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Mohandas Gandhi

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Discuss the roots of Gandhi's personal philosophy.

Gandhi was not a rigorist, and his philosophy of life was more of a loose collection of ideas that a strict structure of thought. The initial and most profound influences on his thinking were the Bhagavad-Gita and Christ's Sermon on the Mount, both of which he read while in England in 1888-91. From the former, one of the greatest works of religious poetry in Hinduism, Gandhi encountered the idea that renunciation and "desirelessness" were the key to human happiness and goodness, since only when one set aside one's own desire could one truly work for the good of others. The Sermon on the Mount offered similar notions, while also celebrating and embracing the meek and the poor– notions that would later have a hand in motivating Gandhi's later work among the lowest classes of India. The third pillar of Gandhi's thought was the somewhat more obscure work Unto This Last, by the British author and critic John Ruskin, which he read around 1904-5. This book led him to his conviction that physical labor was morally superior to other forms of work, and instilled in him a lifelong distaste for modernity and a preference for the traditional ways of life in India.

Why was satyagraha so successful against the British?

Satyagraha translates literally as "soul force," and the word "soul" seems to refer to both sides in the struggle. For the practitioners of satyagraha, who practiced civil disobedience all across India under Gandhi's direction, "soul" meant courage–the courage to accept arrest and punishment without giving in. Thus by rendering threats and intimidation ineffective, "soul-force" could literally bring the Raj to grinding a halt: no one could be forced to work. But "soul force" drew its effectiveness not only from the strength of the Indian people's souls, or courage; it also appealed to the souls, or consciences, of the British rulers. The British, after all, were idealists too–they believed, at least officially, in the ideas of liberty and equality. Thus they had difficulty punishing unresisting, agreeable, even seemingly cheerful Indians. By drawing upon great "soul force," or courage, and confronting the British with non-violent resistance, Gandhi's Indians were able to speak to the souls, or ideals, of their oppressors, and make their adversaries their friends.

Why did Gandhi turn against the British Empire?

Peculiar as it may seem to us in light of his later career, Gandhi was initially an ardent British patriot. He truly believed that British rule had benefited India by bringing the ideals of the British Constitution–liberty, order, equality before the law–to the subcontinent. And while he hoped that Indians would eventually achieve some form of home rule, he maintained his loyalty to the British Crown up until the very end of World War I, during which he actually worked to recruit Indians for the British army. His mind began to change with the passage of the Rowlatt Act of 1918, which cracked down on civil liberties in post-war India–freedom of the speech, assembly, the press, etc. The British passed the Rowlatt Act in order to prevent unrest in the Raj, but for Gandhi, the Act was a betrayal of the Empire's ideals. He began to ask: If the Empire did not provide equality and liberty for Indians, then what did it stand for? He began taking the position of the pro-independence camp, and his new stance was cemented by the Amritsar Massacre of April 13, 1919, when British troops under Brigadier-General Dyer gunned down a huge crowd of unarmed Indians. For Gandhi, as for many Indians, this was the breaking point; after the massacre, the British were never to be trusted again.

Essay Topics

Was Gandhi primarily a political figure, or a social reformer? Defend your answer.

Why was India partitioned in 1947? Discuss Gandhi's attitude toward, and role in, the partition.

Compare and contrast Gandhi's careers in India and South Africa.

Discuss Gandhi's decision to become celibate, to adopt Brahmacharya. How was this consistent with his political philosophy?

Discuss Gandhi's relationship with the untouchables. What role did this caste play in his vision of India's future?

Analyze the relationship between Gandhi and the Indian people. What was the significance of the term Mahatma in this context?

What was the legacy of Gandhi's efforts in India? How did the Indian independence movement influence future independence movements in other countries? How did it help to end colonialism and change global power structures? In particular, how did Gandhi's methods of non-violent protest influence future social and political movements?

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