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A Preview of the Mahatma: Mohandas at the Inns of Court

The Gandhi who went to study Law in London was a boy who aspired to be a gentleman. He wore flannel with white collars and sleeves, took dancing lessons, and dined at clubs. He was also a dedicated son, staying true to his vow of vegetarianism and chastity. Did he show any signs of the Mahatma he would one day become?
BY Skendha Singh |   19-08-2015



On 4 September 1888, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi sailed for England from Bombay to begin his study of law at the Inner Temple. Apart from the regular luggage,Mohandas carried homemade Gujarati sweets and ganthias. They were his first meal away from home, till he found an Indian sailor who would cook him some dal to eat with bread.

Before he set sail, Gandhi had to brave many a storm. For one, he was being sent to England not because he had shone academically, but because he was doing poorly. From his boyhood, Gandhi’s academic track record was more or less an indifferent one. In some classes he did well, in most others, he did not. When he enrolled for a BA from Samaldas College in Bhavnagar, the result was the same. He barely passed in his first end-of-term examinations. Family friends advised his widowed mother, Putlibai, to send him abroad. This she was utterly reluctant to do. Ultimately, after making her son swear an oath before a Jain monk of the name of Becharji Swami, that he would never touch alcohol, meat, or a woman other than his wife, she gave him her blessing.

This was only the first hurdle. In Bombay, elders of Gandhi’s Modh Baniya community, called a meeting. He was severely reprimanded for considering such a thing as studying abroad! Crossing the black waters, they made it clear, would make him an outcaste. Gandhi argued that he had made a vow to be chaste and vegetarian, but they did not relent. The young man’s heart too was set on traveling to England.  And he was duly excommunicated.

On board the SS Clyde, at first, he was too shy to join the dinner tables. He survived at first by eating all the sweets in his room. He had already made an arrangement for a regular supply of dal.  But he also discovered various kinds of cheese, biscuits, soups, and fruits, which he came to enjoy.

After three weeks, Gandhi arrived in London, a city with about 6 million inhabitants. He was dressed in white flannels and a top hat. The preference for flannel stayed with him for a long time. In his autobiography, he praised the material for being cheap and very comfortable. Money was an issue. The family was not well-off anymore. His elder brother had borrowed money for Gandhi’s legal education. Ultimately, the family hoped that with this qualification in hand, Gandhi could resume his father’s status.

The Inner Temple, founded in 1606, was one of the four Inns of Court. Gandhi read law there for two years before he qualified as a barrister.  He studied for two important papers on Roman and English laws. The Inner Temple was considered adjunct with the London University, a place he thought better than Oxbridge, which were for rich students and “joined for enjoyments and pleasures.” (Guide to London)

The Inner Temple mandated that its student had to attend a certain number of official dinners. Gandhi was a stickler for his rules even there. While there were plenty of breads, vegetables, and cheeses available, he would get his dinner specially prepared by the steward. Nevertheless, he was a popular member of any student mess. His abstinence from alcohol meant there was more wine for his companions.

In India, Gandhi had been raised in a devout household. But, so far, religion had only meant morality. This changed when his vegetarianism led him to the Theosophical Society. He met members such as Helena Blavatsky, and the famous Sir Edwin Arnold. Arnold had composed both ‘The Song Celestial’ and ‘Light of Asia’. Gandhi loved his works and began reading the Gita, an engagement, he was to keep up for the rest of his life.

Gandhi was eventually called to Bar in 1891. He had successfully managed to complete his studies in England, enjoyed the “cold and invigorating climate”, and made many friends. In fact he had even started a vegetarian club in West London with an Oxford graduate named Josiah Oldfield. He had practiced economy. Although not yet the bare bodied Mahatma, he was careful about each dime and shilling that he spent – whether it was clothes, boarding or food. More than anything perhaps, he had learnt to stand by his principles, to keep his word, and to adapt to challenging circumstances.

The mother who had been instrumental in sending him abroad had passed away when he was in England, but Gandhi learnt of this only on reaching Bombay. He was still a young man, not sure about his suitability to his vocation, or his real purpose in life. England, however, had played its role in shaping the Mahatma he was to become.

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