Mahatma Gandhi is among the many great leaders who placed virtuous living at the center of their lives. Gandhi was a spiritual leader and nationalist in the struggle for Indian independence from Britain. While widely considered a deeply spiritual, self-sacrificing, visionary leader, Gandhi was controversial in many quarters of Indian society, alternately accused of being too radical on the one hand, and too gradualist on the other.
Mohandas K. Gandhi, later known as Mahatma Gandhi, was born and raised in colonial India. As a young man, he studied law at University College London in England and used his time there to learn about English society and its ethical framework. He was active in social issues in law school, but his first position as an attorney, in Johannesburg, South Africa, gave him the opportunity to more fully advocate for social justice.
In South Africa, Gandhi encountered many forms of legal and socially accepted discrimination against people and communities of color. On one occasion, the judge of a court in which Gandhi was practicing law ordered him to remove his turban, a symbol of ethnic, religious, and national identity. Gandhi frequently encountered discrimination on public transportation, as non-whites were required to move to lesser classes of service to make room for whites. In 1906, the government of the Transvaal region specifically targeted residents of Indian origin with a law that "Asiatics" must register and carry identity cards. Gandhi's tolerance for insults and routine discrimination reached a breaking point. Incensed, he pioneered his satyagraha (truth force) opposition movement, advocating nonviolent noncompliance with unjust laws. He made global headlines in 1908 for publically burning his identity card in front of South African policemen. He was promptly arrested and jailed.
These pivotal experiences of social protest gave Gandhi a reputation as a leader and a footing to become a leader of the national independence movement upon his return to India in 1915. In India, he developed his satyagraha philosophy further, and, with his leadership, it became the cornerstone of the Indian struggle for independence. Gandhi famously opposed a British requirement that Indians purchase salt, which was heavily taxed to raise funds to support the continued existence of British Imperial rule in India. He led a march to India's coast where protesters collected sea salt rather than purchasing it, defying colonial law. He advocated undermining unjust British laws by protesting a requirement that all processed cotton in India be imported from Britain. Imported processed cotton was costly and the surcharges were meant to benefit businesses in England at the expense of the Empire's Indian subjects. Gandhi successfully led a homespun cotton movement, urging supporters to spin their own cotton, rather than purchase cloth made in Britain. For the rest of his life he wore the simple, white homespun cloth he made for himself.
For some, Gandhi was too radical. He spoke publicly and repeatedly about the need to abolish the Hindu caste system, a religiously sanctioned form of social control. He believed that the social stratifications of the caste system prevented people from appreciating the fullness of one another's humanity. Conservative Hindus rebelled at this notion, pointing out that that the caste system is enshrined in Hindu scripture.
For others, Gandhi was not radical enough. As he fought for Indian independence, he repeatedly spoke of the need to go slowly and accept small victories along the way, to remain nonviolent while resisting oppressive structures. For those who believed that Indian independence was a political and civil right, Gandhi's willingness to settle for compromises was a great disappointment.
Gandhi's commitment to social reform was characterized by his willingness to risk his health and face death, if need be, in support of the values he held dear. For example, at several points during the struggle for Indian independence, Gandhi vowed to abstain from all food as a strategy to focus world attention on British colonial rule in India. He also fasted to protest violent action on the part of Indian independence supporters. Gandhi's hunger strikes had a strong spiritual component; his purpose in engaging in such strikes was to move people to work toward what he believed was the morally, ethically, and spiritually right outcome—a nonviolent British withdrawal from India.
Gandhi was a social and spiritual leader of great depth and foresight. He transformed daily, practical tasks and issues into potent symbols that helped organize nonviolent resistance to British rule and capture the hearts and minds of Indians and Britons alike. His example serves as a model of how a social protest movement grounded in the cultivation of personal virtue can capture the imagination of millions and change the world.