MAHATMA GANDHI -Portrait of a saint

Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A. (Socio, Phil) B.Sc. M. Ed, Ph.D.

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

Mrs Sudha Rani Maheshwari, M.Sc (Zoology), B.Ed.

Former Principal. A.K.P.I.College, Roorkee, India

“Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.” Albert Einstein(On the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s 70th birthday.)

Picture the ugliest, slightest, weakest man in Asia, with face and flesh of bronze, close-cropped gray head, high cheek-bones, kindly little brown eyes, a large and almost toothless mouth, larger cars, an enormous nose, thin arms and legs, clad in a loin cloth, standing before an English judge in India, on trial for preaching “non-cooperation” to his countrymen. Or picture him seated on a small carpet in a bare room at his Satyagrahashram, School of Truth-Seekers at Ahmedabad: his bony legs crossed under him in yogi fashion, soles upward, his hands busy at a spinning-wheel, his face lined with responsibility, his mind active with ready answers to every questioner of freedom. From 1920 to 1935 this naked weaver was both the spiritual and the political leader of 320,000,000 Indians. When he appeared in public, crowds gathered round him to touch his clothing or to kiss his feet.

Four hours a day he spun the coarse khaddar, hoping by his example to persuade his countrymen to use this simple homespun instead of buying the product of those British looms that had ruined the textile industry of India. His only possessions were three rough cloths two as his ward- robe and one as his bed. Once a rich lawyer, he had given all his property to the poor, and his wife, after some matronly hesitation, had followed his example. He slept on the bare floor, or on the earth. He lived on nuts, plantains, lemons, oranges, dates, rice, and goat’s milk;” often for months together he took nothing but milk and fruit; once in his life he tasted meat; occasionally he ate nothing for weeks. “I can as well do without my eyes as without fasts. What the eyes are for the outer world, fasts are for the inner.”  As the blood thins, he felt, the mind clears, irrelevancies fall away, and fundamental things sometimes the very Soul of the World rise out of Maya like Everest through the clouds.

At the same time that he fasted to see divinity he kept one toe on the earth, and advised his followers to take an enema daily when they fasted, lest they be poisoned with the acid products of the body’s self- consumption just as they might be finding God.  When the Moslems and the Hindus killed one another in theological enthusiasm, and paid no heed to his pleas for peace, he went without food for three weeks to move them. He became so weak and frail through fasts and privations that when he addressed the great audiences that gathered to hear him, he spoke to them from an uplifted chair. He carried his asceticism into the field of sex, and wished, like Tolstoi, to limit all physical intercourse to deliberate reproduction. He too, in his youth, had indulged the flesh too much, and the news of his father’s death had surprised him in the arms of love. Now he returned with passionate remorse to the Erahmacharia that had been preached to him in his boyhood absolute abstention from all sensual desire. He persuaded his wife to live with him only as sister with brother; and “from that time,” he tells us, “all dissension ceased.”" When he realized that India’s basic need was birth-control, he adopted not the methods of the West, but the theories of Malthus and Tolstoi. Is it right for us, who know the situation, to bring forth children? We only multiply slaves and weaklings if we continue the process of procreation whilst we feel and remain helpless. . . . Not till India has become a free nation . . . have we the right to bring forth progeny. … I have not a shadow of doubt that married people, if they wish well to the country and want to see India become a nation of strong and handsome, well-formed men and women, would practice self-restraint and cease to procreate for the time being.”

Added to these elements in his character were qualities strangely like those that, we are told, distinguished the Founder of Christianity. He did not mouth the name of Christ, but he acted as if he accepted every word of the Sermon on the Mount. Not since St. Francis of Assisi has any life known to history been so marked by gentleness, disinterestedness, simplicity, and forgiveness of enemies. It was to the credit of his opponents, but still more to his own, that his undiscourageable courtesy to them won a fine courtesy from them in return; the Government sent him to jail with profuse apologies. He never showed rancor or resentment. Thrice he was attacked by mobs, and beaten almost to death; not once did he retaliate; and when one of his assailants was arrested he refused to enter a charge. Shortly after the worst of all riots between Moslems and Hindus, when the Moplah Mohammedans butchered hundreds of unarmed Hindus and offered their prepuces as a covenant to Allah, these same Moslems were stricken with famine; Gandhi collected funds for them from all India, and, with no regard for the best precedents, forwarded every anna,without deduction for “overhead,” to the starving enemy.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in 1869. Gandhi was the youngest child of his father’s fourth wife. His father, Karamchand Gandhi, who was the dewan (chief minister) of Porbandar, the capital of a small principality in Gujarat in western India under British suzerainty, did not have much in the way of a formal education. He was, however, an able administrator who knew how to steer his way between the capricious princes, their long-suffering subjects, and the headstrong British political officers in power.Gandhi’s mother, Putlibai, was completely absorbed in religion, did not care much for finery and jewelry, divided her time between her home and the temple, fasted frequently, and wore herself out in days and nights of nursing whenever there was sickness in the family His family be- longed to the Vaisya caste, and to the Jain sect, and practised the ahimsa principle of never injuring a living thing. His father was a capable administrator but an heretical financier; he lost place after place through honesty, gave nearly all his wealth to charity, and left the rest to his family.”

At eight he was engaged, and at twelve he was married, to Kasturbai, who remained loyal to him through all his adventures, riches, poverty, imprisonments, and Brahmacharia. The educational facilities at Porbandar were rudimentary; in the primary school that Mohandas attended, the children wrote the alphabet in the dust with their fingers. Though he occasionally won prizes and scholarships at the local schools, his record was on the whole mediocre. One of the terminal reports rated him as “good at English, fair in Arithmetic and weak in Geography; conduct very good, bad handwriting. He shone neither in the classroom nor on the playing field. He loved to go out on long solitary walks when he was not nursing his by now ailing father or helping his mother with her household chores.

He had learned, in his words, “to carry out the orders of the elders, not to scan them.” With such extreme passivity, it is not surprising that he should have gone through a phase of adolescent rebellion, marked by secret atheism, petty thefts, furtive smoking, and—most shocking of all for a boy born in a Vaishnava family—meat eating. His adolescence was probably no stormier than that of most children of his age and class. What was extraordinary was the way his youthful transgressions ended.

“Never again” was his promise to himself after each escapade. And he kept his promise In 1887 Mohandas scraped through the matriculation examination of the University of Bombay and joined Samaldas College in  Bhaunagar. As he had suddenly to switch from his native language—Gujarati—to English, he found it rather difficult to follow the lectures. In order to keep up the family tradition of holding high office in one of the states in Gujarat, he would have to qualify as a barrister. This meant a visit to England. His youthful imagination conceived England as “a land of philosophers and poets, the very centre of civilization. One of his brothers raised the necessary money, and his mother’s doubts were allayed when he took a vow that, while away from home, he would not touch wine, women, or meat. Mohandas sailed in September 1888. Ten days after his arrival, he joined the inner Temple one of the four London law colleges.

In his first year there he read eighty books on Christianity. The Sermon on the Mount “went straight to my heart on the first reading.” He took the counsel to return good for evil, and to love even one’s enemies, as the highest expression of all human idealism; and he resolved rather to fail with these than to succeed without them. Gandhi took his studies seriously and tried to brush up on his English and Latin by taking the London University matriculation examination. But, during the three years he spent in England, his main preoccupation was with personal and moral issues rather than with academic ambitions.  As he struggled painfully to adapt himself to Western food, dress, and etiquette, he felt awkward. His vegetarianism became a continual source of embarrassment to him; his friends warned him that it would wreck his studies as well as his health. The zeal he developed for vegetarianism helped to draw the pitifully shy youth out of his shell and gave him a new poise. He became a member of the executive committee of the London Vegetarian Society, attending its conferences and contributing articles to its journal.

Painful surprises were in store for Gandhi when he returned to India in July 1891. His mother had died in his absence, and he discovered to his dismay that the barrister’s degree was not a guarantee of a lucrative career. The legal profession was already beginning to be overcrowded, and Gandhi was much too diffident to elbow his way into it.  He practised law for a time in Bombay, refusing to prosecute for debt, and always reserving the right to abandon a case which he had come to think unjust. One case led him to South Africa; there he found his fellow-Hindus so maltreated that he forgot to return to India, but gave himself completely, without remuneration, to the cause of removing the disabilities of his countrymen in Africa. For twenty years he fought this issue out until the Government yielded. Only then did he return home.

Africa was to present to Gandhi challenges and opportunities that he could hardly have conceived. In a Durban court, he was asked by the European magistrate to take off his turban; he refused and left the courtroom. A few days later, while travelling to Pretoria, he was unceremoniously thrown out of a first-class railway compartment and left shivering and brooding at Pietermaritzburg Station; in the further course of the journey he was beaten up by the white driver of a stagecoach because he would not travel on the footboard to make room for a European passenger; and finally he was barred from hotels reserved “for Europeans only.” These humiliations were the daily lot Indtraders and labourers in Natal . While in Pretoria, Gandhi studied the conditions in which his countrymen lived and tried to educate them on their rights and duties, but he had no intention of staying on in South Africa. Indeed, in June 1894, as his year’s contract drew to a close, he was back in Durban, ready to sail for India. At a farewell party given in his honour he happened to glance through the Natal Mercury and learned that the Natal Legislative Assembly was considering a bill to deprive Indians of the right to vote. “This is the first nail in our coffin,” Gandhi told his hosts. They professed their inability to oppose the bill, and indeed their ignorance of the politics of the colony, and begged him to take up the fight on their behalf.

He drafted petitions to the Natal legislature and the British government and had them signed by hundreds of his compatriots. He could not prevent the passage of the bill but succeeded in drawing the attention of the public and the press in Natal, India, and England to the Natal Indians’ grievances. He flooded the government, the legislature, and the press with closely reasoned statements of Indian grievances. Finally, he exposed to the view of the outside world the skeleton in the imperial cupboard, the discrimination practiced against the Indian subjects of Queen Victoria in one of her own colonies in Africa. It was a measure of his success as a publicist that such important newspapers as The Times of London and the Statesman and Englishman of Calcutta editorially commented on the Natal Indians’ grievances.

Gandhi was not the man to nurse a grudge. On the outbreak of the South African (Boer) War in 1899, he argued that the Indians, who claimed the full rights of citizenship in the British crown colony of Natal, were in duty bound to defend it. He raised an ambulance corps of 1,100 volunteers, out of whom 300 were free Indians and the rest indentured labourers. It was a motley crowd: barristers and accountants, artisans and labourers.

The British victory in the war brought little relief to the Indians in South Africa. In 1906 theTransvaal government published a particularly humiliating ordinance for the registration of its Indian population. The Indians held a mass protest meeting at Johannesburg in September 1906 and, under Gandhi’s leadership, took a pledge to defy the ordinance if it became law in the teeth of their opposition, and to suffer all the penalties resulting from their defiance. Thus was born satyagraha (“devotion to truth”), a new technique for redressing wrongs through inviting, rather than inflicting, suffering, for resisting the adversary without rancour and fighting him without violence.

The struggle in South Africa lasted for more than seven years. It had its ups and downs, but under Gandhi’s leadership, the small Indian minority kept up its resistance against heavy odds. In the final phase of the movement in 1913, hundreds of Indians, including women, went to jail, and thousands of Indian workers who had struck work in the mines bravely faced imprisonment, flogging, and even shooting. It was a terrible ordeal for the Indians, but it was also the worst possible advertisement for the South African government, which, under pressure from the governments of Britain and India, accepted a compromise negotiated by Gandhi.

Traveling through India he realized for the first time the complete destitution of his people. He was horrified by the skeletons whom he saw toiling in the fields, and the lowly Outcastes who did the menial work of the towns. It seemed to him that the discriminations against his countrymen abroad were merely one consequence of their poverty and subjection at home. Nevertheless he supported England loyally in the War; he even advocated the enlistment of Hindus who did not accept the principle of non-violence. He did not, at that time, agree with those who called for independence; he believed that British misgovernment in India was an exception, and that British government in general was good; that British government in India was bad just because it violated all the principles of British government at home; and that if the English people could be made to understand the case of the Hindus, it would soon accept them in full brotherhood into a commonwealth of free dominions.  He trusted that when the War was over, and Britain counted India’s sacrifice for the Empire in men and wealth, it would no longer hesitate to give her liberty.

But at the close of the War the agitation for Home Rule was met by the Rowland Acts, which put an end to freedom of speech and press; by the establishment of the impotent legislature of the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms; and finally by the slaughter at Amritsar. Gandhi was shocked into decisive action. He returned to the Viceroy the decorations which he had received at various times from British governments; and he issued to India a call for active civil disobedience against the Government of India. The people responded not with peaceful resistance, as he had asked, but with bloodshed and violence; in Bombay, for example, they killed fifty-three unsympathetic Parsees. 81 Gandhi, vowed to ahimsa, sent out a second message, in which he called upon the people to postpone the campaign of civil disobedience, on the ground that it was degenerating into mob rule. Seldom in history had a man shown more courage in acting on principle, scorning expediency and popularity. The nation was astonished at his decision; it had supposed itself near to success, and it did not agree with Gandhi that the means might be as important as the end. The reputation of the Mahatma sank to the lowest ebb.

It was just at this point (in March, 1922) that the Government determined upon his arrest. He made no resistance, declined to engage a lawyer, and offered no defence. When the Prosecutor charged him with being responsible, through his publications, for the violence that had marked the outbreak of 1921, Gandhi replied in terms that lifted him at once to nobility.

I wish to endorse all the blame that the learned Advocate-General has thrown on my shoulder in connection with the incidents in Bombay, Madras, and Chauri Chaura. Thinking over these deeply, and sleeping over them night after night, it is impossible for me to dissociate myself from these diabolical crimes. . . . The learned Advocate-General is quite right when he says that as a man of responsibility, a man having received a fair share of education, . . . I should have known the consequences of every one of my acts. I knew that I was playing with fire, I ran the risk, and if I was set free I would still do the same. I felt this morning that I would have failed in my duty if I did not say what I say here just now.

I wanted to avoid violence. I want to avoid violence. Non- violence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed. But I had to make my choice. I had either to submit to a system which I considered had done an irreparable harm to my country, or incur the risk of the mad fury of my people bursting forth when they understood the truth from my lips. I know that my people have sometimes gone mad. I am deeply sorry for it, and I am therefore here to submit not to a light penalty but to the highest penalty. I do not ask for mercy. I do not plead any extenuating act. I am here, therefore, to invite and cheerfully submit to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen. “

The Judge expressed his profound regret that he had to send to jail one whom millions of his countrymen considered “a great patriot and a great leader”; he admitted that even those who differed from Gandhi looked upon him “as a man of high ideals and of noble and even saintly life.” He sentenced him to prison for six years.

Gandhi was put under solitary confinement, but he did not complain. “I do not see any of the other prisoners,” he wrote, “though I really do not see how my society could do them any harm.” But “I feel happy. My nature likes loneliness. I love quietness. And now I have opportunity to engage in studies that I had to neglect in the outside world.”  He instructed himself sedulously in the writings of Bacon, Carlyle, Ruskin, Emerson, Thoreau and Tolstoi, and solaced long hours with Ben Jonson and Walter Scott. He read and re-read the Bhagavad-Gita. He studied Sanskrit, Tamil and Urdu so that he might be able not only to write for scholars but to speak to the multitude. He drew up a detailed schedule of studies for the six years of his imprisonment, and pursued it faithfully till accident intervened. “I used to sit down to my books with the delight of a young man of twenty-four, and forgetting my four-and-fifty years and my poor health.”

Appendicitis secured his release, and Occidental medicine, which he had often denounced, secured his recovery. A vast crowd gathered at the prison gates to greet him on his exit, and many kissed his coarse garment as he passed. But he shunned politics and the public eye, pled his weakness and illness, and retired to his school at Ahmedabad, where he lived for many years in quiet isolation with his students. From that re- treat, however, he sent forth weekly, through his mouthpiece Young India, editorials expounding his philosophy of revolution and life. He begged his followers to shun violence, not only because it would be suicidal, since India had no guns, but because it would only replace one despotism with another. “History,” he told them, “teaches one that those who have, no doubt with honest motives, ousted the greedy by using brute force against them, have in their turn become a prey to the disease of the conquered. . . . My interest in India’s freedom will cease if she adopts violent means. For their fruit will be not freedom, but slavery.”

As part of his nonviolent non-cooperation campaign for home rule, Gandhi stressed the importance of economic independence for India. He particularly advocated the manufacture of khaddar, or homespun cloth, in order to replace imported textiles from Britain. Gandhi’s eloquence and embrace of an ascetic lifestyle based on prayer, fasting and meditation earned him the reverence of his followers, who called him Mahatma (Sanskrit for “the great-souled one”). Invested with all the authority of the Indian National Congress (INC or Congress Party), Gandhi turned the independence movement into a massive organization, leading boycotts of British manufacturers and institutions representing British influence in India, including legislatures and schools.

The second element in his creed was the resolute rejection of modern industry, and a Rousseauian call for a return to the simple life of agriculture and domestic industry in the village. The confinement of men and women in factories, making with machines owned by others fractions of articles whose finished form they will never see, seemed to Gandhi a roundabout way of burying humanity under a pyramid of shoddy goods. Most machine products, he thought, are unnecessary; the labor saved in using them is consumed in making and repairing them; or if labor is really saved it is of no benefit to labor, but only to capital; labor is thrown by its own productivity into a panic of “technological unemployment.” So he renewed the Swadeshi movement announced in 1905 by Tilak; self-production was to be added to Swaraj, self-rule. Gandhi made the use of the charka, or spinning-wheel, a test of loyal adherence to the Nationalist movement; he asked that every Hindu, even the richest, should wear homespun, and boycott the alien and mechanical textiles of Britain, so that the homes of India might hum once more, through the dull winter, with the sound of the spinning-wheel.

The response was not universal; it is difficult to stop history in its course. But India tried. Hindu students everywhere dressed in khaddar; highborn ladies abandoned their Japanese silk sans for coarse cloths woven by themselves; prostitutes in brothels and convicts in prison began to spin; and in many cities great Feasts of the Vanities were arranged, as in Savonarola’s day, at which wealthy Hindus and merchants brought from their homes and warehouses all their imported cloth, and flung it into the fire. In one day at Bombay. alone, 150,000 pieces were consumed by the flames.

The movement away from industry failed, but it gave India for a decade a symbol of revolt, and helped to polarize her mute millions into a new unity of political consciousness. India doubted the means, but honoured the purpose; and though it questioned Gandhi the statesman, it took to its heart Gandhi the saint, and for a moment became one in reverencing him. It was as Tagore said of him:

He stopped at the thresholds of the huts of the thousands of dispossessed, dressed like one of their own. He spoke to them in their own language. Here was living truth at last, and not only quotations from books. For this reason the Mahatma, the name given to him by the people of India, is his real name. Who else has felt like him that all Indians are his own flesh and blood? . . . When love came to the door of India that door was opened wide. … At Gandhi’s call India blossomed forth to new greatness, just as once before, in earlier times, when Buddha proclaimed the truth of fellow-feeling and compassion among all living creatures.  It was Gandhi’s task to unify India; and he accomplished it. Other tasks await other men.

In 1934, Gandhi announced his retirement from politics in, as well as his resignation from the Congress Party, in order to concentrate his efforts on working within rural communities. Drawn back into the political fray by the outbreak of second world war , Gandhi again took control of the INC, demanding a British withdrawal from India in return for Indian cooperation with the war effort. Instead, British forces imprisoned the entire Congress leadership, bringing Anglo-Indian relations to a new low point.

A new chapter in Indo-British relations opened with the victory of the Labour Party in 1945. During the next two years, there were prolonged triangular negotiations between leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League under M.A. Jinnah and the British government culminating in the Mountbatten Plan of June 3, 1947, and the formation of the two new dominions of India and Pakistan in mid-August 1947.

It was one of the greatest disappointments of Gandhi’s life that Indian freedom was realized without Indian unity. Muslim separatism had received a great boost while Gandhi and his colleagues were in jail, and in 1946–47, as the final constitutional arrangements were being negotiated, the outbreak of communal riots between Hindus and Muslims unhappily created a climate in which Gandhi’s appeals to reason and justice, tolerance and trust had little chance. ). Later that year, Britain granted India its independence but split the country into two dominions: India and Pakistan. Gandhi strongly opposed Partition, but he agreed to it in hopes that after independence Hindus and Muslims could achieve peace internally. Amid the massive riots that followed Partition, Gandhi urged Hindus and Muslims to live peacefully together.

In January 1948, Gandhi carried out yet another fast, this time to bring about peace in the city of Delhi. On January 30, 12 days after that fast ended, When partition of the subcontinent was accepted—against his advice—he threw himself heart and soul into the task of healing the scars of the communal conflict, toured the riot-torn areas in Bengal and Bihar, admonished the bigots, consoled the victims, and tried to rehabilitate the refugees. When persuasion failed, he went on a fast. He won at least two spectacular triumphs; in September 1947 his fasting stopped the rioting in Calcutta, and in January 1948, he shamed the city of Delhi into a communal truce. A few days later, on January 30, while he was on his way to his evening prayer meeting in Delhi, he was shot down by Nathuram Godse, a young Hindu fanatic. Godse approached Gandhi on 30 January 1948 during the evening prayer at 5:17 pm. When Godse bowed, one of the girls flanking and supporting Gandhi, Abha Chattopadhyay, said to Godse, “Brother, Bapu is already late” and tried to put him off, but he pushed her aside and shot Gandhi in the chest three times at point-blank range with a Beretta M 1934 semi-automatic pistol chambered in .380 ACP bearing the serial number 606824. Gandhi died a couple of hours later. Godse himself shouted “police” and surrendered himself.

During the subsequent trial, and in various witness accounts and books written thence, the reasons cited for carrying out the assassination were –

Godse felt that it was Gandhi’s fast (announced in the second week of January) which had forced the cabinet to reverse its earlier recent decision not to give the cash balance of Rs. 55 crores to Pakistan on 13 January 1948. (The Government of India had already given Pakistan the first instalment of Rs. 20 crores as per their agreement to give Pakistan Rs. 75 crores in the division of balance money upon partition. However, in January 1948, the cabinet of Indian government decided to withhold the second instalment after self-styled liberators from Pakistan invaded Kashmir with covert support from the Pakistani army[. Godse, Apte and their friends felt that this was appeasing Pakistani Muslims at the expense of Hindus in India. This decision of Gandhi and Nehru had also caused Vallabhbhai Patel to submit his resignation. Interestingly, Gandhi’s fast was for the restoration of Hindu-Muslim peace and continued for three days after the cabinet announced its decision to give the money to Pakistan. It is possible that Godse may not have known of this, however this cannot be said for certain.

Godse felt that the sad situation and suffering caused during and due to the partition could have been avoided if the Indian government had lodged strong protests against the treatment meted out to the Minorities (Hindus and Sikhs) in Pakistan. However, being “under the thumb of Gandhi” they resorted to more feeble ways. He also felt that Gandhi had not protested against these atrocities being suffered in Pakistan and instead resorted to fasts. In his court deposition, Godse said, “I thought to myself and foresaw I shall be totally ruined, and the only thing I could expect from the people would be nothing but hatred … if I were to kill Gandhiji. But at the same time I felt that the Indian politics in the absence of Gandhiji would surely be proved practical, able to retaliate, and would be powerful with armed forces.”

In Godse’s own words during his final deposition in the court during the trial, ‘”…it was not so much the Gandhian Ahimsa teachings that were opposed to by me and my group, but Gandhiji, while advocating his views, always showed or evinced a bias for Muslims, prejudicial and detrimental to the Hindu Community and its interests. I have fully described my Point of view hereafter in detail and have quoted numerous instances, which unmistakably establish how Gandhiji became responsible for a number of calamities which the Hindu Community had to suffer and undergo”

The next day, roughly 1 million people followed the procession as Gandhi’s body was carried in state through the streets of the city and cremated on the banks of the holy Jumna River.

Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.

Mahatma Gandhi


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