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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.