Government and Politics

Mahatma Gandhi

Why was Mohandas Gandhi called “Mahatma”?

Mohandas Gandhi was called “Mahatma” (meaning “great-souled”) by the common people, who viewed him as India’s national and spiritual leader. He is considered the father of his country. He was born in India on October 2, 1869. As a young man, Gandhi studied law in Britain. Practicing briefly in India, he then traveled to British-controlled South Africa on business. Observing oppressive treatment of Indian immigrants there, he held his first campaign of passive resistance. Gandhi would later become very well known for this method of protest, called satyagraha (meaning “firmness in truth”).

Back in India as of 1915, Gandhi organized a movement of the people against the British government there: Britain had taken control of India during the 1700s and remained in power. After World War I (1914–18), Indian nationalists fought what would be a long and sometimes bitter struggle for political independence. While Gandhi’s protests took the form of nonviolent campaigns of civil disobedience, such as boycotts and fasts (hunger strikes), he was more than once arrested by the authorities for causing disorder, as his actions inspired more extreme measures on the part of his followers, whose protests took the form of rioting.

As a member and, later, the president of India’s chief political party, the Indian National Congress, Gandhi led a fight to rid the country of its rigid caste system, which organizes Indian society into distinct classes and groups. In Gandhi’s time, not only were there four varna, or social classes, but there was a fifth group of “untouchables” who ranked even below the lowest class of peasants and laborers. Improving the lot of the untouchables was of tantamount importance to the leader, who by this time had abandoned Western ways in favor of a life of simplicity.

Beginning in 1937 Gandhi became less active in government, giving up his official roles, but he continued to be regarded as a leader of the independence movement. During World War II (1939–45), he was arrested for demanding British withdrawal from the conflict. Released from prison in 1944, Gandhi was central to the postwar negotiations that in 1947 resulted in an independent India. A believer in the unity of humankind under one God, he remained tolerant to Christian and Muslim beliefs. Amidst an outbreak of violence between Hindus and Muslims, Gandhi was on a prayer vigil in New Delhi when a Hindu fanatic fatally shot him in 1948.


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