Great Soul

Gandhi transformed his life by moving away from the material world and focused on the development of the soul. His battleground was as much as personal as the struggles of the South African Indians under European rule. He used his popularity to unite the Indians under a single cause and gave them a powerful and eternal weapon – Satyagraha.

Published Categorized as Biography
Transvaal Protest March organized by Gandhi, October-November 1913. "On march through Volksrust"
Mahatma Gandhi leads Satyagraha against discriminatory and racial laws in Transvaal, South Africa, 1913.

Last Updated on April 10, 2021

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) – Lawyer, Politician

Mohandas Gandhi was born on 2nd October 1869 to a Gujarathi Bania family. He was the youngest of 4 children. His father Karamchand Gandhi worked as the diwan of the then princely state of Porbandar. Gandhi wasn’t a bright student, but his religious education began early from his mother. She imbibed in him devotion to God and the importance of vows and fasting. He also read traditional stories with moral values like Sravana and Harischandra.

The practice of child marriage was prevalent during Gandhi’s times. As such, he was married early, around the age of 13 to Kasturba. He recalls the relationship to be full of lust and passion and yet marked with jealousy and want of control. In one such circumstance, Gandhi forced his wife to stay away from him for a year.

In 1885, Gandhi’s father died. Just before his death, Gandhi had excused himself to spend time with his wife. As a result, he felt that passion had blinded him to shirk his duty. This experience of guilt and shame would later shape his views on marriage and sex.

After completing his high school education in 1887, Gandhi wasn’t sure of his future. Based on advice from a family advisor, he decided to pursue a degree in law from London. Travel to a foreign country, amidst the 19th-century Hindu social landscape, isn’t straightforward.

Armed with strong willpower, Gandhi overcame all the difficulties. First, he procured a loan from his brother. Then he vowed to his mother to act modestly. Finally, he boldly answered the questions of the community headman. The result – he landed in London in September 1888.

Gandhi clad in khadhi
Studio photograph of Mohandas K. Gandhi, London, 1931

London transformed Gandhi. It made him independent. It instilled in him an inquisitiveness to probe different customs, religions, philosophies, and ways of life. He explored Christianity, Theosophy, Vegetarianism, and Hinduism.

After finishing his law education, Gandhi returned to India in 1891. He learned that his mother had passed away in his absence. This was a deep shock to him. Since he traveled abroad ignoring his community, he underwent rituals to purify himself. This was, as per the religious customs, a practice he deeply abhorred.

To set up his law practice, Gandhi tried his fortune in the Bombay High Court. He lacked confidence and failed even to cross-examine a witness. Soon he returned to Rajkot and had to be content with drafting memorials. In a letter to his friend in 1892, he lamented how the future looked bleak to him. Luckily, Gandhi escaped his drudgery in India by accepting a job offer from abroad. It was from Dada Abdullah, a rich Muslim merchant in South Africa. He required someone with basic legal expertise and knowledge of Gujarati. Gandhi fit the bill.

In South Africa, Gandhi experienced first-hand racial discrimination by the ruling Europeans. He was thrown out of the first-class apartment even after having a valid ticket. Indians in South Africa didn’t have basic rights. They were insulted and kicked at.

With the help of his law degree from London, Gandhi soon acquired a license to practice law in South Africa. He started representing Indians to fight for their rights. The British and Boers despised the Indians and wanted to maintain white supremacy. The Indian Natal Congress was formed in 1894. It united the Indians in South African in their fight against discrimination. And of course, Gandhi served as its first secretary.

Gandhi’s success in South Africa belongs to his steadfast adherence to timeless religious principles.

Like the moderates, the young Gandhi took the path of constitutional reforms. He sent an array of petitions to circumvent the passage of unjust laws. He also appealed and demonstrated the racial aspect of the enacted laws in the courts. Finally, he sent, and was often part of, deputations to the Imperial Government in London to knock some sense into the lawmakers. Somehow Gandhi had a basic trust in British fair play. But he was to be disappointed.

Gandhi’s initial efforts also involved appeasing the British. He believed Indians are part of the extended British empire and thus had a role to play to support it.

He formed an Ambulance Corps during the 1899-1900 Boer War to support of the Natal Government. In 1906, when the Zulus uprising was being squashed, Gandhi again served on ambulance duty. He nursed the wounded, including the Africans. He hoped such deeds would justify their position in the empire and thus help them to gain their fundamental civic and economic rights. But again, he was wrong.

Gandhi, attorney at law, in his law office
Gandhi (center) with his secretary, Miss Sonia Schlesin, and his colleague Mr. Polak in front of his Law Office, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1905

In 1908, Transvaal under General Smuts passed the Asiatic Registration Act. It required all Indians to register using their fingerprints. This system of forced fingerprints, meant for criminals, was demeaning to the Indians.
Thousands of Indians marshaled around Gandhi. They burned their registration certificates amidst resounding cries. They had voluntarily submitted to the registration hoping that the law will be repealed. But Smuts had betrayed their trust.

In 1908 Gandhi was also challenging another unjust law–Transvaal Immigration Restriction Act. It prohibited Indians to enter Transvaal from other provinces.

It was during this period Gandhi developed his passive resistance movement. Non-violence and adherence to one’s conscience were its key principles. Coined as Satyagraha, it relied on the power of truth to bring about change. He found reassurance in Henry Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience as well. Gandhi, inspired by the book Kingdom of God, was in communication with the author Leo Tolstoy. The Russian writer emphasized that only through love and non-violent resistance can Indians be free from British rule.

Indians, led by Gandhi, began deliberately breaking the law and courted arrest. They voiced their grievances in court and accepted the severest punishment. Gandhi himself was arrested and sentenced to imprisonment many times. This still didn’t bring about the intended change.

In 1909, Gandhi traveled to Britain to influence the high command. He met important government officials, including Lord Morley and Lord Crew. The former was the Secretary of State for India, and the latter was Secretary of State for the Colonies. Lord Ampthill, the liberal politician, also lobbied on behalf of Gandhi.

“It is impossible not to admire the man, for it is evident that he recognizes no court of appeal except that of his own conscience.”

– Lord Ampthill to General Smuts

The trip was not a success. The bureaucracy was unable to move things in the right direction. Frustration was all that Gandhi could achieve. In London, Gandhi also acquainted himself with the Indian extremists. They were ready to adopt any means to get independence, including violence. All these sequences of events inspired Gandhi to pen the Hind Swaraj (or Indian Home Rule).

In the Hind Swaraj, Gandhi attacked the hollow modern civilization. He extolled the virtues of ancient India and advocated the Indians to be self-reliant. For both the moderates and extremists he offered the new moral weapon – Satyagraha.

In May 1910, Gandhi, through help from his architect friend, Hermann Kallenbach, founded the Tolstoy farm which was spread over a thousand acres and situated 20 miles from Johannesburg. It was to serve as a training ground for the Satyagraha movement.

In March 1913, the Supreme Court passed a judgment failing to recognize marriages of Indians performed as per their religious customs. All existing Indian marriage unions became void in South Africa, in one blow. From now on, even women started taking part in Gandhi’s movement.

Gandhi fought for the indentured Indian laborers as well. They comprised most of the Indian population and could not bear a £3 annual tax on the expiration of their contract.

By September 1913, all forms of petitions and negotiations with the government had failed.

At this juncture, Gandhi was working with Satyagraha in its rudimentary form. He was still experimenting with it and didn’t know how it was going to turn out. He drew strength from his trust in God.

“The fight this time must be for altering the spirit of the government and European population of South Africa. And the result can only be attained by prolonged and bitter suffering that must melt the hearts alike of the government, and of the predominant partner.”

– Gandhi in Indian Opinion

The Satyagraha campaign opened on 15th September 1913. Sixteen Satyagrahis, including four women (one of them was Gandhi’s wife Kasturba), left Phoenix for Volksrust, Transvaal. The aim was to breach the law by entering Transvaal illegally and court arrest. As predicted, they were arrested and sentenced to three months imprisonment.

Soon Gandhi followed to Transvaal. He was not arrested. He addressed Indians in Johannesburg about the campaign. Then he proceeded to the coal-mining town, Newcastle in Natal. Here and in the nearby towns, Gandhi could garner support. Soon thousands of Indians stopped working, protesting the unfair £3 tax. Natal factories and plantations were deserted.

In late October, Gandhi led over 1500 of the striking Indians to cross the Transvaal border. There were also women and children in the ‘Great March’. The destination was the Tolstoy farm. He was arrested two times. Each time his friend Kallenbach bailed him out and Gandhi continued the march. In Dundee, Gandhi was arrested, refused bail, and sentenced to 6 months imprisonment with hard labor. His arrest seemed to signal the end of the movement. But something magical happened.

The Satyagraha procession is stopped at Volksrust border
Transvaal Protest March organized by Gandhi, October-November 1913. “Stopped at border, Volksrust”

With Gandhi in jail, the Indian workers in the sugar industry stopped work as well. Close to 15,000 of them went on strike. Soon the strike extended to other industries, homes, shops, and hotels. Natal was coming to a grinding halt.

Satyagraha relies on the power of truth to bring about change.

By the end of November, the South African Government realized the value of the Indians. Without them, their country couldn’t run. And hence they had a responsibility to ensure that their rights were preserved. The government set an inquiry committee to understand the grievances of the Indians.

Gandhi and the satyagrahis were released. He negotiated and ensured the settlement from the inquiry committee addressed all points. The commission ceded to the Indian demands. The Indian Relief Act was passed in 1914.

Gandhi’s success in South Africa belongs to his steadfast adherence to timeless religious principles. His belief in the superiority of non-violence and Satyagraha as a weapon was unshakable. He practiced what he preached and went all out in his ‘experiments’ to find the truth.

The ‘Great Soul’ or the Mahatma was rightly born in South Africa and in 1915, India beckoned him.

General Smuts on Gandhi’s departure –

The saint has left our shores, I sincerely hope forever.

Further Reading

Images on this page

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: