Mahatma Gandhi is one of the most recognizable figures in history. Many of us have seen the movie starring Ben Kingsley and the image of Gandhi dressed in a shawl and sandals, leading a crowd of thousands.

Gandhi's principles lead him to campaign for justice in the world. Civil right leaders like Martin Luther King was influenced by his teachings and he was greatly admired by Albert Einstein. But just who was Gandhi and why was he known as the "Father of the Nation?"

Early Life and a Religious Upbringing

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, India. Gandhi’s mother was very devoted to Vaishnavism, worshiping the Hindu god Vishnu. She instilled in her son the beliefs of self-discipline and nonviolence.

In 1883, aged just 13, Gandhi’s parents married him off to Kasturba Makanji. Although they did not get along at the beginning, the couple would go on to have four children.

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Gandhi Studies Law

At 19, Gandhi left India to study law at the Inner Temple in London. He was noted as being a mediocre student with terrible handwriting.

After graduating, Gandhi tried to set up a law practice in Bombay. Unfortunately, the practice failed, forcing the young Gandhi to pursue a different path. He accepted a position with an Indian law firm who sent him to Durban, South Africa. Gandhi's life was about to change forever.

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Gandhi Experiences Discrimination

As an Indian immigrant in South Africa, Gandhi experienced discrimination from the time he entered the country.

On his first appearance in court, a European magistrate made the mistake of asking Gandhi to take off his turban. He refused point blank and ran out of the courtroom.

Another incident occurred a few days later. After buying a first-class ticket for a train to Pretoria, Gandhi settled in for the journey. One of his fellow passengers was a white man who was enraged to see an Indian man sitting in first-class. He demanded Gandhi be sent to the back of the train with the other non-white folk. Gandhi stood his ground until he was forcibly thrown off the train.

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The Beginning of Passive Resistance

That train journey was a turning point for Gandhi. He determined that day to fight the “deep disease of color prejudice.”

Gandhi began developing and teaching Satyagraha, the way of truth and firmness. In practice, it was a way to refuse to cooperate with authorities but in a peaceful way.

In 1984, Gandhi put his passive resistance into practice when Indians faced losing the right to vote. Unfortunately, his protests failed, and the law was still introduced. However, Gandhi was noticed by the international community and brought attention to the discrimination faced by Indians in South Africa.

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Civil Disobedience

In 1906, new laws were again bought in to repress the Indian population. Every man, woman, and child had to go on a special register. Their Hindu marriages were no longer recognized by South African law.

Gandhi's response was a campaign of civil disobedience. He kept it up for over eight years! Eventually, the government responde and ended up imprisoning hundreds of Indians, including Gandhi. Finally, after pressure from foreign governments, a compromise was reached. Gandhi and Kasturba's marriage was once again recognized.

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Gandhi Returns to India

The year 1914 took Gandhi back to his homeland. India was under the control of the British. He supported their rule but always spoke out against anything that took away his civil rights.

In 1919 the British gave themselves the power to imprison anyone suspected of speaking out against them. Gandhi organized a Satyagraha campaign. He lead strikes and peaceful protests to get his anger across. Unfortunately, the British did not keep the peace. On April 13, troops massacred 400 unarmed protesters at a meeting in Amritsar.

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Leading a Movement

After the massacre at Amritsar, Gandhi decided he wanted an independent India. Economic independence was an important part of his campaign. Gandhi encouraged a boycott on buying British goods and urged government employees to find new careers.

Gandhi's religion was a huge part of him. His lifestyle revolved around his meditation, fasting, and prayers. Many of his followers began calling him Mahatma, meaning “the great-souled one.”

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The Salt March

During the 1920s, Gandhi served time in prison for sedition and took a break from active politics. But he could not ignore the Salt Act of 1930 that suddenly banned Indians from collecting and selling salt.

On March 12, Gandhi set out on a 240 mile march to the Arabian Sea with the sole intention to break the law and collect some grains of salt. With a walking stick and wearing a homemade white shawl and sandals, Gandhi was accompanied by 30 people. Twenty-four days later he reached the coast. Tens of thousands were there to witness his act of rebellion when he picked up a small piece of natural salt.

Mahatma Gandhi salt march Giles Clarke / Getty Images


The Aftermath

Millions of Indians followed Gandhi’s lead. He and 60,000 other Indians were arrested for collecting small amounts of salt. Protests continued in his name, and international recognition followed. Time magazine named Gandhi “Man of the Year” 1930. He is the only Indian to ever receive the honor.

After he was released, Gandhi negotiated the release of his fellow political prisoners. And Indians could finally get all the salt they needed.

Mahatma Gandhi political prisoner Sean Hobbs / Getty Images


Indian Independence

Gandhi played an important part in India gaining independence from British rule in 1945. Ideally, he wanted a unified India. But, as is often the way of the world, religion got in the way. Religious differences forced the separate states of Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India to be created.

On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic on his way to evening prayers. Followers carried his body through the streets of Delhi. Two million Indians formed a five-mile procession to attend the funeral of the "Father of the Nation".

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