Mohandas K. Gandhi spoke several languages. During his lifetime he gave speeches before hundreds of thousands and wrote nearly 100 books. There are numerous quotes by Gandhi that speak of compassion, nonviolence and equality, and most of us have heard at least one, such as, “We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.” Or maybe, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.
But Gandhi's first language was not English. He rarely spoke it, instead taking great pride in the languages of his native India—speaking and writing most often in Gujarati. As he said, “Our languages are the reflection of ourselves.”
But Gandhi's message of peace transcends both time and language, and reveals a most significant life.
Born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1869, in what was to become the state of Gujarat, India, this beloved leader was later given the honorary title of Mahatma, or “great’souled,” by Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet and 1913 Nobel laureate.
But Gandhi never felt comfortable with the name. “The title Mahatma has deeply pained me a number of times,” he said. “I have nothing new to teach the world. All I have done is to try experiments on as vast a scale as I could.”
His “experiments” in truth, compassion, purity and nonviolence demonstrated a wisdom that others immediately recognized in the soft’spoken man. “A large number of people have told me that they revere me because I understand them like none other,” he said.
Throughout his life, Gandhi preached equality. He sought civil rights for people of color while living in South Africa in his 20s and 30s. He consistently promoted equality for women, and he advocated reformation of the Indian caste system, demanding civil rights for those labeled “untouchables,” referring to them instead as harijan, or children of God.
The title Mahatma distinguished Gandhi in a way that went against his idea of equality. “I have never, even in my dreams, thought that I was mahatma and that others were alpatma [littlesouled],” he said. And yet his humility is precisely the reason so many believed he deserved the title.
Love for All People
“Literally speaking, ahimsa means nonviolence,” Gandhi said. “But to me it has much higher, infinitely higher meaning. It means that you may not offend anybody; you may not harbor uncharitable thought, even in connection with those who you consider your enemies. To one who follows this doctrine, there are no enemies.”
While ahimsa translates to non’injury or nonviolence, Gandhi, as most Hindus in the early 20th century, applied a much broader meaning to the word. They used ahimsa to mean entire abstinence from causing harm to any living creature by thought, word or action. Gandhi also used it to mean love toward all people, true sacrifice, forgiveness and suffering for the sake of another.
Ahimsa was the driving concept behind almost all of Gandhi's beliefs and actions. In 1896 he was attacked by white South Africans and began to teach passive resistance as a means to achieve civil rights. “Ahimsa calls for the strength and courage to suffer without retaliation, to receive blows without returning any,” he said.
Gandhi applied this principle to every area of his personal life, and he inspired countless others, including Martin Luther King Jr., with his successful application of ahimsa in the political realm.
A Self’Governing Movement
Gandhi left South Africa and returned to India in 1914. In his persistent advocacy for Indian self’rule after World War I, Gandhi quickly rose to the forefront of the struggle and proclaimed swaraj, or self’governing movement. The economic ramifications of this movement were significant, as the British raj, or rule, sought to exploit Indian villagers and suppress Indian economic development for the sake of British industry#8212;especially textiles. Gandhi advocated the restoration of traditional home trades, such as weaving, and led boycotts of British goods. (To drive home his point, Gandhi himself wore only homespun cloth, and today an emblem of a spinning wheel adorns India's flag.)
Gandhi believed that the most effective means of changing British policy was a reasonable and businesslike approach, rather than conflict, fanaticism or rioting. “Swaraj is not a product of excitement or intoxication,” he said. “Swaraj will be the natural and inevitable result of businesslike habits.”
In 1930, Gandhi led a 248’mile march to the Arabian Sea and made sea salt by evaporation, an activity deemed illegal by the British ban on private production of salt. The British government responded by jailing 60,000 Indians, including Gandhi. This small, seemingly frail man was an example of what he taught: that Indian self’rule would be a result of each individual's self’rule exhibited through self’control and personal responsibility.
“Swaraj of a people means the sum total of the swaraj of individuals,” he said.
Truth and Firmness
As much as he desired a free India, Gandhi was convinced that war was not the way to win it: “With God as witness, I want to proclaim this truth, that the way of violence cannot bring swaraj, it can only lead to disaster.” Dissatisfied with the terms “passive resistance” and “civil disobedience,” Gandhi coined the term satyagraha (“firmness in truth”). He admired Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, and Gandhi's policy of satyagraha was partly influenced by Tolstoy, in addition to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the work American writer Henry David Thoreau. The ideal encompassed an approach of nonviolence and incorporated ahimsa toward one's enemies. “Satyagraha, of which civil resistance is but a part, is to me the universal law of life,” he said.
After a demonstration resulted in the massacre of Indians at Amritsar by British soldiers in 1920, Gandhi called for an organized campaign of noncooperation. Indians carried out mass boycotts of government agencies, resigned from public offices and removed their children from government schools. Passive demonstrators were beaten in the streets and countless protestors were arrested along with Gandhi, who was soon released. “Satyagraha is a process of educating public opinion, such that it covers all the elements of the society and makes itself irresistible,” he said.
In 1947, India became independent after 100 years of British rule, and Gandhi sought accommodation with the Muslim minority. A year later, while taking his nightly walk, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu radical.
For all the words Gandhi spoke, his enduring legacy consists of the actions he took throughout his life. As he once told a journalist who asked him to sum up his message: “My life is my message.”