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The endearing name Mahatma means 'great soul'
The endearing name Mahatma means 'great soul'Image: DW/picture alliance/dpa

Birth of a legend

September 29, 2011

Gandhi’s legacy lives on over 60 years after his death. His universal teachings continue to inspire people around the world. Followers and admirers will be celebrating his birthday on October 2.


Gandhi's legacy has been carried down for generations. His teachings continue to inspire people the world over – from Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama through to Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mahatma Gandhi's life and philosophy have become legend. His teachings are popular throughout the world. But Mahatma Gandhi, who was once portrayed by Ben Kingsley in the Oscar-winning film by Richard Attenborough, was not always the icon proudly presented on the Indian rupee. He also had his dark side, especially in his younger years. It is said that he often acted violently toward his wife Kasturba at the beginning of their marriage. His transformation into the spiritual and intellectual leader of the Indian struggle for independence was a long process – one aspect that fascinates so many of his followers.

Ben Kingsley played Gandhi in the Oscar-winning Richard Attenborough film
Ben Kingsley played Gandhi in the Oscar-winning Richard Attenborough filmImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Bildarchiv

Universal ideas

Gandhi's teachings are convincing, consistent, and coherent. Gandhi expert Michael Nagler believes that is the reason they are still modern today. "He had the courage to go against the trend of the times, which was a disastrous trend, and to rediscover an ancient wisdom and craft it in a way that modern (people) could use it and understand it. And I think he made the greatest discovery – that non-violence was a key organizing principle that anybody could use in almost any situation."

Gandhi's philosophy is based on three principles: non-violence (ahimsa), the fight for truth (satyagraha) and individual and political freedom (swaraj). In his fight for peace he sought advice from the teachings of Buddha and the Prophet Mohammed. Gandhi also believed that pure faith could unite people of different religions. "I can see that in the midst of death, life persists. In the midst of untruth, truth persists. In the midst of darkness, light persists. Hence, I gather that God is life, truth, light. He is love. He is the supreme good."

Gandhi stood for non-violent resistance, peace and equal rights
Gandhi stood for non-violent resistance, peace and equal rightsImage: AP

Hard life

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869 in Porbandar in the Indian state of Gujarat. He never personally cared much for the endearing name Mahatma, "great soul." In his early years, he was never an exceptionally good pupil. After studying law in London and trying to get work as a barrister in Bombay, he went to South Africa in 1893, where he faced racial discrimination. He created the "Indian Opinion" newspaper for the 60,000 Indians living there. Thus began Gandhi’s transformation from a shy, non-involved citizen into an active, outspoken leader in politics.

In 1914 he returned to India and in1920 he became the leader of the Congress Party. In 1930 he held his most spectacular demonstration of non-violent protest when he protested for the right of Indians to produce and sell salt in the so-called Salt March. For demanding the immediate independence of India he was sent to jail in 1942 for eight years. Sociologist Ranjana Kumari believes his selfless commitment has gone unparalleled. "Of course it is difficult to live by Gandhi’s teachings in this age of capitalism and globalization in which material possessions are gaining importance." Though it is difficult, she says, each person who does manage to go by his teachings does a lot of good for humanity.

Mahatma Gandhi was born in 1869 by the name of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi was born in 1869 by the name of Mohandas Karamchand GandhiImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

Gandhi lives on

British India gained independence in 1947 and was divided into the Hindu-majority India and the Muslim-majority Pakistan. Today’s Bangladesh was formed in 1971 when it broke away from Pakistan. Gandhi strived for equal rights for Muslims in India. On January 30, 1948 he was murdered by the Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse.

Some hail Gandhi as a saint-like icon while others believe his philosophy is irrelevant. But what can be said is over 60 years after his death, his memory lives on and serves as an inspiration but also as a warning.

Author: Priya Esselborn / sb
Editor: Grahame Lucas

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