It was a positive relief to reach the Gurukul and meet Mahatma Munshiramji with his giant frame. I at once felt the wonderful contrast between the peace of the Gurukul and the din and noise of Hardvar. The Mahatma overwhelmed me with affection. The Brahmacharis were all attention. It was here that I was first introduced to Acharya Ramadevji, and I could immediately see what a force and a power he must be. We had different viewpoints in several matters, nevertheless our acquaintance soon ripened into friendship.
I had long discussions with Acharya Ramadevji and other professors
about the necessity of introducing industrial training into the
Gurukul. When the time came for going away it was a wrench to leave
I had heard much in praise of the Lakshman Jhula (a hanging bridge
over the Ganges) some distance from Hrishikesh, and many friends
pressed me not to leave Hardvar without having gone as far as the
bridge. I wanted to do this pilgrimage on foot and so I did it in
Many sannyasis called on me at Hrishikesh. One of them was
particularly attracted towards me. The Phoenix party was there and
their presence drew from the Swami many questions.
We had discussions about religion and he realized that I felt deeply
about matters of religion. He saw me bareheaded and shirtless as I
had returned from my bath in the Ganges. He was pained to miss the
shikha (tuft of hair) on my head and the sacred thread about my neck and said:
'It pains me to see you, a believing Hindu, going without a sacred
thread and the shikha. These are the two external symbols of
Hinduism and every Hindu ought to wear them.'
Now there is a history as to how I came to dispense with both. When
I was an urchin of ten, I envied the Brahman lads sporting bunches
of keys tied to their sacred threads, and I wished I could do
likewise. The practice of wearing the sacred thread was not then
common among the vaishya families in Kathiawad. But a movement had just been started for
making it obilgatory for the first three varnas.
As a result several members of the Gandhi clan adopted the sacred
thread. The Brahman who was teaching two or three of us boys Ramraksha
invested us with the thread, and although I had no occasion to
possess a bunch of keys, I got one and began to sport it. Later,
when the thread gave way, I do not remember whether I missed it very
much. But I know that I did not go in for a fresh one.
As I grew up several well-meaning attempts were made both in India
and South Africa to re-invest me with the sacred thread, but with
little success. If the shudras may not wear it, I argued, what
right have the other varnas to do so? And I saw no adequate reason
for adopting what was to me an unnecessary custom. I had no objection
to the thread as such, but the reasons for wearing it were lacking. As a
vaishnava I had naturally worn round my neck the kanthi,
and the shikha was considered obligatory by elders. On the eve of my going to
England, however, I got rid of the shikha,
lest when I was bare-headed it should expose me to ridicule and make
me look, as I then thought, a barbarian in the eyes of the
Englishmen. In fact this cowardly feeling carried me so far that in
South Africa I got my cousin Chhaganlal Gandhi, who was religiously
wearing the shikha, to do away with it. I feared that it might come in the way of his
public work and so, even at the risk of paining him, I made him get
rid of it.
I therefore made a clean breast of the whole matter to the Swami and
'I will not wear the sacred thread, for I see no necessity for it,
when countless Hindus can go without it and yet remain Hindus.
Moreover, the sacred thread should be a symbol of spiritual
regeneration, presupposing a deliberate attempt on the part of the
wearer at a higher and purer life. I doubt, whether in the present
state of Hinduism and of India, Hindus can vindicate the right to
wear a symbol charged with such a meaning. That right can come only
after Hinduism has purged itself of untouchability, has removed all
distinctions of superiority and inferiority, and shed a host of
other evils and shams that have become rampant in it. My mind
therefore rebels against the idea of wearing the sacred thread. But
I am sure your suggestion about the shikha is worth considering. I
once used to have it, and I discarded it from a false sense of
shame. And so I feel that I should start growing it again. I shall
discuss the matter with my comrades.'
The Swami did not appreciate my position with regard to the sacred
thread. The very reasons that seemed to me to point to not wearing
it appeared to him to favour its wearing. Even today my position
remains about the same as it was at Hrishikesh. So long as there are
different religions, every one of them may need some outward
distinctive symbol. But when the symbol is made into a fetish and an
instrument of proving the superiority of one's religion over
others', it is fit only to be discarded. The sacred thread does not
appear to me today to be a means of uplifting Hinduism. I am
therefore indifferent to it. As for the shikha,
cowardice having been the reason for discarding it, after
consultation with friends I decided to re-grow it.
But to return to Lakshman Jhula. I was charmed with the natural
scenery about Hrishikesh and the Lakshman Jhula, and bowed my head
in reverence to our ancestors for their sense of the beautiful in
Nature, and for their foresight in investing beautiful
manifestations of nature with a religious significance.
But the way in which men were using these beauty spots was far from
giving me peace. As at Hardvar, so at Hrishikesh, people dirtied the
roads and the fair banks of the Ganges. They did not even hesitate
to desecrate the sacred water of the Ganges. It filled me with agony
to see people performing natural functions on the thoroughfares and
river banks, when they could easily have gone a little farther away
from public haunts.
Lakshman Jhula was, I saw, nothing but an iron suspension bridge
over the Ganges. I was told that originally there had been a fine
rope-bridge. But a philanthropic Marwadi got it into his head to
destroy the rope-bridge and erect an iron one at a heavy cost and
then entrusted the keys to the Government! I am at a loss to say
anything about the rope-bridge as I have never seen it, but the iron
bridge is entirely out of place in such surroundings and mars their
beauty. The making over of the keys of this pilgrims' bridge to the
Government was too much even for my loyalty of those days.
The Svargashram which one reaches after crossing the bridge was a wretched place,
being nothing but a number of shabby-looking sheds of galvanized
iron sheets. These, I was told, were made for sadhakas
(aspirants). There were hardly any living there at the moment. Those
who were in the main building gave one an unfavourable impression.
But the Hardvar experiences proved for me to be of inestimable
value. They helped me in no small way to decide where I was to live
and what I was to do.