Their Travel Changed Your World: Mahatma Gandhi

This is the second in a series of articles about the transformative power of traveling.  No one really knows the impact a trip is going to have on their life.  It can be a restorative escape, educational, or thought provoking – often all at the same time.  Sometimes the experiences a person has while traveling, can inspire them to not only change who they are, but also, to change the world.

Mahatma Gandhi is one of the rare people from human history whose actions transcended the boarders of their home nation.  Although, most closely associated with India, Gandhi’s influence stretches the world, from Asia, to Africa and even North America.  It was actually the trials and tribulations that he endured while traveling that helped shaped his political and social-activist views.

Gandhi was born to a well-to-do, solidly middle class family in India in the late 1800s.  He was a mediocre student who was married to his wife in an arranged marriage, when they were barely teens.  After his father’s death, his family pressured him to travel from India to London, to study law to further his career.  It was this first trip away from India that slowly began to change Gandhi.  He felt like an outsider there, and was desperately lonely until he began to associate with a group that met regularly to study Hindu and Buddhist religious literature.  Prior to this, he had never been a very religious person, but these meetings began to alter his thinking.  He began to examine the role of man in society and man’s interactions with other men.

After being admitted to the bar, he accepted a position with a firm in South Africa and left his life in London.  It was in South Africa that Gandhi’s thoughts on civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance were solidified.  He was stunned to see the differences in the ways Indians treated each other.  Even though they were all Indians (in his eyes), all of them living abroad in a foreign country, many of them had brought their traditional prejudices and the caste system with them from India.  He was further troubled, by a trip through the country that can only be described as horrendous.  While on a train, he was kicked off for being in the first class car and having dark skin.  He protested, and was allowed to continue on his journey the next day.  Later on the same trip, a coach driver beat him because he refused to give up his seat to a European passenger.  He also faced discrimination at hotels and restaurants.  Gandhi began to question his place in this society.  He was part of the English Empire, yet was a second-class citizen.  He was Indian, but was not part of the “correct” caste.  He was an educated lawyer, and therefore had sworn to uphold the law, but was regularly told to disregard the law, to his own detriment.

In the early 1900’s, racism towards the Indian population in South Africa reached its peak, when the government ordered the registration of all Indian immigrants living in the country.  Gandhi, by this time a well know activist leader in the Indian community, instructed the Indians in what he called “Satyagraha” or non-violent protest.  Dismayed by the Indian population’s refusal to comply, the South African government unleashed harsh punishments, including public flogging and prison sentences.  Although a compromise was reached in the matter, the public lost its taste for the act and the public displays that followed, and the support greatly diminished. Gandhi was still focused on proving that Indians were an important part of the Empire, and organized ambulance drivers for the Boer War and the Zulu War.  However, while on the warfronts he came to realize that the British military was unmatched in the world, and the only true way to change the Empire was through non-violent means.

Prior to World War I, Gandhi returned to India and became active in national politics.  He set aside his non-violent views during the war, controversially, but afterwards, began to devote much of his attention to the Indian Independence movement.  He returned to his non-violent techniques, this time supported by the idea of non-cooperation with the British Raj (the puppet leaders of India, set up and supported by the British).  Throughout most of the 1920s he worked to overcome internal disputes between the Indian people and political disputes.  By the late 1920s he had such a following that when he lead the pushing through of a resolution that vowed non-cooperation and non-violent resistance with the British on any level, the British knew that they were left without options, and allowed India to leave the Empire in 1930.

However, Gandhi’s influence is seen in more than just South Africa or India.  In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States found itself being forced to confront its long legacy of racial inequality for the first time.  The movement’s leader was Martin Luther King, a man who had studied Gandhi’s ideas and philosophies and believed they would prove to be beneficial in helping to turn the tide of deep seeded segregation in the South.  The middle and upper class whites had long oppressed blacks and poor whites, even though they were the largest part of the working class.  King preached on the ideas of non-violence and non-cooperation, and quickly brought about chaos in a society that had relied so heavily on the non-questioning of the past.  Again, the time was right, and change was brought about in the United States with the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Unfortunately, both men would meet the same fate.  Both were assassinated because of their views.  Their critics, favoring tradition and violence, brought an end to their lives.  It is interesting to note, though, that there is only one statue at King’s memorial in Atlanta, that of Gandhi, a man who traveled the world and in turn brought about it’s change.

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Categories: Asia, Europe, North America, Thoughts

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  1. Their Travel Changed Your World – Buddha | Toland Travels - May 14, 2014

    […] change who they are, but also, to change the world.  Other entries in this series are Julia Child, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mark […]

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