Term Paper: Gandhi's Perception of His Religion and Civilization

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¶ … Gandhi's perception of his religion and civilization and how these perceptions in turn led to his triumph over the British Empire and later to the independence of India. It will also take into account significant figures such as Nehru and Jinnah when analyzing certain aspects of Gandhi's decisions. Mahatma Gandhi was a great man, a great leader, and a strong advocate of using peaceful means to gain important ends. Gandhi led his people to independence, and is still one of India's most intriguing figures today.

I want to avoid violence non-violence is the first article of my faith" -- Mahatma Gandhi, 1922

Mahatma (Mohandas Karamchand) Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869. His parents were well to do by Indian standards, and he was the last of four children. At the time, India was split between her Hindu past, and a distinctly English future. English was the official language of the country, and English innovations such as railroads were beginning to criss-cross the country. The Gandhi family was non-conformist, and spoke out against English oppression, so Gandhi's desire for peaceful revolution may have begun when he was very young. The family was also very religious, and worshipped Vishnu through the religion Vaishnava. Gandhi began all his major activities with a Hindu hymn to Vaishnava (Muzumdar 6-7). In the Indian tradition, Gandhi was married at the age of thirteen to Kasturbi, another thirteen-year-old. They had four children in twelve years, before Gandhi took a vow of sexual abstinence. The pair would have difficulties, because Kasturbi was illiterate, and did not always approve of her husband's activities (Leathem 8). She did not travel with her husband to London, and she joined him later in South Africa. Gandhi himself was embarrassed at marrying at such an early age. In his Autobiography he wrote, "Much as I wish that I had not to write this chapter, I know that I shall have to swallow many such bitter draughts in the course of this narrative. And I cannot do otherwise, if I claim to be a worshipper of Truth. It is my painful duty to have to record here my marriage at the age of thirteen" ("Autobiography" 18)

In 1888, Gandhi traveled to London, England to study law, and he graduated in 1893. Gandhi found life in London very different from life in India. He discovered the English ideas of freedom and democracy were quite prevalent in England, but they did not extend to English colonies such as India and South Africa. Gandhi later wrote about democracy, "My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest. That can never happen except through non-violence"

Gandhi 138). His years in England would also add to his determination to bring true democracy to his people.

Gandhi then traveled to South Africa to work as a lawyer, but he encountered great racial prejudice there, and had difficulty establishing a practice. He spent from 1894 to 1914 in South Africa, and it was there that he established many of the non-violent protest techniques that he would utilize throughout his life. Gandhi's first attempt at bringing equality to the Indians in South Africa came in 1894 when he opposed British legislation that would take away Indian's right to vote for the National Assembly in the South African province of Natal. "He formed a committee, wrote to newspapers, and petitioned officials. Gandhi collected 10,000 signatures against the legislation but had only a moral victory. The Assembly passed a law without mentioning Indians directly, but achieving the same discrimination" (Leathem 8). However, Gandhi continued working for independence and equality. He wrote letters, urged Indians to unite, despite different religious beliefs, and continually petitioned the government for reforms. He became quite well-known in many government and political circles because of his tireless work.

Gandhi also served his first jail time in South Africa, in what may be one of his most well-known acts of peaceful defiance before he returned to India. In the Transvaal, a new British law required Indians to register with the government and be fingerprinted. About 3,000 Indians gathered to protest the law, and then vowed to defy the law. Gandhi knew this would mean fines and jail time for the resisters, but they agreed to go ahead with their protest. Only a handful of the 13,000 Indians in the area registered, and Gandhi and several others spent two months in jail, with several more joining them as the protest grew. Finally out of jail cells, the British government compromised by asking the Indians to register voluntarily. Gandhi agreed to the compromise, and the detainees were released. However, the government went back on their agreement, and Gandhi "began another satyagraha [peaceful protest] and thousands burned their registration cards outside a mosque in Johannesburg" (Leathem 8). The protest served its' purpose, and Gandhi left South Africa shortly afterward to return to India.

Gandhi's return to India marked the beginning of political protest and reforms that were characteristic of the rest of his life. In the 1920s, after Gandhi returned, India was facing political and economic turmoil. Gandhi believed one way to help the Indian people was to establish small, communal colonies where Indians could create their own products and reduce their dependence on British imports, such as cloth. However, "Commodity prices and taxes soared and strikes, epidemics and terrorist attacks were common. In response, the British declared political crimes could be tried in secret and without a jury" (Leathem 8). To protest this, Gandhi and thousands of his followers took to the streets in a general strike. Muslims and Hindus marched together, praying and chanting. Afraid, the British called for a ban on public meetings. The protesters did not know of the ban, and gathered in a public square to continue their peaceful protest. A British major opened fire on the group, killing 397 and wounding over 1,100. Gandhi felt the violence was his fault, and began a three-day fast in penance for his part in the massacre. This was the first of many fasts Gandhi would commit during his life (Leathem 8). In addition, he decided his non-violent philosophies were not fully understood by his people, and "set about teaching, with the Indian National Congress as his platform" (Leathem 8). Most of the members of the National Congress were Indian, but had adopted British dress and customs. Gandhi hoped to make the Congress more relevant to the majority of Indians, and tried to get more members of the Congress to dress traditionally. It was during this time that he adopted the loincloth (dhoti) that Indian laborers wore, to identify himself with the common man, rather than the elite. In addition, he founded the National Volunteer Corps for young Indians to spread the idea of political, non-violent protest. One of the first to join was young Jawaharlal Nehru. His father was the President of the Congress, and he would go on to become the first Prime Minister of India. The volunteers taught village people how to spin and weave cloth, but they also carried the message of peaceful revolt, and people began to stand up to the imperialistic practices of the British government. By 1920, there were 30,000 dissidents in British jails, and Gandhi was facing a trial for sedition. He was found guilty, and served three years of a six-year sentence (Leathem 8). While Gandhi was in prison, his movement began to split into defined lines between Muslim and Hindi, and this would continue to divide the country and her people after the British finally left India to self-rule. A new leader of the Muslim group appeared, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and his group left the National Congress to form their own Muslim League. After Gandhi's release from prison, he fasted for three weeks in an attempt to bring the two groups back together. The groups did make an attempt, but their agreement only lasted a few years.

The British agreed to look at Indian independence in 1929, and young Nehru became the President of Congress. Little was done to actually release India to her own rule, so in 1930, Gandhi began what was perhaps his more famous protest. The British taxed salt, and to Indians it was a basic need. Gandhi decided to protest the British control of this basic mineral, and organized a march to the sea to make salt. Over 332-kilometers long, the marchers, including Nehru, managed to walk about 20 kilometers a day, adding people as they passed through towns and villages. The march gained worldwide attention, and thousands of Indians made their own marches to gather sea salt and defy the tax. Gandhi and Nehru went to jail with many others, but the British government began to take notice of his work. Later in the same year, he traveled to London for talks with the British leaders, but later he was put back in jail and the Congress was banned. However, the British knew their grip… [END OF PREVIEW]

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