Key Thinker: Mahatma (Mohandas) Gandhi

Key thinker: Mahatma (Mohandas) Gandhi (1869–1948)

Mahatma (Mohandas) Gandhi (1869–1948)


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, also known as Mahatma (Sanskrit for ‘Great Soul’), was born in Porbandar, India, today part of Gujarat. Gandhi’s father, who was the chief minister of the city, did not have much formal education. His mother was a devout Hindu and spent most of her time in the temple or at home ( Gandhi’s mother taught her son about the principles of mutual tolerance, non-injury to living beings, and non-violence, which were foundational to her beliefs and would become a central tenet of Gandhi’s political philosophy (

Gandhi was born into a privileged caste and received a comprehensive education, but was an average student ( His adolescence was marked by small rebellions against religion and caste such as theft, smoking, and eating meat ( In 1883 Gandhi, then only 13 years old, was married to Kasturba Makhanji, with whom he would have four sons. Gandhi’s parents encouraged him to take the bar exam to qualify as a lawyer, but he was unhappy at college. Instead, he chose to continue his studies in Britain. He enrolled at University College London to study law in September 1888 (

In 1893 Gandhi, by then a qualified barrister, accepted a one-year contract to work in South Africa. He remained in the country throughout the Boer War (1898-1900), which led to a British victory over the Dutch and the establishment of Union of South Africa ( Gandhi soon became a political and intellectual leader to the Indian community in South Africa. He successfully organized resistance campaigns against the legal, social, and racial discrimination of Indian labourers and negotiated the Gandhi-Smuts settlement of 1914. The settlement expanded the legal rights of Indian migrants in South Africa and showed that they were a notable political force in the country (

When the First World War (1914-18) broke out, Gandhi returned to Britain to organize an ambulance corps for the war (he’d previously organized an ambulance corps of Indians and indentured labourers to assist the British during the Boer War) ( But the Gandhi family only stayed for a few months before departing for Bombay (now Mumbai) in January 1915. In Bombay, Gandhi became involved in Indian politics. Gandhi quickly rose to prominence as a political leader of the Indian home rule movement ( He was often harassed by the British for his anti-colonial activism, and spent several years in and out of prison.

Gandhi’s idea of non-cooperation was inspired by David Henry Thoreau’s writing on civil disobedience (see Key thinker: Henry David Thoreau). He organized mass boycotts and strikes among government officials and soldiers, or urged Indians to stop paying taxes to the British, for example. When Gandhi refused to buy clothes that were manufactured in Britain, and decided to make his own cloth using a portable spinning wheel, it became a symbol for Indian self-reliance ( Satyagraha (‘truth and firmness’), a method of civil disobedience and political protest based on non-violence which he had developed in South Africa, became a key aspect of his political philosophy (see Key Concept: satyagraha).

In March 1930, Gandhi launched the Salt March to protest the British Salt Acts, which had imposed a hefty tax on a good that was a dietary staple for most Indians (see 27.5. Campaigns of Nonviolent Resistance: Theory and Practice). The March led to the arrest of over 60,000 people ( Following a period of negotiation with the British viceroy, Lord Irwin (later Lord Halifax), Gandhi was appointed the sole representative of the Indian National Congress to the Round Table talks in London, held to negotiate a new Constitution for India (

By the time the Second World War (1939-45) broke out, Gandhi had emerged as one of the most influential politicians in India. During the war, he continued to advocate for home rule, arguing that Indians should not be sacrificing their lives to protect Britain while they were still oppressed at home ( Gandhi and his wife were again arrested and interned at the Aga Khan palace in Poona. Kasturba died of pneumonia in 1944, shortly before Gandhi was released (

When India finally achieved home role in 1947, Gandhi was disappointed with the outcome. He had hoped that an independent India could unite Muslims and Hindus under the banner of one nation. But Muslim separatism had already reached and advanced state, and there had been several instances of violence between the two communities while Gandhi was imprisoned ( Gandhi opposed the partition of the country into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India, but the ruling Congress party accepted the agreement (

Gandhi spent the final months of his life advocating for religious toleration, and even went on a hunger strike to stop violence between Muslims and Hindus ( Gandhi had narrowly escaped four attempts on his life. But on 30 January 1948, he was fatally shot by the Hindu extremist Nathuram Godse while walking in the grounds of Birla House in New Delhi. He was 78 years old.


Gandhi is considered a ‘founding father’ of the Indian nation, alongside Jawaharlal Nehru (see 27.1. Introduction), and is one of the most visually recognisable political thinkers in history (see 27.2. Gandhi as Global Icon). As a writer and political thinker, however, Gandhi is best known for Hind Swaraj (1909) and his Autobiography (1925). Hind Swaraj (or ‘Indian Home Rule’) presents the clearest statement of Gandhi’s anti-colonial politics (see 27.3. Hind Swaraj: Anticolonial Resistance). With his book, Gandhi hoped to resolve a conflict in the Indian National Congress between moderates and extremists, who had clashed over the question of militant mass resistance to colonial rule. Written in a dialogue form reminiscent of Plato’s Apology (see Chapter 2 on Plato), the book pits arguments for violent struggle and non-violent ‘soul force’ against each other to show that it is necessary to achieve individual self-rule before one can experience collective freedom (see Key concept: Swaraj). The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s writing on Christian non-violence was one of Gandhi’s main points of reference at the time (see Key thinker: Leo Tolstoy).

Gandhi is an advocate for non-violent resistance. This aspect of Gandhi’s political philosophy stands in contrast to Frantz Fanon’s argument that anti-colonial violence is necessary to reclaim that humanity of the colonized subject (see Chapter 28 on Frantz Fanon). In his Autobiography, Gandhi argues that satyagraha (see Key concept: Satyagraha) is a mode of resistance that is distinct from passive resistance. While he’d previously translated satyagraha as ‘passive resistance’ in Hind Swaraj, he insisted that the former is based on altruistic love and adherence to truth, while the latter simply refers to the renunciation of action for reasons that could be impure. For Gandhi, Satyagraha requires a certain level of self-discipline. Such self-discipline, however, is not always easy to achieve in mass political movements that are confronted with violent repression by the colonial state. Gandhi was heavily criticized by socialists and anti-imperialists like Bhagat Singh (see Key thinker: Bhagat Singh), who argued that socialist revolution and the use of force were justified means of attaining Swaraj.

Gandhi fought for the rights of Indians in South Africa, but continued to harbour racial prejudices towards the country’s Black population (see 27.4.1. Gandhi’s Hidden Biases). He also expressed caste prejudices, which often put him at odds with Dalit (‘Untouchable’) thinkers like B.R. Ambedkar (see Key thinker: B.R. Ambedkar). Gandhi refused to accept that Dalits had their own political concerns and experiences of oppression that could not be subsumed within an Indian nationalist project led by upper caste Hindus. While Gandhi’s anti-colonial activism has inspired many across the world, his troubling views on race, caste, and gender deserve to be critically interrogated. Yet Gandhi remains a complex and paradoxical historical figure, whose activism changed the course of his country’s history and helped rid India of its British colonizers (see 27.6. Conclusion). His conviction that a pluralistic India would be a better India remains a vital call for reconciliation in the context of rising tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the country today (

 Further Reading

Brown, J. (ed.) (2008) Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Writings, new. ed. Oxford: Oxford
World’s Classics.

Brown, J., and Parel, A. (eds.) (2011) Cambridge Companion to Gandhi. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press 

Parekh, B. (1999) Colonialism, Tradition and Reform: An Analysis of Gandhi’s Political
. Rev. ed. New Delhi: Sage Publications. 

Patel, S. (1988) “Construction and Reconstruction of Woman in Gandhi.” Economic and
Political Weekly
23(8): 377-387.

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