It may be well for people in America to receive at first hand a brief account of some of those characteristics in Mahatma Gandhi which make him the greatest spiritual influence in Indian political life at the present time.
My own experience of him has been probably more intimate than that of any other Englishman; for I have had the unspeakable and inestimable privilege of his friendship, not only in India, but in South Africa. Therefore I am able to write from what I myself have seen and heard and known.
The most vivid impression of him, which stands out in my mind today, as I write this article, is that which I obtained during a very long and tiring day in Durban, South Africa, during the final act in the drama of the Passive Resistance Struggle. It was midsummer in the Southern Hemisphere, and the heat that day was terrific. There were, at the time, twenty thousand passive resisters, who were all making their preparations to march over the high veldt into the Transvaal in order to court arrest. They aimed at getting rid, once and for all, of the degrading system of Indian indentured labour, whereby the labourers, who had passed through their five years of indenture on the sugar plantations, were obliged to go back once more under indenture, or else to pay a poll tax of 3 pounds for every man, woman and child over 13 years of age, a thing that it was almost impossible for these poverty stricken labourers to do.
The racial insult of that poll tax had rankled long in people’s mind in South Africa, and Mahatma Gandhi had at last shown them a way by which they might obtain salvation. They were to undertake a long march, which should be a kind of pilgrimage, into the Transvaal, appealing to the generosity and pity of human hearts which would be moved by such a sum of suffering.
On that day, which so vividly impressed itself upon my memory, the Indian labourers from the sugar plantations had left their work in a body and had come into Durban to meet Mahatma Gandhi. Already four thousand had gone forward, as a kind of advance guard, some weeks ago, and these had all been arrested and imprisoned. Mahatma Gandhi had been imprisoned also, and been released so as to come in terms. But when the withdrawal of the poll tax was refused he began again the struggle with greatly increased forces. The women and children who joined in this strange army were almost as numerous as the men. In all the history of the world, such a warfare, carried on by defenseless people, has hardly ever been witnessed. The whole effort was profoundly Christian in its bearing for those who had eyes to see and ears to hear and understand.
At 110, Field Street, Durban, the headquarters of the campaign, was Parsee Rustomjee, a merchant, who had been all along a devout and courageous follower of Mahatma Gandhi and had himself faced a long imprisonment. Near to his shop were Mohammedan merchants, who were also helping in the struggle. The great bulk of the Indian labourers were Hindus, very many were "untouchables." But all were united together and equally loved by the one personality, whose leadership was unchallenged, Mahatma Gandhi.
At that time he was very little known, and his long passive resistance effort had gone on year after year almost unrecognized by the world at large. The Indians had silently suffered and endured. But then, at the end of 1913, things had come out into the open. General Smuts was the protagonist on one side and Mahatma Gandhi on the other.
The whole day long the crowds of passive resisters assembled in Parsee Rustomjee’s courtyard. It was thronged almost to suffocation. The women and children were in the center, the men overflowed into the streets.
All through the long day I watched the behaviour of the crowd and their attitude towards Mahatma Gandhi, their leader. It was there for the first time that I could understand the secret of this amazing influence with his fellow countrymen and the reason for their devotion to him. I can only describe this briefly by saying that my thoughts went back to the Gospel story for an analogy. He was there, in the heart of that multitude that pressed upon him. They had come to him without anything to eat; and he was busy providing for their needs. An infinite tenderness and compassion shone from his eyes, while the mothers brought their little children to him, so that he might lay his hands upon them and bless them. The crowd would never leave him even for a moment and his patience was inexhaustible. He had no time for himself to rest or take his own meal while he supplied others with food, for they went on pressing upon him and he would not turn them away.
As I have often in memory looked back upon that scene and afterwards recalled many other pictures also of a similar character I have been able from time to time to find the parallels I needed in history. Sometimes the scenes I have witnessed have reminded me of stories about the Buddha. But most often my thoughts have turned to the legends concerning St. Francis of Assisi. Mahatma Gandhi is, most nearly of any one I know, the St. Francis of this modern age, the Little Brother of the Poor.
There is another side, and it flames forth on certain occasions in a manner quite unlike St. Francis. This attitude is more near to the historical parallel of Savonarola. For instance, with his mind aflame at the sufferings of the poor and the luxuries of the rich, he ordered bonfires to be made of foreign clothes and ornaments on the beach at Bombay, where nearly three hundred thousand people had assembled in excitement. There he mounted the great pile and himself applied the flaming torch at night, while the vast crowd raised shouts that rent the sky. This temperament must be reckoned with in his nature; but it is true to say that such puritanical fervour is never the deepest thing about him. The deepest side of his nature is to be found in his infinite tenderness and compassion and sacrifice for others and in the pure and radiant joy in poverty and suffering which binds his own heart to the poorest of the poor and also binds their hearts to him.
I have seen him in his own province of Gujarat, in the very midst of the country, entirely away from all big towns, under the full moon and the open sky. Yet even there the crowds had followed him. At the news of his coming, people had flocked in such numbers that the whole of one vast untilled area was covered by them as they camped out for the night. At the meeting place they were packed closely together on the hard dry ground, waiting for hours together in patience, eager to see his face and to obtain his blessing upon themselves and their little children. The crowd of women there was practically as great as the crowd of men.
So dense was the crowd on the occasion I am referring to that the platform on which he sat and from which he spoke was placed in the middle of a great field which was bare at that time of year. As I sat near him at the center it was hard to see how far the crowd extended back in all directions behind him as well as in front of him. I was obliged to leave before the end of the meeting and walked through the crowd with difficulty. By the number of steps I took to get out I reckoned that the crowd every side was between 150 to 200 yards deep. Thus the whole country round had flocked in to see and hear Mahatmaji. There was a religious ceremony of a partial eclipse of the moon that night, but no one left his place. The one religious ceremony, which all the villagers were bent on was the sight of Mahatma Gandhi himself.
Such then is the influence of Mahatma Gandhi in India today. His imprisonment has not weakened that influence. He is today even greater than before, because it is based on a firmer foundation of understanding. His whole heart was set on love and unity and peace.