Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) was an Indian lawyer, nationalist, and civil rights activist. Born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, he was first given the honorary title of Mahatma--Sanskrit for "great-souled"--in 1914 while living in South Africa. Raised in Gujarat in a prominent Hindu family, he travelled to London and studied law at the Inner Temple. Called to the Bar in 1891, Gandhi returned to India for a brief time before settling in South Africa. There, he started a family while perfecting his style of nonviolent resistance grounded in civil disobedience. In 1915, he returned to his native country to join the fight against British rule, organizing peasants across India to take a stand against taxation, racism, and other forms of colonial oppression. He became the leader of the Indian National Congress in 1921 and increased his involvement with the movements for women's rights, religious and ethnic equality, and the elimination of India's caste system, which unjustly effected Dalits deemed untouchable from birth. His central cause, however, was Swaraj, which can be translated as self-governance or democracy. As his popularity increased, he simplified his lifestyle in solidarity with the Indian poor, wearing traditional clothing, eating vegetarian food, and fasting as a matter of personal hygiene and protest. In 1930, he led the twenty-five day Dandi Salt March or Salt Satyagraha, in response to a British salt tax, inspiring millions of Indians to take direct action against British rule. A proponent of religious pluralism, he lamented the interfaith violence between Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims that broke out following independence and the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. At 78 years old, he was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist for his outreach to the Muslim community.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was born in France and came to live in the United States at the age of 24. He received several awards recognizing his contribution to religious study and contemplation, including the Pax Medal in 1963, and remained a devoted spiritualist and a tireless advocate for social justice until his death in 1968.
Mark Kurlansky is the New York Times bestselling author of Milk!, Havana, Paper, The Big Oyster, 1968, Salt, The Basque History of the World, Cod, and Salmon, among other titles. He has received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Bon Appétit's Food Writer of the Year Award, the James Beard Award, and the Glenfiddich Award. He lives in New York City. www.markkurlansky.com