The OG Leader of Nonviolence: Mahatma Gandhi

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on Mahatma Gandhi.

By Nadya Hayasi.

Mahatma Gandhi is an Indian lawyer, politician, social activist, and writer who became the leader of the nationalist movement against British rule in India. His doctrine of nonviolent protest (satyagraha) and use of the religion principle of ahimsa as a tool of peaceful protest became the model for future social movements around the world. [1]

Black and white photo of Mahatma Gandhi looking at the camera
Portrait of Mahatma Gandhi (Wikimedia Commons)

Gandhi was born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on October 2, 1869 in Porbandar to a religious family. He was educated in law at the Inner Temple in London. After failing to find work as a lawyer in India, Gandhi traveled to South Africa in 1893, another territory colonized by the European powers. There, he was inspired to fight for his rights due to the discrimination and injusticed he experienced by the British and Dutch as a person of color. An instance of the injustice he faced early on was being thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg after refusing to leave the first class cabin.[2] He found it humiliating and struggled to understand how some people can feel pleasure in such inhumane practices.[3] He emerged as a prominent social activist and developed an interest in political affairs. He helped found the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 to unite the Indian community in South Africa and organize them politically and socially.[4] During this time he also earned the honorific ‘Mahatma’ which translates to ‘great souled’ or ‘the venerable’ in Sanskrit.[5]

Black and white photo of policemen confronting Gandhi as he protested Indian rights in South Africa
Policemen confronting Gandhi as he protested Indian rights in South Africa (Wikimedia Commons)

Gandhi returned to India in 1915 to join the Indian National Congress where he started to push for Indian independence from the British. Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent resistance shone during this time. He took the Indian word ahimsa which means ‘non-killing’ and made it the political concept we now are familiar with as nonviolence.[6] He believed in nonviolence as he argued that violence doesn’t solve anything. If the Indian nationalists used violence against the British, it is simply an excuse for the British to react in their draconian ways.[7] The more the British used violence against their peaceful protests, the more the Indians (and the rest of the world) would be sympathetic to the nationalist movement.[8]

Under Gandhi’s nonviolent approach was also the principle of noncooperation or noncompliance. In his book Hind Swaraj, Gandhi declared that British rule was only successful in India due to the cooperation of the Indians. If Indians refused to cooperate, British rule would certainly collapse.[9] This led to the swadeshi policy or the boycott of foreign-made goods, especially coming from the British.[10] Instead of relying on foreign exports, Gandhi encouraged all Indians to spin khadi to wear in support of the independence movement. He also urged people to resign from government employment and forsake British titles and honors, in an attempt to cripple the British India government economically, politically, and administratively.[11] Gandhi’s tactics invited criticism from those who did not believe in the success of nonviolence, but he persisted and continued to fight for freedom without the use of harmful tactics towards the British. Gandhi’s dedication to the movement led to India’s independence from the British in 1947.

Black and white photo of Gandhi at the Indian National Congress
Gandhi at the Indian National Congress (Wikimedia Commons)

Ultimately, Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence emphasizes that nonviolence is not a weapon for the weak, an accusation that is sometimes made by his opponents. Instead, nonviolence is a tool which should be used by everyone as in the midst of hyperviolence, and the one who one possesses nonviolence is blessed.[12] Gandhi raised nonviolent action from a religious principle to a level never before achieved, combining the principles of different beliefs to a common idea that has inspired heavyweights in the nonviolence category, including Martin Luther King Jr, Cesar Chavez, and Aung San Suu Kyi.[13]

To learn more about Gandhi and his principles of nonviolence:

  • Gandhi (1982) – Period biographical film based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of nonviolent non-cooperative Indian independence movement against the British Raj during the 20th century.
  • – A website with a variety of sources, articles, photographs, and books about Gandhi’s life and nonviolence doctrine

[1] Erin Blackmore, “How Mahatma Gandhi changed political protest,” National Geographic, September 27, 2019.

[2] Editors, “Gandhi’s first act of civil disobedience,”, July 21, 2010.

[3] Satinder Dhiman, Gandhi and Leadership: New Horizons in Exemplary Leadership (Palgrave Macmillan US, 2015): 25-27.

[4] M. K. Gandhi, Louis Fischer, The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work and Ideas. (Allen and Unwin: United Kingdom, 1962).

[5] Aidan Milan, “What did Mahatma Gandhi do? Facts and quotes about the assassinated Indian lawyer,” Metro, November 21, 2019.

[6] Unto Tahtinen, Ahimsa. Non-Violence in Indian Tradition (Rider: London, 1976)

[7] David Hardiman, “MK Gandhi, the clever tactician of non violence“, India News. October 1, 2020.

[8] Mark Engler and Paul Engler, “How did Gandhi win? Lessons from the Salt March for today’s social movements,” Waging Nonviolence, October 8, 2014.

[9] Mary Elizabeth King, “Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bequest: Nonviolent Civil Resistance in a Globalized World” in Lewis V. Baldwin and Paul R. Dekar, In an Inescapable Network of Mutuality: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Globalization of an Ethical Ideal (Wipf and Stock: 2013): 168-169.

[10]Swadeshi Movement: Timeline and Important facts that you must know,” India Today, August 7, 2015.

[11] S. S. Shashi, Encyclopaedia Indica: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh (Anmol Publications: Bangladesh, 1996): 9.

[12] Jude Basebang, “Gandhi’s Philosophy of Nonviolence” in Africa Needs Gandhi! The Relevance of Gandhi’s doctrine of Non-violence. (Claretian Publications, Republic of Cameroon: 2010).

[13] Mark Shepard, Mahatma Gandhi and his Myths, Civil Disobedience, Nonviolence and Satyagraha in the Real World (Shepard Publications: Los Angeles, 2002).