Today on the 60th annniversary of his death, we recollect the great contribution Gandhiji made to the world of spiritual values. He was essentially a spiritual man; politics for him was only the field of application of these values. The strict silence he observed once a week communicating only in writing even when he was participating in an international consultation, waiting for the inner voice to speak before directing the national movement he was building up, gathering round him men like Nehru and Patel and women like Sarojini, ordering the withdrawal of all political actions and apologising to the nation for the Government, when an upsurge of national pride seemed to infringe on the frontiers of the value systems he propagated, — all this revealed what depth of conviction he had.
I had the privilege of attending the evening prayer meetings that were held at the Birla house at the close of his earthly life – the place at which he was assassinated a few days later. At exactly 5 p.m. he would walk out of the house, supported on both sides by two ladies who were his disciples. A low table spread with a plain khadi sheet would be the place at which he would sit in a yoga posture. He would remain very quiet and allow the choir to sing one of his favourite hymns accompanied by Indian musical instruments. A portion from the scripture would then be read —from the Bible, Gita or the Koran. He would give a simple and clear exposition of the passage – more as a subject for meditation for himself rather than for others. There would be a short period of silence. Then there would be a time for questions to be asked.
While I was attending the meeting, the questions were raised mainly by deeply agitated Hindus who had lost their all, including their dear ones, in the violence they had suffered; they would ask Gandhiji permission to declare war. With raised hands he would plead with them to have restraint, to forgive and to love. It was very clear that he spoke with great pain, his shoulders drooping, as if he were carrying all their burdens himself. It was the same impression that I had had when I had seen him in the midst of violence in Calcutta a few months prior to this, before his walk through Navakali. The message was the same, “ love one another”. One was reminded of John the beloved disciple giving the same message years earlier.
The two pivots around which his life revolved were faith in truth, and non-violence. For him both were identical. Truth to him, though he tried deliberately to deny it, was more personal than theoretical. He spoke of being led by truth, turning his soul to listen to the truth speaking, etc. He refused to give it a name, but Paul would have easily named it as he did in Athens long ago. The same it was with non-violence. It was not merely a political weapon but a philosophy of life. His whole life was dedicated to passive resistance and non-violence, physically, mentally and spiritually. Violence to him was a lie, a denial of truth. He was transparent; there were no secrets with him. The police officer whose duty it was to watch him all the time and report to the authorities every move he made or planned to make in the political field, had the easiest of jobs, as Gandhiji himself would call him and tell him all his plans in advance.
His simplicity was also a reflection of his non-violence, because he felt that if he used anything more than was absolutely necessary, he would be robbing from a poorer brother or sister. It was thus, that when the King insisted on seeing him, he said he would go to the Buckingham Palace in his usual attire – “ the half-naked fakir”. When a journalist accosted him, asking him whether he did not feel ashamed, prompt came the reply, “ Your King is wearing more than double of what is needed: so I must go naked as he has robbed me of my clothes.” Insistence on an hour of manual labour daily by all his numerous followers was another of his expressions of non-violence. The immediate effect of this was the closing down of the textile mills in Manchester and Lancashire, because of the production and use of khadi, the Indian homespun cloth. On a wider plain, he taught that no one had the right to eat, unless he had made himself one with the toiling masses, whose sweat and blood had produced the food. To have been able to organize the uneducated and hard-pressed masses into a political force that threatened the mighty British Empire on moral and spiritual grounds was not a small achievement.
He died as he lived: an offering at the altar of truth and non-violence. I was in Delhi then and was witness to the transformation that that sacrifice brought among the warring factions. While I was working in a Refugee camp near the newly created India/Pakistan border, I was often deeply disturbed by the bitter cry heard daily for vengeance against the cruelties suffered. The news of that death brought about a radical change. Everybody was weeping and there was silence. “He has paid by his life for our bitterness ” was the unanimous cry. No shop opened that day in Delhi or the rest of India. People, who had been hiding for fear of violence, came out and embraced each other as brothers and sisters. The change was not superficial, soon to be forgotten. That death has left an indelible mark on the history of our nation. I, too, shed tears of my own, not only because of the death I had witnessed, but also because I was reminded intensely of an innocent death years ago, by which abundant life, a life of love and forgiveness, was made available to me also.
Rev. A. C. Oommen
Kaviyoor, Kerala, India
Rev. A. C. Oommen, former co-worker of Gandhiji and retired chaplain of CMC Vellore, has given his 86 years to the cause of India's tribal and marginalized peoples.