If there is one man about whom millions of words were written both in his own life time and after he was no more, it surely is Mahatma Gandhi. Practically every aspect of his spiritual, intellectual, moral, political and philosophical life has been discussed, dissected and analysed and one would think that his millions of fans and admirers know everything that is to be known about him. His life has been open and yet something crops up that gives his search for spirituality a new dimension.
The general impression one gets from reading some of his early works is that he was greatly influenced by Ruskin, an Englishman and Leo Tolstoy, a Russian. Nobody questions that. But now fresh evidence is available that when Gandhi was in his late twenties he was tremendously influenced by a man of whom so little is known even in India. That man is Raichandbhai Ravajibhai Mehta, born in a Gujarat village in 1867 and was later to be known as Srimad Rajchandra or more often as Srimadji.
Gandhi was born in 1869 and was just two years younger than Srimadji. Like Christ who died in his early thirties, Srimadji passed away when he was hardly thirty four. But by then he had made his mark. Gandhi apparently was close to Srimadji for some time. Talking about the men who influenced him at some time or other, Gandhi was once to say: ?Srimadji was an embodiment of non-attachment and renunciation. I have since met many a religious leader or teacher?and I must say that no one else has ever made on me the impression that he did. His words went straight home to me. His intellect compelled as great a regard from me as his moral earnestness. Whoever will read his teachings and follow them may speed up his march to self-liberation.?
When Gandhi was in South Africa, he heard of Srimadji's passing away at the young age of thirty four. Srimadji had taken samadhi. Wrote Gandhi feelingly: ?I loved him dearly?so I mourn out of selfishness.? Had Srimadji lived long, perhaps he would have been better known. His contemporaries were, by any account, some of the greatest spiritual leaders the country had ever known, men like Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883), Ramakrishna Paramahansa (1836-1886), Shirdi Sai Baba (1838-1918), Sri Narayana Guru (1856-1928), Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), Ramana Mahrashi (1879-1950) Swami Ramdas (1884-1963) and Sadhu Vaswani (1879-1966). That he should have passed away so early in life made India that much poorer.
Srimadji was born to a devout Vaishnavite father and his mother had been brought up in an equally devout Jain tradition. Right from his childhood he was influenced by the bhakti bhava of Hinduism and the ascetic nature of Jainism. It is said that when he was a young lad he was greatly moved by the death of an elderly neighbour and fell into a trance when he had an intense recollection of his past births?what the Jains called Jati Smarana Jnana?and he was never to be the same again. His talent was recognised right from his childhood. At the tender age of eight he had begun to write and in one year he had written five thousand stanzas. He was considered in some awe as the very incarnation of the Goddess of Learning, Saraswati.
When he was hardly sixteen he wrote a book on women'semancipation called Stree Niti Bodhika. This was followed by Mokshamala, extolling the need for the liberation of the soul. As a complement to Mokhshamala he wrote Bhavana Bodh to be followed by a 5,000 verse long work Namiraja and two more works Shurvir Sanman and Mool Marg. But of all his works Atma Siddhi?In Search of the Soul?that takes pride of place and it is this which Chandrika has painstakingly translated into English and deserves high attention.
It is not a long piece. It hardly consists of 142 verses but such is their caliber as to daunt even the sternest reader. It is easily divided into ten parts, each handling one predominant theme like, The Necessity of Self-knowledge, The qualities of a Good Teacher, The Duties of a True Pupil, etc. but the propositions that form the crux of the book are six-fold, namely, that the soul exists, that it is eternal, that it is the doer of karma, that it enjoys the fruits of karma, that there is liberation and finally that there are means to liberation.
In the concluding part Srimadji asserts that self-realisation is meant for every individual, irrespective of caste, creed, gender or nation and that while pitfalls and pains are inevitable in life's long journey, the efforts to seek liberation makes up for everything.
What the author has done is first to reproduce the original verse in Gujarati as Srimadji had written, then give a translated version in Hindi and end with a translation of the same verse in English to win over a larger audience. Then this is followed by a brief commentary, of course in English which gives the work a rare distinction in its totality.
When Gandhi first met Srimadji, he was a briefless barrister. The two obviously met often enough to the point that Gandhi could say: ?In my moments of spiritual crisis, he was my refuge?I have drunk to my heart'scontent the nectar of religion that was offered to me by Srimadji. He hated the spread of irreligion in the name of religion and he condemned lies, hypocrisy and such other vices.? When Gandhi was once filled with doubts about religion and was tempted to convert to Christianity, he had written to Srimadji who wrote back to him, saying: ?On a dispassionate view of the question I am convinced that no other religion has the subtle and profound thought of Hinduism, its vision of the soul or its charity.? It removed Gandhi'sdoubts and he stuck to the religion of his birth.
Chandrika has done a splendid job both in the translation of Srimadji'sverses as much as in her commentaries enlivened with stories that have their own morals to convey. In her work she was helped by her friend Nijhavan, himself a deeply committed searcher for spirituality. The result is a book of outstanding merit.
Rightly did Gandhi say that while he held Tolstoy and Ruskin in the ?highest category?, ? in terms of spiritual experience, Srimadji was far ahead of them.?
This book is a vindication of that sincere observation. Every commentary is limited to just one page which is what makes reading even more attractive. This is a book to read, relish and ponder over. Gandhi knew his man. And how we are introduced to him.
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