After researching autodidacts for weeks, a trend has become quite apparent – often, these self learners start out performing poorly in school and formal education. They then begin teaching themselves what they love and go on to be geniuses. Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, Leonardo da Vinci – and Mahatma Gandhi.
It is difficult to imagine that the pacifist who strategically and very intelligently inspired an entire nation was a poor student. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was exactly that as a child. More enamored by sports and games, his performance in school was mediocre at best with his only real strength in English class.
This may have been what inspired him to study law (on his family’s insistence) in England. Gandhi never became a great lawyer due to his inability to interact cooly with witnesses, particularly during cross examination. His profession eventually took him to South Africa, however, where perhaps his true education began.
Education to Inspiration
While Gandhi always had a passive interest in politics and ethics, he never became truly passionate about them until his time in South Africa. In the late 1800s, South Africa entered a period of drastic change with its Civil Rights movement. Gandhi had arrived to serve as a legal representative for some Indian traders in the country, but law was soon forgotten as he began to witness the turmoil unfolding around him.
By this point, Gandhi had spent his time in London focusing less on Law and more on reading texts that interested him and began to form what would become his later stance on life – the Bhagvad Gita and the Bible. These texts eventually influenced his perception on the truth and the purpose of life, but more immediately they sensitized him to think deeply about the conflict in South Africa.
The discrimination started with the native Africans in the area, but Indian immigrants weren’t spared either. Gandhi was even thrown out of a train once for refusing to leave the First Class car and beaten later for refusing to move for a European traveler.
Exposed to discrimination and racism up close as he had never seen it before during his sheltered life in India, Gandhi began to question the rule of the British Empire and its impact on his people back home. The sizable Indian population in South Africa faced extreme oppression and as he learned and developed as a social reform leader for the Indians in South Africa, Gandhi’s attention already began to shift toward the conditions back home.
The Great Spirit
After gaining great acclaim in South Africa for his work for Indians and later the native Africans, Gandhi returned to India with his nationalist reputation and a new vigor to reform the Indian government. He entered politics and eventually rose as leader of the Indian National Congress, which served as an intense learning period for him as he met some of the greatest minds in India and picked up on the crippling issues throughout the country.
While he believed in Independence from the British Empire, Gandhi also believed strongly that the problems India was facing was largely because of its own people. Wedges between political parties, the internal oppression caused by the caste system, unethical cultural traditions like child marriage and feminism were issues that he sought to educate Indians about.
What made Gandhi’s efforts so different from others, though, was his utter devotion to ahimsa, or nonviolence – a concept he picked up during his childhood due to exposure to Jainism. This point combined with his newly pioneered philosophy of Satyagraha (devotion to the truth) touched his ‘students’ in an authentic way that had yet to be achieved.
He performed long term fasts, led peaceful protests, and spread his word to the entire country. He taught people that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. He preached the biblical teaching that if someone slaps your right cheek, turn your head to offer them the left – nonviolent aggression. Advancing his goal of equality by largely decreasing the negativity of the caste system, Gandhi achieved some level of success in the majority of his goals. He became a national hero and earned the title Mahatma, a Sanskrit term from the roots maha (great) and aatma (spirit). He literally became The Great Spirit.
Although Gandhi didn’t achieve every one of his goals exactly the way he hoped to, he inspired an entire country (one of the largest in the world) to accept change and embrace unity – he did it by learning from his life experiences and spreading his knowledge quickly and efficiently to those around him. His main strength wasn’t his IQ or ability to devour and apply theory quickly. It was his ability to learn from the situations around him and find the appropriate solutions for a given problem. That’s real world experience!