Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, called Gandhi the greatest son of India, after Gauthama the Buddha. Einstein, reflecting on Gandhi’s life, said that people would one day wonder whether a person like Gandhi actually walked the earth. Winston Churchill, the then Prime Minister of Britain, called him the ‘Naked Fakir’. Who was this man who aroused so much of admiration as well as fury?
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in 1869 and lived through almost half of the twentieth century. He was born in Gujarat, India and lived some years in England, where he studied law, and in South Africa, where he practised as a lawyer. He returned to India from South Africa to join the Freedom Movement against British rule.
Gandhi was one of those people who, from an early age, felt deeply about life and questioned its values. He had to know and experience life deeply. As he went through life, a pattern emerged and he was constantly searching for answers to his questions. He called his autobiography My Experiments with Truth. In fact, his whole life was centred around the search for truth and how to put it into practice in one’s daily life.
He began his working life as a lawyer in South Africa, where he came across racial prejudice for the fIrst time. Once, on a train journey to Pretoria, Gandhi was asked to leave a first class compartment even though he had a ticket for this. The white train conductor insisted that a non-white passenger could not travel in a fIrst class coach. But Gandhi refused to accept this and insisted on travelling in the compartment he had paid for. For this defIance, the conductor pushed him out of the train so that he was left behind on the platform of a small station.
It is said that this was one of the incidents that started him off on his search for justice. He reflected on how people could overcome injustice without using violence. It was in South Africa that Gandhi fIrst developed the idea of Ahimsa or non-violence, and taught the Indians living there how to use Ahimsa to overcome the many injustices they suffered. His method was also called passive resistance or non-cooperation with the person who did the injustice. Gandhi believed that, with non-cooperation, the opponent would fInally realize his mistake and correct the injustice.
Gandhi was successful in many of the campaigns he carried out in South Africa. However, the time came for him to return to India where a vast movement for independence from British Rule was in progress. He felt it was his duty to join the movement and contribute to the final objective of a free India. Gandhi taught his followers in India the principles of Ahimsa and how to apply the principles to the freedom struggle.
As the movement progressed, Gandhi himself continued with his search for truth and formulated a strategy to meet the enemy. He called it Satyagraha- the force of truth. Gandhi believed that the power of one’s own truth and suffering would change the heart of the enemy. Satyagraha was thus used extensively and effectively in the freedom struggle. A point came in this struggle when the British could no longer hold out against the masses of people who stood up to them, non-violently demanding freedom. However, Gandhi was a firm believer in training and every campaign was led by people who were personally trained by him in the methods of Satyagraha, and it was this discipline and training that contributed to the success of the struggle.
Gandhi lived to see India gain her independence from the British, but he was greatly saddened by the division between Muslims and Hindus, and all the massacres that took place as a result of the Partition. Because of his unshakable belief in the brotherhood of man, he resisted the idea of separation for a long time, but finally had to give in. India became divided into a predominantly Hindu but secular state named India and a Muslim-dominated state called Pakistan, which was further divided into East and West Pakistan. The last years of Gandhi’s life were filled with sorrow because his idea of Satyagraha could not prevent hatred between Hindus and Muslims and the partition of India. In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated at a prayer meeting by a Hindu fanatic who did not agree with the idea of the brotherhood of man advocated by Gandhi.