Hujer and Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi, My Host

by Karel Hujer

University of Chattanooga

November 1,1948

It was during my stay in Ahmadabad, at the home of a friend on the bank of the Sabarmati River, that I first followed the footsteps of the Great Soul of our age, Mahatma Gandhi. Directly across the river from the window of my friend's home, I would see the simple cottages of Gandhi's well-known original Sabarmati Ashram, which formerly for some twelve years was a beehive of activity. On a number of occasions I meditated in the now silenced space of this old ashram ground, facing the smoke-stacks of the imposing Ahmadabad spinning mills - the Manchester of India. From a suggestive account of C.F. Andrews, I could visualize this most auspicious and appropriate setting of Sabarmati Ashram. In view of the teaming spinning mills, the frail looking ascetic must have appeared as David against Goliath when he started the manual spinning of Khadar on his little charkha. The powerful western-minded and shrewd manufacturers apparently smiled condescendingly, yet Gandhi's thin khadar thread of the virtue of manual labor meant much more than a mere resistance to the dangerous aspects of sweeping industrialization. Gandhi's charkha, which started gently humming in the Sabarmati Ashram was indeed a grotesque counterpart of Ahmadabad's huge spinning mills, yet ultimately it was this charkha that found its place on the national flag of independent India, representing after all the only accessible tool of 90% of India's village population. The dream and plan of the Indian village as a basic social laboratory was apparently conceived in this Sabarmati Ashram - my first indirect approach to Mahatma Gandhi.

After this preparatory experience my first actual meeting with Gandhi occurred in Delhi. Even though the formal reason of my journey to India was the study of ancient Hindu astronomy, deep in my heart was an earnest longing to meet the great representative of India. The opportunity arose rather unexpectedly on one January day in 1935 when an invitation was extended to me to attend a meeting of the members of the Congress Party in the hospitable palatial residence of the late Dr. Ansari, Gandhi's devoted Muhammadan friend. The meaning of Ansari's work and home at Delhi is another great story in the winding trail toward India's freedom. It was therefore not accidental that also on that particular afternoon under Ansari's roof there were present all the principal leaders of the Indian National Congress, including the honored guest from Turkey, Madame Halide Edib Hanum, leader of modern Turkish womanhood. There it was I leared that Gandhi was in the vicinity of Delhi.

The ever present universal minister of India and "Mother of the Nation", Madame Sarojini Naidu, must have guessed my pious desire to meet Gandhi. At the close of the meeting she asked me or rather directed me in her eloquent commanding voice: "Undoubtedly you wish to take part in the evening prayer with Mahatmaji and so you will go with us!" Indeed, it was a most unbelievable blessing on this first visit to be introduced to the spiritual leader of India in the distinguished company of such devoted friends of Gandhi as Sarojini Naidu, Halide Edib Hanum and Madame Hilla Rutonji Faridoonji, who was then president of the All India Woman's Conference. We arrived at the grounds of Gandhi's camp shortly after sunset when the communal evening prayer was to begin. I have no memory of details of the camp as my mind was centered on the little cabin which was Mahatma's shelter.

The most inspiring moment of my life will ever be that first site of the Mahatma of India. Squatted on the ground, close to his countless harijans, there was the retiring, spiritual giant in his radiant simplicity, disarming friendliness and childlike unselfishness. In the apparent physical frailness there was so little of him, yet one could but feel an overwhelming power of the streaming torrent of morally disciplined man, a spiritually matured and free sanyasi, a seer of ages. That instant is unforgettable. It occurred to me that if nothing else were accomplished, my pilgrimage in India had reached its fulfillment. Gandhi's kindly attitude immediately made me understand the meaningful, endearing appellation Bapu-ji, little father, which we all loved to use in his ashram. Of his first utterances in the meeting, I recall those in regard to the message I then conveyed to Bapuji from Romain Rolland whom I had visited in Villeneuve, Switzerland, prior to my departure for India. Long before that time Raomain Rolland, a free citizen of Europe, as I might call him, recognized in Gandhi his spiritual kinship and thus was perhaps the first to write a remakable biography of the guru of contemporary India. There was further conversation but, after all, in the company of a great soul questions dwindle in significance, besides Gandhi was not a talker. Your just perceive and feel the power of silent eloquence. I only recall seeing him spinning on his charkha, as he always did at later occasions when I was firtunate to stay in hs ashram at Wardha. During my first presence at the evening prayer with Mahatma, I believe the sky was the most wonderful, the heavens the most mysterious that could ever be revealed to me. I was pleased learn the he knew and enjoyed some of the popular works of my first teacher af astronomy, Camille Flammarion of France, who had impressed him some years before.

In Gandhi's personality there was something utterly guileless and charming, disarming any opposition, yet it cannot be completely perceived by sight, nor by intellect, but by the heart and soul. "Do not worry if you look ugly", said he at one occasion to a depressed woman with a deformed face; "if you are truthful, you are beautiful." This was perhaps the greatest testimony of his devotion to the doctrine of satyagraha. I was captured by the simplicity of this man's life, a culmination of democracy which is not boastful and does not propagandize. This intersting statement of Gandhi persists in returning to my mind: "Theft is anything in my having that someone else needs more than I do." Yet the world may wonder why he reduced his possessions to a loin cloth. At one regular prayer gathering a visiting guest, interested in Hindu mysticism and yoga philosophy, asked Gandhiji for recommendation of an accomplished master in the practice of yoga, preferably one living in the Himalayan mountains. Bapuji smilingly retorted: "Himalayas are everywhere and your master is every suffering man and woman." It was indeed significant advice to those who seek to escape the fateful consequence of western civilization. "I want to be born again and again on this earth so long as there are suffering people who need help." Gandhi did not seek privileges neither here nor in the hereafter. As he remarked, "The realization of Truth is impossible without a complete merging of oneself in the limitless ocean of life."

At Wardha Ashram, each day brought new and revealing light on Bapuji's inexhaustible source of simple wisdom. I was most deeply grateful for every moment possible to be in the close company of Bapu, as during those inspiring walks, during the period of his spining when he would interview an endless chain of callers, and last but not least, during the two daily meals. And what a blessing to have been able to sit at the feet of the master during his Monday period of silence! Daily, during the modest meal at eleven in the forenoon and five in the afternoon I was honored by his generous invitation to sit always at his side, while Madame Amrita Kaur, then also visiting Gandhiji, sat on the opposite side of our charming and cheerful host.

Those daily brisk walks at the time of approaching evening meditations, the chanting from Bhagavat Gita and the period of prayer in particular provided the most blessed communion which returns to my memory as a heavenly feast of the soul. There the redeemed seer converted them into very simple codes of guidance. Once when I was asked to given an astronomical talk on our wonderful universe, he said to me: "Put it so every child could understand." I think of this advice when occasionally I hear a handful of specialists in the field of atomic physics who beomce intoxicated by their language in which they estrange themselves from humanity. Once during mealtime a young man somewhat annoyed by the swarm of flies of the post monsoon crop exclaimed: "Why on earth were these flies created?" "In order to teach us" said Bapuji, who had overheard his complaint. At another occasion we were discussing how far we should go in the prectice of Ahimsa, non-violence. A member of the group gave a very challenging inquiry, addressed to Gandhiji. He said: "Suppose you are in a safe position, with a firearm convenient, and you observe an entirely hopeless criminal stealthily approaching a friendly group of people with intention to kill without mercy in order to pursue his plan. Under such circumtances, with an entirely anti-social criminal, are you justified in shooting him if in the last moment there is no other way open to save the lives of the group of peaceful people?" Gandhi's firm and unhesitating answer was what I consider the most descriptive of his life's philosophy: "No, you have no right to shoot, not even that criminal, but throw your body in his way in an attempt to awaken the stone of his heart."

Bapuji, dear little father, was never a gloomy or stern ascetic, as he might have been pictured, but a kindly friend of all. From his cheerful behavior, one was never aware of the severe discipline he had voluntarily imposed upon himself, yet he was most considerate of others. How much concerned he was in my numerous sizabel sore spots developed from mosquito bites, so violent in the first wave of the monsoon season. Then when we both were invited to a dinner by Jamnalal Bajaj, Bapu smilingly commented: "I live too luxuriously to partake of such a dinner." Daily I saw his very simple meal and yet even that small portion on his plate he would share, for with his wooden spoon he would place on my dish a small amount of green paste, a bitter vegetable relish, which was apparently a substantial part of his meal. Gandhi never ate rice in all the days I stayed with him at Wardha.

It all appears as a dream in this age, in our civilization of super-force and prospects of atomic frenzy. Yet that dream became a reality and I am grateful for this grace of God. Maharishi! A great seer has passed this way and something of him will ever remain with us. All tyrants, dictators, and politicians, no matter how glorious in this age, will fall into utter oblivion but the Mahatma's memory will grow with the lapse of time. Here was a man who could have had all wealth but chose the road of his harijans, children of God.

Few people are aware of his critical attitude toward political freedom, with which his life is so closely associated. Today political freedom ceases to be an asset. Being a connotation of the greed for power and based on an ocean of human blood, it becomes a liability and grows to be a paganism and the curse of our age. "I cannot give freedom; people have to grow up to it," his weak voice calls out into the tumult of this world which is abounding in large and small tyrants and dictators, while all of them use the enticing words "freedom". "liberation."

In Gandhiji's companionship I realized that boundless spiritual beauty which lifts the soul above this world. Mahatma represents a majestic example and a guiding light in this age of materialism, when once again the East must reassert its ancient position of spiritual guidance while the West is submerged in the endless battlefields of chronic, serial world wars. I often observed those various delegations from distant corners of the vast sub-continent of India calling on Gandhiji. In fact, I could vision delegations from the entire world seeking the Mahatma's council and guidance toward entirely new foundations of a harmonious, forgiving and tolerant society.

Once, at the noon meal, while Miraben, barefooted, aproached Bapuji's seat, I could not resist the mysterious overwhelming awareness of participation in a spiritual feast in Christ's companionsihp. For the path of the Great Soul of India is the path of a seer of ages. Above the bloodstained freedom in integrated selfishness, sometimes described as a nation, Mahatma's road leads toward something more than liberation, toward that ancient and ageless wisdom, the victory of the spriit over the body. In our age we have no choice for as John Haynes Holmes has stated, it is Gandhi or the atomic bomb. On my trail towards world citizenship, my most blessed and inspiring experience will ever by my fellowhsip the Mahatma of India. Now when all his mortal remains are carried away by the waters of the ancient sacred river, I repeatedly reread the lines of his letter to me received shortly before he passed away. Witnessing the world as it is today, I read as a prayer Bapuji's last direct guidance to me in his closing words: "I am the same was when you saw me except that my faith burns if possible brighter than before." And I close in Bapuji's beloved song: "Lead Kindly Light, Lead Thou me on..."