Audio: Listen to this post | © ClassicBooks.com
Mahatma Gandhi is well-known for his ideology of non-violent resistance in the campaign against British rule. Born as Mohandas, the name Mahatma was more honorific, given to him for his works in South Africa. It means venerable or great-souled. This is not the only name for which he is known. There are many others that reflect on his characters, such as Father of the Nation and Bapuji (father in Gujarati). Because of the influence, he had as a freedom activist and political leader, India celebrates his birthday, October 2, 1869, as a national holiday. It is also observed as the International Day of Non-violence.
Born as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on 2nd October 1869, Gandhi grew up in a family of political leaders, starting with his grandfather, who was a Prime Minister. As much as he only had elementary education, Mahatma Gandhi’s father – Karamchand – turned out to be a capable chief minister. During his tenure as a chief minister, he married four times. His first two wives died young, each having given birth to a daughter. The third wife was without a child. Karamchand sought his wife’s permission before marrying the fourth wife. He married Putlibai, who also hailed from Junagadh. Karamchand and his fourth wife had three children over the next decade before giving birth to Mohandas on October 2, 1869.
Gandhi’s sister described him as a restless child who would either play or roam about. One thing he found more pleasurable was twisting the dog’s ears.
Growing up, Gandhi learned a lot from Indian classics. The most impactful ones were the stories of Shravana and king Harishchandra. In his autobiography, An Autobiography Or The Story Of My Experiments With Truth, Gandhi makes this admission, noting that he might have acted Harishchandra to himself times without number. The family was deeply religious, being brought up by a Hindu father and mother.
Gandhi graduated from high school at the age of 18, joined Samaldas College but dropped out. On September 4, 1888, Gandhi sailed to England against the warning of elders and local chiefs. He attended University College London where he studied law and jurisprudence.
Civil rights activism
Gandhi is well-known for many things, and a brief biography would not be enough to capture all of that. One of the most notable works was his civil rights activism in South Africa. Having entered the country with the intention of staying for one year only, he would end up spending 21 years. In this period, he developed his political views and ethics. He would, later on, write that he was born in India, but South Africa made him.
Struggle for independence in India
Gandhi played one of the most important roles in the struggle for independence in India. He joined the Indian National Congress and, in 1920, took leadership on Congress. He started escalating demands, and by January 26, 1930, India’s independence was declared by the Indian National Congress.
The British did not recognize this declaration, paving the way for back and forth clashes. Tensions rose to the point where Gandhi was arrested alongside tens of thousands of Congress leaders. He instigated several hunger strikes (fasting sessions), all of which culminated in the country’s independence.
Meeting a violent end
The 20th century’s most famous apostle of non-violence himself met a violent end. Mohandas Mahatma (‘the great soul’) Gandhi, who had taken a leading role in spearheading the campaign for independence from Britain, hailed the partition of the sub-continent into the separate independent states of India and Pakistan in August 1947 as ‘the noblest act of the British nation.’ He was horrified by the violence that broke out between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs; and the eviction of thousands from their homes in the run-up to Independence Day on August 15, 1947. He undertook a fast to the death, a tactic he had employed before, to shame those who provoked and took part in the strife. Messages of support came from around the world, including Pakistan, where Jinnah’s new government commended his concern for peace and harmony. There were Hindus, however, who thought that Gandhi’s insistence on non-violence and non-retaliation prevented them from defending themselves against attack. Ominous cries of ‘Let Gandhi die!’ were heard in Delhi, where Gandhi was occupying a mansion called Birla Lodge.
On January 13, beginning what would prove to be his last fast, the Mahatma said: ‘Death for me would be a glorious deliverance rather than that I should be a helpless witness of the destruction of India, Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam’, and explained that his dream was for the Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Muslims of all India to live together in amity. On the 20th, a group of Hindu fanatics, who detested Gandhi’s calls for tolerance and peace, set off a bomb some yards from him, which did no harm. It was not the first attempt on Gandhi’s life, but he said: ‘If I am to die by the bullet of a madman, I must do so smiling. There must be no anger within me. God must be in my heart and on my lips.’
On January 29, one of the fanatics, a man in his thirties named Nathuram Godse, returned to Delhi, armed with a Beretta automatic pistol. About 5 pm of the next day, the 78-year-old Gandhi, frail from fasting, was being helped across the gardens of Birla House by his great-nieces on his way to a prayer meeting when Nathuram Godse emerged from the admiring crowd, bowed to him and shot him three times at point-blank range in the stomach and chest. Gandhi raised his hands in front of his face in the conventional Hindu gesture of greeting, almost as if he was welcoming his murderer, and slumped to the ground, mortally wounded. Some said that he cried out, ‘Ram, Ram’ (‘God, God’), though others did not hear him say anything. In the confusion, there was no attempt to call a doctor or get the dying man to the hospital, and he died within half an hour.
Nathuram Godse tried but failed to shoot himself and was seized and hustled away while the shocked, hysterical crowd cried out, ‘Kill him, kill him!’ and threatened to lynch him. He was tried for murder in May and hanged in November the following year.
Meanwhile, Gandhi’s body was laid out on the terrace of Birla House, draped in a white cotton cloth that left his face uncovered, and a single spotlight focused on the corpse as all the other lights were turned off. Speaking on the radio, the Indian prime minister Pandit Nehru said: ‘The father of the nation is no more. Now that the light has gone out of our lives, I do not quite know what to tell you and how to say it. Our beloved leader is no more.’
The following day an enormous crowd estimated at nearly one million people lined the five-mile route of the funeral procession to the bank of the Jumna River as the body, draped in the Indian flag, was carried on an army truck while air force planes overhead dropped flowers. Repeated incursions from the crowd meant that the journey took five hours, and the police had to clear space by force while the bier was lifted onto the sandalwood funeral pyre, and the body was cremated in the traditional manner. As the flames burned, the grieving crowd showered the pyre with petals. The ashes were kept on the river bank for three days before they were taken away for immersion at the spot where the Jumna joins the Ganges.