When Gandhi was born British rule had been established in India. The uprising of 1857, known as the Mutiny, had merely served to consolidate the British adventure into an empire. India had effectively passed under British tutelage, so effectively indeed, that instead of resenting alien rule the generation of educated Indians were eager to submit to the “Civilizing mission” of their foreign masters. Political subjection had been reinforced by intellectual and moral servility. It seemed that the British empire in India was safe for centuries.
When Gandhi died it was India, a free nation that mourned his loss. The disinherited had recovered their heritage and the “dumb millions” had found their voice. The disarmed had won a great battle and had in the process evolved a moral force such as to compel the attention, and to some degree, the admiration, of the world. The story of this miracle is also the story of Gandhi’s life, for he, more than any other was the architect of this miracle. Ever since his grateful countrymen call him the Father of the Nation.
And yet it would be an exaggeration to say that Gandhi alone wrought this miracle. No single individual, however great and wonderful, can be the sole engineer of a historical process. A succession of remarkable predecessors and elder contemporaries had quarried and broken the stones which helped Gandhi to pave the way for India’s independence. They had set in motion various trends in the intellectual, social and moral consciousness of the people which the genius Gandhi mobilized and directed in a grand march. Raja Rammohan Roy, Ramkrishna Paramhamsa and his great disciple, Swami Vivekananda, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Dadabhai Navroji, Badruddin Tyabji, Syed Ahmed Khan, Ranade, Gokhale, Tilak, Aurobindo Ghosh and Rabindranath Tagore, to name only a few. Each one of them, had in his own, field created a consciousness of India’s destiny and helped to generate a spirit of sacrifice which, in Gandhi’s hands, became the instruments of a vast political-cum-moral upheaval. Had Gandhi been born hundred years earlier he could hardly have achieved what he did. Nevertheless, it is true, that, but for Gandhi, India’s political destiny would have been vastly different and her moral stature vastly inferior.
But though Gandhi lived, suffered and died in India for Indians, it is not in relation to India’s destiny alone that his life has significance. Future generations will not only remember him as a patriot, politician and nation-builder but much more. He was essentially a moral force, whose appeal is to the conscience of man and therefore universal. He was the servant and friend of man as man and not as belonging to this or that nation, religion or race. If he worked for Indians only, it was because he was born among them and because their humiliation and suffering supplied the necessary incentives to his moral sensibility. The lesson of his life therefore is for all to read. He founded no church and though he lived by faith he left behind no dogma for the faithful to quarrel over. He gave no attributes to God save Truth and prescribed no path for attaining it save honest and relentless search through means that injure no living thing. Who dare therefore claim Gandhi for his own except by claiming him for all?
Another lesson of his life which should be of universal interest is that he was not born a genius and did not exhibit in early life any extraordinary faculty that is not shared by the common run of men. He was no inspired bard like Rabindranath Tagore, he had no mystic visions like Ramakrishna Paramhansa, he was no child prodigy like Shankara or Vivekananda. He was just an ordinary child like most of us. If there was anything extraordinary about him as a child, it was his shyness, a handicap from which he suffered for a long time. No doubt, something very extraordinary must have been latent in his spirit which later developed into an iron will and combined with a moral sensibility made him what he became, but there was little evidence of it in his childhood. We may therefore derive courage and inspiration from the knowledge that if he made himself what he was, there is no visible reason why we should not be able to do the same.
His genius, so to speak, was an infinite capacity for taking pains in fulfillment of a restless moral urge. His life was one continuous striving, an unremitting sadhana, a relentless search for truth, not abstract or metaphysical truth, but such truth as can be realized in human relations. He climbed step by step, each step no bigger than a man’s, till when we saw him at the height he seemed more than a man. “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe”, wrote Einstein, “that such a one as this, ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” If at the end he seemed like no other man, it is good to remember that when he began he was like any other man.
Such is the great lesson of his life. Fortunately, he has himself recorded for us the main incidents of his life till 1921 and described with scrupulous veracity the evolution of his moral and intellectual consciousness. Had he not done so, there would have been in India no dearth of devout chroniclers who would have invented divine portents at his birth and invested him with a halo from his childhood.
Birth and Upbringing
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, at Porbandar, a small town on the western coast of India, which was then one of the many tiny states in Kathiawar. He was born in middle class family of Vaishya caste. His grandfather had risen to be the Dewan or Prime Minister of Porbandar and was succeeded by his son Karamchand who was the father of Mohandas. Putlibai, Mohandas’s mother, was a saintly character, gentle and devout, and left a deep impress on her son’s mind.
Mohandas went to an elementary school in Porbandar, where he found it difficult to master the multiplication tables. “My intellect must have been sluggish and my memory raw”, he recalled with candour many years later. He was seven when his family moved to Rajkot, another state in Kathiawar, where his father became Dewan. There he attended a primary school and later joined a high school. Though conscientious he was a “mediocre student” and was excessively shy and timid.
While his school record gave no indication of his future greatness, there was one incident which was significant. A British school inspector came to examine the boys and set a spelling test. Mohandas made a mistake which the class teacher noticed. The latter motioned to him to copy the correct spelling from his neighbour’s slate. Mohandas refused to take the hint and was later chided for his “stupidity”.
We can also discover in the little boy a hint of that passion for reforming others which later became so dominant a trait of the Mahatma, though in this case the zeal almost led him astray. Impelled by a desire to reform a friend of his elder brother’s, one Sheikh Mehtab, he cultivated his company and imbibed habits which he had to regret later. This friend convinced him that the British could rule India because they lived on meat which gave them the necessary strength. So Mohandas who came on orthodox vegetarian family took to tasting meat clandestinely, for patriotic reasons. But apart from the inherited vegetarian sentiment which made him feel, after he had once swallowed a piece, as if “a live goat were bleating inside me”, he had to wrestle with the knowledge that such clandestine repasts would have to be hidden from his parents which would entail falsehood on his part. This he was reluctant to do. And so after a few such experiments he gave up the idea, consoling himself with the reflection : “When they are no more and I have found my freedom, I will eat meat openly.”
While he was still in high school, he was married, at the age of thirteen, to Kasturbai who was also of the same age. For a boy of that age marriage meant only a round of feasts, new clothes to wear and a strange and docile companion to play with. But he soon felt the impact of sex which he has described for us with admirable candour. The infinite tenderness and respect which were so marked a characteristic of his attitude in later life to Indian women may have owed something to his personal experience of “the cruel custom of child marriage”, as he called it.
Youth and Study in England
After matriculating from the high school, Mohandas joined the Samaldas College in Bhavnagar, where he found the studies difficult and the atmosphere uncongenial, Meanwhile, his father had died in 1885. A friend of the family suggested that if the young Gandhi hoped to take his father’s place in the state service he had better become a barrister which he could do in England in three years. Gandhi jumped at the idea. The mother’s objection to his going abroad was overcome by the son’s solemn vow not to touch wine, women and meat.
Gandhi went to Bombay to take the boat for England. In Bombay, his caste people, who looked upon crossing the ocean as contamination, threatened to excommunicate him if he persisted in going abroad. But Gandhi was adamant and was thus formally excommunicated by his caste. Undeterred, he sailed on September 4, 1888, for Southampton-aged eighteen. A few months earlier Kasturbai had borne him a son.
The first few days in London were miserable. “I would continually think of my home and country. . . Everything was strange-the people, their ways and even their dwellings. I was a complete novice in the matter of English etiquette, and continually had to be on my guard. There was the additional inconvenience of the vegetarian vow. Even the dishes that I could eat were tasteless and insipid.”
The food difficulty was solved when one day he chanced upon a vegetarian restaurant in Farringdon Street where he also bought a copy of Salt’s Plea for Vegetarianism and was greatly impressed by it. Hitherto he had been a vegetarian because of the vow he had taken. From now on he became a vegetarian by choice. He read many more books on vegetarianism and diet and was delighted to discover modern science confirm the practice of his forefathers. To spread vegetarianism became henceforward his mission, as he put it.
During the early period of his stay in England Gandhi went through a phase which he has described as aping the English gentleman. He got new clothes made, purchased a silk hat costing nineteen shillings, “wasted ten pounds on an evening dress suit made in Bond Street” and flaunted a double watch-chain of gold. He took lessons in French and in elocution and spent three guineas to learn ball-room dancing. But he soon realized-and here is foreshadowed the real Gandhi-that if he could not become a gentleman by virtue of his character, the ambition was not worth cherishing.
Towards the end of his second year in London, he came across two theosophist brothers who introduced him to Sir Edwin Arnold’s translation in English verse of the Gita-The Song Celestial priceless worth. He was deeply impressed. “The book struck me as one of priceless worth. This opinion of the Gita has ever since been growing on me, with the result that I regard it today as the supreme book for knowledge of Truth. It has afforded me invaluable help in my moments of gloom.”
About the same time a Christian friend whom he had met in a vegetarian boarding house introduced him to the Bible. He found it difficult to wade through the Old Testament which put him to sleep, but he fell in love with the New Testament and specially with the Sermon on the Mount. He also read Sir Edwin Arnold’s rendering of Buddha’s life-The light of Asia-as well as the chapter on the Prophet of Islam in Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero Worship. The attitude of respect for all religions and the desire to understand the best in each one of them were thus planted in his mind early in life.
Having passed his examinations Gandhi was called to the Bar on June10, 1891, and sailed for India two days later.
On the Threshold of Manhood
When he reached Bombay he learnt to his profound sorrow that his mother had died. The news had been deliberately kept back from him to spare him the shock in a distant land.
After spending some time in Rajkot where with his usual earnestness he immediately took in hand the education of his little son and of his brother’s children, he decided to set up in legal practice in Bombay. He stayed in Bombay for a few months but had only one small brief. When he rose to argue it in the court, his nerve failed him and he could not utter a word.
Having failed to establish himself in Bombay, Gandhi returned to Rajkot where he started again. But he did not make much headway and was unhappy and out of tune with the atmosphere of petty intrigue that was rampant in the small states of Kathiawar. In this predicament came an offer from Dada Abdulla & Co. to proceed to South Africa on their behalf to instruct their counsel in a lawsuit. It was a godsend. Gandhi jumped at it and sailed for South Africa in April 1893.
He little realized what he was letting himself in for and fondly imagined that he was escaping from an unpleasant situation in Rajkot and was going to make a little money after all. But fate had something different in store for him. It was in South Africa that this shy, timid youth of twenty-four, inexperienced, unaided, alone, came into clash with forces that obliged him to tap his hidden moral resources and turn misfortunes into creative spiritual experiences.
Dressed in a frock-coat and turban Gandhi landed in Durban where his client Abdulla Sheth received him. Almost the first thing he sensed on arrival was the oppressive atmosphere of racial snobbishness. Indians of whom large numbers were settled in South Africa, some as merchants, some in the professions, the large majority as indentured labourers or their descendants, were all looked down upon as pariahs by the white settlers and called coolies or samis. Thus a Hindu doctor was a coolie doctor and Gandhi himself a coolie barrister.
After about a week’s stay in Durban Gandhi left for Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal, where his presence was needed in connection with a lawsuit. A first class ticket was purchased for him by his client. When the train reached Maritzburg, the capital of Natal, at about 9 p.m. a white passenger who boarded the train objected to the presence of a “coloured” man in the compartment and Gandhi was ordered by a railway official to shift to a third class. When he refused to do so, a constable pushed him out and his luggage was taken away by the railway authorities. It was winter and bitterly cold. Gandhi sat and shivered the whole night in the waiting-room, thinking : ‘Should I fight for my rights or go back to India?’ He decided that it was cowardice to run away without fulfilling his obligations.
The next evening he continued the train journey-this time without a mishap. But a bigger mishap awaited him on the journey from Charlestown to Johannesburg which had to be covered by stagecoach. He was made to sit with the coachman on the box outside, while the white conductor sat inside with the white passengers.
Gandhi pocketed the insult for fear of missing the coach altogether. On the way the conductor who wanted a smoke spread a piece of dirty sack-cloth on the footboard and ordered Gandhi to sit there so that the conductor could have Gandhi’s seat and smoke. Gandhi refused. The conductor swore and rained blows on him, trying to throw him down. Gandhi clung to the brass rails of the coach box, refusing to yield and unwilling to retaliate. Some of the white passengers protested at this cowardly assault and the conductor was obliged to stop beating Gandhi who kept his seat.
Though his main concern in Pretoria was with the lawsuit, Gandhi’s sense of social justice had been aroused by his personal experience of the indignities to which his countrymen were subject. He therefore lost no time, after making the necessary preliminary contacts, in calling a meeting of the Indian community in Pretoria which consisted largely of Muslim merchants. This was his first public speech successfully delivered. He exhorted his countrymen to observe truthfulness even in business and reminded them that their responsibility was all the greater since their country would be judged by their conduct in a foreign land. He asked them to forget all distinctions of religion and caste and to give up some of their insanitary habits. He suggested the formation of an association to look after the Indian settlers and offered his free time and services.
The position of Indians in the Transvaal was worse than in Natal. They were compelled to pay a poll tax of �3; they were not allowed to own land except in a specially allotted location, a kind of ghetto; they had no franchise, and were not allowed to walk on the pavement or move out of doors after 9 p.m. without special permit. One day Gandhi, who had received from the State Attorney a letter authorizing him to be out of doors all hours, was having his usual walk. As he passed near President Kruger’s house, the policeman on duty, suddenly and without any warning , pushed him off the pavement and kicked him into the street. Mr. coates, an English Quaker who knew Gandhi, happened to pass by and saw the incident. He advised Gandhi to proceed against the man and offered himself as witness. But Gandhi declined the offer saying that he had made it a rule not to go to court in respect of a personal grievance.
In the meanwhile he had been working hard at the lawsuit and had gained a sound knowledge of legal practice. He made two discoveries: one was that facts are three fourth of the law; the other, that litigation was ruinous to both parties in a suit and therefore the duty of a lawyer was to bring them together in a settlement out of court. In this particular case he succeeded in persuading both Abdulla Sheth and the opposing party, Tyeb Sheth, to accept arbitration.
Having completed his work in Pretoria, Gandhi returned to Durban and prepared to sail home. But at a farewell dinner given in his honour some one showed him a news item in Natal Mercury that the Natal Government proposed to introduce a bill to disfranchise Indians. Gandhi immediately understood the ominous implications of this bill which, as he said, “is the first nail into our coffin” and advised his compatriots to resist it by concerned action. But they pleaded their helplessness without him and begged him to stay on for another month. He agreed, little realizing that this one month would grow into twenty years.
With his usual earnestness Gandhi then and there turned the farewell dinner into an action committee and drafted a petition to the Natal Legislative Assembly. Volunteers came forward to make copies of the petition and to collect signatures – all during the night. The petition received good publicity in the press the following morning. The bill was however passed. Undeterred, Gandhi set to work on another petition to Lord Ripon, the Secretary of State for Colonies. Within a month the mammoth petition with ten thousand signatures was sent to Lord Ripon and a thousand copies printed for distribution. Even The Times admitted the justice of the Indian claim, and for the first time the people in India came to know of the hard lot of their compatriots in South Africa.
Gandhi insisted that if he had to extend his stay in South Africa he would accept no remuneration for his public services and since he still thought it necessary to live as befitted a barrister he needed about Rs. 300 to meet his expenses. He therefore enrolled as an advocate of the Supreme Court of Natal.
Emergence of the Mahatma
Three years’ stay in South Africa persuaded Gandhi that he could not now desert a cause he had so warmly espoused. He therefore took six months’ leave to visit India and bring his family back. But it was no holiday. He visited many cities in India and worked hard to interest the editors of papers and eminent public men in the unfortunate condition of Indians in South Africa. He published a small pamphlet on the subject. Though it was a very sober and restrained statement of the Indian case, a distorted summary cabled by Reuters created considerable misunderstanding in Natal which was to have unpleasant consequences later.
When plague broke out in Rajkot, Gandhi volunteered his services and visited every locality, including the quarters of the untouchables, to inspect the latrines and teach the residents better methods of sanitation.
During this visit, he made the acquaintance of veteran leaders like Badruddin Tyabji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Surendranath Banerjee and the great savant and patriot, Tilak. He met the wise and noble-hearted Gokhale and was greatly attracted to him. He addressed a large public meeting in Bombay. He was due to speak in Calcutta also, but before he could do so an urgent telegram from the Indian community in Natal obliged him to cut short his stay and sail for Durban with his wife and children in November 1896.
When the ship reached to Durban, it was put into five day’s quarantine. The European community, misled by garbled versions of Gandhi’s activities in India and by a rumour that he was bringing shiploads of Indians to settle in Natal, were wild with anger and threatened to drown all the passengers. However, the passengers, including Gandhi’s family, were allowed to land unmolested. But when Gandhi came down a little later and his identity was discovered, an infuriated mob fell upon him, stoning, beating and kicking him and would probably have killed him had not a brave English lady came to his rescue.
News of this cowardly assault received wide publicity and Joseph Chamberlain, the British Secretary of States for the Colonies, cabled an order to Natal to prosecute all those who were responsible for the attempted lynching. But Gandhi refused to identify and prosecute his assailants, saying that they were misled and that he was sure that when they came to know the truth they would be sorry for what they had done. Thus spoke the Mahatma in him.
It was during this second period in South Africa that Gandhi’s mode of living underwent a change, albeit gradual. Formerly, he was anxious to maintain the standard of an English barrister. Now he began, in his methodical but original fashion, to reduce his wants and his expenses. He “studied the art” of laundering and became his own washerman. He could now iron and starch a stiff white collar. He also learnt to cut his own hair. He not only cleaned his own chamber-pots but often his guests as well. Not satisfied with self-help, he volunteered, despite his busy practice as a lawyer and demand of public work, his free service for two hours a day as compounder in a charitable hospital. He also undertook the education at home of his two sons and a nephew. He read books on nursing and midwifery and in fact served as midwife when his fourth and last son was born.
In 1899 the Boer war broke out. Though Gandhi’s sympathies were all with the Boers who were fighting for their independence, he advised the Indian community to support the British cause, on the ground that since they claimed their rights as British subject it was their duty to defend the Empire when it was threatened. He therefore organized and, with the help of Dr. Booth, trained an Indian Ambulance Corps of 1,100 volunteers and offered its services to the Government. The corps under Gandhi’s leadership rendered valuable service and was mentioned in dispatches. What pleased Gandhi most was the fact that Indians of all creeds and castes lived and faced danger together. All his life nothing gave him greater happiness than the sight of men working as brothers and rising above the prejudices of creed, caste or race.
In 1901, at the end of the war, Gandhi felt that he must now return to India. His professional success in South Africa might, he feared turn him into a “money-maker”. With great difficulty he persuaded his friends to let him go and promised to return should the community need him within a year.
He reached India in time to attend the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress and had the satisfaction of seeing his resolution on South Africa pass with acclamation. He was however disappointed with the congress. He felt that Indian politicians talked too much but do little. He deplored the importance given to the English language in their discussions and was pained to see the insanitary condition of the latrines in the camp.
After staying for a few days in Calcutta as Gokhale’s Guest, when he went out on a tour of India, traveling third class in order to study for himself the habits and difficulties of the poor. He observed that the extreme discomfort of third class travel in India was due to much of the indifference of the railway authorities as to the dirty habits of the passengers themselves and suggested that educated persons should voluntarily travel third so as to reform the people’s habits and be in a position to ventilate their legitimate grievances. The diagnosis as well as the remedy suggested were characteristic of his approach to all social and political problems – equal emphasis on obligations as on rights.
Gandhi was not destined to work in India yet. Hardly had he set up in practice in Bombay when a cablegram from the Indian community in Natal recalled him. He had given them his word that he would return if needed. Leaving his family in India he sailed again.
He had been called to put the Indian case before Joseph Chamberlain who was visiting South Africa. But the Colonial Secretary who had come to receive a gift of thirty-five million pounds from South Africa had no mind to alienate the European community. Gandhi failed in his mission to win Chamberlain’s sympathy and discovered in the process that the situation in the Transvaal had become ominous for the Indians. He therefore decided to stay on in Johannesburg and enrolled as an advocate of the Supreme court.
Though he stayed on specifically to challenge European arrogance and to resist injustice, he harboured no hatred in his heart and was in fact always ready to help his opponents when they were in distress. It was this rare combination of readiness to resist wrong and capacity to love his opponent which baffled his enemies and compelled their admiration. When the so-called Zulu rebellion broke out, he again offered his help to the Government and raised an Indian Ambulance Corps. He was happy that he and his men had to nurse the sick and dying Zulus whom the white doctors and nurses were unwilling to touch.
It was during these marches through the Zulu country that he pondered deeply over the kind of life he should lead in order to dedicate himself completely to the service of humanity. He realized that absolute continence or brahmacharya was indispensable for the purpose, for one “could not live both after the flesh and the spirit”. And so immediately after his return from the Zulu campaign in 1906, he announced his resolution to take a vow of absolute continence to a select group of friends.
This step was taken under the influence of the Bhagvad Gita which he had been reading regularly every morning for some time and committing to memory. Another doctrine of the Gita which influenced him profoundly was “non-possession”. As soon as he realized its implications he allowed his insurance policy of Rs.10,000 to lapse. Henceforth he would put his faith in God alone.
Next to the Gita , the book which influenced him most deeply was Ruskin’s Unto This Last which his friend Polak had given him to read one day in 1904. What Ruskin preached, or rather what Gandhi understood him to preach, was the moral dignity of manual labour and the beauty of community living on the basis of equality. Since, unlike Ruskin, Gandhi could not appreciate an ideal without wanting to practice it, he immediately set about to buy a farm where such a life could be lived. Thus was founded the famous Phoenix colony, on a hundred acres of land, some fourteen miles from Durban.
But Gandhi could not stay long at Phoenix. Duty called him to Johannesburg where also, later, he found another colony on similar ideals, at a distance of twenty-one miles from the city. He called it the Tolstoy Farm. In both these ashrams, as settlements organized on spiritual ideals are known in India, the inmates did all the work themselves, from cooking to scavenging. Extreme simplicity of the life was observed, reinforced by a strict code of moral and physical hygiene. No medicines were kept, for Gandhi who had earlier read Adolf Just’s Return to Nature believed profoundly in nature cure. Every inmate had to practise some handicraft. Gandhi himself learnt to make sandals.
He foresaw that a shadow with the South African Government was sooner or later inevitable and knew from his own individual experience that no brute force could quell the spirit of man ready to defy and willing to