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Mahatma Gandhi

11 interesting facts about Mahatma Gandhi

Image: Public Domain

Taking on the might of the British Empire to secure independence for India, Mahatma Gandhi became one of the most recognisable people in the world and an enduring role model for Martin Luther King Jr and other civil rights heroes.

That’s all common knowledge, but here are some things you may not have known about one of the 20th century’s true political giants.

1. His name wasn’t Mahatma

Gandhi’s first name was Mohandas. ‘Mahatma’ is a title denoting love and respect, which roughly translates as ‘great soul’. It’s thought that a friend of his, Pranjivan Mehta, was the first to refer to Gandhi as ‘Mahatma’ in writing, in a letter from 1909. That was decades before he became a figure of global renown.

2. He got married at thirteen

In 1883, thirteen-year-old Gandhi tied the knot with fourteen-year-old Kasturbai Kapadia in an arranged marriage. ‘As we didn't know much about marriage, for us it meant only wearing new clothes, eating sweets and playing with relatives,’ Gandhi later recalled. He fathered his first child aged just sixteen, but the baby only lived a few days. The couple went on to have four more children who survived to adulthood.

3. He was in London at the time of Jack the Ripper

Gandhi is so bound up with the titanic events of the 20th century that it might be peculiar to imagine him as a dapper gentleman of Victorian society. But that’s exactly what he became while studying law in London. Arriving in September 1888 – right in the midst of the Jack the Ripper killings – he was keen to mingle and make friends in the city. As well as taking dancing lessons, he joined the Vegetarian Society and served on the executive committee with a certain Arnold Hills – the man who went on to found the football club that became West Ham United.

4. He suffered from stage fright

Gandhi was incredibly meek and shy by nature. During one debate at the London Vegetarian Society, he felt such stage fright that somebody else had to read out his arguments on his behalf. It was a serious stumbling block for his burgeoning career as a barrister. The first time he tried to cross-examine a witness, he got so nervous that he flopped back into his chair and simply gave up the case, returning his fee to his (presumably disgruntled) client.

5. He first became a civil rights activist in South Africa

Gandhi is synonymous with the struggle for Indian independence, but he first became a civil rights crusader in South Africa. Arriving in 1893 to work as a law clerk at an Indian firm, he experienced such everyday racism – including being ejected from a first-class train carriage despite having a ticket – that he decided to fight what he called ‘the deep disease of colour prejudice’. He founded an organisation to tackle discrimination and was once attacked and nearly killed by a white mob in Durban.

6. He helped the British Empire

Despite his disaffection with racist colonialist attitudes, the young Gandhi also felt patriotic towards the British Empire. During the Boer War of 1899-1902, he took it upon himself to form the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps, gathering hundreds of volunteers to whisk wounded British troops from the front lines to field hospitals.

‘I felt that, if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defence of the British Empire,’ Gandhi later said.

7. He carefully cultivated his image

Wearing his now-iconic white loin cloth and shawl wasn’t simply a matter of Indian tradition for Gandhi. It was a political move, which he very deliberately adopted on 22nd September 1921. It was part of his push to encourage Indians to boycott foreign-made clothes and embrace homegrown, hand-spun fabric known as khadi. The move utterly reinvented Gandhi’s image for all time.

8. He was pals with Tolstoy

Gandhi had an important friendship with the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace. Tolstoy’s writings about non-violent resistance were such a huge influence on Gandhi that, in 1909, he wrote to Tolstoy seeking guidance and advice. This led to the two men sending letters back and forth, philosophising about the principles of non-violence. It’s generally thought that Tolstoy’s final letter to Gandhi was the very last thing he ever wrote.

9. Gandhi came back to London (and stayed in the East End)

In 1931, Gandhi returned to London for three months of talks with UK politicians about constitutional reforms in India. Although the government invited him to stay in a plush West End hotel, Gandhi instead opted to bed down in a community centre in working-class Bromley-by-Bow. He enjoyed long walks in the East End, mingled with locals, hosted famous well-wishers including Charlie Chaplin, and according to one onlooker ‘always enjoyed the swift repartee of Cockney wit’.

10. He never won the Nobel Peace Prize

Gandhi was first shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1937, but the Nobel committee’s advisor was sceptical, saying that even though Gandhi was non-violent, his Indian nationalist beliefs spurred violence among followers. Gandhi was shortlisted a second time in 1947, but again he was rejected for his nationalism. He was killed in 1948, and – significantly – no Nobel Peace Prize was awarded that year.

11. Gandhi was shot by a fellow Hindu

Gandhi was assassinated as his country grappled with the bloody aftermath of Partition (when India and Pakistan formed separate nations). But it was a fellow Hindu, rather than a Muslim, who murdered the father of the nation. Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, was incensed that Gandhi was ‘too soft’ on Pakistan, and – following several failed attempts – fatally shot Gandhi on 30th January 1948.