THE SECOND OF October has again come by, and our hearts and minds go back to the pilgrim of eternity. Smt Kamala, the director of this Gandhi Memorial Centre, gave us a beautiful thought when she said that a part of all the great spirits of the past might have found a place within the soul of Mahatma Gandhi.
Gandhiji’s impact on those who came in contact with him was almost magical. Rabindranath Tagore said:
‘At Gandhiji’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. ‘
Even so hard-headed a man as George Bernard Shaw, to whom praise of others did not come very naturally, when asked for his impression upon meeting Mahatma Gandhi said: “You might as well ask for someone’s impression of the’ Himalayas!’ Romain Rolland, the great French writer and Nobel prize-winner, said that Mahatma Gandhi ‘had introduced into human politics the strongest religious impetus of the last two hundred years’. If instead of two hundred years, he had said twelve hundred years, he would have been still right.
The Mahatma met Charlie Chaplin, confessed to him frankly that he had not seen his pictures, and expounded to him his theory about the disastrous effects of the machine on human life. Their conversation led Charlie Chaplin to produce Modern Times.
In our own times, Anwar Sadat of Egypt has publicly spoken about the tremendous influence Mahatma Gandhi’s writings had on him.
Gandhiji gave a decisive new direction to history. What was it about this man which held the human race in thrall? Who was this individual? And how did he come to wield such influence over the rest of mankind? He himself said that he was a very strange individual. He confessed that he was not intellectually brilliant, but he added that while there are limitations to the development of the mind, there are no limitations to the development of the heart.
If one were to denote in a word what the Mahatma had, it is the Sanskrit word, buddhi—the capacity inter alia to perceive the Truth. This is a capacity which few individuals have, and you can develop it only by deep self-study, by profound devotion. He was able, as a result of his buddhi, to propound solutions which went far beyond the insights of any academic studies of politics or economics or science. Let me tell you what he said about himself:
‘What I want to achieve – what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years – is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha*. I live and move and have my being in pursuit of this goal. All that I do, by way of speaking and writing, and all my ventures in the political field, are directed to this same end. I am, but a weak aspirant, ever failing, ever trying. My failures make me more vigilant than before and intensify my faith. I can see with the eye of faith that the observance of the twin doctrine of Truth and Non-violence has possibilities of which we have but very inadequate conception.’
The pregnant phrase ‘the eye of faith’ reminds you of the lines of George Santayana:
‘Columbus found a world, and had no chart,
Save one that faith deciphered in the skies;
To trust the soul’s invincible surmise
Was all his science and his only art.’
It was the only science and the only art of Mahatma Gandhi – to trust the soul’s invincible surmise.
Before I go further into some of the ideas which the Mahatma propagated, I would like to mention one interesting point. There seems to be a mystic – karmic – bond between the United States and India, and you see this link in the case of Mahatma Gandhi. When he was in South Africa (he went there in 1893), the two foreigners who befriended him were both Americans. They gave him succour and shelter. After he came back to India, the first foreigner to spot his incredible spiritual strength was an American. On 10th April 1922, Reverend John Haynes Holmes delivered a speech in an American Church on “Who is the Greatest Man in the World?’ Reverend Holmes declared that he had no doubt that the greatest man alive was Mahatma Gandhi. He compared the Mahatma to Christ. In 1922 no other foreigner had the conception of the Mahatma as the prophet of the twentieth century.
Then came the great years of Mahatma Gandhi in India. There he started his civil disobedience movement, which he implemented with phenomenal success. The one person who influenced him the most in his thinking on civil disobedience was again an American Henry David Thoreau. He had read Thoreau in the year 1907 when he was in South Africa. He had reproduced extracts from Thoreau’s writings in – Young India which he was editing at the time in South Africa.
The last man to be the disciple of the Mahatma was an American – Vincent Sheean. He met the Mahatma in Delhi on 27 January 1948, three days before the Mahatma, was assassinated, and offered himself as a disciple. The Mahatma talked to him at some length on that day on a variety of subjects and quoted to him the lines from the Upanishads: ‘The whole world is the garment of God; renounce it then and receive it back as the gift of God.’ Sheean was most impressed and met him again on the 28th. They were to meet again in the evening of the 30th, but that was not to be.
The last interview which the Mahatma gave was in the early afternoon on 30 January, and it was to an American. She was Margaret Bourke-White who came to interview him for Life magazine. She asked him the question: would he persist in his theory of non-violence in the event of a nuclear attack on a city? The Mahatma’s reply was that if the defenceless citizens died in a spirit of non-violence, their sacrifices would not be in vain; they might well pray for the soul of the pilot who thoughtlessly sprayed death on the city. This was his last message of compassion to mankind.
In our times his influence on America has been of the most significant character. It was his influence which led Martin Luther King to start a civil disobedience campaign on nonviolent lines. Vice-President Mondale has publicly stated how deeply influenced he was as a young man by Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings.
President Carter is another great admirer of the Mahatma. When Hubert Humphrey died, there was one quotation in President Carter’s tribute to the eminent Senator and that was what the President had read at the Gandhi Samadhi in New Delhi. The words quoted enumerate what Gandhiji regarded as the Seven Deadly Sins:
‘Commerce without ethics; Pleasure without conscience; Politics without principle; Knowledge without character; Science without humanity; Wealth without work; Worship without sacrifice.’
Let me now say a few words about the Mahatma’s ideas which have changed the course of human history. His main emphasis, as we all know, was on truth and non-violence. A thinker has said that truth is a scarce commodity, but its supply has always outstripped the demand. While truth does not seem to be triumphing all round us – somehow, somewhere, in some way, something is working which is bringing the human race closer to truth. .
This is what the Mahatma has to say about truth and non¬violence:
‘I may be a despicable person; but when Truth speaks through me, I am invincible.’
Truth alone will endure; all the rest will be swept away before the tide of Time.’
‘Nonviolence is the law of our species, as violence is the law of the brute.’
‘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.
‘I do not believe in short cuts which involve violence. However much I may sympathize with and admire worthy motives, I am an uncompromising opponent of violent methods even to serve the noblest of causes. There is, therefore, really no meeting-ground between the school of violence and myself.’
It was not a personal God that the Mahatma believed in. He had the very, very deep and profound Hindu concept of Brahma-the all-prevading Reality, which is God in its various manifestations. It is that God that he believed in. To quote his own words:
‘To me God is Truth and Love; God is Ethics and Morality; God is fearlessness; God is the source of Light and Life, and yet He is above and beyond all these. He is even the atheism of the atheist; he transcends speech and reason.’
Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was well-versed in Indian culture, has written a poem called ‘Brahma’, where this very idea is memorably expressed:
‘They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.’
God is the doubter and the doubt, and God is the atheist and his atheism. In other words, there is just no escape from Him. The same thought was expressed by Francis Thompson in The Hound of Heaven. Ultimately the sceptic realizes that God has been by his side all the time.
Another sentence from Gandhiji: ‘Scriptures cannot transcend reason and truth; they are intended to purify reason and illuminate the truth.’ He tried to synthesize the essentials of all religions: ‘Indeed religion should pervade every one of our actions. Here religion does not mean sectarianism. It means a belief in ordered moral government of the universe. It is not less real because it is unseen. This religion transcends Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc. It does not supersede them. It harmonizes them and gives them reality.’
He identified himself completely with the common man. He spoke and he worked not for the ruler
‘but the ranker, the tramp of the road,
The slave with the sack on his shoulders
pricked on with the goad,
The man with too weighty a burden,
too weary a load.’
As regards the need of identifying oneself with the masses, he observed —
‘We must first come in living touch with them by working for them and in their midst. We must share their sorrows, understand their difficulties and anticipate their wants. With the pariahs we must be pariahs and see how we feel to clean the closets of the upper classes and have the remains of their table thrown at us. We must see how we like being in the boxes, miscalled houses, of the labourers of Bombay. We must identify ourselves with the villagers who toil under the hot sun beating on their bent backs and see how we would like to drink water from the pool in which the villagers bathe, wash their clothes and pots, and in which their cattle drink and roll. Then and not till then shall we truly represent the masses and they will, as surely as I am writing this, respond to every call.’
The Indian masses responded to the Mahatma’s Gall in a spirit of total surrender.
The Mahatma dealt with problems which are timeless and universal because they spring from enduring weaknesses of human nature and human society. Since the solutions he found for them were based on eternal verities, his influence and, his relevance are also timeless and universal.
On this second day of October, we can have no better wish for India than that the great spirit of the Mahatma may always abide with our people.
(Source – Palkhivala – Selected writings, Page 338)