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Mohandas Gandhi


Indian political reformer and
spiritual leader

Mohandas Gandhi was born
October 2, 1869 in India. His father was the diwan (Prime Minister) of
the Porbander state. His mother was deeply religious. The young Gandhi absorbed early the influences that would play an important role in his adult life, including compassion to others, vegetarianism, fasting for self-purification, and mutual tolerance between individuals of different creeds.

Gandhi was married at the age of 13, which was not unusual given the customs of his culture. His bride, Kasturba, also was 13. In 1885, when Gandhi was 15, the couple's first child was born, but survived only a few days. Gandhi and his wife went on to have four more children, all sons. Kasturba could not read or write and Gandhi's attempts to teach her were fruitless. Although she often had to submit to her husband's decisions, she also had a will of her own. The marriage endured until her death in 1944.

In 1888, Gandhi went to London, England to study law, leaving his wife for three years. After he was called to the bar, he returned home to practice as a lawyer in Bombay. Unable to find a suitable post, Gandhi moved to South Africa in 1893.

In South Africa, Gandhi faced discrimination directed at Indians. Initially, he was thrown off a train after refusing to move from the first class to a third class coach while holding a valid first class ticket. Traveling further by stagecoach, he was beaten by a driver for refusing to travel on the foot board to make room for a European passenger. He suffered other hardships on the journey, including being barred from many hotels. In another of many similar events, the magistrate of a Durban court ordered him to remove his turban, which Gandhi refused. These incidents have been acknowledged as a turning point in his life, serving as an awakening to contemporary social injustice and helping to explain his subsequent social activism. It was through witnessing and experiencing firsthand the racism, prejudice, and injustice against Indians in South Africa that Gandhi started to question his people's status within the British Empire, and his own place in society.

Gandhi gained fame as a tenacious political campaigner, who courageously opposed discriminatory legislation against Indian settlers. His ideological basis was much derived from the liberal-humanist values he had absorbed in England, exemplified in the works of Ruskin, Thoreau, and Emerson.

Gandhi remained in South Africa for 20 years and developed a system of non-violent defiance. For his services during the Boer War (1899-1902) Gandhi was awarded the War Medal.

In 1914, Gandhi returned permanently to India. He became a highly influential figure in the National Congress, transforming it into an instrument of change. Following the massacre at Amritsar in 1919, in which British soldiers killed hundreds of Indians, Gandhi launched a policy of non-violent, non-cooperation to secure independence from Britain. This process made Gandhi a guru-like figure, addressed by the people as Bapu (Father) and Mahatma (Great Soul). Resistance methods included strikes, refusal to pay taxes, abandonment of western for Indian dress, and refusal to respect colonial law. "One step enough for me," Gandhi often said without planning his actions far ahead.

Gandhi himself adopted a simple way of life. With his loin cloth, steel-rimmed glasses, rough sandals, a toothless smile and a voice that rarely rose above a whisper, he had a disarming humility. He used a stone instead of soap for his bath, wrote his letters on little bits of paper with little stumps of pencils which he could hardly hold between his fingers, shaved with a crude country razor, and ate with a wooden spoon from a prisoner's bowl.

Gandhi was jailed several times and went on hunger strikes to focus attention on his cause. When communal riots started on India's northwest frontier, Gandhi undertook a 21-day fast. After he had walked some
200 miles on foot to the sea to collect salt illegally, the Viceroy started to relieve the punitive salt taxes and the government monopoly.

Gandhi also strove to raise the status of untouchables, the lowest class of people that everyone avoided. He gave them the name harijan, or "children of God," and founded the weekly paper Harijan, which was published in English and Hindi. In an attempt to persuade the orthodox Hindus to wipe out the "blight of untouchability," Gandhi undertook a fast in the summer of 1933 for three weeks.

During World War II Gandhi's struggle for India's independence and Satyagraha (defence of and by truth) became a threat to the war effort of the Allies. He was imprisoned, again fasting to make his point with those in authority. Gandhi was released from custody in the spring of 1944.

Gandhi saw India gain independence in 1947. However, he had to witness savage fighting as it happened. His illusion that India would gain independence by nonviolent means was shattered. "Who listens to me today?" Gandhi said, and he did not remain in New Delhi to celebrate India's freedom on the fifteenth of August.

Gandhi's last months were shadowed by communal strife between Hindus and Muslims. When he walked barefoot through the scorched villages in East Bengal, locals threw shattered glass on his path. Gandhi pleaded for amicable settlement between India and Pakistan, but on January 30, 1948, he was assassinated in Delhi on his way to an evening prayer. A young Hindu Brahmin, named Nathuram Godse, viewed Gandhi's acceptance of partition as a betrayal of the Hindu population, and fired three shots, point-blank.

A big part of Gandhi's legacy was his belief that at the core of every religion is truth and love (compassion, nonviolence, and the Golden Rule). He questioned hypocrisy, malpractices, and dogma in all religions. "The sayings of Muhammad are a treasure of wisdom, not only for Muslims but for all of mankind." Later in his life when he was asked whether he was a Hindu, he replied: "Yes I am. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew."

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