Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in 1869 in the coastal town of Porbandar, one of scores of tiny princely states and now part of theIndian state of Gujarat. Although the Gandhis, meaning grocers, were merchants by caste, they had risen to important political positions. Mohandas’s father was the chief administrator and member of the court of Porbandar, and his grandfather that of the adjacent tiny state of Junagadh. Gandhi grew up in an eclectic religious environment. His parents were followers of the largely devotional Hindu cult of Vishnu (or Vaishnavites). His mother belonged to the Pranami sect, which combined Hindu and Muslim religious beliefs, gave equal honour to the sacred books of the Vaishnavites and the Koran, and preached religious harmony. Her religious fasts and vows, observed without exception all her life, left an abiding impression on her son. His father’s friends included many Jains who preached a strict doctrine of nonviolence and self-discipline. Gandhi was also exposed to Christian missionaries, but Christianity was not a significant presence in his childhood. Like many Hindus he unselfconsciously imbibed a variety of religious beliefs, but had no deep knowledge of any religious tradition including his own. Gandhi was a shy and mediocre student, and completed his school education with average results. He was married to Kasturbai when they were both 13 years of age, an experience that turned him into a bitter enemy of child marriage. Sex understandably obsessed him greatly in his early years. One night when he was 16 years of age, he left his dying father to spend some time with his wife. His father’s death during his short absence hurt him deeply. Although many commentators have used this incident to explain his hostility to sex, there is little real evidence to support this view. In his autobiography Gandhi only said the incident created a deep sense of ‘shame’ in him. What is more, he continued to enjoy his wife’s company for several years afterwards and went on to raise four sons. He did not become seriously interested in celibacy until nearly 16 years after the incident and, although the sense of guilt played a part, his real reason was a desire to conserve his physical and spiritual energies for the important political struggles on which he had then embarked. Gandhi left for England in 1888 to train as a lawyer, after giving a pledge to his mother that he would avoid wine, women, and meat. In the early months he lived the life of an English gentleman, buying himself a morning suit, a top hat, and a silver-headed cane, and taking lessons in dancing, elocution, and the violin. As the money ran out and after he had narrowly escaped a sexual temptation, better sense prevailed, and Gandhi turned to the more serious aspects of English life. Like many other colonial leaders he discovered the West and the East at more or less the same time, and one through the other. He read widely about British and European law and politics, interacted with theosophists, and studied Christianity, finding the Old Testament somewhat disagreeable but the New deeply moving. He also read about his own religious tradition, especially the Gita and Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia, which respectively initiated him into the Hindu and Buddhist philosophies.
Gandhi’s legal career in India was disappointing. He was too shy to open his mouth in court and had to give away his first barrister’s brief to a colleague. He turned to drafting applications and managed to make ends meet. However, the work did not interest him much, and it also exposed him to court intrigues which he found tiresome. When a Muslim firm in South Africa sought his services as a lawyer and a correspondence clerk, Gandhi readily accepted the offer. He sailed for South Africa in 1893 intending to spend a year there but instead stayed on for 21 years.
South Africa was a turning point in Gandhi’s life. It...