Shri Prabhu is an old and dear friend of mine. It is more than forty years since we have known each other. A common friend, who introduced me to the poetry of the stars, also introduced me to Ramachandra Krishna Prabhu as a kindred spirit. Prabhu was then working on Lokamanya Tilak's theory of 'the Arctic Home of the Aryans in the Vedas'. My patriotic interest in the history of ancient Indian culture was greatly flattered when I found that another scholar like Prabhu held the same view, that the Vedas were thousands of years old and that we all migrated from the Polar Regions to India which has been the home of the Aryan culture from prehistoric times. The common interest in the life, work and teachings of Shri Aurobindo Ghose was yet another bond that brought us nearer.
Being a lover of books Prabhu was then taking his training in Library Science under
Borden whom Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda had imported from America to organize
and develop the Central Library in his capital. Prabhu gradually reverted to
journalism and made it his life-work. He had the good fortune of working with
veteran journalists like Horniman and Belvi. During all these years he made a
deep study of Mahatma Gandhi's life and teachings. He has in his possession a
vast collection of cuttings and extracts from Gandhiji's writings, all assorted
under various heads. This will fill many volumes. His one book, The Mind of
Mahatma Gandhi1, has done more to present a succinct but
comprehensive idea of Gandhiji's teachings than the host of similar books which
have appeared in recent times. The Conquest of Self was the first of a
series which Prabhu planned for giving an exhaustive survey of Gandhiji's
thoughts and conclusions on various contemporary Indian and world problems. I
wish he would find time to complete the series. I need not mention the other
books he has published on Gandhiji. I only wanted to show how eminently fitted
Prabhu is to give us a collection of anecdotes about Mahatmaji.
Of all the prophets of humanity, Gandhiji seems to have been the .most fortunate. No
other succeeded in his life time as Gandhiji did, in spreading his ideas and
working them out on a vast canvas. No prophet succeeded so well as he did in
choosing the fields of politics, nationalism and internationalism for the
practical application of his spiritual message. Starting his career in the
benighted continent of Africa, he sensed the racial character of the
world-situation and its conflicts. He was led to form thereby the spiritual
concept of human brotherhood', and the necessity of cultivating soul-force to
oppose the might of empires based on racialism and armed with the powers of
science, economics and worldwide organization. Gandhiji returned to India from
South Africa at a juncture when Europe was locked in a gigantic struggle of arms
and India was groping in darkness arising out of a lack of leadership and a
sense of frustration. Gandhiji, the inheritor of the achievements of saintly
India, the interpreter of India's synthetic culture of ages, and the prophet of
a new humanism that embraced and appealed to the whole world, assumed the
leadership of the country and gradually collected all the scattered forces,
spiritual, intellectual, economic and cultural, to guide them into a great
national movement for the rediscovery and reassertion of the soul of India. He
unified India as no one else had done before, and gave a determined fight to the
powerful British Empire through non-violent means. He saw the world in travail
in two global wars, and by freeing India he liberated a soul-force that is
gradually influencing world-politics and world-aspirations.
Many persons started writing about the life and times of the Mahatma. The Christian
minister Doke and Henry S. L. Polak made the first attempts at portraying his
unique spiritual life. Friends like Pranjivan Mehta and Mrs Avantika Gokhale
collected what they could of his writings. G. A. Natesan of Madras published an
excellent volume of his selected speeches and writings. Mahatmaji himself found
time, during his jail life in 1924, to write his autobiography and a detailed
history of the Satyagraha movement in South Africa. Since then writers /
throughout the world have started writing about him from various angles. Romain
Rolland, the gifted genius of French letters, and Louis Fischer, the famous
American journalist, have given illuminating pictures of Mahatmaji. Tendulkar
has brought out a long and exhaustive biography in eight big and sumptuous
volumes, while Pyarelal, who had the rare fortune of working as one of
Mahatmaji's private secretaries, is concentrating on what he loves to call a
"full-dress biography", documented with authentic letters and inside knowledge
Mahatmaji was essentially a man of action. He had no time to read and produce books. Yet
his mission forced him to write from time to time, and continuously from week to
week expressing himself on the various topics concerning India and the world. He
can also be said to have been 'a man of letters' in the literal sense of the
words. The number of letters that he wrote to friends, near and distant, and
correspondents from all parts of the world on various matters is legion. They
are being gradually collected, edited, translated into and published in various languages.
We have thus vast material dealing with Gandhiji's life and times. It is just beginning
to come to light. The Westerners, always alert to new forces in the world, have
given hasty, and sometimes imperfect and irrelevant descriptions of Gandhiji and
his message, and publishers have found it profitable to popularize them. It is
not possible to give an adequate idea of the vast literature that is being
produced, both in India and abroad, about Gandhiji. Friends, colleagues and
intimate Coworkers of Gandhiji have concentrated their attention on his life as
they intimately knew it. It is too early for them to write the political and
cultural history of India during the Gandhian Era. In fact, the Gandhian Era has
just begun showing its working on the canvas of all the continents of the world.
And yet, it is not too early for our people to record the events and cultural
forces at work during the past one hundred years that may be said to belong to,
as the precursor of, the Gandhian Era. It is a mistake to suppose that the Era
began with the birth of Gandhiji. It started a little before 1857, and we should
be able to interpret the history of the past 100 years as being one of pregnant
preparation for the renaissance which expressed itself through the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi.
Anecdotes about Gandhiji will occupy a small but favourite corner in this vast literature
about him, for it has its value in understanding his composite and complex
personality. An English philosopher has pithily said that "trifles make
perfection and perfection is not a trifle." The same idea, in relation to
Gandhiji, was expressed by Jairamdas Doulatram in the following words :
"The true greatness of a person lies more in small deeds than in big achievements. It is
the small things that count most in a man's life and show the stuff he is made
of. Thus, if anyone wants to know and understand Gandhiji, his life and
teachings, he must try to study and find out what true humanity is and how it
worked in Gandhiji's everyday life and teachings."
Chandrashankar Shukla, one of the young set of Mahatmaji's private secretaries,
has laid the world under a debt by collecting incidents from the life of the
Mahatma. His four volumes, published by Vora & Co., are a treat both for their
human interest and as historical documents supplementing the various biographies
of Gandhiji. G. Ramachandran was perhaps the first in the field with his sheaf
of anecdotes about Mahatmaji. What he has given is interesting and significant,
but one feels unsatisfied at the paucity of material that makes up the sheaf. My
own little collection, Stray Glimpses of Bapu3 was the result
of after-lunch talks given to friends in the Seoni Jail, which came to an abrupt
close with my unexpected release. I have had no time since then to write down
further similar incidents.
And now my friend Prabhu has come out with his brilliant collection of about 150
anecdotes. Most of these are not to be found in any of the previous ones. The
criticism that Horace Alexander levelled at my collection may apply equally to
the present one of Prabhu. The stray glimpses which I presented in the little
booklet are "like lost sheep", says Horace Alexander. "They are not arranged
chronologically; neither are they classified into any appropriate headings." I
could, with some effort, rearrange my glimpses into a chronological order; but I
do not feel that it is necessary. Neither do I feel that Prabhu's anecdotes
would improve by a similar treatment. He has followed the principle of the
Buddhist work, Anguttara-nikaya. Starting with very short anecdotes, he
has gradually led up to incidents that cover long chapters. I think that
psychologically this is a good arrangement. One is gradually led on and on with
increasing interest till one does not grudge the time required for finishing the entire book.
Not anything and everything that is written about a great man can pass muster as art
anecdote or incident, but Prabhu has given the suggestive caption to his
collection: This Was Bapu. Any incident or anecdote, to be worth the name
ought to be significant. It must haunt your mind long after you have read it.
Most of those collected here are strikingly significant. They are arresting and
of sustained interest. They throw a flood of light, even of searchlight, on the
character of Mahatma Gandhi. There are, however half-a-dozen ones which are
neither significant nor striking. Fastidious literary critics might wish that
these were dropped. Devotees of Gandhiji, however, would be grateful to Prabhu
for having subordinated his sense of literary aesthetics to the responsibility
or dharma of the chronicler in not dropping these incidents.
Lives of great men have a knack of "growing" with the passage of time. Anecdotes grow and
grow in number and in variety till it becomes difficult to distinguish between
those which are true and those which are spurious. This happens even during the
life time of the person about whom the anecdotes are written. Human nature,
specially in hero- worship, is prone to paint occasions according to its mood or
taste. Take, for instance, the anecdote 146 in this collection. It describes the
little revolution brought about by Mahatmaji during his first appearance in
Shantiniketan in January, 1915. I was an honorary teacher there at the time and
I had my own share in the little revolution, which I have described in my
Stray Glimpses. In the anecdote, as stated in the present book, S. K. Roy
has put the description, as from the mouth of the poet Tagore, that does not
tally with the facts.
"In the meantime, Gandhiji asked the scavengers not to do any work for a few days. The
high-caste boys could never think of doing the work of untouchable scavengers.
Life in the school became almost impossible with the odour of night-soil. Then
Gandhiji himself carried the pots on his own head... and buried the contents underground.
This super-human act was contagious. Soon the boys of the highest castes and rich
families were vying with one another to have the honour of doing the work of the
This description is apocryphal and one of pure imagination. Gandhiji did not ask the
scavengers to give up their work, nor was there a single day when the latrines
were not cleaned. We, some of the teachers and students, in our impatience did
demolish a permanent latrine because Gandhiji happened to remark that the
structure was old- fashioned, insanitary and hopeless. He had neither the time
nor the occasion to carry pots of the night-soil on his head. I do not mean to
say that he would not have done it. He had done it on many occasions in jails in
South Africa. He did it along with us, inmates of the ashram, for long
periods, but we never carried the pots on our heads. We had better methods.
In the anecdote 25, the following sentence is attributed to Gandhiji: "Whether it is my
Gurudev or anybody, my eating goes on." I think it unlikely that Gandhiji could
have referred to Tagore as "my Gurudev". In Shantiniketan we all referred to the
Poet as "Gurudev". Gandhiji loyally followed the practice and always referred to
the Poet as "the Gurudev", just as the latter referred to him as "the Mahatma".
"My Gurudev", just does not represent the natural attitude of Mahatma Gandhi.
There is an element of irreverent familiarity and possessiveness in the word
"my" which was foreign to it.
A friend from Bengal pointed out the inaccuracy of facts that had crept into one of the
incidents recorded in my Stray Glimpses. One can, therefore, be never
sure whether the incidents actually happened, however scrupulously exact the
writer may be in recording the version of it as given to him. But the common
mind loves a good story and does not hesitate to invent one, if necessary, to
magnify the greatness of the object of one's worship though sufficiently great
in itself it may be !
One is, therefore, filled with admiration and gratitude at the extreme care with which
the followers of the Prophet of Islam collected the anecdotes about him and
tested rigorously the veracity of each one of them. The best thing to adopt
about the anecdotes regarding Mahatma Gandhi would be for his contemporaries to
write down all that they know of him as authentic; authors and publishers to
verify whatever comes to them; and some time limit to be laid down for the
collection of the anecdotes. Any appearing after that ought to be accepted with
caution, the burden of proving their authenticity being thrown on those who produce them.
I know a friend from Singapore, a great admirer and devotee of Dr. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy,
is "collecting typical anecdotes about Mahatma Gandhi which reflect the sense of
humour as evinced by Mahatmaji throughout his life, specially in his contacts
with non-Indians. For instance, take the anecdote 35, here, in which Gandhiji is
said to have answered the question regarding the secret of his power. It is not
in consonance with the characteristic nature of Gandhiji as I knew him. It is
just possible that he might have written some such thing in his early days.
Somebody must trace out this anecdote to its original source. I do not mean to
imply that what is written there is not the secret of Gandhiji's power. What I
doubt is whether he would have explained it in that fashion.
Some of the anecdotes collected in this book are simply superb. Take, for instance, 33,
about the postman whom Gandhiji describes as a "man of letters" and Ramsay
Macdonald as "one of the statesmen true to his class, always waiting till
circumstances force them to move"; 46, where he describes the loin-cloth as
"minus fours", which has become classic; 43 is more about the poet Iqbal than
about Gandhiji, but as an anecdote it must be classed Al; 59 is specially
important today (the whole of Japan as also the rest of the world being uneasy
at the effects of the atom bomb—and the latest is the H bomb—Gandhiji suggests
that the power of the soul working through prayer is mightier than that of any
atom bomb; and 125 shows the power of Gandhiji in death as in life).
Biographers of Gandhiji will do well to study and utilize these anecdotes,
because they express the various aspects of his life much more than long
dissertations. I have no doubt that some of the anecdotes recorded here will
find a place in school text-books, and in anthologies of world's great
apophthegms and of anecdotes about its great personalities.
Let me thank again Shri R. K. Prabhu for serving the reading public with such a
delicious repast prepared with deep devotion and hard labour of love.