Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, more commonly known as ‘Mahatma’ (meaning ‘Great Soul’) was born in Porbandar, Gujarat, in North West India, on 2nd October 1869, into a Hindu Modh family. His father was the Chief Minister of Porbandar, and his mother’s religious devotion meant that his upbringing was infused with the Jain pacifist teachings of mutual tolerance, non-injury to living beings and vegetarianism.
Born into a privileged caste, Gandhi was fortunate to receive a comprehensive education, but proved a mediocre student. In May 1883, aged 13, Gandhi was married to Kasturba Makhanji, a girl also aged 13, through the arrangement of their respective parents, as is customary in India. Following his entry into Samaldas College, at the University of Bombay, she bore him the first of four sons, in 1888.
Determined to adhere to Hindu principles, which included vegetarianism as well as alcohol and sexual abstinence, he found London restrictive initially, but once he had found kindred spirits he flourished, and pursued the philosophical study of religions, including Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and others, having professed no particular interest in religion up until then. Following admission to the English Bar, and his return to India, he found work difficult to come by and, in 1893, accepted a year’s contract to work for an Indian firm in Natal, South Africa.
Although not yet enshrined in law, the system of ‘apartheid’ was very much in evidence in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century. Despite arriving on a year’s contract, Gandhi spent the next 21 years living in South Africa, and railed against the injustice of racial segregation.
On his return to India in 1916, Gandhi developed his practice of non-violent civil disobedience still further, raising awareness of oppressive practices in Bihar, in 1918, which saw the local populace oppressed by their largely British masters. He also encouraged oppressed villagers to improve their own circumstances, leading peaceful strikes and protests. His fame spread, and he became widely referred to as ‘Mahatma’ or ‘Great Soul’.
Gandhi suffered six known assassination attempts during the course of his life. The first attempt came on 25th June1934, when he was in Pune delivering a speech, together with his wife, Kasturba. Travelling in a motorcade of two cars, they were in the second car, which was delayed by the appearance of a train at a railway level crossing, causing the two vehicles to separate. When the first vehicle arrived at the speech venue, a bomb was thrown at the car, which exploded and injured several people. No investigations were carried out at the time, and no arrests were made, although many attribute the attack to Nathuram Godse, a Hindu fundamentalist implacably opposed to Gandhi’s non-violent acceptance and tolerance of all religions, which he felt compromised the supremacy of the Hindu religion. Godse was the person responsible for the eventual assassination of Gandhi in January 1948, 14 years later.
During the first years of the Second World War, Gandhi’s mission to achieve independence from Britain reached its zenith: he saw no reason why Indians should fight for British sovereignty, in other parts of the world, when they were subjugated at home, which led to the worst instances of civil uprising under his direction, through his ‘Quit India’ movement. As a result, he was arrested on 9th August 1942, and held for two years at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. In February 1944, 3 months before his release, his wife Kasturbai died in the same prison
On 30th January 1948, whilst Gandhi was on his way to a prayer meeting at Birla House in Delhi, Nathuram Godse managed to get close enough to him in the crowd to be able to shoot him three times in the chest, at point-blank range. Gandhi’s dying words were claimed to be “Hé Rām”, which translates as “Oh God”, although some witnesses claim he spoke no words at all.
Although Gandhi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times, he never received it. In the year of his death, 1948, the Prize was not awarded, the stated reason being that “there was no suitable living candidate” that year.
Gandhi’s life and teachings have inspired many liberationists of the 20th Century, including Dr. Martin Luther King in the United States, Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko in South Africa, and Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar.
His birthday, 2nd October, is celebrated as a National Holiday in India every year.
Mahatma Gandhi’s core values should inspire youth today
On the occasion of Martyrs’ Day, duty impels me to recall the names of some of the front-ranking patriots of our great nation, nationalists who sacrificed their lives to liberate the country from the shackles of colonial rule — Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru and Chandrashekhar Azad. What is the common thread that binds these great sons of India who marched to the gallows with a smile and an unwavering commitment to the cause of the country’s freedom? They, along with thousands of their compatriots, placed the nation before the self, valued freedom over slavery and oppression, and rose against the might of the British empire. Their lives stand as a testament to their indomitable will and the courage to practise the ideals which they preached, embodying Bhagat Singh’s immortal words that “the sword of revolution is sharpened on the whetting stone of ideas”.
India today is poised at the cusp of an unprecedented trajectory of growth. Therefore, utilising the opportunities at hand to translate their dreams into reality and drawing inspiration from the past, today’s youth must harness their energy to power the country forward. They must transcend narrow sectarianism and other divisive social barriers and be guided in their life’s journey, in a manner of speaking, by Swami Vivekananda’s stirring call, “Arise, awake and do not stop until the goal is reached”.
For one’s life to acquire substance, one must be driven by a purpose larger than oneself. Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak had wisely counselled that “each one of us will have to subordinate himself to the larger good”. There is no higher task than that of nation-building to which each individual must seek to contribute in his own way, however modest it may seem.
The freedom which we enjoy today is the result of the toil and countless sacrifices made by thousands of sons and daughters of this great nation. In committing themselves to this mission with spirit and grit, they rose above all other social divisions and barriers. This fact serves as a reminder to us that for centuries, India has been a repository of wisdom, anchored in the conviction of vasudhaiva kutumbakam (The whole world is one family). With resilience and resolve, they carried forward the torch of our great nation’s guiding philosophy, which has been the underlying message of the Rig Vedic verse, “Ekam sat, vipraah bahudhaa vadanti (Truth is one, but the sages call it by many names)”.