Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born into the family of the dewan of Porbandar in 1869. The town was the capital of a tiny Rajput kingdom of the same name, and had gained in importance since 1857, because the British were using it as a center for extending their influence further west. As the prime minister of this state, Mohandas' father was strongly involved in the complicated local politics. When the boy was seven, his family moved to Rajkot, and his father became the dewan of that principality.
Gandhi's formal education began immediately on the move to Rajkot, where he enrolled in a school created by the British. Except in his early years, all his schooling was done in English. However, at home the influence of Western secular thought was minimal, and he was exposed to traditional Jain influences. In his later autobiography he records a major deviation from tradition in his secret experiments with eating meat when he was in his early teens. He seems to have reverted to vegetarianism quite soon.
When he was sixteen, his father died, leaving him to become the prime minister of Rajkot. Six months later, the British took over direct control of the kingdom and removed many members of his family from the administration. A friend of the family then advised him to go to London to study law. Having taken a vow not to touch meat, wine or women, he left the country in 1886.
His stay in London was crucial to his later career. He was admitted to the bar after the completion of his studies. More important, he came into contact with people of other religions who had voluntarily adopted lifestyles similiar to his own-- including vegetarianism and a belief in non-violence.
He returned to India in 1890, a few months after the death of his mother. The twenty-one year old Gandhi tried to set up a practice in Bombay, but failed, and had to move to his home town, where he joined his brother in doing petty legal work. Restless in his old surroundings, he soon left for South Africa, where his brother had found him a job with a trading firm.
South Africa was a turning point. The overt racism that he, and other Indians, faced, turned him towards active politics, and the various influences in his life came together into the first formulation of what is now called Gandhian politics.
His political involvement in South Africa began in the usual liberal British fashion, with the writing of letters to newspapers, organising lectures and debates, founding an organisation with meticulously kept accounts, making petitions and publishing pamphlets. This activity won the sympathy of all parties in India. In 1897 he toured India, meeting Tilak, Ranade, Gokhale and Bannerjee. He adopted the moderate Gokhale as his political guru. He returned to South Africa, and was immediately embroiled in controversy. Nevertheless, in 1899 when the Boer War broke out, he volunteered to lead an ambulance corps. The writings of Naoroji seem to have had little effect on him during this period, because he believed that India was actually gaining out of the British rule.
Non-violent protest as a political tool seems to have been born in 1906. In this year the South African government required that every Indian carry an identification pass. Gandhi led the community in a mass refusal to obey the law. The word satyagraha was coined in 1908 by Gandhi and one of his cousins. By 1914 the movement was making sufficient progress for Gandhi to feel that he could return to India.
Gandhi was forty-five years old when he returned to India. Already well known in Indian political circles, he joined the Congress and was soon immersed in India's struggle for independence. His first major campaign was the non-cooperation movement of 1920. This involved a boycott of goods manufactured in Britain. Gandhi insisted on complete non-violence, and called off the movement in 1922 when some villagers attacked a police station and killed several policemen.
Attempts at Hindu-Muslim unity which had seemed well set on a path to completion in 1916, collapsed during this movement. Mohammed Ali Jinnah called this an "extremist movement [which] struck the imagination mostly of the inexperienced youth and the ignorant and illiterate". Through the 20's there was a rising tide of communal violence, and Gandhi's many fasts against this phenomenon did nothing to check it.
In 1930 another non-cooperation movement was launched. The British government in India jailed 60,000 Congress workers before making truce and calling Gandhi to negotiate with the viceroy. Winston Churchill's remark on this occasion about "this seditious fakir ... striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceroy's palace" was turned against the British and made into good propaganda.
Subhash Chandra Bose tried to move the Congress away from the Gandhian path of non-violence in 1939, but failed. In 1940 Jinnah called for a separate Muslim nation in those parts of India with a Muslim majority. In 1942 the British jailed the entire Congress leadership when the party threatened to go on another anti-British campaign. In 1944 Gandhi's wife, Kasturba, died. From 1944 to 1947 Gandhi tried to halt the partition of India, but failed.
On August 15, 1947 India became free. Gandhi refused to join the official ceremonies in Delhi and instead went on a fast in Calcutta, in protest against the communal violence erupting all over the newly-partitioned country. In January 1948 he went to New Delhi and began another fast for peace between Hindus and Muslims. On January 30 he was shot dead by a Hindu fanatic.