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A Man Of Great Faith: The Effects of Hinduism on Mahatma Gandhi’s Beliefs and Political Journey in South Africa

Thus God laid the foundations of my life in South Africa and sowed the seed of fight for                                                                National Self Respect.”[1]

                                                                        ~Mahatma Gandhi, Civil Rights Leader

Introduction

            Mahatma Gandhi took the idea of God and religion very dear to heart. His Hindu values became fully cemented in Natal and these values shaped his political ideology of civil disobedience. Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence and peaceful protesting guided both his political and spiritual journeys. When one thinks of Gandhi, they always seem to admire his accomplishments in India but overlook his ambitious achievements in South Africa. In fact, South Africa fostered Gandhi’s politics and enabled him to apply his developed skills in India.    Spending 21 years in South Africa enabled Gandhi to form his political prowess and manifest into a reputable leader. He spiritually transcended to unlock his passion and perspective for equality through entering a profound stage of understanding God. Gandhi believed God is a being who is everlasting and all pervading. He explained that God is the truth that all species strive to achieve and we must fight through inequalities and prejudices to do so. He accepted all religious credence, but his Hindu beliefs most significantly impacted his career.

            While in South Africa, Gandhi noticed the prevalent inequalities, so he pounced to amend the illegitimacies. His strict principles of Ahimsa and Satyagraha enabled him to advocate for the rights of South African Indians. In fact, all of his endeavors in India were inspired by the ones in South Africa, as that is where Gandhi formed this everlasting ideology of strict nonviolence. Gandhi’s mindset evolved in South Africa as it catered toward his desire to initiate a judicious process in the corrupt and nefarious government. He notably held nonviolent protests where he sought to end the Imperial British negligence of South Asian peoples. Gandhiji, a name coined by his supporters, united the minority demographic to found the Natal Indian Congress, an organization which fought to enfranchise the South African Indians. This had a paramount impact on South Africa’s notion of freedom and set the path for future leaders.[2]

Gandhi’s Beginnings

            Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2nd 1869 in Porbandar to a Vaisya (business caste) Hindu family.[3] While growing up in a religious household, he grew very close to his mother and her severe Hindu practices.[4] His mother made sure that she completed her Chaturmas (daily prayers) before she even touched a grain of rice.[5] According to Gandhi, “The outstanding impression my mother has left on me is that of saintliness.”[6] On occasion, she would take very difficult vows of fasting for specific religious events such as: Janmasthami and Durga Pooja. She was the first person who introduced him to principles of Satya and Ahimsa, as she tried to abide by them. Satya is Sanskrit for truth, an idea Gandhi upheld throughout the duration of his political career.[7] He believed that achieving the truth was pertinent and it could only be attained once equality prevailed.[8] Ahimsa is also Sanskrit and it is nonviolence towards every living entity.[9] If Ahimsa was followed, the tranquility and peace of life would come into fruition.

            As he grew into adolescence, his father envisioned him as the village’s chief minister so he sent him to London to receive the finest education in law and politics. Gandhi’s father served as the diwan (chief minister) of Porbandar and he hoped to see his son hold that position. In London, Gandhi believed he was an Englishman as he dressed in upper class European attire and spoke fluently in English. After receiving his education, in 1891 Gandhi took the bar exam and headed back to India to practice law. At the time his mother had passed away, but the news was kept from Gandhi. The death of his mother left a lasting scar, which affected his law career.

            He had lost all his confidence and morale, leaving him unable to speak in court. Not only were his anxieties hindering him from practicing law, but the local Vakils (lawyers) posed a threat to Gandhi. They charged much lower fees and had a greater understanding of Indian law. During his debut as a barrister, he rose to cross-examine a witness and was unable to collect his thoughts.[10] This was an unfortunate debut as his inability to speak in front of a jury jeopardized his career. However, in 1893 he was prompted to sign a contract with Dada Abdullah and Co., an Indian law firm in the British colony of Natal.[11] He took this job offer to salvage his law career and to develop the skills he had been greatly lacking.[12]

 

Gandhi comes to South Africa

            Natal was a colony that had a majority Zulu population but it was also where most of the Indians in South Africa lived.[13] South Africa has a majority black population, but it was ruled by the British Empire. The first permanent European trading post was set up by Dutch Governor Jan Van Riebeeck in 1652, which ultimately created lasting European contact.  Since 1815, Great Britain led control of Dutch Cape Colony, acquiring the land during the Napoleonic Wars, and the Colony of Natal. However, the two Boer Republics: Orange Free State and the South African Republic were independent up until the Second Boer War. Ten years later, the British created the Union of South Africa, a state that comprised of all the colonies.[14] As Britain controlled these colonies, Indians came to South Africa as indentured laborers. They were technically not slaves but their circumstances were no different.[15] The Indian indenture system was an ongoing system of indentured servitude where Indian debtors were sent to various British colonies to pay off their debt. From 1860 to 1911 these Indians were placed in British colonies: Trinidad Tobago, Jamaica, Mauritius, Guyana, Suriname and South Africa. In these colonies they worked in hostile mines or factories and were racially ostracized from the white citizens.[16]

Racism Awakens Gandhi

            In Natal, Gandhi personally experienced numerous instances of the entrenched racism. He initially believed that whites should be the dominant race in Natal, as they knew how to rule effectively. This was the Gandhi’s well-educated “English” side which was infatuated with the British lifestyle.[17] However, his mindset quickly changed as he had several incidents with white superiority.  In 1893, while on a train from Pietermaritzburg, the conductor approached Gandhi and told him to leave the first class area as it was exclusively for white citizens.[18] He refused as he had a valid first class ticket, but he was kicked off the train for his lack of cooperation. The following year Gandhi was walking by himself on the sidewalk, headed to a meeting to discuss the state of Indians, when suddenly an officer kicked Gandhi off the sidewalk.[19] The “Regulations for Towns” Act of 1899 prohibited people of color to walk on sidewalks.[20] These incidents were turning points in his life as they shaped his social activism. Gandhi became aware of the unjust laws that marginalized the Indian minority and sought to alter the landscape.[21] He soon understood that Indians were discriminated and that the problem was institutionalized since the government paid no heed.

Natal Indian Ambulance Corps

            In 1894 he joined forces with more Indian activists, who believed that imminent change was necessary for peaceful life in South Africa. They formed the Natal Indian Congress which was an organization that endlessly fought for South African Indian equality. This organization was a huge pedestal for Gandhi as it allowed him to unify the people, and take a legitimate stand against the British. The formation of the NIC was paramount in leading Gandhi’s opposition to the 1896 Natal Franchise Act. This law deprived Indians the right to vote or any representation in Parliament. Gandhi along with his fellow comrades combated this injustice by holding peaceful protests, strictly following ahimsa.[22] He said, ‘The intention is to convince the opponent and not to crush him, to convert the opponent, who must be ‘weaned from error by patience and sympathy.’[23] Gandhi believed that there was no other way to combat discrimination other than strictly abiding by Ahimsa, as violence was futile.[24] If war is waged and arms are raised then people die, but if war is waged through the use of words, then there is a movement that upholds truth. When Gandhi fought for the South African Indians, he did so because he realized that equality was the truth. As a result, Gandhi had to salvage Indian respect by proving their capabilities to their white “superior” counterparts.[25]

             In 1899 Gandhi formed the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps, which consisted of 300 free Indians and 800 indentured Indians.[26] These men volunteered as stretcher-bearers during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) to validate the self-worth and morale of their racially oppressed people.[27] Even though Gandhi was involved in this war, he did not use weapons; rather he lifted the bodies of the injured British soldiers. In 1900, at the Battle of Spion Kop, these stretcher-bearers moved to the frontline, risking their own lives to save the lives of the wounded soldiers.[28] This act of bravery exemplified Indian courage, which at the time Britain failed to understand.

Gandhi’s Indian Opinion

            In 1903 Gandhi established the Indian Opinion, a publication that enabled him to voice the needs of the Indians. The NIC longed to create a newspaper to empower their cause, yet their initial attempt in 1898 with Indian World was short-lived. However, Gandhi realized the significance of a newspaper to inform the public not only in South Africa, but also in India, using it as a potent tool. He used the power of words to enhance his nonviolent activism, since Indians were deprived of means to express any concerns. The newspaper was a weapon used by Gandhi to convey the problems that the Indians faced in Natal.[29] It discussed the suppressive laws implemented, provided community opinions and nonviolent ways to resist.[30]

            After the Second Boer war, General Jan Smuts, a prominent South African statesman, introduced many policies that increased limitations on Indians.[31] In 1910, the Union of South Africa was created, which meant complete British control of all territories. He later became Prime Minister in 1919 and advocated racial segregation for all “coloured” South Africans. As Prime Minister, he initiated policies allowing officers to warrantless search and arrest whenever they please.[32] The racism stemmed in the criminal justice department had to be changed and the Indian Opinion did just that. The newspaper was a collaboration of Gandhi’s ahimsa and Satyagraha as he aimed to nonviolently rectify the instilled discrimination.[33] He commented, “Satyagraha would be impossible without the Indian Opinion” which is why he continued to fund it even after he left South Africa.[34] Its impact shaped journalism by fusing politics and ethics into an influential concoction against institutionalized racism.

Gandhi Clenches Onto the Truth

            On March 22nd 1907, the Asiatic Law Amendment Act was passed in the Transvaal Colony Parliament. This law required all Asian males to register for a pass (with their finger print) that they must carry at all times. More importantly, the government used the passes to dictate where and for how long they could be. As a result, members of the Natal Indian Congress walked the streets of Durban burning their passes as they resented the law. They sought to be true members of society, without the leash of racism. Subsequently, Gandhi and his ardent supporters were thrown in prison multiple times as their civil disobedience was not taken well. However, the public was livid at the rash methods employed by the government, so Prime Minister Jan Smuts had to form a compromise with Gandhi.[35]  

            Gandhi’s Satyagraha was effectively integrated into his campaign as he refused to wear the shackles of subordination.[36] For seven years he formed the basic principles of Satyagraha by clenching onto freedom.[37] Gandhi called on the fellow Indians to fight against the manipulations of the Natal government as he knew nonviolence was the only effective route.[38] If Gandhi and the other revolutionaries used violence as a means to negotiate their rights, they would immediately be shut down by Prime Minister Smuts.[39]  However, Smuts was forced to negotiate with Gandhi because the people did not tolerate the mistreatment of the Indians.

                                                     Religious Texts Guide Gandhi

             Gandhi’s firm beliefs in Satyagraha and ahimsa all stemmed from his religious background and integrated into his eclectic political endeavors.[40] His initial ideas of civil disobedience emerged from a Hindu text, Law of Manu during the time of his spiritual journey.[41] There were a few moments in Gandhi’s life where he kindled a connection with the divine to guide him through his struggles.[42] The Law of Manu had molded his beliefs in nonviolent resistance as he peacefully fought to achieve equality and respect for the South African Indians.[43] Fasting, marching, and protesting were all means of resisting without rashly provoking authority. This laid the foundation of his political efforts as he strictly followed the holy words of the book. Later in his life, Gandhi began reading the Bhagavad Gita to fully explore his spirituality and politics.[44] His politics transcended from South Africa, where he formed his politics, to India where he further employed them.[45] Gandhi judiciously fought for equality and called upon the silent public to take initiative: eradicate South Africa of racism.

Gandhi’s Eternal Legacy

            The effects of Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy still remain a significant part of South African culture. He has advocated for the rights of minorities and truly providing a voice that ceases to amaze the world. His 21 years in South Africa have set the path for many civil rights leaders and diplomats all across the globe.[46] Gandhi’s principles of Ahimsa and Satyagraha inspired leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, and Aung San Suu Ki to follow a nonviolent path to freedom.[47] His ideas of nonviolence inspired future leaders to follow in his footsteps and use them to enhance their political movements.[48] The research done truly shows Gandhi’s impact and how his ideology sparked this cry for enfranchisement. Due to his Hindu beliefs in ahimsa and Satyagraha, he was able to unite a people to break the chains of inequality.[49] This research has provided insight into how he embodied his personal beliefs to take a monumental stand for political freedom. It was his tenacious mindset that allowed him to campaign for the voting rights, citizenship, and esteem. Since Gandhi abided by his Hindu beliefs, he did not accept social and racial tribulations. He believed in religious, societal, racial and economic equality, where all people are free. The influence of religious texts such as: Bhagavad Gita, and Law of Manu formed the basis of his ideology and further evolved as he spiritually connected with God. He was bestowed the title “Mahatma” (venerable soul) because he fought to create peaceful society. Gandhiji along with his ideologies proved formidable against the largest empire in human existence.[50] One man inspired a whole country to reevaluate their ideas of race with just his beliefs in equality.

[1] Life of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa, Indian Centenary Committee Pietermaritzburg & Amp pp 16; Environs, 1960

[2] Davie, Lucille. “Gandhi's South African Legacy.” Gandhi's South African Legacy, SouthAfrican.info.

[3] See Appendix C

[4] Rudolph, Lloyd I., and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph. “The Political Role of India's Caste Associations.” Pacific Affairs, vol. 85, no. 2, 2012, pp. 335–353.

 

[5] Skaria, Ajay. Unconditional Equality: Gandhi's Religion of Resistance. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

[6] Gandhi, Mohandas K. “ Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth.” Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, pp. 1-3. Beacon Press, Boston, 1957

[7] Gandhi, Mohandas K. Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Beacon Press, pp 30-32, Boston, 1957.

[8] Klostermaiker, Klaus K. “Hiṁsā and Ahiṁsā Traditions in Hinduism.” The Pacifist Impulse in Historical Perspective, Edited by Harvey L. Dyck, University of Toronto Press, 1996, pp. 227–239, 

[9] Dyck, Harvey L., editor. The Pacifist Impulse in Historical Perspective. University of Toronto Press, 1996.

[10] DiSalvo, Charles R. “The Barrister Who Couldn’t Speak.” M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law: The Man before the Mahatma, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2013, pp. 17–30.

           [11] Life of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa, Indian Centenary Committee Pietermaritzburg &Amp; Environs, 1960.

[12] DiSalvo, Charles R. “Dada Abdulla’s White Elephant.” M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law: The Man before the Mahatma, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2013, pp. 36–48.

[13] Palmer, Mabel. “The Arrival of The Indians In Natal, 1860-1870.” The History of the Indians in                Natal, vol. 10, Published for the University of Natal Oxford University Press, Cape Town, NY, 1957, pp. 9–29, Natal Regional Survey.

[14]  See Map in Appendix A

[15] Palmer, Mabel. “The Arrival of The Indians In Natal, 1860-1870.” The History of the Indians in                Natal, vol. 10, Published for the University of Natal Oxford University Press, Cape Town, NY, 1957, pp. 49-54, Natal Regional Survey.

[16] “Indian Indentured Labour in Natal 1860-1911.” South African History Online, 3 Apr. 2011.

[17] Gandhi, Mohandas K. “ Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth.” Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Beacon Press, Boston, 1957.

[18] Power, Paul F. “Gandhi in South Africa.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, 1969, pp. 441–455.

[19] Mukerjee, Zagreb. “Taking a Stand Is at the End of a Long Path: Gandhi's Struggle in South Africa.” New York History, vol. 87, no. 4, 2006, pp. 477–487. 

[20] Gandhi, Rajmohan. Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire. pp 50-66. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008.

[21] Gandhi, Mohandas K. Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Beacon Press, Boston, 1957, pp 34-37

[22] Gandhi et al. Satyagraha in South Africa. Stanford, CA, Academic Reprints, 1954.

[23] Gandhi, Mohandas K. Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Beacon Press, Boston, 1957, pp 23-25.

[24] Gandhi, Mohandas K. "Discipline For Satyagraha." Non-violent Resistance (Satyagraha). Ed. Bharatan Kumarappa. New York: Schocken, 1961. 37-56. Print.

[25] Gandhi, and Krishna Kripalani. Gandhi's Life in His Own Words. Pp 20 Ahmedabad, Navajivan Pub. House, 1983.

[26] Mukerjee, Zagreb. “Taking a Stand Is at the End of a Long Path: Gandhi's Struggle in South Africa.” New York History, vol. 87, no. 4, 2006, pp. 377-387. 

[27] Du Toit, Brian M. “The Mahatma Gandhi and South Africa.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 34, no. 4, 1996, pp. 647–660.

           [28] “Gandhi and the Strecher-Bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps.” Natal, Second Boer War. 23 Jan. 1900.

[29] Gandhi, Mohandas K. “A Week of Excitement .” Indian Opinion, 12 Nov. 1913. 

[30] Bhattacharya S. N. “MAHATMA GANDHI: THE JOURNALIST.” Indian Literature, vol. 9, no. 2, 1966, pp. 91–95.

[31] Lentin, Antony. General Smuts: South Africa. London, Haus Publishing, pp 20-30 2010.         

[32] Du Toit, Brian M. “The Mahatma Gandhi and South Africa.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 34, no. 4, 1996, pp. 643–660.

[33] Gandhi, Rajmohan. Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire. pp 20-23. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008.

[34] Gandhi, Mohandas K. "The Civil Resistance of Satyagraha." Young India 28 July 1919: n. pag. Print

[35] Lentin, Antony. General Smuts: South Africa. London, Haus Publishing, 2010.          

[36] Gandhi, Mohandas K. "Discipline For Satyagraha." Non-violent Resistance (Satyagraha). Ed. Bharatan Kumarappa. New York: Schocken, 1961. 37-56. Print.

[37] Life of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa. Indian Centenary Committee Pietermaritzburg & Amp; Environs, 1960.

[38] Palmer, Mabel. “The Arrival of The Indians In Natal, 1860-1870.” The History of the Indians in Natal, vol. 10, Published for the University of Natal Oxford University Press, Cape Town, NY, 1957, pp. 9–29, Natal Regional Survey.

[39] Kumar, Ravindra. “Gandhi's Philosophy of Ahimsa and Its Application to Current Conflicts.” NewsBlaze News, 14 Oct. 2007.

[40] Sethi, Anamika. “Satyagraha Movement by Gandhiji.” Important India, 14 Dec. 2015.

[41] Hay, Stephen. “Gandhiʹs Non-Violence: Metaphysical, Moral, Political, and International Aspects.” The Pacifist Impulse in Historical Perspective, Edited Harvey L. Dyck, University of Toronto Press, 1996, pp. 278–296,

[42] Gandhi. The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi. Vol. 1. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Hills, 2000.     Print.

[43] Skaria, Ajay. Unconditional Equality: Gandhi's Religion of Resistance. University of Minnesota Press, 2016, pp 170-180

[44] Skaria, Ajay. “The Sacrifice of the Gita.” Unconditional Equality: Gandhi's Religion of Resistance, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, pp. 191–222.

[45] Gandhi, and Krishna Kripalani. Gandhi's Life in His Own Words. Pp 10-15.  Ahmedabad, Navajivan Pub. House, 1983.

[46] Power, Paul F. “Gandhi in South Africa.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, 1969, pp. 441–455.

[47] Davie, Lucille. “Gandhi's South African Legacy.” Gandhi's South African Legacy.

[48] Mukerjee, Zagreb. “Taking a Stand Is at the End of a Long Path: Gandhi's Struggle in South Africa.” New York History, vol. 87, no. 4, 2006, pp. 477–487.

[49] Skaria, Ajay. “Ciphering the Satyagrahi.” Unconditional Equality: Gandhi's Religion of Resistance, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, pp. 223–258.

[50] Gandhi, Rajmohan. Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008.

 

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