The Theosophical Forum – January 1949

FRIEND OF THE FRIENDLESS — GANDHI (1) — Grace Knoche

Reporters rushed to the typewriter and commentators to the script-desk when the news flashed over the Seven Seas that Mahatma Gandhi had been killed — - precipitating such a downpour of newsprint in reportage, story, digest, reminiscence, editorial, bulletin and review, in both East and West, as we have not known — shall we say in centuries? Certainly not in generations.

And quite naturally, because for decades the thinking world has been watching the quietly thunderous procedures of this incredible man "who tackled the thing that couldn't be done — and did it." Without guns or butter, either one (though the half-fed multitudes who looked to him for succor could have made good use of the latter) this man, plus fifty years of frail health, smiles, and perseverance, gave back to more than 400 millions, their country, their self-respect, and their hope.

To a reviewer whose craft depends for its usefulness and integrity on sympathy and the ability to appraise, yet who has thus far merely bypassed the principles and precepts which Gandhi by untiring effort built into his life, and without some knowledge of which we cannot hope to understand him, a request to review this book soon looks like a consignment in a vacuum. On the other hand, those who see East and West, Orient and Occident, as two sides of a single fact, a single shield, know that "the twain shall meet," as a human necessity and a natural result when the driftwood of apathy and opinion edges past the millwheel of Time, and gets on with its journey downstream.

This book does not deal, even en passant, with religions or philosophies as things in themselves, and not at all with magic or sham metaphysics, or psychism, or purposeless self-torture, or temptations (there are so many) to leisured "thought." It deals with the mystery of human conduct: human conduct, which to the Roman Seneca was "three-fourths of life," but to a Theosophist actually four-fourths. Conduct — the basis and cradle of which is brotherhood, universal brotherhood.

So don't be surprised if you hear a Theosophist say of this modest and powerful book, "It is almost a brief for Theosophy." For Gandhi was no tight religionist; he was an artist in what we call today "human relations." Brotherhood, as with him, has been the goal and platform since the T. S. came into being. H. P. Blavatsky herself published the new creation as The Theosophical Society and Universal Brotherhood. And when Katherine Tingley expanded the Society, to make philanthropy first and not last (let us not forget the Master's written words: "We are, above all, philanthropists"), it was rechristened The Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society, a gesture of faith and understanding. Powerful indeed were the reverberations loosed at this last expansion. Were they confined to the Western World? They could not be. It was One World even then on the plains of hidden sorrow, for the world was in a parlous state at the time, although only the few in any land could be aroused to see it. Broken hearts everywhere cried with Omar:

There is a Door for which there is no key,
There is a Veil through which I cannot see. . . .

But Gandhi found the key — Brotherhood and the tenderness and troth that it inherits, and any Theosophist who has followed the course he took — always with gentleness, never with force — and who now tries to find his way through this unique yet exasperating book, so supremely honest that in places it reads like a testimony of abasement, will inevitably say, "How theosophical!"

He was not a Theosophist, was never a member of the T. S. — let that be understood — although during his two years in England while studying law, he met H. P. Blavatsky at the Lodge in London, invited there to meet her by "two Theosophists" whom he does not name. Nor have we the date of this meeting, but it must have been shortly before he left England for home, in 1891, when he was about twenty years of age. And it was a theosophical book (in the sense that it was the most beloved of all books by Theosophists) the Bhagavad-Gita, that Gandhi re-discovered at that time, to make it the guiding star of his life.

Is this an assumption merely? By no means. Before us is a translation into English (from Hindi, a vernacular) of an address made by Gandhi — date unknown. Speaking to the students at Benares, he said (we give but excerpts):

Early in my childhood I had felt the need of a Scripture that would serve me as an unfailing guide through the trials and temptations of life. The Vedas could not supply that need, if only because to learn them would require fifteen or sixteen years of hard study at a place like Kashi, for which I was not ready then.

But the Gita, I had read somewhere, gave within the compass of its 700 verses the quintessence of all the Sastras and the Upanishads. That decided me. I learned Sanskrit to enable me to read the Gita. Today the Gita is not only my Bible or my Koran; it is more than that — it is my mother. I lost my earthly mother who gave me birth, long ago; but this Eternal Mother has completely filled her place by my side ever since. She has never changed, she has never failed me. When I am in difficulty or distress, I seek refuge in her bosom. . . .

The Gita is the universal mother. She turns nobody away. Her door is wide open to anyone who knocks. A true votary of the Gita does not know what disappointment is. He ever dwells in perennial joy and peace that passeth understanding. But that peace and joy come not to the skeptic or to him who is proud of his intellect or learning. It is reserved only for the humble in spirit, who brings to her worship a fulness of faith and an undivided singleness of mind. . . . As a "Satyagrahi" I can declare that the Gita is ever presenting me with fresh lessons. If anyone tells me that this is my delusion, my reply to him would be that I shall hug this delusion as my richest treasure.

The "two Theosophists" mentioned introduced him to the Gita, no doubt reviving memories of his father's love for it and echoes of the sacred slokas he repeated from it every day. They also introduced him to The Song Celestial, Sir Edwin Arnold's metrical translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, and invited Gandhi to read it with them in the original. He had never read it in Sanskrit or in the vernacular of his birthplace — nevertheless, he began. The following slokas from the second chapter he tells us "still ring in my ears":

. . . If one
Ponders on objects of the sense, there springs
Attraction; from attraction grows desire,
Desire flames to fierce passion, passion breeds
Recklessness; then the memory — all betrayed —
Lets noble purpose go, and saps the mind,
Till purpose, mind, and man are all undone.

Introduced also to Arnold's Light of Asia, he read it eagerly "Once I had begun it I could not leave off." He also read The Key to Theosophy, H. P. B.'s (for that day) startling work, which, he records, "stimulated in me a desire to read books on Hinduism, and disabused me of the notion fostered by the missionaries that Hinduism was rife with superstition." When his new friends suggested that he join the Theosophical Society, he very honestly declined saying: "With my meagre knowledge of my own religion I do not want to belong to any religious body." His work was to be other and perhaps intuitively he knew it even then.

A Christian friend about this time said to him, "Do please read the Bible." Accordingly he invested in a Bible, with maps and concordance, etc., read through the Book of Genesis, but what followed "invariably sent me to sleep." He plodded through the Old Testament, but "with much difficulty and without the least interest or understanding." But the New Testament was different, "especially the "Sermon on the Mount," which went straight to my heart. I compared it with the Gita. . . . My young mind tried to unify the teaching of the Gita, the Light of Asia, and the "Sermon on the Mount." That renunciation was the highest form of religion appealed to me greatly."

Far from having been brought up in one single sectarian faith, Gandhi tells us that he was imbued in childhood with "a toleration for all faiths." His father had scholarly friends in the Moslem, Parsi (or Zoroastrian), and Jain religions, who frequently visited him and discussed their faiths, the little Mohandas quietly listening.

While in London he met Mrs. Besant at the Blavatsky Lodge. She had just joined the Society. He attended the funeral of Bradlaugh, "as I believe every Indian residing in London did." Bradlaugh's humanitarian work among the very poor of London is no doubt what impressed Gandhi, though at that time Gandhi was a lad of twenty years, quite unaware of what his future work would be.

He contacted the Theosophical Society later in Johannesburg, South Africa. Of this contact he writes: "I never became a member of it as I had my differences, but I came in close contact with almost every Theosophist." The dates needed to place this contact with Theosophy are found in an unrelated topic in his book. In his own words: "I passed my law examinations, was called to the bar on the 10th of June, 1891, and enrolled in the High Court on the 11th. On the 12th I sailed for home."

Intensive study enabled him to complete the three-year course in two years — part of the time, so straitened were his means, in a single room in one of the poorer parts of London, doing his own cooking: the total cost of living one shilling and sixpence a day. Such a chapter deserves a colophon, and here it is:

Let not the reader think that this living made my life by any means a dreary affair. On the contrary the change harmonized my inward and outward life. It was also more in keeping with the means of my family. My life was certainly more truthful and my soul knew no bounds of joy.

Disheartened over the petty intrigues in his home-state, Kathiawad, he soon saw that he could not pursue his profession and keep his integrity — "influence" was the deciding factor in court-cases there, not justice. Even the laws nodded to bribes and trickery. It was not long before he left for South Africa as legal counsel to a firm of which a Moslem friend of long standing in Gandhi's family was the head. He went to stay a year. He stayed twenty!

Nor was that too long to straighten things out for the many thousands of Hindus, suffering both insult and injury as "coolies" for no reason save that they had something that we of the "white race" will have in the far future, when the rolling cycles will have carried the Aryan Races, that are younger than that of India, slowly but surely to the lands bordering and below the equator — namely, a dark skin. In the nearly twenty years before he returned to India to stay, needed laws were passed and disabilities removed. What he worked for was accomplished, and without a shot fired or even an act of resistance, let alone violence, on his part or that of his friends, nor a penny changing hands to buy or bribe.

Then back to India where he seems to have made his first contact with the Untouchables. Most of us have seen, in one or another of the illustrated news-magazines, staff-photographs of Gandhi entering the doors of Parliament House, accompanied by men high in government, his only garment the native dhoti or loin-cloth, and shawl. Nothing else. It is the dress of the Untouchables, and he wore it thirty years. If he really was a "politician," no government in our time ever saw his like before. As Vincent Sheean remarks in his sympathetic review: "Mr. Gandhi was not very much interested in politics. . . . What interested him was the poverty of his people, and his whole life was spent trying to find ways of helping them."

How did Gandhi get that way? By means of his own stored qualities, helped by earned karman on both sides which, difficult and discouraging at first, at last became benign. He himself does not answer directly, but his book gives us some clues. Since a sense of responsibility for childhood is rising in the public mind to the dignity of a science from the status of a fad, and since H. P. Blavatsky stressed this responsibility again and again as of first importance — "Educate! Educate! The children are our salvation!" were her words and battle-cry — let us point very briefly to a few items from Gandhi's own account of his childhood and youth in India.

He was born in Kathiawad, a kingdom of many states, and in that day with a population of Hindus and Moslems living in friendly relations. Gandhi was of course born a caste-Hindu, although officially he became "out-caste" when he left India for England. His father was a Diwan, that is, First Counsellor to the Thakore or Ruler — we should call him Prime Minister or Secretary of State — as his father and grandfather had also been. He says of his father that he was a man of incorruptible integrity, with the practical approach in solving "intricate questions" and "managing hundreds of men." Of his mother Gandhi says that the outstanding impression she left upon his memory was "saintliness."

A Hindu boy, Gandhi had the usual schooling of his caste, doubtless a little more, as he seems to have had a gift for languages — he tells us that he studied Sanskrit; when he left for England he studied Tamil and Urdu on the boat, French somewhere or other, and Latin when obliged to know it for his Matriculation for Law. But he remembers that he found the multiplication tables "difficult."

But he persisted, for in later years he records the profound conviction that every boy should learn to keep personal accounts. He began this (apparently in England) balancing his accounts every night, even to the smallest coin, farthing or copper. Years later, when he had to handle "lakhs" intrusted to him (2) he had no trouble. There was always a surplus of funds, never a deficit.

When only thirteen he was married to a little girl of the same age, as was the caste-custom. Of this he writes:

It is my painful duty to record my marriage at the age of thirteen. As I see the youngsters of the same age about me who are under my care, and think of my own marriage, I am inclined to pity myself and to congratulate them on having escaped my lot. I can see no moral argument in support of such a preposterous early marriage . . . the poor mite that was born to my wife scarcely breathed for more than three or four days. Nothing else could be expected. He does not refer to the subject again.

This book is not a biography, auto- or other. Actually it is a case-history. Gandhi's own title for the book was a good title: "The Story of my Experiments with Truth." For he was not only a great man; he was a great Experimenter, and in a very great field: the field of human nature and its fruitage in human relations. And he succeeded, for he went back to the Golden Age of his own, his native land, the Vedic Period, his objective not a universal gadget but the universal panacea. And he found it: love, brotherhood, compassion, the gift of the gentle but understanding approach.

Others have found this in other ways — there are many trails up a mountain. But this man, in his own field, was by today's standards unique. He wrote what is really a textbook in one sense, a laboratory record in another. It will be revived and read no doubt in centuries to come.

We hope that translator and editor, in publishing Volume II, and later reprinting Volume I, will add to the excellent Index a glossary of words and unexplained allusions that are in large part foreign to Western scholarship. In the meantime, "Close the book and let it lie."

FOOTNOTES:

1. Gandhi's Autobiography: The Story of my Experiments with Truth. By M. K. Gandhi. Translated from the Gujerati by Mahadev Desai. Public Affairs Press, Washington, D. C. 640 pp. Indexed. $5.00. (return to text)

2. A lakh is the equivalent of 100,000 rupees. The dollar-value of a rupee has in the last 20 years swung between 42c. and 30-35c. (return to text)


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