Today is the birthday of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (books by this author), best known as Mahatma Gandhi, a religious and political leader born in western India in 1869. When Gandhi was 13 years old, he married Kasturbai Makanji, a girl of a similar age, according to his father’s arrangement. During their turbulent marriage, the couple sought to end British colonial rule in India and raised four sons.
Gandhi’s early life did not suggest a sensational future. He grew up a mediocre student without strong faith, a timid child afraid of the dark, ghosts, thieves, and snakes. In 1888, he traveled to England to study law. He spent most of the sea journey hiding in his cabin, horribly shy and embarrassed that he did not understand British table manners. During the next three years, he became fluent in English and for a short time dressed fashionably and studied French, elocution, and dancing, though he swiftly turned to the ascetic lifestyle for which he is known.
Gandhi and his family lived in South Africa from 1893 to 1914. His political awakening happened in part because of the racism he encountered there. In the first days of his arrival, he was thrown from a train because a white passenger refused to share a compartment with an Indian. In South Africa, he came into his own as a lawyer, an activist, and a visionary. He also adopted a strict moral code and argued that individual moral reform was essential to political change. In 1906, at the age of 37, Gandhi took a vow of celibacy, so that he might better embrace all humanity as his family.
He returned to India in 1915, hoping to reject colonial rule in favor of loose government and close-knit rural communities. He abhorred materialism and metropolitan culture and as a result was criticized by many of his countrymen, who felt that rejecting modern life was not a good way to end colonial rule.
Gandhi is best remembered not for playing a large role in Indian independence, but for his pacifist approach to resistance. Moral reform was central to his philosophy. He subtitled his autobiography “Experimenting with Truth,” and Truth — with a capital T — was his primary pursuit, coupled with nonviolence, both inherent to Hindu tradition. Gandhi was reluctant to define Truth, especially for others. Truth, to him, was too complex to fully understand or verbalize. True religion, he claimed, existed in each individual’s journey to find Truth, regardless of the particular religious path chosen.
His pacifism stemmed from his definition of Truth, since he was morally opposed to forcing his own Truth on others, especially by using violence. He argued that evil means inevitably yielded evil results. Gandhi rejected arguments that nonviolent resistance was weak, claiming that superior fortitude, strength, and resolve were required when practicing pacifism. As for individual reform, he advocated reducing material desires in order to channel strength inward.
When colonial rule ended in 1947, the nation was divided according to religious lines into India and Muslim Pakistan. Scholars have criticized Gandhi for overemphasizing individual morality and rejecting modernism, calling his approach impractical and idealistic. Yet he remains a touchstone for those seeking justice without the use of force.
The most famous pacifists of the 20th century both died by violence: Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in 1968, and Gandhi, King’s inspiration for pacifist resistance. Gandhi was assassinated in New Delhi on January 30, 1948, by a young Hindu who blamed him for the country’s division, despite Gandhi’s emphasis on unity. A martyr after his death, Gandhi was considered the father of a new India. He said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”