Mahatma Gandhi is likely the most famous Indian person as well as the famous advocate of nonviolence in history. Born in India in 1869, Gandhi was an activist lawyer in South Africa for 21 years. Then, he returned home to take the mantle as the de facto leader of the Indian Independence movement, seeking to free the giant nation from the yoke of British colonial rule. It was a struggle that eventually succeeded with the independence of India in 1947. In this article, we dig deep into the life of the man known as the “father of India” to uncover these peaceful facts about Gandhi.
1. Sain’t His Name
Mahatma is not Gandhi’s first name, but a Sanskrit honorific equivalent to the English word “saint.” Gandhi’s real first name is Mohandas.
2. Imperial Enemy
Winston Churchill was a lifelong opponent of Gandhi and the Indian Independence movement. In response to Gandhi’s leadership in the movement and his civil disobedience, Churchill made a chilling proclamation. He said that Gandhi should be “bound hand and foot and crushed with an elephant ridden by the viceroy.”
Later, Churchill was on the record in favor of letting Gandhi die if he was to go on hunger strike.
3. Historic Snub
Despite the committee nominating him five times, Mahatma Gandhi curiously never won the Nobel Peace Prize. The last time was a few weeks before he passed in 1948. The Nobel Committee, up until that point, had never awarded the prize posthumously. So, that year, they decided instead to not award the prize to anyone, stating that there were no “suitable living candidates.”
In 2006, the Nobel Committee recognized the omission, expressing regret in never awarding Gandhi the Peace Prize.
4. Pen Pals
The nonviolent philosophy of Russian War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy strongly influenced Mahatma Gandhi. In 1908, Tolstoy wrote A Letter to a Hindu that outlined how nonviolence could free India from British colonial rule. A young Gandhi, then working as a lawyer in South Africa and in the early stages of becoming a social activist, read Tolstoy’s letter.
He began a correspondence with the older Russian that lasted for a little over a year, until Tolstoy’s passing in 1910.
5. Common Bond
In his Autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi referred to Tolstoy as "the greatest apostle of nonviolence that the present age has produced." Tolstoy’s strong influence led to Gandhi naming his second ashram (monastery) in South Africa, Tolstoy Colony. Gandhi and Tolstoy also bonded over their strong belief in vegetarianism.
6. Youthful Naïvete
Mahatma Gandhi's family arranged his marriage at the age of 13 to a 14-year-old girl, Kasturbai Makhanji Kapadia. The adolescent marriage was in keeping with regional custom at the time, and Gandhi’s wedding was a joint ceremony where his brother and cousin were also joined to brides of their own. Later recalling his juvenile wedding day, Gandhi reminisced “As we didn't know much about marriage, for us it meant only wearing new clothes, eating sweets and playing with relatives.”
7. Famously Unsourced
The famous Mahatma Gandhi quote describing the process of political activism—“First they ignore you. They laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win”—was never actually said by Gandhi! Historians are not certain why this quote has been attributed to Gandhi.
Its origins seem to trace back to a very similar to a line in a speech given by an American trade unionist in 1918.
8. Give Civilization A Chance
However, another notoriously pithy quote actually did come from Gandhi. When asked by a reporter what he thought of Western civilization, Gandhi famously replied: “I think it would be a good idea.”
In order to identify with the India’s most impoverished citizens, Gandhi would wear a homespun loincloth all of the time. Gandhi even wore just this loincloth when meeting with the King of England at Buckingham Palace in the 1930’s. When asked later on whether it was proper to wear just a loincloth when meeting with a Royal, Gandhi quipped that “the King had on enough for both of us.”
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10. Strange Pen Pals
Mahatma Gandhi sent a series of letters to Adolf Hitler in 1939 and 1940, trying to convince the dictator to not start an international conflict. Gandhi warned him that he was not infallible and that “if not the British, some other power will certainly improve upon your method and beat you with your own weapon.”
Actor Ben Kingsley, who played Gandhi in the 1982 movie based on Gandhi’s life, is of Indian descent on his father’s side. Kingsley, whose birth name is Krishna Bhanji, researched his father’s family tree after taking the role and was surprised to learn that his father’s family is actually from the same village as Gandhi.
Kingsley won an Oscar for his portrayal of the Indian leader.
12. Missed Connections
In 1931, Albert Einstein sent a letter of admiration to Gandhi, congratulating him on showing the world “that it is possible to succeed without violence.” Einstein wrote that Gandhi’s example would hopefully “help to establish an international authority, respected by all, that will take decisions and replace conflicts.”
Gandhi replied to Einstein’s letter thanking him for his praise and inviting him to his ashram in India to meet. Despite the friendly overtures, the pair never met in person, unfortunately.
13. Out of Character
In the popular computer game, Civilization, programmers made Gandhi the most peaceful leader possible. But because of a glitch in the programming of the endgame, he quickly flips and becomes a warmongering maniac with a penchant for first-strike nuclear attacks. Talk about alternative history!
Over two million people joined in the five-mile funeral procession carrying Gandhi’s body. The procession took over five hours and involved over 50 people using ropes to pull a disassembled arms carrier that had a high floor put in so that crowds would catch a glimpse of Gandhi’s body.
15. No Fit Bit Necessary
Gandhi’s preferred form of travel was walking. He averaged approximately 18 km (11 miles) per day throughout his lifetime. That’s enough distance to walk around the world—twice!
16. Dancing Man
Mahatma Gandhi left India as a young 18 year-old to study law and jurisprudence in London, England. Gandhi attempted to learn local customs in England, including taking dancing lessons. He also joined a vegetarian society and was later elected to its executive committee.
17. Nervous Lawyer
After graduating with a law degree and being called to the bar, a now 23-year-old Mahatma Gandhi returned to his native India to establish a law practice for himself. Once back home, Gandhi made a heartbreaking discovery. He found that his mother had passed on while he was in England, and that relatives had kept the news from him.
To add to his troubles, Gandhi had significant problems starting a law practice as he didn’t have the nerve to cross-examine witnesses!
18. South Africa
Following the failure of his law practice in India, Gandhi set sail for South Africa where he worked as a lawyer and lived the next 21 years of his life. While in South Africa, Gandhi faced significant discrimination because of his skin color and began to develop and act upon his political and activist views.
19. On the Front Lines
During the Boer War, Gandhi volunteered to form an all-Indian brigade of stretcher-bearers, who would carry wounded British combat servicemen from the front-lines. In the Battle of Spion-Kop in 1900, Gandhi was a front-line stretcher-bearer. Coincidentally, a 23-year-old Winston Churchill, who later became one of Gandhi’s greatest foes, was a British correspondent on the front lines for this same battle.
In order to fund political programs during the Indian Independence movement, Gandhi charged persons 5 rupees (then, approximately $5) for his autograph.
21. Convincing Chaplin
The iconic 1936 Charlie Chaplin film, Modern Times, was partially inspired by a conversation that Chaplin had with Gandhi regarding modern technology. Chaplin met Gandhi in London in the early 1930s, and questioned the activist leader on his view that modern technology that considered only the maximization of profits created only misery for humanity rather than great benefits.
As they discussed it, Chaplin came around to agreeing with Gandhi’s view and this perspective was displayed in the now-famous film.
22. The End
Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a right-wing Hindu nationalist in 1948. Gandhi was shot three times point-blank in the chest just after concluding a multi-faith prayer meeting in New Delhi. The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was detained, convicted of his offence, and sentenced to hang. Despite an outcry by some, including Gandhi’s two sons, who felt that the execution of the assassin would directly contradict Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy, Godse was executed by hanging.
23. Lay Down Your Arms
Gandhi faced significant criticism in Britain during WWII when he called on the British to confront Germany with nonviolence. Gandhi stated to Britons that “I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions…If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourselves, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”
24. Be the Quote You Want To Hear in the World
The famous Gandhi quote “Be the change you want to see in the world” is another example of a widespread quotation that is without any credible source. The closest remark of Gandhi’s to this is “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.”
25. Salt of the Earth
The march that is credited with beginning the Indian Independence movement was initiated over one of the most commonplace items in Indian society: salt. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi led a 24 day march in resistance to the British salt tax, which taxed production of salt and banned the reclamation of salt from seawater.
The march sparked widespread civil disobedience against British rule and drew worldwide attention to the growing Indian Independence movement.
26. Worth His Salt
The reason Gandhi chose salt as the major focus of this march—rather than a demand for a specific civil or political right—was that salt was highly symbolic item that was used by everyone in Indian society. Gandhi believe that salt as an item of daily use would resonate with citizens of all class status and religious background, while also recognizing the salt tax hurt the poorest Indians the most.
Explaining his choice, Gandhi stated “Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life.”
27. Family Lines
Gandhi’s grandson, Kanu Gandhi, worked for NASA as a civil engineer.
28. Rebellious Teenager
Even Gandhi went through a phase of adolescent rebellion marked by transgressions against dominant Indian cultural mores. During this period, Gandhi acted out by secretly smoking cigarettes, engaging in petty thefts, denying the existence of a God, and—most shockingly—eating meat!
29. A Shameful Mark
While living in South Africa as a young lawyer, Gandhi expressed prejudiced views regarding the country’s native black population. Gandhi resented the fact that the British elite treated Indians in South Africa the same as the oppressed native black population and campaigned unremittingly to prove Indian superiority over the black population.
30. The Experimental Self
Gandhi was something of an amateur nutritionist. He experimented with his diet repeatedly. It was a means of discovering the most non-violent vegetarian meal that the poorest person could afford. Gandhi took detailed notes on various fruits and vegetables and their effect on his body and health. At one point, he tried to subsist solely on dried fruit.
He believed that every vegetarian should experiment with their diet as “one man’s food may be poison for another.”
31. Strange Experiment
After the passing of his wife in 1944, Gandhi attempted to “test” his self-restraint by sleeping naked in his bed with several women, including his grandniece. This admittedly strange practice was heavily criticized in the press. But apparently, none of the women whom slept in Gandhi’s bed indicated he behaved in any sort of inappropriate way.
One, in fact, compared it to sleeping in a bed with their “ageing mother.”
32. Leaving His Stamp On History
In 1948, the Indian postal service issued a set of postage stamps featuring Gandhi. In 2017, a private collector in Australia bought them for £500, 000 ($660,000 USD). The rare stamps, of which there are only currently 13 others in circulation, are the highest price ever paid for a set of Indian stamps.
33. Independence Day
When India officially declared its Independence on August 15, 1947, its first Prime Minister Nehru gave a rousing speech in the newly constituted Parliament. In the speech, he spoke of the newly independent nation’s “tryst with destiny.” Meanwhile, Gandhi, who was sometimes referred to as the “father of the nation,” was not in attendance at these celebrations.
Instead, he was 1,500 kilometers away engaging in a 24 hour fast as well as praying. In a letter to a friend regarding that day, Gandhi wrote “My way of celebrating great events, such as today's, is to thank God for it and, therefore, to pray.”
34. Gandhi Museum
The National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi features a collection of personal items, books, and newspapers. Notably, the museum also features some more chilling artifacts. There’s the shawl and dhoti that Gandhi was wearing when he passed on. There's also one of the bullets that Godse used to shoot the pacifist leader.
35. Society of the Spectacles
Gandhi influenced Steve Jobs to the point that he made him one of the faces of Apple’s “Think Different” advertising campaign in 1997. Many think that Jobs was so influenced by Gandhi, that the late Apple executive’s round glasses are a tribute to the leader, who wore similar spectacles.
In many photos of Gandhi, you may notice that his smile is a bit lacking. This is because the leader had a set of false teeth. He only wore them when he was eating. At all other times, Gandhi kept the set of dentures located in a small fold in his loincloth!
37. Footie Fanatic
During his time in South Africa, Gandhi quickly realized that soccer was the sport of the disaffected and poor working classes. So, he sought to reach out to these individuals by establishing three soccer teams in the country. Gandhi helped establish teams in Pretoria, Durban, and Johannesburg—all of which went by the name of the “Passive Resisters Soccer Club.”
38. Long Slow Fast
Mahatma Gandhi undertook a total of 17 different hunger strikes as part of the Indian freedom movement. The longest fasts that Gandhi ever engaged in were 21 days long. He had three separate fasts of this length. The shortest fast was only a single day!
39. Cashing Out
Since 1996, every denomination of Indian banknote (called the rupee) features a portrait of Gandhi.
40. How Does He Do It?
During some of Gandhi’s longest fasts, the government called in nutritionists to explain how it was possible that he was able to go without food for as long as 21 days.
41. Dutch Admirers
The Netherlands, who used to be the dominant colonial power in India, have named over 30 roads in their country after Gandhi. This is more than any other country on earth, aside from India. The Dutch also have three major statutes of Gandhi, in the cities of Utrecht, Amsterdam and The Hague.