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Friday, February 28, 2014

Mahatma’s apostles

The Spirit's Pilgrimage is the autobiography of Madeleine Slade, better known to Indians as Mirabehn. In a moving story, she recounts how her interest in Beethoven was indirectly responsible for her awakening. It was Beethoven's music which led her to Romain Rolland, the French philosopher who guided her footsteps to Gandhiji. 

Rolland's book, Mahatma Gandhi, revealed to Mirabehn her one and only master, whom she served throughout her life. Without second thoughts, she gave up an affluent life in England and came to India, completely immersing herself in Gandhiji's life and work.

Mirabehn wasn't alone. There were several others who gave up everything they had, or could ever have had, to identify themselves with the man they considered next only to God - Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. It wasn't just the Mahatma's personality that attracted them; it was what he wanted to attain and they all came to share his dreams.

While Jawaharlal, Vallabhbhai and the Maulana (among others) were the political arms of Gandhiji, his work for the social reconstruction of Indian society – more important to him than the political transformation of the country – was done by a chosen few, working away from the limelight, quietly.

Disciples, through their long association with Gandhiji and his work, became his true apostles. They were Mahadevbhai Desai, JC Kumarappa, Mirabehn, Valji Govindji Desai, Kishorelal Mashruwala and Narhari Parekh.

For them nothing could ever come in the way of their endeavour to serve Gandhiji and carry out, without exception, even the most menial tasks assigned to them. Gandhiji's wish was their command.

When she first came to Sabarmati Ashram Mirabehn was given the task of keeping the premises clean. It is said that she did this with such thoroughness and sense of purpose that nobody could fail to notice it.

Mahadev Desai

Mahadevbhai Desai was, so to say, the first among equals. Thomas Hyslop, writing on Gandhiji's role as a social revolutionary in Quest for Gandhi, describes Desai thus: "Mahadev Desai, for over 24 years the secretary and chronicler of Gandhi, is in fact so able a reporter that her has been called Gandhi's Boswell…"

An incident which clearly illustrates the depth of Mahadevbhai's scholarly eminence occurred when master and disciple were languishing in jail. The discussion between the two veered towards literature and its social relevance.
Mahadevbhai was of the opinion that both Tolstoy and Ruskin initially concentrated only on pure art, but Ruskin later realized that life was much more than just art and literature; and that the advancement of the two could not alleviate stark poverty even indirectly.

It was this realisation that made Ruskin write Unto the Last – the book which forever changed the life of the Mahatma. Gandhiji felt that though Tolstoy too went through a similar phase, he did not write any such book.

To this Mahadevbhai replied that unlike Ruskin, Tolstoy was a true revolutionary and did not limit himself to writing a book, he changed his lifestyle totally. Gandhiji found this an important distinction.

Though he had translated Rabindranth Tagore's Chitrangada into Gujarati, most of Mahadevbhai's later writings were on Gandhiji's multifarious activities. The most memorable writings are the diaries Mahadevbhai wrote detailing Gandhiji's visit to England to attend the Round Table Conference, his internment in Yerwada jail, the Bardoli satyagraha and others.

Despite being an authority on the Bhagwad Gita himself, he was content with translating Gandhiji's commentaries on the Gita into English.

Mahadevbhai's end came quite unexpectedly, in August 1942, when Gandhiji and all the top ranking leaders of the Congress had been jailed in the wake of the Quit India movement. He was more than a son to Gandhiji and the Mahatma, never one to publicly display emotions, is said to have broken down when he heard of his demise.

Joseph Chelladurai Kumarappa

File:Kumarappa.jpgJC Kumarappa was born just a few days after Mahadevbhai, on January 4, 1892. His father was a civil servant and his mother, a deeply religious Christian. Kumarappa was the unlikeliest of Gandhiji's disciple.

Having studied in England, he had come back to India and started a chartered accountancy practice, through a partnership firm. It was while Kumarappa was researching the article he was writing on the causes of Indian poverty that his transformation to a nationalist began.

While he was in the United States, he wrote a book on public finance and Indian poverty. This book was read by Gandhiji, who called Kumarappa over to his ashram for a meeting.

That meeting changed Kumarappa's entire worldview and life. He gave up his practice and took up a job as a professor with Gujarat University, at that time totally controlled by nationalist leaders.

At Gandhiji's behest he undertook several research projects on the feasibility of initiating agro-based village industries in several villages of Gujarat.

Moreover, he was entrusted with the task of editing Young India when both the Mahatma and Mahadevbhai were in jail, which was quite frequent.

Kumarappa was so involved with Young India that once, when authorities sealed the offices of the publication in the hope that it would cease bothering them for a while, Kumarappa cyclostyled the content and managed to hit the newsstands in time.

Besides such crusading activism, Kumarappa was one of the main formulators of the Congress's policy on India's economy. He also drew Gandhiji's attention to the importance of applying economic theories to village-based industries.

After Independence, Kumarappa was appointed as an advisory member to the Planning Commission; but he could not see eye to eye with Nehru's ideas on state planning and disassociated himself with the Commission.

In 1959, he left Wardha and went to a village near Madurai, a broken-hearted man. On January 30, 1960 – 12 years after his guru's death – Kumarappa passed away.

Kishorelal Mashruwala

Kishorelal Mashruwala never really claimed that he was a Gandhian, but he worked all his life to make people adopt not just his ideals and values, but also Gandhiji's concern for social reconstruction. He was the head of the Gandhi Seva Sangh since its inception in 1925 till 1940, when failing health forced him to relinquish the post.

Gandhiji, instead of appointing someone else, wound up the organization, much to the consternation of the day's political heavyweights, members of the Sangh themselves.

Kishorelal MashruwalaAfter Gandhiji's assassination, Mashruwala took charge of editing and publishing Harijan and was quite vehement in his opposition to the Congress government of the post-Independence era. He wrote Gandhi and Marx which gives a glimpse of the immense understanding that he had of Gandhian philosophy.

He observed, "When it is said that Gandhism is Communism minus violence, the impression created is that the violence factor in communism is some small impurity, the removal of which will make it the same as Gandhism. The minus violence factor is of considerable value. The implications of minus violence are so great as to make the equation as illusory as to say that red is green minus yellow and blue, or a worm is a snake minus poison."

Narhari Parekh was a fervent organizer of the several activities that the Mahatma initiated. He was also a writer and between 1916 and 1956 he authored 15 books, six translations and edited nine collections. He concentrated on the constructive-work programmes of Gandhiji.

Valji Govindji Desai is best remembered for causing immense trouble at school where he was doing his matriculation; calling for a hartal when he heard that Khudiram Bose had been executed. He too had a long and fruitful association with Gandhiji.

With such disciples working wholeheartedly towards achieving India's social reconstruction, Gandhiji could well afford to devote a major part of his time to political transformation. 

He, however, never thought himself the master. For Gandhiji, the relationship he shared with Mirabehn, Mahadevbhai and others was not that of teacher-disciple.

Writing to Romain Rolland after Mirabehn had arrived in India, Gandhiji said: "What a treasure you have sent me: I shall try to be worthy of the great trust. I shall leave no stone upturned to assist her (Mirabehn) to become a bridge between East and West. I am too imperfect to have disciples. She shall be a fellow-seeker. I propose to share the honour of fatherhood with you."

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