A pair of glasses used by Mahatma Gandhi was sold at an auction for 260 thousand British Pound in August 2020. Values of his relics have grown significantly with the passage of time.

The full name of Mahatma Gandhi, also known as Rashtra-Pita or Father of the Nation and Bapu or Father, was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He was born on October 2, 1869 at Porbandar, a coastal town on the western coast of India in modern Gujarat state.  Porbandar is located on the national highway route connecting two major pilgrimage sites, Dwarka in the north and Somnath in the south. Dwarka, where Krishna moved from Mathura, is famous for Dwarkadhish temple, whereas Somnath is well known for the Shiva temple, with its long history.

Mohandas was born in a comparatively rich family. His grandfather Uttamchand had risen to be the Diwan or Prime Minister in the principality of Porbandar. After Uttamchand, his son Karamchand and another son Tulsidas held this position.  Karamchand was the father of Mohandas.

Mohandas was the fourth and youngest child borne by Putalibai, Karamchand’s fourth wife. Mohandas had two elder brothers named Laxmidas and Karsandas and a sister Raliatben. Laxmidas practiced law in Rajkot and later became a treasury official in the Porbandar government. Karsandas served as a sub-inspector of police in Porbandar.

Putalibai was a devout woman. Her character had left a deep impression on Mohandas’ mind. He was the youngest child in the family and was lovingly called Monia. The family was cultured. Religious and mythological books lined the bookshelves and musical instruments were available to play at home.

Mohandas started his primary school at Porbandar. When he was seven, the family moved to Rajkot, another principality, where Karamchand was appointed to the position of Diwan. He was enrolled at an English school. Once, a British school inspector came to his school and set a spelling test for its students.  Mohandas made a mistake in spelling the word ‘kettle’. A schoolteacher noticed his mistake and hinted him to copy it from a neighbour’s slate. Mohandas refused to cheat. When test papers were checked, Mohandas was the only student in the entire class who had made a mistake in the spelling test. He completed his primary and high school education at Rajkot. Academically, he was average in his studies.

Mohandas was excessively shy and timid, and fearful of ghosts and spirits. A maid named Rambha was appointed to care for him at home. She suggested he chant Ramnama or the holy name of Ram to cure his fear from ghosts and spirits. Following her advice, Mohandas chanted Ramnama and experienced relief from fear. His devotion to Ram remained with him throughout his life.

During his school years, he read a book entitled Shravan Pitribhakti Natak. Sometime later, he saw a picture of Shravan carrying his blind parents on both sides of a sling over his shoulders. The devotion of a son to his parents that was displayed in the book and in the picture impressed him immensely.

A play called Raja Harishchandra also captured his heart. The play demonstrated the truthfulness of king Harishchandra who remained faithful to his words despite enduring unbearable hardship to maintain his obligations.

Mohandas was married to Kasturba in 1883 at the age of thirteen. Kasturba was also born in Porbandar and was of a similar age. Mohandas was very protective of his wife and tended to dominate over her during early stage of their married life. Mohandas gradually came to understand the negative effects of child marriage and later worked to eradicate this practice. Kasturba was not formally educated but was highly intelligent. The couple had four sons who survived to adulthood.

A person of bad character befriended Mohandas during his school days. He prompted him to eat meat and smoke tobacco. He also encouraged Mohandas to steal money to pay for these indulgences. At one stage, he planned to commit suicide as he deemed asking permission from elders to do anything of his own choice was insufferable.

Mohandas belonged to a Vaishnav family. Eating meat was a highly objectionable act for the family. Similarly smoking, stealing and thoughts of committing suicide were not acceptable behaviours. Mohandas somehow realised his wrongdoings and repented. In a letter to his father, he described his actions and expressed remorse. His father pardoned him without any criticism.

Karamchand remained ill for some time before his death in 1885. Mohandas used to nurse him during this time regularly. One night, after tending his father, he went to his room to sleep with his wife. Soon he was informed that his father had passed away. Mohandas felt himself guilty of for not being by his father’s side during his last breath. He blamed his intense attraction towards his wife for this lapse.

Mohandas passed his Matriculation examinations in 1887 and was enrolled in the Samaldas College at Bhavnagar for further studies. He found the study difficult and distasteful. After the first term, he returned home to Rajkot.

During this period, a family friend named Mavji Dave visited the family. Mavji was an old friend of Karamchand. He enquired about Mohandas and suggested his mother and brothers sending him to England to study law. This would help him obtain a respectable job on his return to India. Mohandas was delighted with the idea and his brothers agreed. Initially, his mother was against sending her son overseas, mostly on religious grounds. A Jain monk Becharji Swami, who was revered by Putalibai, visited her. He did not object to the idea of sending Mohandas overseas provided he pledged not to violate certain practices.  Mohandas took vows to abstain from eating meat, drinking wine and touching a woman inappropriately during his stay in England. His mother subsequently consented to his trip.

Mohandas arrived at Mumbai to board a ship to England. The local community leaders of his caste raised objections to his overseas travel. Mohandas was unwilling to abandon his voyage. These leaders excommunicated him from his caste and issued a decree for those who helped him to pay fines.

Mohandas sailed from Mumbai on 4th September 1888. During the journey, he ate his meals in his cabin and avoided conversing with strangers. He arrived at Southampton and then travelled to London, and stayed in a hotel.

Mohandas had four letters of introductions that included one for Dr PJ Mehta. Mohandas had wired him from Southampton. Dr Mehta came to visit him in his hotel. During their first meeting, Mohandas casually touched Mehta’s hat and by passing his hand over it disturbed the fur. Mehta glared angrily at him and told him about European etiquettes. He said, ‘Do not touch other people’s things; do not ask questions as we usually do in India on first acquaintances; do not talk loudly; never address people as sir whilst speaking to them as we do in India; only servants and subordinates address their masters that way’. These were the first lesson for Mohandas in England.

His initial days in London were miserable, as he was unable to find vegetarian food. He stayed in a hotel in the beginning. On advice from Dr Mehta and other acquaintances, he moved to live with a local family. Living with a family was considered important for familiarising with the local practices and ways of life. During this time, he also found a vegetarian restaurant where he could buy meals of his choice.

Later he rented a unit, where he could cook his own meals. He wished to become a perfect Englishman. He tried to learn to dance, wear fashionable western dresses and play the violin. He came in contact with a vegetarian society and became its office bearer. He read books on vegetarianism in England. He noticed different types of vegetarianism in practice.

One group of vegetarians avoided eating meat but ate fish and egg considering them to be vegetarian items. Another group avoided eating meat and fish but not egg. The third group avoided meat, fish, egg as well as dairy products. Mohandas had discussions with members of the group on the subject. He personally maintained that vows given to his mother should be the guiding post in selecting his vegetarian diet. Accordingly, he avoided meat, egg and fish in his meals.

On one occasion, he came in contact with a lady who helped him in select vegetarian items at a restaurant. She became friendly and later she introduced him to a young relative who lived with her. She intended that he and her relative developed a relationship. Mohandas was married and chose to remain true to the promise he had given to his mother. He informed the lady that he was married and would not establish a relationship with any woman. The lady abandoned her approach, however, she maintained a friendship with him.

The law course in England was not very demanding and Mohandas found ample time for other activities. He chose to complete the London Matriculation, which was considered achievable in short time. He passed the Matriculation examination with commendable marks.

In London, Mohandas came in contact with two Theosophists brothers. They introduced him to ‘The Song Celestial’, an English translation of the Bhagvad Gita, and ‘The Light of Asia’, a poetry book about Buddha, by Sir Edwin Arnold.   Mohandas was highly impressed by reading the Gita. He also came in contact with Annie Besant, who later settled in Varanasi, India and established the Central Hindu School, which became the nucleus for Banaras Hindu University.

From London, Mohandas visited France to see an exhibition in Paris. It was an opportunity for him to acquaint himself with the contemporary technical and social developments in Europe.

He passed the law examinations and was called to join the bar on the 10th of June 1891. The next day, he enrolled to the high court and on 12th June, he departed from England for home.

Mohandas landed at Mumbai. There, he learnt from his brother that his mother had died. The news was deliberately withheld from him, to spare him shock in a distant land. It was dreadful news for him. He loved and revered his mother and had hoped to inform her personally of his academic achievements, and adherence to the promises he had made to her.

From Mumbai, he travelled to Rajkot and stayed there with his joint family. During his stay, he taught the children of his brothers and his own son Harilal, who was four years old. He led them to physical exercises and played games with them.

After staying for sometime in Rajkot, he decided to set up a law practice in Mumbai. He stayed in Mumbai for a few months and had little success. He secured only one case, and when he rose to argue for his client in the court, he felt nervous and could not utter a word. Overall, his experience in Mumbai was a disappointment, and he returned to Rajkot and set up his office there.

In Rajkot, he used to secure some jobs that paid him just enough to meet his ends. His older brother Laxmidas, a lawyer in Rajkot, had built high hopes on Mohandas. Laxmidas had been a secretary and adviser to the throne of Porbandar and expected to become the Diwan, as his father and grandfather had been. However, he lost favour with the British Political Agent.

Mohandas had casually met the agent in London. Laxmidas asked Mohandas to meet the agent and seek his favour for him. Mohandas did not like the idea but yielded to his brother’s wishes. The agent was unkind and told Mohandas that Laxmidas could apply through proper channel if he thought he had been wronged. Mohandas persisted but the agent showed him the door. He stayed to argue but agent’s clerk pushed him out forcibly.

Mohandas was shocked by his mistreatment and approached other senior lawyers to seek redress for the agent’s behaviour. They suggested ignoring it as such treatment of young Indian lawyers by British agents was commonplace.

He observed the cruel and selfish approach of British officials as well as of legal professionals. He felt suffocated in this environment. At this juncture, a business in Porbandar offered Mohandas a job in South Africa.

Awadhesh Sharma

 

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