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Bapu’s 152nd birth anniversary: Who named Gandhi ‘Mahatma’?5 min read

October 2, 2021 4 min read

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Bapu’s 152nd birth anniversary: Who named Gandhi ‘Mahatma’?5 min read

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Mahatma Gandhi. Photo: Britannica

Every October 2, we remember the life and trials of the man we call the ‘Father of the nation’. Mahatma Gandhi was born on this day in 1869 in Gujarat, with this year marking his 152nd birth anniversary.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the name he was given at birth, not only contributed to the Indian freedom struggle, but also fought to bring changes to society. He fought against caste system and worked towards the abolition of the inhumane treatment of untouchables or dalits. He also fought to establish equality and brotherhood in the society. His beliefs and principles have motivated people around the world, and many follow his teachings even today.

But have you ever wondered why he came to be called the ‘Mahatma‘? Mahatma means ‘great soul’ in Sanskrit.

History textbooks tell us that it was the great Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore who conferred the title on him, but there has been some confusion over this, which was brought up in the form of an RTI a few years back. Let’s explore what happened.

Owliver’s Obscure Observations

The Right to Information Act, simply known as RTI, is a very important Act that aims to promote transparency in government institutions in India. The Act came into existence in 2005.

What’s in a name?

The year was 2012 when one Sandhya Maru filed a petition with the Gujarat High Court asking for clarity on who actually named Gandhi ‘Mahatma’. She was challenging the answer key of an examination which said that an ‘unknown journalist’ was the one who came up with the title. The exam was for a local posting within the panchayat (a village council).

Sandhya said she lost marks because of the confusion over who gave the title to Gandhi, since the examination followed a system of negative marking.

“In the provisional answer key, the answer to the question on ‘who first named Gandhi as Mahatma’ was Tagore, but in the final answer key the answer got changed to ‘unknown journalist’,” the petition stated.

The Gujarat High Court looked into the matter and asked the Rajkot District Panchayat Sikshan Samiti (which was conducting the exam) to explain why there was this confusion.

Hemant Munshaw, the lawyer representing the Samiti, told the court that papers for the exam were set by an outside agency based on the autobiography of Narayan Desai and not by officials of the district panchayat. Narayan Desai was the son of Gandhi’s secretary Mahadev Desai.

“Narayan Desai, who had spent around 20 years of his early life with Mahatma Gandhi, had said in his autobiography that he (Gandhi) was first called ‘Mahatma’ by a journalist from Jetpur town in Saurashtra, Gujarat, when he was in South Africa in 1916 and after that Tagore called him ‘Mahatma’ (sic),” Munshaw told the court.

What did the court do?

Rabindranath Tagore. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The court, however, ruled that it was Tagore who gave him the title, and thenasked the Rajkot District Panchayat Sikshan Samiti to make changes accordingly to the exam paper and add the marks back to Sandhya’s paper.

Justice JB Pardiwala, while disposing of a petition, said that all school textbooks give the credit for the Mahatma title of Gandhi to Tagore, and that this should be followed.

‘No documented information’

An RTI activist from Hyderabad named Raju Malthumkar had filed a query with the Prime Minister’s Office in 2012 seeking to know how, when and why Gandhi was given the title of Mahatma.

Solve this very very tiny quiz before moving forward….

The PMO had forwarded the request to the Indian Council of Historical Research and the National Archives of India, Archeology Department. However, the ICHR informed Malthumkar in a letter that neither the NAI nor the Council had any documentary information on the subject. The ICHR, in its letter, also extended an invitation to Raju to use their library and archival facilities to find out more about the topic.

The takeaway

While even the government says it does not have evidence as to who named Gandhi ‘Mahatma’, we go by the widely accepted notion that it was Tagore who conferred this title on him.

The four principles of Mahatma Gandhi were: Truth, non-violence, Sarvodaya (progress for all) and Satyagraha (peaceful protest). How many of these do you follow in your own lives?


Take a trip down memory lane and solve this puzzle about Mahatma Gandhi and the struggle for freedom. Good luck!

On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti, Owliver recommends you watch the movie Gandhi. Directed by Richard Attenborough, the movie won the Oscar for best picture back in 1982!

A still from the movie that stars British actor Ben Kingsley. Photo: Allstar/Columbia

Happy Gandhi Jayanti from all of us at Owliver’s Post!


Sources: India Today, The New Indian Express

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