M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Chapter 7
At least two events worth noting marked the school-days of Mohandas. The one was his marriage, the other, a crisis in his religious life.
At the age of twelve, the boy was married. The betrothal had taken place some four years before, in the home at Porbandar, and in Porbandar, too, the marriage ceremony was carried out. Frequently, in India, the bride and bridegroom are strangers to each other until the wedding-day, and sometimes it happens, when the veil is lifted for the first time, life together begins with a shock of revulsion. In this case, however, custom was ignored. One imagines that the parents involved must have been more liberal in their views than their strict observance of Hindu Ritual would suggest. At any rate, the little bride-elect was brought to Rajkot some time before the marriage, and the two children became playmates in the Gandhi's home.
The wedding-day was very merry. Mohandas, his brother, and a cousin were married at the same time. Numbers of relatives were present, flowers in abundance made the home gay, and as the brides and bridegrooms were but children, every part of the ceremony, from the priestly chanting ot mantras to the game of cowrie-shells, was full of enjoyment. That was long ago. Mr. Gandhi, like most Indian reformers, is strongly opposed to child marriage. He regards it as having sapped the vital strength of his nation, and as being at the root of many other evils. But he argues that such a life-union, begun before habits and character have been formed, is capable, if it prove happy, of reaching an ideal oneness of spirit which cannot be reached in any other way. This, probably, is the issue of his own experience. Mrs. Gandhi has been a true-hearted, heroic wife. During these months of trouble she has suffered severely. It has been her affliction to be unable to share her husband's imprisonment, but she has fasted and wept until her health has broken under the strain; while she has, reluctantly but heroically, given her eldest son to be with him, and like a true and loyal Indian wife, the little bride of Porbandar has done her duty. She lives now with three of her sons, a daughter-in-law, and a grandchild, in the settlement of Phœnix. Her eldest boy, Harilal, father of the little one, is now awaiting his trial, as a passive resister, in Volksrust Gaol.
It was during these school days, while still in the fourth standard, that Mohandas reached a religious crisis, and all but lost his way. For a while he was practically an atheist. Up to that point he had worshipped the gods honestly. He had never, since the age of reasoning, imagined that the stone or wood or metal image was itself a god, but he had been told, and believed, that an act of consecration endowed the image with a Divine Spirit, and this localised spirit he worshipped. His companionship with other minds, however, almost imperceptibly changed his conception of religion. He became sceptical. A strong natural tendency to analytical study made him question the why of everything.
"I wanted to know," he said, "how this or that could be so, and why it was so," questions which brought him at length into hopeless conflict with the religious teaching of his mother. There was no alternative, so far as he knew, between idolatrous Hinduism and Atheism. So Atheism it was.
From this moment, other time-honoured customs, besides worship, felt also, and but for one habit which had hardened into character, and which stood the strain, the youth would probably have become a moral, as well as a spiritual wreck. You cannot loosen the restraining influences of religion, whatever it be, without imperilling the whole being.
Mrs. Besant saw this, when, religion having become mere superstition to her, and she was bending her efforts to dislodge the hated fetish from the throne of other lives, she wrote: "It, therefore, becomes the duty of everyone to beware how he uproots sanctions of morality which he is too weak to replace, or how, before he is prepared with better ones, he removes the barriers which do yet, however poorly, to some extent check vice and repress crime."
The one habit which stood the strain in this time of "storm and stress" was truthfulness. It was then, it is now, a part of himself. He could not lie. Other anchors were lost; this held. The little company of Atheistic students, who associated together in the High School at Rajkot, and to whom Mohandas was attached, broke secretly through one Hindu custom after another, growing more and more daring. They gave up worship. They smiled at the gods. They at length began surreptitiously to eat meat. Their leader persuaded them that the strength and physique of the English were due to this indulgence. A Mohammedan friend, who, at this time, began to exercise a powerful influence over them, added his persuasions. Finally, they discovered that the school-master, who was venerated by them, indulged in this food, and before these successive assaults, the religious convictions of years gave way. For some time they met and discussed the awful theme, afraid of taking such an unholy course. At last they ventured. Western minds, accustomed from childhood to this diet, can never appreciate the horror and loathing with which a strict Hindu regards it. It outrages all his religious instincts. It insults his judgment. It stands as the symbol of a renunciation of Hindu faith. It is atheism.
These boys trembled while they dared. When the moment came, which should break their caste and cause a breach with all the sacred traditions of their faith, they felt like a company of murderers shocked at themselves. A party of five or six progressive spirits stole away one evening to a secluded spot by the river side, carrying meat with them, and there, under the supervision of the school-master's brother, solemnly cooked and ate it. It was eaten quickly. Mr. Gandhi says: "It rested at first nauseous, but worst of all, the memory of it haunted the darkness of the night, and there was no sleep for the sinners." Still they persevered in their course, ashamed of being thought superstitious by others, and determined to grow strong like the English. Day after day they repeated the act, until the fear wore away, and they even began to like the forbidden food. One of their number was a past-master in the art of cooking. He made the dishes savoury. He invented all sorts of variations, and although the feast was enjoyed secretly, it was a feast nevertheless, and it was enjoyed.
The one anchor which held Mohandas to his old moorings, and saved him from worse transgressions, was his love of truth. Deceit was hateful to him. The expedition to the river side had, of necessity, to be kept a secret from his parents. The boy knew well that his terrible defection, if discovered, would be an incalculable shock to his mother. He dared not imagine its effect. But his effort at concealment involved him in such a tangle of deceit that life became unbearable. He and his brother, who had joined him, were obliged to obtain their mother's consent to be absent, and then to cover the real motive with ingenious inventions. They had also to excuse their lack of appetite at the evening meal. In one way or another, they found their new path to be a very devious one, not infrequently trenching closely on a lie. It was this that decided the boys to give up their companions, and resume their old manner of life. A liberty, which required deceit to make it possible, had lost its charm for them. When Mohandas was sent to England, his mother's insistence on the oath, confirmed his decision, and both parents died without ever knowing of this incident.
But the intellectual freedom of the boy was not hindered much by this return. He was a sceptic still. His mother must have been sorely puzzled, at times, by the searching questions which he put. In his difficulties, he turned to ancient Hindu lore. He studied the code of Manu, in the hope of finding some light on the riddle of life. What he found perplexed him more. It seemed to him that a much purer faith shone out from the old books than the faith which claimed his adherence in the home. The worship around him appeared childish and demoralizing, it failed to retain his respect; surely there was a better way than this. So he argued, and pondered in the dark, as many a Hindu youth is doing still, until slowly the light came.