M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Chapter 9
LIFE IN LONDON (2)
Until now, in religious matters, Mr. Gandhi had tried to hold his judgment in suspense. From the days of his boyish atheism, and through all the perplexities which followed, he had looked forward to the moment when he should be free from control, free from the customs of home, free to declare himself according to his conscience. Such time had now come. It brought with it however, a sense of helplessness and ignorance which added to his perplexities. Questions pursued him relentlessly. "Did he know enough to say that nothing could be known after all, why should atheism be the alternative to Hindu faith? Then there was Christianity, now become a kind of atmosphere around him—what of that? Beyond everything, was it fair to pronounce upon Hinduism with the paltry knowledge of it which he possessed?" Very cautiously, but very sincerely he faced these questions.
Dr. Josiah Oldfield, now in charge of the Lady Margaret's Hospital at Bromley, became his intimate friend, and exercised considerable influence over him. Other friendships, too, were formed through the Vegetarian Society, of which he became a member. It was naturally impossible yet, that the question of religion should become prominent, but every discussion and every consideration of the subject only impressed him the more with his deplorable ignorance, and ignorance of that religion with which everyone expected him to be familiar. Dr. Oldfield's question, "Why not accept Christianity?" was met by the reply. "I would not care to study Christianity without having studied my own religion first." The Doctor wisely acquiesced in this idea, but lost no opportunity of acquainting him with the life of Christ.
He was also brought into touch with the Theosophists, saw Madame Blavatsky, read her book "The Key to Theosophy," and attended the "Blavatsky Lodge," but beyond quickening his interest in religious problems, Theosophy failed to enlighten him. Two brothers however, who were Theosophists, indirectly did him good service. Being deeply interested in Indian lore, they expressed a wish to read with him the Bhagavad Gita and willing to please them, he assented. When he commenced, he was ashamed to find that, although he was familiar with the Sanskrit language, and had frequently read the poem as a lesson, he was utterly unable to explain its subtle meanings. He determined to study the book for himself. Naturally, he came to the task with a profound veneration for the song which his father had loved, but his veneration was quickly supplemented by surprise and delight, as he pondered it for himself. The fascinating beauty of the song enthralled him. The circumstances in which he read it, far from his own land and among strangers, deepened the effect. It was like the discovery of a precious jewel which had long been his, though unrecognised. "The Gita opened to me," he said, "a new view of life. It touched my spirit as perhaps it can only touch a child of the East; I had found at last, as I believed, the light I needed." This was an epoch in his life.
About the same time, a gentleman from Manchester met him, and, becoming interested in Mr. Gandhi's religious views, attempted to combat what he believed to be false in them, and to bring him over to the Christian faith. This friend was so evidently sincere, that when he said: "For my sake, promise, at least, to read our Bible, and let me get you one." Mr. Gandhi promised. Unfortunately, the gentleman failed to indicate what parts of the Bible he should read. So the student began at the beginning, and stumbled through whole chapters which bore no relation to his own needs, nor to the cry of his heart, until the task became insufferable. Again and again he asked himself, "What could have led this friend to exact such a promise?" It all seemed so completely beside the mark. When Exodus was finished, he simply closed the book, and, for a time, closed with it his researches in the literature of Christianity. Still he was eager to receive any fresh light. He not only maintained as far as possible an open mind, but he endeavoured to place himself where truth might be found.
He even accustomed himself to attend the Churches. On one occasion he heard C. H. Spurgeon. He also listened to Archdeacon Farrar: but neither of these preachers impressed him. He was unable to start from their premises, or follow their line of thought, and he left their Churches without grasping their message. With Dr. Parker it was different. His Thursday mid-day talks at the City Temple appear to have attracted the student. "It was his appeal to the thoughts of young men that laid hold of me," said Mr. Gandhi, "and I went again and again." On the whole, although no final goal was reached, these different influences helped to quicken and mature his thought, and, at any rate, to sweep away the fragments of his boyish atheism. God had become a reality.
Mr. Gandhi passed his examination with credit, but with no particular distinction, and at the end of his three years was called to the Bar. Immediately afterwards he returned home.
"What idea did you form of English life?" I asked him. "Did it impress you favourably?" "Yes," he replied, with emphasis, "even now, next to India. I would rather live in London than in any other place in the world."