10 Things You Should Really Know About Mahatma Gandhi

10 Things You Should Really Know About Mahatma Gandhi

Peter Baxter - May 5, 2018

Gandhi is one of the titans of the international peace movement, with a name that ranks alongside all of the great purveyors of the humanist message, from Mother Teresa to Nelson Mandela. Gandhi was many things to many people, although he has tended to be associated primarily with the Indian independence movement – and in fact, the opening paragraph of his Wikipedia page describes him as ‘an Indian activist who was the leader of the Indian independence movement against British rule.’

This proves that even Wikipedia can over, or under emphasize the facts. Gandhi was just one member of the Indian independence movement, and not by any means its leader, and he certainly was never in line to assume leadership of the independent nation of India. Gandhi was a man of the people, an a national and spiritual leader, and one of the great, global ambassadors of peace. His message was universal, transcending all national boundaries

In this list we will dig up a few interesting facts about the great man, burst a few myths and hopefully make a few revelations. Just by way of essential background, however, Gandhi was born in in 1868 in the principality of Porbandar, now located in the modern Indian state of Gujarat, and he died in 1948 at the age of seventy-nine. He is buried in a memorial garden on the banks of the Yamuna River of the eastern outskirts of New Delhi.

10 Things You Should Really Know About Mahatma Gandhi
Not many people know that gandhi’s name was not ‘Mahatma’. Wikicommons

Gandhi’s name was not ‘Mahatma’

It is probably one of the most enduring myths surrounding the Gandhi name, that ‘Mahatma’ was his first name, which it was not. Gandhi’s birth name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and the name ‘Mahatma’ was added only later as an honorific, as he began to develop his reputation as a great spiritual leader. The standard dictionary definition of ‘Mahatma’ is ‘a person regarded with reverence or loving respect; a holy person or sage’, or ‘a person in India or Tibet said to have supernatural powers.’ Most devotees of Gandhi, however, will answer that question with the reply that ‘Mahatma’ means simply ‘Great Soul’, derived from the Sanskrit महा (maha) meaning ‘great’ and आत्मन् (atman) meaning ‘soul, spirit, life.’

Gandhi certainly began his life as a political activist and organizer, but very quickly his spiritual identity began to eclipse his activism, at which point he began to evolve a style of religious-inspired activism and political awareness around his essential belief and adherence to Hinduism. He was, however, polytheistic insofar as he did not credit Hinduism ( which is itself a polytheistic faith) with sole access to the ‘truth’, but he was prepared to acknowledge every branch of faith, and preached the ideal that adherence to a specific faith was less important than simply having a spiritual identity. That a man or woman worships according to his or her own style satisfied him, as long as that worship was authentic and committed.

There are numerous theories on when Gandhi began to be known as Mahatma, but it is now generally accepted that the title was first publicly employed in 1915 by the great Indian polymath Rabindranath Tagore, introducing Gandhi by this honorific to a gathered audience. It is also probable that the name had entered circulation already, probably among the devout peasants who comprised Gandhi’s most loyal following.

However it happened, Mohandas K Gandhi is now most commonly acknowledged as ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, in respect of the fact that, above all else, he was a spiritual leader.

10 Things You Should Really Know About Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi and his wife Kasturba. NDTV

Gandhi was a child bridegroom

The concept of an arranged marriage in not by any means unique to India, but it certainly is one the bedrock social institution of that society. Gandhi, therefore, growing up in the late 1800s, was expected to marry according to the arrangements of his family. He and his wife Kasturba were united at the age of thirteen, having been ‘engaged’ as it were, by arrangement of the two families, since they were seven.

One of Gandhi’s most charming attributes was always his candor and honesty, and in his autobiography, he relates the utter revelation of his discovery of sex. He found himself unable to concentrate on anything else, and would often during the course of a day interrupt what he was doing and visit his young wife to relieve that itch.

Kasturba Gandhi did not have a particularly easy life as the wife of a mercurial and eccentric individual like Gandhi, and for most of their married life they lived apart. Four sons were born of the marriage, but quite early on in Gandhi’s spiritual development he took a vow of chastity, after which their relationship was strictly platonic. Her role in his active life was steady, but low-key, and so diverse was Gandhi’s spectrum of friends and followers that in the end she appears to be something of an appendage to his life. He remained loyal to her, of course, but she could hardly compete with some of great women of the age who sought access to Gandhi as his fame increased.

Some of these women had names that would intimidate anyone. Lady Edwina Mountbatten, for example, Emily Hobhouse, the great British feminist and philanthropist, and Olive Schreiner, the celebrated Victorian author.

Nonetheless, with quiet force of character, her role in Gandhi’s work can never be diminished. In February 1944, as Gandhi was held in detention in Poona, she died alongside him, at the age of seventy-four, having suffered ill-health for some years. ‘But for her.’ He wrote. ‘I might have been in the abyss.’

10 Things You Should Really Know About Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi in the office of his legal firm in Johannesburg. India Today

Gandhi was a British trained barrister

There is often a misidentification in the modern age of the nature of the imperial relationship between India and Britain, painting an almost slave and master like relationship that really does not do justice the facts. The great Indian nationalist Dadabhai Naoroji, often regarded as the grand old man of Indian nationalism, served a term as a member of the British parliament, having stood for and won the Liberal seat of Finsbury Central in 1896. It was almost de rigueur for ambitious young Indians of pedigree and means to seek education and polish in Britain, and one need only witness that pomp and ceremony of Indian Independence Day to get a sense of how influenced Indian public life still is by the imperial experience.

Gandhi was one of those. Although his family could claim some inherited position in local Porbandar society, they certainly were not wealthy. Nonetheless, in 1888, having begged and borrowed the necessary funds, Gandhi set sail from Bombay, arriving in London, and commencing his studies early the following year. He attended the University College London and the City University of London, where he studied jurisprudence before enter the Inner Temple, one of the celebrated British bars.

It cannot be said that Gandhi was a brilliant student, and his frequent letters home requesting additional funds were often returned along with grumbling remarks from his family that be might study harder. His time in London, however, was extremely formative in many other ways. He was, for example, introduced to the work Tolstoy, the Russian novelist and social theorist whose ideas on non-violence, along with those of Theroux, set in motion a thought process that would result in Gandhi’s own concepts of passive resistance. He also experimented with diet, adopting vegetarianism as a consequence of his engagement with the strong vegetarian movement in London at the time. He was also a regular visitor to the local theosophical society, and as a rather dapper and self-possessed individual, he was fond of informal debates at the local tea shops, and regular dance lessons during which he excelled at the foxtrot.

Besides his law degree, perhaps the greatest benefit bestowed on Gandhi as a consequence of his period in London was his cultivation of a great fondness for the British people, and at least those in London, and that fondness was reciprocated. As would be the case for the remainder of his life, he found devotees and followers among his fellow Indians, but his closest friendships were almost always forged with non-Indians.

10 Things You Should Really Know About Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi (front row, third from left) posing alongside the founding members of the Natal Indian Congress. South Coast Herald

Gandhi began his political activism in South Africa

When Gandhi returned from London to India after the completion of his studies, he found entry into the Indian legal profession extremely difficult. It was highly competitive, and unfortunately, his modest academic achievements meant that he was somewhat disadvantaged. For quite some time, as he describes it, he languished on the steps of the Bombay High Court, waiting in vain for briefs. Then a seminal event took place that would wholly change the direction of his life, and establish the personality that we all know today as Mahatma Gandhi.

In the British colony of Natal, South Africa, a large Indian community had developed as a consequence of the movement of indentured labor from India to the sugar plantations of South Africa. Among these were a great many wealthy and influential Gujarati merchants, engaged in trade, and making fortunes in the gold-rich economy of the age. Gandhi was offered the opportunity to assist in a litigation between two Indian cousins embroiled in a business dispute. The contract was for a year, and Gandhi would essentially serve as a research assistant to an English lawyer leading the litigation.

While in South Africa, Gandhi encountered a type of Englishman he had never happened upon before. The metropolitan English had on the whole treated him with due respect and regard, while colonial Britons seemed to regard the Indians as filthy and invasive, and did what they could under the limitations of British law to keep them out of the colony.

Matters came to a head one day when Gandhi was sent from the port city of Durban to the future capital of South Africa, Pretoria. Travelling first class by train, he was challenged by a white fellow passenger, and told that he would be required to travel third class. He protested, because he had purchased, and been issued a first class ticket, and he intended to complete his journey in first class, or not at all.

Not at all was how it ended, and Gandhi was soon after thrown off the train, and it was at that point that he made the decision that he would stand up for the rights of Indians living in South Africa.

10 Things You Should Really Know About Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi’s first ‘peace march’ in South Africa in 1914. Wikicommons

Gandhi’s passive resistance movement was also founded in South Africa

It took a while for Gandhi to identify a project upon which he could exercise his irritation at being so poorly treated in South Africa, and that opportunity came just days before he was scheduled to return to India. The background to this was the failure of the colonial authorities to arrange the repatriation of Indian indentured workers back to India on completion of their contracts.

Under British imperial law, Indians were equal subjects of the British Empire, and therefore free to emigrate to any colony they chose, where they would enjoy precisely the same rights and liberties as any other British subject. While this was the theory, of course, it certainly was not how things worked out on the ground. Indians were severely limited in where and how they could live and trade in South Africa, and very real restrictions existed in their freedom of movement and civil liberties.

What worried the colonial authorities of Natal more than anything was the potential for Indians, as taxpayers and imperial subjects, to gain access to the vote. Indians outnumbered whites in the colony, and as more and more of them qualified to vote, it was inevitable that they would dominate the political process, which would turn Natal into an Indian colony. A bill was therefore introduced into the colonial legislature to bar Indian access to the vote, which caught Gandhi’s attention, and he immediately went to work to protest the bill to the British Colonial Secretary.

For reasons many and varied, Gandhi did not win that fight, but the episode triggered a complete change of direction in his life. He cancelled his passage home, and settled into the business of full-time activism in South Africa. He would remain in South Africa for twenty-one years, during which time the Anglicized Indian barrister would evolve rapidly into the synthesis of Indian spiritual leader and political activist.

In essence, Gandhi developed of philosophy of public service, and service to humanity, as a form of religious expression. In part this reflected his growing identification with spirituality, but also a shrewd sense that an Indian population would find it difficult not to be responsive to a program of positive action if it was couched in religious terms.

The program became known as Satyagraha, or, in the Sanskrit, Firmness in the Truth. It was a reasonably simple program of civil disobedience, a refusal to accept or act upon restrictive laws, and a willingness to be repeatedly imprisoned for rejecting termination. It came to a head during a strike of Indian mine labor, which ended as a ‘Peace March’, which in the end broke the resistance of the South African government, and many of Gandhi’s demands where conceded to.

In 1914, at the outbreak of WWI, Gandhi returned to India, ready then to take on the British establishment on a much wider scale. It was then that he stepped onto the international stage.

10 Things You Should Really Know About Mahatma Gandhi
The Natal Indian Ambulance Corps. Gandhi sits fifth from the left. Pininterest

Gandhi Served in the British Army

Well, not exactly, but almost. The very basis of Gandhi’s political argument in South Africa was that Indians belonged to the same empire as any other subject, and according to the laws of the British Empire, this qualified them for equality in every respect. This certainly was the case, and the proclamation of the British Raj made that point very clearly. When, therefore, the British in South Africa went to war with the Boer, in the much stories Anglo/Boer War, Gandhi felt that it was an opportunity for the Indian community to display their embrace of the responsibilities that went with rights and liberties they were demanding.

He therefore proposed that the Indian community establish an ambulance corps to serve alongside a regular Indian Army ambulance detachment already active with the British Expeditionary Force. This did not meet with an overwhelming rush of enthusiasm, and in general, the Indian community of Natal felt that so long as business was good, which it was, getting involved in politics and warfare on behalf of the British was more risk than it was worth. What, many asked, would be the result in the Boer won the war?

In the end, however, enough of them were persuaded to join up, and the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps came briefly into existence, serving in two of the major battles fought in Natal. The Corps was attached to the British Army Expeditionary Force, and so it could, at a stretch, be said that Gandhi served in the British Army.

This, however, was a difficult moment in Gandhi’s career, simply because the Boer were fighting the same essential war as the Indians, and that was to try and throw off British imperial domination. He struggled with his conscience over the matter, but eventually resolved the matter in his mind upon the notion that the Boer hated the Indians a great deal more than the South African British did, and that under British domination, they would probably be better off anyway.

10 Things You Should Really Know About Mahatma Gandhi
A statue of Gandhi in South Africa defaced by protesters. Post Jagram

Gandhi was accused frequently of racism

The Anglo/Boer War was not the only conflict in which an Indian ambulance corps was raised. In 1906, a ‘native rebellion’ erupted in the Natal Colony as a consequence of long and simmering discontent among the Zulu people.

The Zulu are one of the major ethnic groups of South Africa, and they enjoy a long and proud history as a military people. With the advent of European rule in South Africa, however, they had to go. A large, heavily armed and conspicuously violent culture, loyal to a central monarch, could hardly exist alongside the institutions of an ostensibly modern and democratic state. War was inevitable. In 1979, the Zulu were crushed in a war provoked by the British for that purpose. Thereafter, they were confined to the ever-narrowing boundaries of a ‘native reserve’, taxed without representation, and their land steadily sequestered.

In 1906, the Zulu rose in rebellion, and brief war was fought as a desperate people, at the end of their tether, tried to reassert their place in their own country. In a decision that has divided historians ever since, Gandhi reformed the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps for service with the British on the front line. The rebellion of 1906 was brutally suppressed, causing even the British imperial government to plea for restraint, and that Gandhi chose to ally himself with that brutality has always been very confusing. He also tended to echo the colonial position in natal that backs did not belong around the table with the civilized races, among which he obviously counted the British and the Indians. One of his most often quoted comments in this regard was this:

‘Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir [black African] whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.’

In later years he certainly regretted such utterances, but he made enough of them to justify just a little bit the accusations made against him.

10 Things You Should Really Know About Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi was frequently to be found in the company of young women, and he had some strange ideas about sex. India Today

Gandhi and sex

It was apparently during the 1906 campaign against the Zulu that Gandhi formalized in his mind his determination to take the vow of brahmacharya, or chastity, at the age of thirty-eight. This was simply part of the process of his detachment, and growing asceticism, but it masked a sexuality, and attitude to sex, that often perplexed, and concerned his peers and colleagues.

He made no secret of his interest in sex, perhaps even his obsession, and he often related the fact that he was unable to keep out of his teenage wife’s bed, even as his father lay dying. The business of chastity, therefore, once declared, became difficult for him to observe. He was very fond of women, enjoyed numerous intimate friendships with women, and quite a number of white female activists and feminists professed their love for him. It seems, however, that the way he dealt with it was to construct an elaborate system of rules and observances in regards to sex and marriage that he pressed on his followers quite zealously.

Marriage was to be avoided, he said, and if impossible to avoid, then sexual relations within marriage were to be limited to the strict requirements of procreation. In India, somewhat later in life, he established ashrams in which he engaged in what he described as ‘experiments’ with boys and girls, allowing them to bathe and sleep together, but forbidding under threat of punishment any sexual talk or any untoward play. If the urge was overwhelming, he would advise, then take a cold bath.

Rumors abound of Gandhi’s tendency to sleep and bathe with young girls in the interests of challenging his own probity in regards to sex, resisting all temptation to stray beyond the utterly chaste. This was true with Sushila Nayar, the attractive sister of his private secretary, and also his personal physician, who attended him from girlhood. She would bathe in his presence, as he kept his eyes closed, and sleep with him without intimate contact.

He was, however, prone, as he himself confessed, to ‘involuntary discharges’. He also had an almost mystical belief in the power of semen: ‘One who conserves his vital fluid.’ He said. ‘Acquires unfailing power.’

To accommodate all of this, he somewhat reinvented the rules of brahmacharya, defining the chaste man as: ‘One who never has any lustful intention, who, by constant attendance upon God, has become proof against conscious or unconscious emissions, who is capable of lying naked with naked women, however beautiful, without being in any manner whatsoever sexually excited … who is making daily and steady progress towards God and whose every act is done in pursuance of that end and no other.’

Well, one can place what interpretation one wishes on this, but in probability, by the time Gandhi arrived at a point in life that he began to quite openly discuss these facts, he was a law unto himself, and even the fundamental of Hinduism could be altered and manipulated to suit his needs. This is just another curious fact about Gandhi.

10 Things You Should Really Know About Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi and long-time companion Herman Kallenbach, with another ardent Gandhi admirer, Sonia Schlesin, between them. Wikicommons

More surprising facts about Gandhi’s sexuality

Jawaharlal Nehru, a nationalist colleague of Gandi’s, and independent India’s first prime minister, commented that the Mahatma’s pronouncements on sex were ‘abnormal and unnatural’ and ‘can only lead to frustration, inhibition, neurosis, and all manner of physical and nervous ills… I do not know why he is so obsessed by this problem of sex’.

Nehru certainly shook his head over many things that Gandhi did and said, but whispers of his ‘unnatural’ liaison with a Jewish businessman and architect in South Africa never quite reached India. Gandhi found a camaraderie in South Africa with quite a number of Jews living in the territory, perhaps, one might suppose, because of their common alienation from the mainstream of society. One of these was a Lithuanian born Jew by the name of Herman Kallenbach, who made Gandhi’s acquaintance in 1904, at the beginning of the Satyagraha movement. Gandhi was by then well on his way to developing his ‘Mahatma’ persona, and Kallenbach was entirely transfixed. He was a body-builder, a sportsman and a robust and athletic meat-eater. He was wealthy and successful, and many of Gandhi’s comforts were provided by him.

The two men were very close indeed, unnaturally close, some were apt on occasion to comment. The relationship, however, continued without any proof of impropriety, and even today, there is no solid evidence. However, letters unearthed since Gandhi’s death in 1948 hint very strongly that, even if an intimate relationship did not exist, they certainly sailed extremely close to the wind, bearing in mind the tenor of the times.

One particular letter, handwritten by Gandhi, is addressed to Kallenbach as ‘My dear Lower House’, and is signed ‘Sinfully yours, Upper House.’

Kallenbach and Gandhi lived together on and off from about 1907 until Gandhi left South Africa in 1914, and the letters archived between the two are part of a collection acquired by the Indian National Archive from the Kallenbach estate. And while there has been much suspicion that the more revealing of these letters have been held back from public scrutiny, even those on display leave nothing but questions.

‘How completely you have taken possession of my body.’ Gandhi was quoted as saying in a letter to Kallenbach. ‘This is slavery with a vengeance.’

It is certainly possible, and homosexuality in the Victorian period was not at all uncommon, although public expression of it were still taboo. Gandhi’s interest in sex, and his fundamental libertarianism, would certainly fit well with such experimentation, and they would probably have been many who knew him who would not have been at all surprised.

10 Things You Should Really Know About Mahatma Gandhi
kasturba Gandhi and couple’s four sons. Pininterest

Gandhi was a miserable parent

Father of the nation he might have been, but father to his own sons he certainly was not. When Gandhi made the decision to remain in South Africa after his term of contract, to act on behalf of the Indian community of South Africa, he left his family in India. At a certain point, he returned to India, ostensibly to collected his family, but really to introduce himself to the nationalist moment in India, and it to the work underway in South Africa.

He sailed not to Bombay, however, but directly to Calcutta, and there he entered upon an overland journey by train to raise awareness. It was only after some considerable time that he wound his way to Porbandar, and almost as an afterthought that he packed the all up and brought them to South Africa.

Harilal Gandhi was born in 1888, shortly after Gandhi set sail for London to begin his studies, and until he was reunited with his father in South Africa, the two hardly resided in the same country at all. Even in South Africa, the Gandhi family were annexed at Gandhi’s compound in Phoenix, just outside Durban, where he himself was very infrequent visitor. Initially, Harilal followed dutifully in his father’s footsteps, suffering the consequences of passive resistance, and walking the walk.

At a certain point, however, he began to rebel. The breach seemed to have occurred over the matter of Harilal appealing to his father to use his growing influence to secure a scholarship for Harilal to study law in England, as his father had. Gandhi refused, citing nepotism if he did, but also because he had by then began to regard British law as an institution of the enemy, and an antithesis to the development of a pure spirituality.

Quite naturally, Harilal took this very poorly, and at every turn he began to decry and denigrate everything that his father stood for. He became an alcoholic gambler, trading in British goods, as his father was trying to organize a boycott, and eventually converting to Islam, and changing his name to Abdullah.

The two were eventually fully estranged, and just six months after Gandhi was assassinated, Harilal expired from a combination of alcohol, tuberculosis and depression. He was also, of course, stricken with liver disease from alcohol, and probably syphilis. It certainly is not a pretty picture, and added to the many other oddities of Gandhi’s nature, paint a picture of a man with numerous contradictions, as all great people, one way or another, are.


Where did we get this stuff? These are our sources:

“How many children did Mahatma Gandhi have?” Inspirational Musings, December 2006

“Kasturba Gandhi, the larger than life shadow of Mahatma Gandhi.” Your History, Tanvey Dubey. October 2015

“Mahatma Gandhi’s racist quotes about black South Africans.” Original People, March 2015

“An odd kind of piety: The truth about Gandhi’s sex life.” Independent, January 2012