’s most well-known writer, the title of Mahatma, or ‘Great Soul’. When ‘disturbances’ broke out in the Punjab, leading to the massacre of a large crowd of unarmed Indians at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar and other atrocities, Gandhi wrote the report of the Punjab Congress Inquiry Committee.
Over the next two years, Gandhi initiated the non-cooperation movement, which called upon Indians to withdraw from British institutions, to return honours conferred by the British, and to learn the art of self-reliance; though the British administration was at places paralysed, the movement was suspended in February 1922 when a score of Indian policemen were brutally killed by a large crowd at Chauri Chaura, a small market town in the United Provinces. Gandhi himself was arrested shortly thereafter, tried on charges of sedition, and sentenced to imprisonment for six years. At The Great Trial, as it is known to his biographers, Gandhi delivered a masterful indictment of British rule.
Owing to his poor health, Gandhi was released from prison in 1925. Over the following years, he worked hard to preserve Hindu-Muslim relations, and in 1924 he observed, from his prison cell, a 21-day fast when Hindu-Muslim riots broke out at Kohat, a military barracks on the Northwest Frontier. This was to be of his many major public fasts, and in 1932 he was to commence the so-called Epic Fast unto death, since he thought of “separate electorates” for the oppressed class of what were then called untouchables (or Harijans in Gandhi’s vocabulary, and dalits in today’s language) as a retrograde measure meant to produce permanent divisions within Hindu society.
Gandhi earned the hostility of Ambedkar, the leader of the untouchables, but few doubted that Gandhi was genuinely interested in removing the serious disabilities from which they suffered, just as no one doubted that Gandhi never accepted the argument that Hindus and Muslims constituted two separate elements in Indian society. These were some of the concerns most prominent in Gandhi’s mind, but he was also to initiate a constructive programme for social reform. Gandhi had ideas—mostly sound—on every subject, from hygiene and nutrition to education and labour, and he relentlessly pursued his ideas in one of the many newspapers which he founded. Indeed, were Gandhi known for nothing else in India, he would still be remembered as one of the principal figures in the history of Indian journalism.
The story of
My Experiments with Truth
“This chapter has brought me to a stage where it becomes necessary for me to explain to the read how this story is written from week to week.
When I began writing it, I had no definite plan before me. I have do diary or documents, on which th base the story of my experiments. I write just as the Spirit moves me at the time of writing. I do not claim to know definitely that all conscious thought and action on my part is directed by the Spirit. But on examination of the greatest steps I have taken in my life, as also those which may be regarded as the least, I think it will not be improper to say that all of them were directed by the Spirit.
I have not seen Him, neither have I known Him. I have the world’s faith in God my own, as as my faith in ineffaceable, I regard that faith as amounting to experience. However, as it may be said that to describe faith as experience is to tamper with truth, it may perhaps be more correct to say that I have no word for characterising my belief in God.” (My Experiments With Truth)
and the Salt Marches
In early 1930, as the nationalist movement was revived, the Indian National Congress, the pre-eminent body of nationalist opinion, declared that it would now be satisfied with nothing short of complete independence (purna swaraj). Once the clarion call had been issued, it was perforce necessary to launch a movement of resistance against British rule. On March 2, Gandhi addressed a letter to the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, informing him that unless Indian demands were met, he would be compelled to break the “salt laws”.
Predictably, his letter was received with bewildered amusement, and accordingly Gandhi set off, on the early morning of March 12, with a small group of followers towards Dandi on the sea. They arrived there on April 5th: Gandhi picked up a small lump of natural salt, and so gave the signal to hundreds of thousands of people to similarly defy the law, since the British exercised a monopoly on the production and sale of salt. This was the beginning of the civil disobedience movement: Gandhi himself was arrested, and thousands of others were also hauled into jail. It is to break this deadlock that Irwin agreed to hold talks with Gandhi, and subsequently the British agreed to hold a Round Table Conference in London to negotiate the possible terms of Indian independence. Gandhi went to London in 1931 and met some of his admirers in Europe, but the negotiations proved inconclusive. On his return to India, he was once again arrested.
For the next few years, Gandhi would be engaged mainly in the constructive reform of Indian society. He had vowed upon undertaking the salt march that he would not return to Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, where he had made his home, if India did not attain its independence, and in the mid-1930s he established himself in a remote village, in the dead center of India, by the name of Segaon [known as Sevagram]. It is to this obscure village, which was without electricity or running water, that India’s political leaders made their way to engage in discussions with Gandhi about the future of the independence movement.
At the outset of World War II, Gandhi and the Congress leadership assumed a position of neutrality: while clearly critical of fascism, they could not find it in themselves to support British imperialism.
British Imperialism and Imprisonment
In 1942, Gandhi issued the last call for independence from British rule. On the grounds of what is now known as August Kranti Maidan, he delivered a stirring speech, asking every Indian to lay down their life, if necessary, in the cause of freedom. He gave them this mantra: “Do or Die”; at the same time, he asked the British to ‘Quit India‘. The response of the British government was to place Gandhi under arrest, and virtually the entire Congress leadership was to find itself behind bars, not to be released until after the conclusion of the war.
A few months after Gandhi and Kasturba had been placed in confinement in the Aga Khan’s Palace in Pune, Kasturba passed away: this was a terrible blow to Gandhi, following closely on the heels of the death of his private secretary of many years, the gifted Mahadev Desai.
In the period from 1942 to 1945, the Muslim League, which represented the interest of certain Muslims and by now advocated the creation of a separate homeland for Muslims, increasingly gained the attention of the British, and supported them in their war effort. The new government that came to power in Britain under Clement Atlee was committed to the independence of India, and negotiations for India’s future began in earnest. Sensing that the political leaders were now craving for power, Gandhi largely distanced himself from the negotiations. He declared his opposition to the vivisection of India.
It is generally conceded, even by his detractors, that the last years of his life were in some respects his finest. He walked from village to village in riot-torn Noakhali, where Hindus were being killed in retaliation for the killing of Muslims in Bihar, and nursed the wounded and consoled the widowed; and in Calcutta he came to constitute, in the famous words of the last viceroy, Mountbatten, a “one-man boundary force” between Hindus and Muslims.
“Man has been endowed with buddhi (intelligence), so that he might at every turn decide what is beneficent for observance and what is detrimental. Gandhi while going through hate ridden regions, prayed, “Sabko san-mati de Bhagwan!” (O Lord! Give everyone good intelligence!) The intelligence has to be kept sharp, clear and straight” (Sathya Sai Baba).
The ferocious fighting in Calcutta came to a halt, almost entirely on account of Gandhi’s efforts, and even his critics were quick to speak of the Gandhi’s ‘miracle of Calcutta’. When the moment of freedom came, on 15 August 1947, Gandhi was nowhere to be seen in the capital, though Nehru and the entire Constituent Assembly were to salute him as the architect of Indian independence, as the ‘father of the nation’.
The Power of one Good Man
and the path to purity
The last few months of Gandhi’s life were to be spent mainly in the capital city of Delhi. There he divided his time between the ‘Bhangi colony’, where the sweepers and the lowest of the low stayed, and Birla House, the residence of one of the wealthiest men in India and one of the benefactors of Gandhi’s ashrams.
Hindu and Sikh refugees had streamed into the capital from what had become Pakistan, and there was much resentment, which easily translated into violence, against Muslims. It was partly in an attempt to put an end to the killings in Delhi, and more generally to the bloodshed following the partition, which may have taken the lives of as many as 1 million people, besides causing the dislocation of no fewer than 11 million, that Gandhi was to commence the last fast unto death of his life.
The fast was terminated when representatives of all the communities signed a statement that they were prepared to live in “perfect amity”, and that the lives, property, and faith of the Muslims would be safeguarded. A few days later, a bomb exploded in Birla House where Gandhi was holding his evening prayers, but it caused no injuries. However, his assassin, a Brahmin by the name of Nathuram Godse, was not so easily deterred. Gandhi, quite characteristically, refused additional security, and no one could defy his wish to be allowed to move around unhindered. In the early evening hours of 30 January 1948, Gandhi met with India’s Deputy Prime Minister and his close associate in the freedom struggle, Vallabhai Patel, and then proceeded to his prayers.
“To see the Universal and all pervading Spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford do keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet with all humility, that those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”
Gandhi sought trikarana suddhi (triple purity), purity of thought, word and deed. In the words of the Sai Avatar, this is the definition and the embodiment of integrity. Listen to Gandhi speak of his journey toward purity:
“But the path to self purification is hard and steep. To attain to perfect purity, one has to become absolutely passion-free in thought, speech and action; to rise above the opposing currents of love and hatred, attachment and repulsion. I know that I have not in me as yet that triple purity (tri-karana suddhi) in spite of constant and ceaseless striving for it. That is why the world’s praise fails to move me, indeed, it very often stings me. To conquer the subtle passions seems to me to be harder than the physical conquest of the world by force of arms. Ever since my return to India, I have had experience of dormant passions lying hidden within me. The knowledge of them has made me feel humiliated, though not defeated. The experiences and experiments have sustained me and given me great joy. But I know that I have still before me a difficult path to traverse. I must reduce myself to zero.” (My Experiments With Truth, last page).
Record Cover, Speech given by Gandhi in New Delhi, 1947, in English, with commentary
Recently, a discovery has come to light of a record pressed in the USA, (only four copies made) which renders a speech made by Gandhi in New Delhi, in English. This was a speech given to Asian leaders. Gandhi rarely spoke in English, preferring to use his native Hindi language. This speech is interspersed with comments from the fellow who made the recording, one Alan Watts. You may read more about this and listen to the audio recording of Gandhi’s Speech in English. (Opens in a new page)
That evening, as Gandhi’s time-piece, which hung from one of the folds of his dhoti, was to reveal to him, he was uncharacteristically late to his prayers, and he fretted about his inability to be punctual. At 10 minutes past 5 o’clock, with one hand each on the shoulders of Abha and Manu, who were known as his ‘walking sticks’, Gandhi commenced his walk towards the garden where the prayer meeting was held. As he was about to mount the steps of the podium, Gandhi folded his hands and greeted his audience with a namaskar; at that moment, a young man came up to him and roughly pushed aside Manu. Nathuram Godse bent down in the gesture of an obeisance, took a revolver out of his pocket, and shot Gandhi three times in his chest. Bloodstains appeared over Gandhi’s white woollen shawl; his hands still folded in a greeting, Gandhi blessed his assassin: He Ram! He Ram!
As Gandhi fell, his faithful time-piece struck the ground, and the hands of the watch came to a standstill. They showed, as they had done before, the precise time: 5:12 PM
Sathya Sai Baba observes Samadhi of Gandhi
On the afternoon of the 30th of January, Baba led a few people to the Chitravathi River. Suddenly, He ran back to the mandir and bolted the door. He emerged intermittently, until 7.30 p.m., when He finally came out and spoke a few words to the devotees to the effect that a great soul had passed away.
No one knew exactly what had happened. A remote village like Puttaparthi did not have methods of instant communication with the rest of the world. There was no radio, no newspapers, no contact with the outside world.
Periodically, Balapattabi would go to Bukkapatnam to collect mail. After a couple of days, one of the devotees read in The Hindu newspaper that Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, had been assassinated at about 5.30 p.m., on the 30th of January, in New Delhi. It happened almost at the very time when Baba behaved in a strange manner. (Love is My Form, Chapter XIV)
Lost Gandhi Ashes Scattered at Sea
On 30 January 2010, the last of the ashes of Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, kept in secret for decades by a family friend after his assassination, have been scattered off South Africa’s coast, his family said.
“Before the immersion took place, the Hindu priest recited hymns. Gandhi’s great grandson poured the ashes into the sea and afterwards people threw flowers as a sign of their final goodbyes,” he said.
Normally, ashes are immersed in rivers or the sea within days but Gandhi’s ashes were divided and put in several urns and sent around India and across the globe so his followers could hold memorials.
One urn came to South Africa, where Gandhi had come to practise law in 1893, living in the country on and off for 21 years.
A family friend, Vilas Mehta, helped with the arrangements for the prayers and the ashes were immersed after 10 days, according to the Gandhi Development Trust in Durban.
Unknown to the family, Mehta kept a few remnants of the ashes and guarded them in secret for the rest of her life, the Trust said.
She “decided to take a little bit of the ashes and keep it in safekeeping as a memento of that occasion, not realising that it is our custom to immerse them,” said Ela Gandhi.
When Mehta passed on, her daughter-in-law decided to return them to the Gandhi family.