Mahadev Desai was born on 1 January 1892 in the village of Saras in Surat district of Gujarat. His father Haribhai Desai was a teacher in the primary school of Saras. Mahadev's mother Jamnabehn belonged to Dihen, the ancestral place of this Desai clan. She was sharp in intelligence as well as in her nature. The village-folk respected her. Mahadev resembled his father in build and his mother in appearance. He was only seven years old when his mother expired in 1899.
Haribhai was a straightforward and simple man who would not hesitate to trust anyone readily. He had a good memory, keen intellect and beautiful handwriting. He was fond of Gujarati literature and read books with perseverance. Although he had not studied Sanskrit, he had read Ramayana, Mahabharata, Gita and Upanishads with the help of commentaries and explanations. Very fond of Bhajans, he used to sing them early in the morning.
Mahadev was educated in a manner befitting a brilliant son of a poor but cultured father. He got married to Durgabehn in 1905, when the bridegroom was thirteen years old and the bride twelve. After the marriage, Mahadev passed his matriculation examination the following year, precisely at the age of 14. He stood first in the Surat High School and maintained it in the Matriculation examination. Thereafter, he joined Elphinstone College in January 1907. Haribhai's salary at that time was forty rupees a month; therefore, it was almost impossible for him to meet the cost of Mahadev's higher education. In the circumstances, Mahadev applied for free admission to Gokuldas Tejpal Boarding House and was, fortunate in getting the admission. He unexpectedly got a college scholarship which was earlier gracefully rejected by his friend Vaikunth Lallubhai Mehta in his favour. This enabled him to continue his studies without being a burden on his
Mahadev had no inclination for games, indoor or outdoor; nor could he play any. He liked walking. When the Navajivan was stationed at Pankor Naka and Sarangpur Gate in Ahmedabad, he often used to walk from the Sabarmati Ashram to the office and back. He walked briskly, at an average of four miles an hour. In the days of army recruitment in 1918, Mahadev was staying at Hindu Anath Ashram in Nadiad. To get accustomed to long marching practice, he always got up early in the morning and walked a distance of nine miles to and fro. Even after such a tiresome walk of 18 miles, he used to work for Gandhi the whole day. When Gandhi shifted his abode from Wardha to Sevagram, Mahadev continued to live at Maganwadi in Wardha. From there he would start on foot, at noon, for Sevagram, a distance of five and a half miles, and walk back in the evening to his home in Maganwadi. At times he would go and come back, twice a day, in the scorching heat of Central India, covering twenty two miles in a single day. Even after such long walks, he did not put away his routine activity of reading, writing and spinning.
In spite of his lack of interest in games, Mahadev was full of sportsmanship. He overlooked defects in others, but was always ready to see and acquire their virtues. He may be labeled a man of serious temperament but was warmhearted, jovial in nature, and possessed the art of combining fun and humour in a natural and easy way in the midst of serious and important work, so much so that there was always around him an atmosphere of playfulness, mirth and enthusiasm. This quality of his endeared him to all.
After passing B.A. degree examination in1910, Mahadev was anxious to study for M. A. But since the subject of his choice was not prescribed that year, he opted for LLB On the other hand, in order not to burden his father, he decided to improve his educational qualification on his own and sought to earn his livelihood by some kind of a job. He got one with the Oriental Translator's office. During this time the Gujarat Forbes Society announced a prize of one thousand rupees for the best Gujarati translation of On compromise written by Lord Morley. Mahadev offered himself for the competition and won the prize.
He passed his LLB examination by the end of 1913. His father was then the Head Master of a Women's Training College in Ahmedabad. So Mahadev decided to cast his lot with Ahmedabad, with a view to save establishment expenditure. He stayed for 15 to 18 months in Ahmedabad and when his father retired, Mahadev with the help of his friend Vaikunth L Mehta secured an appointment as inspector in the Central Co-operative Bank of Bombay. But his destiny was fast drawing him into the folds of Gandhi.
In January 1915, Gandhi left South Africa and came back to India. In May 1915, he started his Ashram in a hired bungalow near Kochrab in Ahmedabad. After some time, he issued a draft of objectives and rules for the proposed Ashram and requested his friends and well-wishers, all over the country, to send their opinion and criticism. Responding to that Mahadev and Narahari Parikh offered their criticism jointly and awaited a reply from Gandhi.
Shortly thereafter, Gandhi came to speak at a public meeting in Premabhai Hall. Mahadev and Narahari followed Gandhi when he started back for his Ashram. Intercepting him on his way, they inquired if he had received their letter. In reply Gandhi said: "Yes, I have received a letter signed by two persons. Are you the two?" Both replied in affirmative.
Thereupon Gandhi took them to the Ashram and explained his ideals and his concept for nearly an hour and a half. When they came out, it had began to drizzle and at the same time something was stirring within their hearts too. Silently they reached Ellis Bridge, and Mahadev broke the silence: "Narahari, I have a mind to go and sit at the feet of this man". "We shall be most blessed if we can do so", replied Naraharibhai. This was their spontaneous response, the first springing up of a desire to join the Ashram. Mohanlal Pandya and Dayaljibhai were the two persons who strengthened their initiation and ultimately led them both into the hands of Gandhi.
Narahari Parikh was the first to join Gandhi's Ashram in Apri11917. Kaka Kalelkar had already started living in the Ashram when Narahari Parikh went there. Mahadev had to make up his mind; nonetheless, he continued to remain in touch with the Ashram and especially with Gandhi. It was during one such meeting in Bombay that Gandhi expressed his mind, in the following words, to Mahadev Desai:
It is not without reason that I have asked you to visit me every day. I want you to come and stay with me. I have found in you just the type of young man for whom I have been searching for the last two years. Will you believe me if I tell you that I have got in you the man I wanted-the man to whom I can entrust all my work some day and be at ease, and on whom I can rely with confidence? You have to come to me ...I am confident that you will be useful to me in various ways because of your good qualities.
This was a clarion call. It was irresistible. Mahadev could not concentrate his mind on any other thing. The thought of his new master was uppermost in his mind. With a mind to join Gandhi, Mahadev with his wife Durgabehn went to meet Gandhi on 3 November 1917, at Godhra, where Gandhi was attending the first Gujarat Political Conference. After the conference Gandhi was to go straight to Champaran. Gandhi told the couple to accompany him on his tour to Bihar and then finally decide what to do. Mahadevbhai and Durgabehn joined his entourage.
After his visit to Champaran, Mahadev came back to Dihen to consult his father and get his blessings. Narahari Parikh was then with Gandhi in Champaran. They were anxiously awaiting the news of Mahadev's arrival. Mahadev came the next day. That was the beginning of a relationship destined to last for a quarter of a century, till his death on 15 August 1942. Mahadev not only remained with Gandhi but also merged himself completely with his master. He began writing his diary from 13 November 1917 and continued writing it until 14 August 1942 the day before he died.
In 1918 he was with Gandhi during the mill workers' strike in Ahmedabad. In 1919 when Gandhi was arrested for the first time in Punjab for breaking a prohibitory order of entering Punjab, Gandhi nominated Mahadev as his heir but Mahadev humbly accepted to follow Hanuman's ideal of serving his master. In 1920 he came in touch with prominent leaders like Chittaranjan Das, Motilal Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore.
In 1921 Gandhi sent Mahadev to Allahabad on Pandit Motilal Nehru's request to run his paper, the Independent. After some time the government arrested Motilal and Jawaharlal. Being unable to bear the editorial castigations, the Government also arrested George Joseph, its second editor, and ordered the paper to pay a security deposit. In the mean time preparations were a foot for the Congress session to be held at Ahmedabad. For this purpose Gandhi was also in Ahmedabad. Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, the president elect of the Ahmedabad Congress, was arrested in December 1921. At Allahabad, when the security deposit of the Independent was confiscated. Mahadev wrote:
We owe our new avatar to those who "seeing see not, hearing hear not, nor either understand “the whole policy of repression is a deliberate, calculated dive into the abyss of darkness. Our security was forfeited because the article Mrs. Nehru's Message and Let Us Also See It Through were considered to be "interfering with the administration of law and the maintenance of law and order." We may frankly say that we do not recognize any law made by Government..... Truth, Non-violence and other laws of our Ethical Code are sufficient to keep us true to us and to God.....
It is likely that this endeavour, like its predecessor, may also be suppressed.....The tyrant is potent enough to arrest everyone of the activities of our mortal frame, but he cannot touch the immortal spirit within. He may force the one to submit to his law, he may not dream of forcing his law on the other. I may be killed which only means, "I change, but I cannot die".
With the caption 'I change, but I cannot Die', Mahadevbhai started publishing the paper by printing it on a cyclostyle machine. He too was arrested and convicted for a year's jail term which he passed in Naini, Agra and Lucknow jails respectively.
In his absence, the paper was taken over by Devdas Gandhi. Durgabehn preferred to stay back in Allahabad and help Devdas in running the cyclostyle machine, sticking wrappers on the copies and writing addresses on them. In those days, women rarely did such work, especially in the northern region of India. Madan Mohan Malaviyaji was greatly pleased to see Durgabehn working like this.
Mahadev was released from Lucknow jail in 1923. In the same year his father died. In 1924 he took over as editor of Navajivan and also saw his home blessed with a son. From 1925 he started rendering Gandhi's autobiography into English and published it serially in Young India. In 1926 he became the chairman of the executive committee of Satyagraha Ashram, received a prize from the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad for his article in Navajivan, took part in Bardoli Satyagraha along with Sardar Patel in 1928 and then became a member of the enquiry committee. In 1929 he traveled to Burma with Gandhi, courted arrest and imprisonment in 1930 for taking part in the Salt Satyagraha. After his release from jail he accompanied Gandhi to the Round Table Conference, in the company of Mirabehn, Devdas Gandhi and Pyarelal. Mahadev was the only person to accompany Gandhi when the latter had a meeting with King George V.
In 1932, he was again incarcerated with Gandhi and Sardar Patel in Yeravda Central Prison. He was released and re-arrested in 1933 and detained in Belgaum Jail. Here, he wrote Gita According to Gandhi, which was published posthumously. In 1936, Mahadev was invited to preside over a separate session on journalism held under the auspices of Gujarati Sahitya Parishad. His address delivered at the conference is relevant even today.
In 1938 the annual gathering of the Gandhi Seva Sangh was being held at Delang in Orissa. The holy temple of Jagannath was not very far from the place. So Kasturba, Durgabehn, the mother of B G Kher and a couple of other women decided to go to Jagannath Puri to worship Lord Jagannath. This temple was not open to Harijans which meant that the managers of the temple were in favour of untouchability. When Gandhi came to know that the women folk had gone to Jagannath Puri he could not contain his exasperation. He sternly rebuked Mahadevbhai, that he could have at least convinced Durgabehn, that the temple which believed in segregation was not a worthy place for Darshan. Mahadev could have defended himself but he chose not to. Next day, in the early hours of the morning, at prayer time, Mahadev went to Gandhi, wept remorsefully and in a not addressed to him, offered to resign. It increased the anguish of Gandhi who wrote back:
What a gift in the morning? Even before the first mistake is rectified other mistakes follow one after the other! I would suffer thousands of mistakes rather than bear the separation. It is better to die at the hands of a devotee…so there is no reason for you to go…except cowardice there is nothing in your letter. If you leave me, do you think Pyarelal would live here? If Pyarelal goes would Sushila stay with me?...This is not the time
to cry or to go on fast…etc.
Mahadev knew that to live with Gandhi was never an easy task. One always felt being on the mouth of a volcano. Yet Mahadevbhai adjusted his bearing so well that he became indispensable to Gandhi.
In 1939, he played an important role during the agitations in Mysore and Rajkot. In 1940, he went to Bengal and Punjab to seek release of revolutionaries who were in prison and in 1941 to create peace and amity after the communal riots of Ahmedabad.
On 9 August 1942, Mahadev was arrested and put in Aga Khan Palace along with Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu and Mirabehn, to be followed by Kasturba and Dr Sushila Nayar.
On 15 August, Mahadev did not get up as he was wont to at four o'clock for the morning prayer. He got up after the prayer was over. He prepared juice for Gandhi and toasts and tea for the rest of the inmates. He looked cheerful. Sarojini Naidu saw him shaving with full involvement. She thought it unusual for Mahadev, not because the InspectorGeneral of Prisons was to visit them that day.
After a little chit-chat Sushila Nayar went to massage Gandhi. Sounds of laughter could be heard from the room of Sarojini Naidu. Suddenly someone shouted "Sushila, come soon!" Sushila thought that it might be the Inspector General eagerly waiting to meet everyone. Therefore she did. not respond to it. Then she heard her name called out again and at the same time Kasturba rushed to them, panting: "Something is wrong with Mahadev." Sushila rushed to Sarojini's room and found Mahadev lying unconscious. She checked his pulse for blood-pressure. But his heart had ceased to throb. Gandhi who came soon after stood dumbfounded. He stared at Mahadev without blinking. He could not believe it. Mahadev was no more!
The government, in the beginning, was reluctant to give the dead body to friends and relatives for cremation. But Gandhi was firm. He said: "How can I give the dead body to strangers? Can a father ever think of giving the dead body of his son to unknown persons?" The government had to ultimately concede to Gandhi demand. They allowed Mahadev's cremation in the open ground of Aga Khan Palace. Breaking the news of his death to his family Gandhi in a telegram to Durgabehn said:
Mahadev died suddenly. Gave no indication. Slept well that night. Had breakfast. Walked with me. Sushila, jail doctors did all they could. God had willed otherwise. Sushila and I bathed body. Body lying peacefully covered with flowers, incense burning. Sushila and I reciting Gita. Mahadev has died Yogi's and patriot's death. Tell Durga, Babla and Sushila no sorrow allowed. Only joy over such noble death. Cremation taking place front of me. Shall keep ashes. Advise Durga remain Ashram but she may go to her people if she must. Hope Babla will be brave and prepare himself fill Mahadev's place "worthily".
A sincere and disciplined man, Mahadev Desai had become what he could, passing through all the tests of life. He had gathered everything in his final moments of sacrifice. Handsome, good humored and noble at heart, he won the acclaim of all the major leaders of India. Many people chose him to be the arbiter of their cause. He was, many a times, a bridge between the rest of the world and Mahatma Gandhi without being partial to either. But his ultimate fidelity was with his master. In his innermost heart Mahadevbhai always thought of remaining with Gandhi and even chose to die before him. It was a unique relationship in which the master and the disciple had not only become complimentary to one another but also a single soul in two separate bodies.
Gandhi was a hard taskmaster who expected a very high standard from his personal secretary. Though there was nothing personal in this universal man, though his life was like an open book for all those who cared to read it, Gandhi believed that his secretary should be a living embodiment for all the values that he stood for. Such a secretary needs to be far away from publicity. Mahadev had passed the test. Remaining independent and aloof he had merged his personality with the personality of his Guru. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi he had "reduced himself to a zero."
Mahadev could do this because he was essentially a man of devotion. During his college days, he had read the works of Swami Vivekanand and through him had got glimpses of Ramakrishna Paramhansa. He had seen some traits of Swami Ramakrishna in Purushottam Sevakram, a saintly person from Godhra and, therefore, known as Godhrawala Maharaj. His method of explaining seemingly difficult things was unique. Being a man of very meagre education the Maharaj explained things in a very simple way. Explaining the central idea of Gita, he once said: "If you go on repeating the word Gita Gita Gita, you will hear the word Tagi Tagi Tagi, which means renunciation. One who has succeeded in discarding his identity with the body has understood the Gita correctly!" On another occasion he surprised a great Pandit by explaining him the meaning of the word Moksha thus: Moksha contains two words: Moha (infatuation) and Kshaya (destruction); thereby, Moksha means destruction of infatuation.
The unassuming Maharaj taught with great conviction that the way to overcome the ego and the attachment to the body was through humility and service. He said: "All try to walk high, but none walks humbly. But he who walks humbly shall alone reach the Highest."
Mahadev went to Gandhi with this wealth of a character. He was at ease with Gandhi and the surroundings. Moreover, enriched and refined through reading, Mahadev could even infuse the same in the style of Mahatma Gandhi's writings and yet reduce himself to zero. Describing him, Kishorelal Mashruwala had said:
In spite of his being a learned philosopher, writer, poet, singer and artist he chose to become a sweeper not only of his master but also of his friends, wife, servants and for that matter, of any human being. He became a nurse for tending the sick, a washer man to wash clothes, a cook to feed others, a clerk to copy out in a neat hand, a teacher who would correct written compositions, a colleague who would complete unfinished tasks, a secretary who would understand your thoughts and put down in writing, an ambassador who would accomplish delicate errands with skill on your behalf, an advocate who would study carefully your side of the case and fight it out for you, an arbitrator who would remove every misunderstanding his master may have about you, a man of highest balance, who would try his best to preserve simultaneously varied relationships like filial devotion, fidelity to the master, faithfulness to friends, love for wife and affection for the son. He was a comrade who would give courage and shelter to persons in distress. And in addition to all this, he was an ever alert Sadhaka, who protected himself from allurements of love and attachment that were born of his chivalrous temperament and love of art, as also from emotions like ambition, lust for wealth and fame, and attraction for the other sex.
These were the virtues for which Mahadev was sought by persons like Rabindranath Tagore, Chittaranjan Das, Madan Mohan Malviya, Motilal Nehru, Rajgopalachari, Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Patel.
In 1928, after the Bardoli Satyagraha, Gandhi had sent Mahadev Desai to assist Sardar Patel in collecting and processing the evidences to put before the Broomfield Committee. This was so ably and meticulously done by Mahadevbhai that Broomfield and Reginald Maxwell soon began to treat him as their friend. Each one of them expressed his feeling in a different way. One with a kindly affection and the other by keeping Mahadev away and separate from other criminal prisoners in Belgaum prison.
His public relations were par excellence. He was the harbinger of Gandhi's thoughts and experiments. It was Mahadev's herculean task to present in minutest detail all and sundry activities of Mahatma Gandhi, in the twenty volumes of his diary published so far. Without the least trace of ego he had become the master builder. It is difficult to imagine Mahadev without Gandhi or Gandhi without Mahadev. One was incomplete without the other.
From the year 1917 to 1942, Mahadev lived with Gandhi. And Gandhi had rightly said that Mahadev in his life span of fifty years had done the work of one hundred years. If you look at almost the fifty books that he wrote, you would realize the propriety of Gandhi's statement about him. These works include some of his translations from Tagore, books written on contemporary affairs, his biographic sketches, twenty diaries, ten books including the translations of the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, into English and the autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru into Gujarati. Besides, he also wrote articles for Young India, Navjvan and Harijanbandhu.
This is the life story of a man "who had become what he could." Therefore, his loss was irrepairable. After his death in Aga Khan Palace, Gandhi visited his samadhi every day and in the course of one such visit, he told his retinue around him that the whole life of Mahadev was a poem of devotion and he wanted them all to read and recite Bhakti Yoga in front of the samadhi. He also said: "Remaining the disciple, Mahadev became my Guru. I visit his samadhi to remember and emulate his worthy example. Pray God, let us walk in his foot-steps. "