Newsday / Student Briefing Page
Wednesday, February 26, 1997

Mahatma Gandhi & his legacy: The Power of Nonviolence

By Sreenath Sreenivasan

Learn more from these Internet sites about Gandhi:

M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence (, run by
his grandson Arun Gandhi in Memphis, Tenn.

"My Spiritual Message" (, one of
the few remaining recordings of his voice (from the late 1920s).

Mahatma Gandhi Ashram (, an online "ashram" or
community with several photographs.

Leslie Williams' Gandhi page (, a
site that includes an excerpt from his autobiography and a description of
his last hours.

Gandhi Today: A report on Mahatma Gandhi's Successors
(, a look at his legacy.

Also, see the movie "Gandhi," (1982) directed by Richard Attenborough and
starring Ben Kingsley.



"Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is
mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity
of man."

Last month, thousands of people gathered in the town of Allahabad in India
to watch as some of the ashes of a man who died 49 years ago were poured
into the holy Ganges River.

Television stations and newspapers around the world carried images of the
ceremony. The reason for the interest was that the ashes were those of
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, one of the most influential and respected
leaders of the 20th Century. The photographs of his great-grandson, Tushar
Gandhi, pouring the ashes have once again focused attention on the life
and work of the frail-looking elder statesman who was assassinated in
1948. (The ceremony was held after a long-lost urn containing some of his
ashes was discovered in a bank vault.)

Gandhi, who is better known as the "Mahatma" or "great soul," is
considered "the father of the nation" in India. Just as General George
Washington did in the United States, Gandhi played a major role in his
country's struggle for freedom from 200 years of British control. Though
both men helped liberate their countries, Gandhi's methods differed from
Washington's in an important way: He was a strong believer in nonviolence.
He pioneered the methods of civil disobedience and noncooperation, which have since been used by various international leaders in their struggles
for justice. Civil disobedience means not obeying laws that are unjust,
cruel or inhuman, even in the face of imprisonment and torture.

Inspired King and Mandela Among the people who were influenced by Gandhi's
teachings was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He read and absorbed
Gandhi's teachings and applied the civil disobedience techniques to his
fight for civil rights in the United States. "Gandhi was inevitable. If
humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. We may ignore Gandhi at
our own risk," said King.

M.K. Gandhi was born in western India on Oct. 2, 1869, to a relatively
prosperous family. In accordance with the customs of the time, he was
married at the age of 13 to another 13-year-old selected by his family.

After studying law in England, Gandhi moved to South Africa to work as an
attorney. In that country Gandhi had his first major brush with racism and
intolerance. South Africa at the time was under apartheid, the government
policy of discriminating against blacks and other "coloreds." While on a
train trip, he was ejected from a first-class compartment because he was
not a white person. Thus began a lifelong passion for equality and

He worked to improve the living conditions of the thousands of immigrant
Indian workers who lived in South Africa and, in the process, formulated
his peaceful methods of protest. South Africa's current president, Nelson
Mandela, has credited Gandhi's legacy with inspiring him during his own
fight against apartheid.

In 1915, after several years in South Africa, Gandhi returned to India,
where he joined a growing movement seeking independence from British rule.
He urged his followers not to cooperate with the foreign rulers and led
massive nationwide boycotts of foreign-made clothing and products. He set
an example by wearing simple traditional Indian clothes made from thread
that he spun himself.

Gandhi resorted to powerful speeches, hunger strikes and other nonviolent
methods to get the British to agree to his demands. He was arrested
repeatedly and continued to publish his writings and teachings while in

One of Gandhi's most famous exploits came as part of a protest against a
tax that every Indian had to pay when buying salt. He believed that the
British government had no right to be the sole manufacturer of such a
simple and important commodity, so in 1930 he led a 24-day, over 200-mile
march of 80 people to the seashore where, by that time surrounded by
several thousand followers, he collected salt deposited by the sea. That
act of defiance, leading ultimately to the imprisonment of 60,000 people,
brought Gandhi worldwide attention and was compared to the Boston Tea
Party during the Revolutionary War in America.

He also fought against the Indian caste system that discriminated against
some sections of society. As an example, he said that "the untouchables,"
the lowest caste, should instead be called "children of God." He also
campaigned against bigotry between India's largest religious groups, the
Hindus and the Muslims. Finally, in August, 1947, Britain pulled out of
India, but divided it into two countries, a Hindu-majority India and a
Muslim-majority Pakistan. Gandhi was disappointed because he considered
India's division a failure of his teachings of tolerance toward others.. He
was shot dead in January, 1948, at the age of 78, by a Hindu fanatic who
regarded him as a traitor to Hinduism.

His funeral drew one of the largest crowds in history - over 2 million -
and the country wept for the nonviolent man who met such a violent end.
"Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in
flesh and blood walked upon this earth," Albert Einstein, the great
scientist, once said.

Some may question whether the world can be as nonviolent and peaceful as
Gandhi hoped. But for millions of people in India and other countries,
Mahatma Gandhi's teachings remain a powerful alternative to violence and
hatred. "His legacy is very relevant even now," said his grandson (and
Tushar's father), Arun Gandhi, who runs the M.K. Gandhi Institute for
Nonviolence in Memphis, Tenn. "He showed us how to live peacefully
together, by reducing the conflict between people."


Anger Borne of Apartheid

You can learn more about Mahatma Gandhi by reading his "Autobiography: The
Story of My Experiments With Truth" (Dover Books). In this excerpt, he
writes about his first encounter with discrimination as a young man when
he went by train to South Africa to work there as a lawyer:

On the seventh or eighth day after my arrival, I left Durban. A
first-class seat was booked for me. It was usual there to pay five
shillings extra, if one needed a bedding. Abdulla Sheth insisted that I
should book one bedding but, out of obstinacy and pride and with a view to
saving five shillings, I declined. Abdulla Sheth warned me, "Look now,"
said he, "this is a different country from India. Thank God, we have
enough and to spare. Please do not stint yourself in anything that you may

I thanked him and asked him not to be anxious.

. . . Beddings used to be provided at this station. A railway servant came
and asked me if I wanted one. `No,' said I, `I have one with me.' He went
away. But a passenger came next, and looked me up and down. He saw that I
was a "coloured" man. This disturbed him. Out he went and came in again
with one or two officials. They all kept quiet, when another official came
to me and said, "Come along, you must go to the van compartment."

"But I have a first-class ticket," said I.

"That doesn't matter," rejoined the other. "I tell you, you must go to the
van compartment."

"I tell you, I was permitted to travel in this compartment at Durban, and
I insist on going on in it."

"No, you won't," said the official, "You must leave this compartment, or
else I shall have to call a police constable to push you out."

"Yes, you may. I refuse to get out voluntarily."

The constable came. He took me by the hand and pushed me out. My luggage
was also taken out. I refused to go to the other compartment and the train
steamed away.