A lonely pilgrim spreading the message of peace in East Bengal:
Winston Churchill called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi a “half-naked fakir” and in response, Gandhi (or affectionately Bapuji or Ghandiji) said “yes, I am trying to be both”. And seriously he was. He was educated as a lawyer and called to the bar in London. He tried in every manner to be a “proper Englishman” and even tried to raise his sons as such. He returned to his hometown in Gujarat and tried to become a successful lawyer but his shy nature made it difficult for him to present cases in court. He finally found his voice in South Africa where here he was sent to mediate a settlement between two Indian businessmen. He was kicked out of a first class seat onto the railway platform because there was “no such thing as an “Indian” lawyer in the South Africa of that time and all Indians were treated as coolies. He started his civil disobedience campaign there to protect the rights of his fellow Indians as rightful citizens of the Empire under one King. His civil disobedience or “satyagraha” was like a science to him which he sought to perfect with each non-violent campaign – this would one day prove a formidable weapon, based on love and truth, against the British Rule in the fight for Indian Independance or Swaraj. He returned to India now garbed in the prison clothes of his fellow satyagrahis and not long after that he would be seen only in a dhoti (of home-spun or khadi), a blanket with a bamboo cane, this was the garment that the starving villagers wore, whose plight came about because their own countrymen where buying cloth from the English mills instead of from the villages of India. Gandhi then began to revive homespinning using the charka or spinning wheel which became the symbol of the fight for Independence. He also made improvements to the spinning wheel. In his ashram, each member had to finish their quotas of thread from the spinning wheel. The most remarkable campaign was the Dandi salt march to repeal the Salt tax and effectively the monopoly the colonists had on salt manufacture. This walk started on the 12th March 1930 from his Satyagraha Ashram and brought them to Dandi at Jalalpur on the 5th April (25 days, 241 miles). The next morning on the 6th April (which was incidentally the day of the anniversary of the Jallianwala massacre), the great soul (Mahatma), broke the salt law by picking up some salt from the beach. Afterall, he announced, the salt came from the Indian ocean and every Indian had the right to make salt for their own use.
I stop here and I feel that any summary or abstract of his life and his achievements in bringing India swaraj without going in-depth into his life and his thoughts and his actions just is not enough to really grasp the propensity of this man. Reading a generalised historical account is like looking at a mountain peak from afar, like tourists admiring scenary, failing to really embark on an adventure climbing the beautiful trails and seeing first hand what beauty lies along each path, taking in the sights and smells and sounds. The story of his life has become like a mountain and each book a path onto which one discovers yet another remarkable aspect, insight. There are numerous writings (and I have only read a small fraction) – by him, about him and around him; each seems to have a different reflection of his life. His life was extraordinary and even Albert Einstein famously remarked “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”
It all started when I happened to eye a DVD of “Gandhi” by Richard Attenborough (link) at my parents house. Ben Kingsley was bloody good. After I was swept away by that wonderfully-made epic. I was on Gandhi-mania, I wanted to know more. His simplicity and greatness, paradoxically superimposed, really spoke to my heart. He was like Jesus, Mother Teresa… I went on the net and found the autobiography he wrote “An Autobiography OR The story of my experiments with truth”. What an insight! He really potrayed himself simply and the main theme, resounding throughout the text was “truth”. I still wonder what this truth really means. (Incidentally, in one morning mass I attended, I had heard “The truth is in your heart”). From Experiments with Truth, I was led to the “Moral basis of vegetarianism”. There he argued that to be a vegetarian one had to base it on morality. Some based it on health reasons and thus couldn’t stick to such a diet. Control of the palate was a precursor to control of the senses. I recall reading the Ramayana where Rama was approached a rishi and asked politely if he had gained control over his diet. He wrote many other things and he was prolific as a writer, editor and publisher; he believed that some form of publication was necessary to keep a community together. When he tired with one hand, he would write with the other, till his pencil became a stub. It has been just over 6 months from the time I got introduced to the great soul and I must have watched the DVD as many times. I haven’t tired of it. From the readings I also learnt that Gandhi fought for the emancipation of women and the equality of status for the untouchables whom he fondly referred to as the Harijans or God’s children. His favourite verses of the bible were from the Sermon on the Mount. He read from the Gita, Koran and the Bible during his prayer meetings. The three monkeys seeing no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil, he referred to as his Gurus. At the end of his life, his only possessions were his clothes, spectacles, two pairs of sandals, his walking stick, his metal bowl (a memorabilia from one of the prisons he was held in) and a few other things. He truly live his life simply, one based on bramacharya or non-possession. Here was man who truly lived by his principles and those principles were tough ones to live by.
Then I remembered that when I was a teenager, I saw my sister having a rather thick book on Gandhi. It was The Gandhi Reader and I went back to my parents’ place and ransacked the bookshelves to find it there waiting, for more than a decade, for my eyes to pour over the book. Besides his autobiography, the compilation also consists of many letters written by him, to him. I found the most beautiful discourse between the Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore whom Gandhi called the Great Sentinel. Tagore was the first Asian to receive a Nobel Laureate for Literature. It was Tagore who first referred to Gandhi as the Mahatma or Great Soul. It is said that Gandhi had regarded Tagore as his moral equal and the two shared a great friendship. They wrote open letters to each other when Gandhi’s campaign for swaraj gained speed; Tagore often disagreed and argued against Gandhi’s ideologies and/or actions. Especially when Gandhi took up his fasts-unto-death. Tagore remonstrated him eloquently on how he would be able to do more service alive than dead and that his fasts were passive (Gandhi was a fervent advocate of proactiveness) and ran against his philosophy of action. At the time of this I am reading Rabindranath Tagore, An Anthology. I guess this is reading around the Great Soul. Reading Gandhi stirs the mind, reading Tagore stirs the soul. I found another exceptionally engrossing book “Freedom at Midnight” by Dominique Lappierre that details the events leading to the Independence of India that, well, took place at midnight. The events are recounted around figures such as Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru (Prime Minister), Sadar Vallabhbhai Patel (Deputy Prime Minister), Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Prime Minister, Pakistan) and Lord Mountbatten (Last Viceroy). Lappierre weaves the story (with all the well researched facts) so well, that it enraptures the reader. Well there are lots more to write and read about the great Bapu of India. It is really a rich tapestry surrounding the Father of India, India’s Independence and all those writings. But this is beginning to read like a thesis. So, has all this reading enriched me, I wonder? At times, it seems like my real education has just begun. Perhaps from the time I was streamed into science in Sec 3, I neglected other spheres of learning. I have consumed much, as a friend has put it, and now I just needed to write this to purge some out. I watched the DVD again a few says back and in a scene where he was talking to his close friend the Reverend Charles Freer, he said, “Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.”