Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mohandas K. Gandhi

The Birla House in Delhi, January 30, 1948. He was a few minutes late for regular evening devotions, a crowd of about 500 had assembled. As he approached the people he touched his palms together in the traditional Hindu greeting.

Just then, a man elbowed his way out of the congregation into the lane in front of him, looking as though he wished to prostrate himself, the customary obeisance of the devout. But planting himself two feet in front of his target, he fired three shots from a small automatic pistol.

As the first bullet struck, Gandhi’s foot, which was in motion, descended to the ground, but he remained standing. The second bullet struck; blood began to stain Gandhi’s white clothes. His face turned ashen pale. His hands, which had been in the touch-palm position, descended slowly.

Gandhi murmured, "Hey Rama (Oh, God)." A third shot rang out. The limp body settled to the ground. His spectacles dropped to the earth. The leather sandals slipped from his feet.


On the day he died, Mahatma Gandhi was what he had always been: a private citizen without wealth, property, official title, official post, academic distinction, scientific achievement, or artistic gift. Yet men with powerful governments and armies behind them paid homage to the little brown man of 78 in a loincloth.

General George Marshall, the United States Secretary of State, said, "Mahatma Gandhi was the spokesman for the conscience of all mankind."

Pope Pius, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi of London, the King of England, President Truman, Chiang-Kai-shek, the President of France and many other heads of important countries (but not Soviet Russia) expressed their grief at Gandhi’s passing.

Leon Blum, the French socialist, put on paper what millions felt, “I never saw Gandhi, I do not know his language, I never set foot in his country and yet I feel the same sorrow as if I had lost someone near and dear.”

Professor Albert Einstein said, “In our time of utter moral decadence, he was the only statesman to stand for a higher human relationship in the political sphere.”

Pearl S. Buck described Gandhi’s assassination as “another crucifixion.” Justice Felix Frankfurter called it “a cruel blow against the forces of good in the world.”

General Douglas MacArthur, supreme Allied military commander in Japan, said: “In the evolution of civilization, if it is to survive, all men cannot fail eventually to adopt Gandhi’s belief that the mass application of force to resolve contentious issues is not only wrong but contains within itself the germs of self-destruction.”


Few of us in the West know much about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi beyond the icons: the spinning wheel, the walking stick, the spectacles, the fasts, Satyagraha, non-violence, the spindly little brown man leading crowds of Indians toward independence through civil disobediance, the familiar images captured in fuzzy black-and-white photos and news reels.

He belonged to the Vaisya caste. In the old Hindu social scale, the Vaisyas stood third, far below the Brahmins who were the number one caste and the Kshatriyas, or rulers and soldiers who ranked second. The Vaisyas, in fact, were only a notch above the Sudras, the working class (‘Gandhi’ means grocer).

From my travels in India I have come to learn how deeply venerated Gandhi-ji is. His image appears on every piece of Indian paper money, regardless of the amount. Three generations after his death, his photo hangs in stores; statues, busts, likenesses are common. Mention him in conversations with Indians and their eyes light-up.

The Raj Ghat, the site of his cremation, is in a beautiful park in the center of Delhi. An eternal flame burns on the site, where to the cries and moans and wails of more than two million onlookers, Ramdas Gandhi set fire to his father’s funeral pyre. The fire burned for more than 14 hours, all the while prayers were sung; the entire text of the Bhagavad Gita was read. To this day there is always a crowd there, silent, respectful, in love with the memory of this precious man.

I’ve been to the Raj Ghat a couple of times, but never to the National Gandhi Museum which sits across the street. This morning, the last of this time in India, I visited.

As museums go, it is not visually spectacular, it actually has the feel more of a comfortable library, as it has been well-used (how lovely for a museum!) and there is much to read. Admission is free, donations encouraged. Halls and rooms display quotes and photos, amazing ones, following Gandhi from his days as a law student in London to a lawyer and Indian rights organizer in South Africa to his remarkable life as the man who led the fight for Indian independence from British rule.

There are signs throughout the museum requesting silence, they are unnecessary. If ever there were corridors of human brilliance so intense that there could be nothing but silence in response, it is these.

On prominent display is the walking stick with which he led the famous Salt march, where in civil disobedience he broke the British law making it a punishable crime to possess salt not obtained from the British salt monopoly.

His spectacles are there to be seen, his bed, his trusty pocketwatch, his dentures, his bowls, as are many of his diverse notes, letters and diaries of commentary so important to the morals and independence of this magnificent country. Clothes that he wore, books that he owned and wrote notes in, personal items all there to be shared.

At the end of one room, the heart aches, legs grow weak. Many photos of his body lying in state, on the funeral pyre, burning. His children, his friends, his followers, the people of India -- so many terribly sad faces. There is the urn in which his ashes were carried, a bullet that was removed from his body, the blood-stained cloths he was wearing when he was shot.

Museum turns to temple with these holy relics. People approach softly, with eyes frozen in sadness they look, then slowly leave quickly, heads down.


He had no personal hatred of Mahatma Gandhi, Nathuram Godse said at his trial, at which he was sentenced to be hanged: “Before I fired the shots I actually wished him well and bowed to him in reverence.”

In response to Godse’s obeisance and the reverential bows of other members of the congregation, Gandhiji touched his palms together, smiled and blessed them. Then, the shots.


He was a great human being, Mohandas K. Gandhi, perhaps the finest of the 20th century. If you have the inclination, you’ll benefit greatly by learning more about him, his life, his ideas, his actions.

Stopping the finger now, thanks for reading.

(Some of the above Jan. 30, 1948 description and quotes from Louis Fischer's "The Life of Mahatma Gandhi."