Pacifist Mahatma Gandhi and His Life
Extraordinary people continue to shape the world and they way we view it. Even after their death, it’s important to remember the legacy and mark they left on society. In honour of his birthday tomorrow (October 2nd), we’re touching upon the life of Mahatma Gandhi. Plus, we explore what it means to be a pacifist and activist.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was an Indian lawyer born in 1869. He employed pacifist (aka nonviolent) resistance to lead the successful campaign for India’s independence from British rule. In turn, this inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world.
The title “Mahatma” is a Sanskrit honour translating to “great-souled”. Gandhi earned this in South Africa in 1914.
A Brief History
Born and raised in Gujarat, India, Gandhi moved to Inner Temple, London, to study law. He received “call to bar” the summer of 1891. Unable to start a successful law practice in India, he moved to South Africa where he stayed for 21 years. During this time, he raised a family and first employed pacifist resistance in a campaign for civil rights.
In 1945, Gandhi returned to India with the goal to organise peasants, farmers, and urban labourers to protest against excessive land-tax and discrimination. In 1921, he assumed leadership of the Indian National Congress. He used this position to lead nationwide campaigns for:
- easing poverty
- expanding women’s rights
- building religious and ethnic amity
- ending untouchability
- achieving self-rule
Also during this time, he opted to live and dress modestly and ate simple vegetarian food.
Imprisoned many times, India finally received its independence in 1947. However, Gandhi’s dreams of religious pluralism were squashed by the portioning into two dominions: the Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Again, Gandhi continued to be a pacifist and undertook hunger strikes to stop religious violence. However, some viewed these tactics as too accommodating thus leading to Gandhi’s assassination in 1948.
Pacifist Principles and Practices
Religion, ethics, and philosophy influence a lot of Gandhi’s thinking. As well as great writers such as Leo Tolstoy. Ghandi saw himself a disciple of his work because they both hated violence and preached the importance of being a pacifist. Other influences include:
- Shrimad Rajchandra. A poet and Jain philosopher, Rajchandra served as another counsellor for Gandhi. Their correspondence was a “refuge in moments of spiritual crisis”. Rajchandra advised patience and the studying of Hinduism.
- Religious texts. During his stay in South Africa, Gandhi read translated texts of Christianity and Islam. This studying, and additional discussion with scholars, led him to respect all religions. What’s more, he had concerns about the imperfections and frequent misinterpretations of them.
On Wars and Being a Pacifist
Surprisingly, despite his pacifistic nature, Gandhi supported wars. He formed the Indian Ambulance Corps in the South African War on the British Side in 1899. His reasoning for this was that if he were to demand rights as a British citizen, then it was his duty to participate in defence of the British Empire.
Gandhi continued to show this support for war by rallying Indian troops for both WWI and WWII. In his writings about it, he states:
“Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”
Later, he would add that being a pacifist is effective and true forgiveness only when one has the power to punish. Not, when one decides not to do anything because one is helpless. The concept of non-violence has a long history in Indian religious thought — it is considered the highest dharma (ethical value virtue). However, Gandhi was the first to apply it in the political field on a larger scale. This method proved to be palatable to those who did not want an uncontrolled and violent social revolution which could create losses for them.