The United Nations General Assembly has declared October 2 the International Day of Non-Violence. The significance of this date is that it is the birthday of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma (“great soul”) Gandhi, a world statesman whose model of non-violent political activism has been emulated by Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama. 

Born in 1869, Gandhi’s love of truth was evident at an early age. His childhood hero was King Harishchandra, an Indian hero renowned for his piety and honesty. In his autobiography Gandhi remarked that the story of Harishchandra “haunted me and I must have acted Harishchandra to myself times without number.” 

Gandhi as a boy

At age thirteen (1892) Gandhi married a fourteen year old Indian girl named Kasturba Makhanji. The marriage was arranged by parents and community members. Over the years the couple had four sons. Their marriage was often interrupted by Gandhi’s travels. The first episode of traveling occurred when in 1898 Gandhi went to law school in London, England.

Law school was the idea of Gandhi’s parents. Their son was an average student who struggled to pass his final exams at Samaldas College in India. When he left home Gandhi promised his mother he would be a vegetarian in England. This vow was the start of a life long passion for Gandhi.

Dissatisfied with vegetarian fare in London, Gandhi joined the London vegetarian Society. His motive was probably an attempt to find decent food to eat. Promises have a way of opening up whole new worlds, and this was true for Gandhi. It was through the intellectuals of the London Vegetarian Society that Gandhi was introduced to the ideas of Leo Tolstoy ad Henry David Thoreau. Even more importantly, Gandhi began to seriously read the epic poem, Bhagavad Gita, the most sacred and important text for Hindu Indians.

After studying in London for three years, Gandhi passed the bar exam on June 10, 1891, and returned to India to start his legal practice. Upon arrival home Gandhi learned his mother had died while he was in England. His family kept the news from him,  perhaps in an attempt to make Gandhi finish his studies without distraction.

For the next two years Gandhi struggled to learn Indian law, and overcome an extreme shyness that made it difficult for him to be heard in the courtroom. It was perhaps a relief to Gandhi to accept a position as legal representative for the Muslim Indian Traders in Natal, a British ruled colony in South Africa.

Many Indians had migrated to British ruled south Africa. The impetus for the “Indian Diaspora”  was economic. The rulers of South Africa needed cheap manual laborers, and many Indians were willing to start over again in South Africa. Although the British Empire had abolished slavery, the indentured servitude of many Indians in South Africa was merely slavery with a different name.

Gandhi in South Africa

Gandhi’s twenty-one year sojourn to South Africa did not begin well. He was thrown off a train after refusing to give up his first class seat to whites. He was beaten by a stage coach driver for a similar offense. He was barred from hotels, and ordered to remove his turban, which he refused to do. Gandhi was no longer the quiet, shy lawyer who could not speak loud enough to be heard in the courtroom. In standing up for himself Gandhi was also standing up for his people.

It was in South Africa that Gandhi began to understand his fellow Indians, and as his mind penetrated the cultural, political, and religious complexities of his race, he envisioned a method to help his people fight for equality with the ruling classes. He put his understanding to work in organizing groups and structures to empower South African Indians, creating roles for them in mainstream society. During the Boer War Gandhi organized the Indian Ambulance Corps to help wounded English soldiers. In so doing Gandhi earned the gratitude of the British Empire.

The philosophy behind Gandhi’s political and social activities was something Gandhi called satyagraha: “truth force.” The application of satyagraha was focused nonviolent resistance to a specific injustice. But there was more to involved than passive resistance:

“Asatyagrahi (a person using satyagraha) would resist the injustice by refusing to follow an unjust law. In doing so, he would not be angry, would put up freely with physical assaults to his person and the confiscation of his property, and would not use foul language to smear his opponent. A practitioner of satyagraha also would never take advantage of an opponent's problems. The goal was not for there to be a winner and loser of the battle, but rather, that all would eventually see and understand the "truth" and agree to rescind the unjust law. (, 20th Century History, Gandhi, p. 2)”

Gandhi’s ideals were put to the test when he organized nonviolent resistance to “The Black Act,” a 1907 law which required all Indians to be fingerprinted and have their registration paperwork with them wherever they went. Under Gandhi’s direction, Indians refused to get fingerprinted and peacefully picketed government offices. It took seven long years, but Gandhi’s application of satyagraha triumphed when “The Black Act” was repealed.

When Gandhi returned to India for good in 1915, he came as a hero with a worldwide reputation for principled activism. He was given the honorary title “Mahatma”, or “great soul.” Many Indians considered Gandhi a holy man, a saint, but such titles made Gandhi cringe; he saw himself as quite an ordinary man.

Gandhi at the spinning wheel

Gandhi joined the Indian National Congress during the First World War, and by 1920 he was leader of the Congress. He began using the tactics he developed in South Africa, but ran into difficulty when large scale protests invariably turned violent – the violence coming from Indians rather than the British. To complicate matters, there was violence between Indian Hindus and Muslims. Upon being released from prison (for sedition) Gandhi did personal penance for the violence, going on a 21 day fast. He nearly died halfway through, but revived to finish what was later called “the Great Fast of 1924.” It resulted in a temporary truce between India’s Hindus and Muslims.

In 1930 Gandhi and the Indian National Congress declared the independence of India from British rule. The British refused to recognize Indian independence, but subsequent negotiations led to Congress having a role in the British rule in India. In 1942 Gandhi demanded immediate independence from British rule, and was immediately jailed, along with many members of the Congress.

Gandhi was released in 1944. His satyagraha policies were effective against the British government, but proved no antidote to the Muslim-Hindu violence that reached such epidemic proportions that in 1947 Britain willingly left India. The exit strategy was a partition: northern territories of India would be home to India’s Muslims, who renamed their land Pakistan. The rest of India belonged to the majority Hindus. Gandhi opposed the partition, but his was a lonely voice. By the end the British were not the enemy: the Indians were at war with themselves.

Once more Gandhi fasted to stop the violence. So loved was he by Hindus and Muslims that both sides quickly called a truce for fear that Gandhi would not live through his latest fast. Gandhi lived for another six months. Then he died, not from fasting, but from three bullets to the chest fired at him by a Hindu nationalist who despised Gandhi’s non-violent principles.

All of India went into mourning for their beloved “Bapu” (“father”). Gandhi’s great success was to help India achieve independence. Although his memory and image are revered today, modern India pays no heed to the ideals of satyagraha. This would not have surprised Gandhi: he knew his ideals were hard for most people to follow. Yet he insisted to the last that his philosophy and methods were merely part of the natural law of the universe:

 "There is no such thing as "Gandhism", and I do not want to leave any sect after me. I do not claim to have originated any new principle or doctrine. I have simply tried in my own way to apply the eternal truths to our daily life and problems...The opinions I have formed and the conclusions I have arrived at are not final. I may change them tomorrow. I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills.”

While there may not be "Gandhism," there are a wealth of "Gandhism's," expressions like these:

"An eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind." 

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

"Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding."

If patience is worth anything, it must endure until the end of time. A living faith will last in the midst of the blackest storm."

"Be the change you wish to see in the world."

"Nobody can hurt me without my permission."

mahatma gandhi