Who was Mahatma Gandhi? - Life, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Adam Jordan

Adam is a special educator with a Ph.D. in Education

Mahatma Gandhi was a dynamic figure in India's quest for independence and is best known for his use of nonviolent civil disobedience. Learn more about his life and influence through relevant background information as well as through his inspiring words.

The Life of Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi, 1869-1948

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, commonly known by the name Mahatma, meaning 'great soul', was born in Porbandar, India, on October 2, 1869. A student of law, Gandhi believed that political and social change came about through the use of nonviolent civil disobedience. Nonviolent civil disobedience refers to a strategy for promoting change through avoiding violence, yet remaining dedicated to a cause. The intent of nonviolent civil disobedience is to bring about positive change, but it is almost always a practice that involves refusing to obey laws or orders considered oppressive. Because of this, nonviolent civil disobedience is often met with violence. Gandhi would use this strategy to become the most well-known figure in India's struggle for freedom.

Gandhi was a fierce proponent of civil and political equality. He struggled to see equality in the nations of South Africa as well as in his home country of India. Though born in India, Gandhi relocated to South Africa in 1893 in order to join in the struggle to end discrimination against Indians in the country.

It was in South Africa that Gandhi experienced intense racial prejudice in an up-close and personal fashion. A long history of legislation restricting the legal rights and educational opportunities for non-whites existed in South Africa and these restrictions were only becoming more aggressive as South Africa pushed toward widespread apartheid. As a lawyer, Gandhi felt compelled to combat this injustice. For the next two decades, he devoted himself to opposing the government of South Africa and its unfair treatment of Indian people through nonviolent and non-compliant protest.

After years of struggle in South Africa, Gandhi returned home to India in 1914. Like South Africa, India was also in a state of disarray. When Gandhi returned to India it was still a British colony divided along religious lines with great conflicts between Muslims and Hindus. A caste system was also firmly in place that left many people incapable of living lives of equality. The caste system in India determined the life an individual could live by regulating social standing and employment opportunity. In this system, some members are even considered 'untouchable'. These individuals are outcast from society and doomed for poverty.

Because of both the political and social injustices Gandhi saw when he returned to India, he would continue his non-violent struggle for equality, also known as 'Satyagraha'. Satyagraha refers to the principle introduced by Gandhi that evil must be confronted with a search for peace through nonviolent means. Gandhi's ultimate goal was a free and fair India ruled by the people of India. He desired an India that treated all citizens equally, an end to the caste system, and the end to oppressive taxation practices.

It might seem that Gandhi's peaceful approach would be favorably received. However, Gandhi's efforts landed him in jail on several occasions. He received a six-year jail sentence in 1922. However, he was released after two years served.

Gandhi's strategy was one of unwavering dedication and included some unorthodox methods. He would often go on hunger strikes, or long, lengthy fasts, during which he refused to eat until justice prevailed.

Gandhi during a hunger strike
Hunger Strike

He would incorporate other radical, yet nonviolent strategies of protest as well. Perhaps the most famous was his Dandi Salt March in 1930. Gandhi led a nearly 400-kilometer march to the sea in protest of the British imposed salt tax.

Dandi Salt March, 1930
Salt March

Despite numerous difficulties, Gandhi always remained dedicated to his cause. He became known as the 'Father of India' and earned the love and respect of millions throughout his life. In 1945, as a result of much of Gandhi's dedicated effort, Britain began the negotiations necessary to free India of British rule. The result of these negotiations was the Mountbatten Plan developed in June of 1947. This plan would allow India to become free of British rule, but years of turmoil inevitably followed. While progress was undoubtedly made towards his beloved cause, Gandhi did not live to see a unified, completely free India, as his life was cut short when he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948.

Though Gandhi would pass away, his ideals and way of non-violent civil disobedience would not. This strategy became the bedrock approach of civil rights leaders in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Gandhi is noted by prominent figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as being a powerful source of inspiration.

The Words of Gandhi

Gandhi with hands formed for prayer

Gandhi's life is certainly an inspiration and his words are no less inspiring. Quotes from the nonviolent warrior are typically insightful, profound, and powerful. His famous line, 'Be the change you want to see in the world' has undoubtedly been used as inspiration to many.

While Gandhi was indeed nonviolent, he was equally non-compliant. He believed that to be dominated, you had to give in to the person attempting to dominate you. This attitude of a powerful will is evident in a number of Gandhi's quotes. For example:

'Strength does not come from physical capacity; it comes from an indomitable will.'


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