To the Western mind, uninitiated in the Hindu religion or Indian politics, the title Mahatma has, until quite recently, carried with it a spiritualistic significance. Mahatmas appear at séances—or they did in Madame Blavatsky's time; and it was rightly concluded that their occult powers were acquired by the practice of an asceticism understood only in the East. One met mahatmas at Benares and Buddh Gaya, but one did not associate them with politics. Exactly when Mr. Gandhi became Mahatma Gandhi, it is difficult to say, for mahatmahood is not conferred on one after passing an examination; the word implies saintliness, and is the spontaneous tribute of a nation. Officially, I understand, this inconvenient saint, or politician, is still Mr. Gandhi.
Probably there is no figure in contemporary history who means so many different things to so many different people. To the incurious Westerner, the name of Gandhi calls up the picture of a saint, or a charlatan, art ascetic, fanatic, or freak. If he reads many newspapers, the Mahatma will appear in turn as patriot, martyr, high-souled idealist, and arch-traitor; evangelist, pacific quietist, and truculent tub-thumper and revolutionist; subverter of empires and founder of creeds, a man of tortuous wiles and stratagems, or, to use his own phrase, 'a single-minded seeker after truth'; generally, in the eyes of the tolerant who are without prejudice, a well-meaning but misguided politician. Certainly a complex figure. Probably very few, even of the Anglo-Indian community on whom his personality impinges directly, a very substantial incubus, have made up their minds which of these things he is.
It calls for more than a little sympathetic imagination in an official of the dominant race, to recognize the good points in a rebel. Nevertheless, Gandhi's honesty of purpose has been generally admitted by the Indian Government, by the Viceroy, as well as by the Secretary of State. The rage of a certain section of the British press with Mr. Montagu, when he admitted that Mahatma Gandhi was his friend, is understandable.
It was not easy, even for the Englishman in India, who knew something of the undercurrents of Indian politics and of the personalities who pulled the strings, to believe in his sincerity. To the man in the street, of course, the Mahatma was the incendiary, with the torch in his hand, and his gospel of nonviolence a not very ingenuous formula to protect his person while he applied the spark to the train that was to blow up the citadel. He inflamed the passions of the mob and invoked forbearance; to the ordinary Western mind these were the tactics of an arch-humbug. Did he really believe that the unlettered hordes in whom he instilled this festering race-hatred would submit tamely to their real or imagined wrongs? Even if he were an honest visionary in this, Christian Europe could only be shocked at the picture of 315,000,000 people constrained by the Mahatma's soul-force into the posture, enjoined by the Gospels, of turning the other cheek.
When I met Mr. Gandhi, I suggested that it was idle to stir up violence in the heart and to forbid violence by the hand. But he regarded me pityingly, as a materialist groping in the outer darkness yet with the embracing sympathy which he extends to all creatures. He believed that it was possible—possible in the spiritual East. And I knew that he was sincere.
In visualizing leaders of men, one illogically expects to find the alphabet of power or grace written in capital letters over their features. Gandhi bore no inscription. He looked as if he might quite possibly be a saint; he might equally well be a politician. I thought of him in the midst of ecstatic millions, and remembered hearing that he had only to lift his hand if he needed quiet, and the uproar of excitement that followed him everywhere would die away like the rustle of wind in the trees. I looked for the imprint of this forcefulness: it was not there. I understand now that the Mahatma's sway over the common people proceeds from no direct influence, but from rumor and the magnification on all men's lips of his saintliness.
In the West the man who is acclaimed a hero in his lifetime is generally a man of action, probably a general or a capitalist; holy men are, or used to be, canonized only after their death. But in the East, where spirituality is the standard, the mahatma is king. The masses, only in a less degree than the intelligentsia, are hero-worshipers. To their seeing, the physical frame of the elect, though it be a mere shell, is divinely charged when yet on the horizon, and they are prepared to prostrate themselves before him. If he be lean or fat, tall or short, such is divinity.
But there was nothing in Gandhi's appearance to discount his saintliness. He rose from the floor to receive me—a spare figure, enveloped in homespun blankets; a man of middle age, or so he appeared, bareheaded, with strong, close-cropped iron-gray hair, without the bodi, or Hindu tuft; very large ears, pierced in the centre of the lobe,—the punctures for earrings?—the only physical relic of vanity, if it had ever existed; the chin fine and clean-shaven expression alert, eyes penetrating, glance direct. He greeted me with gentle courtesy. His English idiom and accent were perfect. When I was seated, he subsided into his blankets again. He was not in the least voluble. His inclination was to give me the lead.