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Mohandas Karamchand – known as Mahatma or "Great-Souled" – Gandhi was born in Porbandar, the capital of a small principality in what is today the state of Gujarat in Western India, where his father was prime minister. His mother was a profoundly religious Hindu. She and the rest of the Gandhi family belonged to a branch of Hinduism in which non-violence and tolerance between religious groups were considered very important. His family background has later been seen as a very important explanation of why Mohandas Gandhi was able to achieve the position he held in Indian society. In the second half of the 1880s, Mohandas went to London where he studied law. After having finished his studies, he first went back to India to work as a barrister, and then, in 1893, to Natal in South Africa, where he was employed by an Indian trading company.
In South Africa Gandhi worked to improve living conditions for the Indian minority. This work, which was especially directed against increasingly racist legislation, made him develop a strong Indian and religious commitment, and a will to self-sacrifice. With a great deal of success he introduced a method of non-violence in the Indian struggle for basic human rights. The method, satyagraha – "truth force" – was highly idealistic; without rejecting the rule of law as a principle, the Indians should break those laws which were unreasonable or suppressive. Each individual would have to accept punishment for having violated the law. However, he should, calmly, yet with determination, reject the legitimacy of the law in question. This would, hopefully, make the adversaries – first the South African authorities, later the British in India – recognize the unlawfulness of their legislation.
When Gandhi came back to India in 1915, news of his achievements in South Africa had already spread to his home country. In only a few years, during the First World War, he became a leading figure in the Indian National Congress. Through the interwar period he initiated a series of non-violent campaigns against the British authorities. At the same time he made strong efforts to unite the Indian Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and struggled for the emancipation of the 'untouchables' in Hindu society. While many of his fellow Indian nationalists preferred the use of non-violent methods against the British primarily for tactical reasons, Gandhi's non-violence was a matter of principle. His firmness on that point made people respect him regardless of their attitude towards Indian nationalism or religion. Even the British judges who sentenced him to imprisonment recognized Gandhi as an exceptional personality.