SAINTS & HEROES: Of Truth and Shame

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Son Ramdas set fire to the ghi-soaked wood with the charcoal he had carried, smoldering, all the way from Birla House. Nehru, Patel, Governor General Earl Mountbatten and his Lady threw last rose petals on the pyre as the white smoke of sweet-smelling sandalwood rose against the scarlet evening sun. From nearly a million throats came the chant, half in mourning, half in triumph: "Mahatma Gandhi amar ho gae!"—"Mahatma Gandhi has become immortal!"

"Is He Redly Great?" When Mahatma Gandhi was in London in 1931 to plead for Indian independence, a small girl started to ask for his autograph. Then she drew back shyly before the strange little dhoti-clad man with a cavernous mouth, jutting ears and scrawny neck. She looked up at her mother and asked: "Mummy, is he really great?"

Last week the answer from all continents was a fatuous yes. The answer missed the point; Gandhi was a rarer human being—a good man. He disturbed people by his goodness. He called himself "a Hindu of Hindus," and yet he put many a professing Christian to shame. "The spirit of the Sermon on the Mount," wrote the man who fitted the rubrics of the Beatitudes more comfortably than most Christians, "competes almost on equal terms with the Bhagavad-Gita for the domination of my heart."

"I Heartily Detest. . . ." From the Russian pacifist Count Leo Tolstoy and the American hermit-naturalist Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi learned the doctrines of nonviolence and deliberate, organized disobedience to unjust power. He said it was better to be poor and secure with a home spinning wheel than to be less poor and frightened with a great steel mill. He combined the elements into a belief of Christlike simplicity: oppose hate with love, greed with openhandedness, lust with self-control; harm no feeling creature. Of material progress, he said: "I heartily detest this mad desire to destroy distance and time."

The house where Gandhi died belonged to Ghanshyam Das Birla, owner of some of the largest textile mills in the world. Gandhi, who hated Birla's mills, loved Birla, whose devotion to Gandhi did not reach to Gandhi's anti-industrial ideas.

"Where We Have the Weapons. . ." Satyagraha (soulforce, or conquering through love) was the name Gandhi gave to mass nonviolent resistance. Potently he applied satyagraha against the British Raj. "The British," he wrote, "want us to put the struggle on the plane of machine guns. They have weapons and we have not. Our only assurance of beating them is to keep it on the plane where we have the weapons and they have not."

Yet Gandhi's weapon contained a measurable threat of violence in India. When Gandhi fasted, Britons sometimes dared not keep him in jail, lest a massive anger at his death in their hands engulf India. "I always get my best bargains behind prison bars," he once chuckled. When Gandhi fasted, Moslem, Hindu and Untouchable leaders had to promise to work better together, lest that anger of the masses be directed against them. No communal group, not the mighty British Raj itself, dared have Gandhi's blood on its hands.

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