Mahatma Gandhi

By Leathem, Rebecca | Business Asia, February 15, 1999 | Go to article overview

Mahatma Gandhi


Leathem, Rebecca, Business Asia


India's secular saint

"I want to avoid violence non-violence is the first article of my faith" -- Mahatma Gandhi, 1922

Mahatma Ghandi's political philosophy on non-violence is shattered by the recent Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests -- how much of his historic influence remains on the sub-continent?

On January 30, 1948, a few months after the independence of India in which he had played the chief role, Mohandas Gandhi walked to his evening prayers in Delhi. A young man named Nathuram Godse pushed his way through the crowd around Gandhi and crouched to kiss his feet. As Godse was pulled away by guards, he drew a gun and shot Gandhi three times. Gandhi fell dying, his final words, "Hai Rama!" -- "O God!"

So died a great Asian, also known in India and around the world by the title "Mahatma", a Hindi word meaning "of great soul" or "revered one".

Lord Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy of India, said Gandhi would go down in history as "on par with Buddha and Jesus Christ", and Albert Einstein, philosopher and Nobel Prize science winner, said "Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth." Fifty years after Gandhi's death the nation he created is the world's largest democracy, with the secret ballot, a free press and an independent judiciary.

Karamchand Mohandas Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, the third son and the last of four children of well-to-do Hindu parents, at Porbandor on the north-west coast of India. His family was of the Bania sub-caste, traditionally working merchants and traders. When Gandhi was born, India was the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire. Around 60,000 British troops, supported by 200,000 locally enlisted soldiers, called sepoys, maintained British power. The country, then with a population of 350 million, second only to China, was administered by only 2000 or so British civil servants, career administrators who often spent their working lives in India, as their parents had before. The cultures of India date back 3000 years and the country was divided by scores of languages, religions and castes. When the American writer Mark Twain visited India a century ago he called it "the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods".

Gandhi grew up in a traditional Hindu family. His mother Putili Ba strongly influenced his moral, social and religious beliefs.

Gandhi's father was Dewan (chief minister) to the princely ruler of Porbandor. This was a traditional post for the Gandhi family, which had high expectations that the young Mohandas would eventually take the role.

When the family moved to Rajkot, where Gandhi's father became assessor in a court which settled local disputes, Gandhi had his first experience of colonial power as Rajkot was a local centre of British rule.

At the age of 13 Gandhi was married to Kasturbi, also 13 years old and the daughter of a merchant. Kasturbi was illiterate but hardworking and level headed. Relations between her and Gandhi were strained at times, but they had four sons in 12 years. Later Gandhi took a vow of sexual abstinence. One reason was a quest for spiritual purity, another was that news of his father's death arrived when he was in bed with his wife and he believed penance was needed.

At the age of 19 his family sent him to London to study law, hoping this would prepare him to later take his father's government position.

In London, Gandhi changed his tropical cottons for a dark suit and bowler hat and studied hard for five years. He read widely outside his law books, including works by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and English moralist John Ruskin. He also attended meetings of the Theosophical Society which discussed religions and philosophies. Gandhi began to develop his own philosophy of Ahimsa and Satya (Non-violence and Truth). …

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