Gandhi Comes Alive

How He Taught Through Letters

-Margarete Spiegel

SINCE a very young age I was interested in India. Living in Germany during the first World War, I was drawn towards pacifism. Rabindranath Tagore was my favourite author. Through Romain Rolland's book I came to know of Gandhiji, and then read all the books by and about him which were available in the State Library at Berlin, where I was a teacher at a Government college. In Germany there used to be no prescribed text-books for higher classes, so I chose a German school-edition of Gandhiji's speeches and writings for a class I was preparing in English for the University entrance examination. In order to study the Gandhi movement I got leave to visit India for two months in 1932. After travelling over several parts of India I stayed as a guest at the Sabarmati Ashram for three days, taking part in all Ashram activities. In December 1932 I saw Gandhiji for the first time sitting under a mango tree in the Yeravda jail. He scolded me for having given up vegetarianism because it was troublesome during my journeys, and I again became a vegetarian. In reply to a letter written on my way back home, he wrote on 12th January 1933:

"I had your love letter from your ship. I was glad that you were at the Ashram and were able to take actual part in the service of the Harijans, and in my opinion, in as much as you rendered this selfless service to down-trodden humanity, you served the whole of it."

You were quite right in giving up spinning 'ropes' as you were doing. If you could have learnt the art properly, I would certainly have advised you to continue to spin not cotton but wool, but perhaps you have no talent for such work. God has blessed you with many other gifts, and it is well with you so long as you use them for the service of mankind including of course your dear mother.

Next time we meet, if we do, you are not going to be 'awed' by me, if you are to be a daughter to me. Do not hesitate to write to me whenever you feel like it."

He wrote another letter only two days later, i. e. on the 14th of January, which said:

"I must continue to dictate. You are entitled to call yourself an Indian, since you have felt like one from your childhood, but that is not a substitute for your' German birth. The adoption should be an addition both to your name and to your strength; and what , can be finer than that we should all add on the virtues of our own nations to those of others?

Why was there a struggle to choose between Gurudev [R. Tagore] and myself? We are no competitors. Gurudev occupies a throne which belongs to him by sheer merit. I have none of the gifts that he has, and what is more, we dearly love each other, and as years roll on, our love becomes stronger, and we understand also each other better and better. I would have you, therefore, to say that you like us both equally for, whatever gifts God has bestowed on us. No more, therefore, of choice-making, if you would be a real daughter like Mira."

He wrote again on the 17th of February:

I hope you have been receiving all my letters. You should not think of coming here in the hope of getting a professorship or something of that kind so as to enable you to support your mother. You will only come when the way is perfectly clear for you. Surely it is possible for you to love India even from where you are and to do many acts of service. You have plenty of years before you. Go through the necessary training, keep India your goal, and some day you will gravitate here. Of course you are like Lakshmi to me or Mira. But you must also realise that it is a hard yoke to bear."

The next letter is dated the 2nd of March:

"You are sending me letters regularly. But you are telling me nothing except about myself. You must now begin to tell me something about your children and the many things that you teach them and how you teach them. You don't think that these things will not interest me. They will, because they might be of use for the Ashram children. You should tell me also, as a teacher, what you would do to and for the Ashram children, if you had then under your charge."

And the next one the 1-7th of the same month:

"Why do you want to come here for three days or at the most for a fortnight? [during 5 weeks' summer vacations. If you have at all imbibed the central truth of the Gita, it will tell you that this kind of wish has to be subjugated and sublimated into pure action which for you consists in doing your duty there. You should hold on to your savings, and if you cannot restrain yourself from spending them somehow, you should send them here for the Harijan cause. I do hope you got all my previous letters as also the Ranjan which is being posted to you every week."

A week later, on the 24th, he wrote a long letter, evidently in reply to one from me:

"Your letters continue to 'come with clock-work regularity.

Of course you are not going to be upset if you are turned out as a I Jewess. I shall be now eagerly waiting for your letters to know your fate.

If you will have it so, you can take the palm for economy, though you must remember the old proverb that 'one swallow does not make a summer. And for that reason, your summary dismissal of the question of food does not mean that the solution is as easy as you fancy it is for you [giving up meat-eating]. Whilst it need not be given undue importance, it is a gross error to think that food has nothing to do with a person's moral or even physical growth. The experience of the sages of the world shows that they have given importance-some more and some less-to it, and the majority have admitted that a bloodless diet is necessary for full spiritual enlightenment.

You need not worry over the poor comprehension that your girls have shown of ahimsa. I do not wonder. There is no response to ahimsa from the atmosphere. They have never been taught to attach the slightest value to it, and probably they have been taught to despise it. You cannot expect them all of a sudden to understand the value of ahimsa in an atmosphere so hostile as yours.

Mahadev has been receiving your letters, and he has got your booklet too. As I had heard of Parsifal, and as it was quite a booklet, I read it during odd moments in two days, and 1 liked it very much."

His next letter is dated the 10th of March:

"I receive your letters regularly, and 1 have now your notes from your pupils' papers [essays on Gandhiji]. They make very interesting reading. What worries me is the time you have spent Over the translation and copying. 1 hope you have had my letters that I have been sending you not quite every week but fairly regularly. I hope you are now satisfied that the work you may be doing there is also my work inasmuch as you are observing the rules of the Ashram and doing your work purely from a spirit of service, and 1 have no doubt that so long as your mother lives, your duty is to be by her side."

Again he wrote on the 13th of April:

"Your letter of 20th March is disturbing. Everything done in a hurry generally proves unsatisfactory, when. it is not positively harmful. All haste must be deprecated. From the highest stand- point-and that is the only one I am sure which you want to apply to yourself-your coming will be justified only when you are ready for the Ashram life. That clearly you are not. Your immediate duty is to be by your mother's side. You cannot risk bringi11g her to India. If you are thrown. out of employment and have to be ill search of one, you have to courageously stand by your people and suffer the hardships that they will have to suffer; and if you have imbibed the fundamentals of the Ashram life, you might even render inestimable help to them. All your letters to 24 people ill India, therefore, to get a job should not have been written. You do not want a job ill India, but you want to give your free service, the whole of yourself, to India. 1 wish, therefore, you would give up the idea of the job, remain there by your mother's side and live the Ashram life there, so that if God wills dt, He will send you some day to. the Ashram."

This letter was redirected to me to the boat for India. On April 1st, 1933, I was dismissed from the Government College in Berlin for being a Jewess. As the Jews were deprived of their passports, I left for Venice on April 2nd and waited there for twelve days for the next boat to India. From Venice I wrote to Bapu that I was coming, and after landing in Bombay I went straight to Yeravda jail, and stayed in Poona for some time, seeing him almost daily in the prison. In May he began a fast for 21 days. I had evidently not understood the science of satyagraha well, for I started a fast in order to make him give up his; but he was adamant, and I gave up my fast after two days. On the same day (10th May) I got the following little note from him:

I am glad you have broken your fast. You were too decent to persist in your folly. Now be good. You are forgiven. You should come and see me when you feel like it Love."

He then sent me to the Ashram at Sabarmati, and gave me my Indian name-Amala. At Sabarmati I got the following letter from him dated June 6th, 1933:

You are with me when you are at the Ashram doing the Ashram work. I am sure you understand this very simple truth. There were many prisoners occupying the same yard. Do you suppose that they were living with me?"

After his release from prison in August 1933, he went from Poona to Wardha in the last week of September, and I had the good fortune to stay with. him there till he started on the Harijan tour on 7th November. His next letter is dated 28th February, 1934, written from some- where in South India:

"If you don't believe in God as a permanent, living and the only reality prevailing all, naturally you 'cannot feel Him while praying or in the earthquake. The belief comes to a certain extent through reason and finally through faith. As children we derive belief from parents, as grown-ups from reason, and then we have faith or become sceptics. You will grow to faith in time, because I believe you to be a seeker, and because you have faith in one who believes in God."

The next one was dated the 15th of March:

It is just now 12-40 a.m. The alarm that should have gone off at 2-30 a.m. went off at 12 midnight. I am attending to arrears at an affected place in Bihar. That many Hindus are callous to the sufferings of animals is but too true. It is a mark of degradation and lifelessness of the religious spirit. You don't need to be a Hindu but a true Jewess. If Judaism does not satisfy you, no other faith will give you satisfaction for any length of time. I would advise you to remain a Jewess and appropriate the good of other faiths."

And yet the next one is dated the 22nd of May, 1934, written while he was on a walking tour. in Orissa:

"My condolence on the loss of your companion, the squirrel. You are right in thinking that those round you don't act up to the principle they profess. They do not realise that mere refraining from killing is not enough. It is necessary to show active sympathy for sufferers.

You should not be anxious about me. The march will do me good. I am certainly keeping well."

Baroda, 22-3-1948.