To many British people in the second quarter of the century, M. K. Gandhi was the voice of Christian conscience, unnervingly embodied in a Hindu who was called Mahatma. Like the primitive Christians, he too was embarrassingly pacifist, and yet with a faint undertone of ambiguity (what was Peter, a fisherman, doing with a sword in Gethsemane garden ?). Aldous Huxley wrote “Grey Eminence,” a study of a mediaeval saint- politician who had been the adviser of Richelieu, and which was supposed to be an acute analysis of the gradual corruption of pure spirituality by concern with politics. Many British people never quite made up their minds about Gandhi—his references to the “Satanic” British Raj made them wonder what adjectives he thought appropriate to the tyrannies of Hitler, Stalin, or the Japanese ultra-nationalists, and wonder further why he never seemed to apply them.
Dr. Hari Prasad Shastri, did not agree with Gandhi’s insistence on immediate independence for India; he believed that India would teach Britain the high spirituality of the Upanishads while Britain was to help India to organize. But Dr. Shastri said that the lesson of Gandhi’s life is, that an ideal should be chosen and pursued without the least self-interest, and in a spirit of devotion to God.
If we look at the Indian lyrics which Gandhi translated while imprisoned, we shall see that the greatest attraction for him was the devotional poetry of the Yaishnava school. Poems of Surdas, Tulsidas, Ramdas, Tukaram and Mirabai fill most of the book, though there are a few verses from the Upanishads, very freely translated, at the beginning. Gandhi was impressed by Ramakrishna, but he was not drawn to his Upanishadic mysticism; he saw himself as a servant of God, to be active in this worldly life to his last breath, and to demonstrate the unity of the divine spirit by breaking down the caste barriers in India.
Socially, his life-work was to be to rouse the spirit of unselfish service in his fellow-countrymen. It has been said that no people has placed its heel on the neck of the conquered so ruthlessly as the conquering Aryans did; the plight of the sixty-four million of the so-called Untouchables was pitiable indeed. In some of the more bigoted regions, especially in the south, the mere sight of an Untouchable was a pollution to a high-caste Brahmin. If a judge were a Brahmin, and the defendant an Untouchable, the defendant might not even be able to come into the court, but would have to follow events as best he could from outside. (It did not follow that the verdict would necessarily be unfair.)
Gandhi was determined to break down these prejudices; his propaganda for the “children of God” or Harijans, as he called the Untouchables, made the same disturbing appeal to the spirituality of India which his pacifism made to the Christian ideals of the British. Sublime, of course,—but is it practical? Like many of the British people, they bowed their heads in reverence, but found they could not follow it.
Moreover Gandhi was handicapped by the fact that he was himself only of the Vaishya or merchant class—the lowest of the superior castes. He was however indirectly helped by the fact that there had been Brahmins who had abandoned their caste pretensions and deliberately gone out to mix with the lowest castes.
The teacher of Dr. Shastri, Pandit Narayan Prasad, was one of the first to do this; the great sacrifices he made in this cause are described in detail in the book Shri Dada Sanghita. He risked his life by opposing the fanatical bigotry of some of his fellow Brahmins, but in the end others joined him, and our own teacher Dr. Shastri gave up the exclusiveness of his caste in this way. Without this movement from within the the highest caste of Brahmins, Gandhi’s campaign would perhaps have had far less success.
Gandhi was not a mystic, and though he admired Ramakrishna, when he was asked to write a foreword to a life of that Yogi, he could only summon up one short paragraph. But he often sought inspiration from the thought of Ramakrishna in his own life-long struggle to sublimate his sex instinct. He makes innumerable references to his efforts, which were based on morality and the ideal of keeping himself pure to serve God, without the benefit of any of the mystical practices which Ramakrishna had used. In the end he succeeded, and just as Ramakrishna manifested the characteristic glow which traditionally emanates from the successful Tantrik who has sublimated the love-impulse in him, so a number of people— including sceptical outsiders—said they had noticed a glow when meeting Gandhi.
Some of his instructions to his disciples on the subject give an idea of his humour. One of the women disciples complained to him that the attentions of young men bothered her. “That is because of your looks; shave off your hair,” he told her. Later she met him again and he asked her how it was now. “The young men have stopped coming,” she said artlessly, “but my feelings remain the same!” He laughed, and told her that she now understood the problem.
One of his great characteristics was his capacity to bring out the idealism of others. When the present writer was in Calcutta, severe rioting broke out between Hindus and Muslims. The area was a peculiarly sensitive one, because in the city itself there was a Muslim majority, whereas in the country round about the Hindus predominated. So that there could be a momentary triumph by one side in the city, to be overset when reinforcements arrived from outside. Moreover Calcutta had one of the biggest criminal underworlds of any city, and they came out to fan the riots and take advantage of the looting that followed.
When Gandhi arrived in the city, he proposed to the Mayor, of course a Muslim, that they should live together in the Mayor’s house as an example to the public. The Mayor agreed. On the evening of the first day, they appeared together on the Mayor’s balcony, which faced on one of the big squares where a mob had assembled. The mob began to stone them, and the two men stood side by side on the balcony. Gandhi began to sing the names of God, “Gopal, Krishna,” and to dance. He was hit by a stone and the blood streamed down from his head, but this man in his seventies continued to sing and dance while the Mayor stood with him. After a time the stones began to stop and the mob changed its feeling. Gandhi and the Mayor each made a short address calling for unity as between Brothers.
The listeners dispersed quietly, and there was no further rioting in the city.
Two favourite hymns of Mahatma Gandhi
He is called a devotee of Vishnu who is conscious of the pain of others,
Who relieves another’s suffering, and who is free from conceit.
He is a servant of all; he never speaks ill of others.
His thought, word and action spring from a fixed righteous conviction,
And they are under His control.
He is a friend of all; he has no pleasure-thirst;
He never speaks a lie, nor touches the property of others;
He is free from attachment, and his feeling of dispassion is complete.
He ever sings the name of Rama,
And he sees the objects of pilgrimage in his own Self.
He is without greed or deceit, and has given up anger and lust.
Says Narasi: the company of such a man is a means of deliverance from the world.
O Madhava, how can 1 break the noose of ignorance ?
The inner knot cannot be unravelled by even a thousand outer means.
In the hollow of a tree there dwells a bird; such is the case with me.
The unenquiring mind is not purified by any outer means;
The snake in the hole is not killed by beating the mouth of the hole.
Says Tulsidas; the pure wisdom comes
Only through the grace of Hari and one’s own Guru.
Without the spiritual wisdom no one can cross the ocean of existence.