Mohandas K. Gandhi is better known as Mahatma (meaning, the "Great Soul") Gandhi. This title was given to him not just for his leading the early 20th century movement to free India from British rule. It was given to him also for the way he led and for his saintly character.
Gandhi began his career as a somewhat shy and undistinguished lawyer who no one could suspect would develop into a world leader. In 1891, after leaving India to work in South Africa, Gandhi's life changed dramatically after he was thrown off a train for refusing to give up his first-class ticket because a white man had refused to share the same compartment space with him. For the next 23 years Gandhi led social movements in South Africa to protest unfair laws and to win better living conditions for Indians working in South Africa. Furthermore, from about 1905 on, Gandhi committed himself to leading a spiritual life, one stressing simplicity, self-denial, and compassion for others. From 1905 on, then, Gandhi became both a political and a spiritual leader. In 1914, after returning to his native India, Gandhi became the spokesperson for Indians yearning to free themselves from British rule. He developed a new method for nonviolent resistance, the method or practice of satyagraha.
Satyagraha combines the concepts of firm and truth to mean, literally, "standing firm for truth." For Gandhi, God is the truth element in Satyagraha, and to stand against social injustice is to stand for God. Unlike many spiritual leaders before him, Gandhi did not believe truth was revealed to him directly. Rather, he believed that truth comes through careful study, effort and experiment. Gandhi's resistance movements were, then, spiritual as well as scientific. Most important, they were nonviolent and designed so as to appeal both to the reasonableness of opponents and to their moral conscience. The latter was appealed to not just with arguments but with passive resistance by Gandhi and his followers, resistance that often resulted in their being beaten, jailed, even killed. The power of this method lay, then, in its showing the opponent (in this case, the British rulers of India), the unreasonableness and injustice of their position. No issue having to do with justice was too small or too large for Gandhi; for all such issues have to do with finding and serving God. So, Gandhi's Satyagrahas came in all sizes. They ranged from small labor strikes to nonviolent demonstrations to secure better sanitary conditions for entire cities. His most famous movement may well have been his 1930 march to the sea ending in his securing a pinch of salt from the sea in protest against a British law that gave the British a monopoly on the production of salt. The protest led, eventually, to brutal reactions on the part of the authorities which, in turn, elicited sympathy for Gandhi's cause, not only among Indians but also among the British. This was the effect that Satyagraha was designed to have. Satyagraha was, then, a powerful political tool even as it expressed the spirituality of its creator, Gandhi.
Gandhi's spirituality was also seen in his simplicity and self-denial. He dressed as a peasant and ate only meager vegetarian meals. He answered not to political pressures, not to his own desires, but to what he felt was true and just, namely, to God.
Gandhi's first priority was to find God and to live up to God's standards. For Gandhi, God is elusive, and the search for God can be never ending. However, God's elusiveness and the need to search indefinitely did not deter Gandhi, because he believed that searching for God is the only way to reach one's full potential. Gandhi's image of a just and caring God led him to adopt a similar image of humans which, in turn, helped him care for everyone, regardless of their race, religion, or nationality. For Gandhi, all have value because all are made by God. To harm another is, then, to go against God.
However, Gandhi took his positive approach to others and to injustice a step further. He advocated returning good for evil. He tried to love everyone regardless of how others treated him and regardless of whether others were good or bad. Gandhi believed, as did his mother, that animals too are beloved creatures of God and as such, are to be valued and respected. For most of his adult life he remained a strict vegetarian. Once even, he denied meat products for his sick son-against the advice of the family doctor.
Throughout his life Gandhi encountered and studied many faith traditions. He believed that God would always be with him, and so he was not worried about what faith he would eventually adopt as his own. Instead, he searched always for the best way to worship God. Gandhi probably spent more time studying Christianity than any other religion except Hinduism. He liked many of the messages and ideals expressed in Christianity, especially Jesus' message about turning the other cheek in response to insult. But he rejected the message that only Christians go to heaven. For Gandhi, God judges all people equally.
Gandhi's Hinduism was rooted in the value he found in Bracharya, the set of vows taken by certain Hindu holy men, vows that have to do with simplicity and self-denial. Later in his life, Gandhi stopped sexual relations, limited his meals to two a day, and wore the simple clothes of the lowest caste. Gandhi believed that by denying himself, he was opening himself up to God. Gandhi was clearly a spiritual exemplar who spent the majority of his life crusading in the name of God. Both Gandhi and Satyagraha have become models of leadership, models rooted in spirituality.