Widely known as Mahatma or "Great Soul," Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is considered one of history's great political pacifists. He is remembered nearly as much for his austere persona (frail, bespectacled, clad only in a draped loincloth) as his political achievements. Gandhi played a major role in leading India to independence from British rule, in 1947, following WORLD WAR II.
The quintessential nonviolent activist, Gandhi dedicated his life to political and social reform. His teachings and example were to later influence such leaders as MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. and Nelson Mandela, who also utilized passive resistance and conversion rather than confrontation to bring about social change. Gandhi's signature marks were what he called Satyagraha (the force of truth and love) and the ancient Hindu ideal of Ahisma, or nonviolence toward all living things.
Gandhi was born in western India in 1869. Just 11 years earlier (in 1858), Britain had declared India a loyal colony. The young Gandhi completed a British-style high school education and was greatly impressed with British manners, genteel culture, and Christian beliefs. He aspired
to become a barrister at law, but was prohibited from doing so by the local head of his Hindu caste in Bombay. His first act of public defiance was his decision to assume the role of an "out-caste" and leave for London to study law.
While studying in England, Gandhi first read (and was inspired by) the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu religious poem. The story of the Sermon on the Mount in the Christian New Testament stirred in him an interest in passive resistance, and he also became intrigued with the ethical basis of vegetarianism after befriending a few enthusiasts at a local restaurant. He would later use dietary fasting as a means to draw attention to social causes.
But it was an incident in 1893 that put into motion Gandhi's focused role in history. While on a legal assignment in South Africa, he was traveling on a train near Johannesburg when he was ordered to move from his first-class compartment to the "colored" car in the rear of the train. He refused. At the next station, he was thrown from the train and spent the night at the station. The experience triggered his lifelong dedication to CIVIL RIGHTS and to the improvement of the lives of those with little political voice.
By 1906, he had taken on his first major political battle, confronting the South African...