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In this lesson, we will learn about the life of Mohandas Gandhi. We will learn what values he stood for, how he stood for them, and his lasting legacy.

Who Was Mohandas Gandhi?

Mohandas Gandhi, sometimes called by the honorary title ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, was the leading figure of the Indian independence movement throughout the 20th century.

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Gandhi has become well-known for his practice of non-violent civil disobedience. Today, he remains an inspirational figure whose quotes and images are found on everything from t-shirts to posters to coffee mugs. Gandhi is recognized as one of the world’s leading civil rights activists. His influence particularly affected American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Early Life

Gandhi was born in 1869 in the Western part of India. He was born into a merchant caste. At this time, India was an important British colony.

Gandhi was married at the age of 13, in keeping with the arranged marriage tradition of his people. At the age of 18, Gandhi left his family to study law in London. There, he adopted a simple lifestyle, becoming a vegetarian and abstaining from alcohol. He also began reading Hindu literature.After passing the bar exam in 1891, Gandhi went back to India for a short period of time, before leaving again for the British colony of South Africa. In South Africa, Gandhi witnessed widespread discrimination, and he himself was subjected to it repeatedly.

See, in South Africa, Muslim Indians held power over the poorer Hindu Indians. Gandhi recognized this injustice and became convinced that the Indian people should be united regardless of religion or social class. Gandhi soon became the leader of the Indian community in South Africa, and he spent the next 20 years or so working to reform South African society.

Accomplishments and Legacy

By the time Gandhi returned to India in 1915, he was a well-known international reformer. He soon helped initiate campaigns to reform land-tax laws penalizing the poor. He also fought against injustice toward women and the practice of shunning classes traditionally deemed ‘untouchable,’ or in other words, ‘outcast.

‘ Gandhi joined the Indian National Congress, and by the early 1920s, assumed leadership of it.Central to Gandhi’s worldview was satyagraha. Satyagraha is a word coined by Gandhi himself, which means ‘truth force,’ or ‘reliance on truth.’ Satyagraha, in its simplest form, is passive resistance.

But Gandhi felt the term ‘passive resistance’ did not adequately reflect the spirit of Indian resistance because it reflected weakness and involved anger. Satyagraha, instead, called for individuals to cling to justice and truth without resorting to revenge or anger. Over his lifetime, Gandhi’s use of satyagraha resulted in him being beaten and imprisoned numerous times.Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Gandhi increasingly demanded swaraj, or self rule. Swaraj basically meant Indian independence from British rule. In 1930, the Indian National Congress declared independence from British rule.

Upon the declaration, Gandhi and thousands of Indians engaged in an act of civil disobedience that has come to be known as the Salt March. The Salt March was an act of civil disobedience intended to protest the British salt tax. Gandhi and others marched some 240 miles to gather salt without paying the tax. The Salt March was largely a symbolic act, but it helped inspire the people to resist British rule.Britain refused to recognize Indian independence.

In fact, throughout the 1930s, the British government increasingly attempted to halt the influence of Gandhi. When World War II broke out, tensions escalated. Gandhi was reluctant to support Great Britain’s fight against Nazi oppression, in light of British oppression toward Indians.Gandhi intensified his call for independence, launching a movement that has come to be called Quit India. The movement broke out as a response to a speech he delivered in August 1942, demanding that Great Britain withdraw from India. The British government responded with brute force.

Gandhi and thousands of other leaders were arrested as the movement was suppressed with little difficulty. The movement, however, caused the British to realize that they could not hold on to India forever.In August 1947, Great Britain agreed to grant independence to India under the Indian Independence Act. The Act actually divided British India into two countries: India and Pakistan. Pakistan was dominated by Muslim leaders, whereas India tended to be more pluralistic and was led by Hindus and other groups. Gandhi himself was opposed to the partition and instead favored a united India with amity between various religious groups. Remember, one of his central tenants was Indian unity transcending religious and class differences!Gandhi’s efforts to unite various religious groups weren’t accepted by everyone.

On January 30, 1948, a Hindu nationalist named Nathuram Godse shot and killed Gandhi at point blank range. Godse killed Gandhi because he felt Gandhi was too accommodating to Pakistani Muslims. Godse was captured, tried, and hanged.Gandhi remains the most visible figure of the Indian independence movement. His support of civil disobedience and passive resistance has inspired millions. Today, Gandhi remains an inspirational figure known for promoting peace, equality, and justice.

Lesson Summary

Mohandas Gandhi was the leading figure of the Indian independence movement throughout the 20th century.

He is remembered for his promotion of satyagraha, a form of non-violent resistance centered on truth and justice. Gandhi was a forceful proponent of swaraj, which was essentially Indian independence from Great Britain.One of Gandhi’s most well-known acts of satyagraha was the Salt March, in which he and thousands of followers marched 240 miles to protest the British salt tax. In 1942, he gave a speech demanding British withdraw from India. This speech sparked the Quit India movement.

Although quickly suppressed, the movement caused the British to realize they could not control India inevitably. Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is over, you should be able to:

  • Recall the early years and education of Gandhi
  • Discuss Gandhi’s belief in satyagraha
  • Summarize Gandhi’s accomplishments
  • Name who assassinated Gandhi

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