In South Africa
Educated in India and in London, he was admitted to the English bar in 1889 and practiced law unsuccessfully in India for two years. In 1893 he went to South Africa, where he was later joined by his wife and children. There he became a successful lawyer and leader of the Indian community and involved himself in the fight to end discrimination against the country's Indian minority. In South Africa he read widely, drawing inspiration from such sources as the Bhagavad-Gita, John Ruskin, Leo Tolstoy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, and his personal philosophy underwent significant changes. He abandoned (c.1905) Western ways and thereafter lived abstemiously (including celibacy); this became symbolized in his eschewal of material possessions and his dress of loincloth and shawl. While in South Africa he organized (1907) his first satyagraha [holding to the truth], a campaign of civil disobedience expressed in nonviolent resistance to what he regarded as unjust laws. So successful were his activities that he secured (1914) an agreement from the South African government that promised the alleviation of anti-Indian discrimination.
Return to India
He returned (1915) to India with a stature equal to that of the nationalist leaders Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Gandhi actively supported the British in World War I in the hope of hastening India's freedom, but he also led agrarian and labor reform demonstrations that embarrassed the British. The Amritsar massacre of 1919 stirred Indian nationalist consciousness, and Gandhi organized several satyagraha campaigns. He discontinued them when, against his wishes, violent disorder ensued.
His program included a free, united India; the revival of cottage industries, especially of spinning and the production of handwoven cloth (khaddar); and the abolition of untouchability (see caste). These ideas were widely and vigorously espoused, although they also met considerable opposition from some Indians. The title Mahatma [great soul] reflected personal prestige so high that he could unify the diverse elements of the organization of the nationalist movement, the Indian National Congress, which he dominated from the early 1920s.
In 1930, in protest against the government's salt tax, he led the famous 200-mi (320-km) march to extract salt from the sea. For this he was imprisoned but was released in 1931 to attend the London Round Table Conference on India as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress. When the Congress refused to embrace his program in its entirety, Gandhi withdrew (1934), but his influence was such that Jawaharlal Nehru, his protégé, was named leader of the organization.
In 1942, after rejection of his offer to cooperate with Great Britain in World War II if the British would grant immediate independence to India, Gandhi called for satyagraha and launched the Quit India movement. He was then interned until 1944. Gandhi was a major figure in the postwar conferences with the viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, and Muslim League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah that led to India's independence and the carving out of a separate Muslim state (Pakistan), although Gandhi vigorously opposed the partition.
When violence broke out between Hindus and Muslims, Gandhi resorted to fasts and tours of disturbed areas to check it. On Jan. 30, 1948, while holding a prayer and pacification meeting at New Delhi, he was fatally shot by a Hindu fanatic who was angered by Gandhi's solicitude for the Muslims. After his death his methods of nonviolent civil disobedience were adopted by protagonists of civil rights in the United States and by many protest movements throughout the world.
See his autobiography (tr. 1927, repr. 1966); his collected works (50 vol., 1958-72); selected writings, ed. by Ronald Duncan (1972); R. N. Iyer, ed., The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi (Vol. 1, 1986); biographies by D. G. Tendulkar (8 vol., 1951-54), B. R. Nanda (1958, repr. 1989), Louis Fisher (1959), and Geoffrey Ashe (1969); studies by J. V. Bondurant (rev. ed. 1965), Erik Erikson (1969), and J. M. Brown (1972).