Mohandas K. Gandhi is better known by the reverential byname Mahatma (“Great Soul”). He was a lawyer and anti-colonial political campaigner known for his nonviolent methods of protesting British rule in India. Here are 10 facts about India’s most famous political figure.
1. Gandhi called for nonviolent resistance to British rule
Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolent protest was called satyagraha. It was adopted as an important device for protesting British colonial rule by the Indian independence movement. In Sanskrit and Hindi, satyagraha means “holding onto truth”. Mahatma Gandhi introduced the concept to describe a committed but nonviolent resistance to evil.
Gandhi first developed the idea of satyagraha in 1906 in opposition to legislation that discriminated against Asians in the British colony of the Transvaal in South Africa. Satyagraha campaigns took place in India from 1917 to 1947, incorporating fasting and economic boycotts.
2. Gandhi was influenced by religious concepts
Gandhi’s life led him to become familiar with religions such as Jainism. This morally exacting Indian religion had important principles such as nonviolence. This probably helped motivate Gandhi’s vegetarianism, commitment of non-injury to all living things, and notions of tolerance between faiths.
3. He studied law in London
Gandhi was called to the bar at age 22 in June 1891, having studied law at the Inner Temple, one of the four law colleges of London. He then attempted to start a successful law practice in India, before moving to South Africa where he represented an Indian merchant in a lawsuit.
4. Gandhi lived in South Africa for 21 years
He remained in South Africa for 21 years. His experience of racial discrimination in South Africa was initiated by a series of humiliations on one journey: he was removed from a railway compartment in Pietermaritzburg, beaten by a stagecoach driver and barred from “Europeans only” hotels.
In South Africa, Gandhi began political campaigns. In 1894 he drafted petitions to the Natal legislature and drew attention to the objections of Natal Indians to the passage of a discriminatory bill. He later founded the Natal Indian Congress.
5. Gandhi supported the British Empire in South Africa
Gandhi supported the British cause during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) because he hoped the loyalty of Indians would be rewarded by the extension of voting and citizenship rights in South Africa. Gandhi served as a stretcher-bearer in the British colony of Natal.
He served again during the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion, which had been triggered after colonial authorities coerced Zulu men to enter the labour market. Again he argued that Indian service would legitimise their claims to full citizenship but this time attempted to treat Zulu casualties.
Meanwhile British assurances in South Africa did not come to fruition. As the historian Saul Dubow has noted, Britain allowed the Union of South Africa to be constituted as a white supremacist state, providing an important political lesson to Gandhi about the integrity of imperial promises.
6. In India, Gandhi emerged as a nationalist leader
Gandhi returned to India at the age of 45 in 1915. He organised peasants, farmers and urban labourers to protest against rates of land-tax and discrimination. Though Gandhi recruited soldiers for the British Indian Army, he also called for general strikes in protest of the repressive Rowlatt Acts.
Violence such as the Amritsar Massacre in 1919 stimulated the development of the first major anti-colonial movement in India. Indian nationalists including Gandhi were hereafter firmly set upon the objective of independence. The massacre itself was memorialised after independence as a key moment in the struggle for freedom.
Gandhi became the leader of the Indian National Congress in 1921. He organised campaigns across India to demand self-rule, as well as to ease poverty, extend women’s rights, develop religious and ethnic peace, and end caste-based ostracism.
7. He led the Salt March to demonstrate the power of Indian nonviolence
The Salt March of 1930 was one of the key acts of nonviolent civil disobedience organised by Mahatma Gandhi. Over 24 days and 240 miles, marchers opposed the British salt monopoly and set an example for future anti-colonial resistance.
They marched from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, and concluded with Gandhi breaking the salt laws of the British Raj on 6 April 1930. While the legacy of the march was not immediately apparent, it helped undermine the legitimacy of British rule by disturbing the consent of Indians on which it depended.
8. He became known as the Great Soul
As a prominent political figure, Gandhi became associated with folk heroes and was portrayed as a messiah figure. His terminology and concepts and symbolism resonated in India.
9. Gandhi decided to live modestly
From the 1920s, Gandhi lived in a self-sufficient residential community. He ate simple vegetarian food. He fasted for long periods of time as part of his political protest and as part of his faith in self-purification.
10. Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist
Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948 by a Hindu nationalist who fired three bullets into his chest. His assassin was Nathuram Godse. When Prime Minister Nehru announced his death, he said that “the light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere”.
After his death, the National Gandhi Museum was founded. His birthday of 2 October is commemorated as a national holiday in India. It is also the International Day of Nonviolence.