Mohandas Gandhi was born in the western part of British-ruled India on October 2, 1869. A timid child, he was married at thirteen to a girl of the same age, Kasturbai. Following the death of his father, Gandhi’s family sent him to England in 1888 to study law. There, he became interested in the philosophy of nonviolence, as expressed in the Bhagavad-Gita, Hindu sacred scripture, and in Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in the Christian Bible. He returned to India in 1891, having passed the bar, but found little success in his attempts to practice law. Seeking a change of scenery, he accepted a position in South Africa for a year, where he assisted on a lawsuit.
In South Africa, he became involved in efforts to end discrimination against the Indian minority there, who were oppressed both by the British and by the Boers, descendants of the original Dutch settlers of the region. Having intended to stay a year, he ended up remaining until 1914 (his wife and children had joined him, meanwhile, in 1896). He founded the Natal Indian Congress, which worked to further Indian interests, and commanded an Indian medical corps that fought on the British side in the Boer War (1899-1901), in which the British conquered the last independent Boer republics.
After the war, Gandhi’s reputation as a leader grew. He became even more adamant in his personal principles, practicing sexual abstinence, renouncing modern technology, and developing satyagraha–literally, “soul- force.” Satyagraha was a method of non-violent resistance, often called “non-cooperation,” that he and his allies used to great effect against the white governments in South Africa. Their willingness to endure punishment and jail earned the admiration of people in Gandhi’s native India, and eventually won concessions from the Boer and British rulers. By 1914, when Gandhi left South Africa and returned to India, he was known as a holy man: people called him a “Mahatma”, or “great soul.”
At this point, he was still loyal to the British Empire, but when the British cracked down on Indian civil liberties after World War I, Gandhi began to organize nonviolent protests. The Amritsar Massacre, in which British troops gunned down peaceful Indian protestors, convinced Gandhi and India of the need for self-rule, and in the early ’20s Gandhi organized large-scale campaigns of non-cooperation that paralyzed the subcontinent’s administration–and led to his imprisonment, from 1922 to 1924. After his release, he withdrew from politics for a time, preferring to travel India, working among the peasantry. But in 1930, he wrote the Declaration of Independence of India, and then led the Salt March in protest against the British monopoly on salt. This touched off acts of civil disobedience across India, and the British were forced to invite Gandhi to London for a Round-Table Conference.
Although Gandhi received a warm welcome in England, the Conference foundered on the issue of how an independent India would deal with its Muslim minority, and Gandhi withdrew from public life again. But independence could not be long delayed. The Government of India Act (1935) surrendered significant amounts of power to Indians, and the Indian National Congress clamored for more. When World War II broke out, India erupted into violence, and many nationalist leaders, including Gandhi, went to prison. After the war, the new British government wanted to get India off its hands quickly. But Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the head of the Muslim League, demanded that a separate state be created for India’s Muslims, and to Gandhi’s great distress, the Congress leaders and the harried British agreed. August of 1947 saw India’s attainment of independence–as well as its partition into two countries, India and Pakistan. However, neither measure served to solve India’s problems, and the country immediately fell apart: Hindus and Muslims killed each other in alarming numbers while refugees fled toward the borders. Heartbroken, Gandhi tried to calm the country, but to no avail. He was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist in Delhi on January 30, 1948, and India mourned the loss of its greatest hero.