Complete biography of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi


In every period of man’s activity there have appeared significant figures to whom history later points as the leaders of a new age. Such men are dynamic, purposeful, prophetic and dangerous to the estab­lished order and habit of their time.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was such a figure, known to the world as Mahatma Gandhi, born on October 2, .1869, in the small state of Porbandar, Western India, where his grandfather, father, and elder brother were prime ministers. His father later became prime minister of the Kathiawar States of Rajkot (to which Mohandas was taken as a boy of seven) and Vankaner.

Mohandas was the youngest child of a large family. Though well known and influential, it was of humble stock. Unlike many of his distinguished con­temporaries, Mohandas Gandhi came not from the first, or Brahman, caste of Hindus, but from the Bania sub-caste of the third, or Vaisya, caste. Nor were the Gandhis in any way noted for scholarship. Kaba Gandhi, the father of Mohandas, “had no education, save that of experience.” In his academic education Mohandas never went beyond the matriculation examination of London University. For his mother he had a beautiful and steadfast love. Her gentle­ness of character, her natural wisdom and her deep religious sense made a profound impression upon him from his earliest years. Probably this love was one of the deepest emotions of his life and gave him the tenderness that is so much a part of his otherwise Spartan disposition. It was in this background that his early years were spent.


Following the custom of his day and country, he was betrothed when he was seven, and was married at thirteen, to a girl slightly younger. Although still children they shared the same sleeping room, and as soon as the boy was physically capable, consummation of the marriage took place, much to his own horror and disgust in later years. His reactions to that period of his life, with its tormenting unrest, brought a strong antipathy to the expression of sex-life. When the fires of early manhood had died down, he vowed himself to celibacy for self-discipline,-a fact that colored all the after years. He fully believed that his child-wife was his own to mould as he liked, irrespective of what she herself desired. Fortunately she possessed a personality and a will not easily subdued to his pattern, and she always retained some peculiar quality and an independence of her own.

Being of a Vaishnava family, largely influenced by Jainism, he was strictly vegetarian. Yet, as a youth, he was tempted secretly to eat meat and so break the caste-rules; and this for two reasons. The first was his own delicacy of physique and an intense desire to become a strong, healthy man. The second was his earnest desire for India to be a free and forceful nation. He reasoned within himself, after listening to the talk of other young people around him that Englishmen walked over the land as conquerors; they had power to command others; they were meat- eaters; therefore, if India wished to free herself from the domination of the foreigner, she must cultivate strength; and meat-eating was the first step in this direction.

The taste of flesh was, however, obnoxious, and flesh-eating soon ended. But he had done more than break his caste-rules. For the first and last time he consciously lied.

Gandhi had repeatedly called himself a Truth-seeker and had learned, in the course of his search, that truth is a condition of being, not a quality outside of oneself or a moral acquisition; that it is of the very essence of the Divine in man. Though he saw deceit and falsehood all around him, and knew that it was accepted as the standard of life by people occupying positions of authority and influence, he was never afterwards tempted to yield to it, even when to have done so would have brought advantage and no condemnation.


For healing he always had a great love and some aptitude, and when, at the age of seventeen, his family in conclave suggested his going to England to study law, he begged to be allowed to study medicine instead. This, how­ever, was not permitted; law was chosen for him. But the love of healing re­mained, and though he could not study in the orthodox schools of medicine, he gratified his desire by studying various forms of Nature-cure treatment and by experimenting with these on his own person and on his friends and relatives. Some of these experiments produced remarkable results, possibly not only due to the treatment, but to his devoted and instinctive nursing.

One such striking case was his cure of two plague patients in South Africa, when twenty others, who were treated by the orthodox methods, died. Another equally remarkable cure was that of his wife, who in middle life developed pernicious anaemia and was given up by the doctors as a hopeless case, unless recourse could be had to meat juices and other .special treatment. This being refused, the doctor in attendance left the case, and Gandhi’s Nature-cure methods were resorted to. Soon an improvement in the general condition of the patient was noticed, the treat­ment continued, and she recovered. Before leaving India for his, studies abroad his mother persuaded him to take a solemn vow before a Jain monk never to touch wine, women, or meat. This vow he kept religi­ously despite the many temptations that were thrust upon him.

His first days in England were an agony; he was home­sick and unhappy. Everything was strange-the people, the houses, the method of life, the idiom of the language and, worst of all, the food. He felt an intense longing for home and its familiar sights, sounds, and smells. But to have returned straightway, as his misery tempted him to do, would be an impossible act of cowardice. So he suffered and endured. Frequently starving himself, so as to be sure that he did not betray his vow, he gradually settled down, made some friends, started his studies, and set him­self to acquire some of the so-called accomplishments of polite society. He reclosed himself, adopting the dress of the day-even to the extent of investing in a silk hat. Strange how clothes played a symbolic part in the life of this man! He never just accepted clothes, but used them as an indication of an inner conviction. In after years, having identified himself with the poor, in whose face he saw God, he wore the pe­asant’s loin-cloth.

He tried to learn to dance, but had no ear for rhythm and, failing in his attempt, gave it up. He also tried to learn to play the violin, but he was not, an artist, except in the art of life itself; and he soon abandoned the bow and strings. He turned his attention to dietetics, always, of course, along vegetarian or fruitarian lines, and became, both in England and later in South Africa, an ardent propa­gandist.


In studying these early years of Gandhi’s life, it becomes easier to understand his later developments. One can see in them all the seeds that later flow­ered into full bloom.

now to have to conduct a case, even the placing of the bare facts of it before the Court, was more than he could do. He rose to speak, but became tongue- tied. Baffled, he begged to be relieved of his case and hastened from the Court in shame and anguish, vowing never to appear again until he had learned to master himself and could use his brain and body as the instruments of his will. The family fortunes were too slender to allow him to stand apart and study the art of advocacy; he felt compelled to earn money, and he returned to Rajkot to assist his brother in a small legal business already established. There his wife gave birth to their first living child. Gandhi, however, was not destined for a life set in a normal key, and soon the call came to him to move on.

It is interesting to glance back over the lives of great men and to see how circumstances, apparently insignificant in themselves, take them in hand and compel them to a desired end. They seem almost to be a plaything in the hands of a Player; but the Player knows the end of the game, the plaything only obeys the urge that so often seems blindly to move him forward.

The first great period of Gandhi’s adult life, covering the years 1893 to 1914, now opens. A small hurt to self- esteem, a disappointment in Porbandar, the offer of a commission to go to South Africa for a year to represent profes­sionally an Indian firm which had an important case pending in the South African Republic, and the first step was taken upon his path of destiny.


Of South Africa and its problems he knew practically nothing. His political sense had not as yet been developed, and of the position of Indians there he had never thought. His clients were wealthy, and he may have believed that South Africa was a land of sunshine and plenty.

He arrived in Durban in 1893, having no reason to expect other than good and decent treatment. Though he had had a foretaste of racial arrogance in India, it was not until he arrived in South Africa that he felt its full force and understood the grave nature of the colour-bar. It is not, therefore, surprising to find that, having made some study of the disabilities and grievances of his countrymen in Natal and the neighboring Republic, he was prevailed upon by them (when his professional task was completed to the satisfaction of both parties) to stay in Durban and help them to secure redress and improve their status.

He made it a condition that he should receive no payment for his public work, but asked for his countrymen’s support in his legal practice, if they had confidence in his professional ability. Throughout his stay in South Africa, and until he renounced practice in 1908 in order to devote himself entirely to the service of his countrymen there, he enjoyed to the full the confidence of a large clientele, but always he devoted a considerable proportion of his earnings to charity and to the public needs of the Indian community.

Of his professional work he said: “I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder. The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me, that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby-not even money, certainly not my soul.”


The Indians had originally been taken from the United Provinces, Bihar and Madras (mostly Hindus), to South Africa in 1860, under indenture, at a time when the Colony of Natal was threatened with bankruptcy through an inadequate supply of native African labour. The economic situation had been saved and prosperity had been restored and largely increased through the labours of these indentured Indians, in whose wake and primarily to supply whose needs, upon the insistence of the Government of India, there had followed in due course, at first from Mauritius and later from Bombay, Gujarati merchants and traders (mostly Muslims). All alike were denied citizenship rights and were dubbed contemptuously “coolies” (Gandhi himself being known as “the coolie lawyer”) by the white colonists.

In the course of time some of these Indians had entered the South African Republic. At first no difficulties had been raised but, as time passed, trade jealousy, aided by colour prejudice, resulted in “anti-Asiatic” legislation and administrative practice by the Boer Government, involving race-segregation and the denial to Indians of civil rights enjoyed by the white immigrants. The British Government constantly protested to the Boer authorities against their anti-Indian policy. It is conceivable that Gandhi may have, all unconsciously, received his first suggestions regarding the method of civil disobedience when, the Boer Government having refused to issue any more trading licences to Indians, the British Agent at Pretoria recommended them to tender the licence-fees and, if the licences were still refused, to trade without them. Later, when the Government threatened to prosecute for trading without licences, the British Agent warmly approved of the advice given to the traders to pay no bail or fines, but to go to jail.

During this time repeated representa­tions, many of them drafted by Gandhi himself, were made by the Indian community against this oppression, and it is on record that the Indian grievances against the Republican Government were included in the British cases belli, Lord Lansdowne declaring at Sheffield, in 1899: “Among the many misdeeds of the South African Republic I do not know that any fills me with more indignation than its treatment of these Indians.”

In Natal, where Gandhi had founded and was actively working as the Hon. Secretary of the Natal Indian Congress, the situation was not much better under responsible government. He was largely instrumental in inducing the Colonial Office, under Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, to refuse acceptance of the Asiatics’ Exclusion Act, passed by the Natal Legislature, on account of its breach of the Imperial policy against racial legislation; but he and his countrymen could not prevent the virtual disfranchise­ment of the Indian population (excepting the few already on the voters’ roll) on the ground that they did not enjoy the franchise in India.

Soon a strong anti-Indian movement was in full swing in the colony, and he was accordingly deputed to go to India in 1896 to represent the Indian grievances to the Government and people. Partly because of misrepresentations in the Natal press of his activities and partly because of the circulation of a report that the ships bringing him and a number of Indian indentured labourers to South Africa in the following year were carrying large numbers of skilled workers from India to take the place of white workers, an unruly demonstra­tion was made against him on arrival at Durban; he was physically assaulted, and he escaped with difficulty in a policeman’s uniform.

When the Boer War began, in 1899, Gandhi, loyal British subject and proud of the British connection, reminded his countrymen that, if they demanded rights, they must also bear responsibilities. The Indian community accordingly offered their services in any capacity, however menial, and at last, against great opposition, induced the military authorities to accept an Indian Ambulance Corps, whose principal leader was Gandhi. Though the authorities did not require the Corps to enter the firing-line, it repeatedly did so in the great emergency that arose, and Gandhi records that it carried from the field of Chieveley the body of Lord Roberts’ son. The Indian contribution to the campaign was praised by General Buller and widely appreciated, even by former political opponents. Gandhi and the other Indian leaders received medals for their services when the Corps was disbanded.

In 1901 Gandhi, refusing costly gifts from his compatriots, returned to India for reasons of health, with the intention of settling in Bombay. But Fate willed otherwise. When, a few months later, Mr. Chamberlain went out to South Africa to lay down the lines of permanent settlement of the British- Boer controversy, the Natal Indian community called urgently to Gandhi to return in order to help them to make the necessary representations on their behalf for citizenship rights. He responded from a strong sense of duty and led the Indian deputation to Mr. Chamberlain. Shortly afterwards, when the Colonial Secretary went to the Transvaal, Gandhi was summoned there by the Indian settlers, whose representation he drafted and, at their request, he settled in practice in Johannesburg, where he felt that he could be of the maximum service to his compatriots. To their dismay they found that not only was the Boer anti-Indian legislation and administration- against which the British Government before the war had so energetically protested-maintained; it was tightened up and added to under the Crown Colony regime.

In order to protect the community against inroads upon their few remaining rights, Gandhi helped to set up the Transvaal British Indian Association, of which he became the Hon. Secretary and the draftsman of its many powerful memorials. The Association had repeatedly drawn attention to the neglect by the Johannesburg Municipality of sanitary conditions in the Indian location, where the majority of the Indians resided. When, therefore, in 1904, plague broke out there, Gandhi refused to allow the major responsibility for the outbreak to be thrust upon his countrymen and demanded that it should be placed where it properly belonged. Closing his office he devoted himself to sanitary work and evacuation and to the nursing of the victims, for which he received the acknowledgment of the medical officer of health.

But the mischief was done. In addition to the generally prevalent anti- Asiatic prejudice, trade-jealousy was aroused once more by the distribution of a large part of the Indian trading population from the burnt-out Johannesburg Location to other towns in the Transvaal, creating the impression of an ‘Asiatic invasion.” Pressure was now brought to bear by the white trading community upon the authorities to protect the Colony from this “invasion,” and, in due course, the anti-Indian campaign bore fruit.

Two events of importance at this stage of Gandhi’s career occurred. The first was his taking over of the full financial responsibility for the Inter­national Printing Press and the weekly newspaper, Indian Opinion, to which he had already generously contributed by both purse and pen. The paper became an invaluable propaganda organ for the South African Indian population and for Gandhi’s own views on matters affecting it. Towards the end of 1904 he had transferred both the press and the paper to the Phoenix settlement, near Durban, which he had established as the result of his conversion to the Ruskin ideal of the “simple life” after reading “Unto This Last.” He had already made deep studies of the Sermon on the Mount and the Bhagavad Gita, and had been much influenced by Tolstoy’s writings. Here he set up a little colony of Indian and European friends and colleagues who lived and worked happily together in public service. During the later Passive Resistance struggle the paper helped greatly, under Gandhi’s guidance and inspiration, to preserve unity among his countrymen, to encourage the Hindu- Mohammedan collaboration for which he has always stood, and to explain to the outside world the motives underlying the struggle and its objective.

In 1906 there occurred the Native Rebellion in Natal. In this new emer­gency the Indian community, under Gandhi’s leadership, offered a stretcher- bearer company to the Government, who accepted it, with Gandhi as its sergeant- major. The company rendered valuable service and upon its disbandment at the end of the rebellion the community received the warm thanks of the Government.

In 1902 the Transvaal Government, upon an assurance to the Indian community that this would be the final identification requirement, had induced the leaders to agree to the exchange of the old Boer residential licence receipts for immigration permits to male Indians bearing the owner’s right thumb impression.

Scarcely, however, had Gandhi returned to Johannesburg after the rebellion, than a draft ordinance was published, cancelling, in breach of Lord Milner’s earlier undertaking, the permits issued to the Asiatic settlers. It required men and women alike to satisfy the authorities afresh of their bona fides, by making application for certificates of registration bearing a full set of finger impressions, previously demanded only of convicted prisoners.

A mass meeting of protest was held in Johannesburg, which he addressed and which, at Gandhi’s instance, took an oath to adopt Passive Resistance and to go to jail rather than accept a law that was regarded as an insult to the Indian community and to the Motherland. As a result of energetic representations the Indian leaders secured the exclusion of women from the proposed legislation, but they failed to persuade the Government, to drop the measure, which was ultimately passed by the Legislative Council. As the ordinance was of a differential character, it was reserved for the royal assent.

With a view to prevent this, Gandhi and a colleague were sent to England as a deputation. In consequence of their activities in London, the South Africa British Indian Committee was set up there, with Lord Ampthill as its president, and in the end the royal assent was refused.

This result, whilst welcomed as a great victory for right and justice by the South African Indian community and by the public in India, was deeply resented by the white population of the Transvaal. Within a few months responsible Government was accorded to the Colony, and the first important measure passed by the new legislature was the almost textual re-enactment of the disallowed ordinance. The royal assent was, notwithstanding the strong protests of the Indian community and of the Government of India, given in view of the new constitutional status of the Colony, and the historic Passive Resistance Campaign was immediately launched by the Indian community under Gandhi’s guidance. Gandhi and a number of other leaders were arrested, convicted and imprisoned; but the campaign continued to gather force, until the Botha Government decided to negotiate with Gandhi through General Smuts, the Minister of the Interior. An agreement was reached, upon the basis of voluntary registration. According to Gandhi’s statement to his compatriots immediately upon his release and contradicted at the time by the authorities, when the voluntary registration was successfully completed the “Black Act” (No. 2 of 1907) was to be repealed, and the voluntary registration certificates were to be validated.

A few of his countrymen failed to appreciate the subtle distinction between the voluntary and the compulsory giving of finger impressions and charged him with betrayal of the cause, threatening his life if he attempted to register. Undeterred, he was proceeding to the registration office to be the first to do so when he was set upon by a Pathan and nearly killed. Upon regaining consciousness, however, and before receiving medical attention, he made his application, thus rallying his compatriots.

The dismay of Gandhi and his people, therefore, was great when, at the end of the period fixed for volun­tary re-registration, which was duly completed, the Government introduced and passed new legislation validating the voluntary certificates and giving them equal effect to the few that had been issued under the “Black Act,” but omitting all provision for repeal of that Act. At a public meeting, held in Johannesburg, the new Act was de­nounced, the voluntary certificates were consigned to the flames, and Passive Resistance was renewed in July, 1908. Many hundreds of Indians (including Gandhi repeatedly, as well as his wife and other members of his family) suffered imprisonment, and many Indian homes and businesses were broken up. The struggle did not actually cease until June, 1914, when, after many fluctuations of fortune, the “Black Act” was finally repealed, as was the £3 annual tax upon ex-indentured Indians in Natal; Indian marriages, upon whose validity the courts had cast doubt, were legalized for immigration purposes; and the status of the Indian community was, for the time being, at least, stabilized.

Three episodes in particular stand out in the campaign. The first was Gandhi’s second mission to England, in 1909, upon his return from which he published his confession of faith in a pamphlet entitled “Hind Swaraj” or “Indian Home Rule.” A parallel mission carried on propaganda in India, under the guidance of Mr. G. K. Gokhale, gaining support from Govern­ment and public alike, and resulting in the stoppage of indentured labour for Natal in 1910 and in a strong protest in 1913, by the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, against the Indian treatment in South Africa.

The second was the great march into the Transvaal, led by Gandhi, in 1913, of Natal Indian indentured labourers, to court imprisonment as a protest against the failure of the Union Government to carry out its undertaking to Mr. Gokhale, during his visit to South Africa in 1912, to repeal the C3 tax.

The third was Gandhi’s refusal, when he was on the point of resuming the struggle because of General Smuts’ unwillingness to introduce the necessary remedial legislation, to take advantage of the Government’s embarrassment during the general strike of European workers in the Transvaal, early in 1914.

Finally, won over by the passive resisters, by Gandhi’s able advocacy of Indian rights, and by the representations of a high official deputed by the Govern­ment of India to assist in a settlement, the long drawn-out struggle was brought to an end, and Gandhi, amid the applause and with the goodwill of all sections, of the population, European and Indian, felt at last free to return to the Mother­land to begin the public work for which his soul had long thirsted.

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