Tuesday 23 July 2024

Mahatma Gandhi and the World: Preface



In the course of the just concluded General Elections, our Prime Minister, in one of his interviews, suggested that Mahatma Gandhi came to be widely known only after Attenborough made his celebrated film on him in 1982.


It would be unfortunate, if it were indeed true that we, and especially our young people, know so little about Gandhiji today that we have to learn about him from a movie, however great. Therefore, we have put together a series of brief notes that give the story of how Gandhiji became known as the Mahatma across the world in early twentieth century. He achieved that status through his extraordinarily passionate commitment to the land, people and civilisation of India and by performing intense tapas in the form the great suffering he endured during his several imprisonments in South Africa. He also undertook an extensive study of Indian classical texts so that he could commit to India knowingly, not only passionately.


All this he did in the 21 years he spent leading the fight of Indians in South Africa to reclaim their human dignity. For him and for his co-sufferers, that fight for human dignity became a struggle for the establishment and recovery of Dharma, and the leader of that struggle came to be known in the world as a Mahatma. 


In these notes, we tell this story, briefly but passionately. We show that on the strength of his austere discipline, erudition and tapas, Gandhiji had become well known in the world already by 1909. In that year, he was referred to as the Mahatmaby Pranjivan Mehta in a letter to Gokhale. He was addressed as Deshbhakta Mahatma in the formal Manapatras that the Indians presented to him when he was leaving South Africa in 1914. And, within weeks of his arrival in India on January 9, 1915, he was being spontaneously addressed and treated as the Mahatma by people in different parts of India.


We have written these notes to quickly remind ourselves of the epic story of the Mahatma. The story is important to recall in the current climate of a certain malignancy towards him.


These brief notes are not enough. To ensure that this epic story remains a part of Indian lore, we must ensure that our educated youth are made familiar with at least three of his foundational books: Hind SwarajMy Experiments with Truthand Satyagraha in South Africa. Reading these shall make our youth and all of us Indians immune against any current and future malignancy against the Mahatma and by extension against our civilisation and ourselves.

The brief notes are posted on this blog under the label Mahatma Gandhi and the World and run from the Mahatma and the World I (June 1, 2024) to Mahatma and the World XI (July 20, 2024). We shall soon be bringing these notes together in the form of a booklet.

Saturday 20 July 2024

Mahatma Gandhi and the World XI




Indians in South Africa formally bestowed the epithet of “Deshabhakta Mahatma” on Gandhiji when he left that country for India, his karma-bhumi, as he called it in one of his farewell speeches. And, Indians in India recognised and began acknowledging the Mahatma in him almost immediately after he landed here.


Gandhiji had left Cape Town on July 18, hoping to soon reach India after a brief stay in England. By the time he reached London on August 4, World War I had broken out. His efforts to organise an Indian Ambulance Corps and indifferent health delayed his return by four and a half months. He finally returned to India on July 9, 1915. Tendulkar, one of the earlies chroniclers of Gandhiji, describes the momentous landing thus:


“The Indian leaders did not wait for him to land but met him on the steamer upon its arrival, and his landing took place, by permission of the authorities, at the Apollo Bunder—an honour shared with Royalty, by Viceroys and India’s most distinguished sons. He was met on board by a deputation consisting of Narottam Morarji Gokuldas, J. B. Petit, B. G. Horniman and others. At the quay he was received by hundreds of people.” (D. G. Tendulkar, Mahatma, Vol. I, 1951, p.193)


A public reception to welcome Gandhiji was held on July 12 at the palatial house of Jehangir Petit. Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, one of the founders of Indian National Congress who was elected its President four times, presided over the event. According to Tendulkar, more than 600 of the elite of Bombay had accepted the invitation and another two hundred had reached without invitation.


Gandhiji felt out of place in the opulent surroundings of his first public reception in India. In his reply to the welcome speeches, he expressed his discomfort saying that “he had felt that he would be more at home in his own Motherland than he used to be in South Africa, among his own countrymen. But during the three days that they had passed in Bombay, they had felt—and he thought he was voicing the feelings of his wife too—that they had been much more at home among those indentured Indians, who were the truest heroes of India. They felt that they were indeed in strange company here in Bombay, …” (CWMG 13.5-6)


Within days of his arrival, he began going around the country, travelling in third class railway compartments along with the ordinary people of India. He went to many parts. Everywhere, tumultuous welcome was offered to him and, at the formal receptions, he was often addressed as “Mahatma”. The first available record of his being called the “Mahatma” after his arrival in India is of a public meeting held on January 21, 1915 at Jetpur in his native Suarashtra, about 30 kilometres from Junagarh. Tendulkar in his chronicle provides a facsimile of this address, which we reproduce below. The address in Gujarati begins with “Shriman Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Barrister-at-Law”.


Dhananjay Keer, another biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, records that Gandhiji was again addressed as “Jagat Vandaneeya Mahatma” on January 27 at Gondal, 30 km northeast of Jetpur. Replying to the address, Gandhiji said that he was conscious of the obligation that the ruler of Gondal, Thakore Sahib, had laid him under, he was not worthy of the epithets that had been applied to him, but wished to continue the struggle to become so worthy and tendered all that praise at the feet of Sri Krishna. (CWMG 12.15-16)


In April, Gandhiji went to Gurukul Kangri on the way to Hardwar, where he met Mahatma Munshi Ram, the founder of the Gurukul, and developed a lasting friendship with him. It is generally believed that it was at Gurukul Kangri that he was first addressed as “Mahatma” in the public meeting held on April 8. It is also said that the title was bestowed on him by Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore on March 6, 1915, when Gandhiji was with him at Santiniketan for a few days.


Whoever may be formally credited for addressing Gandhiji as Mahatma for the first time, it was the Indian people in South Africa who spontaneous called him thus while he was leaving for India, and the Indians everywhere began to address him in this manner soon after he arrived in India and began to move around amongst them.


The people of India not only addressed him as “Mahatma”, they also treated him in the manner of a venerable pious person. The chronology of his first few months in India records several instances when the people insisted on yoking themselves to the vehicle in which he was carried in procession. It is recorded to have happened first on January 17, when he arrived in his native town of Rajkot, just a week after landing in India. It happens again on February 1 in Ahmedabad, in Calcutta on March 12, in Rangoon on March 17 and in Madras on April 19. The chronology mentions that at Ahmedabad, the people insisted on drawing the motor-car in which he was being taken. He refused and began walking. 


A report of April 19, 1915 in the Hindu of Madras, graphically describes how the large number of young students who had gathered on the railway station to receive him unyoked the horse and pulled the carriage all the way to his place of stay in the old George Town part of the city:


“Mr. and Mrs. M. K. Gandhi arrived in Madras last Saturday evening from Hardwar by Delhi Express… A little disappointment was in store for the people, however. When the train arrived, they searched all the first and second class compartments, but in vain, and they were inclined to think that Mr. Gandhi and Mrs. Gandhi had not come. But a guard told them that Mr. and Mrs. Gandhi had come by that train and they were in a compartment at the end of the train. A long search discovered Mr. and Mrs. Gandhi sitting in a third class compartment. Mr. Gandhi looked thin and emaciated, a loose shirt soiled by four days of continuous travel covered his body and a pair of trousers similar in appearance covered his legs. There was a rush to that compartment and the crowd was such that about a dozen policemen who had been there found themselves powerless to manage the crowd and had to leave it to shift as best it could. …Shouts of “Long live Mr. and Mrs. Gandhi” and “Bande Mataram” rang from the crowd. Mr. Gandhi bowed to them in acknowledgement and was conducted to the carriage. The students who had gathered in large numbers unyoked the horse and volunteered to drag the carriage. The carriage was taken, dragged by students, to the premises of Messrs Natesan & Co., Sunkurama Chetty Street, Mr. Gandhi being cheered all along the way, Mr. sand Mrs. Gandhi standing in the carriage and with hand cooped [sic] acknowledging the greetings.”                                  (The Hindu, 19-4-1915)


The scene of young men enthusiastically and worshipfully pulling the carriages of gods during various temple-festivals can be often seen on the streets of Madras even today. The custom of pulling the carriages of gods and of venerable pious people was perhaps common all across India in the early twentieth century.


Gandhiji stayed for three weeks, from 17th April to 8th May in Madras at the home of G. A. Natesan, a liberal politician, scholar and publisher, who had been in contact with Gandhiji since 1896. He published many of his works including an edition of Hind Swaraj in 1921. Gandhiji had developed a special affection for South India during his South African campaigns, which were joined and led by many highly committed, selfless and self-sacrificing Tamil Satyagrahis. Tendulkar records that during the three weeks of his stay with Natesan: “Gandhi travelled widely in South India. He went out of his way to see two widows whose husbands had been shot during the South African struggle. In Madras Presidency Gandhi felt inwardly he was with his former colleagues in South Africa.” (p.206)


In the first few months of his arrival in India, Gandhiji not only came to be addressed and treated as the Mahatma by the people, he also took vows that bound him to great austerity. In Natesan’s house, he refused to lie on cots placed in his room and both he and Kasturba chose to sleep on the floor. On February 20, 1915, when he learnt about the death of Gokhale, whom he had adopted as his political guru, he took a vow to go barefoot for one year. And in Hardwar on April 10, he took an extreme vow. He records in his diary for that day: “Vow to have in India only five articles of food during 24 hours, and that before sunset. Water not included in five articles. Cardamom, etc., included. Groundnut and its oil to count as one article.” (CWMG: 13.164)


It is the custom for ordinary disciplined Indians to give up the use of some article when they visit a tirtha like Haridwar. Gandhiji’s companion on that day, Raojibhai vowed to abstain from milk and milk-products. But the extreme vow that Gandhiji took could be sustained for a life-time only by the Mahatma that he had become already, before reaching India.


Such was the tapas and discipline of the Mahatma. The fame of such great souls spreads and the world pays respect to them spontaneously. Their life and work give rise to great literature and great cinema, it is never the other way round.

Tuesday 16 July 2024

Mahatma Gandhi and the World X

FORMALLY ADDRESSED AS DESHABHAKTA MAHATMA                                                                BY THE INDIANS IN SOUTH AFRICA



In 1909, after he came out of his third imprisonment in South Africa, Gandhiji was seen as a Mahatma by those like Pranjivan Mehta, who came in intimate contact with him. As we have described in the previous note, Dr. Mehta, after his long interaction with him during July-September 1909, began to refer to him as a Mahatma “who worships this civilisation of ours and considers this country to be a holier land than any other”. By 1914, when Gandhiji left South Africa for India, all of the Indians in South Africa had begun to see him in that light. They addressed him as “Deshabhakta Mahatma” in the formal written addresses they presented to him in the farewell meetings that they organized in his honour in July 1914.


His third imprisonment was indeed the climactic moment in his journey towards becoming a Mahatma who derived his religion from his love for his motherland and commitment to his civilisation. But his work in South Africa was not yet complete in 1909. The Satyagraha that had been rising and ebbing since its advent on September 11, 1907 had not yet reached its goal. The demand of the Indians to be treated as equal and dignified citizens had not yet been met. Gandhiji spent another five years in South Africa before achieving that denouement.


Before that he had to intensify the Satyagraha once again and raise it to a new peak that involved thousands of Satyagrahis, rather than hundreds of the previous phases, and called for the participation of all Indians, including women and also indentured labourers, who had been exempted earlier. The government of the newly established Union of South Africa had sought to implement measures that had agitated both the indentured and free labourers, those who were still serving their contract and those who had completed their indented period.


This last campaign of the Satyagraha in South Africa was waged from September 15, 1913 to January 22, 1914. Kasturba Gandhi, leading a group of women from the Phoenix Ashram, was arrested at the beginning of the campaign. Gandhiji was arrested towards the end, on November 9, when the Satyagrahis were on the Great March from New Castle in Natal to the Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg in the Transvaal. All of the Satyagrahis, who Gandhiji referred to as Pilgrims, were also arrested a day later.


The marching labourers were taken back to the coalmines which were declared as outstation jails. Gandhiji was tried on two separate charges and awarded a total of 12 months of rigorous imprisonment. For this fourth imprisonment in South Africa, he was taken to far off Bloemfontein in Orange Free State, where he could hope to see no Indian.


By that time, however, he and the Satyagraha he was leading had become too well known across the world to be easily suppressed. There was widespread condemnation across the world of  the suppression unleashed by the South African government. The Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, could not keep quiet. Ignoring the etiquette between separate constituents of the Empire, he, in a speech delivered on November 24, 1913 at Madras, publicly charged the Government of the Union of South Africa of brutality against Indian migrants to Natal. The Government of India had been sufficiently agitated by the plight of Indian in South Africa and the harsh measures used against the movement of passive resistance led by Gandhiji that it had earlier, in July 1911, decided to legally prohibit the system of sending Indians to South Africa under indent to serve in the mines there. There was thus to be no more girmitiyas (गिरमिटिया), Indian labourers under agreement.


The Government of South Africa had to act to resolve the situation. A Commission to look into the demands of the Indians was appointed on December 11. Gandhiji and his colleagues were released from jails on December 18. A provisional settlement was reached between Gandhiji and General Smuts on January 22, 1914. As per the provisions of the settlement, an “Indians Relief Bill” was drafted in consultation with the Indians and was passed by the Parliament on June 28. It conceded almost all of the demands for which the Satyagraha was initiated in 1907.


The long Satyagraha succeeded in gaining for the Indians their legal rights as equal citizens of the Union of South Africa. Even more importantly, the South Africans and the world, came to recognise them as inheritors and carriers of a great civilisation. As irreconcilable an opponent as General Smuts was moved to inform the new Parliament in February 1911 that the Asiatic people ‘belonged to an ancient civilisation’, who ‘were prepared to suffer in defence of what they considered their rights’ and who could not be treated like ‘barbarians’.


The passing of the Indians Relief Bill brought the Satyagraha to an end. Gandhiji decided to leave for India almost immediately. He was to leave from Cape Town on July 14 for England on the way to India. Before that, several receptions were organised in various towns by the Indians in South Africa. There was also a reception organised by the Europeans and another specifically by Muslims.


The “Indian Opinion” of July 1914, which was published when Gandhiji was already on the sea, carries texts of the printed addresses presented to him in two such receptions. Below, we give a facsimile of the relevant page. The first of these, presented on behalf of the “Gujarati Hindu brethren” in a meeting held on July 9 in Durban, addresses him as “Deshabhakta Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, देशभक्त महात्मा मोहनदास करमचंद गांधी”. The second was presented in a meeting held on July 12 at Verulam, near Durban. According to the report in the Indian Opinion, “this address was in Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil, of which only the Hindi text is reproduced here.” The address begins, “Mahatma Shriyut Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Deshabhakta Mahashayaमहात्मा श्रीयुत मोहनदास करमचंद गांधी, देशभक्त महाशय.


Thus, on the eve of his departure from South Africa, Gandhiji was formally and publicly being addressed as Deshabhakta Mahatma. His fame as a great Indian patriot firmly anchored in Dharma and committed to his land and his civilisation had spread across the world.

Highlighted Text:

Left Column: મી. ગાંધીને મળેલાં માનપત્રો 

Right Column: ગુજરાતી હિંદુભાઇયોનું માનપત્ર, દેશભક્ત મહાત્મા શ્રી મોહનદાસ કરમચંદ ગાંધી,
વેરૂલમમાં મળેલ માનપત્રો, મહાત્મા શ્રીયુત મોહનદાસ કરમચંદ ગાંધી, દેશભક્ત મહાશય

Wednesday 10 July 2024

Mahatma Gandhi and the World IX





Soon after his release from the third imprisonment at Pretoria, Gandhiji led a deputation to England to try to get the problem of Indians considered in the negotiations that were about to take place on the formation of the Union of South Africa. The deputation stayed from June to November 1909 and met with all concerned, including several highly placed politicians and parliamentarians. But it could achieve little success. The Union Bill was passed without incorporating any protections for the Indians in South Africa.


During these six months, Gandhiji got an opportunity to interact with and observe the British elite society from within. He was deeply disillusioned with what he saw. In his letters form that time expresses the extreme disgust he felt for the British elite and the civilisation that they represented. In one such letter to his friend Polak, he compares the elite to the Rakshasas of Indian lore and their civilisation to “refined savagery”:


“I am sending you a copy of the list of those who took part in the banquet to the Ottoman Parliament delegates. The function was brilliant but I came away from it much saddened. The banqueting hall was crowded; the dinner took nearly three hours. The fumes from the wine-glasses and the smoke from the cigars or cigarettes, smoked by nearly three hundred guests, had a most depressing effect on the mind. I then involuntarily called it “refined savagery”, and it reminded me of the scene described by poets at banquets held by Rakshasas.”


It was this realisation of the unscrupulous irreligion of the modern British civilisation and its elite on the one hand and on the other the deep religious anchorage of the Indian Satyagrahis, which gave them the strength to stoically suffer inhuman atrocities in South African jails for a righteous cause, that directly led to his formulation of Hind Swaraj. He wrote this foundational text, which guided his public activity throughout his life, on the way back from England. 


While in England, Gandhiji stayed for a month with Doctor Pranjivan Mehta, an old friend, confidante and benefactor of his. The two had several late-night discussions, occasionally lasting from 11.00 p.m. to 2.00 a.m. Gandhiji, much later in 1940, recalls that all of the ideas of Hind Swaraj were formulated and argued out in those discussions with Mehta. The latter thus had an intimate and extensive interaction with Gandhiji soon after he had passed through the hell of his third imprisonment in Pretoria which we have described in the previous notes. The interaction convinced the Doctor that this passage through hell had transformed Gandhiji into an exalted soul.


Dr. Mehta describes the interactions he had with Gandhiji in 1909 and his understanding of the effect the imprisonment had on Gandhiji in his long Translator’s Preface to the Gujarati version of J. J. Doke’s biography of Gandhiji:


“Instead of being frightened by the painful experiences of the prison described above, Bhai Mohandas became more and more resolute in his cause and his work. Those who have come in contact with him recently—this writer met him in England last year and lived with him for some time—they feel that because of having gone through these adversities his soul has become stronger and purer. …he had been craving for some solitude for a long time. Ultimately he got that solitude in the prison. There he read several books on various subjects, but mainly on religion. He also contemplated on the important questions concerning India as well as other countries of the world. If ever in his life he got the freedom he wanted, he got it in the Transvaal prisons. And for this he is extremely happy from within. …He believes that the real civilisation of India is superior to all other civilisations, because it is founded in religion and morality.


“He worships this civilisation of ours and considers this country to be a holier land than any other. …He considers patriotism (स्वदेशाभिमान) to be a part of religion and always keeps repeating:


भलो देश मारो भली भोम मारीमने प्राणथी नित्य छे एज प्यारी।

My country is good, my land is good.

It indeed is always dearer to me than my life.”


Mehta here notices both the strength and purity of Gandhiji’s soul and his intense patriotism, the two attributes that came to be always associated with Gandhiji after 1909.


Mehta also writes to G. K. Gokhale about these interactions of his with Gandhiji and his assessment of the exalted soul that he had become following his Tapas. In a letter of early November 1909, soon after those late-night discussions between him and Gandhiji, he writes: 


“During my last trip to Europe I saw a great deal of Mr. Gandhi. From year in year (I have known him intimately for over twenty years) I have found him getting the more and more selfless. He is now leading almost an ascetic sort of life—not the life of an ordinary ascetic that we usually see but that of a great Mahatma and the one idea that engrosses his mind is his motherland.”


The Tapas had indeed turned Gandhiji into a Mahatma. This is the first known use of the epithet “Mahatma” for Gandhi. This was in 1909, more than five years before he returned to India.


Pranjivan Mehta’s appreciation of Gandhiji keeps growing with time. Later in 1912, in another letter to Gokhale, he says: 


“In my humble opinion men like him [Gandhiji] are born on very rare occasions & that in India alone. As far as I can see, it seems to me that India has not produced an equally far-seeing political prophet like him, during the last five or six centuries and that if he was born in the 18th century, India would have been a far different land to what it is now & its history would have been altogether differently written.”




Note: Extracts from the letters of Dr. Mehta to Gokhale are from S. R. Mehrotra’s biography of Pranjivan Mehta published in 2014. For further details please see our Making of a Hindu Patriot.

Monday 1 July 2024

Mahatma Gandhi and the World VIII



The Gandhiji’s third imprisonment at Pretoria, as we have described in the previous notes in this series, was extremely oppressive and painful. In that passage through hell, Gandhiji comes out with his faith deepened. He discovers the joy of seeing the creator all around him. He ends his narration of this third prison experience (in the Indian Opinion) with a joyful hymn that speaks of the devotee who hears the ‘name of the Invisible’ echoing through the skies and sits rapt in this ‘world-temple’ with his heart filled with gladness. His mind engrossed in such joy, he overcomes all despondency. Smiling and playing his way through life, he sees His presence revealed to him at every step: 


अलख नाम धुनि लगी गगनमेंमगन भया मंदिरमें राजी

आसन मारी सुरत दृढ धारीदिया अगमघर डेरा जी।

करना फकीरी क्या दिलगीरीसदा मगन मन रहेना छे।

हसतां रमतां प्रगट हरि देखुं रेमारुं जीवयुं सफल तब लेखुंरे

एनुं स्वपने जो दर्शन पामे रेएनुं मन न चडे बीजे भामे रे।


The sky rings with the name of the Invisible,

I sit rapt in the temple, my heart filled with gladness;

Taking up an asana, they face immovable,

I have pitched my tent in the abode of the Inscrutable.


Take to the life of a fakir and yield not to despondency,

Let the mind be always rapt with joy.


When, smiling and playing my way through life,

I see [Him] revealed to me, a visible presence,

Then shall I consider my life to have attained its true end;

He who has seen Him even in a dream,

Will cease chasing the shadows in vain.



This revelation, achieved through high Tapas and deep and extensive study of religious texts before and during this Tapas, is what made him the Mahatma. Those who came in contact with him and even those, like Tolstoy, who corresponded with him immediately following that period could sense a certain asceticism and wisdom in him. 


But there was something special about his religious asceticism, because for him religion and patriotism had become the same. At the end of this narration of his third imprisonment in the Indian Opinion, he recalls the hymn above, but just before that he says:


“I wish that everyone who reads this account of experience should cultivate patriotism, if he does not have it, and learn satyagraha therefrom, and if he has it already, be more firm in it. I am growing more convinced every day that no one who does not know his religion can have true patriotism in him.”


This realization that patriotism and religion must always go together, that the two must not be separated from each other, make both his patriotism and his religiosity special. Soon the world begins to notice this. As we have seen in an earlier note, Tolstoy comments on this coming together of religion and patriotism in him. His seminal text, Hind Swaraj, which he writes within six months after his release from his third imprisonment, is largely based on this understanding of religion and patriotism. That text put him among the strongest critics of the then nascent modern civilization and made him a world-figure to be reckoned with.