Gandhi was born in Porbandar, Kathiawar, the son of a politician. His mother was a devout Hindu, and Gandhi derived much of his pacifist belief from her. He studied law in London, and in 1893 gave up working in a Bombay legal practice to live on £1 a week in South Africa, where he spent over 20 years opposing discriminatory legislation against Indians. He supported the British in the Boer War (1899-1902). In 1914 he returned to India.
While supporting the British in World War I, he took an increasing interest in the Home Rule movement (Swaraj), acquiring control of the Congress Movement, which he reformed. His civil disobedience campaigns of 1919-20 led to violence, notably the massacre at Amritsar in which several hundred people were killed by British soldiers.
From 1922 to 1924 he was imprisoned for conspiracy and in 1930 he led a 200-mile (320km) march to the sea to collect salt in symbolic defiance of the government monopoly. He was rearrested and on his release in 1931 negotiated a truce between congress and the government and attended the London Round Table Conference on Indian constitutional reform. Back in India, he renewed the civil disobedience campaign and was arrested again; this formed the pattern, along with his 'fasts unto death', of his political activity for the next six years.
He assisted in the adoption of the constitutional compromise of 1937 under which Congress Ministers accepted office in the new provincial legislatures. When war broke out, Gandhi, convinced that only a free India could give Britain effective moral support, urged complete independence more and more strongly. He described the Cripps proposal in 1942 for a constituent assembly with the promise of a new Constitution after the war as 'a post-dated cheque on a crashing bank'. In August 1942 he was arrested for concurring in civil disobedience to obstruct the war effort, and was released in May 1944.
In 1946 Gandhi negotiated with the British Cabinet Mission which recommended the new constitutional structure eventually realized in the formation of India and Pakistan. In May 1947 he hailed Britain's decision to grant India independence as 'the noblest act of the British nation'. His last months were darkened by communal strife between Hindu and Muslim; but his fasts to shame the instigators helped to avert deeper tragedy.
He was assassinated in Delhi by a Hindu fanatic on 30 January 1948. In his lifetime Mahatma ('a great soul') Gandhi was venerated as a moral teacher, a reformer who sought an India as free from caste as from materialism, a dedicated patriot who gave the Swaraj movement a new quality. Critics, however, thought him the victim of a power of self-delusion which blinded him to the disaster and bloodshed his supposedly non-violent campaigns invoked. In Asia above all he has been regarded as a great influence for peace whose teaching had a message not only for India but for the world.