Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was the preeminent spiritual and political leader of the Indian independence movement. Born in 1869 in western India, he became a lawyer and found employment in South Africa, where racial discrimination compelled him to organize fellow Indians against British-controlled South African governmental repression. Upon returning to India, Gandhi rapidly rose to national prominence as the icon of the Indian National Congress after convincing it to adopt non-violent non-cooperation against British rule. Despite numerous imprisonments, he led successful non-violent campaigns against both unjust British Raj policies and social prejudices within Indian society itself, such as unequal treatment of Untouchables and women. Even after Indian independence in 1947, he continued his work for peace with a “fast-unto-death” for an end to Hindu-Muslim violence and justice in India’s relations with Pakistan. He was assassinated in 1948 by a Hindu radical.
Gandhi pioneered and popularized non-violence as an instrument of social, political, economic, and religious change by applying the Hindu concept of ahimsa—a tenet forbidding harm to other beings—to these fields. His advocacy of an active and progressive Hinduism that preaches interreligious harmony made him a charismatic leader in efforts to revive Hinduism into a socially relevant force. He is regarded as one of the most important figures of the twentieth century and his influence has proven to transcend religious and political divisions. His teachings and methods have influenced other leaders across the globe including the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King, Jr. In India, where his efforts secured the country’s independence and eased religious tensions, he is honored as “Father of the Nation,” his birthday is one of only three national holidays—and also marks the International Day of Non-Violence—his portrait appears on all currency notes, and he is commonly referred to simply as Bapu—“Father.”