Visiting Mahatma Gandhi, 1929

From our Archives: 100 for 100

January 15, 1929

Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn, in the late 1920s. Public Domain via Wikipedia

Setting out in December 1928, the Rev. Henry Atkinson, president of the Church Peace Union (now Carnegie Council), embarked on a trip through Asia which lasted over five months. His purpose was to learn about Eastern religions, to meet as many religious leaders as possible, and to enlist them to join together to help create a lasting peace after the cataclysm of World War I.

Atkinson kept a travel diary that he titled, "Notes by the Way," which is stored in the Carnegie Council archives. In this fascinating excerpt he records the afternoon he spent with Mahatma Gandhi, including a tour of The Ashram. Gandhi was very welcoming, gracious, and forthcoming, giving him an exceptionally long interview, despite all the demands on his time. But he was also politely skeptical of the idea that a conference of the world's religious leaders would bring about any real change.        

Tuesday, January 15, 1929

After luncheon I went to Sabarmati and visited The Ashram where I met Mr. Gandhi and had over an hour's conversation with him, after which his secretary, Mr. A. Subbiak, took me all over the grounds and into all the buildings connected with Gandhi's school and institution. The name, The Ashram means place of retirement. This name has been changed to Udyoga Mandir, which means a place where one learns to serve and think.

I arrived at The Ashram a little before four o'clock, was met at the gate by a young man who immediately asked me if I had an appointment with Mr. Gandhi. I told him I had written from Bombay and that several friends, including Dr. Wadia and Mr. Andrews, had written to him, and that although I had not received any reply I was quite sure he was prepared to receive me. He said to me: "Come this way." Apparently there are so many people visiting Gandhi that his associates rather resent the intrusion. We passed through the grounds and around by a lower path until we came to a low, one-story building with a wide verandah. I stepped up on to the verandah and the young man told me to wait a minute and he would see.

Just as he stepped inside the room a voice called out: "Come in, Mr. Atkinson, I have been expecting you all day."

I entered the room and was in the presence of Mahatma Gandhi. He is a little man, I should think not much over five feet six or seven inches in height, and does not weigh much more than a hundred pounds. He was practically naked, having on nothing except a loin cloth, but as it was rather chilly he had a length of rough cloth thrown about his shoulders. He was sitting flat on the floor, his legs crossed under him, busily turning the spinning wheel. As he looked up at me and held out his hand I had the impression of peering into the face of one of the kindliest souls I have ever met. He wears large glasses; his front teeth are gone; his hair is cropped close with just a little left on the back; his eyes are piercing and there is a friendliness about him that at once makes you feel friendly disposed toward him.

I told him that I brought greetings from Mr. Andrews and other friends in America. He thanked me and said he was always glad to get personal remembrance from those friends scattered throughout the world. Motioning to his spinning wheel he said: "I must spin. I am trying to work out the destiny of a whole people. This wheel is the symbol of our task but do not let it interfere now with our conversation."

There were eight or ten people in this room; some sitting, others standing, all of them gazing upon him almost with an air of worship. I myself admit I felt a bit out of place and a little uncomfortable as I thought of this little man before me who has suffered so much, who has given up so much, who is constantly denying himself, who has one ideal before him and that is to better the lot of suffering humanity. The remembrance of his weakness in person, of the scornful things I had heard said of him seemed doubly cruel in the presence of the man himself. For the first time in meeting individuals I found myself at a serious disadvantage. I hardly knew what to ask him. Any question put to him must seem trivial and insignificant. I already knew what he would say to most questions that could be asked and yet I wanted his opinion.

Noticing my hesitation, he looked up at me and said: "Do not hesitate to ask me any question that you want. I am very much interested in what you are trying to do. The book you sent me I am sure will prove of value. I have not had time yet to read more than a little of it but I know all about the meeting that was held in Geneva."

I then told him how much we wanted his cooperation and help in our undertaking and I asked him if he thought the effort to bring together the religions of the world was of as much of value as we considered it. He replied: "I do not think it is of very great value but it will help and of course I am in favor of everything that tends to bring people closer together; but religion is one thing in the East and another thing in the West, and I do not see just how you are going to make religion function in this larger way."

"Perhaps," I replied, "it may help India."

"No", he said, "no one can help us. Our only help must come from within. Every effort made on the outside is likely to complicate rather than simplify our task. It is a heavy load that we carry but we must bear it alone."

"But", I said, "we deeply sympathize with you and want to do what we can."

"My associates deeply appreciate this", he replied, "it encourages us to go on, but again I say we must help ourselves and depend upon ourselves."

I then asked him if he thought it would be of value if we secured through religious influence the establishment of a permanent peace throughout the world.

"Of course" he said, "peace is much better than war, but nothing good can be accomplished as long as wars are threatened and constantly occur. The heavy burden India has to bear for the army—a burden that every other country has to bear—is a constant aggravation, and it all rests upon the shoulders of the poor. Anything that can be done to lessen war will be of value."

"Are you hopeful of the future? Do you think that the present peace will last?"

He replied, "I am naturally an optimist and being an optimist I think we are constantly evolving into a better day. I believe that conditions are better today and my optimism leads me to hope that the present peace will be permanent, but on the other hand when I look at world events I find nothing anywhere in the world today upon which to base my optimism. It is pure optimism without any foundation."

I next asked" "What do you then think of the world situation?"

He replied, "I am not an authority on world affairs. I have little interest in news outside of India. I rarely ever look at a newspaper. My secretaries keep me informed of what is going on in a general way and if there is some article that is worthwhile I will read it; but most of what I find in the newspapers is of so little value I feel it is a waste of time to look at them or to spend any time over them."

"Do you believe," I asked, "that religion can function in bringing about a better condition of affairs among men?"

"Religion," he replied, "is to me and to most Easterners a personal matter. At bottom all the problems we have are religious problems and religion comes to have an influence upon the solution of these questions, but the great difficulty is this: you bring together leaders of all the religions and when they meet they are on their good behavior. They want to say the best thing in the best way, not only about themselves but about their fellowmen. They are not wholly sincere nor are they honest either in what they say about themselves nor of others; nor do they give an accurate description of the forces that are operating in their own countries and in their own sphere of influence; consequently, a conference such as you propose is likely to appear to be much more significant than it really is.

Take, for instance, a rabbi. He comes and makes a speech. He expresses his opinion; he tells of the love that he conceives in his heart for his fellowmen; at the same time with the representative of another faith it is the same thing. They go back home from this meeting and the same old intolerant spirit asserts itself; the same old hatreds persist and they are unable to put into operation any of the high sounding resolutions that they have agreed upon in the conference. Frankly, I do not see how you will be able to persuade men to come together in this conference and tell the truth, and then go back home and act upon the lessons that are learned or the resolutions that are adopted. Mind you, I think it is worth trying and I am saying this simply to point out what seems to me one of the greatest difficulties you will encounter."

When I asked Mr. Gandhi if he considered that conditions were improving in India he was rather noncommittal. I asked him if he was satisfied with the present trend of the National movement. He said there was every reason for hope but there were so many complications it was difficult to make an adequate reply without going into a long explanation.

I now asked definitely if he would be willing to cooperate in helping secure for India adequate representation in the World Conference. I told him that Dr. Wadia had agreed to take the Chairmanship of the Committee and that he would have associated with him ten or a dozen other men; that they would be happy to have him serve with the Committee, or at least give his advice from time to time. He replied that his time was so fully occupied now that he did not think he could undertake anything more, but that all these men were his truest friends and they would always be free to come to him and he would give them any help possible.

I then asked him about different people throughout the country and found that his knowledge is wide and his judgment shrewd. I had been talking with him for nearly an hour. He had put up his spinning, having finished his task. Just before laying aside the wheel I asked him one or two questions about the technique of spinning. He showed me the cotton and explained to me how the tension on the turn of the fingers regulated the fineness of the thread.

"This wheel," he said, pointing to it, "is the symbol of our future. A hundred and fifty years ago India supplied the fine textiles for the world, not only cotton, but silk and linen, the fine embroideries. All these goods were shipped to distant parts of the globe in Indian merchantmen. Under the dominion of the foreigners all this has disappeared and today rural India, that is 90 per cent of the people, is constantly on the point of starvation. This spinning wheel, then, is the means of bringing back the competency of the Indian people. On it a new destiny is being spun. Every farmer, whether he had one acre, five acres, ten acres or more can grow his own cotton. He can clean his cotton; he can card it; he can spin and he can weave it. It makes his living. This wheel is not a hard taskmaster. It can be left for an hour, two hours, a day, three days, or three weeks, and when the time comes and he finds nothing to do he goes back and finds the spinning wheel ready to hand. It teaches patience; it teaches industry. It is the symbol of our future."

I tried by three different approaches to get Mr. Gandhi to give me his opinion of modern civilization. I asked, for instance, whether he considered that the modern factory would have to be replaced by the hand loom before we would make progress. He replied he was thinking only in terms of India, but it was undoubtedly true that the greatest curse of our time grew up out of the factory system and mass production; that the machinery of modern time was crushing the souls out of men, exploiting life in the interests of profits. Again I asked if he considered that the spinning wheel could do for other countries that it was doing for India. He said it might not be in the same form exactly, but the same spirit and the same simplicity that the spinning wheel taught men a lesson that others might learn.

Having put aside his spinning and given me half an hour more of his time, I knew I had gone just as far as I ought to. It was time for me to leave. It is unusual for anyone to get more than an hour's interview with him. His visitors had all left. One of the girls who led a deputation which had sat most of the time I was there, dropped to her knees and kissed his feet, then with bowed heads they went out. Three gentlemen then came who had business with him regarding the labor movement. I asked him if I might ask one other question. He very graciously said "yes"; although he had some important business to transact, he would be very glad to answer if he could.

I then asked him if whether or not the religions of India were today holding their own against the forces of secularism, or whether this modern spirit was causing them to lose their position and influence. He replied that the religions were strong; that they hold a very powerful influence over their minds and hearts of the men and women all over India, but that the forces of secularism were affecting these religions; that they were having to fight against this secularization and materialistic influence. This new philosophy was pushing the altars aside and unfortunately no one who lost his faith because of a trend toward materialism turned to any other religion because he found the same forces battling against every religion to which he might turn.

"Is this fight against religion," I asked, "especially in India, caused by the input of Western civilization upon Eastern thought, or is it simply the influence of Western civilization?"

He replied, "It is decidedly the latter. The impact of Western civilization has thrown India back upon herself, but the influence of the West is undoubtedly making it difficult for the old religions to maintain themselves. The same fight that the religions of the West are making is coming to be the principal fight here in India."

He arose and said "Now I must turn to these other men but I should be glad to have you remain while I transact my business. It may be interesting to see how we regard the labor problem. Although you may not understand our language you may get the drift of it."

He then sat down again on the floor with a little stool before him, the three men on the opposite side with their documents, and for about fifteen minutes they earnestly discussed figures and plans. After three men had withdrawn Mr. Gandhi again arose and said "Now I must retire, will you wait here until I return?"

He was gone about ten minutes, then came back and said, "Now I must say farewell. I have now two hours for things that I must turn to. I am very happy that you have called upon me and I give you a most cordial invitation to come to The Ashram and make it your home for one day, two days, a week or two weeks. I should like to have you come and live as we live; live our life, share our food, share our experience, learn of our spirit, and let us know something more of your own plans."

I thanked him for the invitation. I never have felt more humble in the presence of any individual I have ever met. As he gave me this invitation and shook hands with me I had forgotten he was a man small in stature for he seemed to me one of the biggest souls I ever met. I had forgotten all about the physical side of his being. If I ever should accept his invitation and go to The Ashram for a few days, I am certain that I should adopt the Indian costume and if I could, I should go barefooted and wear just as few clothes as he wears; otherwise, I should feel constantly humiliated by the simplicity of the life around me. I felt a sense of resentment at my own good health and the rotundity of my body in the presence of this little man who lives on a handful of rice and wears clothing that probably costs not over 9 or 10 cents.

Mr. Gandhi's secretary, A. Subbiah, came to me and for an hour we talked over the problems of India. He showed me the barns were the cows are kept, the garden, two water wheels, one a Persian wheel, the other an invention of India. He took me to the spinning room, to the carpenter shop where they make the spinning wheels and the looms, to the rooms where they do the weaving.

There are about 125 people living in The Ashram. They have a little more than a hundred acres of land. Each person is pledged to the simple life. It is a great administration center. It is an industrial school, a monastery, a home, an educational center, a political workshop; but more than all this, it can be fitly termed the capital of the world's idealism. No meat is served. Each one lives on a simple ration of fruit, vegetables, grains and nuts. Water alone is drunk.

The regime of the day is very strict. The colony is awakened at four o'clock. From 4 to 4:15 each person washes and prepares himself for the period of prayer which begins at 4:15 and lasts until five o'clock. They gather for prayer upon ground especially dedicated for this purpose. There are three terraces by the side of the river. Here they meet in the early morning and spend forty-five minutes in devotion. There are all classes, all castes, and all religions, but they join in a common worship. At five A.M. they have what is known as tea although no tea is served. Instead they serve a drink composed of ground wheat boiled in water and mixed with sugar. This, with bread and butter and some fruit, constitutes the first meal. After this meal they take a bath or devote themselves to any personal matter until 6 A.M. when all begin the real work of the day.

Each has his own task. Some work in the dairy, some teach, some are in the workshop, some in the garden, some in the cotton field. Each has his appointed work to do. They work until 10:30, then they gather in the common hall and the first principal meal of the day is eaten. After this meal they can rest or read or write; anything they please, as the individual may decide until twelve o'clock when they begin work again, continuing until 3:30.

From 3:30 to 5 each individual is expected to spend an hour at the spinning wheel. It is part of their religion to spin an hour a day. No formal pledge is taken but this understanding is more binding than a pledge would be. One of the workers invented a folding spinning wheel which is manufactured in the shop at The Ashram. It folds up and is enclosed in a small case and can be carried as a piece of luggage. If any member of the community is forced to leave Sabarmati for even a day he takes this wheel with him and spends his hour sometime during the day spinning. At five o'clock preparations are made for the evening meal and from that time on until seven each individual is free, for this period is devoted to conversation or recreation. Mr. Gandhi himself always takes a walk at this time in the day. At seven the group again assembled in the place of prayer and their devotions lasts until 7:15, after which they are free to retire whenever they desire.

It is a strenuous day and one day is just like another. Each individual, no matter what he may do, lives on a plane of absolute equality with every other. There are no servants. The work is done by the members of the community and there is no distinction between Gandhi himself and the person who attends to the menial tasks connected with the daily life of The Ashram. Nearby is the National University. There are now about seventy students there. They are building an addition to it and it will no doubt become a powerful institution as time goes on.

After returning from Sabarmati we drove through the streets, visited the bazaars of Ahmadabad and then back to the hotel, had dinner, watches the monkeys a while and then went to bed.