Mahatma Gandhi’s Early Life

Gandhi in London (1890)

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi Was born on the 2nd of October, 1869, in a small town named Porbandar, in northwest India. Gandhi’s father was Karamchand Gandhi, the chief minister of Porbandar, and his mother was Putlibai. Putlibai was the fourth wife of Karamchand. Both of Gandhi’s parents were uneducated. His mother could not read or write, and his father did not receive a formal education. According to Gandhi, his father’s only education was his experience in life. Despite these disadvantages, the Gandhi household enjoyed financial comfort compared to other households in the area where they lived. They owned a number of houses not only in the town where they lived but also in adjoining towns. Gandhi’s parents also had enough money to secure a good education for the young Mohandas.

Early Years

When Gandhi was 13 years old, he was married to a girl of the same age named Kasturbai. Child marriage was a common practice during this time, and it remains a common practice today in some areas of India. Years later, Gandhi would talk about his memories of his wedding day. He stated that he and his bride did not understand the full meaning of marriage. To them, it was just a day of meeting relatives and wearing new clothes. After the wedding, the newlyweds obeyed the tradition, and the bride went home to her family to live separately from her husband for a while. In later years, Gandhi admitted that he often thought about his bride in a sexual way and that he regretted this. He said that he thought of her while in school and would feel jealous when she went to temples with her girlfriends. Gandhi claimed that he was eager to practice the role of a husband and impose his authority on her by not allowing her to go anywhere without his approval. This caused many arguments between the two, with long gaps of cold silence. 

As a child, Gandhi was shy and nervous. He was short and thin and was afraid of athletics. He not only lacked power and agility, but he also performed poorly in school. Although he would delve deeply into profound books like the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita during his adult life, he struggled as an ordinary student. Even his religious sentiments were not anywhere as intense as they would be in his adult life. Gandhi grew up in a household where there were different religions. Her mother, Putlibai, was a devoted Hindu. 

Meanwhile, his father always welcomed into the household his friends, who were Parsis, Muslims, and Jains, and because of this, the young Mohandas would often hear religious debates. Scholars think that the teachings of Jainism had an early impact on Gandhi’s mind, as Jains acknowledged the value of all forms of life and refrained from killing even the smallest animals or insects. Despite what Gandhi may have heard about religions and philosophies during his childhood, it is believed that he had no religious instinct at all as a child or as a young man. He even disliked Hindu temples because of their grandeur.

Death of Gandhi’s Father and Journey to England

In 1885, Gandhi’s father died, which prompted his relatives to decide that Gandhi should go to England and study law. Gandhi’s relatives thought that with a law degree, Gandhi could easily follow his father’s career as a local official. However, his mother voiced her opposition, saying that the industrialized culture in England would degrade her son’s morals. To soothe his mother’s anxieties, Gandhi promised her that he would not eat meat or drink wine during his stay in England. This calmed her mother down, and eventually, the family prepared the necessary money. Afterward, Gandhi traveled to Bombay, where he readied himself to sail for Southampton, England. 

While in Bombay, elderly members of Gandhi’s caste opposed the plan, stating that anyone that belonged to their caste should not go to England. They claimed that the way of life there would corrupt Gandhi’s morals and stain his purity. Gandhi was threatened with expulsion from their caste, but he had already made up his mind. He ignored the threats of his elders and sailed to England in September of 1888. He left behind his mother, his wife, and an infant son named Harilal. 

Life in London

In London, Gandhi tried to fit in by wearing the usual clothes of an English gentleman and trying to be as respectable as possible. He attended dancing and speech lessons and learned to play the violin. In observance of his promise to his mother, he stayed away from meat and wine and remained a strict vegetarian. However, his landlady served him flavorless vegetarian dishes, and because of this, he ate less and less and often went hungry. It was only when he discovered vegetarian restaurants in London that he began to eat well again. He was influenced by the English writer Henry Stephen Salt’s writings about vegetarianism, and he affiliated himself with the London Vegetarian Society. He made new vegetarian friends in his new circle, and some of them belonged to the Theosophical Society. His theosophist friends urged him to participate in studying the original version and the translation of the Bhagavad Gita. 

The Lawyer

On June 10th, 1891, at 22 years old, Gandhi was called to the bar. He went home to India but found out that his mother had died while he was in England and that his family had not informed him about the matter. He started his legal career in Bombay but found out that he was not mentally tough enough to conduct cross-examinations on witnesses. As a result, he went back to Rajkot and contented himself with writing petitions for litigants. 

An Opportunity in South Africa

An opportunity came Gandhi’s way in 1893 when a merchant from Kathiawar named Dada Abdullah communicated with him. Abdullah operated a shipping company in South Africa, and he had a cousin in Johannesburg who needed the services of a lawyer. Gandhi and Abdullah discussed the salary and agreed on the contract. In South Africa, Gandhi was exposed to the realities of the white ruler’s harshness toward Indians and South Africans alike. The discrimination he suffered and witnessed there slowly transformed his thoughts and his life.