A Day With Mahatma Gandhi

PERHAPS the simple detailed account of a single day with Mahatma Gandhi during his convalescence will, more than anything else, bring the Western reader much nearer to the heart of things in India. It may possibly, at the same time, leave him somewhat bewildered at the subtle differences of mental temperament which are so fascinating, and yet so baffling to trace down to their ultimate source. Without any question, in the East the power of religion over life has marvelously persisted. The ‘Ages of Faith’ are still being lived; and India is, above all others, the country where spirit rules over matter in the modern world. This is the deepest difference of all between East and West, and it is seen in Mahatma Gandhi most distinctly.

The day begins very early. At 4 A.M. the household assembles. We remain seated on mats upon the floor of the verandah in perfect silence. Sometimes the moon is shining through the waving palm trees outside. On other mornings all is dark. After the silence there follow Sanskrit verses, chanted in a monotone, and a hymn from some mediaeval saint. Then silence once more for a short time while we remain seated and after that each retires. Our united worship is now over. Each one goes apart and strict silence will be observed until the sun rises in the east.

I would mention, in a parenthesis, that prolonged early morning meditation is no unusual habit in India. With the poet, Rabindranath Tagore, it has become a natural custom to begin the day with this inner silence a very long time before the dawn. Often he thus enters upon the day soon after two o’clock in the morning and sits in silence till seven. It is the only way, he has told me, that the spirit can be controlled in all its moods and be made ready for the trials of the day. Others, whom I know well, have given me similar accounts of the process of their daily lives, by which the mastery of the soul is reached in the early dawn through meditation and silence.

Among the Sanskrit verses, recited in our household prayers with Mahatma Gandhi, are the following from the Bhagavad-Gita (I am quoting from Sir Edwin Arnold’s perfect translation, which is called The Song Celestial :

That man alone is wise,
Who keeps the mastery of himself! If one
Ponders on objects of the sense, there springs
Attraction; from attraction grows desire,
Desire flames to fierce passion. . . .
But if one deals with objects of the sense,
Not loving and not hating, making them
Serve his free soul, which rests serenely lord,
Lo! such a man comes to tranquillity.
And like the ocean, day by day receiving
Floods from all lands, which never overflows:
Its boundary-line not leaping, and not leaving,
Fed by the rivers, but unswelled by those,
So is the perfect one! To his soul’s ocean,
The world of sense pours streams of witchery;
They leave him as they find, without commotion,
Taking their tribute, but remaining sea.

As I have read that passage over and over again, it has given me an insight into the true mind and character of the East. Mahatma Gandhi carries out its precepts to the fullest extent. It remains ever the highest ideal to be reached; the pearl of great price, for which a man will sell all that he has, if only he may obtain it.

About seven o’clock in the morning Mahatma Gandhi has some milk and fruit. This is his staple food throughout the day even when he is well. Very soon after this, Pandit Radhakanta Malaviya arrives with his two little children carrying some white blossoms. The blossoms are laid at the Mahatma’s feet, and then the little ones run to his arms. They are not in the least afraid of the Hindu saint, who is very human where children are concerned. A portion of the Ramayana is read and studied on the roof. The sea murmurs on the beach and the palm trees wave their leaves backward and forward gently in the morning breeze. At eight o’clock this quiet time is broken. An endless tide of visitors begins to flow toward him. Each comes for advice; and it is strange to note how the political issues always take a philosophical turn before many minutes are over. This does not mean that the solution offered is any the less practical; but while the English mind quite naturally and instinctively looks to the immediate effect in politics, the Indian mind with equal naturalness of instinct looks to the remoter springs of action.

Let me give two examples from his ‘Noncooperation’ programme which may help to reveal its true character as a deeply religious movement. In the south of India the pariahs have been treated in the past as less than human beings. In the whole of India there are nearly sixty million people of the lowest castes who are called ‘Untouchables’ because it is still regarded as a pollution for an orthodox Hindu even to touch them. The Noncooperation workers have ardently set themselves against this oppression. Trusted leaders have begun to ‘noncoöperate’ with orthodox Brahminism in its strongholds of reaction. The very same ethics are being applied that are used against the bureaucracy itself. Hindu noncooperators, who are Brahmins, have taken with them outcaste Hindus and claimed an entrance to the Brahmin streets and quarters in Travancore State which hitherto have been strictly reserved against the so-called pollution of untouchables. They have offered themselves side by side with the untouchables who go with them, as ready to endure any assault, and even death itself, in order to break down this agelong tyranny. They will go on until the moral victory is achieved.

But the State Government could not permit disorder and breaches of the peace. So the police intervened. First of all, they arrested and imprisoned every one of these young adventurers in social freedom—both Brahmin noncoöperators and pariahs alike. Immediately others took their place. Then the leaders who were directing the movement were arrested and imprisoned. But as the number of arrests increased and it seemed likely that the prisons would be filled, the Travancore State authorities suddenly changed their programme. Those noncoöperating caste Hindus, who were offering to go through the Brahmin quarters in company with untouchables, were not arrested but were simply prevented from going forward. The police stood on guard night and day and blocked the road.

The moral tension grew more acute. Those who were seeking an entrance refused to take water or food till they were allowed to go through. Many of them fainted from exhaustion and were taken to the hospital where they continued their hunger strike.

By that time, the attention of Mahatma Gandhi had been directed to this new phase of the struggle against ‘untouchability.’ He called off the hunger strike immediately. Such a weapon, he said, might be used by a father against his son in purest love to bring his wayward son to repentance; but against an alien and impersonal system, such as a State, it surely became a weapon of anger. It did not connote the compulsion of pure love but the compulsion of dread and fear. I was present when two orthodox Brahmins came all the way from Travancore to see him on his verandah and to implore him to call off the struggle altogether. ‘Is the road a private or a public road?’ he asked. When they confessed to him that it was a public road and that only these poor outcastes of humanity were excluded, his face became drawn with pain. ‘The struggle must go on,’ he said. Many months have passed since then and this strange peaceful conflict, waged with the weapons of love, still goes on. The passive blockade still continues.

There is one problem, which perhaps has penetrated more deeply into the heart of Indian life at the present moment even than untouchability. It is called the ‘Hindu-Muslim’ problem. Forces of disruption have been at work and violent animosities have been excited which sometimes have tended to make even the mention of the word nonviolence a mockery in this connection. But the devotion of Musalmans to Mahatma Gandhi is entirely apart. His name among them is ‘a thing enskied and sainted.’ It has remained high above all this lower atmosphere of bitterness and party spirit. In spite of the storms that have been raging and the passions that have been roused the Musalman leaders have remained as true to Mahatma Gandhi as he has remained true to them. Day after day I have watched them coming to him in his verandah to pour out their love at his feet. From the touching scenes I have witnessed, one might almost gather that the warmest corner of his heart has been kept for them and they have found this out. He, in his singular personality, is the one binding force. It is strange indeed how the personal spiritual element has to come in in order to produce, out of this sharp religious contrast, human fusion. Here in his spirit is a supreme gift to Indian unity. Behind it lie whole centuries of mystical religion; for it is the same spirit as that of Kabir and Nanak and countless other saints of mediaeval India, who dared to proclaim that one God was being worshiped by Hindu and Musalman alike.

On two days in the week Mahatma Gandhi’ maintains complete silence. For he is the editor of two weekly papers, and he writes his editorials on these silent days. One of these papers is called Young India, and it is probably the most remarkable weekly newspaper in the world to-day. It contains no advertisements but only page after page from the editor’s exhaustless spring of new ideas written in compact English sentences with not a superfluous word. The other paper, called Nava Jivan (New Life), printed in Gujarati and Hindi, has by far the larger circulation. It is his pet child and he lavishes his best energies upon it. Even without advertisements its net profits had come to fifty thousand rupees a short time ago, all of which were handed over to the National Congress.

At noon he usually takes a very short rest for half an hour, but this is often made impossible by visitors. A full hour is afterward given by him to his son in teaching him Gujarati literature. Then he sits down to the spinning wheel. For to him the economic salvation of his country through the spinning wheel has become more than a mere doctrine. This ideal of his, that India should thus win her salvation, is a pure and passionate faith wherewith his very life has become enriched and enlarged. He inspires with his own enthusiasm anyone who comes within the orbit of his attraction. In spite of the fact that the doctor had forbidden spinning so soon after his serious illness he found that he could not keep away from it any longer; and even though it may tire him physically it is certainly a great relief to the mental strain of the day.

That strain becomes the hardest to bear in the evening. For the crowd will insist on gathering in large numbers; and among them are always the poorest of the poor. For those poor people his sympathies are ever ready to be given to the fullest limit of his endurance. But when the time of sunset comes sheer physical weariness at last makes even his indomitable spirit yield before its urgent demand for rest. A short walk, very slowly, along the beach at sunset, the evening prayers, and again the silence of meditation— these bring the long day to a close. He sleeps well and thus recuperates his strength.

Since this was written, Mahatma Gandhi, all too soon, has left his home of convalescence by the seaside and has returned to his own Asram, or religious retreat, at Sabarmati, where his work is far more strenuous. From that place he is now directing the whole Indian national movement along the pathway of nonviolence.