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The Message of Gandhi1

By Edgar Snow*

[*Mr. Snow (1905-1972), an American journalist, stationed in China from 1928 to 1940, is the author of Red Star over China (1937) and other books on the Chinese revolution. He interviewed Gandhiji a few days before his assassination.]

What I remember about being at Birla House the night Gandhi was killed was how much more terrible a moment it was than anyone can describe in words.  A bright moon must have been out.  Yet in my recollection the night was black, except for the light that shone from the room where Gandhi slept.  The garden was soon crowded, but it continued empty, and the faces looked as if their owners were far off.  It was the way it was when Roosevelt slipped on, in this sense.  Men and women did not really grieve for the family or even for Gandhi, who died almost instantly and who through the window over the low porch could be seen lying with a face serene and peaceful.  But each man mourned for something in himself left without a friend, a personal sorrow, as if fate had seized an intimate treasure that one had always assumed would be there.

Every Indian lost his father when Gandhi died.  That is a plain fact, and it could never have been more so of any national hero.  Yet here was something that meant more than that.  This small man, so full of a large love of men, extended beyond India and beyond time.  And he took the world into himself, or the part of it that felt his pull psychically or rationally or solely by the erosion of years, as in my own case.  There was a mirror in the Mahatma in which everyone could see the best in himself, and when the mirror broke, it seemed that the thing in oneself might be fled forever.  And that was what Nehru meant when his first words that night were "The light has gone out of our lives."

No non-Indian around felt the quality of the hour more painfully than Vincent Sheean, I think, who had stood ten yards from the spot where the sad young fool from Poona had fired the fatal shots.  I walked the garden with him and felt a respect for his awareness.  He kept repeating, "We've lost our guru [teacher].  The world has lost its guru.  Now there is no one to tell us the answers.  This is the end for us."

Surely that must look maudlin in American print.  Yet it was what had to be said at that moment, in that darkness, in that stillness when the clocks stopped.  It was a kind of world cry of desperation rising from all men conscious of an apocalypse that has made a rendezvous for us.  A few days earlier, Gandhi had looked into me, and after gently rebuking me for something I wrote about him long ago, he had said, "You are more ready to listen to me now, I know."  And I understood that he was talking about the atom bomb and the far worse bacteriological weapons, and a world arbitrarily "divided into two irreconcilable camps," that we had all got as our answer in the war he wouldn't fight.

Sheean had come all the way from "Personal History" and Western philosophy and Freudianism and dialectical materialism and disillusionment in the war - the failure of the righteous battle to win peace and understanding - to sit at Gandhi's side after months of patient study and preparation, as a child and student to look into the mirror of the old man's heart.

I don't pretend to have understood Gandhi or to have moved upon the stage where I could take in the metaphysics of his philosophy or his personal dialogues with God.  I am an agnostic and  pragmatist, an ex-Catholic turned Taoist, a Hegelian fallen among materialists, and one who chastised the Mahatma  for denying the righteous battle in 1942 and for leading his "open rebellion" against our allies, the British.  For years I had felt out of sympathy with him.  Yet even in this dull clod, the avatar had finally struck a spark before he died, when in my last visit, I became conscious of my size in the mirror of him, and I saw him as a giant.

I understood that day where all his power and light came from because I went to him in a chastened mood.  Though it was obviously his quality, and had been there all the time, it came to me as an inner  discovery, and because I had never before been ready to accept it as the fresh spring of his might.

Nehru knew what the thing in Gandhi was, and he had repeated it often enough for the world to know, as Gandhi had himself.  But it was really said when he left the Mahatma's quiet body at Birla House and came out to try to tell India what it was that she had lost.

"The greatest prayer that we can offer is to take a pledge to dedicate ourselves to the truth," he told the AIR, "and to the cause for which this great countryman of ours has died."

The immediate cause was Hindu-Muslim unity and the peace of men, but in the simplest and most profound reading, Gandhi died in an honest search for the truth, and, in the end, all men came to see it and felt it shining in him.  From impressions I have had of him since I met him on the slopes of Simla in 1931, and out of the many books that have been written of him and the countless others to come, no more can be proved than that.  Many seek the truth as many would become painters, or musicians, or writers, or actors, but few leave masterpieces behind as Gandhi did.  He attained a genius with truth and became part of its immortality.  He concentrated on eternal truths between men to the exclusion of everything else.  He was a servant in abject humility before his wondrous medium, and all his teachings were faces of it.

Gandhi won national independence for more millions of people than any other leader of men, and with less bloodshed, and that was the truth.  He showed the weak and the poor how to struggle without taking  life, and that was the truth.  He spent years in jail for the national cause, and once he helped conduct the prosecution against himself after violence occurred in a civil-disobedience movement.  He broke the system of indentured Indian labour in South Africa.  He won respect for Indians and restored the self-respect of men who had humiliated them.  He fought colour and racial discrimination everywhere.  And all that was the truth.  He laid the foundations for a national language which would bring men close together regardless of creed, and he nursed and tended the sick and the helpless to teach men kindliness and self-sacrifice.  Against 3000 years of prejudice he raised a crusade for the human rights of 50,000,000 untouchables, and he opposed the bigotry and dogmatism and the hateful orthodoxy of the caste system with more success than any Indian since Gautama Buddha.

Gandhi never ceased to try to unite his countrymen and indeed the whole world under the homely injunctions common to all faiths: individual perfection, tolerance, humility, love of nature (God), equality, brotherhood and co-operation.  He won a host of non-violent battles for reform.  Of course, he made mistakes and took false turnings, and he was the first to impose suffering on himself when he wrongly advised others.  But each of his efforts, including his last fast to prevent war, was for Gandhi some part of the truth or his endless quest for it.

"Gandhi has an intuitive understanding of the masses that I lack," Jawaharlal Nehru once told me.  The "intuition" was his grasp of certainty, the glimpses of truth which he passed on to others.  And no one who went down to the bank of the Jumna to watch the cremation could doubt that it was his supreme moment of victory in the great cause he has served all his life.  His apotheosis was complete, and the behaviour of the crowd was part of the last act in his sacred drama.

In the middle of the flat open space running a mile wide beside the river and below the old Mogul fort and the palace of Shah Jehan, a small brick platform waited to receive him.  Before the body arrived, we got past the armed guards to the pyre on which sandalwood was piled, sprinkled with oil and frank-incense, myrrh and other spices.  The cortege had taken four hours to wind down from New Delhi, and it was a triumphal procession accompanied by the entire cabinet and all Gandhi's comrades of the years.  It reached the centre of the field shortly after Lord and Lady Mountbatten and their aides had seated themselves on the grass beside the pyre.  Nehru and other men stood above the body strewn with rose petals, and tenderly laid sandalwood upon him and spread ghee and honey and almond paste and perfumes over him as women filed past in the homage of dharshan and the air filled with hymns.

We sat near the edge of the pyre, and between us and the million people was the wide space of green held open by many troops.  But all at once the cordons were broken, the mass surged in upon us.  It became difficult to move or breathe, and the fist of humanity thrust powerfully into our backs.  The picture came into my mind of how it looked from the air.  Only a tiny space where Gandhi rested, waiting to be burned, stood out from the immense masses of men pushing ever nearer the pyre, the governor general and his ladies, the pyromani­acs of the press.  What a fitting end if someone had lighted the sandalwood and the whole centre of the hard flower had burst into flames!

It was as if all India were desperately trying to enter Gandhi, or hold back his soul, or keep something of himself which had lived there and which now he feared to release.  Troops broke in and slowly cleared a space round the pyre, so that Gandhi could go up alone in peace in a wisp of smoke that drifted across the Jumna toward the setting sun, but not before sobbing women had been dragged from him, fainting or struggling to mount the flames.

Afterward I asked myself, as every man must, whether Gandhi had really taken his mirror with him.  Can anyone now apply his technique for the redemption of a world which seems bent on following his train of smoke?

Gandhi's teachings are written in monumental volume, but here I am chiefly concerned with understanding his political method and the lessons it may have for us.  I think it may be fairly summarised by saying that he became an avatar for three reasons.  He embodied man's need for meditation based on attainment of individual moral perfection, man's need for collective reform in social justice and equality, and man's need of an effective means to achieve individual and collective reform by non-violent action.

We have had many teachers with answers to one or two of these needs, but Gandhi was the only man in our time who combined all three in his dynamic truth with highly positive results.  Yet he was humble in his consciousness of failure.  A few days before he was killed, he told me that he had lately become aware that "our fight for independence was not entirely one without war."

"I was fooling myself to believe that all our actions for independence were non-violent," he said.  "But God blinded my vision, and if I really believed that we were acting non-violently at the time, perhaps God wanted to use me for his purpose.  Now I think that in reality it was nothing more than the passive resistance of the weak."

He had become acutely conscious of this distinction as a result of the post-independence conflict between the religious communities, which clearly taught him that many had never understood or followed him in spirit.

"But I think I have made a small contribution to the world," he told me in that low but curiously steady voice.  "I have demonstrated that ahimsa (non-violence) and Satyagraha [soul force or non-violent non-co-operation in its political meaning] are more than ethical princi­ples.  They can achieve practical results."

Of the three needs or truths about modern man which Gandhi personified, it was the first - the attainment of inner purity - which was his hardest task.  But it was the foundation of all his influence with the Indian people. When Rabindranath Tagore first called him "the great soul" (Mahatma), it was in recognition of his attainment of arya-dharma, or "the religion of the noble soul."  Gandhi was a puritan, but he was not a bigot.  Thus, when I asked whether it was from Hindu, Muslim, Christian or other scriptures that he had first got his inspiration, he replied that the lesson was to be found in every great teaching, not just religious.  The identity of truth with all other virtues had first struck him on reading the Vedas, but for him all truth was religion.

"There is no greater religion than truth," he quoted from Hindu scriptures.

One thing he could not abide was lying, and he knew a lie when he saw one, whether in the party press or from the pulpit of the church, and whether it was from an enemy or propaganda for a cause in which he believed.

"For me, means and ends are practically identical," he said.  "We cannot attain right ends by way of falsehoods."

Gandhi thought he had to put that into practice internally as well as externally, and that he could not lead Indians to freedom until he had freed himself.  He early decided that renunciation precedes certainty and precedes truth, and all his asceticism sprang from that tireless search - his preference for "innocent food," his rejection of wine and tobacco, his refusal to own anything, his brahmacharya, or self-restraint in sex, his many other abstentions.

"Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote that is in thy brother's eye."  He himself never claimed that he had cast out the beam and he never called himself the Mahatma.  It was his fellow men who recognised it and elevated him to power and authority he never acknowledged.

In Gandhi's teachings and writings, I think you will find no lies,  no meanness, no slander, no dogmatism, no hypocrisy, no fear, no arrogance, no false pride, no hatred, no claims of infallibility.  His "inner voice" - and for him God was simply "an indefinable, mysterious power that pervades everything" - spoke gently always, and humbly, and it was the mirror in him which made bright the truth in other men and reflected and magnified it into a great light.  He followed Buddha in employing the actions and arguments of love for dynamic ends.

"Speak the truth," Buddha said, "and let a man overcome anger by love; let him overcome the liar by truth."

Like Buddha, too, it was Gandhi's urge to liberate man which set him apart from the mass of mystics who seek only realisation of self in the anti-social practice of asceticism.  Many people will misinterpret him as a mere saint or crazy idealist, and he has often been so lampooned in the West.  But "politics divorced from religion have absolutely no meaning for me," he said, and he demonstrated that the epigram also applied in reverse.  He was a practical social reformer and, in the true dialectical sense, a great revolutionary.  For Gandhi in himself was the living synthesis of good means and good ends.

Gandhi was often misunderstood, by myself among others, for his tolerance of the corrupt rich and powerful, and for his concessions to them.  But on this visit to India he made me see clearly that he was always and everywhere with the oppressed and the downtrodden.  Going back through his works, you won't find in retrospect that he ever compromised with wealth and power in either British or Indian hands, except for what he thought were the best interests of the people.  One must comprehend Gandhi as a national leader who during most of his life served as the focus of infinitely varied and complex social forces which he had to unite for his main purpose.  And once he had achieved national independence he began to throw the weight of his whole personality on the side of the progressive thesis of international reform and regeneration.

"Gandhi is always on the progressive side of things," India's Socialist leader, Jai Prakash Narain, told me only a few days before the murder.  "Gandhi is our mightiest force against all the most backward elements in Indian society."

Like Marx, Gandhi hated the state and wished to eliminate it, and he told me he considered himself "a philosophical anarchist."  But he was a practical so­cialist in that he never opposed the state as a necessary instrument in achieving social democracy, though democracy as he understood it is certainly not to be confused with the kind of police state ruled by the Kremlin…

"Strictly speaking," Gandhi once said, "all amassing or hoarding of wealth above and beyond one's legitimate requirements is theft.  There would be no occasion for theft, and therefore no thieves, if there were wise regulations of wealth and absolute social justice."

He wanted social ownership of large industry combined with a co-operative agrarian economy and small industrial co-operatives such as those in China that I had told him about.  But he wanted the state to take over by peaceful means, and he "would not dispossess moneyed men by force, but would invite their co-operation in the process of conversion to state ownership.  There are no pariahs in society.  Whether they are millionaires or paupers, the two are sores of the same disease."

Gandhi said that he had "accepted the theory of socialism" even "while I was in South Africa thirty years ago.  The basis of socialism is economic equality.  There can be no rule of God in the present state of iniquitous inequalities in which a few roll in riches and the masses do not get enough to eat."

In a country where 20 percent of the population are always slowly starving, where another 40 percent get just barely enough to eat, and where there are at the same time some of the very wealthiest men in the world, Gandhi knew that a struggle for collective reform was imperative.  In his last editorial in Harijan, he upbraided the Congress Party, which "but yesterday was the servant of the nation," but having "won political freedom, has yet to win economic freedom, social freedom and moral freedom."

He was under no delusions that India's emancipation had more than just begun.  "The hardest tasks lie ahead," he said in the "difficult ascent to democracy."  Ending on a note which for him was almost a thunderbolt of wrath, he declared, "Thank God [the Congress] is now no longer in sole possession of the field!"

And the world question is: Can Gandhi's technique be applied without Gandhi?  Surely the first answer must come from India itself, where the master's teachings are specific and clear.  No one who spoke to him in his last days and who could follow his idiom at all can doubt that he was deeply dissatisfied with the corruption in government and the failure to extirpate the weedy communal groups which were sponsoring violence and the persecution of Muslims.  That the influence of these groups had even permeated the government to some degree seemed clear when Gandhi launched his last fast in protest against failure to establish Hindu-Muslim amity.

Gandhi was on Nehru's side in the government - the liberal-democratic side which accepted his program of "social justice."  And he repeatedly said that Jawaharlal was his political heir.  Until his death, the right wing seemed to be winning out, but it was "playing with fire," the Mahatma is said to have told one visitor.  It is a harsh thing now to impute to anyone the faintest responsibility for neglecting to curb organisations which Gandhi deplored, and which finally killed him.  But it was Gandhi himself who, when I questioned him about his own attitude toward the government, told me that many of its policies did not have his approval, and volunteered, "It used to be said that Vallabhbhai Patel was my yes-man, but that is now a joke.  I have no more influence on him."…

What remains to be revealed is whether the body of men and women who now shape the destiny of India can summon among themselves the collective discipline and the inner purity necessary to command the love and following which Gandhi's death left unclaimed, in order to impose the social progress and the promised justice and equality for which men believe the  Mahatma died.  The odds are  overwhelmingly against it, yet no more than they were when Gandhi first began his fight against the mightiest empire in history.

It is a heavy responsibility to carry before the eyes of the world, the heritage of a saint who declared himself socialist.  But if these children to whom he has now entrusted the nation may find new ways of synthesising the needs of man, as he did in peaceful and vibrant brotherhood, the mirror may be rediscovered.  Then the world may give India homage, and truth may yet  rule before all men burn in the hatred and fanaticism that consumed the body of Gandhi, but not the great soul.

[1] From: Saturday Evening Post, Philadelphia, March 27, 1948, page 24ff