“Be the change you wish to see in the world” – Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) was the living embodiment of karma: he was a champion for justice, diversity and fundamental human rights, and his inspiring life and legacy of non-violence still resonates for us today. In a world that is in constant conflict, Gandhi stands as a reminder to push ourselves to do good.
As the leader of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Mahatma Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for easing India’s extreme poverty, expanding women’s rights, building peace among hostile religious and ethnic groups, and achieving the freedom of self-rule for the Indian people. But perhaps his greatest legacy is the way he used non-violence to overcome oppression – a belief that guides the thousands of people who take part in peaceful resistance across the globe today. His harmonious, universal philosophy is based on three principles: non-violence ahimsa, the fight for truth satyagraha, and equal rights swaraj.
Indians often describe Gandhi as the father of their nation. One of the things that made him a great leader was the way he built bridges between communities – between upper- and lower-caste Hindus; and among Muslims, Christians and Hindus. Gandhi saw the good in everyone, regardless of their religion, gender or social position. For him, pure faith and true religion were above all religions. In his search for knowledge and fight for peace, he turned to the teachings of both Buddha and the Prophet Mohammed.
Show don’t tell
Always an optimist, Gandhi believed in the ability of human nature to evolve to a higher moral plane. He demonstrated this himself, well into old age, turning each crisis and conflict into an opportunity for spiritual growth. ‘I have never lost my optimism,’ he said. ‘In seemingly darkest hours hope has burned bright within me.’
Gandhi was all for religious harmony. He strived for equal rights for Muslims in India, and when violence erupted among Muslims and Hindus, he fasted, often threatening suicide. He firmly believed in actions over words, and his personal suffering was an invitation for people to lay down their arms. It was because of this moral philosophy that Gandhi’s public and private lives became one. ‘Only by service could one understand truth and embrace one’s deepest self,’ he said.
He clearly demonstrated the power of peacefully opposing oppression, injustice and brutality. But non-violence doesn’t mean doing nothing. It took great courage for Gandhi to face those who used violence to enforce their beliefs.
‘I object to violence,’ he once said,
‘because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.’
Many other history-making leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Václav Havel, and Nelson Mandela, were inspired by Gandhi’s life. Their powerful message to each of us is to respect human dignity and reject intolerance.
On 30 January 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by the Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse. Almost 70 years after his death, his spiritual legacy lives on and serves as an inspiration for us all. In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly declared Gandhi’s birthday – 2 October – as the International Day of Non-violence.
Wheel of independence
The name Mahatma – which in Sanskrit means ‘high-souled’ – was given to Gandhi in South Africa, where he was working as a lawyer for Muslim Indian Traders. He eventually spent 21 years there, from 1893 to 1914, developing his political views, ethics and political leadership skills, and it was there that he first practiced non-violent civil disobedience in the Indian community’s struggle for civil rights.
To support the independence movement, Gandhi expanded his non-violence platform to include the swadeshi policy — the boycott of foreign-made goods, especially those that were British-made. He encouraged Indians to wear homespun cloth, as he did, instead of British-made textiles. With this in mind, he invented a small, portable spinning wheel and encouraged Indian men and women, rich or poor, to spend time each day spinning their own cloth — giving the poor, especially, a new way to believe in themselves, and adding to India’s independence. Early versions of the flag of India featured a spinning wheel, which evolved into the spoked-wheel, or chakra, symbol that is on the flag today.