Mahatma Gandhi: Shaping our Modern World

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Mahatma Gandhi: Shaping our Modern World

Abrar Zawed

Honors History 171

Dr. Agnes Odinga

Mahatma Gandhi is one of the few leaders who have impacted our modern world through their outstanding leadership skills. Mahatma has opened a new way of protesting against injustice through his nonviolence movement. More than half a century after his death, many political leaders look at him as their inspiration. His strong determination and non violence has transformed himself as a model of courage and integrity not only for the people of India, but also for people all around the world. Inspired by the nonviolence teachings in Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism, Mahatma’s –“The Great Soul” legacy inspires millions in modern world. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2 October at Porbandar, the capital of a small state of Kathiawar. Gandhi had the essence of leadership from his boyhood as his father Karamchand was the “Dewan” or “Prime Minister” of the state. Gandhi was given marriage at the age of 13 with Kasturibai as early marriage was a traditional custom at Hinduism. Later Gandhi became one of the pioneers of abandoning this cruel custom of early marriage. At the end of his formal education, Gandhi decided to become a lawyer and eventually went to London for earning his law degree. Gandhi life had a huge turn when he was sent to South Africa for practicing law. Unprepared for racial intolerance, his initial response to an incident on train shaped his actions for years. The racial segregation and humiliation to the Indians turned him from a lawyer to a determined political activist. His success at South Africa helped him to emerge himself as a symbol of independence for India from 250 years of British domination. He became the “Bapu (father)” of India and received the title of “Mahatma” from Rabindranath Tagore, first Nobel laureate on literature in Asia.

Gandhi’s nonviolence approach against injustice, ideology of self sufficiency, contribution towards humanity and women rights, and inspirational act through nonviolence have made him one of the few leaders who shaped our modern world.

During the start of 20th century, there were more than 60 thousand Indians living in South Africa, including the British colony of Natal and the Cape, and the Boer republic of Transvaal.1 In the 1890s, a legislation known as “The Immigration Law of Amendment Bill of 1985” was passed, which state that Indian can stay in South Africa for 5 years and if they wish to stay more than 5 years, then they need to pay 3£ tax annually.2 Most of the Indians by the time were feed laborers and they had no option but to stay in South Africa. Mohandas Gandhi, now a London trained lawyer came to South Africa, quickly involved himself in politics. Some of incidents regarding racial segregation take him to the spotlight. In August 1906, the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance was signed into law in the Transvaal. It was humiliating for the Indians as they were required to carry a registration certificate at all times. According to Gandhi, “I could see that the Asiatic Department was…a frightful engine of oppression for the Indians… I saw that I had to begin my work from the very beginning.”3 Thus Gandhi coined the term “Satyagraha” literally “Truth-Force.” In 1910 with the support of architect, Hermann Kallenbach, Gandhi founded a farming community he called Tolstoy Farm. Satyagrahis and their families were welcomed to live under principles of simplicity and discipline as part of the Satyagraha struggle. According to Gandhi, ‘Satyagraha is a relentless search for truth and a determination to search truth....Satyagraha is an attribute of the spirit within....Satyagraha has been designed as an effective substitute for violence.... Satyagraha is a process of educating public opinion, such that it covers all the elements of the society and makes itself irresistible.”4 In 1912, the Satyagrahis began to oppose against 3£ annual tax fee which was a part of Immigration Law of Amendment Bill of 1985. Gandhi along with other nonviolence protesters were taken to jail. But other Satyagrahis continued to break law by their nonviolence activities. Their purpose was to overload the jail. Officials were hesitant to arrest them, afraid to give the campaigners publicity. As a result they came to an agreement with the Satyagrahis, Gandhi was released, 3£ tax was repelled, immigration restriction act was lightened. After 21 years of staying in South Africa, Gandhi returned to India and continued to campaign for the independence of India. In 1947, India gained independence after 250 years of British domination. Mahatma’s legacy still inspires many nonviolence activists all around the world. Gandhi’s nonviolence has profound impact on “Occupy Wall Street Campaign.” According to a protester, "The spirit of Mahatma Gandhi is felt tremendously here. ‘Occupy Wall Street’ is a non-violent movement."5 In recent years many nonviolence campaign took Gandhi as its motivation. One of campaigns is currently taking place in Gandhi’s own India. People are protesting against corruption through nonviolence way. This campaign ultimately forced the Indian government to pass an anti-corruption law known as “Jan lokpal Bill” and ensure the equal representation of civilian society.

Gandhi’s famous contribution towards modern world is his ideology of self sufficiency. Gandhi's vision of a free India was not a nation-state but a confederation of self-governing, self-reliant, self-employed people living in village communities, deriving their right livelihood from the products of their homesteads. Most people are aware of Gandhi’s campaign of ending British colonialism. But it is only a mere part of his life. The greater part of Gandhi's work was to renew India's vitality and regenerate its culture. Central to Gandhi's philosophy was the principle of 'Swadeshi', which, in effect, means local self-sufficiency. Gandhi’s vision was to see India as a self sufficient nation. He was more focus on using local resources. “The economics that permit one country to prey upon another are immoral. It is sinful to buy and use articles made by sweated labor.”6 Swadeshi avoids economic dependence on external market forces that could make the village community vulnerable. It also avoids unnecessary, unhealthy, wasteful, and therefore environmentally destructive transportation. The British believed in a centralized economy. But Gandhi's vision was a decentralized, homegrown, hand-crafted mode of production. In his words, "Not mass production, but production by the masses."7 Nowadays most countries are focusing on self sufficiency. Export rate are much higher than the import rate for most of the emerging countries such as India. Below is chart of India’s export and import rate which clearly shows that, India is heading towards self sufficiency.

Fig. 1 India’s fuel export and import rate (1997-2010).

Gandhi was instrumental in ensuring human rights, especially the rights of women. Gandhi has been attributed as being the inspiration or model for various rights struggles around the world. Gandhi dreamed for a secular society where people of every religion live together. Although Gandhi himself belong from a society where the division of caste was really extreme, he tried to ensure equality for all. Gandhi during his time in jail went on a fast as a protest against the segregation of the so called “untouchable.” His fast ultimately forced the Hindu leaders to come to an agreement with the representative of the untouchables. “To say that a single human being, because of his birth, becomes an untouchable, unapproachable, or invisible, is to deny God.”8 Gandhi in his Tolstoy farm ensured that every inhabitant get his or her deserving rights. Gandhi was also influential to women’s rights and independence. Women played a significant role in Satyagraha movement. Gandhi always considered women as equal to men. According to him, “Woman is the companion of man, gifted with equal mental capacities.”9 Gandhi wasn’t in favor of dividing India on the basis of religion. He tried his best to make India unite. During the impendence of India, he left the capital and to Calcutta to ensure the safety of the Muslims. In his words, “My nonviolence bids me dedicate myself to the service of the minorities.”10

Mahatma became an inspirational figure for many human rights activities such as “American Civil Rights Movements 1964” led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both embraced nonviolence as the weapon of achieving their goal. Deeply influenced by the works of Gandhi while studying at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, King made the struggle for civil liberty for African- Americans in the USA his sole motto. His weapons: faith in God and nonviolence. “From my background I gained my regulating Christian ideals and from Gandhi, I learned my operational technique.”11 In 1964, when he was awarded Noble Peace Prize, he said, “Nonviolence is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it."12 Gandhi’s nonviolence also had an profound impact on Nelson Mandela. Mandela, who spent 28 years in prison for fighting white rule before leading South Africa to multi-racial democracy as the country's first black president in 1994, said, “Gandhi's non-violent approach which won India freedom from British colonial rule 60 years ago was an inspiration.”13 Referring Gandhi as “the sacred warrior,” Mandela also said, "In a world driven by violence and strife, Gandhi's message of peace and non-violence holds the key to human survival in the 21st century.”14 Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan independence is also influenced by the Gandhi’s nonviolence approach. In his speech to the Nobel committee, the Dalai Lama said, "I accept the prize as a tribute to the man who founded the modern tradition of nonviolent action for change―Mahatma Gandhi―whose life taught and inspired me." Another nonviolence activist influenced by Gandhi is Aung San Suu Kyi. Spend much of her early life in India, she came to know about Mahatma Gandhi. Upon her return to Burma, she spoke out against military dictatorship and started a nonviolence campaign.

Sixty years after his death, Mahatma Gandhi is still a major presence on the world stage. Historians look at Gandhi as a man who has the power to take on an empire without any weapon. His new approach of gaining human rights distinguishes him from rest of the leaders who shaped our modern world. Gandhi is undoubtedly the most influential political figure of 20th century.


1. Robert Huttenback, Gandhi in South Africa: British Imperialism and the Indian Question, 1860- 1914. Cornell University Press, London 1971, 122.

2. Huttenback, 124.

3. M.K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa, trans. V.G. Desai (Stanford: Academic Reprints, 1954), 83.

4. M.K. Gandhi, Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi, (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Trust), 1967, 90.

5. Lison Joseph, “Wall Street Protesters Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi,” The Economics Times, 18 October, 2011.

6. D.G. Tendulkar, Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. (New Delhi: Publications division, Government of India 1963, pp-20.

7. Tendulkar, 23.

8. Gandhi on Non-violence: A Selection from the Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, ed and trans. Thomas Merton (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1996), 103.

9. Doke Joseph J. M.K. Gandhi: An Indian Patriot in South Africa. London, The London Indian Chronicle, 1909, pp 167.

10. Joseph 178.

11. Saurabh Bhattacharya, “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” Life Positive Plus Magazine, October, 2002.

12. Bhattacharya, 2002.

13. Nita Bhalla, “Mandela Calls for Gandhi’s Non-violence Approach,” The Reuters, 29 January, 2007.

14. Bhalla, 2007.


Chadha, Yogesh. Gandhi: a life. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1997.

Fischer, Louis. The life of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1983.

Wolpret, Stanley. Gandhi’s Passion: the life and legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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