Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

  Gandhi's campaign of nonviolent civil resistance to British rule of India led to India’s independence in 1947. A member of the merchant caste, Mohandas K. Gandhi, later called Mahatma (Sanskrit for “great soul”), studied law in London. As a lawyer, and later as a political activist, he effectively fought discrimination with his principles of truth, nonviolence, and courage.

  Gandhi became the international symbol of a free India. He lived a spiritual and ascetic life of prayer, fasting, and meditation. His union with his wife became, as he himself stated, that of brother and sister. Refusing earthly possessions, he wore the loincloth and shawl of the lowliest Indian and subsisted on vegetables, fruit juices, and goat's milk.

  Indians revered him as a saint and began to call him Mahatma (Sanskrit, “great soul”), a title reserved for the greatest sages. Gandhi's advocacy of nonviolence, known as ahimsa (Sanskrit, “noninjury”), was the expression of a way of life implicit in the Hindu religion. By the Indian practice of nonviolence, Gandhi held, Britain too would eventually consider violence useless and would leave India.

  Gandhi's death was regarded as an international catastrophe. His place in humanity was measured not in terms of the 20th century but in terms of history. A period of mourning was set aside in the United Nations General Assembly, and condolences to India were expressed by all countries.

  Religious violence soon waned in India and Pakistan, and the teachings of Gandhi came to inspire nonviolent movements elsewhere, notably in the U.S. under the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.