M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Chapter 5

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CHAPTER V

HIS PARENTS

When Mr. Gandhi speaks o[ his parents, those who listen realise that they are on holy ground. It is as though some priestly Israelite had lifted the curtain of the inner Shrine, to allow the Shekinah to be seen. There, in there, are the springs of Divine power and life.

"Tell me about them," I said to him, as he sat opposite me, in one of his reflecting moods. "Tell me about your parents." And this, in substance, was his reply.

There are four castes among the Hindus, each one divided and subdivided into many more:—

(1) The Brahmin, or Priestly Caste.
(2) The Kshatriya, or Warrior Caste.
(3) The Vaishya, or CommerciaI Caste.
(4) The Sudra, or Domestic Caste.

The Gandhi clan belong to the third caste. In religion they are Vaishnavas. The father was an intensely religious man. He knew the whole of the Bhagavad Gita, Arnold's "Song Celestial," by heart, and according to the strictest manner of the law, he lived a Vaishnava.

The marvel was that, in the enervating atmosphere of an Indian Court, he was also incorruptible. Once. when the Thakore of Rajkot pressed him, after long service, to accept a piece of ground, urging him to take as much as he desired, he indignantly rejected the offer, thinking that it had the appearance of bribery. "What will you do with your sons?" said the Prince, "you must provide for them. Take as much as you need." Then his relatives took up the parable, and by sheer persistence, bore down his opposition. But even then, all that he would accept was a mere strip of ground four hundred yards long. Money had no fasination for him. Before his death, at the age of sixty-three, he had spent nearly all his substance, chiefly in charity.

Here is a vivid scene from his life. Once he fell foul of the Assistant Political Agent, who was an Englishman. In those days, the Thakore Sahib of Rajkot, whom Karamchand Gandhi was serving at the time, had no power beyond what was allowed him by the British representative, and, as a rule, a hint from such an authority was sufficient to procure the dismissal of even a Minister. Karamchand Gandhi must have been a fearless man. Hearing some insolent remark from the Englishman regarding his Prince, he dared to dispute with him. The Agent was furious and demanded apology. When this was refused, the angry official had him immediately arrested, and detained, for some hours, under a tree; the town meanwhile seething with excitement. Such a defiance of British power had never before been seen. In the end, "passive resistance" prevailed, the apology was waived, and the two opponents became friends.

The close of his life was full of sadness. When his son's marriage was approaching in Porbandar, he found it very difficult to obtain leave from Rajkot. When permission was at last granted by the Thakore, it was so near the wedding-day, that the father used relays of horses between the two cities, and in the haste of travel, the cumbersome vehicle was overturned, and he sustained injuries from which he never recovered.

During the few years that succeeded, Mohandas, his youngest son, was his constant companion and nurse, and I gather that the utmost confidence must have existed between the two. But above all, it was the mother who won the boy's unreserved devotion. His voice softens when he speaks of her, and the light of love is in his eyes. She must have been a beautiful character.

Poligamy, although not prohibited, is not common, except among the Mohammedans, in Porbandar. There was no poligamy and no purdah seclusion, in the Gandhi's home. The mother was a second wife. She was very young, but remarkably clear-sighted and intelligent. She became, in fact, a political influence of no mean importance in the State, through her friendship with the Court ladies. She was not fond of jewelry, and wore comparatively little, just the usual nose rings, with bangles of ivory on her wrists, heavy anklets.

She was severely religious. Folk whispered that they had known her to fast for seven days at a time, and life was all religion with her; she made it the atmosphere of the home. She believed in stern discipline, yet withal, this mother bore such a strain of tenderness and sympathy in her heart, that the children clung to her with boundless affection. If there were sickness in the home, she would sit up night after night discharging the duties of nurse. If any one nearby was in need, Brahmin or Sudra, she was the one to render help as soon as possible. Every morning the old gate-way was besieged by twenty or thirty poverty-stricken people, who came to receive the alms or the cup of whey which was never refused: just as though the house were a mediæval convent, and she an Indian Saint Elizabeth. It was her influence, more than any other, that formed the character of her boy.

Here is a glimpse of the Holy of Holies. "When," he said, "my going as a student to London was proposed, after long refusal, my mother consented on one condition. She had heard of the loose, immoral lives lived in that far-off city, and she trembled for her son. Taking me before a Swami of the Jain Sect, she made me swear a threefold oath, to abjure the attractions of wine, of flesh, and of women. And that oath," he added, "saved me from many a pitfall in London."